With the release Dui Prithibi, one notes how a Bengali film can travel all the way to Venice to get a song sequence shot. The use of the expensive motor cycle in the film as a character more than just a vehicle of transport or a sort of male sex symbol, is a sign of how far a Bengali filmmaker is willing to stretch himself to reach out to an international audience. Contemporary Bengali cinema is stretching the borders of language, geography, people and storyline to create a new identity for itself. Is the hut loosening its roots from the soil? It is reinventing itself everyday and living up to the age-old dictum – “change is the only thing that remains constant.” Sounds cliché? Maybe it does, but sometimes, it is a cliché that does the trick.
Bengali cinema is coming out of its regional straitjacket of language, plot, treatment, music, cast, crew, theme and place setting. It is evolving a new cultural identity. This reflects the globalization of the Bengali identity even in Bengal. Bengali filmmakers, old and new, noted and not well known, good, bad and indifferent are stepping into the fragile territory of crossing the language barrier. The average Bengali viewer who was once fiercely proud of his linguistic identity is now open to a mixture of languages like English, Hindi, Bengali and even Japanese in the same film vis-à-vis Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife.
The Bengali filmmaker has widened the horizons of language, geography, story and music. The market for Bengali films has expanded to a 340-million-strong Bengali audience in Bangladesh, West Bengal, Tripura and Assam. The industry could truly flourish if films from this state have a proper distribution network. While around 100 films are produced in West Bengal annually, only 40 are able to reach an audience. The industry could truly flourish if films from this state have a proper distribution network. Between the two extremes of Swapan Saha, who directs masala films with Prasenjit, Jeet, etc. and Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Bengali cinema now has a new brand of filmmakers like Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Suman Ghosh, Mainak Bhaumik, Anindo Banerjee, Raj Chakraborty, Srijit Mukherji, Arindam Dey, Kaushik Ganguly, Anik Dutta, Avishek Mukherjee, Aniket Chattopadhaya, Atanu Ghosh, Shiboprosad Mukherjee, Birsa Dasgupta and many others rising across the horizon with every passing week.
The average production cost of a Bengali film varies between INR 60 lakh and 2 crore, excluding print and publicity costs. The Bengali film industry continues to have lesser marketing spends as compared to other regional industries and Bollywood. The marketing budget for Bengali films varies between INR 15 lakh and 35 lakh depending on their size. Unlike other regional industries such as the South as well as Bollywood where talent (artistes and technicians) is a substantial component of a film’s cost, expenses on these in the Bengali film industry are comparatively nominal.
Anirudhha Roy Chowdhury’s Aparajita Tumi is a global film as it was shot entirely in the US and has drawn talents from across the country. The two leading ladies are from the South, one actor is from Mumbai and the cinematographer has no geographical limits. But the language used is Bengali. So, how ‘Bengali’ is this film? It is ‘Bengali’ but the perception of the term ‘Bengali’ has metamorphosed to mean something much wider than what it meant ten years ago. But unfortunately, it received a very bad beating at the box office. On the other hand, Suman Ghosh’s Nobel Chor is doing very well and has been released in 40 theatres across the state. Aniket Chattopadhaya’s Goray Gandogol is a wonderful satire-based comedy that underscores the real worth of ‘high birth’ through a double-entendre story and dialogue.
Films like debutant director Srijit Mukherji’s Autograph and Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s Icche crossed 100 days in the theatres. Commercial films like Dui Prithibi, Josh and Amanush grossed a revenue of INR 6.5 crore, 5 crore and 4 crore respectively. With other films seeing success at the box office as well, collections for Bengali films has started to reach figures as high as INR 5-6 crore which is a significant increase from the past five years. Says filmmaker Goutam Ghose “Films with fresh storylines are turning out to be a commercial success in the home market. But it is also important that the industry seeks overseas markets and opportunities including co-production. Bangla is one of the largest spoken languages in the world and there is tremendous potential for revenue in regions outside India.”
From 42 films certified by the Central Board of Film Certification in 2006, the number jumped to 102 films in 2010. “This has been due to the increase in gripping content in films that has resulted in their commercial viability as well. The industry is seeing a healthy mix of experienced as well as new film makers who are reading their urban audiences correctly,” says actor-producer Prasenjit.
Two young entrepreneurs Mahendra Soni and Srikant Mohta began their film career as distributors of Bollywood films. They stepped into production in 1996 with commercially successful director Swapan Saha. The film Bhai Amar Bhai earned moderately at the box-office But Shree Venkatesh Films continues to rule the roots in Bengali cinema. They produce Bengali films and marked a turning point with the box office success of Haranath Chakraborty’s Shashurbari Zindabaad and Pratibad. There has been no looking back.
Shree Venkatesh Films produced Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali (2002) on the biggest budget of more than Re.1.5 crore which was the highest at the time. The film was a big box office hit that rewrote the destiny of Shree Venkatesh Films. Chokher Bali marked a turning point in the corporatization of Bengali cinema. Since Raincoat (2004) Shree Venkatesh Films remains the market leader in Bengali cinema in terms of commercial success. According to Pritam Jalan, producer and distributor, corporatisation and multiplexes were needed at the time to promote Bengali films. Single-screen theatres have been converted to multi-screening theatres through different show timings for different films. Multiplexes are not good for Bengali cinema because the tickets are pegged too high for the average Bengali viewer. However, many single-screen theatres have rolled down their shutters narrowing the exhibition network for Bengali films.