Roshni Sen is a filmmaker and producer based out of Kolkata who has worked on over 10 regional films such as Bhooter Bhobishyot, 2012 by Anik Dutta, the National award winner Bakita Byaktigato, 2013 by Prapita Bhattacharyya and national films like Sonata, 2016 by Aparna Sen. She has made her directorial debut with the feature Ghost of the Golden Groves, 2019 along with partner Aniket Dutta. The film was an official selection at Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Montreal 2019 where it received a FIPRESCI Award nomination, London Indian Film Festival 2019, Cinequest (USA), 2019 and Chicago Underground Film Festival where it won the Jury Award for best Hybrid Feature. The film has received notable reviews on British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Rapporto Confidenziale and VCinemashow to name a few.
It is an accepted fact that the whole world took a huge blow as an aftermath of the covid 19 pandemic and the film industry is no exception. Film theaters were forced to keep their doors shut for an extended period of time and the obvious conclusion to draw would be that there were devastating losses incurred by producers, distributors and most other film professionals during this time. However, was that the case with the Bengali film industry? A cautious evaluation of the same through the past decade, especially in comparison with other film industries in India, would reveal the bitter truth that the Bengali film industry was already a sinking boat dawdling through a puddle of poor infrastructure,uninformed/inexperienced/one-time producers, distribution mafiaism, uncalled for monopolies, mediocre content and an apathetic audience.
Even though the proud, educated upper-middle class Bengali might disagree, long gone are the days of “what Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow.” Indeed, it’s tough to fathom how Bengal, once a hub of not only great films but also a fulcrum around which revolved an even greater film culture, is barely able to keep up with it’s other Indian counterparts. It’s important to note here that Bengal never exactly conformed to a Bollywood style studio system and therefore there was greater scope for independent filmmakers to flourish. Both “commercial” and “arthouse” films thrived simultaneously – there was the fair share of Ajoy Kar (Harano Sur, 1957, Saptapadi, 1961) Agradoot (Chadmabeshi, 1971), Tarun Majumdar (Dadar Kirti, 1980) along with the internationally acclaimed trio of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Interestingly, even the commercial films did not lack individuality or craftmanship and the audience for the arthouse films was not necessarily different from a commercial film audience. Then there was a short wave of abysmal copies of Bollywood style “masala flicks” to cater to an increasingly rural audience some of which were nevertheless huge commercial successes.
Thus far, things were going as per the usual norms of ups and downs of any industry and definitely within the standards of an inherently volatile space such as the film industry. It’s during the period of “revival of Bengali cinema” that problems began to arise. Film audiences were sharply segregated into a “commercial” or “single screen” segment and a newly evolved “middle cinema” or “multiplex” segment. Now the former no longer remained mere copies but actual copyrighted remakes of their Hindi and Telugu counterparts but with their grandeur subdued largely, considering that their budgets were perhaps less than one-fifth of the original films. However, it is the latter which is supposed to cater to an urban, multiplex-goer and by default educated Bengalis, is a cause for bigger concern currently. Some films by makers like Rituparno Ghosh, Goutam Ghose and Aparna Sen generated an interest in cinegoers to go back to the theaters but their content and making were simply not diverse enough to carry fourth a legacy for generations to follow. Today’s “serious” Bengali filmmakers need to get past the Ray and Rituparno hangover and try to create something more original but more importantly, producers need to be more educated about the contemporary independent film business.
The definition of an independent film is a film made under 1 million usd. So technically, almost all films in Bengal are independent films and independent films are the future of a sustainable film industry in this fast changing climate of the digital era where OTTs have emerged as the big players and gamechangers. Tollywood was never meant to compete with Bollywood or the Tamil/Telegu industries just because of the sheer budgetary disparities and lack of similar star power. Thankfully Larger-than-life commercial films have taken a back-seat even in Bollywood to usher in an era of new wave of films that are not only working with new content but have also adapted contemporary methods of international coproductions and distribution and are catering to a global audience. Glorification of star power and colossal budgets have recently given way to the expectations of a Z generation of fast paced vloggers and whimsical Instagrammers where originality is key. This seems to be a good opportunity for Bengali cinema to beef up but alas, the “revived” Bengali cinema has neither been triumphant in the home ground (except for a few exceptions such as Anik Dutta’s Bhooter Bhobishyot, 2012 and Shiboprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy’s Praktan, 2016) nor had any presence in the international scene in the last decade (barring a few mentioned later).
Producers here are mostly financiers who think investing is producing, very few taking it up as a full-time profession and their singular goal is a quick return of investment from that single film as opposed to learning the ropes of the long term game. Thanks to these uninformed producers, people in Bengal still thing that films that travel to international film festivals are merely prestigious and those are not films that make any money. However, even big budget Bollywood films such as Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy are going the festival route just to tap into the overseas market and travelling to festivals is the only way for independent films to make money as they are also centered around film markets and provide a networking ground for international sales and distribution including global OTT platforms. Other regional films such as Marathi (Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple – in competition, Venice International Film Festival, 2020) and Punjabi (Gurvinder Singh’s The Fourth Direction – Official selection – Un Certain Regard, Cannes, 2015) are all making films for an international audience. Barring just a few films such as Qaushik Mukherjee aka Q’s Gandu (Forum – Berlinale, 2011, Brahman Naman – World Cinema Dramatic Competition – Sundance, 2016) and The Bait – Toronto International Film Festival, 2016 (by veteran filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta), one has to struggle to find Bengali films that have made a mark internationally in the last decade. Since Gandu, most of Q’s films have been international co-productions. The Result? Brahman Naman was the first Indian film picked up by Netflix for international viewership along with his earlier Bengali films. All these films are more successful in recouping their investments than Bengali films that are still struggling with a regional audience. Whatever the content is – provocative or conservative, pure arthouse or over-the-top B-movies, the making and packaging need to be contemporary and of an international standard. Most Bengali producers are happy living in their own bubble inflating sales figures to cover up for the miserable Box Office losses their films have suffered in the past decade and filmmakers unabashedly spread false news of their films being officially selected at A list festivals such as Cannes after attending their film markets at the cost of a paid entry. Yet no one is keen on learning about these new models of international coproductions and distribution. To reshape Bengali cinema, we desperately need a new breed of film professionals with broader exposure who are also open to discovering and fostering new talent.
A big role here can be played by the Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) Even though it has a gala opening every year, inaugurated by Bollywood bigwigs like Shahrukh Khan, it does very little to support Bengali independent films and push it across an international platform. KIFF must switch from its current status of a hub for film enthusiasts who get to watch an array of fantastic foreign films to an axis point for nurturing and developing filmmakers from Bengal who are seriously working towards a global platform for their work. To do this, it can follow the models of International Film Festival of India (IFFI, Goa), Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) and International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) all of which are more market oriented and bring in national and international delegates that actually matter.
Coming back to the failure of producers, there have been a couple of studio style film production houses that have dominated the Bengali industry from the 90s until recently who monopolized the entire game from contractually binding actors perpetually to mobilising the media in their favor. Very few independent producers have been able to sustain in such an environment. To make matters worse, several chit funds entered the film industry as “producers” who had neither any understanding of film nor the business of films. At one point, more number of films were being produced in Bengal than anywhere else in the country, most of them by first time producers who never went on to make a second film. It’s a different issue altogether that a lot of them remained unreleased, again due to the ignorance of these new “producers” and their rush to invest their chit fund monies on any ragtag and bobtail that was simply eager enough to direct a film. Chit Funds have been wiped out but we still need to recover from the damages done especially from the void created by the sudden surge and withdrawal of money into the film industry.
Another huge hindrance in an already adverse environment is the Directors’ Guild of Federation of Cine Technicians and Workers of Eastern India (FCTWEI) usually referred to as just “the Guild” and its regulations. This is directly controlled by certain political figures and is no friend of the independent filmmaker. While protecting the rights of technicians is of utmost importance, it cannot and should not be at the cost of filmmaking itself. Even the smallest of independent productions are forced to take a certain number of technicians irrespective of whether they are required or not. In some atrocious cases, filmmakers agree to hire them just to fulfill a certain number and have them sit idly throughout the shoot. Even documentaries and student films have come under the Guild’s purview and their productions stalled or stopped altogether for not following “guidelines.” Ironically, a lot of filmmakers from outside came to shoot in Bengal and had to leave midway because of these unforeseen crises. Some of them found better alternatives in the bordering states of Jharkhand, Orissa and Sikkim all of whom provide government subsidies for shooting. These projects could have provided more work for local technicians for whom apparently all these guidelines have been formed in the first place. Even an adolescent should be able to grasp that we need to attract outsiders to come shoot in Bengal, not push them away.
Finally, it must be noted that volatile markets call for a measured approach and such an approach can be maneuvered by some extent of corporatization which can resolve a lot of the above issues. A case in point is the Mumbai film industry which was somewhat rescued from the clutches of family-run studios, their nepotism and the notorious underworld. One can understand the ethos of the independent filmmaker that is ever-cautious of corporates and for good reason – indeed, one should be wary of overzealous multinational executives who can happily treat a film like detergent and has little understanding of local (in this case regional) cinema and culture beyond spreadsheets. Regardless, even though the entry of foreign companies like Viacom, 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures in India has ensued mixed results in terms of improving the quality and diversity of the Indian film industry but has definitely minimized egregious practices and brought in some structure that is largely missing in the current Bengali industry.