MAY 2, 2021: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU SiR

Happy Birthday SiR! Today is your 100th birthday. Let me recall a small event. I saw you at one of my cousin’s marriage reception in Kolkata. The year was 1979. You were sitting among the invitees. It seemed to me as if you were looking with deep penetration into the minds of people surrounding you. You left after some time. There was no exhibition, no inhibition. When I think of those brief moments I feel bad that I missed a lifetime opportunity of meeting you. My wife and I were sitting so close to you. I was then young and very hesitant. I am no longer young but I would still be hesitant talking to you. I want to talk to you. You are so very well-known that there is nothing I can add to your already existing repertoire. You are my Renaissance man. This morning I thought of paying my respect to a complete filmmaker.

I have known you through your films. I have read about the hardships you have faced while making Pather Panchali. People talk about your perseverance, hard work, and how you completed the film, due to limited resources. The making of Pather Panchali is the story of defying all odds. It is the story of not only making a film but also the realisation of a conviction. Bibhuti Bhushan’s Apu is the most quintessential Bengali character created in literature. The story of Apu is so simple, yet so real, and so abstract. It has only human beings. It is the story of a ‘wandering-wondering’ romantic. It is the story of relationships – between a brother and a sister, between a son and a mother, between a husband and a wife, between the young and the old.

The story of Apu is unadorned but real. It is the story of an individual who is trying to find a place in the mainstream. It is a story of conscience. In the story one can feel warm intimacy at different layers. There are so many nuances in Apu’s feelings for his mother. As Apu grows up, new horizons open up before him. He tries to move away from traditional commitments, his mother watches him in a sort of bemused bewilderment. She wonders who will look after her when Apu goes to Kolkata for further studies. She can’t understand why Apu can’t be happy as a priest, his family profession. Mother is not happy, but she lets her son go. She tries to come to terms in the new situation and tries to adjust to a new reality. She knows that her son’s education is important. Apu wants to become a writer. When Apu loses his mother, there is a feeling of liberation; a feeling that he is now free from bondage to explore life in any way he wishes. There is remorse also, and a sense of guilt.

Sir, you made Pather Panchali because Bibhuti Bhushan influenced you so much. In fact, you came to know about the nuances of village life only after reading Pather Panchali. You developed a rapport with the village and his attitude towards it. The book deeply moved you. While hunting locations in rural areas, and, after finding the village and spending some time there, you began to understand the village people. The landscape also helped.

Sir, you thought, Pather Panchali is one of the most filmable of all Bengali novels. At the same time, you thought it is not natural film material. I remember you said, “One can be entirely true to the spirit of Bibhuti Bhushan, retain a large measure of his other characteristics – lyricism and humanism combined with a casual narrative structure – and yet produce a legitimate work of cinema. “ This reflected your unflinching faith in Bibhuti Bhushan.

The next film of the Apu trilogy, Aparajito is different. Two aspects of the book, as I understand, fascinated you. One was the cinematic possibility of the contrast between the three main locales – Benares, a typical Bengali village, and the city of Calcutta. The other aspect that fascinated you, Sir, was the relationship between the widowed mother and the adolescent son. Apu, upon learning of his mother’s death, had a feeling – even if momentary – of freedom from bondage.

In the third film of the trilogy Apur Sansar, Apu gets married. In this film, you concentrated mainly on two aspects. One was the relationship between the struggling intellectual Apu and his unaffected, unlettered chance-wife Aparna brought up in affluence but inspired to adjust to poverty by her love for her husband. The second aspect was more exciting to you, as a filmmaker. Apu’s wife Aparna dies in childbirth. Apu turns against the child – he reproaches him for having caused the mother’s death. Apu is too upset to enquire about his surviving son. He forsakes the child, leaves the city, and takes up a job in some other town. The first meeting of father and son takes place after a lapse of several years. You wrote, “The contrast shown between Apu’s optimism and his will to live when the film opens, and his bitterness, roughness and cynicism after his wife’s death, is based very much on Bibhuti Bhushan’s own description.”

Your experience of filming Pather Panchali in a rural set up is an interesting lesson in the art of filmmaking. Initially villagers were fairly hostile to the film unit. Slowly they became friendly. You rightly said, “They really missed us when we left. They’re essentially nice people, but suspicious. To them all business has certain rather unpleasant associations.” You have worked with totally unknown faces. It is surprising to many how you managed relaxed behaviour and that too with so few takes. You said, it is often easier to work with non-professionals. you use different methods with different actors. You have to modify your technique all the time. But you have to get to know the person you are working with, know his moods and his abilities and his intelligence.

Charulata and Mahanagar are among your favourite films. The women of Charulata and Mahanagar are so strong, determined, adaptable and resilient. You write about Chandana Banerjee, who plays the servant girl in The Postmaster, thus, “She turned out to be an absolutely fantastic actress: ready, no tension at all, and intelligent and observant and obedient — perfect to work with. Anil Chatterjee, who played the postmaster, was constantly worried that no one would look at his performance with her there on the screen.” The tender story of Postmaster Nandalal (Anil Chatterjee) and his pre-adolescent housekeeper Ratan (Chandana Banerjee) in a small village is told in the simplest language. The most enjoyable scene of the film is a get-together of old men of the village for a music session. About Charulata, you said, “Well, the one film that I would make the same way, if I had to do it again, is Charulata.” Mahanagar is about Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) and Subroto (Anil Chatterjee), and their struggle in a lower middle class family in Calcutta. Arati’s growing self-confidence and Subroto’s insecurity are so naturally portrayed. So much was conveyed in so few words. ‘Nayak’ is about a successful but a lonely film actor. Like everyone else Nayak needs sympathy and understanding. Nayak’s interaction with an old fellow passenger is simply beautiful. I can’t think of any other actor than Uttam Kumar in the title role. I can’t remember how many times I have seen ‘Sonar Kella’, especially after moving to Jaipur. A young boy’s memories of his previous life in Rajasthan are a treat to watch. I liked the film because it could retain my interest till the end in spite of the fact that I knew how the story was going to unfold. There was no so-called suspense, the bad boys were identified at the beginning itself. Santosh Dutta as ‘Jatau’ is unforgettable. ‘Jana Aranya’ is about a middleman in a scarce job market. Utpal Dutta and Robi Ghosh are brilliant in the film. The understanding between Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee) and his sister-in-law (Lily Chakravarti) was so engaging in ‘Jana Aranya’. Aranyer Din Ratri, Joi Baba Felunath, Kanchenjungha, are some of your favourite films. Your films are not judgmental, not political. One wonders how you managed to stay away from all this. You clarify, “In a fantasy like Hirak Rajar Deshe, you can be forthright, but if you’re dealing with contemporary characters, you can be articulate only up to a point, because of censorship. You simply cannot attack the party in power…..What can you do? You are aware of the problems and you deal with them, but you also know the limit, the constraints beyond which you just cannot go.” Pratidwandi is the story of two brothers. The elder brother admires the younger Naxal brother for his bravery and convictions. You write, “I was more interested in the elder brother because he is the vacillating character. As a psychological entity, as a human being with doubts, he is a more interesting character to me. The Naxalite movement takes over. The younger brother, as a person, becomes insignificant.” Agantuk is a statement on our value system. ‘Choto Kaka’ is visiting his niece after 35 years. He has become a stranger even to his niece. He is treated with suspicion. There were many enjoyable moments in the film. My favourite is Mamta Shankar’s going to a Santhal village and there she hesitatingly joins the performing dance group arranged by her uncle. Uncle is pleased: ‘Now I have no doubt that she is my sister’s daughter’. ‘Shakha Proshakha’ is the story of an idealist father and his not-so-ideal sons. In spite of personal success father’s sense of failure comes from the fact that his ideals and values have not seeped into the conscience of his sons. No one has understood human psychology as you have. Shakha Proshakha is a classic example. Unfortunately this was your last film.

You loved Kolkata. “I love Calcutta. I have lived here all my life. The best of whatever is being done in the arts in India is being done here. There is a great intellectual vitality ….. only filmmaking has not attracted many intellectuals, yet from a film maker’s point of view no city could be better…” .

This is how you described your workplace: “The studios in Calcutta show their hallowed past in every crevice on the wall, in every tatter of the canvas that covers the ceiling… The floor is pitted, the camera groans as it turns, the voltage begins to drop…The general air of shabbiness is unnerving… And yet I do not mind these at all. I don’t think of these as hindrances…It is the bareness of means that forces us to be economical and inventive and prevents us from turning craftsmanship into an end in itself. And there is something about creating beauty in circumstances of shoddiness and privation that is truly exciting.”

SiR, you are a product of an antifragile city, a city that has produced Renaissance men. You loved Kolkata because of your rooted Bengaliness. No city understands fragility better than your city. You would be sad seeing the current state of the city. I am sure you would wish for its growth despite so much volatility, randomness, and disorder.

Once again, happy birthday to you SiR. Let your progeny grow in the city you grew up.