Something’s cooking in Bengali cinema. Perhaps sizzling would be a more apt word. We all know that many (and we don’t mean you dear reader) haunt international film festivals only to feast on uncensored films: our eager scissors-hands are usually out of the picture here.
Unerringly, vast hordes gravitate towards foreign films with sexually explicit scenes: there must be some sort of secret signal that flags them off to the hot films. Today, they need look no further than Kolkata.
If there is one thing that the eighth Osian’s Cine Fan festival currently on in New Delhi makes clear, it is the fact that there is a sexual revolution going on in contemporary Bengali cinema. And it’s not just about voyeuristic cameras or the flashing of body parts, or indeed some very heavy breathing.
There is an attempt to explore the subject of sexuality, often without the fig leaf of sentimentality. The younger generation of film makers have finally dispensed with the birds and the bees and the flowers, and moved on from the poetically theoretical to the in-your-face physical.
Take the irreverently funny film Teen Yaari Katha (Tale of three friends) directed by Abhjit Guha and Sudeshna Roy. The language of the film is fresh off the streets, with four letter words punctuating it: some of the argot would make even a Punjabi truck driver blush.
The film probes the male psyche and depicts, quite literally, the sexual and romantic fantasies — obsessions, really — of three roommates (an auto rickshaw driver, an aspiring banker and a newspaper delivery boy, well, young man).
There’s also a gritty realism in the film: when the protagonists need to answer nature’s call they actually seem to be doing so. Nothing airbrushed here: you can almost smell the loos and the cheap booze.
What’s up with these warm breezes coming in from the east? Rituparno Ghosh’s new film Dosar (Companion) is a sensitive study of infidelity and its ramifications on marital relations. The point of departure is a car accident in which one of the two lovers (the woman) dies.
Both are married, but to different people. The heart of the film, however, is on how the wife (Konkana Sen Sharma) handles the discovery of her husband’s extramarital affair and her relationship with him after the accident. The film is based on a true incident but Ghosh uses it to look at infidelity from various perspectives.
Echoing the main tale of adultery is another one: Sen Sharma has a married friend in an extra-marital relationship — one that she seemingly seems to condone. The director also hints at infidelity in general with interwoven scenes of an anonymous couple in a hotel: the sheets are continuously changed as one adulterous couple after another check in. A particular deft touch: a nameless woman takes her bindi off and sticks it on the bathroom mirror.
Ghosh has been here before: in Chokher Bali he touched upon an extramarital affair in his rendering of a Rabindranath Tagore oeuvre, although here he was really looking at a widow’s assertion of her sexual needs. Piggybacking once again on literature of an earlier period he made in Antarmahal, set in a remote village in Bengal in the latter half of the 19th century.
It wasn’t adultery but the sexual scenes come with a particularly explicit sound track, and almost got the film banned. Aparna Sen’s masterful film Paroma (about a middle-aged housewife who falls in love with a man half her age) made in the ’80s is probably the precursor of the films focusing on infidelity in modern-day Bengal. Ghosh, like her, is also trying to answer that eternal question: what women (across the hierarchies of age and class) want.
The gloves-off portrayal of sex and sensibility in Bengali cinema is, according to the directors of The Tale of Three Friends, a relatively new phenomenon. It began with this century. Younger film makers are offloading the rules and inhibitions of the past; certainly globalisation and the internet have a role to play here.
In Ashok Viswanathan’s film Andhokarer Shabdo (Sounds of Darkness) a woman cineaste tells her partner that she doesn’t like the missionary position. And Kaushik Ganguly’s Shunyo E Bukey (Empty Canvas), shown during the last Cine Fan festival, is a critique of the large breasts-obsessed Indian male.
Kenneth Tynan’s play Oh Calcutta! had nothing to do with the city — it was a pun on a French word of a body part and what to do with it that one can’t mention here. But today’s film makers of the city are no longer blushing.