The history of cinema in Bengal dates back to the 1890s, when the first “bioscopes” were shown in theatres in Calcutta. Within a decade, the first seeds of the industry was sown by Hiralal Sen, considered a stalwart of Victorian era cinema when he set up the Royal Bioscope Company, producing scenes from the stage productions of a number of popular shows at the Star Theatre, Minerva Theatre, Classic Theatre. Following a long gap after Sen”s works, Dhirendra Nath Ganguly (Known as D.G) established Indo British Film Co, the first Bengali owned production company, in 1918. However, the first Bengali Feature film, Billwamangal, was produced in 1919, under the banner of Madan Theatre. Bilat Ferat was the IBFC”s first production in 1921. The Madan Theatre production of Jamai Shashthi was the first Bengali talkie. A long history has been traversed since then, with stalwarts such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak and others having earned international acclaim and securing their place in the movie history.
The film industry based in Kolkata, West Bengal, is referred as “Tollywood” . Tollywood was the very first Hollywood-inspired name, dating back to a 1932 article in the American Cinematographer by Wilford E. Deming, an American engineer who was involved in the production of the first Indian sound film. He gave the industry the name Tollywood because the Tollygunge district in which it was based rhymed with “Hollywood”, and because Tollygunge was the center of the cinema of India as a whole at the time much like Hollywood was in the cinema of the United States.
Golden era: 1952-1975
During this period, Bengali cinema enjoyed a large, even disproportionate, representation in Indian cinema, and produced film directors like Satyajit Ray, who was an Academy Honorary Award winner, and the recipient of India”s and France”s greatest civilian honours, the Bharat Ratna andLegion of Honor respectively, and Mrinal Sen, who is the recipient of the French distinction of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and the Russian Order of Friendship.
Other prominent film makers in the Bengali film industry at the time included Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak. The Bengali film industry has produced classics such as Nagarik (1952), The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), Jalsaghar (1958), Ajantrik (1958), Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), Devdas, Devi(1960), Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the Calcutta trilogies (1971–1976), etc. In particular, The Apu Trilogy is now frequently listed among the greatest films of all time.
Notable Bengali Films
Devdas (1935): Directed by Pramathes Barua, this remains one of the most admired versions of the film currently making box office waves in Bollywood.
Udayer Pathe (1944): Bimal Roy, the acclaimed Hindi film director, made his Bengali directorial debut with this film.
Pather Panchali (1955): Many believe this film, directed by legend Satyajit Ray, marked the beginning of the golden age for Bengali films.
Amanush (1974): Bollywood fans will no doubt be interested to see this blockbuster hit, which stars Sharmila Tagore and Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar.
Shatranj Ki Khiladi (1977): Adapated from a story by famous Hindi novelist Premchand, this was actually Satyajit Ray”s Hindi language directorial debut, and is still considered one of his greatest works.
Paroma (1983): The second film made by acclaimed actress and director Aparna Sen, this film caused a minor storm by sympathetically portraying the extramarital affair of a young Bengali woman from good family.
Long considered the seat of Indian high culture, Bengal has produced numerous luminaries, including Nobel prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, “Devdas” novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and above all, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who singlehandedly brought Indian cinema to the world”s fawning attention. Indeed, most Westerners who have seen an Indian film will have seen only Ray”s work.
It would not be amiss, then, to assume that Bengali cinema occupies a place of honor amongst the film industries of India. During the 1950s and “60s, Bollywood actors considered an invitation to work in Tollygunge (the headquarters for Bengali filmdom, and the root of its occasional nickname, Tollywood) the ultimate compliment. Tollygunge also sent forth homegrown stars like Sharmila Tagore, Jaya Bhaduri, and Rakhee to conquer Hindi cinema. What these actresses encountered in Bollywood was an industry far less inclined to the literary and realist work that had nurtured them to professional maturity. Bollywood was largely entertainment for the masses; Tollygunge prided itself on playing to the intelligentsia.
To the intense displeasure of Tollywood afficionados, they can no longer comfortably assert such a claim. In 1980, the death of superstar Uttam Kumar — The Bengali film hero, whose name had consistently sold out state cinema halls since his first hit in 1953 — created a vacum that the industry has yet to fill.
The advent of cable television, which permits viewers to choose from numerous films in the comfort of their own homes; and the rise of Bangladeshi films, which offer Muslims an alternative to the largely Hindu-driven storylines of Bengali cinema — all serve to further weaken the industry. Additionally, a lack of government funding compels Tollygunge to recognize profit, rather than quality, as the fundamental consideration when making films today.
Bengal still owns a wealth of talent, but directors like Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghosh face an uphill battle to secure the funds as well as the audiences which would validate their work. Perhaps as a result, they have turned away from feature films forthe time being, with Sen focusing on television and Ghosh putting the final touches on his documentary about Satyajit Ray — who would, we have no doubt, be appalled by the current state of the cinema he helped to make one of the most respected in the world.
Apart from Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak directed internationally acclaimed films followed by a group consisting of Budhhadeb Dasgupta, Gautam Ghosh, Utpalendu Chakrabarti, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh etc.
An introduction to Bengali cinema cannot be completed without mentioning one of its finest actor, Soumitra Chatterjee. His place in the mind of Bengali movie lovers is established by his performance in the role of Apu and Felu-da in Ray”s movies.