Urbanity as a Theme in Parallel / Alternative Bengali Cinema

— Soumalya Chakraborty

Highrises, supermarkets, cushy corporate jobs, swanky cars and all the creature comforts-one would think these would make a person happy. Think again, because behind all the glitz and ostentation lie a murky layer of hopelessness, loss, dissatisfaction and unnatural urges. Many of the contemporary creations out of the Tollywood stable wants you to visualise and think about such issues surrounding urban families and this has necessitated the presence of the city itself as a character and its nuances which impact peoples’ lives.

Urban complexities: Ekla Akash

Take a look at “Ekla Akash” directed by Sandipan Roy. Arijit and Nisha are a typical urban couple who had fallen in love and dreamed of a happily ever after. However, Arijit’s ambition to climb higher in the corporate ladder gets him into an affair with his possessive supervisor who regards him as his personal property, shattering his married life. The film also explores the themes of fragmented families, exploitation, idealism and its clash with the material world and several wrong choices finally leading to the right one. Urban professionals and nuclear families would easily identify with Arijit going astray in the hope of lucrative rewards, Nisha’s helplessness and her struggle to create an identity for herself and SR’s idealism fighting a pitched battle against consumer demands.

Identity struggles: “Maach, Mishti and More”

Mainak Bhaumik’s “Maach, Mishti and More” starts off with the canvas of Kolkata in its opening song and goes on to portray the trials and tribulations of an urban upper middle class family where each character is fighting a battle of his/her own. The eldest member tries to bridge the generation gap by hoping to adapt to changing landscapes but is ignored by the young. The three brothers have their own agendas in which they keep failing while the parents are struggling to keep it all together. All the while, the film firmly situates itself in the city and brings its residents face to face with identical struggles of their own.

Falling fabrics of reality: “Ebar Shabor”

Arindam Sil’s “Ebar Shabor” brings us face to face with the wrong turns taken on the way to maturity and a quest for discovering oneself under the overall package of a murder mystery. Urban yuppies will easily identify with being spoilt for choice, the lure of rushing into a risk and being confused with what they really want from life. The character of Mitali Ghosh exemplifies these dilemmas and the disastrous outcome of impulsive decisions. The film also explores the oft analysed strains in the fabric of relationships, love versus lust, struggle for power and disillusionment leading lives to ruin-a concoction urban dramas are incomplete without.

Techniques to explore the cityscape

In terms of visuals and cinematography, we see a strategic use of the urban landscape (predominantly the city of Kolkata) to highlight situations. In “Maach, Mishti and More”, when the youngest son of the family is shown ditching yet another girl, the director places it in an upmarket coffee shop where casual relationships are started with the first sip of the coffee and are over by the last. Soumitra Chatterjee, the eldest member of the family, attempts to fit in by going to shopping malls but it’s the old school roadside tea stall where he is really at home. “Ekla Akash” situates the conversation between Goutam Ghosh and Rudranil Ghosh in a pub where alcohol comes to the idealistic filmmaker’s rescue when he is forced to give in to popular demands. Additionally, there’s no getting away from locations and objects equated with emotions such as a contemplative character finding him/herself at the Princep Ghat staring at the boats idling far away. Casual conversations in hand-pulled rickshaws, intense discussions in coffee house or the rooftop restaurant at Elgin Road, the onset of an eerie or mysterious occurrence in the narrow bylanes of Sealdah and Kumortuli etc.

In-Conclusion

Among contemporary Bengali filmmakers, a section is consciously targeting the ever increasing urban audience who frequent multiplexes and shopping malls. This is a demographic who would be engrossed in glimpses of their own lives reflected on celluloid and identify with the messages put forth. The city-changing, transforming, reinventing itself-where each location and landmark invokes a new feeling, has been the favorite of filmmakers from the days of Satyajit Ray’s “Mahanagar” in 1963 to the films today. In fact, a study of urban cinema through the ages would be a fascinating account of the evolution of the city and the idiosyncracies of the life it harbours. This journey is still in its formative years.