Ami, Dida and Bengali Cinema – A Decade of Nostalgia

— Sourav Agarwal


My tryst with Bengali art films happened very late. Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali introduced me to a whole new world of intellect, art, storytelling, thoughtfulness and creativity in 2003 when I visited Kolkata during Durga puja. Jaya Theatre, a short walk from my maternal uncle’s flat in Lake Town, was screening Chokher Bali. I went to catch the movie on the rainy afternoon of Maha Ashtami primarily because it starred Aishwarya Rai. When the curtain dropped I came out of the theatre, with the sensitive portrayal of the protagonist, the aesthetic presentation, the soulful background music, the melodious Purano sei diner katha and the story of a young lonely widow’s deprivation lingering on my mind. Rituparno Ghosh became an all-time favorite director of mine. My taste of Bengali films took a U-turn for the better.

Let me set the clock back to the 1980s and 1990s when I grew up in Burdwan Town, watching melodramatic Bengali films which sentimental housewives like my maternal grandmother (didi maa) from the middle class society were fond of. I would like to call those Bengali commercial films such as Anjan Choudhury’s Boro Bou, Mejo Bou and Choto Bou having either scheming mothers-in-law or daughters-in-law, ‘Household dramas’ whose sophisticated versions in form of Ekta Kaoor’s Hindi ‘Saas-Bahu’ serials are favorites of today’s couch-loving housewives in urban and semi urban India.

Two of my four maternal uncles live in Burdwan Town and two in Kolkata. Dida used to stay in Burdwan Town and occasionally visited Kolkata. When my mom was four or five, dida and dadu had settled in Burdwan Town along with their seven children. Mom and her siblings studied in Bengali. Besides schooling in Bengali, exchange of food with Bengali neighbors on special occasions gradually pushed Bengali culture into dida’s household at Boro Bazar. I was born, schooled and attended college in Burdwan Town. The mamabari was my address from class 1 till the school final examination.

At that time, Rupmahal theatre was a haven of entertainment for the audience of Bengali films in Burdwan Town, while other cinema halls – Anita, Bichitra, Star and Nataraj – screened Hindi films. These theatres had been the thriving hubs of entertainment for the middle-class and lower middle-class income groups till the end of 2000. The emergence of Sanskriti Mancho with a bigger screen and cushioned seating on to the changing landscape of the town was the first threat to the existence of those theatres which gradually lost out to the proliferation of Internet in the first decade of the 21st century and then INOX hammered the last nail in their coffins. Today, Rupmahal, Anita, Bichitra, Star and Nataraj with their shutters down are mere sites of nostalgia in the wilderness.

However, Rupmahal was hardly one kilometer away from our house (mamabari). My elder maternal aunt was not too fond of cinema. She used to go round in a circle with household chores. The youngest maternal aunt, the then urbane, snobbish Calcutta girl, was addicted only to Bollywood. Rambabu’s wife in the opposite two-storey house was dida’s only close friend in the locality. She was referred to as Rambaur bou whereas all our acquaintances in the neighbourhood reverently called dida masi maa. The Rambabus were an aristocratic family having thriving rice mills. They were the richest in the locality. Evidently, Rambabur bou was not able to join dida in her afternoon visits to screening of Bengali films at Rupmahal. Only I was there to accompany dida on her occasional entertainment spree.

I was her companion from 1988 till 1997 when Anjan Choudhury’s and Swapan Saha’s eyes-moistening family dramas starring mostly Tapas Pal, Chumki, Ranjit Mullick, Sandhya Roy, Haradhan Banerjee and Sanghamitra ruled the roost. When my mom would come to Burdwan, she was my replacement. Initially, I would fall asleep while sitting on a wooden chair in the dark theatre hall and wake up to the cacophony of badamwallahs, muriwallahs and other hawkers during interval. When I was in Class 6 or 7, I had asked dida why she watched those melodramatic films in spite of so much family drama in her household. She said, “You are too young to understand.”

In those days, it was difficult to know release dates of new films. Either newspapers or street posters were the source to know which films would release when and at which theaters. Film posters lurking on shabby walls of houses, around trunks of trees and in corners with tea stalls or betel shops were among the most sought after things in those times. As per dida’s instruction, I used to keep an eye on posters which would appear on a wall splattered with betel spits from hundreds of mouths, adjacent to a betel shop (Manojer paner dukan) on one end of the locality and report to her. She guessed if a Bengali film was a family drama or action flick or romcom from the names of actors in it. If I could not recognize some or the other actors in those flamboyant posters with seemingly pastel colors, I unhesitatingly asked Manoj to tell me their names.

Dida was a living source of film reviews for many in the locality. Rambabur Bou was the first to hear the stories of films from dida and have discussions on degradation of household values with her in the evening. Before coming to our house for an adda with dida, Rambabur Bou would send her personal maid to check if dida had watched the latest release. Our maid, Animar maa, was the second ardent fan of dida’s film reviews.

Every year, a group of boys from the locality used to organize Kali puja in the balcony of our house which overlooked the road. No puja site or pandal feels festive without filmy music in Bengal. Some of dida’s favorite Bengali songs like ‘Mangal deep jele’ from Pratidan, ‘Baro asha kore esechi’ from Rajbandhu, ‘Tolo chinnao bina’ from Ekanto Apan, ‘Amar swapno je sotti holo aaj’ from Anushandhan, ‘E amar guru dakshina’ from Guru Dakshina, andBhalo basi bhalo basi’ from Shwet Pathorer Thala were always on the list of filmy songs to be played during off hours of the puja. When Nepla mama from the organizing committee of Kali puja would formally come to take dida’s permission to use the balcony, she would give him strict instructions to play those songs. She also threatened him that if he failed to obey her, she would not let them organize puja in the balcony from next year.

Dida breathed her last on 9th April in 1996 when I got promoted to Class 8. It was followed by a blackout in my journey with Bengali films and the temporary void was filled with Bollywood films. Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali brought me back to Bengali Cinema in 2003.

Sourav is born in Rajasthan but is a bengali by heart. He is an Editor, Startup writer, Blogger, Columnist, Contributor & Writer (Phew!). He is also a foodie and known quite well among Hyderabad Foodies. You can follow his work at SliceofRealLife