HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: 75 Years, 75 Films; India’s Cinematic Journey by Amitava Nag

Review: 75 Years, 75 Films; India’s Cinematic Journey by Amitava Nag

As I am now 80 years old, I may count myself among the very few Indian journalists born before Independence who have witnessed the changes that took place in Indian cinema during the 75 years covered by this book. Reading the 75 reviews of 75 films in this volume, it occurred to me that I’ve missed watching only about nine of these.

A scene from Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (HT Photo)

260pp, ₹820; Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GoI
260pp, ₹820; Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GoI

These 75 pieces aren’t just reviews, they are also redolent of nostalgia and emotions. They present the changes in production values, choice of stories, treatment and the filmmaker’s perspective and make the reader think about the presence or absence of social agenda in a particular period. Incidentally, most of the filmmakers covered in the earlier part of the book never went to film school to be trained in cinema or its technology. The book also provides you a glimpse of the metamorphosis of the medium in terms of the change in audience tastes.

Here it must be stated that the author insists his choice of films was not based on their commercial success or even on his personal favourites but rather, on the long-term impact of the film on the psyche of the audience. So, though his personal favourite among Ghatak’s films happens to be Subarnarekha, he chose to feature Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara because of its tremendous impact on the audience. His personal favourite among Ray’s films remains Aparajita but he chose Pather Panchali because people know of it as an iconic film.

A scene from Angamali Diaries. (Film still)
A scene from Angamali Diaries. (Film still)

The list also includes films that turned out to be commercial flops but were impactful in the long run. For Rituparno Ghosh, he chose Shob Choritro Kalponik (2009) instead of the more popular Unishe April or Dahan because it is the only poetic film from Rituparno’s oeuvre. For his shortlist, Nag could easily have picked the top films chosen for the National Awards down the years but he chose not to take the easy route. As a result, the collection offers a wonderful kaleidoscope of films – the book begins with KA Abbas’ Dharti Ke Lal (1946) and closes with Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Angamali Diaries (2017).

When Kalpana (1948) the only feature film that Uday Shankar directed, produced and also played the lead in, was released in a Mumbai theatre, I was just four years old. I was mesmerized by the beautiful dance numbers. Though I appreciated the choreography, I couldn’t have understood the great dancer’s socio-political and historical statement. Recently, I watched a very good print of the film on YouTube and the message came through loud and clear.

A scene from Kalpana (Film still)
A scene from Kalpana (Film still)

In the review of Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Nag mentions that it was a young Salil Chowdhury who adapted the original poem of the same name by Rabindranath Tagore, and also created the film’s brilliant musical score. This blend of Tagore and Chowdhury, a self-proclaimed Marxist, turned it into one of the most memorable films in post-colonial India. Said to have been influenced by Italian New-Realism, it introduced the relatively unknown theatre actor Balraj Sahni in his first big film role. Salil Chowdhury’s music in Roy’s films were rooted in the Indian identity if not within the Bengali identity. But one song which became very famous in Do Bigha Zamin was inspired by the Soviet Union’s Red March.

Nag cites Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat (1976) as the kind of film which also made an impact alongside violent, action films like Sholay (1975), which underscores the fact that both the critics and the audience of the time appreciated a range of genres.

Nag presents a solid back story to Chhinnamul (1950) by Nemai Ghosh which few have had the good fortune of watching. Sadly, the director was almost hounded out of Indian cinema because the film showed empathy for refugees and had real refugees participating in its making. The first Indian film on the Partition, it led to Ghosh quitting his native state to retire and die in Tamil Nadu. Based on a story by Swarnakamal Bhattacharya, it depicts the flow of refugees from East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) into India. The film begins in a village of East Bengal where people (Hindus and Muslims) live peacefully. Govinda and Sumati are a couple who are about to have a child. But the Partition forces the Hindus in the village to leave their ancestral land and become refugees. Finding no shelter in Calcutta, they eke out their lives in temporary shelters in and around Sealdah railway station. Along with millions of other refugees, Govind and Sumati too have to face untold misery in the big city.

A scene from Fandry (Film still)
A scene from Fandry (Film still)

Interestingly, Nag contrasts the representation of the Dalit identity in Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) and Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013.) Both films have bagged awards, been discussed ad infinitum and have been widely appreciated. But while Manjule grew up in rural Maharasthra as a member of the traditionally nomadic Waddar community, Roy was a Bengali from a privileged caste. Manjule’s films are deeply rooted in his own experience of growing up Dalit and have focused on social discrimination and the resultant economic hardships. Fandry is the story of a Dalit boy who falls in love with an upper caste girl. So while Sujata presents the perspective of an upper caste director towards a Dalit woman, Fandry is the perspective of a Dalit director who tells his story as an insider.

Author Amitava Nag (Courtesy the subject)
Author Amitava Nag (Courtesy the subject)

As a film historian myself, I sorely missed Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) in this list. In my opinion, it remains one of the most technically and aesthetically made films on a surrealistic story of a ghost-that-never-was. It inspired many remakes but the best and most successful one remains Bimal Roy’s Madhumati. I have reservations about Queen’s inclusion in the list and would have loved to include Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Andhi Galli but this is Nag’s book, after all!

75 Years, 75 Films points out how and why cinema is not just for entertainment and amusement but is also, both, a prism and a collage that offers varied glimpses of our society and the march of cinema from the traditional to the modern. This volume is definitely a collectors’ item.

Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.

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