Fantasy filled Bengali cinema
escribing India is always difficult. A country, so vibrant and kaleidoscopic in its culture, that it dodges even the keenest of observer’s attempts to bind it in a definition. Indian cinema is similarly complex. Tracing its beginning with Dada Saheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, one observes how Indian cinema has expanded into so many different types. Since the diversity in Indian cinema is not merely defined by genre alone but also the great many different languages in which they are made.
In discussing the genre Fantasy, one quickly sees the varied way in which it has been and can be used. Indian Mythology is particularly detailed and has inspired many films. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are referenced in every other film in some form or the other. Adaptations too are numerous, but the mythological and the fantasy are two distinctly different genres. Primarily because there is a sacred aspect attached to the mythological of which fantasy does not partake. Furthermore modern western fantasy films create a fictional world of their own. In fact it can be taken as a crucial characteristic of the genre itself. But then, what about the films which have fantastic elements introduced amidst an otherwise relatable ‘real’ world?
Thus true depictions of the genre of fantasy in Indian especially Bengali Cinema will be films like Satyajit Ray’s 1969 film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne based on Upendra kishore Roychowdhury’s story; as well as its sequels Hirak Rajar Deshe and Goopy Bagha Phire Elo (Directed by Sandip Ray). All of these films take place in a self-contained fictional world (e.g. Shundi, Hirak Rajya or Anandagarh). Though of course the worlds presented in these films are appealing and relatable, which prompts one to argue that such world–building is a major component of the fantasy genre of films. Motiur Rahman Panu’s 1991 remake of the Bangladeshi film Beder Meye Jyotsna, Chitrasarathi’s 1978 version of the popular folk tale Saat Bhai Champa are also examples of films belonging wholly to the genre of fantasy. Almost all of these films owe their roots to folk stories. Similar to the high fantasy genre practised in the west with films like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
There is another crucial aspect of fantasy as a genre of films that merits discussion. It is the ability to portray certain themes through allegory or subtle referencing. For instance, the Magaj Dholai carried out at the Jantarmantar by the Diamond King in the film Hirak Rajar Deshe is too politically significant a statement for anyone to overlook its real world parallel (i.e. India’s scenario during the emergency). Such allusions abound in fantasy. This might also be the point where fantasy films in Bengali have a mark of their own.
It seems that the need to make a point discreetly through allegory is present in Bengali cinema. And apparently it is this need that drives filmmakers to use fantasy as an element in their films instead of making films in the genre itself; much like the abundant use of Magic Realism in Latin American fiction.
An interesting example in this light would be the film ‘Bhooter Bhabishyat’ directed by by Anik Dutta. It is a film where fantasy is used as an element. The film unlike Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne does not try to create a fantastic equivalent of the real world and then populate it with relatable characters. Rather the film introduces ghosts in an otherwise relatable mundane world. Do ghosts exist in the real world? One has to remain ambivalent. No one has been able to prove that they do and who is to say that they don’t. But even then the use of ghosts in a film is a definite recourse to fantasy. Bhooter Bhabishyat is brilliant in making a nuanced play whereby ghosts are equated with a collective past of the Bengali existence. Thus the ghosts themselves range from Zamindars and British officials to Naxalites or even silent film actresses. The unfolding narrative often shapes up like a social satire while mostly working as a comedy. Thus the fantasy acts as a device instead of an overarching vision embodied by the film.
Release of Utsav Mukherjee’s upcoming film Half Serious may be going through certain problems but it is evident that it is another film that uses fantasy for social satire. It is indeed an interesting moment in the development of Bengali cinema. One is inclined to wonder whether such short but communicative escapes into fantasy would become a trait common in the coming days. At the same time however, it seems all too justified to wish that a sweeping vision of a fantastic world unfamiliar but inviting would also grace the theatres of Bengal.