Cine-lovers’ heart swells with pride when Amitabh Bachchan, in his speeches at Kolkata International Film Festival year after year, talks about Kolkata’s robust contribution to Indian cinema. Bachchan’s analysis is neither limited to the global impact of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’, Mrinal Sen ‘Kharij’ or Ritwik Ghatak ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’, nor does it merely point out how Bengal’s talent pool of actors—Biswajit, Ashok Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Uttam Kumar, Dhritiman Chaterji, Victor Banerjee, Geeta Dutt, Moushumi Chatterjee, Jaya Bachchan, Sharmila Tagore, Rakhee and Suchitra Sen—made yesteryear’s Hindi cinema even richer. It offers an analysis of how Kolkata has always been an epicentre for cinema.

The nature of Bengal’s contribution to Indian cinema has changed, but it would not be unfair to suggest that Kolkata still plays an important role. Veteran film-maker Goutam Ghose believes Kolkata being the capital city of colonial India was a big reason for its importance in the film world. “Investors came here from all over. Even the Madans had migrated to Kolkata and flourished. Bengali cinema had a huge market and some films would release even in Lahore,” he said.
Kolkata can be credited with being the city of many firsts. Photographer-turned-director Hiralal Sen made India’s first ad films and quite possibly India’s first political film. Sound designer Mukul Bose, with Bani Dutta, invented India’s first playback machine at New Theatres studio on Chandi Ghosh Road. Nitin Bose’s ‘Bhagya Chakra’ was the first Indian film to use playback singing in 1935. Remade in Hindi as ‘Dhoop Chhaon’, it became the first Hindi film to use playback singing.

New Theatres was the launchpad of some of India’s early stars, directors, composers and singers. On its payroll were the likes of Prithviraj Kapoor, Pramathesh Barua and K L Saigal. Bimal Roy started his career from Kolkata’s New Theatres, as did Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
Kolkata was also the address of some of oldestfilm studios, including East India Studio on Moore Avenue, Aurora Studio, Bharat Lakshmi Studio, Indrapuri Studio and Bengal National Studio. “Even Tamil and Telugu directors came here. They would arrive only with their scriptwriters and shoot at Aurora Studios,” Ghose said.
Devaki Bose’s Hindi film, ‘Seeta’, starring Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote, was shot in East India Studio. It won an honorary diploma at Venice Film Festival in 1934, the first global award for an Indian film.

In the late ’40s, Hindi films, like ‘Ek Aurat’, ‘Lottery’ and ‘Nayi Bhabi’, were shot at Bengal National Studio in Baranagar. The owner, S D Narang, had migrated here from Lahore before shifting to Mumbai. During a shoot, Narang met his life partner, Smritilekha Biswas, who later worked with Guru Dutt, V Shantaram, Bimal Roy, B R Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Kishore Kumar in Mumbai.

One of the earliest woman directors/producers of Indian cinema was also from Kolkata. Actor Protima Dasgupta, who studied in Santiniketan, made her debut in Naresh Mitra’s adaptation of ‘Gora’. In Mumbai, she directed three Hindi films, the first one being ‘Chhamia’ (1945), starring Begum Para and David.

In the ’50s, international legends came here toshoot. Jean Renoir shot his American Technicolor drama romance, ‘The River’, (1951) at Eastern Talkie Studio in Dakshineswar. Ray was still in the advertising industry when he met Renoir.
The situation changed postPartition. Bengal lost its big market, other industries started coming up. The studio system collapsed. New Theatres’s closure nudged everyone towards Mumbai. Nitin Bose and Bimal Roy to Ritwik Ghatak and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, everyone left for Mumbai. The Hindi playback industry saw a huge exodus, right from the time of Hemanta Mukherjee, Kishore Kumar and S D Burman to Pritam and Arijit Singh. “Bengali authors and directors supplied Hindi content. Bengali music directors supplied great Hindi songs. Hrishkesh, Hemanta, Salil Chowdhury, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. . . the list is endless. Superhit Bengali films as well as songs were remade in Hindi,” said actor-director Anjan Dutt.

The cross-pollination between Kolkata and Mumbai is revived now. More Bengali characters and even actors surface in Hindi films. Churni Ganguly and Tota Roychowdhury are now part of Karan Johar’s latest, ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani’. “Now, viewers are aware of the difference in which a Bengali from Delhi and one fromKolkata will speak. Directors insist on authenticity and want to cast actors from Kolkata if the character so demands,” Tota said.
That explains why Anirban Bhattacharya was cast opposite Rani Mukherji in ‘Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway’. Casting directors in Mumbai now have an eye for Rituparna Sengupta, Dibyendu Mukherjee, Rajesh Sharma, Saswata Chattopadhyay and Paoli Dam. Directors Srijit Mukherji and Aniruddha Roychowdhury are straddling both Tollywood and Bollywood with elan.

The advent of OTT has boosted the trend. Jisshu Sengupta teamed up with Kajol in ‘The Trial’, while Parambrata Chatterjee paired with Raveena Tandon in ‘Aranyak’. Prosenjit Chatterjee won hearts in ‘Jubilee’ and ‘Scoop’. Swastika Mukherjee is now a regular face in Hindi web series. “OTT has opened space for varied content and characters. In Bengal, we have had to polish our craft within limited resources,” Parambrata said.
But not all the action is concentrated in Mumbai. Documentaries made by Kolkatans, like Supriyo Sen, Sourav Sarangi, Arvind Sinha, Ranjan Palit and Ranu Ghosh, have won international laurels. There is a recognition of feature films by contemporary directors from Kolkata at international festivals. ‘Guras’, a feature film by SRFTI alumnus Saurav Rai from Darjeeling, won an award at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this year.
Kolkata was back to “being rediscovered as a highly interesting location and a milieu for exciting Hindi stories, films or OTT”, said Dutt. “Howrah bridge, Kumartuli, tram, Chandpal ghat, old mansions, Durga Puja are becoming ‘in’,” he said.

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