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The television crews waiting in the lobby of PVR Pictures’ corporate office in Lokhandwala have a common refrain. It’s a sticky, late April day in Mumbai and they’ve been there for close to 2 hours—mollified by a steady supply of tea in paper cups—to meet Prosenjit Chatterjee.

“He doesn’t speak Hindi!"

Gasps, shrieks.

“Yaar, what were his last few Hindi films?"

None. Nothing in the last 20 years.

“Why is he playing the lead in Shanghai?"

Yami Gautam in a wedding scene from Vicky Donor, where she plays a Bengali girl.

Prosenjit, 49, could best be described as the Salman Khan of the commercial Bengali film industry or “Tollywood". At the start of his career, he’d famously—or foolishly—turned down both Maine Pyar Kiya and Saajan, films that Khan eventually made his bones in, to focus on his Tollywood projects. The estranged son of actor Biswajeet, he’s made a career playing macho, save-the-world roles, which continue to be his mainstay: Next Friday (25 May), he will appear in and as Bikram Singha, the Bengali adaptation of Rowdy Rathore.

Having Prosenjit in Shanghai is a minor casting coup for Banerjee. He plays a pivotal role—a charismatic social activist called Dr Ahmadi who meets with an accident while delivering a speech. This forms the crux of the thriller.

“One of the biggest problems in casting a star is that the character takes a back seat," says Banerjee. “I wanted someone who’d be new to Hindi film audiences but someone who had star charisma…it comes from facing the camera for so long."

Getting Prosenjit on board wasn’t easy. “It took three months for him to finally agree," says Banerjee. Dr Ahmadi is a man who rouses people with speech. “His strength lies in his oratory prowess. I shoot live with sync sound and Prosenjit was wary of his grip on the language," he explains.

New arrivals: (from top, left) Ayushmann Khurrana in Vicky Donor; Kay Kay Menon and Rituparna Sengupta in a still from Benoy Badal Dennis; Swastika Mukherjee (foreground) plays the ghost of a yesteryear actor in Bhooter Bhobhishyot; Vidya Balan and Parambrata Chatterjee in Kahaani; and Prosenjit Chatterjee. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint and Imaging by Sandipan Das/Mint.

Shanghai will decide what lies in store for him in his second innings outside Bengal (he did a couple of Hindi films in 1990 and 1991). For now, he is still a newcomer here, making do with the room at the back. Interactions with the film’s other stars were scheduled the next day at Sun-n-Sand hotel in Juhu—a site for the more conventional Bollywood bytes.

Prosenjit isn’t Tollywood’s only export this summer. After a month of playing to packed theatres across West Bengal, debutant director Anik Dutta’s film Bhooter Bhobishyot (the future of ghosts), a satirical comedy, released in four screens in Mumbai multiplexes on 27 April—two more were added last week. Bhooter Bhobishyot has made more money than any other Bengali language film in the past decade. Produced on a 1.5 crore budget, it is expected to gross 5 crore by the end of this month (Rs 2 crore makes for the average Tollywood box-office hit). In June, it will release in multiplexes in Delhi, Bangalore and Pune—the widest distribution for a Bengali film in recent history.

Angling off the predicament of a motley crew of resident ghosts of an abandoned bungalow, Bhooter Bhobishyot attempts to highlight urban displacement. Parambrata Chatterjee—more widely known as “Rana", the infatuated young cop from Kahaani—plays a young film-maker who’s attempting to film in that bungalow. The movie packs in several clichés: Parambrata is a bespectacled, Left-leaning intellectual who makes stray comments on Russian literature, and the ghosts must make a daily trip to the fish market. But the treatment is surprisingly frothy, nothing like what Parambrata calls “the slow trolley films"—an image that’s plagued Bengal’s arthouse for decades.

Bhooter Bhobishyot embodies the staggering change that Tollywood has been priming itself for over the last six or seven years, regaining the favour of intelligent audiences back home and in other parts of India.

The other, more far-reaching change is that Bollywood producers, directors and screenwriters are making room for fish markets and characters who will compulsively pronounce “V" as “B": the Bengali.

This is indicative of a bigger trend that calls for cultural detailing to tell stories. Film-makers such as Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj took viewers to Rajasthan (Gulaal) and the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh (Omkara; though it was shot in a village in Maharashtra). A clutch of young, adventurous directors in Bollywood, mostly Bengalis themselves, is using this opportunity to introduce Bengali culture and the city of Kolkata to mainstream audiences.

Counterculture: (from top) Sujoy Ghosh with a poster of Kahaani; Shoojit Sircar and Dibakar Banerjee. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

The new storytellers

Kahaani has finished 50 days and crossed the 100 crore mark—a milestone for a 8 crore film—the day I meet Ghosh, the film’s director, co-writer and co-producer. In his Bandra studio, flanked by a poster of Kahaani and a photograph of Satyajit Ray, Ghosh is a smug man. “The rulebook has ceased to exist," he says.

A movie with no lip-synched songs, no “heroes", a pregnant woman as the lead—Kahaani takes big leaps. And when was the last time you saw a Hindi movie entirely set in Kolkata? There was Mani Ratnam’s Yuva in 2004, but little else in recent film history.

Kahaani’s Kolkata is an antiquated but spectacular place. It’s filled with stodgy, middle-aged men. Here, the protagonist Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan) will always be “Bidya". Shot in the city during Durga Puja, in the brief window of time when the Howrah Bridge is lit up, the film presents the city’s best face.

Otherwise based in Mumbai, Ghosh wrote Kahaani in Kolkata, living in the hotel opposite Monalisa Guest House on Sarat Bose Road in south Kolkata, which is where Vidya Bagchi stays in the film. “I wanted to draw people into a convincing world. Whether it’s Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Almodovar’s Spain, it helps to layer the world you’re setting your story in," says Ghosh. In Kahaani, there was a genuine effort to “get" Kolkata. “Once you create a world that is convincing enough, it is bound to appeal to audiences no matter where they are," says Ghosh, adding that the film has had successful runs in unconventional centres such as Chennai as well as seven international markets. He has recently sold the rights for a remake in Tamil and Telugu; and to YRF Entertainment for their first English language production.

“Those ‘Neverland’ characters we had through the 1980s and 1990s—the generic ones without any roots—they’ve been booted out," says Banerjee. “The lifelike portrayal of another culture, another people, is always left to storytellers who’ve come from the outside."

Like Banerjee, Shoojit Sircar is a Bengali brought up in New Delhi. He comes from a background in ad film-making. His film Vicky Donor, actor John Abraham’s first home production, has its Punjabi hero Vicky (Ayushmann Khurrana) falling in love with Ashima Roy, a reclusive Bengali girl (Yami Gautam) who lives in Delhi’s Bengali colony, Chittaranjan Park. While stereotypes abound, they’re possibly a change for an audience bored with the Bollywood stock characters of the helpful Sikh taxi driver or the idli-eating “Madrasi". Sircar’s Ashima is accomplished and beautiful, she wears muted colours and is prone to breaking into a Tagore song while being driven around in her boyfriend’s car. When Vicky and Ashima decide to get married, their families engage in a hilarious duel to dominate the wedding rituals.

“We wanted a love story with some hurdles to complement the central theme," says Sircar. “We ended up getting more feedback for the characters we created than the issue of sperm donation," he adds. Released in April during the Indian Premier League cricket tournament, with little invested in publicity, Vicky Donor’s success has been a box-office windfall.

The film also features an elaborate Bengali wedding sequence complete with the bride veiling her face with betel leaves and the cumbersome white reed headgear for bride and groom.

“That’s one thing I’ve learnt from advertising—detailing. In an ad film, we have to establish characters in under 2 minutes. Clothes, props, geographic cues, they all become important," says Sircar. Television actor Gautam says she watched Konkona Sen Sharma’s films to prepare for her character. “Sir (Sircar) made me watch films starring Konkona and other Bengali actresses to understand their body language," she says. Apparently, Sircar also told her to behave “a little condescending".

Borrowing from Bengal

“We’re like the French. We’re snooty about our views on culture and cinema," says 32-year-old Parambrata, a familiar face in the new guard of Bengali cinema by directors such as Anjan Dutta, Srijit Mukherji and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury.

“Look, I can’t play a brawny Dev or Jeet—it’s not for me," says Parambrata. “After Kahaani, I’m being offered roles in Hindi films and I realize there’s room here for actors like me."

In Mumbai to promote Bhooter Bhobishyot, Parambrata had several meetings with talent management agencies and producers lined up. “I’m considering doing more Hindi films but I won’t shift my base," he says. “There’s no need to any more. There’s so much give and take."

Tollywood actor Paoli Dam, with a range that spans from the crass commercial to Goutam Ghose’s critically acclaimed Moner Manush (2010), also made the crossover with her first Hindi film, Hate Story, which released last month. While the movie sold graphic sex and vengeance on its posters and wasn’t the ideal launch vehicle, the important thing is that Dam got her ride.

Bengali actors are finding more work in Bollywood also because the nature of the film industry is changing to accommodate a wider range. There is talk of the stalwart Soumitra Chatterjee, 77, who was recently awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest honour in cinema, starring in a Hindi film.

Sircar, who produced a Bengali film called Aparajita Tumi (2011), which featured Soumitra, says they’re trying to get him on board for a Hindi project. Sircar is also in the process of signing on “a Tollywood superstar" for his next Hindi film Jaffna, a film on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) set in Sri Lanka. John Abraham will act in and produce this film—scheduled for an early 2014 release.

Parambrata, grandson of filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, believes this intermingling of the two film industries comes from an increased confidence back home. “For a long time, all that Tollywood was doing was copying formulas. These films alienated the Bengali middle class," he says. The newly forged success story of the Bengali film industry comes from a middle ground between the auteur-driven tradition of Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, and these action films made for the mofussil market.

“These (new) films might not fill an 800-seat theatre. But they’re thriving with the multiplex culture even outside of Bengal—the market is segmented enough to fill a 300-seater," says Soumu Ganguly, co-producer, Bhooter Bhobishyot.

With a 25-year reign over the Tollywood box office, Prosenjit has doubled up as a mentor for young directors by slashing his fees for recent films such as Autograph (2010) and Baishe Srabon (2011), allowing him to exercise his acting muscle with challenging roles and simultaneously giving the films some market credibility. Now, with a host of festival favourites under his belt, the actor is planning a film festival in multiplexes across the country later this year.

After his success with Bhooter Bhobishyot, Ganguly is preparing for the release of Benoy Badal Dennis, a Hindi film directed by Anjan Dutt, in late August. A 9 crore film which will release in 350 screens across India, it stars Kay Kay Menon, Jimmy Shergill, Naseeruddin Shah and Sonali Kulkarni alongside Bengali actors such as Rituparna Sengupta. Shot entirely in Kolkata, Ganguly says its production and distribution follows “the Kahaani template".

Even Banerjee, who’s made a signature out of making quintessentially Delhi films so far, is setting his next film, a detective mystery, in Kolkata. But he is quick to assert that being Bengali has nothing to do with it. “I was born and brought up in Delhi and I speak Punjabi and Haryanvi as fluently as I do Bengali," says Banerjee. “I don’t wear my ‘Bongness’ as a badge. I find that a mundane sort of cultural chauvinism."

Indeed, the line spanning cultural nuance and chauvinism is a fine one. In Vicky Donor, Vicky and Ashima initiate an online chat by playfully calling each other names: “Fish" and “Butter Chicken". Will this new clutch of Bengali film-makers engage in similar parochial battles?

The Bengalis were dominant in the film industry before the Punjabis, points out film scholar Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. “Calcutta’s New Theatres made Hindi films—those starring K.L. Saigal and Prithviraj Kapoor. Bombay Talkies had a large number of Bengalis in the 1930s—Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani, Gyan Mukherjee, Ashok Kumar," says Dwyer. More Bengalis moved to Bombay after 1947, including Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who set many films in Kolkata and drew on the city’s atmosphere. Dwyer evokes Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, which was set against the backdrop of the Bengal famine. Kolkata was also the setting for Guru Dutt’s (who had lived in Kolkata) Pyaasa.

But when Bengali old-time directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee made their masterpieces in the 1960s and 1970s—Golmaal, Chupke Chupke, Anand, Abhimaan, Rajnigandha, Khoobsurat—the economics of the movie business mandated that they make movies that would appeal to India as a whole.

Mukherjee did frequently evoke the Bengali bhadralok in memorable characters like Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhaskar Banerjee, a doctor whom Anand (Rajesh Khanna) endearingly referred to as “Babumoshai", a Bengali term for the genteel. In Chupke Chupke (1975), Bachchan played the shy-faced Sukumar Sinha, a professor of English literature. Always a foil to the more lively, exuberant protagonist, Mukherjee’s Bengali was a stand-in for sobriety; a surrogate figure. Babumoshai’s cultural identity was coded in his straight-laced manners and white kurta-pyjamas. It was never the feature of the film itself.

Film-makers of that era also borrowed from Bengal in more covert ways: S.D Burman often made parallel tracks in Hindi and Bengali. Chupke Chupke was a remake of a hit Bengali film, Chhadmabeshi, starring Uttam Kumar, which released in 1971.

But the Bengali is out of the closet now.

Early trailers for Benoy Badal Dennis show Kay Kay Menon, who plays a policeman in Kolkata, bringing home a big fish on a string for his wife and son. He smiles joyously as he shows it off. Will the Bollywood banquet make room for shorshe ilish?

***************************

SECOND RENAISSANCE

A decade in films that brought Bengal to the centre stage.

Devdas (2002)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movie version of the 1917 Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novella took audiences to period Bengal. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s puffed sari blouses left a lasting influence on women’s fashion. The film’s costume designers (Reza Shariffi, Neeta Lulla, Abu Jani, Sandeep Khosla) won a National Award for their work.

Yuva (2004)

A film by Mani Ratnam in the “hyperlink" format, ‘Yuva’ had the lives of three young men from different stratas of society connect by one fateful incident on Kolkata’s Howrah Bridge. Originally titled ‘Howrah Bridge’, the film showed three distinct faces of Kolkata without overtones of sentimentality.

Parineeta (2005)

Another film based on a novella by Chattopadhyay, ‘Parineeta’ cast Bengali actors (Sabyasachi Chakraborty played Saif Ali Khan’s father) and alluded to “Calcutta" hot spots such as Flury’s, Trincas and Moulin Rouge.

The Namesake (2006)

Mira Nair’s English-language film based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed novel follows the life of a second-generation Bengali immigrant in the US. Parts of the film were shot in Kolkata.

Kaminey (2009)

Vishal Bhardwaj’s heist film featured three Bengali goon brothers. Chandan Roy Sanyal starred as the youngest brother, Mikhail, who is close friends with one of the film’s protagonists, Charlie (Shahid Kapoor).

Kahaani (March 2012)

Filmed in Kolkata with the city’s ecosystems ingrained into the storyline, ‘Kahaani’ reintroduced West Bengal’s capital as a viable cinematic backdrop. The film introduced two Tollywood actors—Parambrata Chatterjee (as Rana) and Saswata Chatterjee (as Bob Biswas)—to the Hindi film industry. It also featured a patriotic song by Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Ekla cholo re’ (sung by Amitabh Bachchan).

Vicky Donor (April 2012)

Yami Gautam plays a Bengali girl called Ashima Roy, whose family stays in Chittaranjan Park, a Bengali colony in south Delhi. A full-blown Bengali wedding sequence is part of the film. A Tagore song makes a fleeting appearance.

Shanghai (June 2012)Dibakar Banerjee’s forthcoming film will mark the return of Tollywood superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee to Hindi cinema. Chatterjee stars in a pivotal role as the charismatic social activist Dr Ahmadi.

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