Once, film directors from Bengal were revered for cinema made in the Hindi language for nationwide viewing. They brought an incalculable deg-ree of social purpose, plus sense and sensibility in a business dominated by escapist fantasies. Flash-back to the 1950s, and the works of Bimal Roy, Hri-shikesh Mukherjee and Amiya Chakraborty assert that they have contributed immeasurably to the decade, justly recognised as the golden age of Indian cinema.
In the subsequent decades, Basu Chatterjee, Asit Sen and Basu Bhat-tacharya continued the tradition of confecting entertainers limned with purposeful sub-texts — be it about urban pressures faced by the incipient middle class, medical ethics or the lack of them, and brittle marital relationships
It may be asked — why should that be exclusive to Bengal? Answer: Com-pared to the bulk of the strident, largely implausible Mumbai-produced cinema of the times, films made by the migrant Bengali directors were certainly way above the commonplace. Uncannily, the Hindi language, which they weren’t ever completely fluent with, posed no problems.
One director of Bengali origins, however, appears to have gone through the cracks of Bollywood history. That’s Anil Ganguly whose films often pop up, if at all, in relation to strong acting performances, but the man himself has faded into obscurity. Today, websites are crammed with far more information about his daughter — Rupali, a TV series regular — than with Ganguly, who incidentally happened to be the first “man in white”, clad in spotless vanilla clothes, before Abbas-Mustan pluralised the title of sorts.
I had met Ganguly for an interview at his chaotic house in central Mumbai, two days after the release of Humkadam (1980). Cha-otic because three knee-high kids were bouncing all over the sofas, dislodging the chairs, abetted by a couple of yelping Cocker Spaniels. The film had received complimentary reviews but the sale of tickets was dismal. On the phone, he was being assured by the film’s leading lady, Raakhee Gulzar, that the collections would pick up (they didn’t). Meanwhile the kids were about to break a lampshade, but the director beamed, “children will be children”.
That spirit of tolerance, in fact, suffused his career-best films, Kora Kagaz (1974) and Tapasya (1976). He placed the woman at the centrespot, which is why it is curious that his name never comes up when gender-equality in Mumbai’s cinema comes under discussion.
Although the professor is rational and pragmatic, the woman is compelled to quit marriage. The characterisation of the male lead as well as the performance by the unusually cast Vijay Anand, came off as subservient to the emotionally bruised housewife. Adapted from a story by Ashutosh Mukopadhyay, here was a sensitive adaptation of the Bengali film, Saat Pake Bandha, observantly directed and enhanced by an evocative title song rendered by Kishore Kumar.
The archetypal heroic woman, sacrificing love and marriage for the sake of her dependent family, was tackled in Tapasya. An unapologetic tear-jerker produced by Rajshri Pictures, its plotline adapted from a story by Ashapurna Devi ensured that there wasn’t a single dry eye in the auditorium, while watching Raakhee endure the selfishness and unending needs of her family.
To return to Humkadam, Ganguly retreaded Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, in which a shy housewife steps out to become the family’s breadwinner, only to be grudged and taunted when she succeeds in keeping the home and hearth together. It was nowhere remotely in the class of the Ray masterpiece, of course, but wasn’t dismissable either.
Another film by the director, Aanchal (1980), sought to discuss the subject of a woman suspected of infidelity with her brother-in-law. With Rajesh Khanna in the lead, at the acme of his popularity, the outcome second-graded the woman. Quite clearly, Ganguly was best at directing women to the extent of glorifying them. Indeed when he sought to fit into the commercial groove with films toplining Jeetendra or Dharmendra, they lacked his sensitivity.
Last heard of for the Bengali film Kiye Para Kiye Najara (1998), Anil Ganguly faded out. Today, Dibakar Banerji, Shoojit Sircar and Sujoy Ghosh do reflect flashes of the Bengali ethos. What they don’t share are common sensibilities like Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukher-jee and Amiya Chakra-borty did. Anil Ganguly’s place — small but significant — in Indian cinema has been overlooked. Strange that. At least, the actresses whom he gave their finest roles, too, on some platform or the other could remember the director, once more with feeling.