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A master whose films brought ordinary lives in Bengal to the fore

Tarun Majumdar is perhaps, one of the best filmmakers who treated everyone on the assumption that he was ordinary himself, which, of course, he was not, says Shoma A. Chatterji, who traces his life and times

In 2004, I happened to attend the press screening of Tarun Majumdar’s short-film Rangamatir Path (The Road of Red Earth), which he had jointly directed with Gautam Haldar. The film introduced Majumdar as a sort of spokesperson (unwitting?) for the policies of the state government in rural development and all-round growth. The film was produced by the West Bengal State Committee of the Communist (Marxist) Party of India. This was the first time for Tarun Majumdar to step into the fragile world of direct political propaganda.

For his entire life, Majumdar was committed to the Communist Party of India, so perhaps he was emotionally coerced into making the film. But he never made that kind of film again because, as a filmmaker, he did not allow his political ideology to step into his films which offered wholesome family entertainment that targeted mass audiences. Not only was the film perpetuating the wrong kind of messages, such as Santhali women in Bolpur speaking impeccable English, but it was also a badly made film which did not carry the Tarun Majumdar stamp.

Majumdar graduated from Scottish Church College and got involved in watching the best films across the festival circuit such as films made by Roberto Rossellini and other European filmmakers and also took in films made by Bengali directors ranging from Pramathesh Barua to Nitin Bose to Debaki Bose and so on. His film education was rooted in watching films, including black-and-white classics made by Bimal Roy and others. He was a voracious reader, which led to some of the finest Bengali films inspired or adapted from literature, drawn from authors like Tarasankar Bandopadhyay, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Subodh Ghosh and Bonophool.

Majumdar was a studio assistant with Kanan Devi’s production unit and when he decided to make films himself. He got his friends, Dilip Mukherjee and Sachin Mukherjee, to form Yatrik and began making meaningful films in Bengali.  The first film under the Yatrik banner was Chaoa Paoa(1959) starring the famous pair of Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar. Though Majumdar steered away from big stars from his third film, he said that working with the top pair of Bengali cinema was something he would never forget as they were extremely cooperative with a total newcomer and he even learnt a few things from them.

Their second film was Smritituku Thaak (1960) in which Suchitra Sen played a double role. In their third film, Kaancher Swargo, (1962) he persuaded his partner Dilip Mukherjee to portray the protagonist. They then made their last film together called Palatak(1963), which was a thumping box-office hit and had a beautiful story woven in with a lot of folk songs and kobi-gaans. The film brought out two important qualities in Tarun Majumdar – one, that he had a deep sense of music which he used liberally yet appropriately in his films and two, he drew an outstanding performance from Anup Kumar who till then, was typed in comic roles. Majumdar went independent with his fifth film Alor Pipasha (1965).

Alongside another great master Tapan Sinha, it was Majumdar who went on to live his credo of proving that a good film and a commercially successful film are not two different entities and the two can and should go together.  Sadly, the two prints of his two outstanding films, Palatak and Sansar Seemantey,were lost to time but Palatak seems to have been restored. Among his famous films are Balika Badhu, Nimantran, Kuheli, Sreeman Prithviraj, Thogini, Fuleswari, Ganadevata, Dadar Keerti, Bhalobasha Bhalobasha and Amargeeti.

Majumdar’s films focussed on the marginalised and projected a distinctly Bengali identity filled with beautiful music, mainly drawn from the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore. His personal favourite was Balika Badhu, which introduced Moushumi Chatterjee as the child-bride when she was 14. The other actors he introduced to cinema are Tapas Pal, Ayan Banerjee, Partho Mukherjee and Debasree Roy who stepped into his film Kuhelias a four-year-old. He drew the best out of Sandhya Roy who literally bloomed as a brilliant actress under his direction in 20 films. He later married her but they later separated but kept in touch.

Alo, released in 2003, marked the comeback of Majumdar after a long sabbatical during which he did some telefilms, none of which could put the small screen on fire. The last film he had directed before was Aranyer Adhikar released in 1997. However, though Alo was one of the biggest commercial hits of the year in Bengali cinema, the film, made in colour with lavish production values and some wonderful music, lacked the magic touch of the old master.  He made some more films, but the magic was missing but as they were big hits, the producers did not bother. His films bagged four National Awards, several state awards, two Lifetime Achievement Awards and he was bestowed the Padma Shree in 1990.

Majumdar also wrote a two-volume autobiography named Cinema Padaye (In the neighbourhood of cinema) and a book called Baatil Script (Throwaway Scripts).

July – September 2022