Most of us are very much aware of Bengali culture, but the culture also falls prey to many stereotypes. A lot of people I have come across tend to think that Bengali culture mostly consists of fish, Rabindrasangeet and a couple of Satyajit Ray films, as they seem to be the only things that have managed to permeate popular culture outside West Bengal, letting many other beautiful things disappear into oblivion. Like its movies.
Bengali movies have an extremely rich history. The history of cinema in Bengal dates back to the 1890’s when the first ‘bioscopes’ were shown in theatres in Calcutta. The first Bengali feature film was in fact produced as early as 1918. Before Satyajit Ray, directors like Ritwik Ghatak began a new trend of realistic cinema, charting a new form of film-making known as parallel cinema.
Over the years, cinema in Bengal has transitioned in many ways. Bengali films are known for their hard-hitting storylines, characters and dialogues. Some movies, over time, have etched themselves in the memories of many people as classics. These films cannot be forgotten and they constantly remind me, and I am sure, many others, of the beauty of story-telling. This list may not be exhaustive, but I have tried to compile a list of Bengali movies you should definitely watch. Because these movies can’t be missed!
Every Bengali’s childhood favourite definitely makes it to the top of this list. The story revolves around the life of Goopy Gyne, who wants to be a singer, but can’t sing. Persuaded by his fellow villagers to sing for the king, he is thrown out of the kingdom. Exiled into the forest, he meets Bagha Byne, who too has been made to leave his kingdom because he plays drums badly. They start singing and playing the drum to scare off a tiger in a forest, but their music intrigues ghosts. The leader of the ghosts grants them three boons, which are central to all their adventures in the three films. The first two movies in the series were made by Satyajit Ray, and the first one became the longest running movie in the history of Bengal, running for 51 straight weeks! Who can forget the classic song from the second movie, Hirak Rajar Deshe, “aha ki Ananda akashe batashe” and Rabi Ghosh enthusiastically playing the dhol?
India had its very own Sherlock, and he’s from West Bengal! It initially started as a series of novels written by Satyajit Ray. Remember Feluda’s address, 21 Rajani Sen road, Ballygunge, Kolkata?
Two of Feluda’s stories were made into films by Ray. It’s difficult to forget Soumitra Chatterjee’s fantastic portrayal of Feluda, and the equally lovable characters Topshe and Lalmohan Babu. Sonar Kella is by far the most memorable film of the series, shot in the beautiful locales of Rajasthan.
There is not enough that one can say about this series. Based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s 1929 novel, Pather Panchali traces the life of Apu, who lives in a village in West Bengal. His life constantly revolves around a changing India, industrialising at a pace difficult for farmers to cope with. Pather Panchali is described as a turning point in Indian cinema, as it pioneered the parallel cinema movement. Not only did it win the National Award in 1955, it also won an award at the Cannes film festival and was nominated for a Bafta. This series is also considered one of Satyajit Ray’s greatest. Also, who can forget little Apu’s love for his sister Durga and later for the young 16 year old Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar?
This film was written and directed by Ritwik Ghatak, and is based on a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru. The movie is based on the 1947 partition of Bengal and how the refugees coped with it. ‘Dada Ami Bachte Chai’ could still send chills down anybody’s spine, couldn’t it?
A movie that is featured in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made has to make it to this list! Ashani Sanket stars Soumitra Chatterjee and Bobita and is set in a village in Bengal during the Great famine of 1943 through the eyes of its lead character Gangacharan and his wife. The film is a classic because it portrays the huge scale of the famine, which killed 5 million people in Bengal. (Also, it’s based on a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay – how can we forget him?)
This movie is a classic, and a visual treat, primarily because of its strong storyline. A film crew arrives in West Bengal in 1980 to recreate the scene of the Bengal famine of 1943. But then, the past and present confront each other, adding a further dimension of time – the future! Smita Patil made her debut in this Mrinal Sen classic.
Not mentioning Uttam Kumar in this list will betray the entire Bengali film industry. This was the first film in which Bengali film industry stalwart Uttam Kumar worked with Satyajit Ray. Satyajit Ray famously said in an interview, “If it’s Nayak (Hero), it has to be Uttam Kumar. No one else can play the character except him.” The film’s story is about a famous actor who reveals his life’s insecurities to a young journalist, on a 24 hour train journey from Calcutta to New Delhi, where he is going to receive a national award.
Not mentioning Suchitra Sen will betray this entire list altogether. Harano Sur is remembered by many because of the famous pairing of Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar (unknown to many, Suchitra Sen is the grandmother of actors Raima and Ria Sen). Uttam Kumar becomes an amnesiac after a train accident and meets Suchitra Sen, a doctor. They fall in love and get married, but soon Uttam Kumar has another accident and recovers his lost memory. He goes back to his old life, leaving Suchitra Sen looking for her husband. She goes to Calcutta to get him back, but he is unable to recognize her. Intriguing storyline, right? The ending is even better.
A Bangladeshi movie, but it’s a must-watch for every fan of Bengali cinema. The film is completely in Bangal language, and portrays the pain of people during the Bangladesh Liberation war. It was also Bangladesh’s first movie to be shortlisted for the 2002 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.
637 letters, 4 phone calls, 17 years of marriage, but they still haven’t met – what can be a more beautiful love story? Aparna Sen, one of the most successful directors of modern day Bengali cinema, who won the National award for her movie, 36 Chowringhee Lane, directed this film, which was a critical success. The movie revolves around the life of Rahul Bose, who marries his Japanese pen friend, but never meets her in his lifetime. Who can forget the last gut-wrenching scene of the film?
Based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore of the same name, Choker Bali is Rituparno Ghosh’s most controversial and critically acclaimed film. The film stars Prosenjit Chatterjee and Aishwarya Rai. The story is of a widow who has an affair with a married man.
Antaheen is one of modern Bengali cinema’s best movies, starring Rahul Bose and Radhika Apte in lead roles. The movie is a critique of modern society, where some relationships are broken beyond repair and some relations are never meant to be, as they are just bonds created over the internet. Three parallel stories run throughout the movie, with the principal protagonists meeting the other characters throughout the movie. Antaheen went on to win the National Award for Best Film in 2009.
If you are a fan of black comedy, then Bhooter Bhabishyat is the right film for you. It is based on the lives of ghosts who live in an old, dilapidated house and portrays their dilemma in the face of capitalism, where many people want to take down the house and make the ghosts homeless for commercial purposes. The film stars ‘Kahani’ actor Parambrata Chatterjee in the lead role and also stars magician PC Sorcar’s granddaughter!
Charulata is a 1964 Satyajit Ray movie, based on the novel Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) by Tagore. Madhabi Mukherjee stars as Charulata, a wife of a wealthy man, who leads an extremely secluded life in 1870’s Bengal. Her husband notices that she is lonely and requests his brother Amal to keep her company. Charulata soon begins to develop a deep sexual attraction towards Amal, much to his dismay. The storyline of the film is known for its ‘western characters’, and for Madhabi Mukherjee’s famous gaze, as she looks at Amal.
Kabuliwala is a famous novel by Tagore, based on the life of a dry fruit seller from Afghanistan and his relationship with a little child in Kolkata. This 1957 film was directed by Tapan Sinha and was also remade in Hindi with Balraj Sahni.