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A bunch of new production houses and young artistes are changing the face of the Bengali movie industry

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Parivartan might be favourite buzzword in the political circles of West Bengal, but it can equally describe the face of the movie industry in the state. Referred to in the popular press as Tollywood — from Tollygunge, in south Kolkata, where the majority of the film studios of the city are located — the Bengali film industry today is a far cry from the one that was once synonymous with parallel cinema in the country, one which produced legends like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Bimal Roy and Ritwik Ghatak.

Fast moving story lines, glossy overseas locations, swift action sequences, dialogues that pack a working overtime to revive the golden age of Bengali cinema.punch-that is new age Bengali cinema for you. The result of efforts by a bunch of new-age and movie makers who are

“We are changing with the times,” says Arijit Dutta, actor, film distributor and owner of Priya Cinema, a theatre located in south Kolkata. “Now, the trend is to produce urban cinema and remake blockbusters from the south, much like what is happening in (Mumbai film industry) for some time. That is the kind of cinema from the stable of production houses such as Shree Venkatesh Films, Surinder Films and Eskaay that has revived the industry from a financial slump.”

UP, UP AND AWAY
Year

 No. of movies made 

2011 More than 100*
2010 110
2009 84
2008 66
2007 44
2006 42
Source: CBFC & Industry reports                     (* Estimated)

Remember the industry has faced many crisis beginning with the partition when a large part of the market was lost to Bangladesh. “Many master technicians and artistes like and relocated to Bombay,” says film director Goutam Ghose. If the on-screen chemistry between Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen drew the audience back to the theatres-the popular lead pair gave some 30 hit movies between 1945 and 1975 including classics like Saptapadi, Harano sur, Pothe holo deri, Share chuattor — it was with the advent of Doordarshan in 1975 that changed the scenario at Tollygunge. By 1980, with television sets creeping into the drawing rooms of most middle-class Bengali households, cinema halls began wearing a desolate look. “The lack of marketing and growing competition from the Hindi film industry worsened the crisis,” says Ghose. “When I was shooting for Paar (a 1984 Hindi movie), the technician studio in Tollygunge was completely deserted.”

Film maker says that the death of Uttam Kumar was a big blow to the industry. “Directors like Anjan Chowdhury, Sujit Guha, Biresh Chatterjee did carry forward the mantel with scripts that were based on contemporary issues,” he says. His films like Shwet Patharer Thala (1992), which took up the issue of widow remarriage, and Lathi (1996) that upheld the virtues of the joint family system, were both commercially successful and critically acclaimed. Simultaneously, a section of the directors were choosing to remake successful Tamil and Telugu movies in Bengali. “The south Indian movies had some larger than life elements which were hitherto not served to the Bengali audience and some of the movies clicked in the box office,” says Ghose.

Before this could become a full-blown trend directors like Aparna Sen, Rituparna Ghosh band Gautam Ghosh stepped in and took up the cause of serious movie making in right earnest. “We were able to retain the admirers of Ray, Ghatak and Majumder with strong content,” says Ghose.

Changing times
The very next phase was completely different in that it was a blend a whole lot of elements from earlier genres — from commercial movies to art house cinema and everything in between.

While remakes like the 2011 hit Paglu (directed by Rajib Biswas, it’s a remake of Telugu movie Devadasu) and Shotru (a remake of Tamil film Singham, the 2011 Bengali action film was directed by Raj Chakraborty) broke many box office records. Experimental flicks like Baishe Shrabon, Autograph, Moner Manush, Abhohoman, Anuranan, The Japanese Wife and Shukno Lanka walked the taut tightrope between box office and critical fame with dexterity.

“In last few years, the budget of movies have increased from Rs 75 lakh-Rs 1 crore to Rs 3-Rs 5 crore. Now, for a popular Bengali movie overseas locations are a must. We are remaking many south Indian movies like Bollywood houses are doing because they lower the risk of failure as we are following an already hit formula,” says Surinder Singh, president of Eastern India Motion Pictures Association (EIMPA), and the founder Surinder Films, which produced Paglu. EIMPA has more than 500 production houses as registered members.

While senior actors like Mithun Chakraborty and Prosenjit Chatterjee continue to shoulder much of the burden, fresh faces like Dev (Deepak Adhikari), Jeet (Jeetendra Madnani), Koel Mullick, Priyanka Sarkar, Arunoday Banerjee, Hiron, Shoham and Srabonti count among the A-list stars in the region.

The revival is also evident in the number of movies made in the state every year. From just 42 films made in 2006, the number of movies has increased to 110 in 2010, according to the Central Board of Film Certification. “The number of films made in 2011 is upwards of 100, though only 77 are registered with EIMPA. This success has prompted Bollywood production houses to venture into Tollywood, but for various reasons, they are yet to make a mark,” EIMPA’s Singh adds. Corporate houses like Zee Motion Pictures, Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group’s Big Pictures, RP Sanjiv Goenka group firm Saregama, SPS Group, Rose Valley group and Mumbai Mantra owned by Mahindra & Mahindra have dabbled with Bengali movies in the recent years.

“We are grossing anything between Rs 5 crore and Rs 10 crore even for low budget movies. All the movies that we produced over the last few years — including Khokababu, Shotru, Dujone, Fighter and Wanted — were huge box office hits. We owe a large part of the success to marketing and the growing number of Bengali television channels,” says Himanshu Dhanuka, who heads Eskaay Video. According to a FICCI-Deloitte report on entertainment industry in the state, the average production cost of a Bengali film varies between Rs 60 lakh to Rs 2 crore, excluding print and publicity costs.

“The marketing budget for Bengali films varies between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 35 lakh depending on their size. Unlike other regions such as the south or the Hindi movie industry where talent (artists and technicians) is a substantial component of a film’s cost, spend on these elements is quite small so far as the Bengali film industry is concerned,” the report says.

More than the theatrical collections, revenues from various other avenues like satellite television rights, mobile ringtones and downloads, the DVD rights, and overseas distribution have more than doubled in the last four years.

Alongside the purely formula movies, the new production housed are also betting on author-backed films like Royal Bengal Rohosso, a thriller directed by Sandip Ray based on the eponymous novel by Satyajit Ray. The film, produced by Shree Venkatesh Films and Surinder Films on a budget of Rs 2 crore, has reportedly grossed more than Rs 5 crore.

Describing the last few years as the recovery period for the film industry in Bengal, Ghose says, “Producers and distributors were ready to invest in films which subsequently improved the packaging that was missing from Bengali films. Overseas distribution has also picked up opening up newer markets for Bengali movies abroad,” Ghose points out.

The major markets for mainstream Bengali movies are Bangladesh, the United States and the United Kingdom which have a sizable Bengali-speaking audience. But the overseas collection for Bengali films is still very small compared to that of, say, Tamil films, that yielded Rs 9,516 crore through a mix of theatrical and non-theatrical distribution channels last year, according to the FICCI-Deloitte report.

Roadblock remains
While experts fault the new crop of production houses for “blindly copying” stories from successful south Indian films, many in the business believe it is vital for the existence of the industry. “I believe remakes are necessary; for me, the biggest challenge is piracy,” remarks Arijit Dutta of Priya.

According to EIMPA, the lack of infrastructure and cash flow remain major hurdles for the film industry in the state. “About 10 years ago, we had more than 800 production houses; this has come down to about 350 now. While in last four years we have taken huge strides commercially, close to 150 theatres in sub-urban and rural Bengal — which forms a major market for us-have closed down,” sums up Singh of EIMPA.

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