Contemporary Bengali cinema is in the throes of a crisis from which it is unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future. The commercial films are a poor copy of their Hindi and Telugu counterparts, without their raw energy or production resources. Hindi cinema has an all-India audience, and Telugu too has a much larger audience than Bengali; besides, producers from Hyderabad also finance Hindi versions of the original.

A film is generally seen as a product packaged for as wide a sale as possible by the moneybags in Hyderabad and Mumbai, the home of Hindi film kitsch that passes off as cinema. The commercial Bengali film producer would have liked similar advantages but is hampered by the small size of his audience. The “other” kind of producer is bitten by the bug of so-called meaningful cinema that puts restless insomniacs to sleep.

Interestingly, however, this cinema turns on the small, new, young, emerging middle class from an information technology background, with disposable incomes. Why this should be so is a question that must equally interest psychiatrists and sociologists. The financiers of unwatchable “art films” do know, because they loosen their purse strings at the sight of anyone proposing such projects.

We are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let us examine the content and execution of recent Bengali films that claim to be serious, as opposed to the commercial product made up of physical violence—sadistic beatings, murder and rape are staples—blind faith in religion, and the invincibility of state power as represented by the police, which can be mocked lightly or heavily as the situation demands but must be submitted to in the end.

There is also the treatment of women as sex objects who can be deified in a trice. Patriotism, covert and overt, is often an important ingredient. The contemporary Bengali art filmmaker is usually an effete creature who thinks he or she has transcended politics and its connection with the everyday world. There are some who think they are exceptions; of them later.

Having seen some examples of the “other” Bengali cinema in Delhi recently, one can say that its life will be somewhat shorter than that of the mayfly. Three out of the eight films screened at the India International Centre were about filmmaking of the most pretentious kind imaginable in the desi or native context. Though this piece is not a review of the film festival curated by Ratanottama Sengupta—writer and daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, famous scriptwriter of Hindi cinema in the 1950s and 1960s—it is certainly an important source.

Autograph (2010) directed by Srijit Mukherjee is about filmmaking. It is allegedly a tribute to Satyajit Ray and Nayak, his film about a matinee idol (played with quiet sensitivity by Uttam Kumar) going to Delhi to receive the prize for Best Actor from the President of India. Autograph is really about a footloose superstar who, on a whim, funds a full-length fiction film by an ad film director. Matters get complicated, when the aspiring director casts his girlfriend in the lead opposite the superstar. A triangle is formed, serving an inevitable demand of the plot. Nothing happens in terms of emotional development.

The film, if it can be called that, remains mired in inessentials. It gets stuck after the first 15 minutes. The movies, it must be remembered, were meant to move: not only in terms of physical action but in the cumulative development of emotions of the characters in the story. The film, as a matter of course, depicts an acquired consumerist lifestyle at variance with the reality of middle class Bengal, and even India.

Prosenjit Chatterjee, Bengali cinema’s biggest star, is in the lead, Indraneil Sengupta is the would-be film director, and Nandana Sen his girlfriend who gets mixed up with the producer and star of the proposed film. Together, they cannot bring alive a film because the director of Autograph does not know how. The film, it is believed, made money but there is no fool-proof method of finding out how much. Are there enough well-heeled Bengali IT professionals at home or abroad to guarantee a legitimate hit? The regular filmgoer would be bored in no time.

Abosheshey (2011), directed by Aditi Roy and with Roopa Ganguly, Raima Sen, and Ankur Khanna in the lead roles, is a self-indulgent collection of sounds and images and, like the other films in the festival, dependent on dialogue to tell its story, which automatically renders it suspect. Cinema, like music, is about movement in time. It is about the play of memory, essentially about “then”, and is completely unlike television which is about “now”, because it is intrinsically a transmission medium dealing with the immediate present.

Abosheshey is about a young man who comes to Kolkata from the United States to sell off a piece of property inherited from his dead mother, whom he last saw as a pre-kindergarten child. When his parents divorced, his father had taken him, though how a court allowed such a small child to be separated from his mother remains a mystery.

The fact of the matter is the film has no real moral compass. There is a lot of sentimental claptrap about the eponymous lead character discovering the sensitivity and nobility of his dead mother and also about her artistic inclinations. A plethora of factual detail is thrown at the viewer without ever attempting to achieve narrative clarity.

The director, like many of his colleagues in current Bengali cinema, seems to believe that since emotions by their nature are confusing, they must remain so, even when shown in a film! The inability to understand the nature of cinematic language or the basics of scriptwriting seems to be at the core of all the structural and aesthetic problems troubling Bengali filmmakers these days. The end result is usually a static narrative in which people talk their heads off.

The inspiration for films “that go nowhere” is Rituparno Ghosh, whose death at 49 in April was mourned by the proponents of pretentious cinema. His films—there were 20 of them—simply did not move in time; they were like radio plays. Ghosh’s characters talked to each other, usually in a seated position in cluttered interiors, about banal things that the Bengali middle class with a smattering of Western education takes with great seriousness.

His work not only upheld narcissism but celebrated it. Ram Ray, one of the big-shots of the Calcutta (Kolkata) advertising world, thought Rituparno was the cat’s whiskers. It is easy to understand why, because ad films in particular—and advertising in print and through billboards in general—are about selling: usually a lie. No product that the advertiser, on behalf of his client, wants the prospective buyer to fall for is half or even a quarter of what it is cracked up to be. Rituparno Ghosh was a master salesman.

He managed to talk producers like Sri Venkatesh Films from Hyderabad, a pragmatic outfit if there ever was one, into financing him. No film of his ever made much money; Chokher Bali with Aishwarya Rai and Prosenjit Chatterjee did pretty well and is said to have recovered its Rs.5 crore cost and made a little besides; Raincoat, again with Aishwarya Rai alongside Hindi film star Ajay Devgn, did fair business.

Neither film was of international standard. No film of his won a prize at any major international film festival; if he had any adherents abroad, they were very largely Bengalis of the IT variety in the United States, Canada, England, and Australia. Why did his producers give him money if his films were released in small multiplexes in Kolkata; how many are in Bengal for that matter? How many DVDs did each of his films sell? How much money could have come in from television screenings? Incidentally, the Ministry of Culture gave him a handsome budget for a documentary on Rabindranath Tagore. The end result was piffle and had his backers looking away.

Is it possible that in financing Rituparno Ghosh’s films, big producers, particularly from south India, were looking for a tax shelter? The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds; it has happened before. Way back in 1960 in (then) Madras, AVM Pictures, one of the biggest production companies in Tamil cinema, produced a Bengali film, Akash Patal, directed by Prabhat Mukherjee and co-produced by his then wife, actress Arundhati Mukherjee. The purpose was to balance the books in a particularly profitable year.

Then there is the strange case of Subarnarekha, a Bengali film directed by the great Ritwik Ghatak. Rajshri Pictures, owned by Tarachand Barjatya, also located in Madras, had a super hit on its hands in 1964. Dosti, made in Hindi on a modest budget, captured the public imagination, possibly because of the songs composed by the young duo of Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and of course the story of friendship and loyalty between two boys, one blind and the other lame.

Ritwik Ghatak’s profound reflection on the partition of Bengal was released in 1965 for five weeks in Calcutta to ensure a financial loss, perhaps because of its grim subject matter. Subarnarekha ran to house-full shows in the first two weeks; Rajshri took fright and promptly withdrew it from circulation. The fate of Ghatak’s film and career was secondary as far as the Rajshri accountants were concerned; the huge profits made on Dosti had to be shown as a loss. Is it likely that the producers of current Bengali art films have a similar agenda in mind?

Most of the films mentioned in this piece have been invited to second- or third-rung film festivals abroad. None has been critically acclaimed or won a top prize at any of these festivals. The only other art filmmaker other than Rituparno Ghosh to have actually made a flourishing career out of cinematic flummery is Buddhadev Dasgupta. His films are uniformly dull and he has made a vocation out of making them.

Hardly anybody in Bengal has voluntarily paid to see any film of his in the last 20 years; the last one was Grihajuddha, scripted by Anjan Dutta and photographed by the late Sambit Bose. Strangely enough, Dasgupta manages to make a fairly good profit abroad on his films made in the last decade by selling them to smaller television networks. He has reportedly been paid Rs.7 crore by the Ministry of Culture and his 13-part fiasco on Rabindranath Tagore’s stories greatly embarrassed his backers. His films are generally about people on the fringes of society who somehow get by. These films are made with enough (lack of) skill to appeal to people in the West who have a certain notion of technical incompetence in the Third World, which they think is a proof of a certain kind of authenticity.

Shabdo (2013) by Kaushik Ganguly is about a Foley artist who can no longer tell the difference between his professional and personal life. A Foley artist is responsible for creating, after the shooting is over, all the sounds in a film except dialogue and music. The germinal idea of Ganguly’s Shabdo is Berberian Sound Studio (2012) directed by Peter Strickland, where a sound engineer of Italian horror films finds his work impinging on his life, with scary consequences. Ganguly cannot make anything consequential out of his borrowing from Strickland. His film is lathered with (sentimental) dialogue that impedes the progress of the film.

Nobel Chor (2012), the third full-length fiction film by Suman Ghosh, a teacher of economics from Florida University, has an interesting idea but a flawed script. Ghosh imagines that the medallion presented in 1913 by the Nobel Prize committee to Rabindranath Tagore for literature is stolen late at night by a gang of thieves from the museum in Shantiniketan.

It is assumed that, out of sheer nervousness, they accidentally drop it in the mud near a well, where it is found early next morning by a poor farmer (Mithun Chakraborty), a discovery that leads to certain disaster. Despite the fine acting by a cast led by the spirited Mithun Chakraborty, the film does not work because of the faulty choice of details. Ghosh, while following the basic format of the thriller, does not observe the cardinal principles of the genre. He does not tell us how the medal came to be dumped near the well. Since he is also the scriptwriter, he must accept responsibility for the lack of a plausible premise to set the film rolling.

Current Bengali art films seem to be greatly influenced by the language and syntax of the advertising film. This is not surprising, because many of the new directors made ad films before a feature film. The odd but interesting detail about their craft is that their films are, with one or two exceptions like Nobel Chor, quite static. An apt example of the narrative remaining transfixed in the same place is Meghe Dhaka Tara (2013) by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee. It is his tribute to Ritwik Ghatak. The black-and-white trailer—it is bordering on sepia—is really most impressive. The 154-minute feature is a sad disappointment. Why? Is it because the director, after having delved into Ghatak’s traumatic life and culling important incidents from it, creates a collage without political or philosophical perspective? The film simply does not move forward, despite or perhaps because of the pyrotechnics employed.

Rituparno Ghosh’s films—there were 20 of them—simply did not move in time; they were like radio plays. Ghosh’s characters talked to each other, usually in a seated position in cluttered interiors, about banal things that the Bengali middle class with a smattering of Western education takes with great seriousness.

In effect, Meghe Dhaka Tara is a two-and-a-half hour long trailer. It is really a pity because Saswata Chatterjee as Neelkantha Bagchi, a surrogate for Ritwik, gives a deeply-felt performance and is ably supported by Ananya Chatterjee, playing Durga, surrogate for his long-suffering wife Surama Ghatak.

There have been a few entertainers like Anik Dutta, whose Bhooter Bhabishyat was a bona fide hit of 2012. It is set in a grand old mansion in Kolkata which might be pulled down by builders to make way for a block of flats. The ghosts living there over many generations are literally faced with an accommodation problem! They get together, hoping to scuttle the plans of an avaricious builder.

It is a smartly-written script that would be a great hit on radio because of its consistently witty dialogue. The problem is that it does not work visually. In one scene, the director of a film about to be shot in the mansion is offered a cigarette by Ghost Number One, a Naxalite from the late 1960s. The young director is surprised to learn that such an old brand is still available. The cigarette packet is never shown; we have to believe what has been said. In cinema, the visual is supreme and conveys the most vital pieces of information to the viewer.

Dutta tries to reverse ordinary perceptions about ghosts by creating a ghost seen by us, but not by an assistant who bumps into him during the film shoot in the mansion. The ghost feels pain while the offending party feels nothing. This is a witty but illogical touch. One can imagine what a master film satirist like Mario Monicelli would have done with such a subject.

In order to make social satire work in the cinema, a perspective on politics, history and indeed life is required apart from an understanding of film language. Actually, such knowledge is necessary to make a perceptive film in any genre. A receptive mental antenna is required to work meaningfully in the arts in general.

Sandip Ray and Aparna Sen are two directors not divorced from the real world, though they may not be actively political in their beliefs. Sandip Ray, a temperamental filmmaker if there ever was one, clearly scores with his latest offering, Jekhane Bhooter Bhoy (2012). It is an entertaining omnibus film with two ghost stories by his illustrious filmmaker-writer father Satyajit Ray, and one by Sharadindu Bandopadhyay. It engages playfully with both the supernatural and the real worlds. It is a film that can be enjoyed by viewers from eight to 80, and has lovely performances by Paran Bandopadhyay and Saswata Chatterjee.

The other film that also deals with a ghost is Aparna Sen’s Goynar Baksho. Former Bengali and Hindi matinee idol Moushumi Chatterjee comes back in her late middle age to play a ghost widowed in childhood, with a heavy box of jewellery given in dowry. She gives the box to a deserving wife in the family but makes life difficult for the undeserving through her funny, sardonic manipulations. But its three separate stories are better suited to be on television, where they would be really entertaining.

There seems to be a strange lack of awareness or even an indifference to the idea amongst the upwardly-mobile Bengali middle class that is content with material success and the power it brings in its wake, which includes a complete indifference to the economic and mental suffering amongst the teeming majority of the deprived. The new Bengali middle class is completely self-absorbed and, when pressed to engage with the harsh realities of the world, finds it convenient to be alienated!

In recent times, there has been only one writer of consequence—Anita Agnihotri—from the Bengali middle class. Filmmakers? There is not one. Why? Simply because they are, like their brethren in information technology, being increasingly drawn away from the real world into virtual reality where everything is simulated, including physical and mental suffering, pleasures of the mind and of the flesh, and the simple joy of being. It is a world that takes one away from oneself and others. It is a world without a sense of morality or ethics. Bengali art cinema has not reached that state of alienation as yet, but given the current existential situation, should get there soon.