The Rocking Boudis
The advent of the “Bangla (Rock) Band” groups in the late 90s and early 2000 was – to my mind – a watershed of sorts in Bengali culture. Bhoomi, Chandra-bindoo, Krosswinds on one hand broke the shackles of the “Rabindric” culture and on the other, perhaps, unwittingly, liberated Rabindra-sangeet itself from its puritanical traditions (ending of Viswa-Bharati's monopoly rights helped the process) to find a more contemporary expression through a new breed of artists such as Lopamudra Mitra, Swagatlakshmi Dasgupta and Srikantanto Acharya – who no longer found virtue in shamelessly imitating the greats of yore and were confident enough to find a voice of their own, so to speak. In the bargain, they also vacated the rightful pedestal for the maestros - the likes of Debabrata Biswas, Suchitra Mitra, Kanika Bandopadhyay, Hemanto Mukherjee, Pankaj Mullik, Dwijen Mukhopadhyay - as also the more niche exponents like Shantideb Ghosh, Rajeshwari Dutt - to be savoured in seclusion of their permanent hall of fame.
Bengali cinema I think has gone through a similar churn. After losing its way for a while – both commercially and cinematically – following the demise of Satyajit Ray and since Mrinal Sen stopped making movies – while other veterans, the ilk of Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar , faded away and the new crop of talent like Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Gautam Ghosh plateaued off somewhere along the line (Ray’s son Sandip remained hopelessly confined in his Dad’s Feluda series). For a long time – it was perhaps only Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh who kept the flag of up in the national film scene. Other than that, Tollywood – as they pretentiously coined the name for Tollygunj, the studio “para” of Kolkata – descended to unthinkable depths producing some atrocious low budget mimicry of the popular low-end Bollywood genre. Bengali Theatre appeared terminally ill – with Group’s like Nandikar, preferring to hold drama festivals with participants from across the country - instead of mounting original productions of their own. TV serials – trapped in a decadent middle-class milieu – were an affront to once acclaimed artistic sensibilities of the Bengalis.
Not surprisingly, there was no influx of any quality new talent on the scene. Among heroines it was Rituparna (Sengupta) and Prosenjit among the male stars who straddled between crass to class. For any other serious endeavours they had to import talent from elsewhere – be it an Aishwarya for Chokher Bali, a Rahul Bose for Aparna’s works, Nandita Das or at best our home-kid s Raima (Sen) or Konkona (Sen Sharma). In Antaheen, we had Radhika Apte a thetare actress from Pune and Aparna regularly casts Mumbai actors like Rajat Kapoor in her films. Sometime back, on a flight from Mumbai, I met a young girl Sriya (of mixed Punjabi and Bihari parentage) coming to shoot for a Bengali film.
But, things are beginning to change. Thankfully, intelligent movie making is back in vogue and discerning audience is once again being drawn to the theatres. Directors like Aniruddha (Tony) Roy Chowdhury ( maker of Antaheen and Anuraran) have come as a breath of fresh air – making films on contemporary themes that are both uplifting and entertaining. The quality of music in the films is also improving with composers like Shantanu Moitra (the songs and music scores of Antaheen are truly haunting. Listen to Jaon Pakhi by clicking here). More importantly, producers are willing to put their money on such projects – though the budget of Bengali films remains ridiculously low (less than a crore) – it probably costs more in Bollywood to film a single song (or item number) which sometimes involves travelling across the world to shoot its different sequences.
Bong belles and belly dancing
Over the last few weeks – we have been holding a series of company dealer meets across Bengal. The programme was compeered by 2 young actors - a rising starlet (Sonali Chowdhury) and her male counterpart , an upcoming “character artist” (Biswanath Bose). They weren’t exactly a Boman Irani – Lara Dutt combination on stage – but I was impressed by their refreshing spontaneity and unaffected mannerisms – which was a marked departure from the old “Santiniketan” style of conducting cultural shows. And yet, they didn’t ape the Hinglish brigade of Mumbai and MTV – in trying to look and sound hip. They were smart and had the self assured confidence of today’s generation but retained a local flavour and native Bengali wit and humour. In the past, we have flown down ‘B Grade’ MCs from Mumbai – but, I thought, they jarred and failed to connect with the crowd as these youngsters did.
No entertainment today is complete without a generous dose of Bollywood and the mandatory Sheila ki Jawani. But the performances here were much more slick and tastefully than I had imagined having seen such shows in the past. Particularly impressive was the surprise entry of the dusky Paoli Dam – otherwise seen in art films – looking ravishing in a glamorous item number, making people forget the Kazhakstani Belly dancer - Shahira - who was on stage just before her.
That brings me to the changing concept of Bengali Beauty. Now dusky is in. Gone are the times – when our Mashima-Pishima’s would lament their favourite nieces and nephews becoming “dark” (eki re tor emon raang kalo hoye gecche keno ?...aagey koto pharsha cchilli “). Who would have thought earlier that a Paulomi, Radhika (Apte) or Sriya could capture the Bengali imagination.
Morning walk in Saree and 'keds'
But, the change is happening also at another level – literally !!. Earlier – the Bengali’s idea of beauty began and ended with the face (“Ma Lakshmir moton mukh”). Exercise was taboo for Bengali women and girls were seldom encouraged to play games or even take up sports like swimming seriously. Ladies started morning walks in sarees and “keds” only after they were diagnosed of blood ‘sugar’ (Diabetes) and took to yoga on developing arthritis. So you saw some of the most beautiful faces mounted on shapeless figures draped under the all concealing attire – the saree. (Katrina Kaif hadn’t arrived on the scene then to shrink the 9 yards to little over 9 inches ).
from 9 yards to 9 inches
Now Bengali girls are regularly hitting the gym. Bipasha – if not Karina – are their role models (one must give some credit to Rituparana as well - who was probably the first leading Bengali actress with a figure to flaunt). Vandana Luthra’s Slimming Salons are opening all over including in moffusil towns. Gone are the times when – as the rotund Rabindra Sangeet artist sang with a great deal of feeling “Aamar ei deho khani tuley dhoro” (invoking the Lord to lift the temporal body - figuratively of course ) someone from the audience said out aloud “Kshama korben - Parboi Na, Parbo Na” (sorry, can’t do that – implying you are too heavy !!). Today, it’s such a pleasure to see Paoli in tight body-hugging costume being lifted up in the air by her male accompanists in the dance troupe or a Sonali carrying off an off shoulder western gown with élan.
the gym-ing boudis
So far so good !! A friend told me, the mushrooming gyms and the Vandana Luthra slimming salons that have sprung up all over – even in mofussil towns - are not an unmixed blessing. As scores of ‘boudis’ make a bee-line for them and shed sarees in favour of jeans and tank-tops – the divorce rate in the state has gone up exponentially.
But, all said and done Bengal is in the cusp of a socio-cultural transformation. Now, if only the economy looked up a bit !!