Cinematic Spring (a selection)
On any given weekend afternoon as I was growing up, you could find my family arranged in the living room around the TV, watching old Bengali movies on the DVDs my father used to bring home. He found them at the same South Asian-owned stores where he picked up spices for the kitchen, incense sticks for the prayer room, and Indian kids’ magazines for my brother and I to flip through. Those DVDs would be set aside on a shelf until the right time, awaiting their turn to serve as the centerpiece of our weekends.
Today, almost all of the movies we used to watch back then are on Youtube or other video hosting sites, freely available for viewing. While I do miss some of the ceremony of watching them in my childhood—cracking the stiff DVD case open, gently prying out the disc, placing it on the protruding player—it’s lovely to see these films preserved for the public in such an accessible format. And having access to these videos has helped me revisit the films as an adult, allowing me to form critical impressions of them based on more than childhood nostalgia.
When many people think of movie musicals from South Asia, the first industry that comes to mind is Bollywood. But musical numbers have long held a place in the films of Bengal as well. The musical format has not only been a standard of productions since the beginning of the Bengali film industry, but has also been crucial to their development.
Indeed, the Bengali movies from my childhood that have most persistently etched themselves into my brain are those which made use of their musical numbers so effectively that they enhanced the entire viewing experience. For this languid, near-summer day, a selection of standout songs to ease you into the world of Bengali musical cinema...
In iconic films like Indrani (1958), duets often depict the strength of the bond between the characters singing, while certain solo numbers are performed in isolation, embodying a disconnect from the rest of the cast. “Nir Choto Khoti Nei” is performed in the film by a couple facing incredible poverty, yet the lyrics demonstrate their implausible hope for the future, the joy they find in belonging to one another: “tiny is the nest, yet there’s no harm / after all, the sky is vast.”
Strains of classical Bengali music emerge in this song, also a duet, as the characters engage in a sort of musical faceoff. They launch into synchronized sargams, complex bridges in which soaring notes are sung sans lyrics, becoming more and more in every direction. The sweet dexterity with which the piece proceeds is the perfect accompaniment to a quiet afternoon in with your loved ones and a mug of chai.
As spring unfolds across many parts of the world, this is the song that many Bengalis turn to, an anthem for cloudy days suffused with wind and longing. In many ways, “Ei Megla Dine Ekla” has outgrown the film wherein it originated, existing as it does now in some hundreds of covers and modern iterations. Still, the original lightning-bright representation provided by a young Bishwajeet Chatterjee, one of the iconic Bengali actors of the mid-1900s, is a charming backdrop to the feeling of restlessness evoked by a day sitting inside the promise of rain.
Musical numbers in Bengali movies often serve as a way to give voice to shunned or misunderstood members of society—allowing them to assert agency over their narrative, even if only for a few minutes. Throughout the scene that accompanies this track in Baghini (1967), a woman sings of the censure she has suffered as a result of straying from the accepted path, while a teenage girl listens with wonder. The audience is left with deep sympathy both for the impossible miracle of the woman singing and the watching teenager, who seems to be experiencing an epiphany of her own about the way women are treated in the world she lives in.
Lata Mangeshkar is the first name that springs to the minds of many when they think of Indian musical greats, and with good reason: she’s recorded songs for the soundtracks of thousands of films in several languages. In Bengali alone, she’s recorded over a hundred tracks, and “Asharh Srabon Mane Na To Mon” is perhaps one of her most well-known. It’s another song that suits the season well, in plaintive lyrics that denote a moonlit, lamenting agitation that no spring can quite wash away: “the rains are here, I am restless / it comes down softly as you come to mind / the day goes by in a shower of light / darkness hovers deep within the stars.”
A lighter, more upbeat effusion awaits you with this song, with its quick-dancing rhythm and clever, alliterative wordplay. As depicted with cheerful aplomb by the actress Tanuja, “Madhobi Modhupey Holo Mitali” is an homage to the singularly delicate feeling of first love: “these festivities of light and laughter have never awakened before / nor have I ever felt this happy about myself before.” The sheer joy of the lyrics welcome the audience in to take part, to remember their own experiences of bright-eyed idealism and romance.
The term “golden age of Bengali cinema” is often applied to an era of filmmaking in West Bengal that spanned from the 1950s to the early 1970s, and a great part of that was the rise of a certain pairing of actors, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Widely regarded as two of the most beloved talents of their generation both together and apart, the pair helped usher in a modern vision for Bengali films, which were still very much a developing market at the time in comparison to the Hindi film industry. It’s nigh impossible to be introduced to the world of 20th century Bengali movies and bypass the massive impact that Kumar and Sen’s combined screen presence had on it. In “Ei Sudhu Ganer Din”, Sen’s character languorously sings of the pleasure of a day devoted solely to music, as Kumar’s character watches her with the tender, ardent gaze that elicits the excitement of so much of their contemporary audience.
Another masterful example of effective musical numbers is the way this song by Rabindranath Tagore, the most well-known writer of 20th century Bengal, is adapted to the narrative of its film. As the story begins, we are introduced to the protagonist, Kedar, a gullible boy regarded as a simpleton by most of the town, as well as his love interest, Saraswati, a brilliant, strong-willed girl who is barely aware of his existence. When Saraswati’s parents invite Kedar to sing in their home, his peers look on with suppressed mockery, expecting him to fail disastrously. Instead, Kedar performs with astonishing talent, altering the perceptions of everyone who underestimated him and garnering the admiration and interest of Saraswati. This single sequence with very little spoken dialogue lays the groundwork for the narrative to proceed throughout the film.
I hope you’ll forgive the inclusion of two songs from the same film—but this scene is such a lovely encapsulation of Bengali cinema paying tribute to musical theatre that I couldn’t bear to leave it out. The play being performed by the actors in Dadar Kirti (1980) is a dance drama entitled Chitrangada, again written by Rabindranath Tagore. The costumes, blocking and music depicted here would have been typical of a true live theatrical performance from the time period, and the song beautifully intertwined with this performance is widely regarded as one of Tagore’s best. It’s a soaring exploration of divinity: “a strange light flashed in my eyes, bride / radiant as a sun-dweller as you are.”
Aagaman (1988) is a film that serves in many ways as a love letter to jatra, a traveling musical theatre form specific to Bengal. Beginning from the title credits, which depict in a rhythmic, singsong fashion the adventures of the protagonist, music is as intrinsic to this film as it would be for a true jatra performance. In the musical sequences depicted throughout the film, we follow the star of a jatra troupe in her various performances, as she sings of the wayward trajectories her search for love has propelled her on. We come to empathise with her backstory as it’s presented to us in an untraditional, engaging manner, the score melding the past and present of this character, full of life and flourishing with sound.
I’ll leave you now with this serene, flickering lullaby, recorded by Sandhya Mukherjee and acted out by Suchitra Sen. Sen’s character welcomes the appearance of the moon in the evening, singing of the tenderness with which the night transports her to realms unreachable by daylight. With its sweet, high timbre and measured, dreamy rhythm, “Ghum Ghum Chand” is the quintessential ode to the neglected midnight hours, and after a long day serves as a gorgeous wind-down into the song of starlight.