Sunday, October 23, 2005

A scary prospect?

Horror returns to Bengali cinema

Saibal Chatterjee (Hindustan Times)

October 22, 2005

A just-released low-budget Bengali film directed by a debutant has injected new life into a genre that had been dormant for decades. Apart from garnering largely positive reviews, Saron Dutta’s horror flick, Raat Baarota Paanch (Five Past Midnight), has opened extremely strong at the cash counters.

With a bunch of talented actors drawn primarily from the world of television, Raat Baarota Paanch relates the story of a single night in the life of six characters caught in a deserted and haunted house. The basic plot premise may not be terribly original, but Dutta invests the narrative with a quirky style that is distinctive without being obtrusive.

“The film is an experiment in the sense that we have tried to craft a low-budget entertainer targeted at audiences both in the big city and the smaller towns,” says the first-time director who cut his teeth in the rough and tumble of television serials.

He adds: “Offbeat Bengali films were hitherto meant only for niche audiences. One had to make a big budget film with saleable stars when one intended to reach out to the masses.”

Raat Baarota Paanch attempts to rewrite that unwritten rule. Like many of his contemporaries in Bengali cinema, Dutta feels that it is absolutely essential for a filmmaker to be able to communicate with as wide an audience base as possible. “Mumbai cinema,” he says, “has already created a viable space for niche releases. Why can’t we do a similar thing in Bengal?”

Dutta is a self-confessed admirer of the Ram Gopal Varma approach to filmmaking and one of the first films of the maverick Bollywood producer-director that he saw was Raat, a horror film that Ramu reworked a couple of years ago as the super-successful Bhoot.

Like Bhoot, Raat Baarota Paanch, which has no more than a solitary item number on offer, employs sound and music to great effect to manipulate the mind and heart of the viewer.

Dutta is not the only contemporary Bengali debutant director to have experimented with the horror genre. Celebrated editor Robiranjan Moitra has just debuted as a director with Mantra, “a horror film designed for the entire family”. Mantra is as niche as a film can get, but its target is obviously anything but limited.

That is one mantra that seems to be driving the new breed of Bengali writer-directors. They want to make films that they believe in but they do not mind keeping one eye firmly on the demands of the market.

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Subrata Sen has, for instance, already carved a niche for himself with a string of films dealing with the darker aspects of human behaviour.

Sen is currently making Bibar, his sixth film in a span of merely six years, having built up a reputation as a filmmaker with a sensibility that blends unusual themes with a saleable approach. The quality of his directorial output, which has ranged from digital shot quickies to regular 35mm releases, hasn’t been all that even, but his films have never failed to recoup the investment made on them.

A couple of years ago, two Bengali-language films, Abhijit Chowdhury’s sci-fi thriller Paatalghar, and Subhadro Chowdhury’s psychological drama Prohor had shared the National Award for the Best First Film of a Director.

What the two award-winning films indicated in no uncertain terms was a healthy willingness on the part of young Bengali filmmakers to experiment with genres and narrative styles that seemed to have gone out of vogue under the weight and influence of Satyajit Ray’s towering presence.

The mainstream release of the scary Raat Baarota Paanch is a sure sign that the young guns of Bengali cinema are finally ready to rebel against the established order. But as they branch out on their own in search of pastures uncharted, can they sustain their enthusiasm for their idiosyncratic ideas long enough to make a lasting impact?


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