Sometime in 2012 or 13, memories are bit vague, I was indulging in classic Bengali fare (rice, machh, sukto, alu bhaja …) in a Bengali canteen in Hyderabad. In those days when I had to scrimp, eating Bengali meals was a luxury I could afford maybe once a month. My earnings were next to nothing then, just enough to sustain myself. Living as a research scholar in the EFL University hostels and eating regularly in hostel messes meant that we would often be tempted to hit small-scale restaurants. My fellow Bengali mates always encouraged me to have more alu posto and mangsher jhol, which meant few more bucks, a heftier bill.
I saw it then.
The canteen had a wall paper of Uttam-Suchitra – the famous screen idols of Bengal – staring at me, together, like ancient hero-heroines did in promotional posters.
Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen phenomenon is regularly discussed in Bengal. Together, they starred in iconic Bengali romance melodramas starting with Sare Chuattor (1953) and ending in Priya Bandhabi (1975). Even today, to their admirers, their black-and-white celluloid world allows a monochromatic escape into a world of urban Bengaliness of the 1950s and 60s. It is a world of sartorial civility – shirts and dhotis for men and women draped in their saris. It is a world of Bengali homeliness, of middle-class simplicity. Indeed, I can’t picture Uttam Kumar as a gun totting, muscle flexing hero. Neither can I imagine Suchitra Devi as a dancing diva. For most Bengalis, Uttam babu symbolizes a respectable, soft-spoken man of character and Suchitra Devi a lady touched by the glamour of modern education.
The duo had first appeared on screen as romantic interests of each other in Share Chuattor (Seventy-Four and a Half) which was produced by M P Productions Private Limited in 1953. Almost immediately they forged a hugely bankable collaboration that would last decades. Anecdotes abound on incidents of how fans reacted violently if a film-plot separated Uttam babu and Suchitra Debi. There had to be happy endings, at least for Uttam-Suchitra! Interestingly, both their names, the way we know it, are screen names. Uttam babu was Arun Kumar Chatterjee and Suchitra Debi was born as Roma Dasgupta. In 1953 they were very new to a Bengali film industry that was trying to reinvent itself.
The 1950s in Bengali Cinema
The 1950s had begun well for small Bengali production houses like M P Productions Private Limited. Founded by Pramathes Barua and Muralidhar Chattopadhyay in 1941, M P Productions had produced hits like Sesh Uttar (Final Answer, 1941) and Jawab (which featured hit song “toofain mail” by Kanan Devi, try youtubing it).
In the 1950s, Bengali film industry needed new stories, new stereotypes and new tropes to bring audiences to the theatres. Old formulas were not working anymore. Finances of New Theatres, the mammoth production house of B N Sircir, lay in shambles. Its decay had come after two decades of film production in Bengal. In its heyday, in the 1930s and 40s, no other production company came close to what they had achieved. Most of the important actors including Pramathes Barua himself were associated with Sircir’s production house. But in the 1950s, New Theatres had lost out to stiff competition from Bombay films and falling revenues in a partitioned Bengal.
History, of course had not been kind to this part of India in the 1940s. When partition took away East-Bengal in 1947, Bengal in India was left with a crippled entertainment market centred around Calcutta. Dhaka, the other great urban agglomeration, remained in East Bengal. Add to this, rising labour unrest and internal frictions among bigwigs in the production house. The likes of Pramathes Barua and Kanan Devi migrated away from New Theatres to form their own production companies.
Weathering the initial political hiccups of a new Indian republic in the 1950s, several new sets of entrepreneurs were on the rise in Bengali film industry. On the one hand, there were established Bengali actors like Kanan Devi who had started their own ventures. On the other hand, there was a growing film society movement led by Chidananda Dasgupta, Satyajit Ray and others. The film society movement consciously moved away from the aesthetics of Bengali melodramas and sought to integrate western aesthetics with Bengali filmmaking.
Weathering the initial political hiccups of a new Indian republic in the 1950s, several new sets of entrepreneurs were on the rise in Bengali film industry.
Earlier in 1947, to improve film-literacy among movie-goers in Calcutta, Chidananda Babu and Satyajit Babu had founded Calcutta Film Society. The society’s popularity and influence would be a matter to reckon with in the 1950s. Their experiments with filmmaking would find international recognition, when Ray’s Pather Panchali received the Best Human Document Award in Cannes Film Festival in 1955. The film society was consulted while selecting international movies for the first International Film Festival of India in 1952. They would be involved in a series of subsequent efforts by the government of India to develop a parallel film aesthetics and distribution system beyond the Bombay industry.
Now to Share Chuattor
The biggest achievement of the producers of Share Chuattor was their risk-taking ability, which could be seen in their selection of a host of new Bengali actors for the screen. The producers were bang on target. Several young men and women in Sare Chuattor, be it Uttam Babu, Suchitra Sen, Bhanu Bandopadhyay, Jahor Roy or Shyamal Mitra, became established names in Bengali entertainment industry later. By his cultural instincts, producer Murali Babu knew what sort of films Bengali movie-goers might appreciate. Since the beginning of the Second World War, he had closely followed the stormy fortunes of Bengali film industry. He knew how a host of literary-film magazines (Chitrabani, Prabasi etc) were concerned about the gradual easing away of Bengali entrepreneurs from the industry. The puja issue of Chitrabani in 1952 began with Murali Babu’s article announcing that a resurrection of Bengali industry was at hand.
The puja issue of Chitrabani, the year next (1953), featured several stills from Sare Chuattor. Box office-wise, the film was a roaring success. It set the ball rolling for a series of enterprising collaborations. Beyond establishing Uttam Babu and Suchitra Devi as a romantic pair on screen, it established Bhanu – Jahor as a comedy duo. In Sare Chuattor, Bhanu-Jahor are the young students who live in a mess run by Tulsi Chakraborty. In 1958, the duo would carry an entire film, Bhanu Pelo Lottery and conjure unforgettable comic scenes in Jamalaye Jibanta Manush. The same year Satyajit Babu would cast an inimitably funny Tulsi Chakraborty in Paras Pathar (The Philosopher’s Stone). Tulsi Babu was an established actor in 1953. In Share Chuattor the entire comedy of errors would unfold in the mess run by him.
Box office-wise, the film was a roaring success. It set the ball rolling for a series of enterprising collaborations. Beyond establishing Uttam Babu and Suchitra Devi as a romantic pair on screen, it established Bhanu – Jahor as a comedy duo.
A Series of Bengali Errors
Bijon Bhattacharya, the writer of Sare Chuattor’s screenplay, was a powerful playwright. He had chiseled a plot filled with dramatic irony and social commentary. Conversations among male mess members in Share Chuattor are animated by generational divide, democratic division of labour and, of course, the presence of a glamorous young lady in their midst.
Suchitra Devi’s family has nowhere to live. They have suddenly come upon their uncle Tulsi Babu, who, out of sympathy, cannot deny them. Yes, in Suchitra Devi’s family, a Bengali would see writ the conflict of migrants from East Bengal coming to live with their relatives in Calcutta. But Bijon Babu knew this was comedy, so the partition trauma never threatens the plot’s comic appeal. Instead, the mess house is a Shakespearean Forest of Arden – an urban utopia where people develop strategies of co-existence.
Uttam Babu is a charismatic young man living in the mess. With him, by error, as it happens in the comedies, Suchitra Devi begins a relation on a wrong footing. The rest of the film is about how they forget their differences and come together.
A bungling Bhanu is of course seeking Suchitra Devi’s attention. Well, which Bengali man wouldn’t in 1953? He is funny and envious of Uttam Babu but true to the comic spirit never harmful.
When a love-letter written by Uttam Babu to Suchitra Devi is intercepted by mess members, a parallel conflict begins to thicken the plot. Tulsi Babu has been asked to look at the letter, which, in a hurry, has been inserted into his shirt pocket. Tusli babu must catch a train in the weekend to visit his rural home. Try imagining what happens when Tulsi Babu’s wife (played by Molina Devi) chances upon the letter.
I wouldn’t venture to comment on the rest of the plot. The movie is available online in different platforms, and there’s a lovely Wikipedia page on it. If you are academically inclined, you can try Sharmistha Gooptu’s Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation (2010).
The image of me eating underneath Uttam Babu and Suchitra Devi’s poster in that canteen has stayed with me ever since. Probably because like Uttam Babu in Share Chuattor , I was living off mess food and planning for a better future everyday. When Uttam and Suchitra stared at you from the walls of a dimly lit Bengali canteen, you knew that a part of your Bengali psyche was immersed in their gaze.