Once Upon a Movie: Beyond the Trinity
Rajen Tarafdar has only made seven films in thirty years. And yet his work reflects a maturity rarely seen in Bengali cinema. His cinema often spoke of the marginalized and oppressed, and even veteran filmmakers like Shyam Benegal were blown away by his work. Today it is almost forgotten.
When it comes to Bengali cinema, it’s as if the world can’t see past the Devouring Trinity of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Even Bengalis, always on the verge of an identity crisis, often seem to suggest that all they have to brag about in movies is the trio. “Beyond the Trinity” is a series within the series where Amborish spotlights some staggering talent in Bengali cinema that the world needs to know and celebrate.
There was this talented director who was also a talented graphic designer and who worked in a large foreign advertising agency before he started making films. The fact that he is an illustrator helped him to make storyboards and hand-drawn sketches. He made his first film on a shoestring budget, with a relatively new production designer named Bansi Chandragupta. Their film was released in the mid-1950s and heralded the arrival of a new voice in cinema. His name was Rajen Tarafdar. The description above is reminiscent of another Bengali filmmaker who was also a graphic designer in a foreign advertising agency and made his first film in the 1950s.
There are many points of intersection between the film careers of Satyajit Ray and Rajen Tarafdar. This is particularly striking when we look at the beginnings of Tarafdar, Antariksha (1957). It is a furiously original work, and shot with a particular sensitivity to the landscapes, flora and fauna of rural Bengal. Some executives are strongly reminiscent Pather Panchali: children in a rural setting, ponds, domestic animals and dilapidated huts in the middle of dense foliage. The similarity in look and feel of the two films can also be linked to the fact that two of the team members were common to both projects: production designer Bansi Chandragupta and cameraman Dinen Gupta (who assisted Subrata Mitra on Pather Panchali). But the parallels to Ray’s film were only superficial. Rajen Tarafdar’s film is distinctly different in style, temperament and plot.
Antariksha was based on a story written by playwright and actor Tulshi Lahiri. There was a convoluted plot about mistaken identity and well-kept family secrets. But it had quite a different visual richness and maturity to a classic first film. In his very first film, Tarafdar had managed to enlist veterans like Chhabi Biswas and Padma Debi. Antariksha was such a nuanced work that one wonders, 65 years later, why it hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Rajen Tarafdar came to cinema through theatre. He had been deeply involved in acting since his school days. He did direct pieces, but he also performed there. Tarafdar’s expertise and knowledge of the game have held him in good stead during his career as a filmmaker. His camera didn’t shy away from a little drama. Skillfully staged, edgy and beautifully shot emotional scenes were the hallmark of his films.
Too much indulgence for local plays (jatra) and acting may not have been seen by his family as a productive use of a youngster’s time. That’s how people were back then. Tarafdar left his Rajshahi home at an early age and moved to Calcutta where he was relatively free to do as he pleased. The theater remained a constant companion. During his college days, he only acted in plays and directing was something that captured his imagination when he first started working. In addition to performing, drawing and sketching were constant passions. In fact, it was from the Government College of Art & Craft in Calcutta that he graduated in 1940 and began working as a visualizer with J. Walter Thompson.
The only film which made Rajen Tarafdar famous and which is still considered one of his best works is Ganges (1960). Adapted from the eponymous novel by Samaresh Basu, it is an evocative tale of “creatures of the water”, as one of the characters describes the lot, the fishermen of Bengal who roam the waves of the Ganges and its tributaries in search of fish and redemption. One of their own was swept away by the sea long ago, so the fishermen are wary of the sea. They believe there is a curse and that venturing into the sea would mean certain death. But it is Bilash, the youngest of them, who is determined to go into the sea and explore it. Love blooms along the way and death rears its ugly head. With extremely limited means, Tarafdar built elaborate sets. Near the beginning of the film, there is a boat race that has dozens of actors and dozens of extras. With a small crew and rudimentary equipment, Rajen Tarafdar managed to achieve scenes of extraordinary complexity involving hundreds of extras and elaborate action sequences. But despite all the chaos unfolding on screen, Ganges is ultimately a sensitive representation of life in riverbeds. Gyanesh Mukherjee’s powerful portrayal of the aged patriarch is unforgettable, as is Niranjan Ray’s searing performance playing the brawny Bilash (seriously, he might give today’s six-packers a hard time). In the same year, Niranjan had also played cold-hearted boyfriend Sanat in Ritwik Ghatak. Meghe Dhaka Tara. There it was heroine Supriya Choudhury all the way but in Ganges, he has the opportunity to bite into the role.
Ganges was Rajen Tarafdar’s only widely seen, acclaimed and appreciated film. The songs, composed by Salil Chowdhury, were hits – especially this one by Manna Dey titled Amay bhashaili re/ Amay dubaili re. The air was reused in that of Bimal Roy Kabulwala (1961) in song Ganga aaye kahan re/ Ganga jaaye kahan re (this time sung by Hemant Kumar), which was also Gulzar’s first release as a lyricist (Bandini was to come two years later). The success of Ganges enabled Rajen to recruit stars like Basanta Choudhury, Pahari Sanyal, Bhanu Bannerjee, Anup Kumar, Chhaya Devi in addition to Chhabi Biswas in Agnishikha (1962). It was a revenge drama about a son avenging his mother, and bore a striking resemblance to Yash Chopra’s. Trishul released 16 years later. Tarafdar followed that up with Jiban Kahini (1964), a black comedy about a failed insurance agent (Bikash Ray) who is about to commit suicide, unable to bear the burden of debt. As he is about to jump, he meets a much younger man (Anup Kumar) who is also about to end his life. This gives the old man a brilliant idea. The film has an array of quirky characters (like the agent’s daughter who recites an assaulted line every time a loan shark knocks on his door to collect his debt) and makes you laugh at the most inopportune moments.
Rajen had an unwavering commitment to his passion. When he had the heart to choose the cinema as a vocation, he resigned from his position at the agency. JWT did not accept his resignation, insisting on sending a car to his house to pick him up. He would send his son Gora shouting to them from the balcony that Rajen was not home. One day the car stopped coming. Rajen was happy doing movies and acting. But over a thirty-year career, he ended up directing a total of seven films. But these few films remain to prove his mastery of the art of cinema. Even in the boats that rock on the river in Ganges, his camera remained still. His expertise seemed to stem from his own understanding of ordinary people and how their world works.
Shyam Benegal was deeply impressed by Rajen Tarafdar’s work. He publicly declared his admiration for Rajen’s cinema. In 1983 he cast Rajen in a negative role for his film Arhan. Rajen starred in three other films, Mrinal Sen’s khandhar (1984) and Aakaler Sandhaney (1980) and that of Shekhar Chatterjee basundhara (1986). The latest film is a prime example of Tarafdar’s skill in the game. He often played the role of moneylenders or illiterate and exploitative farmers. He was so good at trying out these roles that it’s hard to fathom that this is the same man making these exquisite films.
Outraged Ganges and Antariksha, the other film that stands proudly in Rajen Tarafdar’s oeuvre is Palanka (1975), a post-score tale about an old man holding a piece of furniture – an ornate bed – and his past, and how he learns to let go. The film features priceless moments shared between the two leads played by Utpal Dutta and Anwar Hossain from Bangladesh. Palanka won Rajen Tarafdar his second national award (he won the first for Ganges).
Rajen Tarafdar’s worldview and savvy are evident in a story told by his son Gora Tarafdar to journalist Atindra Daniyari. Rajen was shooting for his swan song, Naagpash (1987) in the Sunderbans, and Gora assisted him. They arrived at a makeshift clinic. The doctor welcomed the filmmaker and his team. Rajen asked, where is Bhebo? Within a minute, “Bhebo” was standing in front of them with half of his face covered in a gamcha (a napkin cum handkerchief, commonly used in Bengal). Rajen asked her to uncover, and as Bhebo reluctantly revealed the other half of her face, everyone gasped audibly. There was a hole where his jaw should have been. It was the result of a fight with the fearsome Bengal tiger. On returning, Rajen Tarafdar explained to his dumbfounded son: “Cinema is not about presenting people’s struggles in pretty fancy boxes. It means showing reality as clearly as possible. How can you shoot in these places and not portray their daily struggles? »
Rajen Tarafdar did not belong to any illustrious family, nor did he rub shoulders with the foreign press at international film festivals. He was always on the ground, constantly striving to show the daily struggles of ordinary men and women, for whom every day is a fight to survive. He died in relative obscurity in 1987. An immensely talented filmmaker, he would not remain in public memory for long. Even its centenary in 2017 is passed over in silence. The silence was deafening.
(This piece is partly inspired by an interview with Gora Tarafdar, Rajen’s son, by Cinemaazi. I also enlisted the help of journalist Atindra Daniyari, who pointed me to his article. I would like to thank the of them.)
Amborish is a National Film Award-winning writer, biographer and film historian.
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