Despite experimenting with unusual characters, Tarun Majumdar kept his mainstream touch

Few mainstream filmmakers anywhere have experimented with the concept of ‘hero’ on the mainstream screen as did, that too consistently over a career span of nearly six decades.

The Bengali veteran, who died on July 4 aged 91, drew from the advantage of being versatile as a creative artiste, and the sheer range of subjects he dealt with let him explore characters beyond the obvious.

Majumdar’s male/female protagonists were not only characters unlike what traditionally defined the hero on screen, they were also often portrayed by the most unusual choices in actors – which rendered further uniqueness to these characters. Like many filmmakers in Bengali cinema’s glorious phase of the sixties and the seventies, he banked on literature for screenplays. There, too, his choices show how he favoured protagonists from the pages of fiction that marked a departure from norms. It is something that let the veteran add a deeper subtext to his familiar idiom of entertainment which catered to audiences across age groups.

The unconventionality about the characters that Majumdar showed in his films, as well as his choice of actors that often portrayed them, is worth a note all the more because the stories of his films were, by contrast, rooted in milieus that were simplistic and instantly identifiable. The trait actually manifests in Majumdar’s oeuvre from before he even took over calling the shots as a solo director. Think Palatak, the 1963 gem he directed as part of a trio of filmmakers that called themselves Yatrik. The trio comprised Dilip Mukherjee and Sachin Mukherjee along with Majumdar, though the cinematic style of the film had many elements that would be come to be regarded as Majumdar’s signature over the years after he went solo.

Here we take a look at five films where experimented with the unusual while setting up characters for the plot, without losing touch with the idiom of mainstream cinema.

PALATAK (1963):

Palatak (The Escapist) was about Basanta, a man from an affluent family who refuses to be tied down and would rather be a vagabond, at the cost of sacrificing the joys of family and true love. The character, drawn from Manoj Basu’s story Angti Chattujjer Bhai (Angti Chatterjee’s Brother), would seem unusual as hero of a mainstream entertainer even today. Unusual, too, was the choice of hero. As Basanta, Majumdar insisted on Anup Kumar, widely popular as a comedian. Kumar’s choice as leading man not surprisingly saw Yatrik struggling to find a producer, till Bollywood legend V. Shantaram stepped in to back the project. Today, Palatak, a success upon release, is counted as a pathbreaking classic. The film would go on to spawn a 1969 Bollywood remake named Rahgir, which Majumdar directed with Biswajit as hero.

ALOR PIPASA (1965):

By 1965, Majumdar had launched Alor Pipasa (The Thirst For Light), his first project independently as a director. Based on author Banaphool’s novel of the same name, the film continued his tryst with unconventional characterisation and casting. The film cast Sandhya Roy, with whom he was married for a while, as the nautch woman Roshni Bai. Roy, a leading star of Bangla cinema, took substantial risk essaying the role, more so because Alor Pipasa was exploring the psyche of a ‘fallen woman’ and also trying to realistically understand her world without adding overt melodrama. The human relationship drama had Roy’s Roshni Bai fighting the odds to protect her child. If the unconventional casting gave the actress one of her greatest roles ever, the talismanic Anup Kumar would once again spring a surprise. This time, Majumdar cast the comedian as the chillingly evil Sohan Lal. Many films exploring a sex worker’s struggle to find acceptance in society, made in the decades that followed, have revealed influence of Alor Pipasa.

SRIMAN PRITHVIRAJ (1973):

Majumdar, of course, was equally at home crafting unusual characters without necessarily resorting to dark edges as in Alor Pipasa, an instance being his 1973 superhit Sriman Prithviraj (Mr Prithviraj) that has attained a cult following over the years. On the surface the film is a feel-good, coming-of-age comedy about the adolescent exploits of a village brat, Rashik Lal (debutant Ayan Banerjee), who idolises Prithviraj Chauhan and fantasises himself as the warrior king. Based on a story by Bibhutibhusan Mukhopadhyay, the film draws a deeper context from its backdrop – Bengal of the late 19th century. The Swadeshi movement against the British is in full swing, which prompts Rashik to find inspiration in his hero and wage a battle against his imaginary enemies. For a film banking on a teenage actor, Sriman Prithviraj emerged one of the big hits of the year. Majumdar’s crafting an original entertainer with a Mark Twain-esque edge reminiscent of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn rendered a timeless appeal.

THAGINI (1974):

The truth is Majumdar’s oeuvre is so diverse, it allowed him to explore characters across the gamut. One spots a very different slant at experimentation with characterisation in the 1974 suspense drama, Thagini (Conwoman). Majumdar cast Sandhya Roy as the titular protagonist in the film, based on a short story of Subodh Ghosh. Roy plays Karabi, a young girl forced into swindling and looting people by her impoverished father, till she falls in love with a potential victim. Set mainly in Kolkata of the early seventies, the film sets up an authentic socio-political milieu beneath the suspense drama. Sandhya Roy as a conwoman who is also a hapless victim of circumstances was an interesting casting twist.

DADAR KIRTI (1980):

By 1980, Majumdar’s name as director was significant enough to draw attention to a film’s poster, as was evident with the release of his comedy drama Dadar Kirti (Elder Brother’s Antics). For most current generation Bengali audiences this is the film that remains synonymous with Tarun Majumdar, despite the fact that he made over a dozen films after its release. Dadar Kirti starred Tapas Pal in one of his most memorable roles and, based on Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s unpublished novel of the same name, saw a classic role reversal of sorts for the protagonist and the antagonist. In the film, the traditional ‘hero’ Kedar, played by Pal, is a dim-witted simpleton, and a man deemed loser in the normal course, who falls in love with Saraswati (Mahua Roychoudhury), an alpha girl who is a winner in every way. Majumdar reserved the ‘smart and clever guy’ prototype for the film’s antagonist Bhombol (Anup Kumar), who decides to publicly make a fool of Kedar when he discovers the latter’s crush on Saraswati. Pal, a top star in Bengal of the eighties, looked apt for the fumbler Kedar while Majumdar’s decision to cast Anup Kumar as the comically evil Bhombol was bang-on. Like the film, these characters remain popular even after decades. Hemant Mukherjee’s brilliant use of Ranbindrasangeet in key situations and the film’s Durga Puja backdrop amidst a middle-class milieu added a note of Bengali traditionalism to the imaginative twists given to hero and antihero characters.

Majumdar made films till as recently as 2018, when he released his last feature, Bhalobashar Bari (The House Of Love). He was active nearly for sixty years as a director since he started off as a part of Yatrik, directing Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in the 1959 romantic drama Chaowa Paowa (Desire And Fulfilment). The truth is, beyond the obvious examples, a great mind as Tarun Majumdar could bring alive even the most obvious of characters with ample imagination to make them seem novel. Numerous protagonists in timeless works as Balika Badhu (1967), Sansar Simante (1975), Ganadevata (1978), Bhalobasha Bhalobasha (1985), Alo (2003) and Chander Bari (2007) bear testimony to the fact.

Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.