Bengali Noir

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“Looking for film noir in India is to miss the point of Indian cinema altogether.”–Lalitha Gopalan, “Bombay Noir,” A Companion to Film Noir. (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013).

There’s a lot about Calcutta—the center of the Bengali film industry, metropolitan capital of the state of West Bengal, and former cosmopolitan seat of British imperial India—that suggests it might have been fertile ground for noir or at least noir-influenced ideas. I’ve become a big fan of mainstream Bengali movies of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and a few films have started me wondering whether any of the characteristics of noir ever combined into anything that might be considered alongside western examples.

It’s basically required to mention megastar Uttam Kumar when discussing any aspect of mainstream Bengali movies of this time period. Sometimes making a dozen films a year, his work is absolutely inseparable from the tone and scope of Bengali cinema. People paid attention to whatever he did. In the first of his films I’ve seen that bring noir to mind, he was about a decade into his reign as the box-office king and unrivaled matinee idol, and with his popularity showing no sign of fading he was not afraid to experiment in roles that were non-heroic. In Sesh Anka (1963), Kumar plays a suave romantic lead all set to marry a beautiful young woman when secrets from his past—a not-dead first wife, at that—emerge and his character is called into question.

A few years later, he did Thana Theke Aaschhi (1965), a version of the unsettling English play An Inspector Calls in which he plays a very mysterious police officer; in Kokhono Megh (1968) he played charming stranger who gets involved with a woman who suddenly finds herself bombarded by shady-seeming people seeking answers about her murdered uncle and some missing diamonds.

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Even before Kumar made these films, there was a remake of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap (Chupi Chupi Asey). I won’t argue that this film counts as noir exactly, but it does have plenty of dramatic hard shadows, cold-blooded killing, liars, and a police officer with questionable motives.

As a potential starting point and cultural context for crime cinema, Bengali literature has what certainly seems to be the most prominent, if not also the most prolific, detective fiction tradition in India, thanks in part to the stories be adapted for film and tv. Starting in 1965, filmmaker Satyajit Ray wrote over 30 detective stories featuring his own Sherlock Holmes-ish cerebral sleuth, Feluda, and adapted 2 of them for film. Equally prolific are the Byomkesh Bakshi stories by author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (published beginning in 1932). Ray also adapted one of these. Its star? Uttam Kumar.  And both Feluda and Bakshi keep appearing on big screens today.

Of course, if being an urban detective was the requirement for noir, Poirot could be its poster boy. There must also be psychological unease. If European and American noir films in the 40s and 50s dealt not just with crime but also post-war disruptions and traumas, Calcutta would be a natural home for similar stories. Long a cosmopolitan city, balanced between east and west, Calcutta was shattered during WWII, bombed by Japan (which had invaded nearby Burma) and suffering an artificial famine created by Britain diverting food supplies from India to their own troops, killing millions through hunger and disease. Calcutta was also a center of revolutionary movements by Indian independence fighters and labor strikes. This is a city with scars from violence both physical and ideological. This is a city where isolation, desperation, and darkness are at home.

from Sesh Anka.

The infrastructure of Calcutta is also a factor, I think. Despite being fairly new by the standards of Indian history (it was born, more or less, around 1700), Calcutta is also associated with romantic crumbling, the tropical climate taking a toll on its once grand imperial structures that began to fade when the British moved their capital to Delhi in 1911. The city’s history as an intellectual center and the Calcutta film industry’s related embrace of heroes who are pensive and careful make it a fertile ground for existential angst.

Bombay, the center of the Hindi-language film industry, aka Bollywood, has made cinematic context out of its shadows and scars, but they feel different. Its seedy underbelly beckons to those who want cheap thrills and fast bucks, full of corruption and decline and sometimes even a gangland dystopia, but it is also has streets paved with gold, cheerful and noble slums full of communal harmony, and refreshing ocean air blowing in. I can’t recall a film in which people not from Calcutta actually wanted to move there or seemed happy once they did. They may go for economic opportunity or education, but their hearts seem to remain elsewhere. As for the urbane city-dwellers, they seem to find themselves in the shadowy bylanes as often as fancy cocktail parties and university classrooms.

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All of these factors make Calcutta a place that suits the idea of people and information being hidden. “Searching for answers in Calcutta” happens often enough that it’s become one of my favorite micro-genres of Indian cinema, and noir, if there is any, could easily fit into this niche. Detectives keep cropping up in movies made or set in Calcutta, not only the established literary detectives, but also new characters. A few years ago, a new female truth-seeker invaded the city in the film Kahaani (made by a Bengali director working in Hindi), a very twisty mystery that became a sleeper hit. The protagonist is an outsider to the city and is constantly obstructed by dead ends. Very few Calcuttans in this film tell the truth, and those who do are quickly silenced by a creepy assassin (see him at work here). Another recent entry for consideration as Calcutta noir is the newest Hindi-language version of one of the literary sleuths. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (dir. Dibakar Banerjee, 2015) actually recreates 1940s Calcutta and tosses in plenty of wartime threat and international drug trade, in addition to putting Byomkesh on his first-ever case, which he bumbles considerably and dangerously before realizing what’s actually happening. The darkness here is more metaphorical than visual, but Banerjee has tons of fun with tropes like weird and gory violence, a true femme fatale, and plenty of double-crosses. And speaking of American cinematic influence, there’s a version of Fight Club made and set in Calcutta too (Royal Bengal Tiger, 2014), and it’s a pretty juicy exploration of violence, darkness, and psychological issues like isolation.

One major feature of noir I haven’t yet seen in Calcutta-set movies is sustained moral ambiguity. The films named here have characters whose actions are either essentially justified or judged, and by the end of the film they get painted as either bad or good. I don’t know if this stems from a cultural love of relatively tidy endings or filmmakers’ fear that audiences would reject a story that does not offer some kind of ethical statement, but the waters generally clear by the time the films end.

Want to see for yourself? The following films are available on Youtube with English subtitles.

[Beth also wrote about Detective Byomkesh Bakshy at her own joint, Beth Loves Bollywood).

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Like all femmes fatale, Beth Watkins is short on clothes and long on sighs.

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