My Father’s Lenses: The Album of a Calcutta Photographer
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Some of the enduring things I remember about my photographer father were his Rolleiflex camera (which used 120 film), his bulging black camera bag, and the smells of the chemicals with which he developed his black-and-white prints in the small open space in front of the family kitchen. This was the 1960s Kolkata, a city with a legacy of violence and trauma that my father had witnessed starting in 1947, when the country was divided to form the two nation-states of India and Pakistan.
He had first come to the city, when he was around sixteen, in search of work. That was sometime in 1941. My father had just finished school and he had no idea that he would end up being a photographer, working closely with some of the most glamorous names of the post-independence Bengali film industry. In undivided Bengal, Calcutta was the city where one made good, a metropolis of dreams and destinations. It was also a city that was manageable, still unprepared for the onslaught of the rootless refugees who would cross the new borders in and after 1947. In the year India and Pakistan came into being, my father still lived in Narayangunj (in East Bengal) with his parents, running a small business; his brothers lived in Calcutta, studying or earning a living.
The 1947 partitioning of the country, however, made it amply clear that in the city of Kolkata, the journey of the East Bengali, culturally and psychologically, was one-way. They came to the city and never did go back. “I was compelled to sell my shop in Narayangunj to come to Kolkata. Those days the airfare between Dhaka and Kolkata was fifty rupees. I had to buy tickets for all of us,” my father said. “We came to stay at the government accommodation my elder brother had in Garcha, where my younger brothers were living too. There were ten of us cramped together in a small two-room flat. But I knew this was to be the new life, a life of struggle. I was completely broke, unemployed. I didn’t even have the money for a tram ride. I remember walking from Garcha to Shyambazar one day, almost eight kilometers each way.” It was incredible, given the suffering and the ordeal, how much my father remembered of those early years in the new city. He recalled watching the refugees on the Sealdah station platforms and the anger he had felt when they were sent to refugee camps outside West Bengal. Every day, he was thankful he had escaped that.
By 1951, he had managed to eke out a living, and the city was his.
When he had first come to Calcutta, he had lived in a messbari with his elder brother, who worked at the Imperial Library, on Central Avenue. But he had not taken to the city much and had decided to leave. However, destiny had decided otherwise; Calcutta had marked him out as her own. By 1949 the last of his family had come over to West Bengal, never to go back. Unlike some members of his family, my father was reconciled to an exile’s life. What he saw daily around him made him so. “I knew we would never go back,” he said. “I realized that in my heart soon enough.”
The waiting rooms of history were disgorging thousands onto the city pavements, onto railway platforms, onto the open spaces of the bustling metropolis — the battle had begun. Inch by precarious inch, he needed to find a foothold in the city; it was so easy to go under.
After many false starts, the business venture my father undertook in post-independent Kolkata was photography. His first tool was a box camera that he had bought for nine and a half rupees as he learned the tricks of the trade in a friend’s studio. In the early years of 1960s, he established a photo studio at 1, Hindustan Mart, a smallish enclosed row of commercial establishments near the bustling Gariahata shopping area in South Calcutta. He named it Studio Balaka after a famous book of verses by his favorite poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
My father began making his rounds in the Indrapuri and Technician Studios, which formed the hub of a thriving Bengali film industry in the 1960s. This was based in Tollygunj, in the southern part of the city, named after Major William Tolly, who had dredged an arm of the river Ganga in 1775–76 and called it Tolly’s Nullah. After 1947, the area became the center of important film studios, such as the New Theatres, the Technician, and Indrapuri. In 1932, in an article in the American Cinematographer, the sound engineer Wilford E. Deming coined the name Tollywood, to correspond with Hollywood. During the 1950s and later, Tollygunj was known for the production both art house and popular films. By a quirk of destiny, my father was to have a small but significant role to play in the charting of Bangla cinema’s course. My father’s full name was Ashutosh Sengupta, but everyone in the industry called him Ashu.
After the partition, Bengal’s film industry delivered numerous hits with stars such as Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, and it was a flourishing time for new directors and their movie ventures. It was also a propitious time for a young man to seek his fortune at the sidelines of the production studios. Across the city, in cinema halls with euphemistic names like Minar, Bijoli and Chobighar, black-and-white photographs (sometimes color-tinted, set in artwork) were used in their lobbies and in cinema booklets and film magazines as publicity materials. A cinema booklet, for example, used still photographs as well as artwork to bring together information about a film and also contained the lyrics of its songs. These became collectibles among the audience when a film was a box-office hit and the songs became all the rage.
Photographs were also useful for the continuity of film shots and were often seen as a quotidian archive as the production was under way. My father, a self-taught photographer, became a part of this industry through grit and perseverance. He worked with some of the established and well-known directors and often accompanied the film unit as they shot either in the studios of Tollygunj or outside the city in beautiful locations. Often, he would take us children to the studios because he was looking after us while my mother was working. I remember accompanying him to the shooting of Debi Choudhurani (1974), in which the Bengali diva Suchitra Sen was playing the lead role. I remember her dressed as Prafulla and after filming a shot she came up to me with a bar of Cadbury chocolate!
During the outdoor shooting of this film, at Noorpur, my father would pick up Mrs. Sen every day from her home at five a.m. Years later, he still remembered how she would practice her lines in front of her make-up room mirror to mask her faint though recognizable East Bengali accent.
Dinen Gupta directed Debi Choudhurani and Shyamal Mitra, a noted playback singer and a very popular artist, composed the music. My father was a big fan of Mitra and I remember accompanying him to the singer’s home a few times.
My father had worked earlier with the film director and cinematographer Dinen Gupta. In 1973, Gupta’s comedy Basanta Bilap, with Aparna Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee as the leads, was released and my father had done the stills for it. Below is a sample of a cinema booklet with my father’s still photograph of the heroine. This film was a major hit and earned its actors much critical acclaim.
In 1968, my father had worked in another box-office hit, Chowringhee, directed by Pinaki Mukherjee with cinematography by Dinen Gupta. It starred the famous actor Uttam Kumar and was released in September in the single-screen film halls Uttara, Purabi, and Ujjala. Many years later, my father recalled that during the release of Chowringhee, a huge crowd had gathered at Ujjala to catch a glimpse of Uttam Kumar (already at the height of his fame) and the police had to use batons and lathis to disperse them. My father remembered seeing hundreds of slippers and shoes strewn on the road as the people had fled helter-skelter.
This box-office hit was named after the city center Chowringhee, established by the British as the white town of Calcutta. The story unfolds in a well-known hotel where various characters play out their disparate and desperate lives. In frame after frame, the film captures Calcutta’s allure and debasement as tragedy follows the main characters, who search for an elusive happiness in a crumbling metropolis. The cinema booklet hints at this search for the urban modern by using the edges of an airmail letter (one character is an airline hostess, a modern profession with its attendant glamour and risk) with the name of the film’s producer as the sender and the author and director as the addressees, pictures of the stars as stamps, and with the postmark Chowringhee.
Below is a lobby card of the film Chowringhee with my father’s studio named at the bottom left-hand corner. The still shows Uttam Kumar and Anjana Bhowmick, whose on-screen love affair ends in tragedy.
Two other hits that my father was associated with were Prothom Kadam Phool (1970), directed by Inder Sen, and Teen Bhuboner Parey (1969), directed by Ashutosh Bandopadhyay, both starring the versatile actor Soumitra Chatterjee (who with the release of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy would become a household name). The latter film, set in the backdrop of a changing Kolkata, is a love story that grapples with the rising unemployment in an overcrowded city and the growing tensions between the young couple, whose conflicts arise as much from economics as from class and gender. The cinema booklet poses the couple against the ramparts of the iconic Howrah Bridge, a colonial feat of engineering grandeur that underscored the ethos of a modern industrial Calcutta.
As young adults, my sister and I made an effort to watch these hits in the theaters, and when the name of our father’s studio appeared in the title credits, we often smiled in satisfaction in the glowing darkness of the movie halls. In a strange yet exalted way, my father had made the glitz and glamour of celluloid films an essential part of our childhood and an integral part of our growing-up years in the city. Early on, I had begun to fathom, though in a childlike way, the transformative aura of the camera and the power of representation.
My father was a voracious photographer who was enamored of the new technology that enabled him to take likenesses of people and the publicity events of the films he worked for. He started photographing me when I was a few days old and continued to do that till I went away to university.
Ashutosh, the keen photographer, took portraits of people, his family, and of course the many stars in the Bengali-cinema firmament: Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Madhabi Mukherjee, Robi Ghosh, Aparna Sen, and Soumitra Chatterjee. We had grown up hearing these names not as glamorous icons but instead as hardworking actors whose talent and creativity kept the industry going. To us children, they were names whose power and appeal lay not in their starry distance but in the everyday recognition of their presence in my father’s working life.
My father was a simple man whose generosity of spirit made him very popular among the other technicians as well as the actors. He rode a noisy Rajdoot motorbike and had an uncanny eye for the photographic moment.
Nineteen-sixties Kolkata was undergoing an upheaval of sorts: Rampant unemployment and disillusionment with government policies had created politically active Leftist groups who pressurized the state with various demands, especially land allotment for poor farmers and the newly arrived refugees. The socialist dreams of a developing nation had been left unfulfilled and the young, in Kolkata’s colleges and universities, were getting impatient. The ethical and political codes of the middle-class bhadralok (educated elite) were seen as stifling and hypocritical. Inspired by the ideology of Chairman Mao, Calcutta was at the brink of revolution of a kind that independent India had never seen before. The Naxalite revolution would soon shake the city to its core. The new political ideas were shaping newer kinds of realism in films (by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak) that came to be known as the New Cinema.
My father was not associated with them and his loyalty lay with the popular films based on literary works with a good storyline, brilliant songs, and sound camerawork that appealed to the masses. (In Bengal, films are also called boi, “a book,” because so many of the popular films were adaptations of much-loved novels and stories and many cinema booklets carried the author’s name along with the director’s.) The comedies, the romantic films, the occasional thriller were the staple entertainment of the masses; my father earned his bread through them and till his last breadth was unwaveringly committed to their appeal and wonder. He watched with awe the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak but his passion lay with the blockbusters and the chart-toppers: he could never envision working anywhere except under their glittering, mesmerizing appeal. He had made his choice.
The film industry of the Kolkata of the 1960s and ’70s was fostered by competent and skilled technicians like my father. The urban cinema of these years had an enormous appeal particularly to the middle class, with a “sweet and paralyzing nostalgia” of “sublimated childhood” and “unfulfilled love affairs.” As icons of modernity, these trendy films, spawned under conditions of widespread poverty and social unrest, made spectacular appeals to people as they created “images representing the challenges of change, the threat to old orientations, the emergence of new forms of dominance as well as new fields of manoeuvre” from the city to the countryside.
In Bengal, the appeal of the cinema was widespread, but it was more so in Kolkata. The city, to which so many had flocked after the division of India, was the site where the popular cinema represented the complex experiences of living in the metropolis with its equal measures of hopelessness and desire.
If we make a distinction between the “high” cultural art cinema and the “popular” entertainment in Bengali film production of these decades, then each made contributions to Indian cinema that are indisputable. However, in West Bengal, the archiving of the “popular” has been piecemeal, to say the least. This small account of my father’s life shows how his professional life was fashioned from the popularity of the celluloid cinema and the attendant still photography before the advent of the digital camera. A glorious era of the movies in Bengal has rested on the forgotten efforts of many men and women whose contributions have now vanished from our collective consciousness. Their memories demand that we look back with fidelity and generosity to their extraordinary achievements.
Debjani Sengupta is the author of The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities (Cambridge and Delhi : Cambridge University Press, 2016) and edited Mapmaking: Partition Stories From Two Bengals (Delhi: Amaryllis, 2011). She teaches Literatures in English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi.
All images of cinema booklets and the lobby card were lent to me by Porimal Roy, of Kolkata, from his personal collection of film memorabilia. I am grateful to him for his generosity. My thanks to Kazi Anirban, Anindya Banerjee, and Moinak Biswas for their support in writing this essay, and special thanks to Nandini and Rakhi Sengupta for keeping safe some of Baba’s prints. The films mentioned in the text are available on YouTube.
The names Calcutta and Kolkata, have been used interchangeably: Calcutta as the British colonial city and Kolkata as the postcolonial one. In 1947, Bengal was divided. The western part, now called West Bengal, remained in India and the eastern part went to Pakistan.
Messbari were houses that students or office workers rented to live communally, in order to bring down costs in a city known for its lack of housing. In 1950s Kolkata, they became very popular and were often the subject of Bengali films, such as Sharey Chuattar (1953).
Preben Kaarsholm, “Unreal City: Cinematic Representation, Globalization and the Ambiguities of Metropolitan Life,” in City Flicks: Indian Cinema and the Urban Experience (Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2006), 2.