Saturday, May 01, 2010

Stereotypes in Classic Bengali Film

There is something about old Bengali films that make them archaic and endearing at the same time.Particularly the ones made in black and white(I just don't watch Bengali film that is made in colour).When non-Bengalis consider Bengal they typically conjure up names like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen whose work is anything but stereotypical.The characters that I am going to write about are the ones seen in the matinee lineup of Bengali television channels and the ones that were 'commercial' and not 'arty'.I urge my readers to note the subtle differences between Bollywood stereotypes and their Tollywood counterparts.

The poor but proud genius:In several movies,the hero is a poor young man supporting a widowed mother and,optionally, an unmarried sister(I mention optionally because in a Bollywood film the unmarried sister is not an option).He attends college and works odd jobs.He always scores the highest marks and 'scholarship' is his middle name.He never accepts money or favours even in times of dire need(hence the pride).

The intellectual daughter of the haughty tycoon:Unlike her Bollywood counterpart,the wealthy Bengali heroine is never a spoilt brat.She is well read,attends college and is ranked second in class(The first ranker is the 'poor,proud hero' remember? Stereotypes of the time remind us that film makers did this out of consideration for the fragile male ego.).She disagrees with her father's radical capitalist views and is openly left-liberal.She secretly gives the servants money in time of need and eventually falls in love with the first ranker.

The Oxford/Cambridge educated hero:This stereotype is very similar to the first with the exception that he has money.He has a degree from either Oxford or Cambridge(Brit degrees were more popular than American degrees back then).He spends his time playing billiards in various nightclubs,helps his father run the family business,takes beautiful and bratty girls for drives along Park Street and Chowringhee and doesn't fall in love with any of them.Unlike his Bollywood counterpart,he doesn't break into a desperate and personalized rendition of the twist.Oh I forgot to mention,he speaks impeccable English with an anglicized Bengali accent!

The poor under-educated heroine:She lives with her widowed mother/chronically ill widowed father in a shack.She has had to leave school at a very young age due to financial constraints.She is something of a maid in waiting for the rich heroine.She comes face to face with the Oxford educated hero and it's love at first sight.She is not an intellectual but her rich 'mistress' may have been kind enough to teach her how to read and write letters.

The capitalist tycoon:The pipe smoking,newspaper reading,Scotch drinking millionaire;the father of either the philanthropic heroine or the Brit-accented hero.He his full of disdain for his wards' penchant towards socialism.He intends to bulldoze his views upon them through various acts of stealth, which may range from disowning his children to forcing them to marry the bratty kids of his friends.

The forever weeping mom:All aging mothers are made to weep.Irrespective of caste,creed or social status.It is imperative that they love their children possessively and weep when they are disowned or wrong.Such women pay frequent visits to the famous Kali temple in Kolkata to offer prayers.Some of them are naive and others scheming but they all cry when the time is right.

The overzealous backstabbing in-laws:Without the backstabbing in-laws classic Bengali films would be unbearably tedious to watch.Most films have near-realistic stories told in the pace of real time events,mostly without fight scenes or cabaret.Anyone who appears overzealous is meant to be a backstabbing in-law.Such characters are modeled on the evil Shakuni from the Mahabharata and they stop at nothing to bring the next infeasible twist to the tale.

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