Rajen Tarafdar made just seven films in thirty years. And yet, his work reflects a maturity rarely seen in Bengali cinema. His cinema often spoke of the marginalised and the downtrodden, and even seasoned filmmakers like Shyam Benegal were dazzled by his work. Today, he is all but forgotten.
There was this talented director who was also a gifted graphic artist and was working at a leading foreign advertising firm before he started making movies. The fact that he was an illustrator helped him in making hand-drawn storyboards and 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 fresh new voice in filmmaking. His name was Rajen Tarafdar. The above description makes one think of another Bengali filmmaker who was also a graphic artist at a foreign advertising agency and made his first film in the 50s.
There are many intersecting points between Satyajit Ray’s and Rajen Tarafdar’s filmmaking careers. This is especially striking when one looks at Tarafdar’s debut, Antariksha (1957). It’s a furiously original piece of work, and shot with particular sensitivity towards the landscapes, flora and fauna of rural Bengal. Some of the frames are strongly reminiscent of Pather Panchali: children in a rural setting, ponds, domestic animals, and dilapidated huts amid dense foliage. The similarity of look and feel in the two films may also have to do with the fact that two of the crew members were common to both projects: production designer Bansi Chandragupta and cameraman Dinen Gupta (who assisted Subrata Mitra on Pather Panchali). But the parallels with Ray’s film were only at a surface level. 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. It had a convoluted plot about mistaken identity and well-guarded family secrets. But it had a visual richness and maturity quite unlike a regular directorial debut. In his very first film, Tarafdar had managed to rope in veterans like Chhabi Biswas and Padma Debi. Antariksha was such a nuanced piece of work that one wonders, 65 years on, why it didn’t get the attention it deserved. Rajen Tarafdar came to cinema via theatre. He had been deeply involved in theatre since his school days. He did direct plays, but he also acted in them. Tarafdar’s expertise and knowledge of acting held him in good stead during his filmmaking career. His camera didn’t shy away from a little drama. Deftly staged, high-strung and beautifully shot emotional scenes were hallmarks of his films.
Too much indulgence in local plays (jatra) and theatre may not have been seen by his family as a productive utilization of a youth’s time. That’s how people were in those days. Tarafdar left his Rajshahi home at an early age, and moved to Calcutta where he was relatively free to do as he pleased. Theatre remained a constant companion. In college days, he was only acting in plays, and direction was something that captured his imagination when he started working. In addition to the stage, drawing and sketching were abiding passions. In fact, it was from Calcutta’s Government College of Art & Craft that he graduated in 1940, and began working as a visualizer at J. Walter Thompson.
The one film that brought Rajen Tarafdar on the map and is still considered one of his finest pieces of work is Ganga (1960). Adapted from the eponymous novel by Samaresh Basu, it is an evocative tale about “creatures of the water”, as one of the characters describes the lot, the fisher-folk of Bengal who roam about the waves of Ganga and its tributaries in search of fish and redemption. One of their own was taken 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 among them, who’s hell-bent to go into the sea and explore it. Love blooms along the way and death rears its ugly head. With extremely limited means, Tarafdar constructed elaborate set pieces. Towards the beginning of the film, there is a boat race which has dozens of actors and scores of extras. With a skeleton crew and rudimentary equipment, Rajen Tarafdar managed to pull off scenes of extraordinary complexity involving hundreds of extras and elaborate action sequences. But despite all this chaos unfolding on screen, Ganga ultimately is a sensitive portrayal of life in the riverbeds. Gyanesh Mukherjee’s powerful portrayal of the elderly patriarch is unforgettable, and so is the searing performance of Niranjan Ray who plays the beefed-up Bilash (seriously, he could give today’s six-packers a run for their money). In the same year, Niranjan had also played the cold-hearted boyfriend Sanat in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara. There it was the heroine Supriya Choudhury all the way but in Ganga, he gets an opportunity to bite into the role.
Ganga was the only film by Rajen Tarafdar which was widely seen, acclaimed and appreciated. The songs, composed by Salil Chowdhury, were hits – especially this one ditty by Manna Dey called Amay bhashaili re/ Amay dubaili re. The tune was reused in Bimal Roy’s Kabuliwala (1961) in the 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 Ganga allowed 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 with Yash Chopra’s Trishul which was released 16 years later. Tarafdar followed this up with Jiban Kahini (1964), a black comedy about a failed insurance agent (Bikash Ray) who is about to kill himself, unable to bear the burden of debt. As he’s about to jump, he encounters a much younger man (Anup Kumar) who’s also about to end his life. This gives the old man a brilliant idea. The film contains an array of quirky characters (like the agent’s daughter who recites a mugged-up line every time a loan shark knocks on her 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 his heart set on choosing cinema as a vocation, he resigned from his position at the agency. JWT didn’t accept his resignation, insisting on sending a car home to pick him up. He would send his son Gora to shout at them from the balcony that Rajen wasn’t home. One day, the car stopped coming. Rajen was happily making films and doing theatre. But in a career spanning thirty years, he ended up directing a sum total of seven films. But those handful of films remain to prove his mastery over the craft of filmmaking. Even in the swaying boats on the river in Ganga, his camera remained stationary. His expertise seemed to stem from his own understanding of the common people and how their world functions.
Shyam Benegal was deeply impressed by Rajen Tarafdar’s work. He has gone on record expressing his admiration for Rajen’s filmmaking. In 1983, he cast Rajen in a negative role for his film Arohan. Rajen featured in three other films, Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar (1984) and Aakaler Sandhaney (1980), and Shekhar Chatterjee’s Basundhara (1986). The last film is a great example of how skilful Tarafdar’s acting was. He often played illiterate, exploitative moneylenders or farmers. He was so good at essaying those roles that it’s difficult to fathom it’s the same man making those exquisite films.
Besides Ganga and Antariksha, the other film that stands tall in Rajen Tarafdar’s body of work is Palanka (1975), a post-partition tale about an old man holding on to a piece of furniture – an ornate bed – and his past, and how he learns to let go. The film features some priceless moments shared between the two leads played by Utpal Dutta and Bangladesh’s Anwar Hossain. Palanka won Rajen Tarafdar his second National Award (he won the first for Ganga).
Rajen Tarafdar’s worldview and craftsmanship is evident in a story related by his son Gora Tarafdar to journalist Atindra Daniyari. Rajen was shooting for his swansong, Naagpash (1987) in the Sunderbans, and Gora was assisting him. They arrived at a makeshift clinic. The doctor welcomed the filmmaker and his crew. Rajen asked, where is Bhebo? In a minute, “Bhebo” stood in front of them with half his face covered with a gamcha (a towel cum handkerchief, used commonly in Bengal). Rajen asked him to uncover himself, and as Bhebo reluctantly revealed the other half of his face, everyone gasped audibly. There was a hole where his jaw should have been. It was the outcome of a fight with the dreaded Bengal tiger. While returning, Rajen Tarafdar explained to his stunned son, “Cinema doesn’t mean presenting people’s struggles in nice fancy boxes. It means showcasing reality as starkly as possible. How can you shoot in these locations and not depict their everyday struggles?”
Rajen Tarafdar didn’t belong to any illustrious family, and nor did he hobnob with the foreign press at international film festivals. He was always on the ground, constantly striving to show the everyday struggles of common men and women, for whom every single day is a fight to survive. He passed away in relative obscurity in 1987. A filmmaker of immense talent, he didn’t remain long in public memory. Even his centenary in 2017 passed in silence. The silence was deafening.
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