At a time when the remarkable make-up of the protagonist in ‘Aparajito’ is making waves, one can only marvel at a similar instance involving legendary actor Basanta Chowdhury, who played the lead role in ‘Raja Rammohun’ nearly six decades ago. When the first poster came out before the film’s release in October 1965, there was little to choose between Chowdhury and H.P. Briggs’ famous portrait of the Raja made in 1832. As the sestercentennial (250th) birth anniversary celebrations of Raja Rammohun Roy pick up pace in India and Great Britain, one can only look back in wonder at the film.
Says Anjan Bose, managing director, Aurora Film Corporation, who produced the film, “As we were more concerned about the final product, the press was never allowed during film shoots. As a result, the pre-release poster of Basanta Chowdhury as Raja Rammohun Roy, created an immediate impact on film buffs.”
Bose adds, “ ‘Raja Rammohun’ was the first Bengali film where the state government waived amusement tax. Apart from an uninterrupted run of 19 weeks in the main release chain of Sree-Prachi-Indira and other theatres, the film was screened in Bihar, Odisha, Delhi, Mumbai, even faraway Bristol in UK, where the Raja died in 1833.”
The black & white film was shot at Aurora Studio in Manicktala, Varanasi and Ghats of the River Ganga at Tribeni in Hooghly district. It also won two major awards, both in 1966. These were the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Award (BFJA) for best actor and a national award (Certificate of Merit for third best feature film). The top two in this category were Mrinal Sen’s ‘Akash Kusum’ and Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Subarnarekha’.
Directed by ex-army colonel, Bijoy Basu, the 134-minute-long film had some eminent actors in key roles. Kamal Mitra played Rammohun’s father Ramkanto Roy, Chhaya Devi played Rammohun’s mother Tarini Devi, Basabi Nandy was the Raja’s wife Uma, Asit Baran Raja was Radhakanta Deb and Haradhan Banerjee played the Scottish philanthropist David Hare.
Anjan Bose comes up with some interesting trivia. “Bijoy Basu, the director, was then basking in the success of another Aurora production ‘Bhagini Nivedita’, which ran at the theatres for 17 weeks in 1962. For ‘Raja Rammohun,’ before zeroing in on Basanta Chowdhury, Basu had weighed the option of casting Soumitra Chatterjee in the lead role. However, he was not satisfied with Soumitra’s ‘look test.’ On the other hand, Basanta Chowdhury, aspiring to prove himself, got into the very skin of the character. Not even once could the audience differentiate between the Raja, the pioneer of social reforms, and the actor.”
Cast as young Rammohun was Tilak Chakraborty, who had excelled as a child actor in ‘Dersho Khokar Kando’ a few years ago. Later, in the 70s, he became better known as the husband of leading Tollywood heroine Mahua Roy Chowdhury.
Another remarkable aspect of the film was its authenticity. To achieve this, the director-producer duo brought on board two eminent authors, Premankur Atarthi and Narayan Gangopadhyay. With very little reference material available, Gangopadhyay put in a lot of effort to place the Raja’s life and work on the table. Based on this, director Bijoy Basu wrote the screenplay.
Talking of authenticity, I would like to bring to the fore a family tale. The Sati Daha (immolation of the widow on the husband’s funeral pyre) scenes in the film were so realistic that a close relative of mine, while watching the film at Sree Cinema in Hatibagan, fell unconscious. After some help from fellow cine-goers he came back to his senses.
Music plays a key role in the film. In this aspect, veteran music director Robin Chatterjee deserves full credit. The Vedic hymns were sung by noted Sanskrit scholar Dr Gobinda Gopal Mukherjee. Manabendra Mukhopadhyay sang Raja Rammohun’s immortal song ‘Nitya Niranjana.’ The spoof on the Raja, ‘Betar Surai Mel-er kul, Betar Bari Khanakul’ was sung by Mintu Dasgupta, arguably the finest-ever parody singer from Bengal.
‘Raja Rammohun’ was a perfect Puja release, with the launch date, 1st October, being Saptami. Just before the silver jubilee week in mid-November, the state government decided to waive amusement tax on the film. This decision was the first of its kind in the state. It is believed, publicist for the film, Sree Panchanan, played a key role in getting this decision cleared. In those days, if a film ran for eight weeks in the key release chain of three theatres in Kolkata, it was regarded as a silver-jubilee hit.
After the tax cut, local schools benefitted the most. They would buy tickets as block bookings for students as watching ‘Raja Rammohun’ was the perfect educational trip. In those days, ticket prices ranged from 65 paise for front stall to Rs 3.50 for balcony. After the tax cut, these prices ranged from 50 paise to Rs 2.
In the 60s, even the 70s, lobby cards depicting scenes from the film were a must at any single-screen theatre. Any cinephile would take a look around before going for current booking. An added attraction were the film booklets. Printed on ordinary paper and priced dirt-cheap, these gave a synopsis of the film, a note on the key actors and lyrics of songs used in the film. In the case of ‘Raja Rammohun’ these were printed in both Bengali and English. One line in the latter stood out. “No more rites and rituals. A religion shall live only by its truth content.”
The 60s decade was the pre-television era when print reigned supreme. Some newspapers and magazines had critics who could make or mar a film. However, in the case of ‘Raja Rammohun’ most papers reacted favourably.
‘Hindusthan Standard’ (now defunct) wrote: “It needs a fair amount of courage, untarnished by any concern for crude commerce, not to speak of the idealistic urge, to make a film on Raja Rammohun Roy.”
It added: “For Basanta Chowdhury this will remain a distinctive screen achievement. Physically and emotionally, he looks the replica of Raja Rammohun Roy.”
Popular Bengali daily Jugantar (now defunct) wrote: “The film presents a watershed moment in Bengal’s history, when Raja Rammohun ignited Indian minds with knowledge and reason.” It also complimented director Bijoy Basu, calling the film his best work so far.
Anandabazar Patrika, Sachitra Bharat and Dainik Basumati also heaped praise on the film. Naturally, in these articles, words like ‘prosthetic’, ‘biopic’, ‘trolls’, were conspicuous by their absence. After all, these words popped up only in the 21st century.
Images courtesy: Sanjeet Chowdhury and Aurora Film Corporation.