2 Bengali Television Shows That Redefine Regional TV

Among the people of Bengal who like talking politics and feminism are a great number of people who dismiss regional TV shows as ‘crap’.

Sure, a whole lot of them are. Most are horrendously wrapped up in cultural and patriarchal stereotypes and make me very angry indeed.

But things have (finally) started changing on Bengali TV. Shows (or ‘serials’ if you wanna go full desi) have begun to articulate stuff no one would have dreamt of twenty years ago. I know this because I watch a couple of them quite devotedly.

Now, this is something that took a long time for me to admit. I swear I stopped writing this post like 5 times, just because I was so scared of what people would think. It’s almost as if watching Bangla TV is a matter of shame, something only lowly non-intellectual people do.

And that, of course, is a load of BS. Honoured judges of our culture may dismiss them off-hand, but I think it’s about damn time we sat down and started paying closer attention to our shows. In order to progress and get rid of horrible stuff on the television, we need to acknowledge the progress that has already been made.

So here are two Bengali shows that I have watched for at least three months each and enjoyed immensely. I would ask y’all to get over your inherent-dismissal of all things regional (*cough* checkthatcolonialhangover *cough*) and start watching them.

  1. Mahanayak.

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Plot Summary: 

The show is inspired by the life of actor Uttam Kumar, possibly Bengal’s most well-beloved actor. It explores his personal and professional relationships and how the two merged.

Cast [Not exhaustive]:

  • Prosenjit Chatterjee as Arun Kumar Chatterjee
  • Paoli Dam as Sucharita Sen
  • Mishka Halim as Uma Chatterjee
  • Tanushree Chakraborty as Priya Devi
  • Priyanka Sarkar as Gayatri
  • Manali Dey as Nibedita Ray

Verdict:

I don’t want to debate the show’s historical accuracy. It’s a work of art, and it does not claim to be a biography. So the liberties it may have taken regarding the storyline don’t really upset me all that much.

Now that that’s out of the way, the first thing you need to know about this show that it’s hella well produced. Like, seriously. The recreation of the 50s, 60s and 70s has been done to perfection. It’s presented in cinemascope, which makes it that little bit fancier. The acting and dialogue are all pretty good, if a little stilted at times.The story has been beautifully structured at a brisk pace.

What really gets to me, though, is the narrative and the characterization. For a show that is entirely centred on the male protagonist, the writers have done an excellent job with the women who, by the way, outnumber the men six to one on the show (literally). The women characters are complicated and richly created. Their motives, contexts and lives have been thoroughly explored. There are no villains, although there are victims. Paoli Dam as Sucharita, Tanusree Chakraborty as Priya and Mishka Halim as Uma Devi  are striking.

The story of the ‘first woman film journalist of Bengal‘ is a very interesting side-narrativein the show. It stars Manali Dey as Nibedita, a fictional character inspired by Sharmila Tagore’s portayal of a journalist in Satyajit Ray’s film, Nayak. The film’s protagonist had been played by Uttam Kumar himself. All the references made me cry a little. Oh, the meta possibilities!

The only complaint I have is that the women are, very clearly, supporting characters. Arun Kumar is the distinct lynch-pin around which the main story revolves; this show would not pass the Bechdel test. The idea that all of them are in love with him is also quite irksome. But baby steps, baby steps. It’s an astonishingly well-crafted production that will, in all probability, end as a miniseries. If more such works appear on Bangla TV, I have high hopes for its future.

2. Goyenda Ginni

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Plot: The show follows the life of Parama, a woman who decides to take up detective investigation as a profession after being a homemaker for a long time.

Cast [Not Exhaustive]:

  • Indrani Haldar as Parama Mitra / Rumi / Pori
  • Saheb Chatterjee as Parimal Mitra / Bablu
  • Indrajit Bose as Arup Roy
  • Basanti Chatterjee as Thamma
  • Aditi Chatterjee as Nandini Mitra (Parma’s Assistant)

Verdict:

Goyenda Ginni has its issues. The main character is shown as someone who is more or less a superwoman. She can do no wrong. She is perfect. Which, of course, is a problem in its self. We need to teach our girls to be brave, our women to be independent, not ‘perfect’. The idea that a woman has to be a perfect homemaker in order to justify having a career is also a toxic one.

Having said this, I have heard more outspoken feminist speeches on this show than anywhere else in Bangla TV. Art that shows women fighting for other women makes me happy and this show does a lot of that. Friendships among women extend across generations. Women who say ‘No’ to men’s romantic attention are fiercely defended by the Ginni herself. Men who ask why women don’t remain in the kitchen are immediately rebuffed. Patriarchal women are rectified by feminist women. There was this really cool scene where a new bride was welcomed into the house by her husband with the words, “Ma, tomar jonno bondhu aanlam,” (Mother, I have brought a friend for you), rather than the traditional (and very shitty) “Tomar jonno dashi aanlam” (I have brought a slave for you).

Most importantly, women are shown as characters outside of their relationships with men. They have their own hobbies and interests. They do things, things which have nothing to do with the family and everything to do with their education and who they are as people.

That is huge, guys. I know that the only thing it boils down to is basically the showmakers saying, “Look, women are people too!”, but still. In contrast with Mahanayak,  Goyenda Ginni would pass the Bechdel test with flying colours several times over in each episode, which has to be some sort of a first on Bengali television. For the first time, here is a show that focuses exclusively on the leading female character’s work and intellectual abilities, and absolutely nothing else. YAAAAAAASSSSSSSS.

Also in contrast with Mahanayak, this show is a lot more traditional in its cinematographic treatment. (Read: shock zooms and multiple cuts to people’s faces). The narrative is also very spooling and much slower. But this is possibly the only successful ‘mega-serial’ on Bangla TV recently that has a new cast of characters every few weeks. The old Byomkesh Bakshi series tried to do that as well, but it did not last very long.

With Paroma’s new cases, new sets of people come and go. It’s just really cool to see these actors inhabit characters meant to last for a very short time so successfully. It’s interesting to see them interacting with Paroma’s character too. The technique opens up the world of the women on the show to something much more than the usual home-work dynamic.

Also, the detecting part is about as realistic as Sherlock Holmes deducing a man’s height from his shoe-prints, but if you can digest it with Sherlock Holmes, you can jolly well digest it here. If you’re a Feluda or Christie fan, though, you’ll find plenty of references!

The times, guys, they are a’changing.

(Ha. Did you get that Dylan plug there. Did you. Because. You know. He won the Nobel Prize. And all. And some people didn’t like it. I’m so current, y’all. I’m so current.)

(Anyway.)

While in all likelihood they will never change fast enough to match up with our politics, change is taking place. And it’s important that we acknowledge this. Having the arrogance to dismiss your culture is no mean feat, my children.

Of course, it’s important to accept things with discretion.

And you can be discreet only if you subject the elements of your culture to intellectual scrutiny. To do that, however, you have to, you know, actually scrutinize stuff (as opposed to shutting yourself up in some ivory tower of intellectual authority). Destroy this idea that engaging with popular culture makes you less of an intellectual. That you need to somehow be involved with the elitist-approved ‘higher’ art in order to affect social change. Engage with your culture, even and especially if you want to criticize it.To provide some colonial validation, Shakespeare would agree.

And once you do, please do embrace and acknowledge those who are actually making an effort to change things for the better. It makes people happier people and the world a better place.

(Also, like, try out the shows. And then let me know what you think.)

See you next time!


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