Tapan Sinha is the quintessential Bengali filmmaker in spirit and world-view. In a long and prolific career spanning almost five decades, Sinha’s works have varied in quality and genres but like a true auteur his style and aesthetics have remained constant. A story-teller par excellence, his films are well-crafted in terms of structure and technique but seldom do they exhibit cinematic adventure and experimentation.
Tapan Sinha was born in Kolkata on 2nd October 1924; he was the fifth child of Tridibesh and Pramila Sinha. He did his schooling in the small towns of Bhagalpur and Bankura. Sinha remembers in his memoirs Mone Pore that in Bhagalpur he had seen A Tale of Two Cities – a Hollywood film starring Ronald Coleman – and the film perhaps was “sub-consciously responsible for him becoming a filmmaker”. (In 1961, Sinha was to pay homage to Ronald Coleman in Jhinder Bandi – a lavish historical melodrama about palace intrigue – which was based on one of Coleman’s major hits The Prisoner of Zenda. He also made a casting coup of sorts by bringing together Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee for the first time and extracting a fine performance from Soumitra Chatterjee as the charismatic villain.) While doing his Masters in Physics at the Calcutta University during 1943-46, the movie-bug bit him and he regularly saw the works of John Ford, Carol Reed, Billy Wilder and Frank Capra. Completing his masters in 1946, Sinha joined the New Theatres Studios as a trainee assistant sound-engineer. A couple of years later, he joined Calcutta Movietone Studios where Mrinal Sen too worked in the sound department. In 1950, he got an opportunity to work at the Pinewood Studios, London and joined the unit of director Charles Creighton, who was shooting The Hunted at that time. After a two year stint in London working and watching films of Fellini, De Sica, Rossellini and others Sinha returned to Kolkata ready to make his own films.
Ankush (1954), Tapan Sinha’s debut film based on the novel Sainik by Narayan Ganguly with Anubha, Abhi Bhattacharya, Johor Roy and Manju De in the leading roles had an elephant named Nilbahadur as its central character. The film though a flop gave him the opportunity to make his next film Upahar (1955) – a big budget multi–starrer about a pathological miser with Uttam Kumar, Sabitri Chatterjee, Manju De, in the major roles. Tonsil (1956) – the debut of Madhabi Mukherjee (she used her real name Madhuri in this film) –a comedy film was another modest success. It was with his fourth film the all-time favourite Kabuliwala (1956), that Tapan Sinha’s credentials as a film-director was firmly established. This film, about a golden-hearted Afghan dry-fruits merchant and money lender who develops a tender friendship with a little Bengali girl Minnie, had Chhabi Biswas giving a stellar performance in the role of Rehmat Khan. The film which was screened at the Berlin Film Festival of 1957 received critical acclaim and also won an award for its music at the festival.
Kabuliwala is the first of Sinha’s three of films - Kshudista Pashan (1960) and Atithi (1965) being the other two – based on short stories of Rabindranath Tagore. Kshudita Pashan, the story of a decadent sultan as experienced by a traveller (played by Soumitra Chatterjee) who is trapped within the confines of the haunted palace on a rain-lashed night. Dilip Ray, the noted character actor, gave one of his best performances in this film while Sinha’s actor-director wife Arundhati Devi (1925-1990) was brilliant in the role of a totally dialogue-less major character. Operating within the parameters of the horror film genre Sinha brought out the subtle nuances inherent in the multi-layered Tagore tale. Atithi is the story of young boy Tarapada brought up in the plenitude and loving atmosphere of a zamindar’s family. Tarapada, a young man with bohemian tendencies sacrifices the life of luxury and goes away in search of artistic excellence leaving the zamindar’s family, especially his teenaged daughter heartbroken. Tapan Sinha’s films based on Tagore’s short stories are lessons in screen adaptation of difficult literary works. Like the majority of Tagore’s short stories all three are not plot driven and read like narrations told in the first person. In all the three films Sinha does a commendable job in creating situations and incidents and subplots and threading them together into a cohesive cinematic form. Kshudita Pashan and Atithi both won the National Awards as the Second Best Feature Film.
Adapting classics of Bengali literature has in fact been Tapan Sinha’s metier as a filmmaker. Besides Tagore, whom Sinha has admitted to be the 'greatest inspiration of his life', he has adapted works of established Bengali writers like Banaphool, Jarasandha, Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya and Kalkut (Samaresh Bose) into films that are true to the spirit of the originals yet overcoming the trap of being literal in style and form. As he himself said, “Literature is a character by itself…but cinema will portray the spirit of a literary work through its own unique qualities.”. Louhakapat (1957), based on a novel by Jarasandha, is a gritty exposition of the life in a prison taking a smpathetic view about the lives of hardened criminals. The film is notable for its unsentimental and realistic depiction of the daily grind behind the bars and the complex relationships that develop between the inmates. The character actor Kamal Mitra gave a great performance as a prisoner condemned to life imprisonment in this film while Nirmal Kumar and Anil Chatterjee too had significant roles. Kalomati (1957), an adaptation of a short story by Ramapada Choudhury captures the miserable lives of coal-miners and the struggles of a dedicated social-worker – Arundhati Devi in one of her finest performances – to establish a crèche in the colliery. Hansuli Banker Upakatha (1962), based on a novel by Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya is a neo-realistic depiction of the story of survival of a group of people living on the banks of a small river in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. The final sequence of the film where hundreds of villagers join together to rebuild their homes destroyed earlier by devastating floods displays Sinha’s immense cinematic mastery and control over the medium. Nirjan Saikate (1963), a film about five widows - played by Sharmila Tagore, Chhaya Devi, Ruma Guha Thakurtha, Bharati Devi and Renuka Roy - is based on a work by Kalkut. The film is fervent exposition of the concept of widow remarriage. Sinha is able to bring out the psychological barriers and social issues concerning the remarriage of a widow and is also excellent in exploiting the sea beach of Puri as the background to this intense human drama of taboo love, guilt and redemption.
Tapan Sinha’s next film Jotugriha (1964) marks a departure in his career. The focus here shifts from the social to the individual. The film explores the inner reasons for the break-up a marriage – the deep phobias and tensions that underlies the relationship between two good and sincere but egotistical individuals who love each other deeply but ultimately lead each other to despair and destruction. Jotugriha is one of Tapan Sinha’s most intimate and stylised films. This study of marital disharmony is wonderfully narrated through a series of well-structured flashbacks after the long separated couple – played by Uttam Kumar and Arundhati Devi – meet each other in a train compartment. Aarohi (1965), which was remade in Hindi as Arjun Pandit by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, continues Sinha’s explorations into the individual psyche through and celebrates the grit and determination of a person who overcomes tremendous social and personal handicaps to achieve his goal. Kali Bannerjee as the illiterate assistant to a successful doctor who becomes as wise and sagacious as the doctor himself gave one of his most memorable performance in this film. Galpo Holeo Satyi (1966) shows Sinha’s mastery over the comic fantasy - this film about a servant who joins a dysfunctional family and miraculously brings in joy and happiness was remade in Hindi again by Hrishikesh Mukherjee as Bawarchi (1972) with Rajesh Khanna in the lead role. In Tapan Sinha’s original the great comedian Robi Ghosh gave on of his most well-known performances. Sinha would further explore this genre but this time with strong political undertones in Ek Je Chilo Desh (1977), where a crazy scientist invents the truth-serum that sends shivers down the spines of the establishment. Aajab Gnayer Aajab Katha (1998) is another of Sinha’s comic fantasies – this time about an ideal self-sufficient village community.
Hatey Bazaare (1967), one of Sinha’s most accomplished works, deals with human goodness and the spirit of protest that leads to collective happiness. The film, based on a novel written by Banaphool in the form of a diary, once again shows his mastery over adapting difficult literary works into cohesive cinema. Ashok Kumar and Vyjayanthimala played the lead roles and the film won the National Award for the Best Feature Film.
The turbulent late sixties and the early seventies made a definite impression on Sinha’s works. After Haatey Bazaare, there is again a shift of focus to contemporary issues and social problems - the romanticism is now replaced by a more critical and analytical gaze. Apanjan (1968) deals with the frustrations of the unemployed within the backdrop of the emerging Naxalite movement that would shake the socio-political polity of Calcutta and West Bengal soon. Although Sagina Mahato (1970) – which is an adaptation of his late friend the journalist and writer Gourkishor Ghosh’s novel of the same name and is one of Tapan Sinha’s most popular films – with Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu in the lead roles – is an escape from contemporary world, the social concerns are very much present. Sagina – the simple tea-garden labourer who rises against the oppression and builds up a trade-union is a typical Sinha character – an individual who overcomes personal and external limitations to achieve success in his endeavours. After Sagina Mahato, Sinha made Ekhoni (1971), again about the contemporary youth and their predicament.
In the early seventies Sinha went to Mumbai for work. But the critical and box-office failure of Zindagi Zindagi (1972) starring Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman prompted him to come back ot Kolkata where he made Aadhar Periye (1973) and Raja (1975) – both dealing with disaffected urban youth.
Safed Haathi (1977) marks Sinha’s debut in making films for children. He is perhaps the only major filmmaker in India who has consistently produced entertaining yet intelligent films for a young audience. Sabuj Dwiper Raja (1979) – an adventure film shot in the Andaman Islands ranks among the most popular Bengali films for children. Aaj Ka Robinhood (1987), which has been screened at several international film festivals and Anokha Moti (2000) also demonstrate Sinha’s mastery over the genre.
Tapan Sinha’s films in the 1980’s are concerned with the individual caught in the trap of a corrupt and inefficient system that encourages security in mediocrity. As he has remarked, "I have always believed in individual courage and effort. I think, collective system or life hardly allows an individual to discover the infinite strength within him.” Banchharamer Bagan (1980) is a hilarious social satire about a marginal farmer who outwits three generations of a landlord family and saves his small piece of farmland. With its underlying theme of land to the tiller and its portrayal of a farmer’s deep attachment to his land, the film is still relevant in contemporary India. Adalat O Ekti Meye (1982) starring Tanuja as a woman who seeks justice after being gang raped on a sea beach is a strong feminist statement against the humiliation and suffering of a victim of rape and also questions the integrity of the unsympathetic patriarchal judicial system that stigmatises the victim rather than punishing the criminals. Sinha’s films in the eighties, many of which are based on real-life incidents and characters, often depict the despair of an honest and talented individual who is oppressed by an unfair and inequitable society. Gone is the romantic hope of collective action delivering a utopian liberty and equality – optimism is now replaced now by a sense of bleak pessimism. Atanka (1986), developed from newspaper reports but with fictitious characters, is his most controversial film. The film captures the fear and hopelessness of a dedicated school-master – Soumitra Chatterjee in an excellent performance - who accidentally becomes a witness to political murder committed by his former pupil and whose quest for justice ends in his daughter disfigured by an acid bomb attack. Ek Doctor Ki Maut (1991), again based on real-life character, depicts the misery of a talented doctor who invents a vaccine against tuberculosis but is forced to commit suicide by an unsympathetic system that fails to recognise the importance of his invention. The film which had Pankaj Kapur and Shabana Azmi in the main cast won the National Award for the Second Best Feature Film and Tapan Sinha the award for the Best Director. Wheelchair (1994) continues on the same theme but this time with happier results for its main protagonists – a woman who is paralysed from waist-down and a crusading doctor who gives her hope and strength to live and fight for justice.
Tapan Sinha has been active in the new century also. In 2001, he completed an ambitious project Shatabdir Kanya (Daughters of This Century) – a six-part film based on stories by Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Gourkishor Ghosh, Prafulla Roy and Dibyendu Palit. The film is a strong statement depicting the neglect and abuse Indian women have face through out the 20th century.
Tapan Sinha has made two tele-films – Aadmi Aur Aurat (1984) and Didi (1990) - and three documentaries among which the ones he made on the scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose and on HIV-AIDS prevention stand out.
Tapan Sinha’s works have won 19 National Film Awards in various categories. His films have also won laurels in International Film Festivals of Berlin, Venice, London, Moscow, San Francisco, Locarno, Cork Festival in Ireland Kampuchea and Seoul. He has also served as a member of the jury in film festivals at Tashkent and San Francisco among others. In 1995, he published his memoirs Mone Pore – a slim volume recounting assorted anecdotes, personalities and incidents in his long and distinguished innings as a filmmaker.
Tapan Sinha can be best described as a socially committed entertainer. Eschewing experimentation he has striven to deliver films which have been commercially viable yet aesthetically pleasing, socially sensitive and thought provoking. In his own words his career as a filmmaker has been, “one long journey in search of art, truth and beauty ….”
A Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner for his contribution to Indian cinema, Sinha, who had been ailing for sometime, passed away on January 15, 2009 in Kolkata.