If one director has managed to regularly make films within the Bengali film industry that are highly successful commercially, it is undoubtedly Tarun Majumdar. Regarded as an authority on rural Bengali life by no less than Satyajit Ray, he has an impeccable track record of always meeting the expectations of his audience, generally the Bengali middle-class, with simple, neat and clean films devoid of any vulgarity.
Majumdar was born in Bogra, now in Bangladesh. He moved to Calcutta in 1946, and trained as a scientist! He joined the film line as an assistant director with Rupasree Studio from 1952 - 59 and also made various advertising films before debuting with Kanan Devi's film unit. He formed the Yatrik collective with Dilip Mukherjee and Sachin Mukherjee from 1959 - 63 and made his first 4 films under the name of Yatrik.
Majumdar's first film under the Yatrik collective was Chaowa-Paowa (1959), a successful Uttam Kumar - Suchitra Sen starrer that was an adaptation of Frank Capra's screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (1934). Majumdar followed this up with Smriti Tuku Thak (1960) and Palatak (1963), that was produced by V Shantaram. The latter film, based on the story Angti Chattujjer Bhai by the famous writer Manoj Basu, marked the comedian Anup Kumar's change to a more heroic image. In 1965, both Majumdar's films Ek Tuku Basa (starring Soumitra Chatterjee) and Alor Pipasa (starring Basant Choudhury) featured popular actress, Sandhya Roy whom Majumdar eventually married and who played stellar roles in a many of his films.
One of Majumdar's most popular films and still talked about film is Balika Bodhu (1967). The film, based on a story by Bimal Kar and exploring adolescent love, saw a teenaged Moushumi Chatterjee making her film debut and winning the Bengal Film Journalists' Association (BFJA) Award for Best Actress. The film also won the BFJA Award for Best Cinematography in Black and White (Soumendu Roy) and for Best Music (Hemanta Mukherjee) while the film was declared the second best Indian film of the year. Majumdar would remake the film in Hindi in 1976. This version, Balika Badhu, was produced by Shakti Samanta and starred Sachin, Rajni Sharma and Asrani and was a modest success. In fact, Asrani won the Filmfare Best Comedian Award for the film, Majumdar's second Hindi feature. (He had earlier remade Palatak in Hindi as Rahgir (1969) starring Biswajeet, Sandhya Roy and Shashikala). Another well-known and popular film, Nimantran (1971), went on to win the BFJA Award for Best Indian Film of the year, Best Director for Majumdar, Best Actress for Sandhya Roy and Best Cinematographer in Black and White for Shakti Banerjee.
Following Nimantran, Majumdar had major box-office success with Shriman Prithviraj (1972) and Phuleshwari (1974) but perhaps Majumdar's best work in this period came in the quartet Thagini (1974), Sansar Simantey (1975), Ganadevata (1978) and Dadar Kirti (1980).
In Thagini, Sandhya Roy marries men one after another. On the 'phulshojya' or 'suhaag raat', she pretends illness and thus fobs off sexual advances of the groom. Then when the groom falls asleep frustrated, she escapes with all the money and jewellery. Utpal Dutt and Robi Ghosh play her sick father and unemployed brother respectively who force her to work like this though Dutt, is also wrecked by guilt at what they are doing. But as Sandhya is the sole bread earner, she has to continue her sham marriages order to provide sustenance for her family. The gang work in small moffusil towns but once the cops get a hint about their activities, they come to Calcutta. Here, they trap Anup Kumar who is a good natured man and slowly Sandhya Roy falls in love with the innocent man and conflicts arise both within her and with her family. Ultimately, of course, all's well that ends well. The film boasted of a great central performance by Sandhya Roy, one of her career's best..
Sansar Simantey is an endearing love story between a prostitute, Rajani (Sandhya Roy), and a thief, Aghor (Soumitra Chatterjee). The film, also starring Utpal Dutt, Robi Ghosh and Kali Banerjee, is a fine exploration of life in the red-light district through the colourful characters such as the madam, the doctor, the vendors, the hoodlums, the landlord's agent and the 'respectable' neighbours. A highlight of the film is the portion where Aghor takes Rajani on a tour of Calcutta.
Ganadevata is perhaps Majumdar's most ambitious film. Based on a novel by Tarashankar Banerjee, the film, set in rural Bengal before World War II, is the story of a blacksmith and tanner who refuse to work in a barter system. The film has an overtly political character, as the ensemble cast boasting of such fine artists such as Soumitra Chatterjee, Sandhya Roy, Madhabi Mukherjee and Robi Ghosh, includes characters like a rapacious landlord, a radicalised schoolteacher, a revoltionary being hunted by the British and a group of corrupt policemen. The film won the National Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.
Dadar Kirti, based on a story by Saradindu Banerjee, is a melodrama about a simple-minded man's journey into adulthood while looking at the theme of city-rural divide as representing a conflict of morality. The film introduced Tapas Paul and Debashree Roy, both of whom would become major stars and rule the Bengali film industry in the 1980s. Paul, in particular, became typecast as his character, Kedar, in this film, continuing to play the naive, sacrificing hero almost to the point of masochism.
Majumdar has often been unfairly dismissed as an unabashedly commercial filmmaker and nothing more. But then he has always dropped statements like one must keep the audience and commercial considerations in mind when one makes films. Especially since one works in a medium that costs lakhs of rupees and the producer must recover his money. He has even said in interviews that the filmmaker should compromise, if need be, to reach out to his audience. But to be fair to Majumdar, his films do show a strong sense of control over the choice of subject as well as the narrative flow, thus engaging his audience. And he does have his share of admirers who find his films to be totally unpretentious yet socially relavant.
Majumdar continued making films regularly into the 1990s. The films to stand out in this period include Amar Geeti (1983), a fine tribute to the power of music and cultural traditions surviving the humiliating decadence from colonial rule, Bhalobasha Bhalobasha (1985), again starring Debashree Roy and Apon Amar Apon (1990).
After taking a break from films in the 1990s, Majumdar made a grand comeback with the Rituparna Sengupta starrer, Alo (2003). The film, based on a story Kinnardal by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, revolves around an educated city girl who is married off in a village. The film looks at how she tries to bring light into the life of the villagers who are living in a world of myths and superstition. As in many of Majumdar's films, the soundtrack featured wonderful songs written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore. The film proved to be both - a critical and commercial success. As in Dadar Kirti, this film too is said to be a study of the joint family. Majumdar's films do expose the pros and the cons of the joint family system but generally he has always tended to favour traditional values. To quote Majumdar,
"In order to achieve personal happiness we have sacrificed many joys of life. The joint family was a community. People with low and high incomes stayed together securely under one roof, sharing all the delights of festivals and supporting each other during difficult times… The kids who listened to fairy tales from their grandmothers got extremely lonely after the breakdown of the joint family. "
Today in his 70s, Tarun Majumdar continues to be active, his latest film being Chander Bari (2007) with Babul Supriyo and Rituparna Sengupta. Yes, it is yet another exploration of the joint family.