Watching Bengali Cinema without Knowing Any Bengali: An Ignorant User Guide to Navigating The Language


(This post assumes some familiarity with conventions of mainstream Hindi films.)

Principle 1: Don’t Let the Transliterations Get You Down
Obviously no system of transliterating one language/script pairing to another that doesn’t have all the same sounds will be perfect, but there seems to be more disagreement among those who write out Bengali words in the Roman alphabet than for similar projects in Hindi.

1a: The Big O
When in doubt, change vowels (especially As) to O. For example, if you try searching for a film called Seshprahar, according to its spelling on, only to turn up empty, Google will probably ask “Did you mean Seshprohor?” I’ve been told I should watch Chhadmabeshi and Chodmobeshi, Parash Pathar, Parosh Pathor, and Porosh Pathor. For all I know, those sets contain completely different words and are thus completely different films…or not!

1b: IMDB Says Soumitra, They Say Shoumitro
As with transliterations from Hindi, try adding or removing an H. Sometimes I like to think of Hs as little sprinkles on the sundae bar of Indic languages: a few more won’t hurt, but if you’re not in the mood for them, you’re not really missing anything. (This approach is probably why, after a steady diet of Hindi films and music for eight years, I still cannot describe to an auto driver where the National Museum in Delhi is, even with a map in hand.)

1c: Pot, Kettle
Like English is any better! English is horrendously inconsistent in spelling and pronunciation. Just keep reminding yourself that if you can manage the differences among too, to, and two—and you can, right? Gold star!—you can persevere through romanized Bengali film titles.

Principle 2: Build Your Confidence with Ray, Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and Aparna Sen
Casual searching reveals that some, if not most, of the works of these more widely-known-outside-India filmmakers can be found with English subtitles without too much trouble. Watch and learn!

Principle 3: Angel Video Is Your New Best Friend
Subscribe to their youtube channel. They have a lot of (legal) movies with subtitles. Not all of them are good prints—let alone good movies—but sometimes beghars can’t be chosers.

Principle 4: Some Things You Learned from Bollywood Will Transfer, So Who Needs Subtitles Anyway?
The music is great. Heroes run awkwardly among trees (even Soumitra). The girl and boy (played by an actor closer to 40 than 20) who squabble for the whole film will end up together. People tug on their ears when they want  to be forgiven.

Principle 5: Some Things Won’t, So Expect the Unexpected
Romantic couples might hold hands. 20somethings sometimes live on their own in the city with friends, and no parent appears or is even invoked. Women talk about wanting to be airplane pilots. A heroine can bash her rapist over the head with a rock and not slash her own wrists in shame. People might have sex outside of marriage and not immediately die. On the other hand, those who do might feel so guilty they put themselves in prison, die of some horrible respiratory condition decades later, and then have their corpse bloodied by a vengeance-crazed Uttam Kumar and his shotgun. You never know.

5a: Maa!
Theory that needs testing: Bengali film mothers : Hindi film fathers (except in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham) :: Bengali film fathers : Hindi film mothers (minus the crying and wild hair)?

 5b: Helen?
Are there many (or other) vamps in classic Bengali cinema? Not that I’m not thrilled to see Helen (as in “Tere Liyea Aayea” from Gali Theke Rajpath).

Principle 6: Subtitles Are a Beautiful but Lonely Corner of Idealism
Obviously they are much preferred when you can get them, but the population is just too small when you don’t have patience for Induna or Netflix to ship. If we held out for subtitles, we wouldn’t have sampled such pleasures as Soumitra in an ascot and brainy specs (Baksha Badal);
BakshaBadal-11.46.12 AMUttam channeling Jabba the Hutt through the filter of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Stree);
Stree2-9.22.31or Soumitra, Uttam, Aparna, Haradhan Bannerjee, and Utpal Dutt re-telling Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot (Aparachito) (and, to be honest, we pulled the plug on that one after 45 minutes).
Aparichito-10.35.06 AMAparichito-10.48.30 AM

And anyway, the general vibe in comments on blog posts is that English can never sufficiently express the nuances and intricacies of Bengali, so you might as well surrender to the aesthetics of the original language, noble but confused.


Damn straight I don’t, but I love you anyway.


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