11th anniversary of death: Remembering Tapan Sinha, the human narrator

Tapan Sinha He was one of those filmmakers for whom commercial success and critical acclaim came hand in hand and his disappearance on January 15, 2009 marked the end of a glorious chapter of Indian cinema. It was the end of an era in Bengali cinema. The director of timeless classics of 84 years like Kabuliwala (1957), Khudito Pashan (1960), Jatugriha (1964), Harmonium (1976), Bancharamer Bagan (1980) and Ek Doctor Ki Maut '(1991) breathed for the last time after a prolonged illness. He is the master filmmaker 11 th dea th anniversary and he still lives on in th e memories.

Hailed by contemporaries and looked up to by successive generations of directors, Tapan Sinha belonged to a rare breed of film-makers for whom commercial success and critical acclaim came hand in hand. Mrinal Sen who had started making films around th e same time as Tapan Sinha , had once said Tapan Sinha was th e finest “middle-of- th e-road” film-maker in th e country. “We differed in many ways and I did not agree wi th him all th e time, but th at does not mean th at I do not consider him one of th e finest directors in India. I have also never found a human being as good and as powerful as Tapan Sinha ,” Sen had told in an interview.

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Born on October 2, 1924, in Kolkata, Tapan Sinha had his early sources of inspiration from American and British films, particularly th ose of Billy Wilder, John Ford and Carol Reed. After his graduation in Physics from th e University of Calcutta, Tapan Sinha started his film career as a sound engineer in 1946. Around 1950, he got th e opportunity to work under director Charles Cryton in London. Upon his return to India in 1952 he took up direction, and his first film ‘Ankush’ was released in 1954.

In th e next 50 years, Tapan Sinha made 40 films, won several national and international awards, including th e Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2008 for his outstanding contribution to Indian cinema. He was married to acclaimed Bengali film actor Arundhuti Devi, who died in 1994.

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Tapan Sinha was a versatile craftsman. It is impossible to categorize his films in any particular genre or tradition. I constantly shifted from period pieces (‘ Jhinder Bandi ’,‘ Khudito Pashan) for children's films (‘ Safed Haa th i’, ‘Aaj ka Robinhood’) to comedies (‘Bancharamer Bagan’), to social issues (‘ Ek Doctor Ki Maut ’, ‘Adalat O Ekti Meye’), serving to th e tastes of practically every section of cinema-goers.

Soumitra Chatterjee had once said: “As far as variety of subject and th eme is concerned, Tapan Sinha can only be compared wi th Satyajit Ray . He never repeated himself; th ere was always a new subject th at he addressed.” Soumitra Chatterjee also considers it his “great fortune” th at th e very second film in his career was Tapan Sinha ’s ‘Khudito Pashan’ (The Hungry Stone) in 1960.

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“In th e last 50 years he was not only my friend, but also a great teacher. I don’t know any o th er person apart from Satyajit Ray who has had such an influence on my career as an actor. He was a humanist, and I admire th at aspect of him immensely. He started as a mainstream film director and grew into someone who beautifully told stories of human concern,” adds Soumitra.

Tapan Sinha was a consummate and gifted storyteller, and his craft was characterised by his serious treatment of even popular th emes. His was essentially an artistic sensibility working wi th in a popular format. Like Charles Chaplin and Billy Wilder, Tapan Sinha ’s technique was essentially linear narration, wi th no fancy or avant-garde distractions. He could produce effects and dramatic tension using standard techniques and wi th out resorting to idiosyncrasies.


His stories dealt wi th human struggle against all barriers, like th e paternal affection of an old Afghan merchant for a Bengali Hindu child (‘Kabuliwala’); or th e humanistic concern of a Muslim vagabond for an ailing Hindu stranger (‘Aadmi aur Aurat’). Apart from Satyajit Ray , he was th e only director who took an active interest in making films for children, which managed to transcend th e age barrier and move adults also.

He could address one th eme after ano th er wi th masterly ease. The same masterly touch was noticeable in th e music and sound effects of his films. Kabuliwala had won th e music award at th e Berlin Film Festival.

He was representing “reformist” sensibility in Bengali cinema in th e 1950s and 1960s, keeping at bay th e influence of Bollywood masala formulas th at engulfed th e Indian film industry, and essentially catering to th e taste of th e middle-class Bengali audience. It was directors like Tapan Sinha and his uncompromising adherence to his own style th at helped th e Bengali industry retain its individuality for two decades.

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When th e th rust of th e Indian film industry was on feudal family melodrama, Tapan Sinha ’s focus was on th e problems of th e middle class in th e urban context. There was none of th e cheap imitations of th e vulgar song and dance routines and potboiler ingredients in his movies.

Alongside Satyajit Ray , Tapan Sinha was one of th e few directors who brilliantly adapted popular and great literature into films. The works of Rabindrana th Tagore to Tara Shankar Bandopadhyay, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Banaphool, and Subodh Ghosh were recreated by him on th e big screen, and never failed to grab audience attention.

Even when th e “great trio” ( Satyajit Ray , Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen) reigned supreme, it was a common sight in Kolkata to see large queues outside cinema halls, in pouring rain, when a Tapan Sinha film was released. Such was his charisma!

In his 11 th dea th anniversary, we pay our homage to th e master filmmaker!