Debaki Bose
Debaki Bose

Few Indian filmmakers are renowned for their scholarship on religious saints and their ideological principles. Lesser known is the passion with which a filmmaker placed the lives of these saints and/or their religious preaching on celluloid. The credit for an oeuvre – devotional films soaked in rich music and spiritual songs dedicated to several Indian saints and poet saints goes to late filmmaker Debaki Kumar Bose (1898-1971). Over a long span of three decades as filmmaker, it is not as though Bose did not make films of other genres. But the history of his life and his career in films could become a powerful film with a strong storyline. Sadly, apart from some senior film people of the old school who are still alive, and lovers of devotional music who thrived on the songs in these films, no one remembers either Debaki Kumar Bose or his films today.

Debaki Bose Portrait
Debaki Bose Portrait

There has been little attempt to showcase his works to today’s audience and film lovers of classical Indian cinema. So, it was a pleasant surprise to discover some of his films being screened over a three-day retrospective at Nandan II organized jointly by the Tapan Sinha Foundation and Nandan, West Bengal Government’s Cultural Complex in the first week of July. The retrospective was organized in celebration of 75 years of Bose’s film Seeta (1934) in Hindi, which is the first Indian talkie to be screened at an international film festival. The film was screened at the Venice Film Festival where it won an Honorary Diploma, making Bose the first Indian director to have won an international award. Sadly, no print of this film has survived the ravages of neglect and time. The film that was a box office hit at the time, starred Durga Khote and Prithviraj Kapoor and made Bose a household name among cinebuffs of the time. Kavi (1949) based on a novel by Tarasankar Bandopadhyay, was the inaugural film. Other films screened over the following two days were – Bhagaban Shrikrishna Chaitanya (1954) in two versions, Bengali and Hindi, Pathik (1953), Arghya (1961) Nabajanma (1956) and Sagar Sangame (1959).

Born on 25 November 1898 in Akalpoush, Burdwan, Debaki Kumar Bose was the son of a leading advocate of the town. He was thrown out of his home because his parents were outraged by his walking out of the examination hall to join Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. Bose began his working life as a seller of gamchas (cottage-made towels woven out of coloured thread) from a roadside stall. He also took up work as assistant editor of Shakti, a Bengali weekly. During this time, filmmaker Dhirendra Nath Ganguly known as D.G. had come to Burdwan. When he heard about Bose’s talents with the pen, he invited him to write a film script come to Kolkata with it. The script later became the first production of British Dominion Films and was released under the title Flames of Flesh. Bose also played the male lead opposite D.G.’s first wife Premika Devi. It featured horses and elephants and scenes shot in the grand Amber Palace in Jaipur. The film turned out to be a super hit. After a few films under this banner, Bose joined Pramathesh Barua’s Barua Pictures and finaRatnadeep Movie Posterlly New Theatres in 1932. He started his own production company, Debaki Productions, in 1945.

Ratnadeep Movie PosterBose introduced actors who later became legends of the silver screen. Among them are Kanan Debi, Chandrabati, Umashashi and Chhaya Debi. Less than six of the 50 films he made between 1930 and 1961 survive in print form. All six of his silent films that were once preserved at the National Film Archives in Pune are lost. Few recall that he had introduced playback singing to films and was the first to have a background score for Puran Bhakt in 1933.

Bose’s deep knowledge and love for music especially of the Vaishnavite and Tagore schools form the backbone for his films like Chandidas (1932), Puranbhagat, Vidyapati (1937) and Bhagaban Sri Krishna Chaitanya. These films are enriched with musical scores and songs that transcend the barriers of time, language and space. They are educative as they unfold the lives of some of the best saint poets in the country we do not really know about.  They also speak about the ideology of love between and among people that crosses limitations placed by birth, caste, class, wealth and sex.  The films based on Tagore’s poems are similarly lyrical and filled with Tagore songs. His oeuvre has a varied span beginning with thrillers (Nishir Dak – 1932) through historicals (Meerabai – 1933), mythologicals (Krishna Leela – 1946), devotional biopics (Chandidas, Vidyapati, Bhagaban Sri Krishna Chaitanya, Puran Bhagat) socials (Bhalobasha, Sagar Sangamey, Nabajanma,) and ending with films based on classical literature (Kabi, Chira Kumar Sabha, Pathik, Arghya) each carrying a powerful social message. His films reveal his deep concern about the oppression and sufferings of the lower caste resulting from the rigid indoctrination of the caste system especially among the Brahmin community.
He also made some documentaries for Films Division that were screened at Nandan II on the same week as a tribute to his memory. The films were – Raidas, Bargad Ki Aap Beeti, Andhere Se Ujale Mein and Brahmin. Raidas is a celluloid biography of India’s renowned saint Raidas, a cobbler who composed hymns but did not give up up his traditional occupation. Bargad Ki Aap Beeti is in the form of observations made by an old banyan tree under whose branches incidents in the story keep happening. Andhere Se Ujale Mein was the celluloid adaptation of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore called Suchi. It explores untouchability as a social evil.  Brahmin was also based on a Tagore poem inspired by the story of Satyakam from the Chandogya Upanishad. The first film he directed independently was Panchasar (silent) released in 1930. Debaki Bose was a top Indian film director in his time. Many Bengali films made by him were also released in Hindi and even in Marathi and Tamil. He received Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Film Direction in 1957. He received Padma Shri in Arts in 1958.
Sagar Sangamey (1959) was nominated for Golden Bear at the 9th Berlin International Film Festival (1959). It received the prestigious National Film Award for Best Film in 1959. Sagar Sangamey in retrospect marks a scathing indictment on caste consciousness among Brahmins based on the man-made premise of high and low birth that can easily be erased with the best of human emotions – love.  The film starred Bharati Debi as a very rigid, feudal and aristocratic Brahmin widow while the little Manju Adhikary played a little girl belonging to a group of sex workers who travelled together to attend the Ganga Sagar Mela whose paternity, caste and family history is a mystery.  The retrospective that pulled in a packed theatre for each show, was a learning experience for everyone. It was backed with an exhibition of archival photographs of the filmmaker over the various stages of his evolution – with his family, with his colleagues, at work, with state dignitaries enriched with posters of his films and a listed filmography.

Shoma A. Chatterjee

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