Even before making his first Hindi film, Tapan cast the leading stars of Hindi cinema in his Bengali films – Ashok Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in Hatey Bazarey, Dilip Kumar and Saira Bano in Sagina Mahato. This was much before Mrinal Sen cast Hindi film actors in the Hindi movies he made in the late seventies and eighties. Apart from two minor though important roles, Waheeda Rehman as Gulabi in Abhijan (The Expedition, 1962) and Simi as Duli in Aranyer Din Ratri, Ray never used Hindi stars in his Bengali films.
However, Sharmila Tagore remained a part of the Ray crew since she made her debut in Ray’s Apur Sansar. By getting stars from Bombay to work in Bengali films, Tapan actually broadened the horizons of Bengali cinema in particular and regional cinema in general. This tradition was carried forward by Rituparno Ghosh who also featured the biggest stars of Hindi cinema in his Bengali films
The first aesthetically fulfilling Hindi venture for Tapan was Aadmi Aur Aurat (Man and Woman, 1982), which he made for Doordarshan, an autonomous public service broadcaster founded by the Government of India and the country’s lone television channel at that time. The film, which focuses on the journey of a pregnant woman and a young man who carries her to a hospital for her delivery, was taut and precise.
Since this was a tele-film, Tapan could work freely, unfettered by commercial aspects: “I felt a sense of freedom because I was making it for national TV, which had asked me to make a film and given me a free hand. I therefore didn’t need to think of box-office prospects. I decided to take advantage of this situation and make a film the way I’d love to, and broke away from the kind of films I had been making. You will notice for example the economy of shots in this film. I had often thought of trying this out, but had never dared to, keeping the audience in mind ... The most rewarding part about making a different kind of film was the warm appreciation of the spectators – from Satyajit Ray to the common man.”
The film was critically appreciated. Tapan said, “After watching Aadmi Aur Aurat, Satyajit-babu wrote to me to say that according to him, this was not only my best film but also one of India’s best ever. He took the initiative and wrote a letter to BBC’s Channel 4 about the film and they reciprocated with a screening offer to Doordarshan ... The film bagged the award for the Best Feature Film on National Integration at the 32nd National Film Awards, 1985.”
Despite the accolades, Tapan was self-critical and perpetually in doubt about his work: “There are several aspects to a film. After watching Aadmi Aur Aurat, I felt it would have been much better without a background score. There were already a number of sounds and natural music. For example, the cows on the mountain had small bells around their necks, which chimed sweetly as they moved around. That chiming alone could have been an excellent sound effect. Similarly, the flowing water in the river created a different yet marvellous sound effect. I felt later that the story was not narrated in the proper way or maybe the problem was that of cinematography (no fault of the cinematographer’s). The mistake was mine since I insisted on the type of lens or filter to be used, and the edit pattern of the film.”
Mahua Roychoudhury gave a scintillating performance in the film as did Amol Palekar. Palekar’s role remains a distinct departure in his varied oeuvre.
He mentioned a minor incident that showcased Tapan’s perfectionist attitude: “When we shot the last scene of the film, I could not summon any tears – I was too tired and dried up emotionally. So there were 3-4 retakes. Tapan-da okayed the last one though I was not satisfied with it. The next morning, we were scheduled to shoot a scene in a different location with a crowd. As I was getting ready for it, Tapan-da suddenly announced a retake of the previous night’s shot. I was taken aback. He simply said, ‘Amol, don’t think, discuss or argue. Just give the shot.’ As the camera rolled, I managed to cry even without using glycerin. He clapped for me and hugged me. His eyes were moist when he said, ‘How could I let my hero be dissatisfied?’”
Tapan remade Aadmi Aur Aurat into Manush (Human), a Bengali version, for Films Division the very next year. He cast a different set of actors as the central characters in Manush.
There is no argument about Ek Doctor Ki Maut being Tapan’s finest Hindi feature film. Based on Ramapada Chaudhuri’s Abhimanyu, Tapan had earlier started work on a Bengali film with the same name, with Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukhopadhyay, in the lead. He could not complete it after the producer backed out. Chaudhuri’s story was based on a doctor-scientist in the mould of the real-life Dr. Subhash Mukhopadhyay whose pioneering research produced India’s first test-tube baby.
Dr. Mukhopadhyay committed suicide after politics at the national level prevented him from sharing his findings and research with the international community. The news shocked the educated middle class and newspapers delved deep into it as well at that time. The agony of not finishing Abhimanyu (Tapan’s only incomplete film) was eventually compensated for by Ek Doctor Ki Maut.
The fate of the committed and successful individual who was marginalised because he refused to tow the line appealed to Tapan. “Even after conducting successful research on the test-tube baby, the doctor didn’t get his due recognition and he committed suicide. I didn’t want to show this tragic event. Instead, I showed that the doctor migrated because I feel that in science no one actually dies. Every scientist’s work remains. What I wanted to say was that the doctor had to migrate since there is so much politics in academics in India. This migration is nothing but brain-drain and India is deprived of the services of great talent. Over the last few decades, so many brilliant students have left West Bengal and moved to other Indian states. Brain-drain to foreign countries is not the only reality, the same happens between different Indian states as well.”
Excerpted with permission from The Cinema of Tapan Sinha, Amitava Nag, Om Books International.