Like Satyajit Ray, Asit Sen also had the daak naam (nickname) “Manik”. Like Ray, he was also briefly associated with the advertising agency DJ Keymer, and he also celebrates his centenary this year. But very little is known about this sensitive artist, who has made iconic films in three different film industries. Amborish Roychoudhury revisits the early years of Asit Sen.
Once Upon a Cinema is a new series that will illuminate the dark, unexplored crevices of Indian cinema. In it, the writer will introduce long-forgotten stories and faces, share uncommon perspectives on stars and filmmakers, and tell stories that have never been told.
A group of talented young people frequented the Coffee House on Central Avenue, Calcutta. Among them were Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and two others who shared the same nickname: “Manik”. Satyajit Ray and Asit Sen, born a year apart, met at the offices of British advertising agency DJ Keymer. Ray was employed there as a visualizer, while Sen was under contract with the agency as a set photographer. No one knows if they made fun of sharing the same”daak naam(small name), but they often talked about their passion for an emerging medium called cinema. The duo even collaborated on a script for a Tea Board commercial.
Ray and Sen’s other lair was a photo studio called Everest where Asit worked. Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta (father of Aparna Sen and the film society movement in India) used to frequent the place and they had long conversations about cinema and the latest innovations in the field. They even released a magazine together, called The company is getting closer. Ray worked on movie star cartoons, Chidananda handled the movies section, while Asit handled the photography segment. The famous Light House movie theater was right next to Everest Studio, and it was there that they consumed their regular movie theater diet. The theater owner became a friend, so they were able to attend performances without having to buy a ticket. It also allowed them to enter the projection room and examine the reels frame by frame.
But Asit Sen’s film debut predated his namesake Manik by at least 5 years. Asit was born on 24 September 1922 at his uncle’s house in Atishahi village, Bikrampore, Bengali Presidency. His father Rabindranath Sen was a salaried lawyer working for the Assam Department of Railways. After studying up to eighth standard at Radhanath High School in Bikrampore, Asit went to love his father in Nagaon, Assam. After spending a few years there, he was sent to Calcutta for higher education. But by then he had developed connections and roots in Assam. Later, he befriended a young Bhupen Hazarika who was to sing and compose music for some of his films.
At Bongobashi College, he got to know two musically inclined boys named Salil Chowdhury and Gouriprasanna Majumdar. Asit had a great sense of music and a voice to match. They had almost decided that Gouriprasanna would write songs, Salil would tune them and Asit would sing. The other two were to fulfill their destiny – Salil became a musical genius in his own right and Gouriprasanna made a name for himself as a top lyricist in the Bengali film industry. But Asit had to chart a different course. As a B.Sc. freshman, he fell head over heels in love with the doe-eyed Rekha Dasgupta, and formal education became a lower priority. What seemed more important was earning a living. Asit and Rekha were married in November 1947. Asit Sen had dropped out of college.
His uncle Ramananda Sengupta gave him a Rolliecord camera and Asit’s obsession with the lens began. He acquired a strong taste for cinema and photography, which also led him to meet people like Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta. Ramanand gave him his two initial assignments – one was to join Bharatlakshmi Studios as an assistant, and the other was to film Mahatma Gandhi during his trip to Noakhali and Patna, circa 1946-47. Armed with a 16mm camera, Asit Sen pursued the Mahatma through these eastern towns. Many of the news shots of Gandhi’s trip to Noakhali that we see today are actually shot by him.
After rubbing shoulders with cinephiles and intellectuals who constantly discussed and analyzed films, the dream of a career as a filmmaker began to take root. He had assisted his uncle on the film Purba Raag (1947), but unlike Ray or the others, Asit did not actively pursue any particular projects. But his first film came to him as if by chance. His father had a client in Nagaon, who expressed interest in making a film in Assamese. That client could have been Kashi Prasad Bihani, an enterprising individual from Nagaon turned producer and patron of Assamese cinema. Bihani wanted to make a film about the struggle for freedom, which was timely as India had just gained independence.
The prospect of directing a real movie excited Asit immensely. He had spent part of his childhood in Nagaon and knew Assamese well. So far, about seven films have been made in Assamese, and this would be among the top eight. The movie that Asit Sen eventually made was called Biplabi. Assam has continued to build a rich, diverse and complex cinematic history, which was recently chronicled by writer and film historian Parthajit Baruah in his seminal book Jyotiprasad, Joymoti, Indramalati and Beyond: History of Assamese Cinema (2021). Parthajit confirmed some details related to Biplabi. The cast of Biplabi Included are Anupama Bhattcharya, Chandra Phukan, Saradakanta Bordoloi, Jagat Bezbaruah, Sandhyarani Nath and Dilip Sharma. Anupama Bhattacharya and Chandra Phukan starred as two loving revolutionaries.
Film critic and scholar Utpal Datta explains the plot: “The film’s story involves a conflict between a freedom fighter son and a British loyalist father. During the freedom movement, many Indians supported the British and betrayed their people to get a great position or some other favor from the ruler. Many of these stories are told and retold in literature. These elements were the skeleton of Biplabi’the scenario. The conflict between father and son under British rule was the main dramatic event in the film. The British sent the son to the gallows for his participation in the liberation movement. His girlfriend, who had fought alongside him, remained single. She raised the Independence Day flag and the film begins with her memories. The film also portrays the expectations of ordinary people in independent India. Utpal Datta also confirmed the close ties between Asit Sen and Bhupen Hazarika.
The music for the film was by Shibaprasad Bhattacharya and Bhupen Hazarika lent her vocals to some of the songs. Biplabi was released on January 16, 1950. The film is now lost, like most of Asit Sen’s early films, but it became a milestone in cinema about the Indian freedom struggle. In the meantime, Asit’s wife, Rekha, who actively participated in the making of his first film, died during childbirth in April 1949. It was a severe blow and Asit never remarried. Sitting alone at Studio Everest where he still worked, Asit would write a screenplay titled Chalachal, which was adapted from a novel by Ashutosh Mukherjee, with whom Asit would form a lasting collaboration. He offered the lead role to Suchitra Sen, but she quoted a fee that was way beyond her means. Eventually, actress Arundhati Devi took the lead role and Chalachal became Asit Sen’s first Bengali film. It was a great success and Asit continued with Panchatapa (1957), another adaptation by Ashutosh Mukherjee, which was also well received.
Uttam-Suchitra’s only film, Asit Sen, was made Jiban Trishna (1957), whose music was by Bhupen Hazarika. The film also had an appearance by PC magician Sorcar Sr. It was during the making of this film that the idea of Deep Jwele Jai The strike. His collaborator Ashutosh Mukherjee had written a story about a nurse in a mental institution. While most online resources cite the title of the story as Nurse Mitra, available editions of Ashutosh Mukherjee’s books mention the title as Deep Jwele Jai. Whether the story influenced the film’s title or the other way around is unclear. Point is, Deep Jwele Jai (1959) caused a sensation. History has been kind to the film, and rightly so, as Suchitra Sen’s fiery and passionate performance in the film has few parallels in the history of Indian cinema. During the song Ei raat tomar amar (which found an echo in Ye nayan darey darey from Saal Baad Bees, an unrelated film), Asit performed a cameo. The man whose back is seen onscreen as Suchitra Sen wanders wistfully around the room is Asit Sen’s.
In four years, Asit made another classic with Suchitra Sen called Uttar Falguni (1963), which was adapted from a story of the same name by Dr. Nihar Ranjan Gupta, a dermatologist who was also known as the creator of the fictional detective Kiriti Roy. Uttar Falguni had Suchitra in a dual role, and she recreated the magic of Deep Jwele Jai, two times. Literally. Asit Sen was quite the phenom now. He had met the great Bimal Roy, but contrary to some accounts, Asit Sen – the filmmaker – never helped him. It was the actor of the same name, who assisted Bimal Roy in several films. In 1966, Asit made his entry into the world of Hindi cinema: mamma, a remake of Uttar Falguni. Asit went on to remake a number of his Bengali films in Hindi, such as Safar- a revamp of Chalachal and Khamoshi (Deep Jwele Jai). In Bollywood, he was incredibly prolific and developed a reputation as a sensitive filmmaker, a label that stuck with him until the end, despite the downward spiral of the 70s and 80s.
Asit Sen’s last days were spent in loneliness and despair. Like many before and after him, Asit Sen took refuge at the bottom of the bottle. He missed his wife Rekha until the very end. This other “Manik Da”, which left an indelible mark in three different film industries, celebrates its centenary this year.
Amborish is a National Film Award-winning writer, biographer and film historian.
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