In 2009 Bengali director Tapan Sinha passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind a body of work that remains somewhat unrecognised. One could blame the critical reverence afforded to the holy trinity of Bengali Cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. While Sinha’s work may have been partially accepted as part of the Bengali film canon, the scholarly analysis of his films remains a tentative point of enquiry for Indian film studies. Sinha regarded himself as an apolitical filmmaker. He did not believe cinema should be hijacked or instrumentalised as a platform with which to disseminate political polemicizing – a naïve objection indeed but one to be admired. The contribution of Sinha to the genesis of Parallel Cinema has never really been fully considered. And in many ways Apanjan (1968), a film Sinha made just as the Naxalite movement was about to splinter the political landscape of West Bengal forever, is a work as ideologically significant as Bhuvan Shome or Uski Roti. Sinha may never have worn his political affiliations on his sleeve but social and political protestation runs deep through his work. If anything, Apanjan points to disillusionment with the state, a theme Sinha would often return to in his career.
Sinha’s career pre-dates Parallel Cinema by many years and although he did not play a major role in the development of Parallel Cinema, he predominately chose to express political discontent through melodrama, and benignly so. In some ways, Sinha belongs to the generation of Satyajit Ray, who invested in a classical style of cinema that believed in simplicity, and professed a dislike for the portentous late 1960s Bengali cinema that was increasingly in awe of a modernist avant-garde. Nonetheless, the work of Sinha shows staggering cinematic sensibilities in which he worked across many genres, collaborated with both Parallel Cinema actors and major film stars, and was able to make films in many regions of India. Yet given all that Tapan Sinha accomplished, also winning many awards along the way, his critical reputation does not so much remain in doubt but lacks the visibility or prominence given to his contemporaries. This can only change by revising the canon of major Indian film auteurs so that Sinha’s work is celebrated more often and looked at more closely. Having said all of this, one must recognise that Tapan Sinha is a colossus in Bengal cinema.
Ek Doctor Ki Maut, made in the final phase of Sinha’s directorial career and based loosely on the true story of Indian physician Subhash Mukhopadhyay, is intriguingly one of Sinha’s most overtly political works, a contradictory statement given his notoriously apolitical status. The film stars an ensemble cast made up of Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor in the main lead and Irfan Khan (in one of his earliest roles), this semi-realist melodrama critiques the medical, health and science institutions of India, posing an agonizing study of one doctor’s struggle to seek recognition for the vaccine he has developed to fight leprosy. Dr. Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapoor) spends his nights at home in a rudimentary make shift laboratory. Experimenting on mice, Dr. Roy succeeds in developing a vaccine for leprosy but in the process, the relationship with his wife (the consummately brilliant Shabana Azmi) becomes fraught with neglect. Aided by the leftist ideals of an aspiring journalist (Irfan Khan) who helps to publicise Dr. Roy’s important discovery, the state (symbolised by the archaic medical and health organisations) demonises and humiliates the doctor’s breakthrough as merely an extended lie.
What Dr. Roy’s discovery reveals is the savage jealousy and ugly scepticism plaguing the orthodoxy of a collective middle class that stand in the way of genius, preferring instead to vilify than endorse his progressive ideals. Inevitably, Dr. Roy is severed from his research. The state intervenes, exiling him to a remote village, and making it impossible to complete the publication of his research notes. Having made sure of his public humiliation and professional denigration, Dr. Roy is devastated when he hears the discovery of the vaccine is credited to the work of two American doctors. It is a moment of bitter disillusionment, the failure of the state to celebrate individual achievement, which is communicated in Dr. Roy and his wife’s outrage at the unjust and shameful censure.
Ideologically, Sinha’s film works to elucidate state machinations, an essential theme of Parallel Cinema’s dissenting political voice. But look more closely and the melodrama guise is used to extrapolate a study of marital relations, which gives the film a notable emotive threshold. Ek Doctor Ki Maut is late Parallel Cinema, arriving just as the movement was starting to fade away, a defiantly angry work from a defiantly intransigent filmmaker.
Ek Doctor Ki Maut will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 6 Aug 10pm