Like Satyajit Ray, Asit Sen also had the daak naam (nickname) “Manik”. Like Ray, he was also briefly associated with the ad agency DJ Keymer, and he also completes a centenary this year. But precious little is known about this sensitive artist, who made iconic movies across three different film industries. Amborish Roychoudhury revisits the early years of Asit Sen.
Once Upon a Cinema is a new series which will illuminate the dark, unexplored crevices of Indian cinema. In it, the writer will showcase stories and faces long forgotten, share uncommon perspectives about stars and filmmakers, and recount tales that have never been told.
A group of talented youngsters used to frequent the Coffee House at 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 within a year of each other, met at the offices of the British advertising agency DJ Keymer. Ray was employed there as a visualizer, while Sen was contracted with the agency as a still photographer. No one knows whether they had a laugh about sharing the same”daak naam(pet name), but they did often talk about their passion for an emerging medium called cinema. The duo even collaborated on a script for an ad film about the Tea Board.
The other haunt of Ray and Sen was a photo studio called Everest where Asit used to work. Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta (father of Aparna Sen and of the film society movement in India) frequented the place and they had long conversations about film and the latest innovations in the field. They even brought out a magazine together, called Society Close Up. Ray worked on cartoons of film stars, Chidananda looked at the films section, while Asit handled the photography segment. The famous Light House cinema was right next to Everest Studio, and that is where they consumed their steady diet of cinema. The theater-owner became a friend, so they could watch shows without having to buy a ticket. This also allowed them the leeway to enter the projection room and examine the reels, frame by frame.
But Asit Sen’s filmmaking debut predated his namesake Manik by at least 5 years. Asit was born at his uncle’s house in Atishahi village, Bikrampore, Bengali Presidency on 24 September 1922. His father Rabindranath Sen was a salaried lawyer working for the railway department in Assam. After studying till the eighth standard at Bikrampore’s Radhanath High School, Asit went to love with his father at Nagaon, Assam. After spending a few years there, he was shipped off to Calcutta for higher studies. But by that time, he had developed relationships and roots in Assam. In later years, he befriended a young Bhupen Hazarika who was to sing and compose music for some of his films.
At Bongobashi College, he was acquainted with 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 put them to tune and Asit would sing. The other two were to fulfil their destiny – Salil became a musical genius in his own right, and Gouriprasanna made a name for himself as a leading lyricist in the Bengali film industry. But Asit had to chart a different course. As a B.Sc. First-year student, he fell madly in love with the doe-eyed Rekha Dasgupta, and formal education became less of a priority. What seemed more important was to eke out a living. Asit and Rekha tied the knot in November 1947. Asit Sen had abandoned his degree course.
His uncle Ramananda Sengupta gifted him a Rolliecord camera and Asit’s obsession with the lens began. He acquired a strong liking for filming and photography, and this also eventually led him to an acquaintance with the likes of 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 on his trip to Noakhali and Patna, around 1946-47. Armed with a 16 mm film camera, Asit Sen pursued the Mahatma through these cities in the east. A lot of the newsreel shots of Gandhi’s Noakhali trip that we see today are actually shot by him.
After hobnobbing with the film buffs and intellectuals who constantly discussed and analysed films, the dream of a filmmaking career started to take root. He had assisted his uncle on the film Purba Raag (1947), but unlike Ray or the others, Asit wasn’t actively pursuing any particular projects. But his debut film came to him as if by serendipity. His father had a client in Nagaon, who expressed interest in making a film in Assamese. This client might have been Kashi Prasad Bihani, an enterprising individual from Nagaon who went on to become a producer and patron of Assamese cinema. Bihani wanted to make a film on the freedom struggle, which was timely because India had just attained independence.
The prospect of directing an actual film got Asit immensely excited. He had spent part of his childhood in Nagaon and knew Assamese well. So far, around seven films had been made in Assamese, and this would be among the first eight. The film that Asit Sen eventually directed was called Biplai. Assam went on to build a rich, diverse and complex cinematic history, which has recently been chronicled by film writer and historian Parthajit Baruah in his seminal book Jyotiprasad, Joymoti, Indramalati and Beyond: History of Assamese Cinema (2021). Parthajit confirmed some details connected with Biplai. The cast of Biplabi included Anupama Bhattcharya, Chandra Phukan, Saradakanta Bordoloi, Jagat Bezbaruah, Sandhyarani Nath and Dilip Sharma. Anupama Bhattacharya and Chandra Phukan played the lead as two revolutionaries who were in love.
Film critic and scholar Utpal Datta explains the plot: “The film’s story features a conflict between a freedom-fighter son of a British-loyalist father. During the freedom movement, many Indians supported the British and betrayed their people to gain an excellent post or other favor from the ruler. Many such stories are told and retold in literature. Such elements were the skeleton of Biplabi’s screenplay. The conflict between father and son under British rule was the main dramatic event of the film. The British sent the son to the gallows for his participation in the freedom movement. His girlfriend, who had fought alongside him, remained single. She raised the Independence Day flag, and the film starts with her memories. The film also depicted the expectations of everyday people in independent India.” Utpal Datta also confirmed the close ties between Asit Sen and Bhupen Hazarika.
The music of the film was by Shibaprasad Bhattacharya, and Bhupen Hazarika lent his voice to some of the songs. Biplabi was released on January 16, 1950. The film is now lost, like most early Asit Sen films, but it became a milestone, as far as cinema about the Indian freedom struggle is concerned. In the meantime, Asit’s wife Rekha, who was an active participant in the making of his first film, passed away during childbirth in April 1949. It was a major blow, and Asit never married again. Sitting by himself at Everest Studio where he was still working, Asit would write a screenplay called 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 which was quite beyond his means. Eventually, it was the actress Arundhati Devi who stepped in for the lead role and Chalachal became Asit Sen’s first Bengali film. It was a great success and Asit followed it up with Panchatapa (1957), another Ashutosh Mukherjee adaptation, which was also well-received.
The only Uttam-Suchitra film Asit Sen made was Jiban Trishna (1957), which had music by Bhupen Hazarika. The film also had a cameo appearance by magician PC Sorcar Sr. It was during the making of this film that the idea of Deep Jwele Jai struck him. His collaborator Ashutosh Mukherjee had written a story about a nurse at a mental institution. While most online resources quote 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 title of the film or the other way round, is not clear. the point is, Deep Jwele Jai (1959) was a sensation. History has been kind to the film, and justifiably so, because Suchitra Sen’s ardent and impassioned performance in the film has few parallels in Indian film history. During the song Ei raat tomar amar (which found an echo in Ye nayan darey darey from Bees Saal Baad, an unrelated film), Asit played a cameo. The man whose back is seen on screen as Suchitra Sen wistfully strolls into 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 double role, and she recreated the magic of Deep Jwele Jai, twice over. Quite literally. Asit Sen was quite the phenomenon by now. He had made acquaintance with the great Bimal Roy, but contrary to some accounts, Asit Sen – the filmmaker – never assisted him. It was the actor of the same name, who assisted Bimal Roy in a number of films. In 1966, Asit directed his entrée into the world of Hindi cinema: mamta, a remake of Uttar Falguni. Asit went on to remake a number of his Bengali films in Hindi, like Safar – a reworking of Chalachal and Khamoshi (Deep Jwele Jai). In Bollywood he was staggeringly prolific and developed a reputation for being a sensitive filmmaker, a tag which remained with him till the end, despite the downward spiral in the 70s and 80s.
Asit Sen’s last days were spent in dealing with loneliness and despair. Like many before and after him, Asit Sen took refuge at the bottom of the bottle. He missed his wife Rekha till the very end. This other “Manik Da”, who left an indelible mark across three different film industries, completes a centenary this year.
Amborish is a National Film Award winning writer, biographer and film historian.
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