The Story Of Odia Cinema: Its Told And Untold Aspects

There is good news for the small world of Odia celluloid and the larger socio-cultural world of Odisha. A book entitled ‘Of Reels, Romance and Retakes: Social Narratives of Cinema in Odisha’ has just been released. The writer. Sanjoy Patnaik is e a development professional by vocation and a filmmaker by persuasion. The book’s international publication plus the fact that it is the first academically respectable book on the subject of Odia cinema have conspired to make it something of an event.

The book pieces together a remarkably interesting and coherent story about Odia cinema from anecdotal as well as miniscule documented accounts, mostly chronological surveys of the field in Odia that are available. Much of the material with which the book constructs this narrative is gleaned from conversations with iconic Odia directors, actors and actresses, which, not being sourced to published materials, hover in that grey zone between orality and literacy. This method of extrapolating from subjective rather than objective data may cause eyebrows to be raised in academic and scholarly circles. But the book manages to convince the reader of the authenticity of its narrative by making its act of mining individual memories — the author speaks in the introduction of ‘strolling across memory gullies’ (p. 1)—coincide with the collective memory that every Odia who came of age in the heyday of Odia cinema in the 1960s and 70s can tap into.

By treading thus in intimate history the book offers to write cultural history in an alternative way. The book tells the compelling story of how cinema in Odisha has been engaged in the task of an ‘ethno-linguistic’ identity creation from its inception in the 1930s until it matured in the 1970s and 80s. To take the names of such iconic Odia movies as Amada Bata, Malajanha, Abhinetri, Ka, Nabajanma, Mamata, Adina Megha, Shesha Shrabana, Nagaphasa, and Chilika Tire is already to feel the tug of nostalgia and yearning for those delicate celluloid fantasies. The centerpiece of this narrative of identity construction is, of course, the incredible story of Odia cinema cutting off its umbilical cord with the 27/11 Chandi Ghosh Road, Tollygunje, Kolkata, and, by so doing, freeing itself of the shackles of Bengali domination.

This is a moment to savour in the book. It has strong echoes of an earlier and similar assertion of Odia linguistic identity by Odia men of letters such as Gouri Shankar Ray and Fakir Mohan Senapati in the face of the pernicious denial of Odia as a separate language. The social narrative number one of cinema in Odisha, if it can be put that way, is undoubtedly this high point of cinematic self-determination achieved by Odisha, although it is told in Chapter 2. The two other social narratives that precede it are recounted in the introductory chapter. The first is the inaugural event of finding a suitable celluloid expression to match the linguistic formation of Odisha as a separate province on April 1, 1936. The first Odia film, it bears retelling, was Sita Bibaha by Mohan Sundar
Deb Goswami. It saw the light of day on April 28, 1936. The second narrative is also tied to another momentous historical event, that of the independence of the country in 1947, which set Odia society on the road to city-centric and consumerist modernisation. And Odia cinema, much like Odia literature of
the time, as the book rightly argues, both asserted the project of modernity and dwelt on its countervailing forces deriving Gandhi’s valorisation of the community and the village economy.

Films like Matira Manisha were emblematic of this phase of contradictory social development that Odia society underwent, much like elsewhere in India.
Dispersed across the first four chapters of the book is a fourth narrative. It is the synergy between cinema and literature, on the one hand, and between cinema and indigenous folk and musical traditions, on the other. The point here is to show that Odia cinema achieved its high watermark of authenticity—call it Odianess, if you will—by successfully adapting iconic Odia literary works and weaving into it songs that had their melodic roots in folk traditions. The ‘ethnic connect’ (p. 44) came from these two sources, especially from the latter, as Chapter 4 takes care to detail. The entry of actors from northern and southern peripheries into mainstream Odia cinema, operating from the coastal regions, especially Cuttack, is another successful narrative of cinematic decentralisation that the book celebrates in an important section of the same chapter with its catchy title: ‘Small Town Big Boys of Odia cinema (p. 160)’.

The last two chapters of the book chronicle the story of Odia cinema’s fall from grace with the advent of the era of ‘remake’ or rather ‘retake’, to use the last operative word in the book’s title. This trend, starting in the nineties and continuing into the present times, broke the synergy that existed between cinema and literature, creating for it the existential crisis in which it finds itself today. There is hope, the book contends, in the return to that small-budget, ‘ethnic connect’ enabling cinema of yore, which stood on the secure foundations of Odia identity, culture and language. But the book bases this proposal on a realistic appraisal of the changing demographics, with Hindi threatening to become the dominant language across India, and, the glossy celluloid world of the south becoming the reigning business model. The role of a proactive state in promoting and supporting regional language cinema is naturally highlighted in the last chapter.

On the whole, a compelling account of the social narratives of Odia cinema, the book seems to sell itself rather short on ‘reels’. That is to say, it does not tell us much about cinema per se, about its distinctive takes, scenes, images, and shot compositions through mise-en-scene and other devices in the films selected for analysis. It chooses instead to focus on cinema’s social import and implications, and the surrounding context that, happily, includes a number of black-and-white photos of famous film personalities and scenes.

Also, given the premium the book places on the cinematic adaptation of literature, one would have expected a reasonably sustained discussion of the arrestingly visual way in which cinema adapts scenes and themes from literary works. Since Matira Manisha is on the front cover of the book, I can do no
better than to cite the same scene in the movie that the Odia film historian Surya Deo called attention to in a memorial lecture for Ganeswar Mishra, held in Bhubaneswar on  August 9, 2022. The frame shows a child blowing a balloon in one corner of the space which centre stages a high decibel property dispute
among village elders. Indifferent to the heated argument around him, the child gets the balloon to grow bigger and bigger. Just when the debate reaches its sonorous peak the balloon bursts with a loud bang.

Needless to say, there is no corresponding scene in the printed text of Matira Manisha by Kalindi Charan Panigrahi. The composition of the shot in the film, a brilliant directorial touch by Mrinal Sen, is what orchestrates the theme of rational adults fighting savagely over property. It is such magical stuff that movies are made on. Sanjoy Patnaik’s book would have gained enormously from a chapter devoted to this unique film grammar. Since he has written such a groundbreaking book on the sociology of cinema it will be logical to expect him to write its sequel, showcasing the art of Odia cinema.


(Of Reels, Romance and Retakes: Social Narratives of Cinema in Odisha. Sanjoy Patnaik. Routledge, Taylor
and Francis Group, London. Pp. 204.)


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