Seeta (1934) directed by Debaki Kumar Bose, is the first ever Indian feature film to be screened at an international film festival. It was shown at the Venice Film Festival where it won an Honorary Diploma, making Bose the first Indian director to have won an international award. Sadly, no print of this film has survived the ravages of neglect and time. The film, a box office hit, starred Durga Khote and Prithviraj Kapoor and made Bose a household name among cinebuffs. Seeta was made under the banner of East India Film Company. Bose, already acclaimed for Aparadhi (1931) and Puran Bhakt (1933), was among the leading and most successful filmmakers of the early period of Bengali cinema. But today, few filmbuffs among the youth remember him or his films. There are hardly any retrospectives held of his films and many prints of his films have been lost to time. Not one of prints of the six silent films he directed survives today.
Born in Burdwan on 25th November 1898, he was the eighth child of advocate Madhusudan Bose, belonging to the lineage of aristocratic zamindars and his mother was Gopisundari Debi. They were Vaishavas by faith and this probably had a deep impact on his mind that came across when he later made the double version film Bhagaban Sri Krishna Chaitanya (1954). It is based on the teachings and the philosophy of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Vaishnavism is a branch of Hinduism that lives up to the philosophy of tolerance, non-violence and complete devotion to one God – Krishna. Chaitanya did not make distinctions between a Brahmin high priest and a lowly sweeper. He believed that God lived in either and either lived in God. According to him, the best and the easiest way to kindle the latent spark of the Divine was to become God-minded. This was achieved by taking the name of God in a spirit of humility, devotion and selflessness. The title role was portrayed by Basanta Choudhury while a very young Suchitra Sen played his wife Bishnupriya.
Bose’s life is more dramatic than most of his film scripts. He once left his home without informing anyone. It transpired that he had gone to Brindaban where an aunt of his lived. He became a devotee of the Vaishnava faith consequent to his deep attachment to the family icon Radha Gobindo. He edited a journal called Shakti in Burdwan, while he also earned a pittance from selling gamchhas (chequered towels woven out of red thread) because his father had disowned him when he quit the examination hall to respond to Mahatma Gandhi’s clarion call to join the Non-Cooperative movement. He was placed behind bars for some time and when released, went on to study homeopathy though his desire was to become a journalist. When he was editing the magazine and selling gamchhas, Dhiren Ganguly, a noted film personality who was visiting Burdwan, met him and invited him to write a film script and bring it to Calcutta. This script became the first production of British Dominion Films. It was titled Flames of Flesh in which Bose also played the male lead opposite DG’s first wife Premika Devi. Earlier, when he was studying at the Vidyasagar College in Kolkata, he met Natyacharya Sisirkumar Bhaduri and acted in some of his plays, the most memorable among them being his portrayal of an army general in Rustom Sohrab in 1919.
Over his directorial span of three decades and 30-and-odd films, the first film Bose directed independently was Panchasar released in 1930. He has has done films in many genres from the thriller to the social drama to historical films and mythologicals. But his most significant contribution to cinema has been his rich oeuvre of devotional musicals. Chandidas (1932), Puran Bhakt (1933), Vidyapati (1937) and Bhagaban Sri Krishna Chaitanya. These are films based on biographies of religious figures, mostly saint poets. Chandidas is about the legendary 15th-C. Bengali Vaishnavite poet whose biography remains obscure but was an influence on Chaitanya (1486-1533), who promoted the Vaishnavite ideology in Bengal, mostly through hymns about the Radha-Krishna legend. The film stressed the poet's teachings through the love story between Chandidas and a low-caste washerwoman, Rami.
Puran Bhakt is based on the legend of Prince Puran, born under King Silwan of Sialkot’s curse which binds his parents never to set eyes on him until he is 16. Accused of leading a debauched life by an evil general and by the king’s second wife, Puran is sentenced to death. Rescued by the mystic Gorakhnath, he becomes an ascetic. When the king is overthrown, Puran rises from his meditations to depose the general who has seized power before returning to his life of renunciation. Blind singer KC Dey’s Jao Jao Aye Mere Sadhu from the film was sung with hardly any orchestra to the accompaniment of the harmonium and cymbals. This song still enthralls music lovers who prefer pristine film music of old times.
Vidyapati was about the pacifist court poet of Mithila who was invited to the royal court by the king. But when the poet arrived at the court with his faithful follower Anuradha, queen Laxmi fell in love with Vidyapati causing great sorrow to the king who loved his wife dearly and embarrassment for Vidyapati. Anuradha tried to convince the king that true love did not depend on reciprocation. By then, a repentant queen troubled by her divided loyalties as queen to the king and her love for the court poet contemplated suicide. The film is enriched by some of the best songs and music in Indian cinema. Pahari Sanyal played the title role, Kanan Devi played Anuradha, Prithviraj Kapoor portrayed the king of Mithila and Chhaya Devi was queen Lakshmi.
The films based on Tagore’s poems are similarly lyrical and filled with Tagore songs.Bose's range spread between thrillers (Nishir Dak (1932)) through historicals (Meerabai (1933)), mythologicals (Krishna Leela (1946)), musical biopics (Chandidas, Vidyapati, Bhagaban Sri Krishna Chaitanya) socials (Bhalobasha, Sagar Sangamey, Nabajanma) to films based on classical literature (Kavi, Chira Kumar Sabha, Pathik, Arghya) each carrying a powerful social message. His films are illustrations of his deep concern about the oppression and sufferings of the lower caste that results from the rigid indoctrination of the caste system among Brahmins. He brought this out powerfully in Sagar Sangamey (1959) that stands out as a scathing indictment on caste consciousness based on the imposed premise of high and low birth. The film starred Bharati Devi as a very rigid, feudal and aristocratic Brahmin widow while the little Manju Adhikary played a little girl belonging to a group of sex workers who travelled together to attend the Ganga Sagar Mela. It won the President’s Gold Medal at the National Film Awards. It was also nominated for Golden Bear at the 9th Berlin International Film Festival in 1959. Many Bengali films made by him were also released in Hindi and even Marathi and Tamil. In 1957, he was bestowed with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for film direction and the Padma Shri came the following year.
His documentaries for Films Division are also heavily influenced by the ideology of peace and the philosophy of humanity. Among these are - Raidas, Bargad Ki Aap Beeti, Andhere Se Ujale Mein and Brahmin. Raidas is a celluloid biography of India’s renowned saint Raidas, a cobbler who composed hymns but did not give up his traditional occupation. Bargad Ki Aap Beeti is in the form of observations made by an old banyan tree under whose branches incidents in the story keep happening. Andhere Se Ujale Mein was the celluloid adaptation of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore called Suchi. It explores untouchability as a social evil. Brahmin was also based on a Tagore poem, inspired by the story of Satyakam from the Chandogya Upanishad.
Bose introduced actors who later became legends of the silver screen. Among them are Kanan Devi, Chandrabati, Umashashi and Chhaya Devi. Arghya, a short film made by Bose on former chief minister Bidhan Ray's request to mark Tagore's centenary in 1961, was missing till a private collector has got a DVD print of the film. He was the first to introduce artificial lighting in Aparadhi, made in two language versions. He also introduced background music in Chandidas.
Bose passed away in Calcutta on 17 November, 1971.