There are films that are made, and there are films that happen. And then there are films that become cinema. Not often you get films that are watched and re-watched cutting across generations. Rarer still are celluloid adventures that manage to cement their place in the audience’s mind, even in the face of changing tastes and preferences. Directed by Pinaki Mukherjee, Chowringhee is undeniably one such example.
Released in 1968, Chowringhee was a rare film in the sense that it did not follow the typical protagonist-antagonist formula. The film, in fact, lacked a so-called hero or heroine. It was a conglomerate of characters and closely followed Mani Shankar Mukherjee aka Shankar’s novel of the same name.
Chowringhee was a multistarrer. Films with an ensemble cast were a rarity back then and Chowringhee had leading stars of Bengali cinema like Uttam Kumar, Subhendu Chatterjee, Supriya Devi, Anjana Bhowmick, Biswajeet, Utpal Dutt, Tarun Kumar, Bhanu Bandopadhyay, Jahar Roy, Sukhen Das, and Haradhan Bandopadhyay in major roles.
Through the eyes of a lowly hotel clerk Sankar (Subhendu), the film presented a microcosm of urban life with some extraordinary candour. It was a whole new experience for the jobless lower middle class youth who is catapulted into the world of luxury of Hotel Shahjahan by a turn of fate. He is introduced to his newfound world by the iconic Sata Bose (Uttam Kumar, in one of his best performances ever). Sankar gets acquainted with the underbelly of the metropolis and the people who live on the other side of midnight.
Chowringhee, expectedly, is crowded with characters of several shades. It highlights the conflicts and tragedies, the meanness and humaneness of people who make a bustling cosmopolitan. But it avoids the familiar trappings of upholding middle class morality, and neither does it degress to paint the characters in black and white. Rather, what emerges, is an interesting study of people for whom Hotel Shahjahan is at the epicentre of their lives. Whether it’s the tragic life of housekeeper-escort Karabi Guha (Supriya), or the social worker and high society lady Mrs Pakrashi, or the successful but lonely hotel manager Marco Polo (Utpal Dutt) who barks at and loves his employees in the same vein, Chowringhee is never judgmental. It carefully underscores the camaraderie among fellow workers, but thorough professionals, who come from the same humble background.
The film had some stunning performances with every actor getting under the skin of the character. Uttam Kumar is brilliant as Marco Polo’s all-weather man who knows the hotel inside out. Subhendu as Sankar is a perfect foil to Sata Bose. His underacting in most of the scenes with Uttam makes the film immensely watchable. And so is the dimpled Bhowmick as the airhostess Sujata Mitra who manages to drill a hole in Sata Bose’s heart.
Chowringhee’s music deserves special mention. Women music directors were a rarity back then, not that it’s common today either, but Chowringhee was an exception. Aseema Bhattacharya, also the film’s producer, composed the music. The story goes that Bhattacharya stepped in at the last minute when a top composer backed out from the film, reportedly over payment issues.
Over the past half a century, Chowringhee has attained a cult status among film aficionados. It was a huge box office hit and is as popular now as it was back then. While the hospitality industry has much changed from what is was at the turn of the sixties, the characters that made Hotel Shahjahan colourful, are still there in their respective trades. In a world where pink slips and downsizing are the norms in any industry, the realist and poignant ending of the film where most of the key staff are handed discharge letters one by one, makes Chowringhee a timeless classic.