Thought Box



by Satyabrata Ghosh February 20 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins, 10 secs

Satyabrata Ghosh explores the genesis and evolution of the freeze shot used by auteurs of cinema to capture a lasting impact of on emotional moment, through the cinema of Tarun Majumdar.

In 1959, Francoise Truffaut ended his film The 400 Blows with a freeze shot. Critics highlighted the ambiguous ending, to which the filmmaker agreed. While the critics raved about the technique, the cineastes accepted that freeze shot as another flamboyant French New Wave signature like the jump cuts of Jean Luc Godard. 

In 1964, Satyajit Ray froze the last frame of his film Charulata, marking another ambiguity. Ray used the freeze shot as he didn’t want his audience to go home with a reconciliation between Charulata and her husband and at the same time leaving the end open to discussion. 

The next year, in 1965, Mrinal Sen used the freeze shots copiously in his film Akash Kusum. Sen used freeze shots somewhere late in the middle of the film, to jolt his viewers, as his protagonist (Soumitra Chatterjee) realized he had reached the end of the road built along with not-so-white lies. However, some still pictures followed the freeze as documentary evidence of the plight of the educated unemployed youth.   

Freeze shot as a film technique also appealed to Tarun Majumdar (1931 – 2022), another accomplished filmmaker of Bengal.

Much later, in 1974, he applied freeze shots in his film Phuleshwari to lend an altogether different impact, far away from the ones more talked about. Interestingly, Tarun Majumdar was aware of Ray and Sen's polemics through the Letters to the Editor of The Statesman after Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome was released in 1969. 

He did not take any sides. Instead, he tersely mentioned in the title song of Phuleshwari that ‘while the international masters keep bewildering the audience, let’s return to our world in Bengal’. In its rustic settings, people do have stories worth telling. Thoroughly steeped in the classical New Theatre’s school of filmmaking, Majumdar rode the ladder from a poster designer to Assistant Director, to a stakeholder of ‘Yatrik’, a Directors' conglomerate, to an independent Film Director. 

Imbued with a deep sense of Bengali as language, he firmly believed that films are akin to literature, despite having their own respective languages. While enjoying substantial exposure to noteworthy films made in Europe, Hollywood and in Asian and African countries (through Film Societies and Film Festivals), and learning how to verse in his own unique language, Majumdar picked up stories of notable Bengali authors that he wanted to transform into films. His selection of stories, and how he treated them for the screen, reflected how grounded he was to an enriched traditional culture in which he had grown up. 

It was in this spirit and confidence he decided to film ‘Angti Chatujer Bhai’ by Bibhutibhusan Mukhopadhyay and shaped the script of Palatak (1963). V. Shantaram, of Rajkamal Kalamandir, listened to the script and expressed his willingness to produce the film. However, on the condition that it must feature a 'star’ in the lead role. For a young filmmaker, it must have been too elating to have such a legendary figure ready to back his project. But Tarun Majumdar’s conviction did not let him accept the condition. He remained committed to Anup Kumar (Das) as his lead character. It must have been great joy for V. Shantaram to meet the steely side of a soft-spoken Bengali, and to agree with him.

Anup Kumar was adjudged the Best Actor in the BFJA 1964 for his poignant performance in Palatak. He became a regular face in the films that Tarun Majumdar would make in years to come. Arguably, the unique ‘not-so-serious’ persona of Anup Kumar, who could effortlessly transform himself into solemn demeanour, was utilized fully by Tarun Majumdar in film after film.

If Satyajit Ray is credited with showcasing the talent of Tulsi Chakroborty in Paras Pathar (1958), who was nothing more than a character artist in films before and after, then Tarun Majumdar must be acknowledged to maximize Anup Kumar’s acting prowess in Palatak and his films to follow.

Anup Kumar plays the role of Abhiram, a Railway stoker in Phuleshwari. The film’s title is the name of his young sister (Sandhya Roy), an ebullient maiden in the countryside, who is assertively reluctant to be married off by her family. Like in parentless joint-families, made iconic by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee in his stories and novels, the tension of Phuli (Phuleshwari) is eased by the warm and assuring presence of an elderly and motherly sister-in-law (Lily Chakraborty). 

It was Brindaban, a Railway flagman (Samit Bhanja), who gets into Phuleshwari’s heart with his capability of gaan bandha (self-composing a lyric extempore). The enriching folk traditions of Bengal since the late 19th century resonated with Kabir Larai (staged song duels between poets who compose lyrics on the spot) endorsed by the public and aristocrats of that time. Once the friends sensed Phuleshwari’s weakness for Brindaban, they kept pestering him. To stop their incessant poking, Phuli insults Brindaban publicly saying that ‘merely signalling trains cannot make him a suitor, because he doesn’t have the power to stop the running train engine in which her brother is the driving staff’. 

Abhiram in connivance with his wife plans to change her view about Brindaban. The next morning Brindaban stops a passenger train right in front of Phuli’s eyes. The whole village celebrates the ‘power’ of a flagman when the Anglo-Indian engine driver (Tarun Kumar) announces that the Railways will reward Brindaban with a medal for his ‘extraordinary courage and sincerity’. Phuli is now a proud maiden in love with Brindaban.

To establish how her heart started to bloom, Majumdar applied the technique of freezing a shot in the dream sequence that followed. Brindaban, in a royal dress, showed the flag to an approaching train. The shot freezes once and then in motion lets the train come nearer, when it freezes again. The idea of stopping a train with the deft use of the ‘freeze shot’ is arguably the subtle and poignant response of a filmmaker who was in rhythm with the development of the film language.

Be it a ‘gimmick’ or a powerful cinematic tool, Tarun Majumdar applied the freeze shots to reveal to his audience that in the dream of an innocent young girl, the train indeed stops (freezes) for a moment. The next freeze he used was to highlight how the girl relished the moment when her sweetheart stopped the train. It is the innocence of young boys and girls falling in love, which Tarun Majumdar offered in his films like Balika Badhu (1967), Sriman Prithwiraj (1972) and Dadar Kirti (1980). Super stars, in the conventional sense of Indian mainstream film enterprise, never influenced his long and fruitful filmmaking career.  

Tarun Majumdar believed in portraying lovable characters, never short of self-dignity. In Phuleshwari, for instance, Phuli refuses to marry Brindaban when she gets to know about the plot that was hatched to impress her. Interestingly enough, the male characters portrayed by Tarun Majumdar are no less dignified than women. Brindaban, being the epitome of such a trait, retained a dignified silence till Phuli realized she indeed loved him. In the last shot, Tarun Majumdar once again froze the frame when Phuli in her bridal dress approached Brindaban on a rail platform. However, nothing ambiguous is left for the viewers, since they also cherish the happy union. 

More often than not, the oeuvre of Tarun Majumdar is looked down upon as a filmmaker to reckon with. One of its reasons may be, that instead of experimenting with cinematic form, he prioritized the plots of his films and put emphasis on the propriety of characterization. Secondly, he loved to be one with audiences, which related with endearing characters. Thirdly, he remained grounded in the literary values that were inculcated in him as a student and during his apprenticeship. His success as a filmmaker was entirely driven by the enthusiasm to tell well-meant and simple stories on the screen. 

It would be heartening to see Tarun Majumdar on the same pedestal as high as K. Biswanath, who too, had been consistently sincere in his indigenous way of storytelling for the pan-Indian audience. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.