It’s funny how films and cities attach themselves to each other, how one weaves itself into the other sometimes to become inextricable in our minds. The legendary film-maker Jean-Luc Godard made many films that were cinematic love letters to his beloved Paris, some very subtle and some, like One or Two Things I know About Her, extremely direct ‘portraits’ of the city. Leaving these feature films aside, the one I really love to quote is a short Godard made for a cluster of six films on Paris made by six leading directors. In Godard’s film, a young woman is secretly juggling two lovers, a typically Parisian thing to do.
One day the woman sends two letters, one to each lover. To send the letters, the woman uses the ‘pneu’, the 19th century system of mail still working in ’60s Paris, in which you put the letter in a canister heading for a particular neighbourhood. The canister was then sucked along a network of tubes by pneumatic pressure till it reached a station from where a local postman took the letter and delivered it. Here, just as the two different canisters zoom off in different directions, the woman realises she has mixed up the letters – each lover will get the letter addressed to the other, leading to amorous disaster. The pneu canisters apparently moved at a pace only slightly faster than a human walking pace and so the woman starts to chase after one letter, hoping to get to the delivery station before the canister. Using this device and cross-cutting between the (slowly) hurtling canisters and the sprinting woman, Godard gives us a cinematic slice of the city he loves. The point about this minor film by a great director is that it brings in the city as a unique character – at every layer, here is something that could only ever happen in Paris.
In contrast, if you take a big budget Hollywood flop such as City of Joy by Roland Joffe, you can see that Calcutta and its slums are used merely as an exotic backdrop before which the big Anglo-American stars can prance and emote. The poor, the riksha-wallas, the beggars, etc., are all, at most, glorified extras, even if they are played by some of Indian cinema’s most talented and respected actors. If you replace the ricksha with a tuk-tuk and tweak the local characters a bit, the film could easily have been made in Bangkok or some other crowded tropical Asian city.
Leaving out south India for this discussion, most Bollywood films have lazily stayed within the municipal limits of Bombay-Mumbai, only occasionally venturing out to capture the village, hill-station or foreign location. It’s only recently that those villages and small towns have become more than two-dimensional painted curtains before which the hero and heroine carry out their antics. Again, it’s only over the last decade or so that Delhi (with its huge film audience) has begun to feature seriously in films, especially middle-budget productions with some ambition towards creating serious cinema. Whether commercial or semi-arty, you can see an odd hot and cold relationship between the Bombay film-walla and saddi Dilli.
If Rang de Basanti could have been shot in any reasonably sized Northern metro, Dilli 6 is a sentimental paean to an old city that’s already vanished. If Khosla ka Ghosla, Love, Sex and Dhoka, No One Killed Jessica and Band Baaja Baraat actually catch something that’s quintessentially Delhi, Delhi Belly teeters on the edge: take away the scene of the irate, soon-to-be-ex husband chasing the lead couple in a large SUV, shooting at them in a drunken rage, and you could seamlessly airlift the plot to Bombay. There are two passages in Dev.D, the first, which could only play out in a northern Punjabi city and then the MMS scandal involving the schoolgirl somehow infused with the social toxicity that only middle/upper-middle class Delhi can produce. Sadly, the third passage, the interminable, over-wrought self-indulgence of Dev.D’s disintegration in a Paharganj hotel could again be easily transplanted to Colaba, Sudder Street or Panjim.
One thing about Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani is that it fearlessly takes on the task of depicting Calcutta right after several contemporary films have been made about the city, made both by young-ish Bengali film-makers and a new clutch of exotica-hunting German, Italian and French wannabe-cineastes. The other thing about Kahaani is that the basic plot, such as it is, could again be slotted into any big Indian city and yet it feels like this story could only have taken place in amaader Kolkata. Despite the tall order and the flaws something happens in this movie, some strange successful alchemy between main character, location and camera, between the beautifully realised, small running jokes that are inserted across the film like kantha stitches and the frenzy of pre-Durga Puja, between a city deeply ‘felt’ by the crew and cast and a solid attention to the different crafts of cinema (except, of course, scripting).
Here we have a film that draws us in. In fact, so strong is the energy of the acting and the filming that it overcomes and almost makes the overall plot superfluous, engaging us instead with the tension created within individual scenes and sequences. Thinking about it, you realise this happens because Vidya Balan (playing a hugely pregnant Mrs Biddya Bagchi) actually has the smarts and the sensibility to treat the city as a co-actor.
This actor with whom VB interplays is an old jatra hack with a few basic melodrama tricks up his sleeve, but he (in that sense Calcutta has always seemed to me to be a male burgh, never a ‘she’ like Paris) is directed by Ghosh into using those old tricks very deftly. If you were to make a check-list of usual suspect Calcutta locations, the film would probably hit eleven out of ten: Howrah Bridge, wrestlers on the ghats, Kumartuli, metro train, tram, tram depot, Park Street, old office with rotting files and hanging wires, north Calcutta dilapidated house and gali, Anglo-Indian flat, Durga Puja, sleepy guest house, etc etc. (amazingly, no little nouko on the river and no koi-hai round of golf at the Tolly Club). Nevertheless, the whole thing still feels fresh. You know who one killer is, but when they appear again (and again in a cliché location), you still hold your breath. You know the young cop is a classic Bong wimp, the kind you usually want to give one tight slap, but here you root for him, you understand the fizzing knot of electrical wires inside him as he lusts after another man’s pregnant wife. The two child-labour khokons are udum cute, as is Biddyaballon’s interaction with them, but still they stand apart from each other and still they ‘work’.
The question this throws up is: will Calcutta, (or Kolkoetaa as non-natives mispronounce it) now get invited to the party more often by Bombay producers? The big budget houses in amchi Bambai often follow the smaller, more arty producers, coming and trampling over the ground that’s been opened up by the more daring directors, so will Cal-Kol now become the location of choice for sequences in, say, Don 5 or Dhoom 17? Unlikely. The thinking will probably be that Vidya B and Kol-C are a one-off, a hard act to follow, already done. But what might happen is that script-wallas and poedoosirrs might now start looking for the next ‘small’ town to exploit: you may get Bangalore with gigas of geeks and Digas doing Dum-Dum, you may well get Nucklau and tehzeeb touts snaffling galauti kababs as they spout shaayaris, you may even get Hyderabad and Guwahati reduced to pastiche, but you won’t get too much Calgotha in forthcoming Bolly-busters. To see the truly crazy place this city is mutating into, you may need to mix up the canisters of commercial and art film and have some people go chasing after them, you may need to fall back on local film-makers with courage and imagination.
Ruchir Joshi is an author who divides time between London and Kolkata
From HT Brunch, April 8
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