A short-film series that explores the Calcutta before Kolkata
Filmmaker Vineet Arora and musician Jaimin Rajani are celebrating their love for the city with a series of shorts on heritage gems tucked away across it. They plan to expand the concept to other cities too.
It all started with a search for sandwiches. IT consultant and part-time filmmaker Vineet Arora was looking for a bite when he heard a busker playing the guitar on Kolkata’s Southern Avenue. The busker was a student from Jadavpur University. He was also selling sandwiches off the back of his bicycle.
Also standing and listening was marketing manager Jaimin Rajani, out on his daily walk. As Arora recorded the performance on his camera, he and Rajani got chatting and discovered a shared love for Kolkata, for films and for music. Later that year, when Arora was planning a tribute to Bob Dylan, he reached out to Rajani and asked if he wanted to collaborate on it. The 2019 documentary If Not for You (available on Vimeo) is the tale of Kolkata’s long love affair with the rock-‘n’-roll icon, told through interviews with Indian musicians inspired by the bard.
The two men had a good time working on that film and decided to keep going, celebrating their love for Kolkata in a series of short films, 10 to 30 minutes long, on heritage gems tucked away in the city. There’s one on Hemen & Co, a musical instruments store that makes its own instruments, and a place where George Harrison of The Beatles bought a sitar in 1968, on the recommendation of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Their second short film is on the little-known, 110-year-old Manackjee Rustomjee Parsi Dharamshala, which offers subsidised lodging for Parsis and delicious authentic Parsi fare for all. The third is on the iconic idol makers and sculptors G Paul & Sons.
Two more documentaries are in the works, one on the city’s vinyl enthusiasts and the other on the small family-run Chinese mess Ah Leung, which serves authentic fare such as handmade noodles and pork wontons at rock-bottom rates. You can get a meal here for ₹100, in the Hakka cuisine of Guangdong, but no concessions are made to the Indian palate. The food, it is said, tastes just as it would in the original coastal province of southern China.
The first three films of the Calcutta Refurbished series were released in 2020 on YouTube; the fourth and fifth are due out later this year. Funded and shot by Arora, 47, Rajani handles scripting, logistics and research.
The hardest part so far for him, says Rajani, 30, has been getting the soundtracks in place. A musician himself, Rajani wanted each to be perfect. Thankfully, he says, “Shiraz Ali Khan, the grandson of the late sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, agreed to share his own music and music composed by his uncle Ustad Aashish Khan. Shiraz’s music features in G Paul & Sons, while the music composed by Ustad Aashish Khan has been used in the Parsi dharamshala documentary.”
Making the films has been a way of learning more about the city they love. “I enjoy exploring the streets on foot. Those long aimless walks have led me to discover some of these interesting landmarks that had been forgotten,” Rajani says. The response has been heartening too, especially from the Indian diaspora. The documentary on the Dharamshala touched a chord, drawing comments on Facebook from Parsis around the world.
There are now plans to expand the series to other cities. Rajani, who was born in Mumbai and lived and worked there from 2013 to 2018, wants to feature the island city next. He’d focus, he says, on lesser-known institutions such as the over-100-year-old Kalbadevi textile market and the long-surviving community lunch homes known as khanawals, which were started to cater to migrant workers, mainly those employed in the growing number of mills in Byculla, Parel, Kalbadevi and Dadar. Some still survive, the food remains hearty, and a thali even today costs as little as ₹70.