September 14, 2016

Why Not You, Kolkata?

Picture Courtesy - Krishna (justclicked)

This article is a literary translation of the original article published in Anandabazar by Shiladitya Sen. The work was translated with due permission from the author by our very own Soumalya Chakraborty.  If you want to read the original article in Bengali, it is available here. It is impossible to give the same flavor through a translation but we have tried to make it as much closer as possible.

The entire city is his playground. He hops, skips and jumps through it with a smile on his face and without a care in the world. As this happens, a packed auditorium cheers his every move and every moment. The city in question is Kolkata and the Auditorium-Prasad Preview Labs. For three days, Hyderabad’s film aficionados had gathered at this theater situated in Banjara Hills to catch a glimpse of some of the finest contemporary cinematic offerings from Bengal. One among these was the film, “Babar Naam Gandhiji”, which explores a dimension of Kolkata largely unknown to us. The protagonist is a young boy from the streets named “Kecho” (worm), the likes of whom we refuse to know or associate with. However, this apathy makes no difference to him as he goes about his business taking the animosity of the city’s gentlemen and ladies in his stride. His confident and playful demeanor appears to be telling the civil society, “to those of you who deem yourselves important/there’s another Kolkata within the one that you know/take a walk along the streets and get to see it all your elitists”

Watching the movie with me was Mr. Madhu Eravankara who teaches film studies in Kerala, his home state. As the action unfolded, he related that this is a reality he is closely familiar with. The “Kecho”s of this country live exactly this way. Possibly Mr. Madhu was speaking from his South Indian perspective but in my opinion, this is a pan Indian picture. There’s the reality of an India which is abuzz with notions of progress and development and then there’s another India which is being left behind. A space inhabited by the marginalized and ostracized who are being cornered by the urban high-and-mighty.

The director, a young and dynamic Pavel who’s just north of twenty-five, has infused his personal experience of educating street kids such as Kecho in his film. Having brought many such Kechos up from their surroundings, this is a subject close to his heart. Last year, the movie released on Gandhi Jayanti and received appreciation from all those who watched. However, it didn’t run for long and hardly received the publicity it deserved. On the other hand, I would like to remind you of a commercially successful Bollywood movie which released a while back and was shot in Kolkata. Bengalis went head over heels in their praise for the visuals, gushing, “wow! what an awesome portrayal of our city!”. Bollywood has managed to firmly establish itself in our hearth and home. It’s regulating our choices, food habits, style, travel plans and love life. Feeding us the construct of a happy-go-lucky Indian-ness which disregards issues of caste, color and religion. A presentation which is not just partial but also one-dimensional.

At the same time, regional films with their themes involving caste, religion and color are lending a new shape to thoughts on India. These movies, with their many dialects and layers are attempting to capture the complex strata of Indian society and life. Throwing light on the largely ignored, majorly silenced lives in remote corners, they are choosing the various problems of a nation and its people as they seek to express themselves and be heard. Such chronicles are not only important for us to know the larger space around the ones we inhabit, they are also invaluable for the creation of contemporary history.

I am talking about such regional films whose cameras are still looking for our country and its people after sixty years of “Pather Panchali”. An ongoing search celebrating success and battling failure. So does Bollywood totally abstain from it? Not really. They turn out tales of struggle and conflict too, but they are mostly surface-reality, dictated by commercial intent.

To identify how “Indian” the life of a Bengali is, members of “Bengalis in Hyderabad” have been organizing the “Hyderabad Bengali Film Festival” for the last three years. The director of the festival, +Partha Pratim Mallik, opines that this festival is an attempt to prove that good cinema exists outside Bollywood. Though it’s a “Bengali” film festival by name, in reality, it’s a celebration of regional cinema. +Piyali Chakraborty, a prominent member of the organizing committee, points out that it’s not just Bengalis but many other people hailing from different regions and staying in Hyderabad, throng the theater to soak in all the cinematic excellence. Ratnottama Sengupta, the curator of the festival since its inception and the one all the organizers count on, says, “I have chosen only those Bengali movies which clearly reflect the nation.”

Even during the 50s, 60s and 70s when Bengali cinema was going through a glorious stage, the annoying boy-meets-girl formula was widespread. Over time, it has not only stayed but extended its expression through cheap thrills and extra maritals. Additionally, we are dealing with invasions of supernatural themes, detective fiction, crime thrillers and exotic locales. Standing out from these, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s “Asa Jaowar Majhe” and Kaushik Ganguly’s “Cinemawala” earned felicitation in this year’s festival. Weaving the fabric of political discourse under personal lives, Kaushik’s film serves as a fitting depiction of the issues plaguing Indian cinema. Inspired by Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera”, Judhajit Sarkar’s political drama “Kolkatar King” is a successful revelation of the nexus between mafia, corruption, administration and the ruling party in any Indian city, told through its cinematic language. A terminal disease, which not only destroys the one who is suffering from it but slowly poisons the lives of his or her dear ones, form the subject of Partha Sen’s “Anubrato Bhalo Acho” and make the audience melancholy.

Creating a taste for acceptable social dictates through cinema make it commercially viable and sustain the market of Bollywood. Going against this notion, Amit Ranjan Biswas’s “Bridge”, Shatarupa Sanyal’s “Onyo Apala” and Debesh Chatterjee’s “Natoker Moto” emphatically establishes their varied perspectives. Marital discords paving the way for separation, increasing physical and emotional torture of women leading to them experiencing a lifeless existence, dominating males imposing their will or being strangely aloof and uncaring are some of the themes these movies explore. Bollywood hardly explores the sexual exploitation of women or a refusal of their expected sexual needs to this degree. Such characters are largely forgotten and left behind. 

Just like Pavel’s film, Debesh’s offering also won the hearts and minds of Hyderabad’s audience, leading to both of them winning top awards. “When I am making movies outside the mainstream, I will also create an audience whose tastes are not dictated by the mainstream. This is part of my filmmaking”. Can’t we confidently aspire for alternative thinking like Debesh does here? When Hyderabad can come out of the spell of Bollywood to celebrate regional cinema, can Kolkata not showcase cinema of other states in a festival of its own?

Author Siladitya Sen is an eminent film journalist and also member of Film Critic Circle of India.


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