THE CITY IN CINEMA: FROM ‘CALCUTTA’ TO ‘KOLKATA’

November 8, 2017 – 6:53 am

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Cities take on unique perspectives in cinematic vision. Many legendary Indian directors from Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak to Mrinal Sen, have all tackled the city of Calcutta. Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the capital of the British Raj till 1911. The importance of the city started declining since the capital shifted to Delhi. The great Bengal Famine of 1942 and the Partition of India (rather of Bengal and Punjab) in 1947 pegged the city further back. The prosperous film industry, thanks to the New Theatres studio, also started dwindling in the late ’40s with a fleet of technicians and directors flocking to the shores of the Arabian Sea in Bombay (now Mumbai). By Amitava Nag.

PRESENCE OF THE ‘CITY - THE ’50s AND ’60s

In 1953 Nirmal Dey’s romantic comedy Saare Chuattor launched a new screen couple in the form of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. They blitzkrieged their way to stardom and attained insurmountable heights in the next part of the decade and the two that followed it. Most of the twenty-odd films they starred together in the ’50s were runaway hits.

And, in almost all of them it was the journey of the rural youth to the urban milieu of Calcutta in search of a better living and eventually in finding his lady love. The trajectory not only acted as a wish fulfillment of the rural West Bengal but also of the large section of refugee Bengalis driven out of their native land which had become a new nation by then.

The exploration of the hero in the city of Calcutta is hence a discovery of modernity as well as an exhibition of the architecture of the city. These architectural monuments from the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and the General Post Office to the several Administrative and other buildings were erected during the British rule and served as an added purpose of visual touring for the audience. In a different sense, these architectures also represented the power and dominance which the hero and the heroine set out to fight against.

Migrating to the city of Calcutta and dwelling there had been the backdrop of the last two films of Satyajit Ray’s iconic Apu Trilogy. While in the second part of Aparajito (1956) we find a teenage Apu moving to the big city with the hope of an academic future; in Apur Sansar (1959) the grown up Apu strive hard to survive in it.

In Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) the uncertainties of the ’60s are reflected as unemployment, disbelief and the innocent charm seem to get eroded very fast. As the domesticated housewife Arati sets out of her home for the first time to earn for her family when her husband loses his job, Ray in deft touches portrays the socio-political conflicts of the middle-class.

For Mrinal Sen the reality was starker. In Akash Kusum (1965) Ajay, the hero, has no apparent history of migration; he is rather a settled dweller with a dream of making it big. Ajay in a sense is an alter ego of Apu of Apur Sansar (both the characters played by an eloquent Soumitra Chatterjee) but a character who is laden with deceit and manipulation, traits of a modern citizen of a cruel metro city.

INNOCENCE LOST - THE ’70s

The Naxalite movement that started in the late ’60s took its toll on Calcutta more than any other big cities of the country. There were sporadic killings both by the Naxalite revolutionaries as well as the State police. Calcutta’s holy trinity of Ray, Sen and Ritwik Ghatak responded to the situation in their own unique and distinct styles. Both Ray and Sen made their own Calcutta Trilogy to address the situation.

In Jana Aranya (1976), the last of Ray’s Calcutta Trilogy, the film opens with an examination hall with Naxalite and Maoist slogans on the walls of a classroom. The camera zooms in on the answer script that reads ‘Calcutta University’ - Ray’s symbolic ‘examination’ of the city in light of the political fiasco that engulfed it. Unlike Ray’s earlier films his Calcutta trilogy is distinctively judgmental and arguably more caustic.

For Mrinal Sen, Calcutta 71 (1971) was a political statement against the ills of the society as he famously said “the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.” As opposed to Ray’s more classical and poetic treatment, in the films on Calcutta Sen’s camera holds narrow lanes that depict the claustrophobia he wishes the audience to experience.

Ritwik Ghatak’s cinematic space and his meanderings have been quite different from both Ray and Sen. The prime of Ghatak’s cinema revolves round the pains of Partition and the longing for lost land. In Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) for example, though the physicality of the refugee colony has little relevance in the canvas of melodrama and agony, yet, it holds out a different visual reality of the city unseen in many other films of that era.

In Subarnarekha (1962) Ritwik deals with irony as two central characters embark upon a city ride that culminates in one of them meeting his long lost sister in a prostitute colony! Is this the price one has to pay when one migrates to a big city and gets lost in its whirlwind?

‘KOLKATA’ - THE CITY DISAPPEARS

Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s biggest matinee idol, passed away in 1980. Soon after, the commercial Bengali cinema steadily started to lose its focus on the city. With the super hit Shatru (1984, Anjan Chowdhury) a new trend emerged keeping the rural Bengal in consideration. Borrowing heavily from that genre of Hindi cinema of the ’70s that relied on the Angry Young Man prototype, these Bengali films depicted the triumph of good over evil via one honest individual.

The journey that started off with Uttam Kumar’s flight from the village to Calcutta in the ‘50s was complete with Prasenjit moving back to the village as an honest police officer. It is indeed a circular trajectory of the hero of Bengali ‘commercial’ cinema.

In 2001 the city changed its name to ‘Kolkata’ from ‘Calcutta’. By then Rituparno Ghosh already emerged as the most successful contemporary Bengali director of ‘parallel’ cinema. Alongside, Ghosh overhauled the visual spaces and landscapes that existed in Bengali cinema - in film after film he maintained low-key indoor settings which helped him to sustain his low-budget offerings. As a result the city gradually disappeared physically, only to be reminisced metaphorically through references and indirect associations.

Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Herbert (2006) and [email protected] (2010) hold the city with its angst, mystery and nostalgia. The way Herbert sensitively portrayed life in North Kolkata can be matched with Sthaniya Sambad (2010, Moinak Biswas and Arjun Gourisaria) in South Kolkata.

The latter film travels through the breadth of the city from the extreme South to the ‘new’ town at Rajarhat (colloquially called Newtown) via the quintessentially western Park Street. The film can be noted for another significant attribute - it renders the dialect of East Bengal quite significantly, a trait which is fast getting lost due to the perils of homogenization. In his Hindi film Kahaani (2012) Sujoy Ghosh dissected the city with perfection and a rare poignancy.

Unfortunately the current practitioners of Bengali cinema probably don’t consider the city to have a character of its own that can be depicted on screen, something their predecessors could explore repeatedly in their cinema of ’50s - ’70s. Kolkata is changing fast with an expansive demography. New architecture, new modes of identification and a new flow of cultural interpretation are evident in the city’s reality. The future will decide if Bengali cinema is smart to embrace these dynamic mutations.

Note: Amitava Nag has been an independent film critic for 15 years. He has worked with CNN IBNLive, Outlook, The Statesman, Deep Focus, The Bengal Post, Dear Cinema and Silhouette Film Magazine. He is a member of the national film critics body - the Film Critics’ Circle of India. His latest book, launched in January 2016, was on the legendary film actor Soumitra Chatterjee - Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee (Harper Collins India). An edited version of this piece was earlier published in The Hindu on October 15, 2017.

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