Directors and the Bong connection

A tantalising English pop song continues to replay on the turn-table of the mind. The song, rendered with harmonious ease, went like this:
I’ve kissed the girls of Naples… I’ve kissed them in Paris… but the girls of Calcutta do something
to me.

For a Mumbaikar, way more than that song, Kolkata has meant Rabindranath Tagore’s superb Gitanjali, Satyajit Ray’s masterly Apu trilogy, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sharmila Tagore, and its sweet delights: mishti doi and K.C. Das’ roshogollas. Colloquially called the “Bongs” the mahanagar’s teeming population is unlike any other in the world. There is a dignity and a humaneness in the face of persistent poverty and sufferance.

On my very first visit to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1980s, I had no alternative but to commute to New Market from the railway station, using the only mode of transport — functional then — affordable for a journalist on meagre travelling expenses.
Feeling exploitative, I mounted a human rickshaw to reach the dharamashala where my International Film Festival-addicted friends were waiting for me. The neon lights of the streets whizzed by in a blur: an emaciated rickshaw puller ran, his body sweating but his face wreathed in a fluorescent smile. Bimal Roy in Do Bigha Zameen had underlined the plight of a “human” rickshaw portrayed with amazing acuity by Balraj Sahni. In the film, the rickshaw puller’s fare lorded it over while their “steed” was about to collapse with fatigue. When I mumbled, “Sorry but”, he interrupted happily, “I’m matric-pass but there’s no other job for me. You don’t have to feel guilty. If you hadn’t taken the rickshaw, I would have gone hungry tonight.” As soon as he dropped me at the dharamshala, the lights went off, almost symbolically on the streets. “Welcome”, my friends grinned, “to power breakdowns”.
Clearly, the festival’s revelation was that the city’s elite as well as the hoi polloi are cinema lovers with taste. The retrospective of the nouvelle vague French film-maker, Jean-Luc Godard, drew jampacked houses. In Mumbai, the crowds would have either rushed to the American blockbusters or sex-filled Swedish eclairs.
The Chaplin, the Globe and the Metro were the action spots. If cineastes couldn’t get into a film by the Hungarian master Zoltán Fábri, no problem. They protested for an extra screening and it was duly organised at midnight. There was love for cinema in the air, symbolised with a twist of sobriety by the omnipresence of Satyajit Ray.
Ray would attend the early morning screenings with son Sandip, travel with the press guys in the official bus while commuting from one cinema hall to the other. Ray, expectedly, kept to himself. I didn’t dare approach him. The first time I’d been introduced to him was in Mumbai. Immediately, he had intoned, “Oh, so you’re the one who had nasty comments to make about Shatranj Ke Khilari in the Illustrated Weekly?”
Gulping for breath, before the imposing figure, I attempted to tell him that there were certain aspects of his first Hindi film which bothered me. Before I could start, he’d marched ahead. Anyway so whenever I saw Ray in Cal, I kept to myself. It was only years later, when his health was failing, and he was at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel with his son and grandson, that I begged a super-networked friend to organise a one-to-one interview with Ray.
It was a Q&A I’d longed to do throughout my career. I hung on to every word he said. No one ever compared to him. And I was startled when he said just as I was about to leave his room at the Taj, “Look, why didn’t you ever say hello to me when you were in Calcutta for the film festivals? I don’t bite, you know. I appreciate criticism, positive or negative… life’s too short for grudges.”
Visits to Calcutta had continued regularly after the first festival I’d attended there. I struck an acquaintance with Goutam Ghose, Buddhadev Das Gupta and Mrinal Sen. Trouble ahead: Mrinal Sen sorely disappointed me. He gave me an interview in which he made some poisonous remarks against Naseeruddin Shah (they had bickered during the making of Genesis) and insisted that I should publish every word that he had said. I did.
Naseeruddin Shah lashed back at Sen in print. And what do you think Mrinalda did? He accused me of quoting his “off-the-record” statements and even had the nerve to complain to my editor. Mercifully, the editor had just shrugged, “Not to worry. When Mrinalda can’t handle things, he says he has been misquoted.” Oh, well.
Aparna Sen I have met on numerous occasions but have hardly gone beyond the hello-how-are-you stage. What would I say to her anyway? That I sobbed my heart out throughout 36 Chowringhee Lane? As for Rituparno Ghosh, I’d like to know how he persuades usually recalcitrant actors like Ajay Devgn and Aishwarya Rai to show up in his arthouse brand of cinema.
Every time, the city has seemed as varied as its architecture and the landscape that whizzes past from the airport. The Science Museum…the football stadia… the still ponds… they always have a new face. What will never change are, of course, the majesty of the grand Victoria Memorial, the authentic Chinese food joints and the song about the Calcutta girls which plays on perfectly in harmony.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director


Naughty boy Khalid, its

Naughty boy Khalid, its "'ladies' of Calcutta'" not 'girls'!


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