It’s that time of the year again – no, not the weeks leading up to “Pujo” (no self-respecting Bengali would be caught dead calling it “Durga Puja”) when the roads are stoppered with half-built “pandels”, the blue skies are speckled with white, and the air is electric as the city begins to awaken from it’s lethargy to slap on the war-paint. No, it is not the time to celebrate the hand-made (even blood-and-sweat-made) artistry that has been a trademark of the largest festival this country has witnessed decade after decade. No,
my city Calcutta is in the news again – apparently for the ‘right’ reasons, which are so very wrong.
But this is not going to be about the politics of it – there is an overdose of that already in all sorts of media – mainstream, social, my cook in Delhi, my neighbour in Calcutta, my uncle in the US…and probably his local grocer too! The problem(?) with us Bengalis is that we cannot be half-hearted – we are always, always firmly and irrevocably on some side of the fence. A surprise to someone encountering one of our species for the first time, since the “cholche cholbe” attitude has been popularized as a Calcutta characteristic. Some call it passion, some say it’s obsession. Perseverance or pigheadedness. You see the penchant for extremes right? The upshot is…the argument continues. So I’m steering clear of the D-word here (My name is XXX and I’m not a Maoist) since I have something different to say.
While the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of it is what has put Calcutta on the map the past year, there is something interesting about the city which has been stealthily creeping into our radar, till it really can’t be ignored anymore. Yes, I am talking about the fact that suddenly the city – and it’s people – has arrived in all it’s visual glory in mainstream (read: Bollywood) cinema. And this time it’s not the bumbling ‘bengali babu’ being caricatured (think Deven Verma. Who you say? Really, kids these days!), or the diva of the wet dream MMS (Moon Moon Sen) in a white sari or as a ghost (yes I have watched both movies, and I sense you judging me). It is the best part of Calcutta which is starring here – the city itself, with all its quirks and quaintness. So we suddenly have the Kahani of “Bidya madam” battling white-uniformed cops (as a kid didn’t it always confuse you that cops in Hindi movies never wore white?) while tearing through the streets of a “Kolkata” captured in a way calculated to bring a sigh to anyone who has ever been a part of the city. We are introduced to a smart young woman and her educated family in Vicky Donor – where her being Bengali is a focal point in the film. We even glimpsed Prosenjit (he is to present-day Bengali cinema what Rajnikant is to…err…you get the picture) in the political thriller Shanghai. You might also remember an otherwise eminently missable film Love Aajkal, which had one of the best songs (Aj Din Chadeya) with shots of the beloved red buildings with green shutters – not a usual ‘Bollywood’ scene. And now of course the latest, Barfi, which turned out to be even more of a treat (for me at least) thanks to the ‘Calcutta Connection’. In fact, it goes one leap further and takes it to the heights (he he) of Darjeeling, which is now accessible again (again no D-word to be mentioned here). Is it due to a coming-of-age by the sons of the city? The directors, actors, and others involved in movie-making process? Maybe it’s because Mumbai is done-to-death and Delhi has seen it’s fair share too…so, literally, it’s just economics and a search for greener pastures. Is it the old-world charm of the city and the value of nostalgia which is being cashed upon? Or is it just the Year of the Bengali? Because, all said and done, Calcutta is all about the Bengali – it’s power and it’s curse.
Sure Calcuttans still quibble and argue (did you not read what I wrote above??) about how the pronunciation of ‘Akla Cholo Re’ was not accurate to the ‘Robindroshongeet ear’, or why the suicides needed to be shown in the Metro (it was the first one in the country after all even though it was not marketed as effectively as ‘Dilli ki Shaan’) – but at the end of it all, we love it. We love that we see the Hooghly bridge shot at angles which bring out it’s magnificence, we love that the colonial architecture (dilapidated but still standing) is showcased so brilliantly, we love that trams are on the big screen (yes we hardly use them since they’re impossibly slow, but they symbolize the city) and we are overjoyed that the phuchka is finally getting it’s due. We love it and we’re proud of it. Yes, I know there should be better and bigger things we should aspire to be proud of – there is infrastructure to be repaired and industries to be rebuilt. There are jobs to be created so that someday we can go back and not call it a ‘compromise’. But, for the duration of 2 and a half hours, we are proud to be from this city. And it’s not an opportunity we get very often these days.