Kolkata As Star

In Shrijeet Mukherjee’s 22shey Shrabon and Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, the star is the city of Kolkata, and that too such a powerful star that it could render the Bengali superstar, Prosenjit in the former and the Hindi film star Vidya Balan in the latter into supporting actors in the film, profiling, embossing and raising into relief the main character, the city of Kolkata. In both films, Kolkata refused to remain only as a backdrop, it emerged into a veritable character of its own wrenching the characters in the film of their individuality and putting them forth merely as typecasts. Were an anthropologist to watch these films, she would have a fine idea of how it felt to live a daily like in Kolkata amidst its streets, its festivities, its business as usual. Both these films, with the recovery of poetry in one and Rabindrasangeet in the other, seek a city that seemed to have lost in the reams of the long hibernation of the thirty four years of the CPIM rule. The liberal use of TMC symbols on the walls of 22shey Shrabon and at least in one instance in Kahaani connects a sort of cultural recovery with the politics of the present incumbent in power.

22shey Shrabon used the storyline of a serial killing as a peg to hang its real tale, namely the tale of poetry, Bengali poetry of the last century covering a range from Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Sukanto Bhattacharya, Jibananda Das, Binoy Majumdar and the latter’s ilk the Hungryalists of the 1960’s defined the Bengali spirit. Connecting poetry with death is a special style of the Hungryalist movement of the 1960’s and the film held Bengali poetry through the decades of the last century in the format of the chaos and death by associating poetry with gruesome and mindless murders. Death was found in the streets of Kolkata, its investigation took us all over the city in its growing megapolis, its decrepit hutments, its narrow alleys, its phlegmatic trams, its pervert lawkeepers, its sorrows, sighs, exhilirations and chaos. The world of Kolkata is unequal; its plush offices and stench slums; its wide roads and narrow by lanes, a rising class of stars among journalists and professionals and the failing multitude forced to remain in unorganized and if not illegal occupations. Poetry of despair, separation, nonsense rhymes and epitaphs try desperately to bridge the gap between the two worlds.

In Kahaani, the squalor of Kolkata is never conscious to its alter ego, namely the plush city lights. In fact, the scene never leaves the pallor. The contrast to the damp miasma of a life led by losers as is amply spelt out in the lyrics of the title song as the city is always in a rush but never seems to go anywhere, is a power centre located far away in Delhi, the “centre” favourite whipping horse of every political party in power. This “centre” is Bengal’s angst, the curtailment of its autonomy, of its Bengali nationhood and in extreme cases, of its racial destiny. Here, the more visible and hence “public” aspects of the Bengali culture, namely Rabindrasangeet and Durgapuja bridges the divide between the centre and the state; hence Bollywood and non Bengali actress plays a protagonist as one married to a Bengali and Amitabh Bachchan sings a Tagore song.

Sujoy Ghosh admits unabashedly that he uses Satyajit Ray’s format of filming; indeed one can see the liberal use of the camera in the style of Ray in Joy Baba Felunath, a superhit children’s film. The advantage of this Ray film is that it uses the skittle alleys and slip lanes of Benares sometimes teeming with crowds and at times utterly deserted and sometimes hustling with the hectic pace of street food and unknown occupations in order to carve out in relief crimes that can only emanate out of the city and not be merely located in it. The suspense and the thrill of Kahaani is not so much in the investigation alone, but in the pursuit of a crime, as yet unknown to us but possible only because of the way the city of Kolkata seams within its fold the medley of daily pursuit of  everyday life. The film reveals to us the world of Kolkata, a city cosmopolitan because of its ability to absorb a vast sea of humanity accommodating everyone also produces crime and anonymity. The face of adaptability is the police, a clear advertisement punch line, shown as the set of a much publicized “shenshitive” anthromorphs; while the truth is quite to the contrary.

Sujoy Ghosh then uses Kahaani to project Kolkata to a wider world and hence the Durga Puja and the Rabindrasangeet renditioned mellifluously with the right gayaki by Amitabh Bachchan notwithstanding his poor accent. This is the Kolkata where the “world” i.e. the rest of India descends, succeeds and learns to appreciate and respect the ethos of a city so far looked down for its lack of wealth but now emergent as a leader in culture, ethos and civilization. Kolkata as civilization is the new cultural project of both the intellectual and the new political incumbent in the state.

Shrijeet Mukherjee’s film 22shey Shrabon has more to do with the city’s internal contradictions; a rising Bengali intelligentsia freed from a thirty four year old and two and a half generation of cultural ennui now wakes to new freedom even if that is of mayhem and chaos into searching for its own concepts rather than be dictated as poor imitations of countries beyond the borders namely Russia and China. In this new awakening Kolkata rediscovers its poetry; the city’s crux is not about an image that it will project to the world outside for investments and enterprise but about its own self, its divides, its despair and its hopes to mend its fractures. Shrijeet’s Kolkata is a city in deep meditation over its own self; its future as one that will emerge from within itself. The protagonist of this movie says this over and over again; the solution to the mystery will emerge in the drawing room, in my head, through rumination and reflection, through senses culled from the deep insides of a mutable memory. This is in sharp contrast to Kahaani’s protagonist, one who explores the city’s chaos to find an order but is herself extremely well ordered and well ensconced in her consciousness. The protagonist of 22shey Shrabon is all confused, confounded, and struggles within himself to emerge to light. In fact all the characters in 22shey.. are like this, struggling in their own confusions to emerge into illumination; the splurge of TMC symbols show this anxiety, the new politics is about an internal struggle within darkness to seek light. Kahaani is much better off; it is about projecting Kolkata to the outside world and while its protagonist is a woman married to a Bengali, the crime against the city is committed by outsiders, Parsis, Jews, Christians, South Indians and the like. The Muslim outsider from northern India is a pretentious fool made use of; the clever ones are Bengal’s own sons, the Kolkata police and of course, the protagonist because of her Durga like courage she has to be one, who if not born a Bengali, is one by marriage and hence by spirit.

I favour 22shey Shrabon.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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