CUT, COPY, PASTE, CALCUTTA

As Te3n joins a bevy of films shot in the city, one hopes it shows us a newer Kolkata

Filmmakers and tourists share an inclination – tourists tend to frame the itinerary of a holiday in accordance with sightseeing attractions; filmmakers likewise usually design shoots to capture the attractions on camera. It is the merging of the documentary photographer and the storyteller that often plays out on screen. Sometimes this happens in harmony with the story, and sometimes it tends to be an add-on, especially with song sequences. Even the way crews and the media refer to outstation shoots reflects their impressions of these destinations. It usually lines up with what the destinations are famous as – cities or landscapes.

So, you shoot in Paris, in London, in New York, in Kolkata, and on the other hand, you shoot in Switzerland, in Iceland, in the Sunderbans, in Kashmir. The name of the destination immediately evokes the visuals that it is known for. And it appears to become incumbent on the director to ensure that their stories somehow play out against these images. One could scarcely expect a big Bollywood film to go shoot in Paris on the producer’s money, and return without any shots against the Eiffel Tower. That has to complete it. Similarly, with the other big places, the devil often lies not in the detail but in the broad strokes.

Calcutta_1
The fervent rush to recreate the charm of the city of Kolkata on screen is evident in films like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (left) and Parineeta (right)

And so it goes with Kolkata. Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n, slated to hit the theatres this week, joins the bevy of Hindi films shot in the city. Kolkata has, over the past decade and a half, become a happening destination for films – Indian and foreign alike. Parineeta, Yuva, Kahaani, Gunday, Lootera, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, and in foreign efforts – The Namesake, Sold, and The Waiting City.

There is a fervent rush to recreate the charm of the city on film, across time periods and demographics. And true to form, filmmakers turn to the Howrah Bridge, the Victoria Memorial, the trams, the Durga Pujas and the hand-pulled rickshaws to let the audience know that it’s good old Cal. Nothing wrong with this, except that for Kolkatans, and perhaps also for those who’ve seen enough of Kolkata on screen, this might tend to be reductive beyond a point.

The best cinematic representations of places have always touched the ordinary, shown the mundane, delved into the common, and thus brought the city to life not merely as a place full of places, but also of people, habits, chattels, lifestyles and living standards. The art director and the production designer are the two most important people in the process of creating the feel of a film, doubly so when that film involves heading to different lands.

Why is this important? First – the local audiences: the indigenous film industry of a place has, over time, recreated the place in every way possible. But these films rarely reach out to large audiences beyond those whose mother tongue it is. Second – the outsiders: the skill and art of a filmmaker is appreciated better when one joins the filmmaker in discovering a place that neither you nor the filmmaker is familiar with.

In this context, Te3n is something of a rarity. It is a Hindi film shot in Kolkata, but, by a local boy. That immediately raises expectations of a type from the film. How does an eye that knows the city’s intricacies choose to show it to a larger audience base? Being a Hindi film, it immediately deals with an expanded viewer base. The trailer promises an exciting story, appears to be tautly strung, and the star cast advertises itself. What will be exciting is to see how the story molds itself to Kolkata.

A harsh, though not ingenuous test for a film set in any place would be to simply ask the question of the film – given the story and the characters, could this have been set and shot anywhere? Does merely naming characters appropriately, throwing in some words and sentences in a language, and shooting against a recognisable set of backdrops give a film its credibility as a story in a place?

The characters in the film are Bengali, going by the naming. The language of choice is Hindi, which is fine – it is targeting the Hindi audiences and is no more dishonest than setting films in Ancient Greece while speaking in English. But one hopes that in the execution of this film, we get to see either a new Kolkata, or Kolkata in a new way. The film is itself adapted from a Korean film, Montage, so one expects (and certainly hopes) that a lot of midnight oil was burned in making the story a Kolkata story.

Kahaani Calcutta
Kahaani skulked along in a Kolkata not often explored by visiting filmmakers. The offices buildings, the by-lanes, the metro rail – everything appeared to be viewed anew.

Kahaani was an exceptional effort in this regard. It was guilty of perhaps stereotyping Bengali folk a shade too strong, in order to make it entertaining. But it skulked along in a Kolkata not often explored by visiting filmmakers. The offices buildings, the by-lanes, the metro rail – everything appeared to be viewed anew. Famously, Mona Lisa Guest House, which was where Vidya Balan’s character was based, became a local attraction afterwards, with hordes of people getting their selfies and tours fulfilled there.

It was a simple, unheralded location in South Calcutta, and the film wove it into the story line beautifully. By contrast, the destinations of choice for several filmmakers are usually the grand old homes – baaris of the landed families. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! also recreated a bygone Kolkata beautifully, in its northern lanes and homes. Of course, every film set in a period is scanned darkly by fans, to see whether or not the research is spotless. It rarely is, but it takes an expert eye to catch the flaws.

To enjoy a story set in a place, one must be able to see the world around the characters and know it to be representative of the people, their social standing and their culture. The broad strokes please the eye but it’s the little things that touch the heart – the crockery in a house, the congestion of a locality, the way washed clothes are dried, the staircase in an office, the seating arrangement outside a tea stall, the way food is served and eaten, and many such mundane elements that connect a viewer to a place. Te3n might have as its characters a more moneyed section of society, but that perhaps begs for an even more nuanced representation of their kind.

Television fiction is guilty of prioritising glitz over credibility. Their mandates are generally much more rigid and limited. Cinema has a freer hand, though similar laziness afflicts some of the biggest money churners. One looks forward to a well-written and well-acted show from Te3n. But insofar as Kolkata can still charm and amaze the world, one also looks forward to a thoughtfully designed work. After all, the English films shot in the bazaars of Istanbul would do them more justice if they let us see take in the sights and sounds for a little while longer before the motor chases send the barrows and stalls flying all over the place.

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