Sthaniya Sambaad starts off on a historical and social plane and becomes increasingly poetic, bordering on the absurd. At first we are shown an aerial, macro view of refugee settlements in the southern fringes of Kolkata. And then we zoom into one Deshbandhu Colony, fictional but real, named after a freedom fighter, like the real refugee colonies in the city such as Netaji Nagar, and shot on location in some of them.
We are now at a micro level, accompanying a mother and daughter visiting the neighbourhood grocery store, revelling in micro details—it’s the daughter’s birthday, we hear from their conversation, and that she can buy three music CDs with the money her parents have given her to buy herself a present. Something really strange follows when two miscreants chop off the girl’s plait and run away with it right in the middle of a market.
This is the preface of Sthaniya Sambaad. The main story unfolds over the course of the next day and the girl (Nayana Palit) is not the main character but the muse of a young poet, Atin (Anirban Dutta), our protagonist. Like Anil Chatterjee in Meghe Dhaka Tara, he pursues a creative interest, completely disconnected from the real issues at hand—his family home is among the dwellings that face the threat of being demolished to make way for a high-rise, an issue that the film wants to deal with, but in a lateral way.
Instead we have a portrait of a colony as a provincial town, contained in itself and the kind of place where everybody knows everybody. We are concerned with a handful of characters—an old shopkeeper (Dilip Sarkar) and his older friend (Mrinal Ghosh); the para intellectual played by the filmmaker Sumon Mukhopadhyay, Atin’s friend-philosopher-guide; the two shady men (Anindya Banerjee; Subhankar Mitra), who are looking to sell something so they can use the money to enrol in an educational institute that sends the toppers to a foreign country—all in some way related to Atin or to the bizarre incident at the start, of the braid being chopped off. All but a bunch of idlers who sit in a makeshift bamboo bench all day drily observing the goings-on, their framing and visual scheming so stagey that it must be some sort of a theatrical device.
I’d heard about Sthaniya Sambaad but never got the chance to see it—even though it was on Netflix for a while—until it arrived at the streaming platform Hoichoi recently. The film, directed by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas (who has also written the screenplay) had a criminally short theatrical run in Kolkata when it was released 10 years ago. Made at a time when the Music World in Park Street still existed (where Atin and Dipankar reach looking for the girl), it’s a strange, and sometimes frustrating, film. I can’t say I ‘got’ it entirely; the stubborn localness of the film keeps you at an arm’s length throughout. There is a common belief among filmmakers and storytellers at large that the more local you go, the more universal you are. I suspect that’s not entirely true for Sthaniya Sambaad, where the pleasures are very wry, very funny, and very local.
Central to it is the way the characters converse: the two old men who speak in bangal; the two thieves who speak in a mix of Hindi and English (in what could be seen as a critique of the decline in the city’s cultural rootedness); Atin and Dipankar spend most of the runtime hanging out, talking. Atin might be the protagonist but with his mannered recitations is a constant source of amusement that the film treats with an underlying sense of irony. Even Dipankar, who is otherwise encouraging of the boy, mildly mocks him for his flowery excesses and overly genteel outlook. Some of these exchanges are so culturally specific—like Atin’s use of the word ‘affair’, as if it’s some kind of a bad word; or the way he describes the girl’s suitor as ‘non-Bengali’—that even great subtitling can’t be a substitute. I cracked up when Atin suggests the pseudonym ‘Sri Aniket’—after Dipankar’s suggestion of Shihoron Sen, and Dodul Dey—but I doubt if a ‘non-Bengali’ will.
All of which gives the film its own kind of political relevance, at a time of national Hindi imposition by the ruling party; even though it may have been made with a different political intent, of showing a segment of Kolkata generally not represented in contemporary films. There is a scene where the visual of a crane razing down settlements at the dead of the night is rendered even more ominous with the disappearance of sound. And the film sharpens its satirical edges toward the end with the late entry of the Bratya Basu character, a ruthless builder who may be a poet after all. Looking into the distance at a site for a future redevelopment project, he says his lines as if he is on stage, reading out the monologue of his life.
Some of the best scenes in Sthaniya Sambaad are when it just lets life in, such as a moment in an auto rickshaw where a woman, a hitherto unseen character, smiles like she is in love as an old Bengali song plays on the radio; or an exterior long-shot of a Harisabha, a particular feature of refugee colonies, where a woman can be heard singing a Kirtan. We feel a sense of relief when Atin and Dipankar venture out of the stifling environs of the colony into the bright lights of Park Street, where they go looking for the girl. It’s fittingly meandering and romantic for a film where even the bad guy has a weakness for poetry.