The City of Joy and Hindi films have shared a strangely intimate bond since the beginning of movies. Year after year, hordes of filmmakers have rushed to claim Kolkata as their muse, drawing from the cultural warmth of the city.
Take Sanjay Dutt’s dhunuchi naach (traditional Durga Puja dance) or Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan’s romantic rendezvous at the Prinsep Ghat in Parineeta (2005). Or a glance of Victoria Memorial when Rani Mukerji and Kamal Haasan make love against the backdrop of the riots in Hey Ram (2000). In Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998), the city influences a young man’s transformation into a Naxalite in the same way it aides his mother to cope with his untimely death. And in Barfi (2012), Kolkata becomes a witness to the blossoming of an innocent love, a reverse of the city’s quiet presence in the machinations of the dark romance in last week’s Pari.
But if there’s one film where Kolkata breathes life in every nook and corner of its runtime, it’s Sujoy Ghosh’s thriller Kahaani. On paper, the film is about Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan), a pregnant woman who arrives in Kolkata from London to find her husband, who has supposedly vanished into thin air. But, it’s mainly the redemption of Kolkata; a celebration of its guest-houses, over-friendly police-stations, and its famed Durga Puja, wherein a crowd of women envelop the heroine to safety in the film’s captivating climax. It is to Ghosh’s finesse that Kolkata assumes the mantle of being not only a backdrop but also a protagonist. In fact, Kahaani would cease to exist as much without Vidya Balan as it would without Kolkata.
Kahaani released six years ago on this day. Here’s looking at five other Bollywood films that have managed to do something similar: make Kolkata great again.
Do Bigha Zamin (1953): Based on composer Salil Chowdhury’s short story Rickshawalla, Bimal Roy’s cult film, Do Bigha Zamin , which roughly translates to “Two Acres of Land”, stars Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy in lead roles. It examines the cruelty of industrialisation, ponders over the helplessness that a big city is capable of inflicting on its marginalised, and offers a pensive social analysis of poverty. In the film, Kolkata is a heartless entity, that ensures that the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.
It’s what gives the scheming upper-caste zamindars the power to get away with anything; like usurp a farmer’s “do bigha zamin”while he toils day and night as a rickshaw-puller even as tragedy befalls his family. Do Bigha Zamin exposes the duplicity of the big city, that for all its inclusiveness remains out of reach for the poor.
Raincoat (2004): Adapted from O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, the late filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh’s maiden Hindi film — that fetched him a National Award — is built on a serendipitous moment: the reunion of past lovers Manoj (Ajay Devgn) and Neeru (Aishwarya Rai). An unemployed Manoj sets off from Bhagalpur to come to Kolkata in order to convince his successful friends to fund his new business. His visit on a rainy day has a surreptitious reason: Meeting Neeru, who he was engaged to six years ago. Their unfulfilled love remained a result of bowing down to societal pressure; Neeru ‘settled’ by marrying a wealthy man.
Raincoat, a poignant chamber drama creates a worn-out atmosphere with hues of blue and grey and rooms full of antique furniture. The film may not explicitly feature the sights and sounds of Kolkata, save for an early song that complements the visuals of the city, but it’s the city that offers Manoj and Neeru a shoulder that embraces their melancholy and longing.
Yuva (2004): In Mani Ratnam’s political crime thriller , initially titled “Howrah Bridge”, Kolkata is as important as its star-studded ensemble: Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor, Esha Deol, Vivek Oberoi, Rani Mukerji, and Ajay Devgn. It becomes a living, breathing entity — one of the highlights being the climax, filmed beautifully on the second Hooghly bridge.
Besides providing a generational portrait of three young men from different stratas of society whose lives intersect in uncanny ways, Yuva also manages to depict the modernisation of Kolkata. It shows the city in its youthful bubble, replete with shots of Someplace Else, a popular pub and music venue, Forum, the city’s first shopping mall, and the student politics of Presidency College. The action is set against the backdrop of the two ageing but resolute bridges that connect one part of the city to another, even as the Hooghly river quietly flows.
Piku (2015): The main conflict of Shoojit Sircar’s Piku is that Piku (Deepika Padukone) wants to sell their ancestral house in Kolkata, much to the protests of her overbearing father Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan). They live in upscale Delhi. A road trip ensues, shifting the scene to the by-lanes of Kolkata. It is in the city that Bhaskor grew up in, and one where he finally sets aside his anxieties. He cycles around and devours his kochuris; living in the truest sense for the first time in months, even years. In Piku homecoming is not merely an act, it is the missing puzzle of the existence of Bhaskor and Piku. A cinematic roshogolla for every Bengali, Piku gives us Kolkata — yellow taxis, rust coloured walls, antique buildings, Nonapukur tram depot, daak naams, sprawling courtyards and their (probashi) residents — in all its glory.
Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017): Akshay Roy’s largely misunderstood debut about the imaginative and secluded life of a writer is also a brilliantly observed portrait of Kolkata. It pits the boring stability of one’s city — like how the stationery shop you used to frequent as a kid still has the same shopkeeper years later — against the unpredictability of one’s future. When everything goes against the plot, the one thing you can bank on is the comfort of familiarity. In Meri Pyaari Bindu, that familiarity is Kolkata, its college fests, sweets, carrom, and the complete ignorance of the concept of personal space. It is the safe anchor in our lives, that fast-forwards the process of moving on from the darndest of situations.