Often, when Bollywood filmmakers grab a metaphorical loudspeaker (evocative of Ayushmann Khurrana in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan) and yell about how their screenplays are based on some specific pertinent social issues, I cannot help but roll my eyes. A social message, or a moral of sorts, is expected from every single movie that is created on this planet. It does not have to be explicitly rubbed in our faces but can be subtly added to the background of the otherwise beautiful painting of the film. However, when it is the message that is conceived in the minds of the makers before the story itself, it threatens to overshadow every other aspect of the film. Quoting Shreevatsa Nevatia in his FC article 'A Good Heart Doesn't Always Make Great Art', "At best, the movie is a clever slogan." In such situations, the characters are mere puppets, not humans you can empathise with. The story is a sham; you might as well be watching an informative video. A clever film desiring to endorse certain important teachings should not only make the right noises; it should present a relatable story, something that even you and I can come across in our mundane lives. The story of the lady next door. The story of that child in your school. It is only when we live the story that we get to live the message; we accept it, understand it, and contribute in every way we can to spread the word and work towards solving the issues in today's society.
Blessy's Malayalam romantic thriller, Calcutta News, is one such film. A perspicacious director possessing a shrewd technique of providing exceptionally emotional stories with underlying social messages, he is the creator of movies like Kaazhcha, Thanmathra, and Pranayam, which become critical and commercial successes while making the audiences aware of the indistinct problems that plague the world. His approach to such topics helps ensure that we get to identify with these without once complaining about the film getting too preachy. In Calcutta News, there are no big speeches. Neither is there a hard-hitting, memorable climax serving as the pivot for the whole screenplay. Nobody goes up and pins the actual wording of Article 15 of our Constitution on a wall. There are no sanctimonious characters walking around grumbling or groaning about the regressive mindset of ignorant members of society. No, this is purely an unconventional love story. The film shows us that it is only when we are personally affected by the issues in this world that we open our eyes and seek greater change. In the pursuit of saving a loved one, we can probably save a million people.
Towards the end of the film, a documentary (called Shadows of Calcutta) created by the protagonist Ajith Thomas (a reporter) claims the following: "Dedicated to the thousands of women deprived of their rightful life". Calcutta News is one of the very few films in India that bravely showcased the horrifying reality of human trafficking and prostitution in our country. Like other well-made works on the same concept, it is dark, raw and graphic in its depiction of the inhumane conditions in which prostitutes have to work, and how they end up there. This is perhaps one of the many reasons that Calcutta News, despite being a critical success, was a commercial failure. Released in 2008 (an antediluvian period for us, who are currently living in supposed "progressive" times), its explicit and yet sensitive portrayal of the serious subject matter failed to attract viewers who were expecting to sit back and listen to a few romantic tracks in order to soothe their souls.
Calcutta News is also one of those rare South Indian films that have been completely shot in Kolkata, a foreign land for most Keralites. While Sujoy Ghosh has been commended for highlighting the colourful places and traditions of this city in Kahaani, he never took us into the seedy alleys of Asia's largest red-light district, Sonagachi, home to several multi-storey brothels and an estimated 7000 prostitutes. This Malayalam film is not an easy watch: there are moments when your stomach might churn. Then again, Calcutta News does not (fortunately) suffer from cinematic scopophilia; it is more concerned with the terrible state of the life and work of the prostitutes.
Blessy has often arrived as a saviour for actors who are usually typecast into certain roles. We see actor Dileep portray a much more serious character than his previous comic performances. He plays investigative journalist Ajith, a member of the titular news channel. Dileep's genuine attempts to speak in Bengali are commendable, and he speaks in the language with a strong Malayalam accent; it is real, and it is something common to most Keralites residing in Kolkata. As a Malayalee living in the same city, Calcutta News was a film I could totally relate to (the references to places and Bengali traditions from an outsider's perspective are quite funny), and whose authenticity I can vouch for. Ajith's life changes when he crosses paths with a Malayalee couple, Krishnapriya (Meera Jasmine) and her irritable husband Hari (Indrajith). When Hari's corpse is discovered, later on, several revelations come to light – about how Hari had only married Krishnapriya, a young virgin as well as an orphan, in order to sell her off into prostitution. The rest of the film focusses on how Ajith tries to bring hope and light into Krishnapriya's shattered dark life in a foreign city filled with absolute strangers, and how she must be kept safe from a mysterious goon out there, who intends to capture her and drag her back into the vicious sex racket she had just escaped from.
Calcutta News's achievement as a thriller is due to its cinematography (kudos to S. Kumar) and how it explores the realms of the preternatural and psychological while successfully maintaining an air of mystery in the midst of a romantic story. Ajith and Krishnapriya's attraction blossoms from darkness, and the makers ensure that we do not forget the tenebrous aspects of the City of "Joy". Despite showing little violence, the film gives off extremely macabre vibes, particularly because of its haunting shots and use of extremely dark hues in most frames. The nights are cold and ominous; the claustrophobic alleys and streets are damp, dusty, isolated and full of terrors. Add to this a bearded hooligan with one hand, who is feverishly looking for his prey.
Meera Jasmine has played strong, quirky characters before, and Krishnapriya is a welcome change for her. She is a naïve orphan who has no idea about the evil in our world; she barely got to see much of it. Love is what helps lift her spirits, and so does music. However, Blessy does not paint her as weak or extremely dependent. She is strong, no doubt. Learning about your husband's death and overcoming the trauma of loss is not easy. Coming to terms with your husband's illicit activities and how you were nearly a victim of his business is just as difficult. Trapped in an unknown land with unknown people after such devastating experiences can surely break any sane person; she only came to Kolkata for love. It would be terrifying for her to sleep in her house one day, only to wake up the next day in a brothel. Krishnapriya is scarred, and yet the events in her life do not scar her smile or voice. In the conclusion, we see her as Ajith's wife, watching the documentary which features most of her life in Kolkata, and continuing to smile as the proud woman who overcame the tribulations of life.
Prostitution is a serious problem. For a callow schoolboy like me, who would blush at crass jokes regarding sex or Sonagachi (ironically, the word means "Tree of Gold"), Calcutta News came as a big slap in the face. The climax contains some realistic action, but is heartbreaking at the same time. We must remember that grown women are not the only sufferers; even little children are. When Ajith rushes to the red-light district to save Krishnapriya, he documents the infernal scenario of chthonic Kolkata – represented by Sonagachi – on his phone. Scuffles with local goons and pimps break out, and his phone is discovered by a little girl, supposedly a victim of the sex trade as well. The child's innocent smile is precious; she almost makes the audiences want to reach out and hold her close, to protect her from the horrors of the world. She does not deserve to be there; none of them deserves to be there. The curious girl records the ongoing brawls, as well as the several hundred prostitutes (some of them young, some of them old) and the conditions they are living in. This footage is later broadcasted by Ajith as a desperate SOS; he pleads for some empathy, some kindness, and begs for help from anybody who is watching. He does not know these women; he is merely looking for Krishnapriya, and yet, he wishes to save them along with her. The broadcast is noticed by several people across the city, and Blessy's message championing unity in the face of evil could not have been more apparent.
Every tear we shed, every little action we take, is all a step towards communal harmony, and can save many, many downtrodden and deprived individuals. If we do not care about the adult women who are trapped in the vicious cycle, at least the children can remind us that we are humans with a heart. No human being deserves to experience this enslavement, this exploitation of one's mind and body. The lines between coerced sex and consensual sex must never be blurred. The absence of alternatives is not a choice; no woman ever wishes to go through this terrible nightmare, when her aspirations for better professions with better conditions can be satisfied if proper opportunities are provided. These women need to be saved. As Julie Bindel once wrote in an article in The Guardian, "If prostitution is sex work, then by its own logic, rape is merely theft. The inside of a woman's body should never be viewed as a workplace."