Friday, February 26, 2010

Spring in the Colony: A Film About Kolkata by Meheli Sen

It’s not often that one encounters a film from Kolkata that makes one truly proud of the city and its inhabitants—at least not anymore. There’s so much to say about Sthaniya Sambaad (Moinak Biswas & Arjun Gaurisariya 2009) that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, there are the somewhat incommensurable poles of ‘spring’ and ‘colony’: one of the film’s most memorable feats is to reconcile beauty and splendor with squalor. Every grimy wall, weather-beaten face, combative gesture, scrawny patch of grass and tawdry shop is etched with care, attention and above all, affection. The film romanticizes but does not sentimentalize the southern fringes of the city, undergoing irrevocable transformation under the juggernaut of development. Balancing all things mundane are the things sublime—Rabindrasangeet, kirtan, achingly young love and the protagonist Atin—astonishingly brought to life by non-actor Anirban Dutta. Atin is luminous in this setting—awkward, gawky and completely enchanting in his barely comprehended tenderness for Ananya. Her absence, elusiveness and silence perfectly complement his babbling anxiety and ubiquitous wanderings. He writes flowery poetry while she sullenly retires to her bedroom; his voluble musings are counterpoised to her unrelenting reticence. Dipankar’s world-weary cynicism additionally complements Atin’s earnestness and naiveté.

Sounds and silence are crucial to the film on yet another register—it has one of the most richly designed sound-tracks in recent times. Dense and layered, the aural universe of the film combines a plethora of East-Bengali dialects, bizarre ‘spoken English’, chaste urdu, aggressive political speeches, classical, folk and even rock music—above and beyond the Rabindrasangeet and kirtan mentioned above—blaring horns and loudspeakers, the deafening roar of traffic and the ear-splitting cacophony of construction sites. The city of Kolkata is evoked, comes to life, via the sonic scapes of the film. Ritwik Ghatak is a presence in many ways—not least because Atin and Dipankar-da wander through Park Street to sample some bibhatsha moja, just like Ishwar and Haraprasad had done before them. But Ghatak is most powerfully remembered through the thickness of Sthaniya Sangbad’s sound-track. All this noise—Kolkata as the tower of Babel—comes to be particularly resonant when Mr. Paul’s ruthless bulldozers decimate the shanties and shops of Deshbandhu Colony—a deafening emptiness accompanies the destruction of the fragile homes. The audience is left to imagine the sonic quality of this new kind of development—we’re all complicit in Atin’s family’s homelessness and destitution.

One could go on in this vein—the film’s richness is dispersed along many distinct registers. Food—for instance—is a crucial component of the mise-en-scene: from the potato-chips and Coke that Ananya’s sister gleefully consumes to Atin’s brother’s humble repast on the floor, to kebabs in alleyways around Park Street and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road and bar-food at the Oly Pub to the ‘Chowmein’ doused in orange ketchup that is sold in the colony’s mobile snack stalls—different neighborhood in Kolkata also come to life through distinct textures of food. Atin of course goes hungry amidst all this. Other objects—a tattered copy of Barnaporichay, a long-forgotten bottle of Ranga Jaba alta, a notebook awaiting a young poet’s scribbles are equally pregnant with meaning.

Sthaniya Sambaad is a labor of love. And of teamwork. Cinema still survives in Kolkata.

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