Ambassador taxis, the Howrah Bridge, the political graffiti on the walls, the faded grandeur of zamindari mansions, the sound, fury and colours of Durga Puja, the irrepressible quirks of its residents, Christmas on Park Street, Chinese food, Mother Teresa… Kolkata, the proverbial City of Joy, is a sum of these parts rather than any one image. And for filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh, it is this complete perspective of Kolkata that enables him to capture its je nais se quoi like few others.
Kolkata is where Ghosh was born and it was perhaps natural that his first deep dive into the city’s fabric was with Kahaani, a film Sujoy wrote in 2012 after two failures at the box office and one that became his career-defining moment. “I was born there, I grew up there and even though I moved out, I have never lost touch with Kolkata as I kept coming back regularly and it is a city I carried with me,” he says.
Kolkata: a filmmaker’s home
“When I started writing Kahaani, I had a very stuck notion of a thriller in my head based on the books I was reading while growing up. In them the place always played a very important role and was connected to the mystery unfolding,” says Ghosh. “While this might be my own reading, it was important that the world I was placing in my thriller had to be a character in its own right. And naturally, Kolkata came to me because it was a city I knew really well,” he says. Having grown up in Bhowanipore, a small neighborhood in South Kolkata, his understanding of the city is one that draws on a lived experience and knowledge of its people along with his artistic sensibilities. Kolkata for him is a play of light and dark—a neon-lit collection of nondescript shops and the chiaroscuro of obscure alleys and bustling street corners. It is also the colours of the city—the earthy brown palette of the idol makers’ studios, the yellow of taxis, the red bricks of grand government buildings—colours that are intrinsic to Kolkata alone.
Another example of his familiarity with the city lies in his choice of shooting locations. For example, the nondescript Monalisa guesthouse in a quiet corner of South Kolkata becomes an important site in Kahaani. While he picked the place almost on a whim, having spotted it while having a cup of tea across the road, his choice also came with a certain foreknowledge. The building was located on a street corner, which offered a fabulous vantage point for viewing the procession of idols being taken for immersion during Durga Puja. “You know a guesthouse is a guesthouse anywhere in the world. But what makes this particular guesthouse interesting is the owner of the guesthouse, the ‘running hot water’ (a promise kept up by the boy who came running to the rooms with a bucket every morning) and it is these details that make Kolkata for me,” says Ghosh.
The people who make Kolkata
Curious characters populate his Kolkata and weave in and out of the main plotline from bumbling well-fed cops to overzealous workers’ union representatives to different versions of the terrycot-clad Bengali bhadralok (see this photo essay) to old men at street corners. There is a prevailing sense of humour and an idiom that is unique to Kolkata. And these correspond with the real-life characters in the city who are as much a part of its tapestry as its architecture or historical sites. “The kind of help I got from the Kolkata Police while shooting for Te3n was just amazing. Maybe it was because they were diehard fans of Amitabh Bachchan. But, to me, this was just an example of the warmth of the city and the fact that its people make you feel like you are at home,” he says.
Another anecdote he recounts is at a tea shop during an early morning shoot. “This was a tea shop near Lake Market that I used to often go to and it had a group of elderly men who were regulars. That particular morning and it was very early, around 5:30am, when one member of that group came in looking flustered and angry. He sat at his usual table and proclaimed with great feeling, ‘I have no idea what this American president is doing!’ It struck me as incredible that it was 5:30am, we were in a small tea stall somewhere in the heart of Kolkata and this man’s biggest grouse in life was the American president’s actions!” he says. Ghosh describes this kind of seriousness about these things far removed from their own reality as a common thread across conversations in the city and “One doesn’t know either to laugh or cry in response,” he says.
Beyond the Howrah Bridge
It is these little stories that create the whole picture of Kolkata for Ghosh. And these go much further than a familiarity with its geography or its monuments. “A place is not owned by its artefacts. You cannot define Kolkata by the Howrah Bridge or the Victoria Memorial. And you can’t really understand any place by just a building here or a statue there. Kolkata or any city for that matter, is defined by the inhabitants of the city, the culture, the traditions and the activities of the city,” says Ghosh.
“Even in Kahaani, while I do show all the cliched shit that everybody does; the trick is to do it in a manner that no one has seen before. For example, I show Howrah Bridge lit up at night; Victoria Memorial is visible half-illuminated in a passing shot from a tram and the temple precinct of Kalighat is visible in all its glory even as the protagonists Vidya and Rana drink a cup of tea at a roadside stall. So you do see everything one associates with Kolkata, but it looks different,” he says.
Ghosh’s renders Kolkata benevolent, eerie, beautiful, dramatic and grand by turns, straddling the faded veneer of its colonial past with the present-day glitter of malls and coffee shops. “I still see the shops around that I saw when I was a child and I have no idea how they are still in operation today. For example, there used to be this shop selling sweet and spicy toffees for 5 paise when I was a child and they still exist and charge about 20 paise for the same sweet! I don’t have the faintest clue as to how they survive even while there are newer shops around. It is this mishmash of old and new that makes this city great,” he says. For him, this is a city that one can use really well on screen, depending on what one takes from it. “This is still a city with a street that is filled with people sitting with their typewriters. Here one can still have a full meal for as little as Rs12 at a ‘pice hotel’. Because this is my city, I know its nooks and corners and that gives me the advantage of being able to show these aspects,” he says.
And therefore, the Kolkata Sujoy Ghosh brings to the screen is as much a city of fiction as it is the real city that he has navigated as a child, a young man and a filmmaker.