This might seem vaguely sacrilegious but the fact is, I don’t find Kolkata a particularly charming city. People are usually struck by the city’s history, beauty and curiosities. I don’t see it, I don’t feel it and basically, I dislike the city intensely. If ever there was a miasma of a city, it’s Kolkata. It’s not that I don’t see what makes people go on their nostalgia trips. There are some beautiful, crumbly parts to Kolkata where history becomes even more historical with creepers and weathered facades. Turn off from a crammed main road or avenue and you’ll find yourself in an unexpectedly leafy street lined with houses painted in candy colours. Women walk about in saris draped in the old Bengali way, hem above their ankles, rather than in the more common, over-the-shoulder-train style. There’s the Coffee House, the old Oberoi, New Market, the labyrinths of forgotten aristocracies in north Kolkata, Marble Palace, Victoria Memorial, the dirty Chinese restaurants of Tangra… etcetera etcetera etcetera. See a common thread in all these things? They all belong to the world of past tenses. That’s Kolkata for you. Steeped, stewed, mired in past glories and determined to continue squelching in the mud of memories, rather than step out, clean up and get on with things.
When I first came to the city, it was still officially Calcutta. I was a teenager who knew about Bengal and Bengalis from literature, music and some art. I wasn’t prepared for a city with piles of garbage as randomly scattered as Banksy graffiti. Or people who were so insecure and self-obsessed that they made crabs in a Singapore hawker stall look like a supportive community. Bengal’s past glories blinkers Bengalis from their mediocre present, and I couldn’t stand the general pomposity. It probably didn’t help that I got eyed contemptuously because people could tell from my Bengali accent that I hadn’t grown up in a Kolkata neighbourhood lined with houses painted in ghastly shades of pink, yellow, or a particularly revolting powder blue (no idea why these are the preferred colours of middle class Bengalis but they are). You know the Leftist Calcutta of chain-smoking filmmakers, alcoholic poets and heavy-lidded philosophers? That’s the world I knew as a teenager and I couldn’t decide what was stronger: my admiration for how much they’d read and their ideas or my frustration at how fixed everyone was in their ways.
I returned to Kolkata years later, as an adult, and this time, a very different side of the city was revealed to me. It was the rich, Anglophile Kolkata that was the object of the Left’s reverse snobbery. These were people who took pride in speaking Bengali with vaguely English intonations. By this time, I’d lost my old accent and spoke Bengali perfectly, thus proving again that I have terrible timing in life. This Kolkata was made up of clubs established in and clinging on to the colonial era, like the Bengal Club and Calcutta Club. Its young partied till 5am and lounged in über-expensive coffee shops of five-star hotels. Money mattered here as did the veneer of a Western sophistication. It was radically different from the Calcutta I’d known as a teenager but it was just as blinkered, stifling and rigidly trained upon the past.
But middle class Lefty or snooty Anglophile, this is not the city from which one expects a film titled “Gandu — The Loser”.
Gandu translates to a**hole, as far as I know. Not quite a term usually associated with artsy black and white imagery. However, “Gandu — The Loser” is very distinctly an art film, and one more experimental than anything that has emerged out of Bengal in decades. Its director is Q (the radical and bizarre short form of Qaushiq Mukherjee), whose filmography reveals something of an obsession with sex, morality and prostitution. I haven’t seen “Gandu — The Loser” and given the Shiv Sena’s attitudes, it’s unlikely the film will have a theatrical release here in Mumbai. The film was screened recently at the South Asian Film Festival in New York and was mentioned in this write-up in the New York Times. Rachel Saltz approves of the cinematography but isn’t a fan of the film. Too much attitude, she says. Maybe so (to quote the Shah of Blah) and I have to admit, the warning of “Enter at your own risk” in the film’s Facebook page made me roll my eyes. But here’s what I will say after having seen the trailer: thank god. Not only does it look like it’s beautifully shot, but the film feels contemporary and entirely disconnected from the usual depictions of Kolkata. The hero raps and (apparently) kickboxes, doesn’t wear kurtas or carry a jhola, and could easily have stepped out of an artsy Thai flick. From what I can see in the trailer, there are some classic favourites of Bengali storytelling in “Gandu — The Loser”, like the immoral mother, the love interest spied upon through windows, and the unemployed young man. But “Gandu — The Loser” doesn’t feel like anything seen in Bengali cinema (or even Indian cinema). The reason I say ‘thank god’ is that Q’s film suggests that there is a Kolkata that is contemporary. If there are stories like “Gandu — The Loser” floating around, then there’s hope that there’s more to Kolkata than poverty and exhausted romanticism. Maybe all of the city isn’t fossilized under the calcified conventions or sealed in pretension. I don’t need to be in Q’s world — neither heroin, rapping, prostitution nor kickboxing are really my thing — but I’m glad that there’s something in Kolkata that sidesteps the usual rubbish. I might end up hating the film if I ever see all of it but to think there might be more to Kolkata than its dreary obsession with Bengal’s past; that there might be a real, postmodern, dystopic side to Kolkata which inspires a film that could be made by any young, angsty and artsy director from anywhere in the world! And without any Rabindra Sangeet in the soundtrack. Whoa.
Like I said, I don’t need to be part of it but thank god it might exist. If it does, I don’t know that it would make feel fonder towards Kolkata but I would certainly loathe it a little less.