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.

6 thoughts on “Calcutta Chromosome

  1. There are a lot of people from Calcutta in my college in Singapore. A LOT! And every single one of them seems to be unhealthily attached to their city. Many of them refuse to admit that the city has faults; the ones who do still love the city immensely. Which is fine, but I’ve never seen such a love for a city in people from other cities. I always thought that was strange.

    I haven’t been to Calcutta, but I do plan to go. Mainly because of the great things I’ve heard about the food. 🙂 Is the food good, at least?

    • Sumedha, I wouldn’t judge Calcutta by my rants. I’m a curmudgeon, and that’s on a good day. You should visit the city. It’s definitely worth a holiday and yes, the food can be quite delicious.

  2. But is it art? I agree with a lot of it, but I like Calcutta for completely diff reasons. I do like some of the things you listed, but there is a lot of marginalization that happens when you ‘define’ a city..I couldn’t relate to a lot of it, even though I want to. I like coffee house, and artsy calcutta and what have you, but where are the marwaris? Or the potty mouthed Biharis? Or the enormous segment of un-anglicized, wait-for-it ‘moffussil’ folks from howrah? I love them all. I get really angry when they’re left out of any Calcutta oriented discourse. People should quit fetishizing this art and culture business, bengalis especially (specifically the diaspora). And if you don’t identify with Calcutta, you should really not try and classify it. Filial pride is at stake now.

    I thought the movie was entirely steeped in all the artsy cliches that people associate with calcutta..all the silly Trainspotting references, shock art, the politics of spectacle fetishism (bandhs have always been the epitome of that, we even beat guy debord to it, like way, way back in the day).

    Two things about your style – no one raised outside of calcutta, will get the community of crabs reference (nice try, kankrar jati really doesn’t translate that well). Second, did you have to make the Banksy-graffiti reference?

    If all this sounds confrontational, it probably is. A nerve has been touched. WB represent!

  3. A Bengali whose nerve was touched with an anti-Calcutta post? Gasp. Eye-roll. Swoon.
    Ok, I will stop being facetious.

    If I don’t identify with Calcutta I shouldn’t try to classify it? A) Why the hell not? And b) I wasn’t classifying it. I was expressing my feelings about it. Which I’m not allowed to do (in a personal blog), according to you, because if I don’t like the place, then I can’t have any perspective on it. It’s delightfully nonsense, that bit of logic is. 😀

    If you will for a moment quell your Bengali pride and read the first paragraph, then you’ll see that I’m expressing discontent about the usual things that make Calcutta-philes go into nostalgic paroxysms. So no, I wasn’t excluding any strata or community. Incidentally, “potty-mouthed” Bihari, “mofussil” Howrah types and so on are as fetishized as description come. And yes, I had to make the Banksy reference. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be there.

    Finally, “crab mentality” is actually a well-circulated term in English.

  4. Haha, I don’t know WHAT it is about the comments section, that nuance is just impossible to achieve..there’s no way to offer textured perspectives, aaah!

    Well, yes, of course you have the right to do whatever you want on YOUR blog; that’s why it exists I suppose. Yet, here’s what I think you should do, when you don’t like something – “I thought it sucked, BUT as a caveat i’ll add that it’s MY perspective only”. That applies to all criticism in a nutshell, but clearly no one will ever take a critic seriously, if they said that. It diffuses the entire invective.

    Of course you’re well within your rights to say what you want. I don’t know, my discomfort is hard to articulate..if I’d agreed with the things you said, I’d be like ‘yeah! good job!’, but because I don’t, I’m sort of getting my panties in a bunch. And my unease isn’t even about the ‘miasma’ or how dirty and gross calcutta is (god knows it is horrific), but more about whenever people talk about the same things, vide. coffee house and the arty stuff. I realized you sort of make the same point but then you return to the same old general theme with the movie review. (Btw, the kids in Calcutta are so over-burdened with their intellectual forebears, and I really feel their pain..on one hand they want to appreciate the intellectual depth of what came before, but also be kids in the now, which is a very different time from the 60s. French people have a very similar dilemma. My good friend from France told me a while ago how much she hated Zola, and I was horrified; and then I was like, whatev, big deal. We give dinosaurs way too much importance, and it’s key to move ahead and appreciate present day shit like Lost or whatever.)

    The movie review (and the movie ‘Gandu’) is more of the same, even though you say it signifies a move away from the past (it doesn’t). And so does literally every city. Everything clings to the past. Brooklyn clings to some sort of shitty fetishized ideal of the nouvelle vague (today’s skinny jeans are literally yesterday’s drainpipes, even my grandfather wore them). London desperately tries to channel the swinging sixties (in it’s music, fashion from the Stone Roses to the Libertines), France is obsessed with a 50’s theoretical ideal of America (and it’s own crumbling past). New York city (outside of hipsters) tries to invoke old school, like so hard, it’s depressing. Don’t even get me started on the city you live in.

    I laughed so hard at the crab mentality thing, it actually comes from the tagalog ‘pandamay’. The brits (or whichever colonialist in vogue at the time) prob ran with it ‘oh dog in the manger, what, old chap?’ and coined the poorly translated english variant. It’s an oriental construct entirely, etymologically speaking.

    Well, yeah, my apoplectic rage was deliberately playing on the indignant Bengali stereotype. And yes,I purposely fetishized the other communities! Except not in any anglicized discourse. Let’s talk about the stereotypes at least, it’s a start!

    FYI, I did not use the word ‘type’, that’s kind of a slur. Potty-mouthed Bihari is an endearment.

    On a slightly related note, I was telling my friend the other day how nothing’s really changed in a long time. People are so much more socially conservative globally. Like, 9/11 was ten yrs ago, but it doesn’t seem that long somehow. Neither do the late 90s or mid 90s. Culturally there have been fewer original milestones. Fashion’s remained static. Even the environmental discourse is a rehash of shit Meadows, Lovins and Erlich had said in the 60s-70s.

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