Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Belghoria Babes: Part One

Biva, Mukti, Roopmandir - they were called. Named after a wife, a daughter, a desire perhaps...

And we were enchanted.

Much later, one fine winter day, a search began for lost treasures - in that now-not-so-decrepit suburb.

That things were worth treasuring was discovered in retrospect. Way back it was just everyday uneventful life - thodi khushi, thoda gum.

I grew up in Belghoria - a suburb of Kolkata. I had a love-hate relationship with that luckless piece of mother earth. I loved my late-sixties early-seventies childhood there, amidst friends, fights and food (mom's food!). But adolescence and teens were different. A burning desire to take a leap of faith, in spite of hard evidence to the contrary, made escape such a necessity.

And cinema was one such - only I did not know it then. Films gave sound and image to secret I-dare-not longings. That's how life could be lived; was lived...

Cut to 2nd December, 2008. Just past noon.

Accompanied by a (relatively) young para friend Raja, I reach Kamarhati. Kamarhati was (still is) a ghetto of Hindi-speaking Bihari Muslim industrial labour, some 2-3 kilometres from home - an oddity in a largely Bengali speaking refugee milieu.

We are looking for Mukti cinema hall. The last time I was here must have been aeons ago. One used to pass this way everyday, in the school bus, enroute the pretend English-medium pretend St. Xaviers', run by that enterprising superannuated babu popularly called Teko (Baldy - after the nature of absences on his pate. Teko's son was my classmate and my principal hush-hush rival for the expected affections of Ms Jonali, a bespectacled bong beauty in the same class.)

Mukti on B.T. Road (Barrackpore Trunk Road - the most important thoroughfare in the neighbourhood, linking Shyambazar in Kolkata proper to the mouldering suburbs, in an excruciatingly no-hurry, free-for-all sweaty manner) showed only Hindi films. Naturally so, it seems now, given the neighbourhood. I must have also visited it on occasions, as it was the biggest movie theatre in & around Belghoria (Biva was smaller; and Roopmandir, still more small, screened only Bengali) .

But Mukti was also more working class. Hence a large chunk of the moviegoing public, comprising of middle-class (or barely-so) housewives, would probably have kept their distance.

Coming back to December 2nd, 2008. Just past noon.

The busy Kamarhati crossroads, filled with amplified cacophonous sounds of local comrades, exhorting people (in a funny cocktail of Hindified Bengali & vice versa) to obey traffic rules and (newly installed) traffic lights (few days back there have apparently been fatalities) seems unfamiliar. And where is that huge, ornate structure?

"Flad Hoye Gaychhe" says one (has been flattened).

True enough, there is no Mukti. Only a tame, even piece of overgrown barricaded land, behind which stands a newly-built apartment complex. Flad Hoye Gaychhe!

Where the apartment complex is, there used to be watery land and cowsheds (khataals)... is my memory playing tricks... there were khataals all over these suburbs, surrounded by stagnant water - khataals manned by hardy invisibles from Bihar.

We investigate in the apartment complex. One curious lady calls us over. In her forty plus bourgeois boudi way she lets out her repugnance for the kind of place Mukti was - popular (Hindi) films and common folk. She anyway shifted here from elsewhere, once the flats were built, relatively recently.

Mukti closed down few years back. Towards the end it was in bad shape, with declining revenues and dishonest staff. The empty prime land still awaits a buyer (probably because of internecine litigation).

The now dead owner Suren Das was a Bengali, who lived near the river Hooghly, nearby. Mukti was the name of his eldest daughter. He had nine daughters. And one son (or was it, one step-son?). Mukti stays in Barrackpore.

We were to know all this dope a little later. Right now one was disappointed. And feeling cheated.

So we decided to go to the Ganga (Hooghly, if you please). The cycle-rickshaw ride to the nearest Ghat (Pituri) took us through the inner lanes of Kamarhati (unremarkable, like any other, in a similar state of precipitous survival). However I remembered our school bus travelling these lanes, nearly forty years back, to the Jute Mill compound by the river. The Mills on the Hooghly were originally built by the White Man, and the residences therein still reflected colonial pleasure principals.

The Kamarhati Jute Mill compound of my memory was elegant, spacious and clean - an acute contrast to the native ghetto just outside. It would have been interesting to check it out, four decades hence.

Instead one reached the river, past the Muslim living quarters, to the Hindu one. And got talking.

The cycle-rickshaw which brought us here was peddled by Muhammed Murtaja (in his early thirties?). He has been a Kamarhati resident since birth, and remembers sneaking in for free in Mukti film screenings as a young one. Probably it was the phase when Mukti was already set downhill.

Everybody seems to know about Suren Das (the now-at-peace ex-owner of Mukti), whose original house it seems is just round the corner. And everybody has some gossip to share on the subject.

So we sit down with Satyajit Patra and his friends, and over burnt-clay cups of tea (the tab on him, at his insistent insistence) he narrates what we want.

Satyajit, who seems like an unencumbered young idler (and whose father was apparently working in Mukti), has been eyeing us as we were talking to Muhammed Murtaja. He is curious, and very soon friendly (in this city of often unanticipated joys, everybody loves luck-by-chance conversations).

Meanwhile the great river, in low tide, flows sluggishly by, past a somnambulant group of assorted mortals. Beyond, on the far shore, one can see a row of brick kilns. A rickety half-filled ferry drops anchor.

Top left and right: flattened ground where Mukti once stood.
ottom left: Muhammed Murtaja with his cycle-rickshaw, at Pituri Ghat.
om right: Satyajit Patra in the tea-shop
by the river.

THE BIG PICTURE (from Google Earth)
Top right circle: my para Nandan Nagar Govt. Qrts, and its resident pond.
Top left circle: Biva.
Bottom c
ircle: Roopmandir.

Right circle:
Nandan Nagar Govt. Qrts .
Middle circle: Mukti.
Extreme left: Hooghly, with its turbid load.
Photoshop help: Siddharth Gautam Singh, Shradha Jain

Monday, February 16, 2009

24 times 70

Thus went the sexed-up name of an open elective course I had recently offered, on studying moviegoing in the 1970s. I was already working on a small research grant towards investigating "Suburban Sreen: Memories of Moviegoing in Bandra & Belghoria in the 1970s" and thought that an elective on a similar theme would be a comfortable spin off - a kind of buy 1 get 1 free end-of-season offer.

But these are recession times; the anticipated rush of candidates turned into not-even-a-trickle (with some of thus trickling misjudging their destination). The birdbrained bait of 24 'creative products' on 70s moviegoing, in just 10 days (and hence the title) was easily dodged by the smart set.

By the end one had 3-and-a-half partially interested participants, 2-and-a-quarter partially realised 'creative products' and a choke-full of sour grapes.

Beyond (and despite) the acetous fruit transpired some good things - a behind-the-scenes trip to an old single-screen cinema hall (groundworked by Mandakini, having especially come from Delhi to help), a humorous & affectionate recollection of eventful old visits to the Ahmedabad Drive-in (Shilpa at her eloquent best) and an astute & innovative presentation of the socio-political history of the times that were, through its postage stamps (Suchitra, the bonafide chronicler, among other things).

Last, but not the least, I read through the fat book that is "India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy" by Ramachandra Guha. Despite its unwieldy health (paperback edition of the tome literally comes apart) and widescreen ambition, the book manages to remain intelligent and cohesive. All my romance about the 50s and the 60s (the times one was young, or yet-not-born; when everything was more innocent, more wholesome, more true) (and the later times, when this florid innocence caught the virus) got punctured after reading the party pooper. Guha unveils post-Independence India to have always been a work in progress - thodi khushi, thoda gum - the para-struggle of human greed and munificence.

The well-informed softboard

...and its blockbuster counterpart.

Suresh Shah (centre), Rupam projectionist.
The first film he screened there was Manoj Kumar's Roti, Kapda aur Makan (1974).

Mandakini (foreground right) in the Rupam lobby.
Rupam was opened to the moviegoing public in 1952. Much of the architecture
and interiors have
remained unchanged since.

Shilpa in her elements.

1972 in stamps.

Wise men of the East.

Creative Product # 1
Arka's poster, inspired by his parents' life in 70s Kolkata.

Creative Product # 2
Anya & Meghana's unfinished board-game, based on Shilpa's animate nostalgia.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Mangalored !

kissa kursi ka

the missing link

Ujjwal (Utkarsh), Uday(raj PJ) and Ahsam (KR) came home for dinner. Uday (far right) (pun unintended) volunteered to prepare 'authentic' dishes from Mangalore, with a little help from his (Ranchi and Palakkad) friends. The Mixer Grinder decided on a determined halt. We enjoyed the food and the company. Sri Ram Sene was not informed.

Ujjwal and Uday are 'young designers' now. Ahsam is about to be.

I have been their Diploma Project Guide.