A Tale of Two Cities

Recently I bumped into an old friend of mine at a suburban mall in Bombay. We knew each other from Calcutta, sharing the same passion for cinema and making the rounds of film festivals and retrospectives held in and around Nandan, soaking in the best of world cinema. Over the years, as it happens with many friends, we lost touch and I didn’t know he had shifted base to Bombay in the last ten years. Since I had also shifted base to Bombay five years back, we had so much to share but I was more interested in what he had to say about his experiences in both the cities; and what he said, laced with dollops of sarcasm and bitterness, and the occasional wit, offered a brilliant comparative study of the two cities – Bombay and Calcutta.

After passing out of college in the 90s, my friend had started seeking a career in films. At that time there wasn’t much work that appealed to him in Calcutta; the occasional corporate film, spots on AIDs and NGO films, and if he was lucky, a documentary film that he could relate to. Television serials were beneath his dignity and the great Bengali Cinema had found its salvation in the inane potboilers of Prasenjit and Tapas Paul, the two superstars of Bengal at that time. There was no way you could stoop so low to get into that terrain; plus it was out of bounds for sensitive souls.

My friend floundered; he didn’t know what to do with life. He gradually immersed himself in that safety net of peers and started wallowing in the arrogant disdain they had for anything that anybody ever made. They were derisive of contemporary Indian films and film-makers without having watched their films; made sweeping unsavoury comments on Hollywood cinema because it depicted Hispanics and blacks and other non-white characters in unfavourable light, reducing them to stereotypes (ask them what Hollywood films they had seen and they hadn’t!). Ghatak was god and Ray was just an export quality film-maker! They were a spiteful lot, all these guys; they comprised an entire generation of oldies and youngsters. And these youngsters, inspired by the previous generation of film dilettantes, sought to ‘understand’ cinema rather than ‘watch’ it, a curious habit that exists only in Calcutta. These guys had endowed cinema with a social responsibility and frowned upon any effort towards pure entertainment which was devoid of any conscious political motive or subtext. “How can any cinema be apolitical? What does he understand of cinema? Does he recognize the ideological implications of framing? Has he read Christian Metz’s Semiotics of Cinema? Or Godard’s discourse on political cinema?” Such were the refrains that flew thick. One common friend had even watched Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice eight times in order to ‘understand’ it, he recalled.

Very soon, my friend realized that he had to be on his guard, because he didn’t share most of their views on cinema. My friend was (also) into Hollywood cinema and took an occasional peek into the nearest theater to catch up on some Hindi film since the time he was in college. Hindi films did I say? Oh my god! That was a sacrilege! One could still watch and discuss Classic Hollywood stuff because the guys from the French New Wave had dabbled in it; but Hindi cinema? Jesus! It was only deemed fit to be studied as an element of the ‘popular culture’; that’s where it belongs, okay? He recalled a funny incident from his college days; he had secretly gone to watch Mr. India and thoroughly enjoyed it, but never dared to reveal this blasphemous act to his class mates for fear of being sneered at!

Being from Calcutta I understood my friend’s predicament. He continued to harp… He recalled the time when he was in high school and Ray had just made Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) based on a Tagore novel. The entire city – with its epicenter at College Street – the publishing hub of Calcutta and which also housed the famous Coffee House, suddenly started sprouting little magazines, almost on a daily basis, that tore the film apart; and mainstream magazines and newspapers published articles and opinions that relentlessly debated if Ray had done justice to the Tagore novel and the politics of its time. Keen to find out what all this hullabaloo was about, my friend decided to see the film, but before that he decided to read the novel first in order to figure out how the film differed from the novel or reflected it! Thanks to the prevailing pseudo cultural atmosphere of the city, my friend, at that age, got sucked into the unduly polemical deliberations without making much sense of it and missed out on the fun of watching a film for its own sake.

This attitude was not restricted to cinema only, he continued. You were required to be well versed in your knowledge of theater and other art forms like literature, painting and music, indigenous stuff like baul or the Gregorian chant (because Ray had used it in one of his last films). Apart from world politics and environmental issues, you were also required to be acquainted with subaltern culture and feel the pain of the marginalized people (and if possible, make documentary films on their predicament and make some money out of it!) And as far as literature went, if you read thrillers – god forbid, you were an instant outcast!

I couldn’t help laughing; I was from the same city and I could relate to what he was saying. I asked my friend how does he feel now that he is in Bombay? Well, Bombay was cool; it never judged you or evaluated you on the basis of what you saw or read. You could walk into an inane film without raising an eyebrow, and even if you liked it, for whatever stupid reason, nobody pointed his finger at you. Everybody here is in a mad rush to get some work or the other – everybody had to pay their bills and EMIs after all. Some of the brightest brains he knew worked on the some of the most regressive soaps and outrageously stupid shows on television without any qualms – and laughed their way to the bank. Money is the mantra here and it is cool to be rich. You could hum a Daler Mehendi number without guilt or pick up a DVD of Raj Khoshla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh at a mall without bothering to look over your shoulder to check if anybody was looking. What a relief from that stifling, pretentious atmosphere that is Calcutta!

“But there is one thing you have to be on guard in Bombay,” he declared.

“What?” I asked, curious.

“You shouldn’t be caught carrying a book or seen reading it anywhere.”

“Why?” I asked my friend, surprised.

“Man, you will be immediately branded as an ‘intellectual’”, he sighed.

And in Mumbai, there is nothing more disgraceful than being an intellectual, even if you read an innocuous Perry Mason or an old fashioned Agatha Christie. (Forget Haruki Murakami or a William Dalrymple.) “Sala intellectual hai, angrezi kitab padneywalon mein se hai, maa ki aankh. Calcutta se hai na!”

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  1. @ Karan, yes I think you have met him on a couple of occasions. But he wants his name to be kept out of this, because he still visits Calcutta occasionally!

  2. :LOL Ronnie. Great read!

    But my friend, do NOT be disheartened @ Mumbai’s anti-intellectual bias. There are nooks…there are secret ‘roondevoo’ spots…where u can cruise and shyly peek from behind your thick book …….Mumbai’s closet intellectual is not difficult to spot…

    Mumbai..or Kol….the show must go on…:)

  3. @ Yes Charu, the show must go on…. This was straight from the heart… And please fill me up on the nooks… But I think I know some of them. Amitav Ghosh once said in an interview when asked what does he think of Mumbai? he replied, “Well, for me Mumbai is a city of books!” And that’s true… because I have never seen so many second hand book exhibitions and book shops that I have seen in Mumbai; definitely not in Calcutta… And of course, not everybody out here is an anti-‘intellectual’ I know…
    @Karan, he is a scarred soul… Please forgive him!

  4. @ Thanks Arjun, I know you will be able to identify with this piece because you are also from the same city and know about its – you know what!

  5. @ Dirtroad alias Arijit, I will warn my friend, okay.
    @ Sanjivan, I have always been a world citizen! And yes, you are right about that certain Mr. G. Spot on.
    @ Chandi, you are a wise guy! A real ‘intellectual’! What a quote! Sets me thinking…
    @ Hi Nazy, be a brave person and don’t hesitate to carry a book next time you are here. You always have the option to go back to your country!

  6. Hey Ronnie – so finally which city do you belong to- Kolkatta or Mumbai?? ;)) BTW, it reminded me of one certain Mr.G!

  7. half the world is laughing at the other half, and folly rules over all. (baltasar gracian, the art of worldly wisdom)

  8. Nice blog. I enjoyed reading it. I make sure I never carry a book with me when I come to Bombay. Ha-ha. Thanks again… Keep up the blog, it is fun…

  9. I have lived in both cities and am in agreement with the gentleman quoted above. I, too, am bengali but am ashamed to reveal the fact to others. I have never met a more bigoted, ethnocentric, pseudo-intellectual lot of people.

    The only part that I do not agree with is the supposed Bombay disdain for intellectuals… Of course, if you’re bengali and it is known, people will deride you – not for reading books, but because of the pseudo-intellectual association…

  10. Your ‘friend’ is right to the point of blasphemy 🙂 But he missed out on the fact that in Calcutta despite of its claim of ‘understanding’ cinema fails to distinguish between mediocre pretensions and ‘great art’!!!

  11. @ Abhishek, it is really a sad fate of Bengalis that they have come to be associated with that ‘others’ consider ‘intellectual’ or ‘intellectualism’; it is definitely a distorted view of a community; but it is the Bongs themselves who are responsible for this stereotype image. They wallow in that image and really believe that they are god’s chosen race on earth, after the Americans! ☺But I hate to generalize; because I also consider myself a Bong and there are hazaars like me, like my friend Boorback (who has also opined on this piece), who realise the folly and have the ability to laugh at themselves.
    @ Boorback alias Monish, you know and I know, because we come from the same ‘space’ in Calcutta, that the people I have been talking about in this blog piece were always half-baked ‘intellectuals’, many of whom later joined the mediocre Bengali television bandwagon as producers and are responsible for some of the most stupid shows – both fiction and news. And unlike their Bombay counterparts, they could never laugh their way to the bank. In Bombay, television is a career option; in Calcutta, television is the last refuge of idiots who are failed intellectuals and failed film-makers. And as far as contemporary Bengali films are concerned, which are being hailed as ‘great art’, I really don’ t know (since I have not seen any of them), but I can hazard a guess!☺
    I think I must draw the line here…

  12. Lol!! Friend’s dilemma gr8 fun & V.IDENTIFIABLE–I’ve spent 5 yrs in culcharred & intellectual Cal:)
    Lovely piece,But the prize goes to Chandi for his comment wh encapsulates it all in a sentence…
    Pl keep on entertaining us with such pieces,cos I too am anti intellectual saala,tho’I luv my Perry Mason,Ellery Queen,et al:)

  13. @Rina, thanks… Since you have lived in that great culcharred and intellectual city for five years, I am sure you also have lots to share about its ways…

  14. Good one Ronnie… I guess it is cool to carry a laptop in Mumbai, rather than the book. How is the tale in the other city? Is it considered ‘intellectual’ enough?
    @ Chandidas Mishra – ‘half the world is laughing at the other half’ …. The golden rule of humor.

  15. Ranjan I see where you are going with this. But what you say or the way you have generalized Kolkata is pretentious too. Also at the same time about Mumbai I really do not know or come across people who dub every reader of the written word as intellectuals. In which corner of Mumbai do you find people who call book readers intellectuals? Who are these people you mix around with. (reminds me of Fahrenheit 451 by Truffaut)
    I agree that a decade and a half back, there was this sudden upsurge of derision felt by film intellectuals, especially in Bengal around the eighties, when Hollywood films supported by big media houses with deep pockets were supposedly the stuff of garbage, stereotyping blacks, Hispanics, Asians et al. I will go so far as saying that during that time I too was not untouched by a similar mindset. But with time and experience I sobered up.
    But at the same time you will agree that a group of film makers wanted to make cinema which was real and to which one could relate to. That consciousness gave birth to a new generation of film makers like Rituparno, Gautam Ghosh, Buddhadeb, Aparna Sen, Utpalendu etc. The quality of films they made, the story telling, the pretensions if at all are debatable but one thing is certain – they tried to tread a different path, untried, untested and above all sought with the dangerous possibility of being a dud at the box office. Which meant their careers could have fallen flat on their faces. And consequently a new audience was born. My mother who is now in her early seventies will still go to see a Gautam Ghosh or a Rituparno film because it will be a film that will make her think, it will have a story that is real to life. Such is the perception that has developed around these film makers.
    Why only Calcutta. Do you think there isn’t the same disdain in Kerala? Left orientation and being an intellectual is a sought after quality in that society. But at least a positive outcome of this mindset is that it gave birth to a new generation of artists, poets and of course film makers from Kerala — the Aravindans, Adoors, Shahji Karuns …….
    Delhi? A big film intelligentsia supporting parallel cinema will go to the movies and come out discussing if the politics of the story was really progressive or not. And what about their NGO culture of working for marginalized communities, and the subaltern or even discussing the police harassment of the sex workers who have come in from Bangladesh or whether it is appropriate to call the individual killings of Maoists, Taliban style functioning — over expensive single malt and exquisite cheese. Every city will have its dirty linen.

    You may be right in part but you have over-simplified and over-generalised the people of Calcutta. I will want to disagree that while picking up a DVD I would be looking over my shoulder to see if I have been caught in the act of exposing my mediocrity. What may be true is that I am amazed at the attitude-problem that I have seen in my fellow Calcuttans. Always suspecting that the whole country has a grand design of sabotaging it in every possible way, total lack of professionalism, always being defensive, always complaining, lack of positivity …. so on and so forth. I guess one liners like “ What Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow” have made such a damage to the Bengali psyche it might even take a hundred years to think anew, afresh. Maybe the problem lies in the fact that a section of people in Calcutta try very hard to be different. It would have been so much better if it came naturally.

  16. @Ram: Carrying a laptop around in Calcutta? I think it is waking up to the advantages of the machine; but there are still people I know who proudly proclaim they don’t know how to sms. Believe me!

    @ Arinchats: Thanks for your lengthy feedback… But I think you have mis-read my article… Nowhere in the blog have I criticized the efforts of film-makers (Aparna Sen – Rituporno – Budhhadhev – Goutam Ghosh or Utpalendu et all)… even if I disagree with many of their films… the most important thing is that these people ARE making films… My rant was against those people who are “aantels” or half baked intellectuals as they are called in Bengali… (And you will agree that city is full of them!) These are the people who “were derisive of contemporary Indian films and film-makers without having watched their films…” Follow what I say? I have been talking about ‘film dilettantes and self proclaimed intellectuals’ (who have got nothing to lose, because they have never put their ass on the line of film-making fire!); and NOT film-makers (who have everything to lose)…

    And I know Mumbai is not all about ‘anti-intellectualism’. That’s just a section, meant as a humour; most of them are my friends! 80% of my collection that line my bookshelf have been acquired in Mumbai! And 90 % of those titles are not available in Calcutta – and mind you, they are not thrillers only!

  17. Ranjan da, let’s see if you can recognize who this is (kept my surname out on purpose… ;)). A hint – we share the same birth date.

    Loved this article. Could associate with it a bit but I guess during our time, all these discussions et al gave way to mre commercialism. But loved the piece.

  18. U write quite well, Ranjan. Must tell Sunil Menon to make use of ur skills…But then, had u narrated this during one of our old time binges in the lobby, I would have probably told u: ”Boss, u can make a film out of this –all black & white. Two characters, a chance meeting on a local train in Bombay–late at night–they’re in conversation and that is the film Boss! Just a conversation!…Little afar a girl, face half covered, listens…as the two slowly saunter towards the door, still talking, the girl jumps up, there’s a commotion, a push. the frame gets hazy…A day later, one of the characters gets a phone call, picks up the local paper…

  19. @Santwana, I am not sure about the film aspect of this account but you suddenly reminded me of those happy and carefree times in the 80s – the formative years spent in the lobby at JU, instead of the class (my shaded timetable forbade me to attend any class) – full of innocence and arrogance, when we soaked in world literature and cinema but did not have a clue about the future. Not that I have it now, but whatever we are, it’s because of those 5 years spent in JU, distilled and crystallized in the last 25 years.

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