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!”