Friday, October 17, 2008


The layers of this city run thick and deep. A renaming to Kolkata does not reveal much. It merely creates another layer instead, another mystery.

This city takes you beyond loving it and hating it. Words seem inadequate, often superfluous when I try to write of it. Images, both moving and still, seem better suited to express things about Calcutta/Kolkata. Love and hate for a city is possible when certain aspects can be taken for granted. Things are that are standard, universal, fit the norm, are comparable.

Is Cal/Kol really in a time warp as the critics say? As if static, unchanging, unable to catch up with preconceived notions of “the times”? Yet when you turn to look again, there's been a shift in perspective, a subtle transformation, the inexorable tread of progress. The people of course. They are the cause and effect of it all. The hum of this city. The disturbing blurring of the senses when your perceptions and information systems are overloaded.

And then when you come from foreign shores with certain ideas, particular information, even impressions from an earlier visit, you could find distinct, deliberate changes have taken place since. As a medium for information, interpretation and expression, documentary films are hard to beat. You can adapt, adjust, if necessary compromise with your story line for such changes that will invariably occur. Calcutta/Kolkata will always give you more than enough footage for your needs.

York Street Productions from Hamburg in Germany came to shoot a 'city portrait' of Kolkata. At the outset it seemed simple enough. An earlier visit had given an idea of the way things worked here, happened here. They were prepared for many eventualities, having widened the scope of the film to encompass them. They had found that films about Kolkata shown in Europe were, broadly speaking, stories of a city that was dying, somehow on the brink of existence, mainly because of Mother Teresa and her legacy. Stephan the director, knew there was a positive side to Kolkata, a viewpoint that might reflect the promise and hope the city held.

The York Street team arrived as Mamata Banerjee was at the height of her Tata Nano-Singur agitation; a major constituent of the Left Front government of Bengal was withholding the license to operate from Metro Cash & Carry, the giant German wholesaler; bomb blasts in Delhi and other places were making their effects felt in Kolkata; the downslide in international financial markets that would certainly have its repercussions here, had just begun. What promise and hope? This was a question citizens were asking in distress and cynicism.

At the micro level, important permissions for their shoot were still pending. Appointments with some industry spokespersons were awaited. It was raining every now and then, enough to cause a nagging worry. But the IFA Derby match shoot at Salt Lake stadium was sanctioned, and despite it all, in spite of the mediocre football, about 80,000 fans of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan filled the stands and a good few hours of videotape. The local television channel which holds the exclusive rights for all IFA matches refused permission to shoot the game itself. They did not realise that the imagery got from the stands was worth more than the actual game.

The inevitable happened as I knew it would from past experience. Things began to fall into place. However, an unknown factor to me as their production coordinator was Howrah. They were to film in quite a few locations across the river and I am quite ignorant of the place. The bulk of my knowledge about Howrah is centred around its location as a railway station. Plus we were to shoot in areas dominated by a community feeling targeted and vilified because of current happenings in India, across the borders and globally. While no untoward incidents took place, and though I was pretty sure they would not, nevertheless they were anticipated.

But I, along with Ankit who was assisting, felt the resentment and the anger in the scathing remarks and snide comments directed at us two Indians in the crew. We had to remain non-committal and beyond conflict as we were accused of selling out to the sada chamra, the white skin, who in turn would sell their images for good money while the people being filmed lost out as usual. The bitterness and partial truth hurt and I questioned things once again.

Is there a right way and a wrong way of showing poverty? Does it have to be filmed at all? But the bare facts already surround you, we live side by side with it. As reasonably aware and informed citizens we know quite a bit of the sordid reality. But how much does it affect us, move us to action? What works? Charity? Rehabilitation? Can the two be differentiated? How do intervening factors like bureaucracy, corruption, violence, politics find their niche in the scheme of things? And become an integral part of the system? If we must show some of it, how much is no more? Will it all change with big factories, globalized business with local addresses, shopping malls and real estate development? Will it get better? Or is the rich-poor divide getting wider? Is the divide itself now fodder for international entertainment television, reality TV?

I have yet to find any satisfactory answers. I know I must live with these questions and deal with it the best I can, in as equal terms as I can. Or be insensitive, impervious, completely uncaring. Live within my insulated bubble, my comfort zone of creative arts and expression. Intellectual masturbation perhaps?

India is a hot topic in the West. The Germans I know, from personal interaction in the past, are fascinated by Kolkata as well. Their previous Cullkoota has become Kolkata, until they arrive to find that Calcutta coexists, as does Cull-katta, and “north Cal”, “south Cal”, “central Cal” all the layers between. And flowing right through it all is the river with the bridge that spans it in more ways than one.

Howrah Bridge, the first one, the prime visual symbol of the city in tourism tracts, sounds like a difficult task. Especially if you have already experienced belligerent policemen when you tried to use your tiny digital camera at the bridge. I also know any official paperwork holds sway over almost all aspects of life here. And an infinite store of patience will help you get it at a very, very reasonable cost. Legally, officially. Permission to film the bridge all of two days was granted.

This bridge, Rabindra Setu, is grander, lovelier and livelier than the second Hooghly bridge, the Vivekananda Setu because people use it. And they use it more than vehicles. The constant, surging flow (like the river below) of people walking at all hours, changes the dimensions of this steel structure to such an extent that it feels totally natural, the way it should be. This is Calcutta, not Kolkata.

The Vivekananda bridge does not allow pedestrian traffic. Seen from Mullick Ghat beside the Flower Market, Howrah Bridge (who other than officialdom calls it Rabindra Setu?), is a pulsating, living thing. In a boat on the river underneath, the bridge has a strange auditory experience, like a rumbling bass voice in the distance with intermittent highs. You feel like talking to it, like a child to a father. I'm sure it has much to say.

There are many opinions about Calcutta/Kolkata that its citizens have. Vibrant is a much used term. Fascinating, lively, colourful are other adjectives that readily come to mind. In the madness and chaos, the poverty and the extremes, the Germans see smiling faces, ready laughter, unbridled curiosity, and an innate politeness and hospitality whichever way they look. Locals are surprised by this observation till they themselves leave their shells and see the truth of it. It is as though there is a silent, mutual conspiracy among all its citizens to not just say good about their city, but to also feel good, even as they are full of woe and cynical of current events and history. I like to believe this is a very Calcutta phenomena.

Kolkata as a global business destination is not surprising at all. Calcutta was - till politics and circumstances altered that. A feel-good factor holds forth, as interviews with a cross-section of people from the IT Minister to a football coach, from industrialists to a leasehold farmer on the city's eastern fringes, from a historian to a musician, and a film director to a social worker reveals. If much is artificial, PR-speak, fear of political reprisal, or sheer diplomacy one cannot say, but the overall attitude is positive.

That people live, work and play here, and make the best of prevailing circumstances while still retaining hope, is a fitting response to those in other parts who shun and denigrate the city. Maybe Calcutta/Kolkata requires a tougher breed of people than those who do not stay here. Which urban agglomeration has no difficulties? It's the manner in which you acknowledge and deal with it that makes you stand apart. Foreigners who live and work here, and were interviewed during the filming had much the same thing to say. Why should this be? It's not necessary for them to do so. As it is not necessary for its natural citizens. Yet we say so and mean it.

Calcutta/Kolkata is between the awareness and understanding of it. Which, by the way, is never complete. The more you understand the less you know. The more you know the less the appreciation. And the more the awareness the more the mystery. Or is it the mystical? That too.

The documentary, A Bridge to Howrah, may never be seen publicly in the city of its filming. In any case it is not being made for audiences here but for European ones. Who will probably enjoy it quite whole-heartedly. Many of them will possibly donate money and goodwill to a project initiated by a German doctor currently working with child labour in Howrah. In fact, that project will be the fulcrum of the story that York Street Productions will attempt to tell. Their telling of it will be one version. Their captured imagery on the other hand may form many more versions in other minds. My own observations during the shooting of it has definitely created another version. A bridge to Howrah can only return me to Calcutta/Kolkata.

I wonder if Calcutta/Kolkata is beyond documentary films made on it; beyond words written about it? I wonder if there is some sort of inner communal, tribal sense of pace and strategy its citizens share which dictates our attitudes and moves? The Tata's small-car big-factory exit from Bengal on the eve of Durga Puja didn't do much to dampen spirits. The possibility of rain ruining celebrations was more worrying. Media interpretations of who we are, what we do and why we do so are infinite and versionary and will leave little or no impact on Calcutta/Kolkata and its citizens. Whatever happens as a consequence of such media exhibits will be grains of sand on a beach, drops of water in monsoon floods.

The layers pulled back reveal more layers. Perhaps there is an insularity that is at once self-absorbed as it is open. Maybe it is 'open source' where you may tinker with the original code to make a better version but you cannot take undue credit for something that is not originally yours.

Calcutta/Kolkata is not yours or mine to claim. Except the version you make of it. For better or worse.

Go here for my pictures of "The Making of Bridge to Howrah".


david mcmahon said...

Nice work - especially the shot of the idol in the cab.

Like anyone born in Calcutta, I have a Howrah Bridge story. Don't we all?

It was more than just a bridge to all of use who grew up there. Each crossing was a literal and a metaphorical journey.

It's no surprise that the bridge (and the new bridge) are featured on my blog - and Howrah Station and the bridge feature in my first novel as well.

p@tr!(k said...

Thanks Dave! That pic was taken on Vishwakarma Puja day enroute to Salt Lake. That bridge is really fascinating, always has been.

till said...

nice one. i especially like the sentence

"A bridge to Howrah can only return me to Calcutta/Kolkata."

it holds a special truth - although that truth is for me quite different from the thruth it holds for you, as

"Calcutta/Kolkata is not yours or mine to claim. Except the version you make of it. For better or worse."

thoroughly enjoyable read!!!

p@tr!(k said...

till, thank you! i was hoping i would be able to use some of your stills for the piece.

stephan anspichler said...

Hi Patrick,

Something is still connecting us, even when we are so far away from each other. I was just on the way to write some words to you - and then I've received your blog. Thanks for this impression and your words on the project.

Meanwhile - that's why I couldn't write sooner - we've opened up our second office in Cologne/Germany and did everything to promote my first feature documentary EGOISTE, which will be released on 13 November. Stressful times - and I'm still sick, with a bad cold and closed ears.

As we did arrive in Dubai on 3 October - after almost 4 weeks in Kolkata, we could feel the big difference between being in an authentic city (Kolkata) and one that was just built because some sheiks had enough money to do so. It was a Las Vegas in the arabic world and a place without 'life' and 'culture'. - A good experience to see that money doesn't give any reference about being 'happy' or making a place more 'likely'.

I still haven't processed everything that we have experienced in that short amount of time in Kolkata. Definitely, I can say that this experience will last for a lifetime and at the end, trips like this are the most exciting and worthful thing that can happen to anyone of us. Our time on earth is very limited, but I believe that seeing as many places, cultures and religions as possible will make us richer. Maybe at some point we will understand what life really is, by getting it to know through so many 'eyes'. Or maybe at some point in the future it won't matter anymore for us, because we'll realise that the only thing that we can do is doing our own steps and leave something behind for our children.

Anyway: I hope we can be in touch soon again. The trailer for the film will be finished before November starts and I will of course send you a copy of it.

Again: happy thoughts and all the best from Hamburg!

p@tr!(k said...

Stephan, thank you for the comments. Maybe we all need a Howrah bridge in our minds to overcome prejudices and fixed thinking. This constant cross-over of cultures and influences is all that humans can hope for to stay ...human!
All the best from Calcutta/Kolkata!

Anonymous said...

Hey P,
Make an effort to shoot'em too....

For there to have been a cold war, there had to be a Glienecke Bridge. It spanned the chasm between two hostile worlds, becoming the backdrop for dramatic spy exchanges in real life and in countless espionage novels.

Now, having lost its role as a point of escape through the Iron Curtain, Glienecke Bridge is threatened with destruction. Once the setting for great events, it is now nothing more than a traffic hazard.

The Bonn Government is pouring billions of dollars into projects to rebuild transportation networks in the former East Germany. One of its goals is to bring all waterways in the region up to European standards, meaning that every bridge must be at least 207 inches above water level to accommodate modern 1,500-ton freighters. Glienecke Bridge, a modest steel suspension span, is just 170 inches above the water.

Shippers complain that low bridges in eastern Germany hinder their access to lucrative markets. But the idea of disturbing the treasured Potsdam landsape with a higher and presumably bulkier bridge horrifies many residents.

"This bridge is a national symbol," said Steffen Reiche, Culture Minister for the state of Brandenburg.

Environmental groups have begun a campaign against the government's plan to build higher bridges, wider canals and new locks around Berlin. These projects, they say, will destroy vegetation, wipe out animal habitats and turn placid waterways into turnpikes for ships.

Glienecke Bridge spans the Havel River between what was once West Berlin and what was once Communist-controlled Potsdam. During the cold war, spymasters from East and West used it as their exchange point for secret agents and dissidents.

There has been a bridge over this section of the Havel for more than 300 years. The current one was built in the late 1940's and named Unity Bridge by the East German Communists. But to spies, it was always Glienecke Bridge, named after an adjoining neighborhood.

The first spy exchange at the bridge was perhaps the most famous in cold-war history. In 1962, Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union, was brought from his Moscow cell to the Potsdam side. An imprisoned Soviet agent, Col. Rudolf Abel, was brought from New York to the West Berlin side. Their exchange went off as planned, and a pattern was set.

The biggest exchange at the bridge was in 1985, when four East Europeans imprisoned on espionage charges were traded for 25 Western agents who had been jailed in East Germany and Poland. The last came a year later, when the Soviet dissident Anatoly B. Shcharansky and three accused NATO spies were exchanged for five accused Warsaw Pact agents.

Today the bridge serves Potsdamers who drive to work in Berlin and Berliners who want to visit Potsdam tourist sites.

Those tourist sites are part of the reason that plans to alter the bridge are being so hotly debated. The entire adjoining section of Potsdam, which includes castles, parks and historic landscapes, has been recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. That designation, and the obligations that accompany it, are taken very seriously in Berlin and Potsdam.

"Are European standards for bridges even reasonable?" asked Detlef Carg, chief of Brandenburg's landscape preservation agency. "Can they be used to justify the destruction of a cultural landscape that has been built over hundreds of it 'the bridge too far'...remember the movie very few films showing the German victory.

Babuji said...

Good writing Patrick ... Pamuk on Istanbul style ... maybe the de-layering of Kolkata should start from its economics, its occupations, its trades/crafts, hawkers, how typical families earn, how the economic tensions play out ... then things like Howrah Bridge, football, Puja, Tata Nano become symbols of something closer to the 'human condition' ...

Am coming to Kolkata for a week soon ... see you for more adda ... what's your contact no ?

Keep shining


p@tr!(k said...

@anon (chiru?) - thanks for the history lesson. very interesting. i've noticed that the germans of today have gone beyond the east-west, world war/cold war syndrome (if that's the right word?) and are looking outward.

@babuji - thanks for visiting. the delayering you talk of is in process at some levels, but political and official apathy is what needs work.
am in cal. will you be around 18th nov? am doing bertie's concert. number ta sms kore dicchi.

Yu^2 said...

Calcutta or Kolkata whatever your preference might be is definitely a city that I loved to hate. I've been here for almost six years and I've come to see the changes it had gone through. You need a special patience to live in this city, especially if you're a foreigner who is used to certain amenities. But there are small little spots that you need to know, and that's the beauty of Kolkata. What other people need to see is not just the poverty but Kolkata has a bohemian thriving intellectual culture that is filled with artists and creative people. You don't see that on the surface, you need to hang out with the locals to experience that richness.

christopher dell said...

dear patrick,

this is a wonderful article! very lively and vibrant. and it really evokes memories.

i am thinking of you and kolkata a lot. the webpage has been on since june i think and a lot of people reacted very positively.

p@tr!(k said...

@Yu^2 - Thanks for visiting. And you have hit the proverbial nail on the head! You haven't mentioned it, but I get the feeling you're actually enjoying your stay here in Calcutta?Kolkata.
Cheers! and bhalo theko.

@Christopher - Thanks for your comments. Your project early this year was the start of something quite significant for me. And 'A Bridge to Howrah' seems to be a good close to an eventful year!

Debashree@Blore said...

It would be wrong if i call it a good literary piece or a mirror reflection of Kolkata City. This reminds me of every moment I lived there, my stay for 5 long years!! It brought tears in my eyes... I hated the city.. I loved it all the more. Sir, reading the article I just realised that Kolkata/Calcutta, this city grows in the people's heart

Gordon-M said...

This sure did evoke memories of my days as a boarder in La Marts where I recall bunking one Sunday with the guy from Santragachi just to cross the Howrah Bridge by tram and for a "short ride" by train to Kharagpur!!
Didn't I get me ass tanned that day! Whew! All for the sake of seeing that splendourous sight and marvel of technology called Howrah Bridge...

p@tr!(k said...

@debashree: thanks! keep visiting.

@gordon: hehe! sounds like just the kind of thing you were 'in'famous for, Gord! keep well! and visit Cal soon.

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