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City Lights
Sensuality on sands of time

The final countdown to the most eagerly awaited Bengali film of the year is on. From the moment Rituparno Ghosh announced Chokher Bali, signed on Aishwarya Rai and shot the first schedule in Calcutta under a cloak of secrecy, there’s been a buzz about Binodini’s story. Now, with the Rabindranath Tagore classic complete and canned, the buzz has just grown louder. A Passion Play is doing the rounds of film festivals from Locarno to Toronto, London to Chicago, drawing pages of praise from the likes of Variety and Screen, and getting Miramax “most interested” to pick it up.

Here at home, October 2 is D-Day for the Rs 2.5 crore Shree Venkatesh Films production to hit the halls. Three Fridays before the Thursday, Ghosh went over some aspects of his “most difficult film yet”, the first since Bariwali “that charged me up enough to devote eight months of undivided attention after the completion of shooting”. What came out of the chat was, roughly, this…

Rabindranath Tagore, post-copyright, is open to interpretation and presentment of every kind. In the rush for Rabindranath, the important thing is not to look for a ‘masala’ element that would ‘sell’, but to capture his spirit. His novel is a juxtaposition of complex human relationships revolving around the struggles of a widow. The film sets the widow’s struggle against the backdrop of a nation’s struggle, in a bid to look at the bigger picture. Rabindranath’s Binodini is brought to the threshold of exerting her independent choice, but is not allowed to go through with it. Her promiscuity remains the affirmation of her sense of independence. In the film, Binodini crosses that threshold, exerts her sexual choice, and moves towards a final destination.

Period film, it is, shot largely in Calcutta, and partly in Varanasi. Everything posed a problem — from the physical setting, after a Belgachhia house was initially promised and then denied at the last moment, to furniture and the props, which had to be almost entirely brought from London and the Lagaan repository, to the foreigners and the pheriwala in the cast. As a place and as a people we are now almost completely removed from that period, and so recreating those times is really tough. Also, the audiences are no longer literary-minded, their connection with Rabindranath’s works are far more tenuous. That was not the case when Charulata was released, some 40 years ago. Now, we’re reaching a stage where cinema might have to revive and steer an interest in literature.

Chokher Bali should stand out for its classical quality, its attempt to combine authenticity with grandeur in the depiction of a time long past. This has been made possible by a combination of the entire team — camera, artwork, acting, music — in tune with not just the documentation of a period, but the interpretation of a period, a sensibility.

Aishwarya Rai as Binodini is obviously the star of the film. She worked very hard after understanding the unique demands of the role and blended well with the democracy of the unit. Raima Sen as Ashalata was a revelation; she remains unspoilt as an actress. Prosenjit as Mahendra brings a certain majesty to the screen. Tota Raychaudhuri as Behari was fully dedicated to the role. Lily Chakrabarti as Rajlakshmi was effortlessly extraordinary…

The rest, as they say, is out there for you to see; a passion play for the Pujas.


Sup with the stars

Slow seduction by Marilyn Monroe as you dig into some Chow Yun-Fat Fish. First in Calcutta, then Mumbai, and finally, in London.

Stars set the tone at Starstruck, a soon-to-be-opened restaurant at Forum. Apart from a diverse gastronomic experience, a lounge for patrons who do not wish to go in for a full meal will be at hand shortly. The walls of this restaurant, backed by Bunty Sethi of Winning Streak fame, are lined with posters from Hollywood, old and new. From Gone with the Wind to Moulin Rouge, all the pop art is from Sethi’s personal collection. Including the front page of the Mersey Beat, dated January 4-8, 1962. The extremely young Fab Four look stunning in this black-and-white lead picture, complete with a misprint (Paul McArtrey).

Talks are also on to take the restaurants elsewhere. “We are looking at a restaurant in Mumbai and a lounge in London by next year,” Sethi reveals.

The menu, too, has been spiced up. Kylie’s Kiwi Cheese Cake is a variation of the favourite dessert, flavoured with kiwis. Mahi Mani Ratnam is ‘river-fresh Calcutta bekti’, which pays tribute to the director’s recent Calcutta escapade. Halle Berry & Pamela Lee combines white and dark chocolate praline mousse while All That Jazz is a tropical chicken skewer. The bar licence is awaited, and with it, a 44-seater lounge for drinks and snacks will be unveiled.

There is more that sets the standalone restaurant apart. Tie-ups with major US film studios are in the offing, and talks are also on with Inox, to open soon just a floor above, in the Elgin Road mall. Promotions may include free tickets, memorabilia to be won and even dinners with the stars. A line of cafes, also with a fun entertainment-related theme, will follow in a few months. “Every city where we open a restaurant, we will also open a Starstruck café,” says Sethi, who has already invested around Rs 2 crore on the 3,500 sq. ft property.


Flights of fantasy

Harry is heading for serious competition on the bookshelves. Discover Other Worlds, a Penguin India science fiction and fantasy festival, will flood stores with over 400 rarely-found titles till November-end.

Around 400 books from the Time Warner UK stable will be on display at Landmark and Oxford in Calcutta, while other outlets will stock select titles, with the rest available on request. Apart from staple fare like the Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl series or Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, readers readily get little else on the promotion list. Who’s Afraid of Beowulf' by Tom Holt, John Wyndham’s The Day of Triffids, G.P. Taylor’s Shadowmancer and the Robert Jordon collection are a few of the names that can be had at discounted rates. “The promotion, targeted at the summer and festive seasons, offers a discount of over 30 per cent on the Indian rates,” explains Nirmalya Roy Choudhury, heading Penguin India’s eastern region office.

In addition to the books on display, a selection of around 100 Penguin USA titles can be ordered. There is also a range of anthologies including Alien Abductions, Historical Hauntings, Silicon Dreams and Past Imperfect. There is good news for kids too. The Indian edition of the old favourite Ladybird series will soon hit the shelves. On September 19, 41 titles — 38 from the Favourite Tales series and eight brand new stories — will be launched at Rs 55 each, as against Rs 95 for the imported edition. With 10 to 15 per cent of Penguin India’s sales coming from the Ladybird line, this is a significant move. “This will be the first country apart from England where the books will be printed,” says Roy Choudhury.


Big bite

After monsoon hungama, it’s festive flavour, Reliance style. The country’s largest private sector conglomerate is now ready to serve up coffee and fast food in town. Java Green, Reliance’s food brand, is set for a Diwali release.

The surf-sip-snack option would be made available in Reliance Webworlds being set up across the city by Reliance Infocomm. The target, say sources, is 14 stores by the end of 2003, and double that in the next one year. Under the Java Green brand, “a wide range of hot and cold beverages and pre-cooked snacks” will be sold through these stores.

A Reliance spokesperson, while refusing to divulge the exact launch date, said the webstores will start dishing out the Java Green brand of coffee and fast food by the third week of October. The name, say officials, combines “the finest technology with the finer aspects of nature” — a computer script, a popular coffee brand in Indonesia and the peacocks in Bali.

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