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WHY CALCUTTA ISN'T FIT TO HOST'

...A top tennis tournament

'Another one, another one' ' not a shout to help Sania Mirza serve an ace, but an exhortation to Melinda Czink to serve a double fault'

'Could you keep the noise down, please' ' the chair umpire's stentorian voice ringing through the rabble during a rally between the Hungarian and the Hyderabadi'

Sitting through the first four days of the first WTA tournament in town was a lesson in why we aren't ready to host a top-level tennis show.

For, what unfolded in the stands at Netaji Indoor Stadium from September 19 was just not tennis (etiquette).

Many who wanted to be there, couldn't ' and we aren't talking about miffed ministers here ' despite half-empty stands even when the Sania show was on.

And many who were there didn't belong there ' clapping at the wrong points, cheering out of turn, obsessed about the girl and oblivious to the game.

Once Sania ' and then Shikha, Neha and Sunitha ' was done (or rather undone), there were more traffic policemen on stadium duty and security guards in the stands than tennis fans. And when Sania would practise on Court 2, everyone ' even the cops shifted base ' turned their backs on the Court 1 match. So what if a potential World No. 1 was in full flow.

Off-court, tennis academies led the gripe gang, with students and officials running from pillar to post for tickets to a stadium of empty spaces.

A few hardcore tennis fans did make it to almost every match at Netaji Indoor Stadium, for the love of the game. But they were too few to make their presence heard or felt.

...A rollicking ramp walk

A fairly fixed set of faces ' quite an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs and vice-presidents, celebs and socialites, models and party animals...

They fill up the 300-something seats in the ballroom of a star hotel. They sit stone-faced through a much-awaited fashion show, occasionally sipping on the cocktails clutched in hand.

At first glance, they can be mistaken for a fashion show audience anywhere in the country. But they aren't. For, they sit out from any other metro ramp watchers in one respect: nothing, just nothing, seems to excite them.

Be it a rocking ramp affair like the recently-held Sunfeast Players Party or a rather sober one like Friday evening's Blender's Pride Fashion Tour, the Calcutta audience wears a blank ' bordering on bored ' look.

No cheering a stunning sequence on the catwalk, no jeering a fashion faux pas. A mandatory, and rather brief, round of applause at the end is all that the audience comes up with. Otherwise, it's all ogle-ogle or stare-stare, in silence.

At this year's India Fashion Week in Delhi, for instance, the audience made or unmade a designer's day ' loud and clear. Take the Rohit Bal show. Thunderous applause apart, many broke into impromptu jigs at the end and even kept whistling the theme tune long after the show.

But why is the loquacious Calcutta suddenly struck dumb by a fashion display' Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee puts this down to lack of awareness. 'Calcutta does not have a fashion audience at all. People here come to watch the models more than the clothes. Who fills up the first row also becomes more important than the clothes.'

Designer Kiran Uttam Ghosh blames it on the choice of audience. 'One has to invite the right kind of people to the right show. A showcasing of rich traditional textiles needs to be viewed by a very different audience than say a club wear display, though both are technically fashion shows. But unfortunately, in Calcutta, the same set of people attend almost every fashion show. So, obviously they can't appreciate everything that goes on.'

...A big gig

The Stones didn't roll this way, Knopfler didn't knock on our doors and Enrique failed to enchant us. Roger Waters, Bryan Adams, Deep Purple' The list of top shows that gave Calcutta the skip is long and lengthening.

Why does the city continue to miss its share of the Rs 400-crore live international-act pie with such monotonous regularity'

It's not just the failure to loosen purse strings and the palpable lack of public support that keep Calcutta out of the loop ' though those are persistent problems.

It's also the comfort level ' or the lack of it ' organisers enjoy in the Buddha bastion. Event management companies like DNA, Showhouse and Opium concur that lack of transparency coupled with government highhandedness and red-tapism are perennial party-poopers.

For starters, Salt Lake stadium, the sole venue in town for any mega show, is a model of poor maintenance. The sports department doesn't even have a structured rate card for booking, alleges an event manager. Booking rates swing wildly and there are no fixed rules on seating arrangement and ticket flow.

On the evening of the Vengaboys concert at Salt Lake stadium, co-presented by DNA and Showhouse, the organisers saw scalpers 'with official patronage' selling tickets at half the printed price. An event manager points out that gates are often manned by youths backed by a government department, who let in 'their own people, leading to overcrowding'.

The Joe Satriani show at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, presented by Mumbai-based Opium Events, also turned sour, with first police pulling the plug on the guitar god and then local toughs holding the sound crew to ransom over dues. DNA and other biggies promptly made 'told you so' noises in Mumbai and Bangalore.

Not music to our ears, but that's just the way it is.

...A star-studded shoot

Vivek Oberoi and Kareena Kapoor on the Vidyasagar Setu. Sanjay Dutt and Saif Ali Khan at Bali Rajbari. Tabu and Irrfan at Howrah station. Calcutta may have emerged as a shooting hotspot in recent months thanks to virgin locations, colonial architecture and old-world charm, but everyone from Mani Ratnam to Pradeep Sarkar to Mira Nair have struggled to control star-struck crowds in Calcutta like nowhere before.

'Pagol hoye jachchi (I'm going mad),' would be Sarkar's usual greeting during the 40-day Parineeta shooting leg in the city, always stumped by how the hordes could sniff out shoot sites and schedules. They would wait there for hours for a sneak peek of their favourite poster people.

'It can become such a distraction at times, especially when you have a deadline to meet and there are other considerations like quality of light and continuity,' says Sarkar.

Those assigned to control the crowds are most often reduced to ineffectual props as the heads pop up from every possible angle to steal a darshan. Compare this to a street-shoot in Mumbai when the same star would command no more than a cursory glance. Where is the time to stand and stare'

'I can't tell you where all we would be shooting since that would bring everyone to the location,' admitted Nair while announcing The Namesake shoot in town, well aware of the Yuva experience, when metros and trains would be mobbed, slowing down the shoot.

It's always easier for the stars, usually in the cool confines of the make-up van, often oblivious to the multitude outside, staring fixedly at the door, with an Open Sesame look.

'You know they love you but you also have to concentrate on the job in hand,' Saif said during his city sojourn. 'The idea is not to disappoint them, and yet not to hamper the shoot.' That, is often mission impossible.

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