The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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City Lights
Around the world, films in trunk

Jon Jost made his first film with a 16-mm camera in 1962. It was about the life of a 12-year-old girl from the Italian family who had picked him up when he was hitchhiking, and had let the 19-year-old stay with them for a while. Forty years later, he’s still going strong.

The American has been in Calcutta for the past two weeks, conducting a 10-day workshop at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), and even dropping in at Chitrabani to give students a few pointers.

The self-described “cruel critic” does have one good thing to say about Calcutta — “The roadside food is very good. And cheap too.” This, right after a six-rupee dinner of chaat near SRFTI, on the Santoshpur Bypass.

The army brat born in Chicago during World War II had seen “enough of military life” to not want to have any part of it during the Vietnam War. The result was an expulsion from university and a two-year stint in jail for “dodging the draft”. Fresh out of prison, it was back to filmmaking and leftist politics with equal enthusiasm for the co-founder of the Chicago arm of the leftist film production and distribution group Newsreel.

But the travel bug that bit Jost as a child, having lived all over the US as well as in Japan and Germany, sent him packing around the country. His most memorable experience — living for four years as a caretaker on a farm in Montana, where a woman and her daughter lived, without running water, electricity or even a floor. “I had a properly running farm with animals and a vegetable garden when I left,” he recalls.

Berlin, Frankfurt, Rome, Lisbon, London, Paris… the 60-year-old lived “wherever and whenever I wanted, without money or even medical insurance. I don’t own a house or a car, and my belongings — mainly equipment and films — are packed into a couple of trunks. ”

It was on his 50th birthday that Jost decided Europe was the destination. For the next 10 years, he travelled the continent, making films about, well, American life, and on Italy and France. It was here that he met his Portuguese partner, a fellow filmmaker, and had a daughter, Clara. During their stay in Rome, when the little girl was three years old, her mother “kidnapped Clara, and I haven’t seen her in the last three years”, but is still trying to find her.

The man who describes Schindler’s List as a “hypocritical piece of work and a distortion of history” doesn’t watch films, particularly commercial ones. Reading fiction reminds him too much of prison, where he read around “200 novels”. So he teaches and makes movies.

His films, like Plain Talking and Common Sense, are “poetic analysis of the socio-political life in America”. Some narrative, some soundless, a few intellectual essays, they have travelled to and won several international film festival awards.

Jost’s works are the subject of a film festival at the American Center, on till Monday, with an introduction by the filmmaker himself each day.

“I went to see a Bengali play the other day. It wasn’t very good. I want to make a Bengali play. I did a film in French without knowing the language, so it shouldn’t be too hard. I’m off to America soon to do a film on what’s happening there, and hopefully, I will be back in Calcutta in October to make a film here,” Jost signs off.

Model actor

At the age of 16, Samrat Mukherjee was Mr Calcutta and a Mr India finalist. It was then, in 1996, that the ‘ex-student’ of Milind Soman decided to open a modelling school in Calcutta. In three years, “we trained 1,800 boys and girls” in five centres in the city. “But I had to shut it in 1998. I went to Orissa to work on a film, and then to Mumbai,” the 23-year-old says.

From working with Hemant Trivedi to groom models, to assisting Rajat Mukherjee — Ram Gopal Verma’s assistant director — train actors and actresses, the model and actor doesn’t lack in experience. Back in Calcutta, the man of many moves starred in a number of Tollywood films, including Anjan Chowdhury’s Chandramallika, Ratan Adhikari’s Ekti Meyer Galpo and Sushanto Saha’s Sagar Kinare, opposite Debashree Roy.

Choreographing 250 shows in Calcutta, Vizag and Guwahati to designing book covers, he’s tried a hand at anything that has taken his fancy. “Working in Calcutta, I realised that models here lack that essential element of sophistication,” Samrat explains. So, it was time for another modelling school.

Inaugurated on April 15, the first batch comprises 12 students. The six-month course includes lessons in western and eastern dance, acting, ramp walking, grooming and, “most importantly”, personality development. This category involves learning how to dress, to public speaking, emceeing, DJing, lip syncing and debating.

“The most important thing for these youngsters is to learn how to present themselves. And this is true for anyone in any profession.”

The guest lecturers range from model Marc Robinson to director Probhat Roy. For a price of Rs 6,000 — “these youngsters are from the middle class, so the parents are often not willing to support them in modelling” — the students even get a digital portfolio at the end.

“We maintain a page on the website, besides tying up with several ad and modelling agencies, TV serial and other filmmakers,” Samrat adds.

For Soumyo Bose and Sampa Ghosh, both 23-year-old aspiring actors, this is nothing new. But, it’s the final “polish” that they are seeking from Samrat to crown their career quest.

Back to Shylock

Social statement on the stage in a land torn by religious conflict brings one name to mind, instantly — The Merchant of Venice. And the classic — a part of every school child’s syllabus — is hitting the Calcutta stage on Saturday evening once again. The Calcutta Club annual production, bringing together a cast of young and old, from ‘Shylock’ Suman Mukherjee to ‘Antonio’ Dhruv Mookerji, at the GD Birla Sabhagar at 6.30 pm.

“For years, we were staging farce and comedy. Since last year’s venture with Shaw’s Arms and the Man, we have tried to move into the realm of serious theatre,” explains director Rena Ghosh. “The theme of racial and religious intolerance is so important today. It takes years of oppression to create a Shylock,” she adds.

Smoke signals

To commemorate World No-Tobacco Day, the Bhagirathi Neotia Woman & Child Care Centre is hosting an “event with a difference” on June 1. With the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Central ministry of health and family welfare as its partners, it has put together a multi-layered programme to create awareness on health hazards linked with tobacco.

This year, WHO has chosen tobacco-free films and fashion as its theme. The main objective of the programme, to be hosted at Taj Bengal, is to sensitise the film, television and fashion industry on the perils of smoking, which is often glamorised on screen.

A short panel discussion will be followed by a fashion show where Calcutta’s leading fashion designers will dress some of the most popular film and fashion personalities to reinforce the objective of World No-Tobacco Day. Union health minister Sushma Swaraj will be the chief guest and state health minister Surjya Kanta Mishra the guest of honour.

Madhu Neotia, director, Bhagirathi Neotia Woman & Child Care Centre, says: “Our hospital has, as its special focus, the welfare of the woman and her family. One of the main causes of cancer is the intake of tobacco, and the disease can destroy a family.”

‘Safer’ option: While still on fighting the stick that kills, Dalmia Consumer Care claims to have come up with a tobacco alternative, which is healthier and non-addictive. The formulation provides “the pleasure of tobacco without any of its ill effects”. Developed by Dalmia Research & Development Center, it is part of Project Vardaan.

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