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DAY AND NIGHT IN THE CITY

Last week, an event of importance in Indian cinema took place unobtrusively, almost unnoticed, with the release of Sthaniya Sambaad (Spring in the Colony), a film by Arjun Gourisaria and Moinak Biswas. It is a comment on the film culture of our times that even in Bengal, this work must reconstitute its viewership almost in the same way as the great auteur film-makers of modern India — Ray, Ghatak and Sen — did in the 1950s. In our postmodernist culture of distraction, on which the film also offers sharp observations, it cannot rely upon the audience which, right up to the 1980s, gave substance and support to the alternative cinema movement, but which appears now to be irreparably fragmented, dispersed, lost. Doubly lost, as the characters in Sthaniya Sambaad are: first uprooted by history, clinging on at the fringes of the city, and then scattered by the city’s own expansion and re-making into the banal, everyday flux of postmodern urbanity. The film records this loss as one we have suffered in ourselves. To watch it is to recover that lost constituency of viewership.

The film carries through three threads of ‘narrative’ occupying the space of a day and a night, if that term can be used about sequences linked by quests and settings, rather than by causal logic. From an high- altitude view — such as that afforded by the multistoreyed apartment block — of densely clustered hutments on the southern fringes of the city, the camera swoops down to enter the refugee colony itself, to mingle with it in casual intimacy. Nothing is casual, however, about the craft with which the colony’s ‘everyday’ is represented, from the line of young men sitting on a roadside bamboo perch to offer a choric commentary on passers-by, to the conversation of the elderly shopkeeper and his ancient friend at the local provision store, and the music rehearsals for the forthcoming basantotsab. This life is under threat. Development, in the form of a large housing project, has reached Deshbandhu Colony; the promoter, a landshark named Mr Paul, already has one building at the colony’s edge and is now sending in his bulldozers to occupy more land by razing the adjacent section of the colony to the ground. In the complicated politics of modern urban existence, the colony is not united against him: his plans for development are touted by two colony strongmen, aspiring residents of small middle-class apartments abutting the humbler shacks have already booked flats in the new high-rise, and the stay order obtained by those who will be dispossessed is blatantly flouted. Deliberately, the directors choose to render the extraordinary, haunting night sequence near the end of the film, when the bulldozers move in to destroy the marked site, entirely without sound. The silence of the screen, the power of these hallucinatory visual images robbed of their accompanying burden of physical, human noise, sounds of destruction and lament, records as nothing else could our own silence and complicity.

Against this background, the socially awkward, gauche, introspective Atin’s (Anirban Datta) search for the girl he loves, Ananya (Nayana Palit), who has failed to turn up for the day’s rehearsal, is set against the absurd quest of two thieves who have cut off Ananya’s plait in the crowded local market, for computer education abroad. Though his own home is among those threatened by imminent destruction, Atin evades his worried parents and angry brother, finally drawing his older friend and mentor, Dipankar (Suman Mukhopadhyay), with him into a night-long search through the sahebpara, the fashionable Park Street quarter, for his illusory, elusive ‘beloved’. Meanwhile, the two thieves, who have grotesquely misinterpreted the building promoter’s promise of education linked to development, try to sell the plait, finally offering it to the promoter himself, Mr Paul (Bratya Basu), as he stands brooding over another huge building site on the city’s eastern fringes, as the solution to the puzzle of his promotional flyer. This sequence makes these two minor figures witness Mr Paul’s own visionary statement of a transformed, rebuilt city, drawing upon the most enduring tropes of literate Bengali culture in a megalomaniac blend of ruthlessness and philanthropy. They are hustled away by the promoter’s musclemen to form part of the break-up gang. As dawn breaks, Atin and Dipankar arrive at the same place, and Atin offers his poetry notebook, in an odd, almost surreal, peculiarly naïve gesture, to Mr Paul.

Poetry makes nothing happen. The bulldozers do their work, Atin’s home and the small provision store are among the structures demolished, and the homeless seek refuge on the stage of the community centre, where a notice proclaims that the spring festival has been postponed. The film tells a kind of story, but it would be wrong to render it as a plot. The film lives in its actors, mingling new and recognizable faces with wonderful cameos by Mrinal Ghosh and Dilip Sarkar, its screenplay and dialogue — the most authentic I have ever heard in a Bengali film, with its expressive accents, failed efforts to learn English out of a dictionary and gangland Hindi in the upmarket quarter — its cinematography, as in the breakneck auto-race, brilliantly shot by Tribhuvan Babu, and its music, arranged by Debojyoti Mishra and Arindrajit Saha. From the Rabindrasangeet rehearsals for the spring festival to the kirtans quaveringly recalled by the aged enthusiast at the local shop, the classical vocals practised by a sullen housewife, the music that blares from a radio, the Bangla Rock reworkings of Atin’s poems, and, memorably, the Tagore song sung perfectly, under duress, almost as a gesture of defiance, by the boy on the bamboo perch, this is a film which catches virtually all the notes of our cultural modernity. It does so in an assured film language that recalls our modern coming-of-age through cinema, but goes beyond it to the postmodern everyday, where danger and triviality, disaster and comic accident, cohabit in the flux and unreality of our present.

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