The Telegraph
| Sunday, October 27, 2013 |


Eye on England

Eye on England
Amit Roy

  • Moving memories: (Seated from left) Lord Desai, Sangeeta Datta (holding tickets for Jeevan Smriti) and Cary Sawhney with friends at the National Film Theatre

London raises a glass to Ritu

The London Film Festival closed last Sunday with a screening of Rituparno Ghosh's documentary on Tagore, Jeevan Smriti (Selective Memories).

British Asians, nurtured with their mother's milk on something called "Bollywood", do not come to such occasions which explains why the 400-seat NFT1 on the South Bank was a third empty.

Still, this was an emotional evening for London's Bengalis and especially for Sangeeta Datta, who had worked on the documentary as an associate director and now wanted to "raise a glass to Ritu".

Sangeeta, whom we glimpse in the film, described Rituparno's take on Tagore as "one artist in search of another".

"We have stood here, Ritu and I, talking about his films," recalled Sangeeta, since Rituparno's earlier works were showcased at the London Film Festival. "For me it is emotionally a hard moment, a very moving moment to be here without him."

Alongside her was Cary Sawhney, the south Asian curator of the festival, who suggested Jeevan Smriti "pretells in a way Rituparno Ghosh's own passing. The film covers the issues of death and mortality quite strongly."

"Speak up, can't hear you!" bellowed a voice from the back, which was movie buff Lord Meghnad Desai announcing himself. Afterwards, he sent word that he had found the documentary "excellent".

Many have detected a Bengali trajectory from Tagore to Satyajit Ray to Rituparno Ghosh, said Sangeeta. The next landmark will be "November 13 (2013), the 100th anniversary of Tagore's Nobel Prize".

Rituparno had planned to shoot crucial scenes in England, including the house in Hampstead Heath in London where Tagore had lived. It was here in 1912 that Tagore had read parts of Gitanjali in English to an audience which included the poet Y.B. Yeats. This set in train events which led to his Nobel Prize the following year.

"There were plans to come back to England to shoot in these places," revealed Sangeeta. "The actual production was interrupted several times because of Ritu's own health. Through personal conversations one got a sense that Rituparno knew he didn't have too much time left. He said a line which moved me profoundly, 'I am forging a new friendship with death.'"

After Rituparno had started working "with Amitabh, with Aishwarya Rai, with Jackie Shroff, with Abhishek Bachchan, there were calls and huge temptations at points to relocate to Bollywood but he never did. He was entrenched in his own Bengal culture. This was something very clever because by inviting these Bollywood giants to come and work in Calcutta, he actually helped boost the economy of a dying industry."

Calcutta club

The "Calcutta Club" is alive and well and living in London. Established in 1999, it is a loose gathering of Calcutta folk who mostly attended such schools as St Xavier's, La Martinière and Loreto.

"There is no membership charge," I am told by Xaverian Mike Ford, who came to Britain in 1961.

The number of members has now grown to about 100, a jump from the 20 who attended the first inaugural lunch 14 years ago, says Ford.

"Half of the members are Indians, the other half are Anglo-Indians," he adds.

"Members" include Mark Tully, the playwright Tom Stoppard, food critic Fay Maschler, pop singer Cliff Richard and Lakshmi Mittal.

The 14th annual dinner of the Calcutta Club was due to be yesterday, October 26, at the Bombay Brasserie.

"It was good to see so many of the regulars at last year's luncheon and meet so many new people with Calcutta connections," Ford tells me.

Perhaps the best thing about the Calcutta Club is that it has not felt the need to rename itself the Kolkata Club.

Chalte, chalte

  • Diary art: An illustration from Baburnama

Was the Mughal emperor Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur (1483-1530), who kept a personal diary, the Bridget Jones of his time?

What with a battle a day to keep his enemies away and being frightfully busy setting up the Mughal empire for his son Humayun to run, it is remarkable he had any time for "Dear Diary", apparently the first in the Islamic world.

But he did. "That Khan fellow really me off so I was all for chucking him off the palace ramparts after tea. But his friends intervened so sent him to prison instead. Must go now — the catamites are waiting."

Well, he didn't write it in exactly those terms but a fabulously illustrated new edition of Baburnama, published at £120 (and worth it) by the Folio Society in London, is a riveting read. As a bonus, it has a brilliant introduction by Salman Rushdie.

"Who, then, was Babur — scholar or barbarian, nature loving poet or terror-inspiring warlord?" asks Rushdie about the man credited with the Babri Masjid (though there is no reference in the diary to the mosque in Ayodhya).

"The answer is to be found in Baburnama, and it's an uncomfortable one: he was both."

Privileged few

  • Fan song: Navin Kundra with Charles and Camilla for whom he has hammered out three Bollywood songs

Some 100-150 Indians were invited to St James's Palace Apartments by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall last Thursday ahead of their trip to India next month.

But a third were hived off to an adjoining room so that Charles and Camilla could devote a bit more attention to this lot — they were the VVIPs.

So the British, too, operate a sort of caste system.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the home affairs select committee and named last year as "the most influential Asian in the UK", was inexplicably lumped with us in the first lot until he showed his calling card and was quite rightly allowed through into the charmed circle.

At least, I managed to confirm that the most important event of the India tour — the "Bollywood dinner" in Mumbai — is being masterminded by Mukesh Ambani. Those desperately seeking invitation cards are apparently assuring the Reliance tycoon that his 27-storey residence, Antila, is architecturally the last word in good taste.

Golden autumn

  • Indian summer: Autumn colours in England

Perhaps there is a good reason why England produces so many wonderful landscape artists — and especially those who paint with watercolours.

Could it be that the rich autumn colours have provided inspiration over the centuries?

This year we have had an Indian summer. And now a late autumn is dying in "a blaze of gold". Actually, that is a phrase pinched from a Canadian tourist brochure but it applies very much to Britain this year.

Tittle tattle

A memorial service was held recently at Newnham College, Cambridge, to celebrate the life and times of its director of studies in the 1960s, Sita Narasimhan.

I learnt this from the former Labour cabinet minister, Patricia Hewitt, who is now an even more frequent visitor to India as chairperson of the UK India Business Council. An Australian by birth, she arrived at Newnham in 1967 to read English.

Sita, who was born in Madras in 1929 and died at the age of 84 in the US, "was a wonderful scholar of English literature but also brought a very deep knowledge of Sanskrit," according to Patricia.

Some 150 former pupils gathered at Newnham to remember Sita who has left behind an abiding impression on all of them.

"It was very moving," said Patricia.