A Calcutta girl at the croisette

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By Paoli Dam tells Amit Roy about her love for world cinema and how she has managed to bridge the Cannes divide
  • Published 26.05.11
“I wanted the Bong look because I am representing a Bangla chhobi”

Are we witnessing the dawn of a new golden age in Bengali cinema? Paoli Dam, who has come to Cannes to promote a Bengali film called Chhatrak — meaning mushrooms or, more accurately, roots — is cautiously optimistic. “I feel great,” she says.

So far as Bengali cinema is concerned, “some very good films are being made,” Paoli points out.

Chhatrak, directed by the talented Sri Lankan, Vimukthi Jayasundara, who lives in Paris, is said to be his tribute to Calcutta and the cinema of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. He has done well to get it into Directors’ Fortnight, a category reserved mainly for emerging talent. The film, which metaphorically contrasts the urban jungle with the freedom of forests, has received an encouraging response in Cannes.

“The characters in the film don’t have any roots,” explains Paoli. “It’s about today’s Bengal and the forthcoming Bengal, how it will be and all that. It’s a relationship-based film and I have a fantastic character.”

Paoli makes what could turn out to be a shrewd assessment. “After this, it will be easier for Bengali films to make it to Cannes,” she says.

There hasn’t been a Calcutta-Cannes connection to date because no one has pushed for one, at least on the Indian side. But perhaps the time is right.

Paoli with Hollywood movie moghul Ashok Amritraj

Paoli, who has acted in an impressive number of films herself, including notably Kagojer Bou, believes there is enough of a pool of talent in Calcutta capable of delivering the goods. “I am not talking about everyone but there are a few sensible directors who can make good films,” she says.

She feels she has been in some of them herself. “I did Moner Manush with Goutam Ghose; Bansiwala with Anjan Das; Takhan Teish with Atanu Ghosh. The film I have just completed is Urochoti Super, based on a bus, with Arindam Dey, a new director.”


She says: “I read at times but I am more into watching films. I always carry a portable DVD player with me.”

In her high heels, Paoli found it a little difficult to walk all the way along the Croisette from the Palais de Festival, where the films in competition are screened, and the adjoining Cannes Market, where the hard business of buying and selling movies goes on, to the Carlton Hotel, one of the most elegant landmarks in Cannes.

It was at the Carlton, though, that I had chatted to Nandana Sen in 2008, so it seemed only fair this is also where The Telegraph should discuss cinema with Paoli. The lobby exudes the whiff of glamour, and the coffee shop is one of those establishments where you tend to pay for a couple of cold drinks with a credit card.

Paoli is amused to learn that once the playboy Maharajahs of India had booked entire floors of the Carlton and equipped their lavish suites with hot and cold running women. Up one floor from us, Ashok Amritraj retains the same suite of rooms when he comes to Cannes in keeping with his status as Hollywood’s ranking movie moghul.

This might be Paoli’s first visit to Cannes but since she seems to have a genuine passion for world cinema, she has certainly come to the right place. Filmmakers and films from about 100 countries have come for the 64th Cannes Film Festival.

There are between 4,000 and 5,000 journalists alone in Cannes but most of us are so focussed on watching the main films, attending the press conferences that follow and on seeking interviews with the main stars that there is no time left for visiting the pavilions and stalls from other countries.

Though Bengalis tend to be hugely pretentious when professing love for obscure foreign films, Paoli means it when she declares: “I love world cinema. I have watched a lot of cinema. I love Lebanese films, for example. I am going to go to different stalls (in the Cannes Market) and I am going to collect the brochures.”

Later, I would find Paoli doing exactly that. As for journalists, who are bombarded with a mountain of glossy and heavy brochures, the trick is to dump them as quickly as possible.

“My favourite film is Ritwik Kumar Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara — Ritwik is my favourite. I also like Subarnarekha.” Other Bengali films on her list include Saptapadi.

She also has enjoyed The Bow, Breath and Address Unknown by the South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, who is noted for his idiosyncratic art-house cinematic works.

Another favourite is In the Mood for Love by the Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, who is “internationally renowned as an auteur for his visually unique, highly stylised movies”.

“I like the Fatih Akin film, Head On,” Paoli goes on. “He is Turkish. I love Iranian films — I have a whole collection and I can also take some of Bollywood or Hollywood, sweet love stories: Notting Hill, then Pretty Woman. Different kinds of films I like — films, also romantic films.”

Paoli remembers where she was — the Trinity Mall in Mumbai — and the moment in the middle of April when she received a call saying Chhatrak had been selected for Cannes.

“I was feeling like jumping,” she confesses. “I was like ‘What! Are you serious or joking?’ ‘No, no, it’s serious.’ ‘Wow, great!’ I said straightaway. ‘I’m going to go (to Cannes). I had some work in Mumbai. After I finished, I got back to Calcutta. My parents are very happy, my friends are happy, everybody is very happy.”

Paoli received plenty of advice including this from an old-timer: “Be yourself, be the way you are. It (the Cannes Film Festival) is big, it’s really big, you cannot imagine how big it is.”

The official confirmation was received around April 13 or 14, Paoli remembers. She got a call from the film’s producer, Vinod Lahoti — “Vinodda phoned and said, ‘Get ready to walk the red carpet’.”


Paoli had to decide what clothes to take. “What do you normally wear when you travel in a Metro?” “I don’t travel in Metro,” was her response. Which begged the question: “Are you spoilt, very spoilt, or very, very spoilt?” Paoli made a face. Was it because she would be recognised and harassed? “Yeah,” she agreed. “Obviously, that’s the problem. Can’t help it, Calcutta is like that. We can’t go out shopping everywhere. We can’t go and eat everywhere. Everybody has this problem. At times, I do go to places I love but everywhere is not possible. Day to day, I wear jeans and top, normally that casual.”

For Cannes, she turned to “an upcoming designer friend of mine, Sayantan Sarkar. He did two saris, two salwar (kameez), two dresses and a long green skirt and a jacket.”

For the red carpet, her choice of sari would be cream with a red border. “I wanted the Bong look because I am representing a Bangla chhobi.”

“Bengali look is different, definitely,” Paoli believes. “Traditional look; me being a Bengali I obviously like the Bengali look. I also like the western look but it depends on what kind of film you are doing. I am a Bengali girl so I look traditional and I am happy about it.”

Paoli’s wish was to look her best for Cannes. “I have my make-up artist with me — Aniruddha Chakladar.” She recognises that “the Indian concept of beauty now is trim and slim. Madhuri, Sridevi, Waheeda Rehman, the kind of figure they had was more Indian but now the heroines are much more western. I believe it should be a combination of both. I don’t think girls in any other part of the world can have the curves an Indian girl has. And that is natural.”

Left to herself, Paoli’s personal choice was to go into academic life. After Loreto in Bowbazar, where she was punished often enough for being a chatterbox, she graduated from Vidyasagar College and then did her master’s in chemistry from Science College in Calcutta. “I was not a very bad student so I had wanted to stay in academics.”

But Calcutta is the city of pushy parents. “It was my mother who wanted me to be an actor.” When she was still at college, “I got a call from a serial and that was really astonishing — I did not approach them, so how did they get my number? That day only I started shooting. That was a night shoot — at four in the morning I gave my first shot. So passion and profession merged. My mum was happy.”

The story behind Chhatrak is that it has been filmed substantially by the same team that made Kagojer Bou. “Its producer was Vinod Lahoti and its director was Bappaditya Bandyopadhyay. Vinodda wanted to make an international film and Bappada knew a lot of people. Vimukthi was a close friend of Bappada who decided to bring him in as director. Since I had appeared in Kagojer Bou, I was offered this role — my character is also called Paoli in the film.”

Paoli has shopped in Cannes supermarkets since she opted to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel, attended the India party, relaxed with a drink at the India pavilion and got up early and walked around Cannes. She also walked the red carpet for the French film, Le Havre.

She suddenly remembers she has forgotten to mention one important film. “It is the Three Colours, Blue, White and Red by (the Polish director and screenwriter) Krzysztof Kieslowski.”

Another couple of trips to Cannes and one can imagine Paoli going native. At the very least, she and others like her could help to forge new links between Cannes and Calcutta.

“People said to me, ‘It takes 65 years to get to Cannes. You are going so young’,” she chuckles. “The climate here is so good I love to walk the streets. Here it is so pleasant. Summer in Calcutta is horrible. Wish we could do all our shooting here.”

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Paoli with Chhatrak producer Vinod Lahoti

The Bengali-language film, Chhatrak (Mushrooms), which had its world premiere in Cannes on the night of May 18 to a warm audience reception, was described by both its producer and director as “a tribute to Calcutta”.

The film was introduced by a Cannes official who told the audience that it came from Calcutta, the city of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. “Calcutta represents the city of cinema,” he said.

But this film by the Paris-based Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara is not the conventional Calcutta seen in movies of trams, Esplanade, the Maidan and such like. Instead, the camera moves around inside the gaunt, tall and grim buildings under construction in Rajarhat. Other scenes used in Calcutta include Nimtala Ghat and some real footage of pandal-hopping crowds from Puja last October. The forest scenes were shot in Bolpur.

Jayasundara attended the world premiere at the 500-seat Croisette Theatre in the Marriot Hotel on the Croisette with his producer, Vinod Lahoti, a Calcutta-based businessman, and his lead actress Paoli Dam.

Lahoti commented: “Bollywood films don’t get into competition at Cannes but Bengali films have done because the audience here likes the kind of films Bengalis make.”

The word had got out in Cannes that this was a very good film to see. Hence, tickets were at a premium, with even the influential Prakash Hinduja told he could not have a couple. Afterwards, some audience members said the film had been “beautifully shot as well”.

In contrast to her red and white Bengali sari of the night before, Paoli put on a skirt with a form revealing bustier outfit which indicates Bengali girls are quite capable of taking on the Brigitte Bardots of today on home territory.

This is the first Bengali film to have had a world premiere in Cannes since Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire in 1984 and Mrinal Sen’s Genesis in 1986.

Of course, it should also be pointed out that while Chhatrak, an Indo-French collaboration, was offered for submission in the category known as Directors’ Fortnight, the films of Ray and Sen were shown in the main competition, for which the selection process is tougher.

Chhatrak examines the notion that the spirit of man finds greater freedom in the forest compared with the oppression experienced in heavily built urban jungles — a sort of “nature versus nurture”.

Jayasundara, who has made two other movies, is becoming something of a Cannes favourite — he has been invited back this year, having already won the Camera d’Or for best debut feature with Sulanga Enu Pinisa (The Forsaken Land) in 2005.

He was keen to shoot a film in India but wanted to do it in Bengali and set in Calcutta because he considered himself a disciple of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen.

The film touches on people who have their farming land taken away to be turned into highrise buildings which will enrich corporates but not the folk who sold their holdings for a pittance.

“I think Mamata (Banerjee) will like our film,” Lahoti told t2.