I Am from Calcutta

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  • Published 27.04.11

My earliest memory of Calcutta is as a child coming for my winter vacations from Thimphu in Bhutan. For me, coming to Calcutta meant sandesh made by my pishi, Chingri Machher Malai Curry by my dida, going to the zoo, Botanical Gardens, eating phuchka, the Book Fair, shopping with mom at Gariahat, tram ride.... Next, I remember the city landscape changing, the flyover at Sealdah station and the Metro construction.

In 1986, I joined Jadavpur University to study comparative literature. That was the beginning of a new chapter for me. The film society there, Max Mueller, Chitrabani, Alliance Française, Gorky Sadan.... One was surrounded by cinema and literature. With the help of my professors like Sibajida, Subhadi, Dr Amiya Dev and Birenda, I learned how to look beyond the apparent, to delve inside and discover what’s within. I remember I was a shy teenager, and was afraid of my opinion. They taught me to value myself, to discover myself. That’s why I always feel that I owe a lot of what I am to these people and to Calcutta.

In 1994, I left Calcutta for Mumbai to fulfil that dream. Ten years later, in 2004, I started to shoot my first film, My Brother... Nikhil. But from the day I came to Mumbai, I have always wanted to go back to Calcutta and shoot. I had made my first documentary Fallen Hero — on painter Bijon Chaudhury — in Calcutta.

In 2010, this dream of mine could be partly fulfilled. I shot one of the stories of I Am in Calcutta. Strange it felt! Suddenly, it was like going back to “my city”... showing off how amazing the food is and how warm the people are. I wanted “my Calcutta” to make the correct impression on my friends and crew.

I realise that somehow I was overzealous about the city. I set the softest and — as Juhi puts it — the most lyrical of all the I Am stories in Calcutta. I Am Afia had to be in Calcutta. And I wanted Calcutta to look beautiful. Maybe I was being biased and unrealistic, but I was clear in my head that my city had to look beautiful and modern. So I chose the locations accordingly... the Metro, Floatel, Flurys, Gariahat....

For me, the experience was full of surprises, some good, some not so pleasant. I remember I was shooting at Flurys when I saw my professor Sibajida walk in. I was tongue-tied and suddenly felt like a student again. But I was so happy to see him there... with a smile. I was amazed at the number of people who came forward to help me shoot — right from the students of SRFTI to line producer Mallika Jalan to designers Dev R Nil, different shops like Mabesa, hotels like Astor, offices, hospitals.... People just volunteered and worked for the film for free and made me feel loved and welcome.

I remember how during every lunch break, I would try and sneak away to the closest eating place that offered good food. Or go to Sikkim house or Tangra after the shoot. Calcutta still has the best food at the cheapest rates.

The difficult part was controlling the crowd the minute they saw their “Juhi didi”. I could not shoot the street sequences in Gariahat and Park Street despite police arrangement. People would go crazy clicking Juhi with their mobile phones and as I tried to guard her, all I heard was: “Ei shaala shor naa!

But having said that, what I am left with is a desire to come back... to come back and shoot a full film. If I get a producer I would love to make a Bengali film.