The amiable Fabrice Plançon has been the life and soul of every social gathering, especially once the music started playing, in the four years he spent in Calcutta. The director of Alliance Française du Bengale, known equally for his collection of hats as for his moves on the dance floor, bid the city adieu this month. The bon vivant chatted with The Telegraph over lunch in his favourite street-side corner at Mocambo.
You taught French to so many but how much Bengali did you learn?
I had picked up some Chinese in my last posting in Tianjin as no one spoke English there. So you don’t have a choice. Here I did not pick up any Bengali as everyone speaks English. In fact, my English improved here. (Laughs)
But I have heard you say ‘chalo’!
Chalo was the first word I learnt but that was in France 20 years ago when I was 24. I was still a software engineering student in university. I became friends with some Indian guys and girls studying with me and watched two Bollywood movies with them. One was Devdas, with Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan) and Shah Rukh Khan, which is still my favourite Bollywood movie, and Lagaan. Very few Indian movies come to the theatres in France but those two did, with French subtitles. It was just us, my Indian friends and me, in the theatre. In Lagaan, there was that song Chale chalo. I think it was a call for me to come to India. In fact, I started to have a fantasy about India since then.
I had some memorable experiences with my Indian friends. On Fete de la Musique, anyone in France has the right go to the streets and make music. So there is music at all the street corners. That day, June 21, in 2001, we had a crazy good time with them. We danced all over the city all night. We even jumped in the fountain in the city square and danced in the water. I wanted to experience the dancing in real life in India.
Fabrice with Abhishek Dutta at the fashion show in January on the roof of Park Mansion.Pabitra Das
How has it been running the institute since the lockdown?
I am so proud of my team. Last year, we were supposed to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Alliance Française here when the curfew happened. In March 2020, we stopped classes for one week and trained the teachers of Alliance Francaise branches across India all together. After one week, we opened again. The first two-three weeks, it was experimental but then we got settled online. Even now, we are maintaining the same quality as before. Of course, we miss some things by not being in the same room. But there are more possibilities. Every batch has a WhatsApp group. The teaching can continue outside the class too, with new forms of interaction. So even if Covid continues for another six months, one year or two years, language classes at Alliance Française will not suffer.
Have all students been able to adapt to the online mode?
For the passive student, the online mode is challenging as they miss the pressure of the group and the teacher. But students who are hard-working, creative and autonomous, they find new ways of learning. Our teachers use some apps and some online tools. We always have had early morning classes, from 7am to 9am. When I first came here, I was surprised to see students and teachers come so early and then leave for their full-time jobs. Now we have more students in those early classes. They wake up, make a cup of coffee and sit down for the class. It’s that simple. So even when we go back to physical classes, I think some of them will miss the comfort of attending classes from home.
Calcutta is the second oldest branch of Alliance Française in the country (after Pondicherry). You must have had grand plans for the 80th anniversary last year?
The first day when I had arrived at this office, I had wanted to hold a fashion show here. Alliance Française had never held a fashion show on the roof of Park Mansion. We did manage to organise a fashion show, which was between the first wave and the second wave and I am grateful to (designer) Abhishek Dutta for that.
Apart from that, we could not have French artistes travelling here, or have a gathering for programmes. We did have online events but they were not of the same scale. The last big concert we had was Manu Chao, a French-Spanish artiste. We held that in February 2020 at Prinsep Ghat. He was a big star when I was young. He is 60 now. When you hold events at venues like Indian Museum or ICCR, only a certain class of people come. But here in the open air by the river, we had an audience of 600-700, from all walks of life. After that, everything closed. We had planned a rock concert for Francophonie month in March 2020 but that got cancelled. We had also planned some big concerts for Fete de la Musique in June. The Jazz Festival in Dalhousie Institute in December also did not happen. In 2019, we had four French-speaking bands but nothing in 2020. A project in partnership with Alliance Française in Chittagong also fell through as an artist tested Covid positive after reaching Calcutta. We had held programmes with the Chittagong branch twice before as well. It is a great Bengali friendship of the Alliance Françaises across the border. (Smiles)
Has the online mode led to enrolments from outside Calcutta?
In the past one year, we have had some Bengali students of different nationalities — US, Canada, UK and Tanzania, who wanted Bengali teachers teaching French. If there are enquiries from other parts of India, we tell them to contact the local Alliance Francaise but there is no rule for international students. So we take them. (Laughs)
When do you think physical French classes will resume?
We will reopen when schools open in Bengal. I think there will be a mix — we call it “comodal” or hybrid mode. There are some advantages of online classes — transport, flexibility of time etc. But to come to class and meet also has its advantages. So may be one or two times, you come to class and the other times you attend classes, comfortable in your slippers. That way there will be less people on the premises. Some might want to continue fully online. There will be a transition period when we will propose every possibility.
How do you look back at your time in Calcutta?
I will know better once I am back in France. But I already have some nostalgia about Calcutta as it was before Covid — so warm and welcoming. The first thing I say about Calcutta to my friends in France is about the inclusivity of the city. Of course Durga puja and Kali puja are the biggest festivals but you also celebrate all Muslim festivals and Christmas. In fact, Christmas in Calcutta is a fairy tale. Our office is in Park Street where Christmas is as big as Durga puja. In my four-year term, I spent two Christmases in Calcutta. I was far from family, yet I felt so loved. At the concert at Allen Park I went in front of the stage and started to dance by myself and then some young people joined me. You know me, I hear music and I start to dance. Indian people can be a bit shy to dance but once they start they have good rhythm. Calcutta is about celebration and inclusivity. You can eat and drink whatever you want, ladies can dress however they want, more or less.
Talking of dress, you did pick up some ethnic stuff.
Most of my wardrobe has shirts with this Nehru style or Mao-style collars, whatever you call it and jackets like this (points to the one he has on). I cannot wear a tie. I wear one only for the interview in Paris for my posting (Laughs). That’s why I am careful to wear shirts with which you cannot wear a tie. This kurta is a gift from a colleague. I went to my tailor and said that I wanted this style in five different colours.
What will you miss most about Calcutta?
Of course, I will miss Alliance and my colleagues but that I’d miss in any part of the world after four years. I already miss seeing my students on the premises. In Calcutta, I will miss the parties and the music. Indian music is so energetic. And the colours of the saris.
Where are you headed now?
I had two contracts with the foreign affairs ministry — four years in China and four years in India. Now I have to go back to the education ministry, as my original post is of a primary teacher. I want to be in my city Grenoble but there is not much opportunity there right now. So I am taking a sabbatical. For eight years, I was away from family. I have my father, a brother and I have two adorable nephews. I have hardly met them. One is seven, another is nine. I will go back to studies for another master... and probably learn one more language, also may be take up a freelance activity. May be I will travel, meet people, see places and experience things for myself. For some time, I will be my own boss. (Smiles)