BY JOSHY JOSEPH
Inside the Nandan theatre of Kolkata, which is owned by the Govt. of West Bengal, you hear a voice-over on the blank and dark screen. No visual. The voice-over apologizes for not showing any image and introduces himself as a film-maker. “Today on a Wednesday, 14th November, 2007 I had to break my cocoon and come out on the streets of Kolkata and join hands with my fellow citizens who swell the Kolkata streets. After a state-sponsored massacre of farmers at Nandigram, the civil society conscience shrugged off its inertia and joined hands in a protest rally. How can I be not a part of it ? But I don’t want you to look at my image from that Wednesday. Because I am ashamed to participate in another rally on 15th November, 2007, Thursday, which was actually protesting against the citizens’ protest on Wednesday. I neither want to look at the images of Wednesday nor Thursday. That is why this black-out on the screen. I would like to erase them from my conscious self, though history had recorded and kept them in its eternal archives. You know me, my dear viewer. Once upon a time I used to make political films, in this very city called Calcutta. Forgive me for speaking without any visuals till now.” Now the blank screen fades into a series of silent visuals in Black and White and Colour from the film excerpts of this film-maker. And the short film ends. This could be a possible confessional short film script, if at all our living legends were ready to look at themselves, their films, their triumphs and their falls. But you can’t get a Dada Saheb Phalke Award for your confessional films. So, the possibility of the above scripted short film also doesn’t exist.
Legendary Argentinean film-maker Fernando Solanas was the Chief Guest at Kolkata Film Festival, 2007, held at Nandan. The cream of intellectuals and the core of civil society boycotted the festival as a protest against Nandigram killings. Fernando Solanas, the maker of a cult film like “Hour of the Furnaces” was not able to connect with the happenings outside Nandan. But he could see a charged scenario on television, once he was back in his hotel room. My friend and film-maker Anamika got the permission on the pretext of presenting her book on Argentinean cinema and then interviewed Solanas with her handy-cam. Solanas spoke out. He lashed out at the regime and its anti-people stand. Anamika’s footage was flashed in television channels and the anger of Solanas found its way to the front-page of next day’s newspapers. Our Dada Saheb Phalke awardee was not available for any comments during that time. I am not here to question the historicity of his place in Indian cinema. I am also not attempting to run down his artistic or political relevance in Cinema. They are part of our living history, as are the pillars of Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge or even Rabindra Sadan-Nandan Complex.
In December, 2009, the same senior film-maker was the Chief Guest in the International Film Festival of Kerala, held at Thiruvanathapuram. ‘Kerala Kaumudi’, one of the leading news papers in Kerala, carried a front-page statement from this much revered film-maker. It read that the future of West Bengal frightened him, referring to the imminent change in the state’s political guard, then. People in Kerala took it in letter and spirit as they respect him for his entire body of work which is overtly political. I started asking questions to myself about his worry regarding the ‘future’ of West Bengal which is very much connected with its ‘past’, to which he too was connected.
So, coming back to West Bengal, post-Nandigram and Singur, I found that artists, writers and film-makers who were generally identified as fellow-travelers of the left, started distancing themselves from the left. They found the official left had deviated from its original ideological position and even campaigned against it in the last parliament elections, with a straight slogan-‘Parivartan Chai’ (‘Want Change’). The civil society too echoed the slogan and made a visible impact in the election results. The ‘Kerala Kaumudi’ interview of the film-maker had to be read in the backdrop of that election result, which clearly indicated the mood of the people of West Bengal. The ground reality in West Bengal continued to be worrisome, at least for more than a decade, in front of my own eyes. But Nandan-Rabindra Sadan complex had earnestly provided a platform for debates and discussions. I had heard Prof. Amartya Sen speaking to a house –packed Rabindra Sadan, that the left parties should have focused more and worked more on the basic issues of Health care and Education. In his lecture at Nandan while releasing his book ‘The idea of justice’, he was posed with a question on the emergence of Mamata Banerjee as a political reality. He evaded the question.
In every edition of Kolkata Film Festival, we used to get a sumptuous diet of Latin American films. It opened up the horizons of the idiom of cinema in our minds. We cannot deny those enriching moments just like that. There were occasional hiccups in my own experience with Nandan, which I would like to ignore for the moment. Some years back the signature film of the Roopkala Kendro Film Festival at Nandan had an interesting montage. An elite figure was arranging and rearranging certain abstract formations on the screen which were continuously contrasted and inter-cut with the close-ups of an agitated common man. After some time, the villagers who were witnessing the incomprehensible high-art got so irritated that they jumped onto the screen. They extinguished the sanitized images and the signature film, thereafter started celebrating the images of ‘Gram-Bangla’ or rural Bengal. The reality outside Nandan was not matching in any way with the message of this signature film. The illusory world of the malls sucked electricity and illuminated their world. Rural Bengal could never intervene or impact the illuminated Kolkata.
The ‘Kerala Kaumudi’ interview gave me ample scope to practise a little bit of astrology and foresee the grand ‘Memory-Michil’ project in the offing in the year 2009 itself. The complexity with this memory project is that of looking at the clouds. Speaking in a film vocabulary, clouds are both flash-back and flash-forward of water at the same time. Before the cloud formation, it was water and it will be water again. One can be a cloud-watcher and get lost into the ‘good old days’ of cucumbers, melons and leeks. It will be easier for the memory brigade to share their stories of a Chief Minister who translated Gabriel Garcia Marquez and also invited film legends like Miguel Littin and Fernando Solanas. He could even engage himself with debates on fascism as long as it ensured a geographical conformity to Italy, without mentioning tricky names like Nandigram or Singur.
The existing reality outside Nandan-Rabindra Sadan Comlex demands a present tense gaze at the clouds, encompassing the past, the present and the future. Huge structures are being planned in place of the present buildings, they say. Didi, Mamata Banerjee’s attitude not to acknowledge the importance of Nandan Theatre in the forthcoming 19th Kolkata Film Festival, will also weave its own lore in a Kolkatan or Malayali imagination. Denial is the breeding ground of all kinds of lore, city or folk, alike.
(Joshy Joseph is a film-maker and critic. He has won National Awards in both capacity.)