Abosheshey, a film review

Kolkata shudhu shohor noye. Kolkata holo jibon bodh. (Kolkata is not just a city. It is a lifestyle.) It grows on you like a being.”

This is the dialogue by Suchishmita Roy, played by Roopa Ganguly that summarizes Aditi Roy’s directorial debut Abosheshey. The Bengali word Abosheshey literally translates to ‘finally’ in English. This film explores a mother’s wait for her child, the eternal bond between the life giver and the progeny, the matir-taan (the pull of one’s roots) and Kolkata as a city with its own heartbeat.

Partha and Suchishmita both have the same surname- Roy and share a child- Shomya. But their thought processes are vastly different. Partha, who exists only as a ghost figure never to be seen by the audience, is ready to leave his father and his city to earn riches in the States. Suchishmita, on the other hand, refuses to uproot herself from her city, friends and family to settle in a foreign land. As a result, Shomya grows up in the company of his father and step-mother never to know his mother. For him, San Francisco is home and Kolkata, only a name on his passport. After Suchishmita’s death, Shomya is forced to come to Kolkata to settle his birth mother’s affairs and finds himself in a city familiarly foreign to him.

This is the story of a son’s quest to know his mother and his city. Shomya discovers his mother from her letter to him, from the testimony of her neighbor and all those people who were dear to her. Suchishmita is the personification of Kolkata.

She is the quintessential mother figure who gives life and holds on to the memory of her boy for twenty years despite not having heard from him. She believes in the nabhir-taan (pull of the womb) and knows for a fact that her son will be back some day. Abosheshey (finally) he comes home only to discover his mother through other people.

Kolkata is an ailing city. It is often called the city of old people; a place where people come to retire. Roy has managed to make this sentiment of Bengalis towards Kolkata clear through the testimony of a random guy in the bar where Shomya drinks. This nameless character is a frustrated Bengali who knows that the city and the race have gone to the dogs. This man, a Bengali himself, claims to be from Bombay and condemns the Bengali race as a lazy group of people who only talk big and do nothing.

Suchishmita, much like Kolkata, survives on memory alone and a hope that her child will come back to her someday. She is a woman who is adept in the arts- she paints and sings Rabindra sangeet- and is stubborn to the point of insolence. In all her splendor, she is free thinking and a peculiar kind of modern. She embraces modernity at a surface level but remains traditional in her thought process.

Such is Kolkata. Any Bengali who sees this film will relate to it. When I finished watching it, I was left with a taste of nostalgia on my tongue. The familiar sight of Howrah Bridge, Princep Ghat, College Street and Gariahat filled me with longing. In the same breath, I felt suffocated. I knew I would never go back. I would only love my city from a distance.

The film is extremely slow. There were places I found myself yawning and wondering why the narrative was so lazy and haphazard. The answer is probably in understanding the essence of the movie. It talks about a city where everything is so slow and confused that even the rooster takes an afternoon nap. What better way to put that point across but to slow down the pace of the film.

There are some places in the film which are surreal in nature. The film reminded me of the work of Paulo Coelho called The Witch of Portobello. This has the same structure. Suchishmita is seen from the eyes of different characters. She is never given a chance to tell her own story. Such a narrative can be confusing for someone who is trying to make sense of her. But maybe that is the point of the story.

We never try to know people beyond the relationship they share with us. This story challenges that. After all, what can be more intriguing than a son getting to know his mother through the eyes of her cook?

 

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Bangalore or Bengaluru?

Bangalore Days was a wonderful movie. Especially so because just like the protagonists, I was also very excited with the prospect of moving to the city. As a starry eyed teenager, whenever I was told that there exists a city in the South which is bigger that Delhi, more cosmopolitan than Hyderabad and cleaner than Kolkata, I wanted to become a part of the hustle and bustle of this city.

Was Bangalore a revelation when I finally got here a few years later? In some ways yes. The cosmopolitan aspect of it was true. You could find both Punjabi uncles as well as loud Bengali aunties in the midst of Malayalis and Telegites. The Kannadigas were difficult to find though.

For a first timer, it comes across as too huge a city to fathom in a day or more. It’s too vast and too impersonal at some level. In the film Divya remarks that there is no one and nothing in the city that she can call her own.

That sentiment of alienation among the crowd of Majestic and Shivajinagar is very familiar to me. Everyone is too caught up in their own worlds to notice the other. However, after a series of dramatic events, DIvya, Kuttan and Arjun come to terms with the ways of the metropolitan.

For a conservative good boy like Kuttan it means being comfortable with walking on the side of road where a couple is kissing. For Arjun, that means learning the importance of a career and establishing one self.

The wanderer becomes the settler and the conservative becomes a liberal. It is a city where dreams come true. A place not restricted by traditions and customs as much as the rest of the country; yet a place which smells of culture.

Bengaluru is Bengaluru for some and Bangalore for others. It is the go between for some who are seeking a transformation from traditional living to modern living and vice versa.

The American girl that Kuttan ends up marrying is the example of how people come here seeking culture. That aspect of the film rings a bell.

But what the filmmaker missed was the traffic, the over-crowded BMTC buses that Arjun travelled on, the eve teasing that Divya could have faced when she came back home alone post classes and the judgmental glances of the neighbours when Kuttan stayed back at his girlfriend’s house.

However, it is imperative that one gives artistic freedom to the filmmaker.  Hence, keeping his perspective in mind, the film definitely did a good job in portraying the spirit of this vast, multifaceted city.

Phutphuti

Phutphuti was like any other girl in the neighbourhood. She had her hair neatly oiled and tied up in two braids on either sides of her head. Her skirt was perpetually below her knees and she was always running away from her mother.

On many a hot afternoons when the sun would pierce your skin and you could feel invisible ants biting your soul, you could hear a woman scream: “aaaiiii puti. Kothae tui? Khabi na naki?” (Ai Puti. Where are you? Won’t you have lunch?)

This would not be the end of it. Phutphuti’s (or Puti as she was called by her mother) mother could never find her and she would end up coming to our house and crying to my grandma.

“Ki kori bolo toh? Ei meye ta ke kikore ghore rakhi?”

(Tell me what do I do? How do I keep this girl home?)

My grandma would always warn me against that girl. “Baje mey” (bad girl) she would call her and would ask me to stay away from her on all occasions save neighbourhood gatherings. Keeping up appearances was very important in our part of the world.

I grew up in a world where people’s official names weren’t as important as their barir naam/ dak naam (the pet name). As a result of this oddity, I never knew what Phutphuti’s actual name was.

All I knew was that she was the girl who stayed in the pink house adjacent to ours and had a terribly loud mother. It was mandatory that we played together in social gatherings as it was only appropriate to do so. You see, we were of the same age group and we were immediate neighbours.

On one such occasion- it was durga puja if I recall correctly, she confided in me. We were tens years old and I had just learnt that America existed in Geography books. She told me, “paliye jabo…khoob tara tari. Emon jayegaye ki keu khuje pabe na. Diya ami bisho joy korte chai.” (I’ll run away…very soon…to a place where no one will find me. Diya I want to conquer the world.)

I had nodded as though I understood the whole concept of running away. I had always been an extremely lazy child and if you asked me to run, you would find that i was slower than a snail, with motivation lesser than that of a sloth.

After this brief heart to heart, my granny dragged me home and put me to bed. It had got late. I lay awake wondering whether I could too run away to America one day. But of course, I would need to get on a plane.

We parted ways when my parents decided to leave the world of mach-bhat (fish-rice) and instead settle in the world of idli-dosa. For a good ten years, I had forgotten about the girl who wanted to run away.

Today my grandma called me- something she doesn’t often do. “Ei Diya. Phutphuti paliye gyeche ekta cheler shathe. American chele…mechanic na ki mone hoye. Tina khoob kandche…” (Ei Diya. Phutphuti has run away with a guy. American guy…he is a mechanic I think. Tina (Phutphuti’s mother) is crying.)

This piece of information was greeted by more questions from my side. For the elders of that world, it was too much to take it. The boy was a christian, not even a Hindu. On top of that he was an American. It was one of those Ram-Ram moments.

They would gossip about this for years to come. But for me, that girl had achieved the impossible- she had conquered the world- the world of kakimas, didimas, their gossips and their judgemental looks.

To me, the girl with a dubious official name became my hero.

Oh Kolkata!

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Oh Kolkata, oh Kolkata!

How I sigh every time I think of your lanes, of your various moods, of the ‘aste ladij‘ of the bus conductors, of the kakimas and the didimas, the smell of cha on hot coal mingled with the smell of burnt tobacco. How you have been and will always remain a mystery to me. This is an ode to you- the only subject I can write a novel on:

I started off in Kolkata- my local Amsterdam, as a white blob called Diya. A few years later, I came back as Radhika- only to leave it again as a strange amalgamation of the two. My two year stay in this city might seem to all as ant years in a human’s lifespan- but to me it feels as a lifetime. The drastic change I underwent while here cannot be described in words- at least my vocabulary is insufficient to do so.

After a lot of brain wracking on my part; cups and cups of coffee; walking down the memory lane; I finally found a metaphor for this city—truth be told, I found plenty of them. The first thing that came to my mind was- a black hole- an oddity that sucks in every bit of a person, rips apart all of their ideals and give back pure bits and pieces of the soul. But this seemed very negative. Further down the road- I thought of it as a rehab center—people come in for a while; undergo agony and excruciating pain and leave a better person. This too was black. Then I thought of Kolkata as an oxymoron—a city which wants to progress yet is stuck in the past. Too clichéd? I know.

Finally the romantic in me came up with another metaphor which, I thought, fit best—my first love. Very like the first lover one has ever had, this city comes across as a much needed break in a person’s life. It is simply different- its many facets, one can never understand fully; its vibrance is blinding; the twist and turns of the its lanes- a labyrinth in a sane mind; its heat and humidity- suffocating and its mentality- claustrophobic.

My initial feeling towards my new love was one of hatred. But as days went by, I just got used to its vices and its way of life. The city moves at a caterpillar’s pace—viscous and slow. It took me some time to realize that this fact will never change and in trying to change it- I changed as a person. Here every day is a continuation of the previous- there is no new day.

Hence my hatred gave rise to resignation. This is how it is; no point trying to change it—I said to myself. I had come into the city as a ‘know it all’; I left it, a humbled soul. Every step of the way, my lover challenged me—it gave me a hard time; kicked me in the ass and helped me back on my feet. In short it gave me room to grow. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly face of the city. I will not try to fool anyone by saying that I take back only the good. Quite on the contrary, I take back the whole experience.

Kolkata taught me the value of hard work and humility. In the multitude of people, I found certain strange faces which later became family in the true sense. The city, I later found, has numerous layers to it—it starts with being cold and harsh and proceeds by giving you the warmth you have never felt before. It never gave up on me- yes, I personify the city. Why I do so, you will only be able to understand if you have lived here. It has a bit of everything to offer- art and culture for the intellectual; music for the harmonist; lights and glamour for the party freak; money for the businessman; solitude for the loner; bad habits for the indulgent and religion for the believer.

Kolkata is life personified. I might never go back to stay; but I know for a fact that the umbilical connection is there to stay for life. Like the tough school master, Kolkata has made me able enough to face the world. 20 years down the line, I will still sigh with wonder whenever I hear this name. I am mesmerized and yes, I am finally in love with it- the purest of the loves- the ones which survive years of separation.

The penpal

I have an image for you;

One among many.

The rain drops and the coffee cup;

the grey sky and the wooden pane.

 

The parchment and the smudged ink stared at me,

“The end,” it said.

No clue as to why, what, where.

Just a tasteless goodbye.

 

3 years had been a long time;

It felt like decades or more.

But all it took was two words;

Was it so easy to let go?

 

I still remember the day we sang with words;

the day we laughed with the happy hand;

the day we cried with tear stains on paper;

the day we argued with drops of ink.

 

It was Moscow versus New Jersey;

Dostoevsky versus Bukowski;

Anna Karenina versus Dominique;

The fog versus the sun.

 

Separated by two seas and an ocean,

It never really mattered who looked like what,

or what color suited who,

or how one ate.

 

we lived by our words and words were our world;

but it was words that killed at last.

One article and one noun.

The end.

Traversing the city of joy

Kolkata is a city of contradictions. A city where the local bus conductors scream ‘aste ladij’ (slow there is a lady) when a lady tries to get off the bus; it is also a city where men fall on women in those very buses pretending it was an accident.

“I remember this one man who was standing behind me on the bus. He was very sweaty and smelled like a pig. When the driver applied the brake, he had to fall all over me and then did not have the courtesy of correcting himself. I had to shout at him to get him off me,” says Trishna, a college student.

“It was hilarious actually…it’s like he didn’t expect me to react. He seemed so frightened when I shouted at him.”

As more people from other states come to live in the city of joy, they find it hard to communicate with the locals. “Some people are nice though. When I tell them ‘ami bangla jani na’ (I don’t know Bengali) in my accented almost-Bengali, they smile and speak to me in Hindi. Some even try English.”

Roshni Sharma, a local who takes the bus from Dum Dum to South City every day, has a different story to tell. “I find these bus rides fun. I come via the by-pass…the lakes along the way and the breeze is very refreshing, especially early in the morning. I have made friends with the conductor. He keeps a seat for me behind the driver’s every day. He sometimes yaps about his kids and how the older one (a boy of seven) asked him what ‘bara’ meant and he was left open-mouthed, unable to answer.”

Roshni is best pals with the auto drivers and comments on how everyone is very approachable. “Bengalis are a peculiar breed. They can talk on almost every topic in the world and they have an opinion ready even if it’s on the US elections,” she laughs as she sips on her coffee in the Indian coffee house on ‘Boi Para’ commonly known as College Street to the non-Bengali resident.

Dilip, described by all as a ‘bhalo chele’ (good boy), complains about the city’s traffic and the concept of share autos. “The traffic is horrendous…especially during Durga puja. You should see how the drivers drive at that time of year. Everybody is in a hurry to go. Once the signal turns green, you can see the cars race as if they are racing for their lives. And I don’t understand why we have to share autos with noisy people. Why can’t I have an auto to myself and stretch my leg?”

Kolkata witnesses a constant fight between the pedestrians and the drivers. In places like Gariahat and New Market, one can see middle aged women adorned with more shopping bags than they can handle, break all traffic rules and cross the street with admirable confidence when the signal is bright green. They seem oblivious about the screams and insults thrown at them. After all, it’s their ‘baaper rasta’ (father’s road).

An elderly lady who had broken one of the many fundamental rules of crossing the road when the signal was green, had almost come under a yellow taxi. In the argument that followed, I heard her scream at the driver, “arrey dada ami pedestrian…ami age jabo. Apni dekhe chalate paren na?” (Brother I am a pedestrian…I am entitled to cross first. Can’t you look and drive?)

The metro in Kolkata tells a very different tale. Those who swear by it, say that it saves them from the hassles of the road but at the same time present a very stuffy situation every now and then.

Sayantan, a student who takes the metro from Kabi Subhas to Park Street on a daily basis says, “The conversations you get to hear on the metro are hilarious. Since there is no ladies compartment, even the men get to listen into the darkest secrets of a woman. How bad her mother-in-law is and how the mutton curry cooked by the maid had no potatoes in it, are some of the many things you get to hear.”

“Once a man accused a lady of molesting him in the metro. The poor girl had fallen on him when the train braked and he seemed very upset by that. The conversation that followed got everyone in the compartment laughing. It was a good way to start the morning.”

When you think Kolkata, you immediately picture the tram. A foreign exchange student in my ex-college was very thrilled by the prospect of getting on the tram. He begged me to take him on one. Despite my repeated warnings that that mode of transport was nearing extinction, he was adamant about his decision of getting on one.

“I need to tell my folks back at home that I rode a tram…it is going to make them jealous,” he said.

He was left visibly disappointed after the experience. The heat was too much to handle and to top it all, the turtle like pace got on his nerves. After all, the glamour of the tram does diminish after one has spent ten sweaty and slow minutes on it…especially on a hot May day.

Some of my fondest memories of the city are that of the boat rides along the Ganga. You would remember it with equal fondness if you can manage to catch the sun rise or set while on a boat with Bhatiali music (music of the fishermen) playing in the background.

If you are a selfie freak, then a boat with the Howrah Bridge in the back drop provides the perfect selfie moment. A walk along the ghat in the evenings is equally mesmerizing. One can feel the wind on their face and hear the sound of the goods ship entering the dock.

Kolkata in monsoons is much like Paris in the rains. There is something so romantic about it. Just get an umbrella and Bata chappals on and you are good to go. The smell of the earth just before rains is more noticeable in this city for some reason. If you walk down Park Street and Maidan during that time of year, you notice how the green trees become even greener and the ancient buildings donated to the city by the British start to sparkle.

If you happen to be in Park Street at 1 pm, you realize how proficient the Kolkata traffic police is at their job. The direction of the one way, switches at one o’clock and miraculously, there are hardly any traffic jams.

I find travelling in Kolkata oddly amusing and it makes for some great stories at the end of the day when I am back in the comfort of my bean bag and laptop.