As a kid, I used to look forward to the month long summer visits to my grandparents’ house in a neighbourhood called Lake Town in Kolkata. This almost annual ritual had unfortunately come to a cruel end after 2007 when my grandparents finally decided to sell off their property and shift near where we stay in Gurgaon. As I stood outside the house this April on a visit to Kolkata, the realisation that it was not mine anymore, hurt.
“Kalikshetra”, a documentary film by Anirban Datta, traces the history of Kolkata and all that has gone in the city’s pursuit of modernity. In the first few minutes, the film takes us into the bylanes of what was once royalty in Pathuriaghata, an old locality where the famous Tagores resided. Except, time has ensured that royalty is reduced to rubbles.
What stands out in the film is that it shows how the city doesn’t just belong to the Bengalis. Even the Armenians, amongst the first to adopt Christianity along with the Marwari Jains, continue to be stakeholders in the City of Joy. Not just as a mere footnote, but as people who influence the functioning of the city.
The film vividly explores how the city has changed. What makes this film special is the importance it has given to engaging with people who have lived in the city and have a stake in whatever has transpired in it. People who have themselves been involved in the Naxalite violence, have witnessed communal violence in colonial Kolkata, are given voice. Even the local historian and journalist who have been given space are people who seemed to have lived in Kolkata for years.
The interviews are interwoven with shots of the camera which drift into the underbelly of the city. The slowness of the trams, the hand-drawn rickshaws, people without any qualms using dirty pond water to rub their cheeks for holy purposes will make you question whether Kolkata should be considered modern.
As someone whose major interaction with the city was limited to staying within the confines of a house for most of the time due to my young age, this engaging hour-long documentary helped me understand the past of a city I’ve always loved. Watching this film was like those joyous yellow taxi rides I would take to go to my relatives’ house in the city. The difference was that the taxi rides were just a visual spectacle. This film gives all those imprints of the city that are settled deep in my memories more context. It takes me closer to understanding how the city has become what it is today.
The camera takes us to various sites across the city and makes us realise how modernity’s desperate attempts to make its presence felt has resulted in the creation of a city which continues to remain confused.
“Kalikshetra” allows people of the city to share how the city has changed, in their own words. The brutalities of the partition, the over-burdening due to the refugee crisis which followed, the violence involving the Naxalites, political parties and the police forces, and more events are touched upon. An old man recounts a graphic incident of communal violence before the partition when he saw people from the Muslim League behead a shopkeeper. Another man talks about how he is fortunate for having witnessed so many historical changes that Kolkata has gone through. He speaks about the current era and says that a ‘cow’ has become equivalent to a ‘human’.
After watching the film, I realised how there are myriads of emotions attached to this city. People have memories of watching beheadings in communal riots and being at the receiving end of police brutality. It also made me realise that my feelings towards my grandparents’ house are nothing more than a drop in an ocean which continues to expand.
Catch Anirban Datta’s film “Kalikshetra” at 4:30 pm on September 18 at the India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.