Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Last Lear: Some thoughts

It was a rather intriguing experience I must say ... watching Kolkata and what I had always known to be a very typical representation of quality Bangla theatre at its peak - at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. Rituparno Ghosh's Last Lear, inspired by Utpal Datta's Ajker Shahjahan had its world premier at the Toronto International Flim Fest last week. Naturally, the media has already discussed this ad nauseum, focusing on the "red carpet history", the presence of the crew, including Ghosh and Bachchan, but surprisingly little about the substance. About the latter, two things struck me in particular. For one, Ghosh provides an excellent critique of contemporary cinema and film-making and how it does not hesitate to demean other art forms as it considers necessary for asserting its own superiority. In the film, this ruthless self-referential, smug and insensitive character of contemporary 'young' cinema is represented through the director Siddharth (Arjun Rampal). But Siddharth does not only represent this ethos of contemporary cinema, but also, in my opinion, a certain faction of youth who possess the very same qualities.

I do not with to generalize, but the reckless, patronizing self-assuredness with which some of our younger generation treat the older generation (such as us) is something that may well resonate with many of us. Sometimes I envy them for their confidence. But more often, I am angered by their lack of interest in the past. The young, debonair, confident and yet somewhere violently confused director Siddharth wishes to use a veteran stage actor to essay his script; and yet has little patience, knowledge or sensitivity about the art form in which the actor excelled, much less about Shakespeare who the actor is obsessed with. This relationship between the young director and the veteran actor (Rampal and Bachchan) conveyed to me simultaneously the nature of the generational conflicts we see today as well as the superiority with which one artistic community views another.

The second feat that Ghosh has achieved is in presenting Kolkata - with all its specificities that one would not know if one has not lived there - in a truly global sense. How did he achieve that? As a hopelessly nostalgic Bengali, I think he focused on the attributes that manifests Kolkata's truly universal and cosmopolitan character: its love for the arts, for good theatre, off-beat relationships, conversations, the disconnect with materiality, the effortless evolution of friendships.. Perhaps we can now abandon the need to exoticize ourselves and celebrate the specificity of Kolkata, Bengal, or whoever, whatever we are without being ghettoized, or being limited to just that.

Finally, it brought back, inevitably perhaps, the memories of watching the great maestros such as Shombhu Mitra and Utpal Datta on stage.


Anirban Chakravarty said...

Well, I have not seen "Last Lear", and hence am not qualified to comment on the movie.

But I'll leave only a dissenting comment, on your second observation regarding Kolkata's character. What you state about Kolkata's character is not what you get nowadays.... you might get some last remaining traces but that's about it. With the huge scale of migration out of the city, every year of the children of families which cherished the spirit you are talking about(and you are I guess one of them), Calcutta is a different city from what you like to think. The supply lines are thinning.....and the remaining few cosmopolitan and universal spirited Bengalis are like the Last of the Mohicans. Don't hate me for that, for that is the truth. Rather, shed tears for the death of a romance called Calcutta!

Pauline said...

Wonderful read.. How about a longer and more detailed review?

Prasunjit said...

Being a resident Calcuttan (not Kolkatan at all) I would completely agree with your observation. The Kolkata we pine for is simly not there and whatever remains is mostly the celluloid depiction of it.

Somewhere in the last twenty years the city and its people have being through the cycle of wish, hope, fear and hope again but the warmth is totlly absent. The ghetto that all of us have created around us is shrinking in size. So much so that now it hardly includes a few very near and dear ones and excludes everyone else. The absence of a civil society with its pillars-- of the rule of law, civility, education ( or at least awareness)has evaporated or is doing so at a fast clip. Soon, I fear some major faultlines would show to impart unspeakable damage to this remaining fabric called Calcutta.

However till it happens, we can take the the comfort of the refuge of our trusted circle and the warmth that a good whiskey provides.

Debjani, this is so great.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Is it a good film or not? I find the majority of his work too self-conscious, even precious. Which is not to say he's always bad, but seems a giant because he walks with pygmies.

As for Calcutta, I have a number of friends in their early 20s and if they are any indication, the city is alive and well. I can't agree entirely about the 'exodus'. Many of my friends have come back over the last 5 years. None of us would want to live anywhere else.


Ananya Mukherjee Reed said...

Dear JAP,

Yes, a good film, with some very passionate renditions. However, in the end, it remains (perhaps ironically) a film like the film in the film - primarily a reflection of the fantasies of the director who refuses to see anything else..

Certainly recommended for watching.

As to Kolkata, it lives .. and like all human institutions to a certain extent it is what one perceives it to be. Ghosh's own perception which he renders beautifully in the film is one I am easily able to share.

Anirban Chakravarty said...

Dear Prufrock and Ananya,
I will not argue further on the exodus part, since I don't have exact statistics, of course, none of you have as well. Maybe a few have come back to Calcutta, but a large majority are leaving/ have left the city to other countries or to other prosperous cities of India. When I look at my batch mates, seniors, juniors, family members, that is what I see. Communities like the Chinese, Anglo Indians, Jews and Armenians, which gave Calcutta its cosmopolitan culture are virtually extinct. These are well documented facts. And speaking of Bengalis, even if we look at the profile of the members of the Arguing India blog, 4 out of the 5 members (80%)are ex Calcuttans who dont stay in Calcutta any more.
Unfortunately, that is the reality. The times, they are a changing!, let us accept it and move on. And on the way, let us pause and shed a few tears for an era gone by.

ishani said...

@Anirban - interesting study on the demographics of this bloNg (Bloggers of Bong origin). WOuld like to point out that Roma actually could be classified as a returning non-resident Calcuttan - who is back in Kolkata after various exciting stints at various places around the world!

Anirban Chakravarty said...

Dear Ishani,
Re read my submission ---- I had written that "4 out of the 5 members (80%)are ex Calcuttans who dont stay in Calcutta any more". I have counted Roma Bhattacharjea as the 1 person out of the 5 who maybe still in Calcutta.

ishani said...

So, at least one person has returned! Just because she's the minority doesn't mean that the phenomenon of returning to Kolkata is not there...

Anirban Chakravarty said...

I am clearly getting the feeling that you do not read. Or maybe, you choose not to read. "Maybe a few have come back to Calcutta, but a large majority are leaving/ have left the city to other countries or to other prosperous cities of India. When I look at my batch mates, seniors, juniors, family members, that is what I see. Communities like the Chinese, Anglo Indians, Jews and Armenians, which gave Calcutta its cosmopolitan culture are virtually extinct. These are well documented facts." I had missed out on the disappearing of the Parsees and the south Indians in my last message. Only, seeing is believeing.
What I have written is clear and lucid. Read and reread what others have written, before posting your comments plz.

ishani said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debjani said...

Prasunjit, the bit about hope and fear is wonderful and I can really identify with it, particularly when I was living in Kolkata in 2004-5. But I would still say, that the Calcuttan spirit is still existent in 'adda.' Even now the local panwallah's levels of awareness in Kolkata impresses me. Or the parking attendant outside Academy who recommended a play to me because it had 'new themes.'I also tend to agree with Prufrock that my friends in their 20s give me much to hope for--they keep alive the spirit and fabric of the Calcuttan. And then there are people like you and Anirban and JAP, those who have chosen to stay or return, who can always revise and rekindle the Calcuttan spirit --so waht if it is not the Calcutta of our nostalgia, it is still a live and vibrant and different place.

ishani said...

Feeling connected to one's roots and culture for me are all very positive things. Personally I feel that Kolkata will continue to nurture me all my life. However, I also feel that Kolkata is not exactly one solid inanimate city that I feel connected to - there are multiple people, places, objects that form the background for this nostalgia - for example the JU campus of my past in autumn or the sights and smells of Park Street, the movie theatres and so much more. Besides, I also feel that getting sentimental about the city and turning a blind eye to its downside will not get us anywhere - and will never help us in contributing towards any kind of regeneration process.Why is it almost like the last metro today? Why do various industry studies etc often even forget that Kolkata is one of the four metros...they put Bangalore and even Hyderabad ahead of Kolkata. So should we feel pride and nostalgia for our great educational institutions that are degenerating or the industries that are dying out. I agree that industrialists such as Harsh Neotia deserve praise for not moving out of Bengal - but can only real estate or even for that matter IT bring back the glory that we have lost because of government apathy? Or should we cheer when an NRI who has invested millions of dollars in setting up shop at Salt Lake and employing 100s of people, feels so frustrated with Bangla Bandhs that he wants to pack up and leave? Do any of you seriously feel that there's a huge resurgence happening to Kolkata & Bengal on any front? Do let me know, that would make me really happy! For me it's a city which is polluted and water logged with horrible infrastructure - where many of our aged family members have to suffer in silence. I would love to think otherwise, but there's the harsh reality that I have learnt to personally learnt to live with.

Anonymous said...

Dear Prasunjit,
Thanks for mentioning "celluloid fiction".. that is what this post was about. Fiction does not have to mimic reality, although it can. The kind of appreciation one develops for a place after leaving it behind is also a part of our global reality - and as far as I understand from the review - is something the film has managed to appeal to. BTW Ananya, thanks for the review, am now very keen to see the film. I have come back to this city after 10 years of "probash", both in India and abroad. Hence the post.