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Book Review

A cinephile, a city, and a film-maker

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

A cinephile, a city, and a film-maker

Reading it is akin to riding on a roller coaster replete with references to films, literature, and politics.

WHAT makes Vidyarthy Chatterjee’s  Calcutta Films: A Joshy Joseph Trilogy unique is its intense engagement with and passion for art cinema, radical politics, intense relationships, and contemplated life. Incidents and experiences in life resonate back to movie moments or arouse political imagination. Cinema becomes a means to understand life, people, and politics and vice versa. This film-critical and autobiographical narrative of a cinephile, political chronicler, and a man deeply in love with life is woven thus. The book won the first (2021) Chidananda Dasgupta Memorial Award for the Best Writing on Cinema.

Calcutta Films: A Joshy Joseph Trilogy
By Vidyarthy Chatterjee
Cerebrum Books, 2022
Pages: 258
Price: Rs.425

The book is about Joshy Joseph’s Calcutta trilogy of documentaries:  One Day from a Hangman’s Life; A Poet, A City and A Footballer; and  Walking over Water. The trilogy is placed in the context of his other documentary works. Beginning with a chapter titled “Why I wrote this book”, the book consists of three chapters on the trilogy sandwiched between the prologue, detailing Joseph’s “pan-Indian detour to arrive at the heart of his matter – Calcutta”, and the epilogue, “by way of establishing violence as a metaphor for Calcutta & an extended hinterland”.  

Cryptic summation

The brief detour at the beginning delves into the inspiration for the book; the journalistic legacy of Chatterjee’s father, something akin to that of the legendary Gabriel Marquez; and the commonality between the author and the film-maker for both of whom Calcutta is a second home, and ends with a cryptic summation of the abiding themes in Joseph’s films. The author’s warm and long friendship with Joseph, their shared political leanings, passion for cinema, and ambivalent romance with Calcutta—all recur throughout the book. 

The prologue begins with fond memories of the late Razak Kottakkal, the photo-artist from Kerala who wielded the camera for some of Joseph’s films. The next section deals with Joseph’s documentary Making The Face, which is about Tom Sharma, the gay make-up artist from Manipur. The film, as the book says, is a “compassionate and occasionally humorous portrait of a young man who revels in public affection by day but is hounded by demons with a name once he withdraws into his unlit or half-lit private spaces ...”.

President Pranab Mukherjee presenting the 62nd National Film special jury award (Non-Feature Films) to Joshy Joseph in May 2015.
President Pranab Mukherjee presenting the 62nd National Film special jury award (Non-Feature Films) to Joshy Joseph in May 2015. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

The next chapter, “Poet of Small-Town Dailiness”, is on the documentary on Nirad Mahapatra ( With Quietude To Nirad), and it aptly captures the spirit of the film and the film-maker who is its subject. Chatterjee is unabashed about his open admiration for Mahapatra’s personal humility and aesthetic minimalism: “In looks, dress and deportment, he was the antithesis of many a present-day public intellectual. Nothing about him was for popular consumption. It was ideas, and ideas alone, that populated the sacred space between his ears....” The eclectic in Chatterjee dwells at length upon Mahapatra’s insights on Indian cinema and aesthetics. Here is an interesting observation by Mahapatra about the lack of close-ups in his films: “... one of the ways in which you can ask the audience to come closer is by keeping them at a distance.”

After a small chapter comparing two churchmen—Bishop Paulose Mar Paulose from Kerala and Pope Francis—the narrative moves to a brief review of Joseph’s documentary  Tree of Tongues, which Chatterjee considers “a document of socio-cultural historiography with political undertones, the seriousness of which one would ignore at one’s own peril”.

About a hangman

Nata Mallick displays a hanging knot made with a towel, at his residence in Kolkata in 2004. The documentary “One Day from a Hangman’s Life” is about Mallick and the events surrounding the last execution he carried out, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee.
Nata Mallick displays a hanging knot made with a towel, at his residence in Kolkata in 2004. The documentary “One Day from a Hangman’s Life” is about Mallick and the events surrounding the last execution he carried out, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee. | Photo Credit: DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY

The chapter on the documentary  One Day from a Hangman’s Life is about the hangman Nata Mallick and the events surrounding the last execution he carried out, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee. The analysis of the film includes the process of its making, the sociopolitical context, and the characters. Calling the film a morality play, the author takes us through historical accounts, a political analysis of the situation, the ethical issues surrounding capital punishment, the media reports that fuelled a public frenzy, and the responses of intellectuals to the incident.

Chatterjee regards the hangman as a kinsman of the “jackal” in the Chilean director Miguel Littin’s The Jackal of Nahueltoro.  

The author introduces the next documentary,  A Poet, A City and A Footballer, in a poetic manner: “The film is about juxtapositions, like night and day, abundant life and impending death, energy amidst decay, and silence that shouts to be heard.” And this is how the chapter ends: “The poet dies, poetry does not; the city falters, but does not fail; the footballer limps but is far from having lost the game of life. Death is the end, but far more intriguing and inspiring is what precedes it.” The language used, the mood evoked, the metaphors employed, the diverse elements brought in—all are also elemental to the author’s way of experiencing the film and describing it.

The analysis of the third film,  Walking over Water, begins with a long rumination upon water, as an element, a motif, a metaphor, and a force, something at the core of the poetics and politics of Joseph’s oeuvre, with its umpteen “invocations of water, fluids, liquids, anything that flows, refuses to stay put in one place, gushing, refurbishing; a movable feast to the eyes and the ears, a salve down the throat, a relief within the body”.

Cinema obsession

The film is autobiographical in many ways: it is about film-maker’s obsession with cinema and his wife’s abhorrence for it; she thinks it is a curse on humanity. In Chatterjee’s words, this magical and lively film about human relationships, spaces, and structures probes “the limits of truth or untruth or amalgams of the two in the stories narrated by the players on view, or even about inanimate presences like steel and cement structures, are creatively measured in a language more impish than realistic”.

The long epilogue is on the theme of violence: implicit and explicit, personal and social, experienced and executed. Pursuing the theme in Joseph’s films, the author weaves into the argument critical and poignant observations about the city of Calcutta, the legacies of Left politics, and imagination and its predicaments through the decades.

“The book won the first (2021) Chidananda Dasgupta Memorial Award for the Best Writing on Cinema.”

Reading the book is akin to riding on a roller coaster replete with references to films, literature, and politics all flowing into and out of each other. References to films from across the world, quotes from diverse authors, political events, personal anecdotes, and memories all flow seamlessly into the narrative. The text is liberally interspersed with photographs, stills, news clips, and pictures of personalities; the visual layout goes well with the writing style. 

As the author says: “This book is not for the know-alls, the experts, the  ustads and the  pundits; it is not for those who have no questions because they already have all the answers; it is certainly not for those who know not how to wonder, for they have never wandered ... this book, for what it is worth, is for those who are unafraid of walking the difficult path alone if no one else is to be had for company.”