Immigrant Bengalis

There are two kinds of Bengali boys who aspire to make movies. The first kind fails in the matriculation examinations. What follows is a panicked trip towards Bombay, his interception by an uncle at Kalyan or Thane and an immediate return to Howrah Station. I do not want to recount the reception he is accorded at home. A year of parental attention with regular coaching classes follow. He clears the matriculation examination in his second attempt in the second division. The other kind of boys who aspire to make movies are the ones who anticipate failing in the same examinations. There is generally a young girl involved in this fantasy and the scenario varies somewhat but with the same results. Upon returning to Calcutta, the girl is relocated to her uncle’s house in Konnagar or Sheoraphuli and married off within a couple of months. The fallout from the incident gives rich material for the neighborhood ‘adda’ (gossip) for weeks.  I did not have the honor of being included in either category of boys. My life in media was initiated by a far different crisis and at a much earlier age.

It was not unusual for me to take naps in the afternoons in those days, more so since it was the middle of summer. When I woke up, I saw my sister, who is a decade older than I, braiding her hair by the mirror and adding red ribbons at the ends. This kind of self- adornment on her part only pointed in one direction. We would be going to a wedding that evening, a prospect I looked forward to with enthusiasm.

Sarju, our maid seemed in no hurry to wash my hands and feet with Lifebuoy soap. Not sensing any concerns in my direction, I let it be known that I was agreeable to having my hands, feet and face washed by Sarju. An air of hesitation spread through the room as I made my pronouncement. Everybody stopped what he or she was doing and surrounded my bed. In her hushed but caring voice, my mother told me, “We are going to a bio-scope. They do not allow children into the hall.”

The laws of an ordered universe crumbled in a flash before my very eyes. I had never been left behind at home. In my utter dismay I reasoned, I had not heard of such a place or heard a decree that I could not attend. “No, I will go,” I declared with a firm resolve.

Unfazed by my challenge, Didi (older sister) replied coolly, “All right! Come along.. but you cannot cry. The hall is pitch dark inside.”

The prospect of sitting in a dark room with the stories of Akanoray (rakhasa) fresh in my memory was not particularly inviting. “How dark is it?” I asked with real concern.

“Dark enough where you cannot see the person sitting next to you,” responded Didi. “The bioscope is three hours long.”

Three hours seemed a lifetime to be sitting in a dark room. I did not want to be labeled a coward so I made the choice to stay behind.  I shuffled about the house through the evening, wondering why my parents, brothers and sister would subject themselves to sitting for three hours in a darkened room.

Over the next few days the secret of their auspicious family trip was revealed to me. I learnt that the writer of my book, ‘Abol Tabol’, (non-sense rhymes) Sri Sukumar Roy, had a son, Satyajit. In fact, it is his son that had made the bioscope. In the days that followed, the merits of the bioscope were discussed frequently over dinner. Didi told me, there was a boy in the bioscope called Apu and he was my age. This information further aggravated me. If Apu could be in the bioscope, why could I not be there to see him, I reasoned.

That winter, the OK Circus pitched their modest tent on a plot of land, adjacent to our house. We attended their shows almost every evening. I was quite taken with the pranks of the ‘jokers’ but it was the girl standing on the bare horseback as the animal galloped around the ring that took my breath away. I would often ask my mother, was the OK Circus like the bioscope they had seen earlier?

My Mejda, (older brother) who knew almost everything under the sun revealed the hidden secrets of the circus to me. I learnt from him how to ‘false kick’ like the clowns, making a great show and noise without hurting the recipient of the blows. During a trip to the ‘jatra’, Mejda revealed to me that when Laxman cut off Supornakha’s nose, it was not real blood that flowed from her face; it was red paint, or ‘aalta’. When Jotayu fell on the stage he was not really hurt as there was a soft mattress on the floor we could not see. Knowing that the circus and theater were only ‘make believe’, did not diminish their attraction for me. While each new form of entertainment drew me in further, I remained curious and asked, “Is this bio-scope?”

Several years went by and finally it happened without warning. Our old cook, who we called Sona, told my mother, “Boudi, (bhabi) I am taking the boys to the bioscope.”

I sprang into action. By this time I had learnt to wash my hands and face by myself. As we left the house, Sona sighed, “It is a touching story of how two poor boys did well in life. And to think, one of them was blind and the other boy lost his leg in an accident.”

I sat with baited breath in the air-conditioned comfort of ‘Prachi’ Cinema. After the third bell, the room darkened momentarily and then the screen lit up. I could not believe my eyes! There were sparkling commercials of Sunlight Soap and Tinopal Indigo Powder. The Tom and Jerry cartoons made me laugh and I nearly split my sides. We were all in a somber mood during the Indian News Reviews. Soon our mood was revived by the Binaca Toothpaste smiles. Then there was a hush of expectation as the Government Censor Certificate was projected and the feature film, ‘Lalu/ Bhulu’ followed. 

True to what Sona had predicted, Lalu and Bhulu sang, played the mouth organ and stole our hearts. No, they were not the boys who anticipated failing in the matriculation. Bhulu sang and begged in the streets to collect the fees needed to be paid for Lalu to sit in the matriculation examinations. At one point during the film, Lalu’s mother received some tragic news in a telegram and collapsed to the floor. Vigilant as ever, I remembered the lessons Mejda had taught me. I knew there must have been a mattress on the floor where she fell. Soon, Lalu was scouring the streets of Calcutta, playing the mouth organ (harmonica) and looking for his lost friend. This too seemed a little fake as I wondered how the streets of Calcutta were suddenly appearing on the stage.

I was happy when the duo, Lalu and Bhulu eventually met and celebrated their victory.  Lalu had secured ‘first place’ in the matriculation examinations. I clapped as the movie came to an end. As we rose to leave the theater, filing out quietly, I had an uneasy feeling I could not explain at that moment.

When we came out of the theater, I found myself back in the same summer afternoon, making my way through the crowds of Moulali. I wondered, how I had traveled through the adventures with Lalu and Bhulu that took place over several months and returned to the same afternoon I had entered Prachi Cinema with Sona. Questions about the events of the afternoon kept surging though my mind.

I grew obsessed with Lalu and Bhulu, muttering their lines and singing their songs at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The magic of bioscope was all pervading. I imagined stories in my head with my own plots and locations, acting them out on the terrace of our house. I traveled throughout India in my bioscopes. Summer turned to the monsoons and the flowers of winter blossomed in my films. Didi could not take my ‘acting out’ any longer. “What has happened to you lately?” she asked. 

I took on the challenge without flinching. “Who makes bioscopes, Didi?” I asked seriously.

A young Bengali teen who had just started reading romance novels and going to the movies with her friends, Didi answered without a hitch, “Uttam Kumar makes movies.”

“I will grow up to be Uttam Kumar,” I announced triumphantly to Didi.

I was absorbed with the possibility of making bioscopes. By my late teens, I was a fixed item on Sunday afternoons at Elite, Metro and Lighthouse cinemas. Almost two decades later, reading my first book on film theory, Gerald Mast made it clear to me in his famous book, “Film is the art of spatial and temporal compression.” The power of the narrative film lay in the possibility that in ninety to a hundred minutes, a film could take a viewer on a journey of great distances, over an extended period of time. In a flash, I recalled that eerie feeling I had had, walking out of Prachi Theater on a summer afternoon in Calcutta. I had encountered the first theoretical problem in the making of films.

The initial phenomenon of early film was the mere recording of motion. Before the turn of the century, the Lumier Brothers in Paris had recorded the movement of a train in motion. When the sequence was projected in a theater, a near stampede ensued. The audience tried to get out of the way of the approaching train. A few pioneers followed. Rescued by Rover, produced in 1905 by Cecil Milton Hepworth told a story told through a series of related shots, the same kind that are used in narrative films, even today. The genius lay with W D Griffith who understood the spatial and temporal nature of the medium and created the masterpiece, ‘Birth of A Nation’. There was no looking back from there. The film theory that was understood in the early years of the 20th century has stood the test of time.

I wish I could have written, ‘I met Satyajit Ray and he invited me to be an assistant of sorts’, but he didn’t. I never met the great man. Neither could my studies in film persuade me to take a swing towards Hollywood. I had come to the United States in the middle of the Vietnam War. No sooner had one crisis ended another crisis loomed larger in the name of ‘Watergate’. As young men and women, we were moved to seek the political truth that guided our national destiny. I followed in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein, the journalists who had exposed the misdeeds of the Nixon White House and brought a dishonest administration to its end. I joined the media world as a television news photographer.

Being a news photographer gave me a ringside seat to the world as it turned. Traveling across the major cities of the Western world, I photographed the powerful from close quarters as they dispensed their vision to make the world as they felt it needed to be. The ‘system’ operated on a scale that I had not even imagined possible. My position also allowed me a glimpse of how the rich, beautiful and the famous lived their personal lives. I flew in private jets, ate caviar and sipped champagne at their tables. At short notice, I turned around and went out to take pictures of war, floods and famines. 

There was nothing in my naive Bengali background to prepare me to comprehend and process the vast inequities between the lives of the haves and have-nots I met along the way. I matured somewhat as a person as shooting for ’60 Minutes’ at CBS involved me in exposing several behind the scene scams. When I went ‘on the road with Charles Kuralt’, I was touched by stories of home grown goodness among ordinary people, the unsung heroes of rural America. 

Over forty years it has always been a struggle to bring the truth of what I saw and felt to the viewers and readers at home. Forty years has also been a long time to reflect on my life’s work. The truth be known, I know our generation could have done better. I believe Lalu and Bhulu, in the telling of a romantic tale, projected an aspiration that made sense to the millions of poor and destitute people of Bengal. Working in the Western media, I feel we were full of sound and fury but we had signified very little or nothing at all.

It was a colorful life and its telling can make for insightful reading. In the next few installments, I hope I will be able to share some of those stories and reflections with the readers of this column.

(Posted October 23, 2013) 

Comments from PKC on Oct 25, 2013: "Liked all the articles, but mostly Asit Ray's and Shyamal Sarkar's. Sumit Roy reviewed and critiqued the Toronto Banga Sammelan well. Satya Jeet's writing is also good." 

Comments from KB on Nov 11, 2013: "Interesting article -- I had a trip down memory lane."

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I Want to be Uttam Kumar
Sketches from "My Life in the Media" #1

Satya Jeet