A cinephile, a city and a filmmaker

Reading it is like riding a roller coaster filled with references to film, literature and politics.

WHAT IS Vidyarthy Chatterjee’s Calcutta Films: A Joshy Joseph Trilogy unique is his intense commitment and passion for art cinema, radical politics, intense relationships and envisioned life. Incidents and experiences of life refer to moments of cinema or awaken the political imagination. Cinema becomes a means of understanding life, people and politics and vice versa. Thus weaves this critical and autobiographical cinematographic account of a cinephile, political columnist and deeply in love with life. The book won the first (2021) Chidananda Dasgupta Memorial Award for Best Film Writing.

Calcutta Films: A Joshy Joseph Trilogy

By Vidyarthy Chatterjee

Brain books, 2022

Pages: 258

Price: Rs.425

The book is about the Calcutta trilogy of documentaries by Joshy Joseph: A day in the life of a hanged man; A poet, a city and a footballer; and Walk on water. The trilogy is placed in the context of his other documentary work. Beginning with a chapter titled “Why I Wrote This Book”, the book consists of three trilogy chapters sandwiched between the prologue, detailing Joseph’s “pan-Indian detour to get to the heart of his business – Calcutta “, and the epilogue, “establishing violence as a metaphor for Calcutta and an extended hinterland”.

Cryptic summation

The brief detour at the start delves into the inspiration of the book; the journalistic legacy of Chatterjee’s father, something akin to that of the legendary Gabriel Marquez; and the commonalities between the author and the filmmaker for whom Calcutta is a second home, and ends with a cryptic summary of the permanent themes of Joseph’s films. The author’s warm and long friendship with Joseph, their shared political leanings, their passion for cinema and their ambivalent romance with Calcutta are found throughout the book.

The prologue begins with fond memories of the late Razak Kottakkal, the Kerala photographic artist who handled the camera for some of Joseph’s films. The next section deals with Joseph’s documentary Make the face, which is about Tom Sharma, the gay makeup artist from Manipur. The film, as the book puts it, is a “compassionate and sometimes humorous portrait of a young man who revels in public affection by day but is hunted by demons with a name once he retreats into its unlit or half-lit private spaces…”.

President Pranab Mukherjee presents the Special Jury Prize for the 62nd National Film (Non-Feature Films) to Joshy Joseph in May 2015.

President Pranab Mukherjee presents the Special Jury Prize for the 62nd National Film (Non-Feature Films) to Joshy Joseph in May 2015. | Photo credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

The next chapter, “Poet of Small-Town Dailiness,” focuses on the documentary about Nirad Mahapatra ( Quietly in Nirad), and it captures the spirit of the film and the filmmaker who is the subject. Chatterjee is unabashed about his open admiration for Mahapatra’s personal humility and aesthetic minimalism: “In terms of appearance, dress and demeanor, he was the antithesis of many of today’s public intellectuals. . Nothing in him was intended for popular consumption. It was ideas, and ideas alone, that populated the sacred space between his ears…” Chatterjee’s eclectic dwells at length on Mahapatra’s ideas about Indian cinema and aesthetics. Here’s an interesting observation from Mahapatra on the lack of close-ups in his films: “…one of the ways you can ask the audience to come closer is to keep them at a distance.”

After a small chapter comparing two clergymen – Bishop Paulose Mar Paulose of Kerala and Pope Francis – the narrative moves on to a brief critique of Joseph’s documentary Language treewhich Chatterjee regards as “a document of socio-cultural historiography with a political connotation, the seriousness of which one would ignore at one’s peril”.

About an executioner

Nata Mallick exhibits a hanging knot made with a towel, in her Calcutta residence in 2004. The documentary

Nata Mallick displays a hanging knot made with a towel, at her Calcutta residence in 2004. The documentary ‘A Day in the Life of a Hanged Man’ is about Mallick and the events surrounding the last execution he carried out, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee. | Photo credit: DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY

The documentary chapter A day in the life of a hanged man is about executioner Nata Mallick and the events surrounding his last execution, that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee. The analysis of the film includes the process of its realization, the socio-political 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 questions surrounding capital punishment, the media reports that fueled a public frenzy, and the responses of intellectuals to the ‘incident.

Chatterjee considers the executioner a relative of Chilean director Miguel Littin’s “jackal”. Nahueltoro’s Jackal.

The author presents the next documentary, A poet, a city and a footballer, poetically: “The film is about juxtapositions, like night and day, abundant life and impending death, energy amidst decay and silence that cries out to be heard. And this is how the chapter ends: “The poet dies, poetry does not die; 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 atmosphere evoked, the metaphors employed, the various elements brought are also essential to the way in which the author experiences the film and describes it.

The analysis of the third film, Walk on water, begins with a long reflection on water, as element, motif, metaphor and force, something at the heart of the poetics and politics of Joseph’s work, with its countless “invocations of water, fluids, liquids, everything that flows, refuses to stay in one place, springs up, renews; a mobile feast for the eyes and the ears, a balm in the throat, a relief in the body”.

The obsession with cinema

The film is autobiographical in many ways: it is about the filmmaker’s obsession with cinema and his wife’s aversion to it; she thinks it’s 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 lies or amalgams of the two in the stories told by the actors on the screen, or even on inanimate presences like steel and cement structures. , are creatively measured in language that is more playful than realistic.”

The long epilogue is on the theme of violence: implicit and explicit, personal and social, experienced and performed. Continuing the theme of Joseph’s films, the author weaves into the argument critical and poignant observations about the city of Calcutta, the legacies of left-wing politics, and the imagination and its struggles through the decades.

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

Reading the book is akin to riding a roller coaster filled with references to movies, literature, and politics that intertwine and go away. References to films from around the world, quotes from various authors, political events, personal anecdotes and memories are integrated perfectly into the narrative. The text is abundantly interspersed with photographs, still images, extracts from news and images of personalities; the visual layout goes well with the writing style.

As the author says, “This book is not for connoisseurs, experts, Ustads and the experts; it’s not for those who don’t have questions because they already have all the answers; it is certainly not for those who do not know how to wonder, because they have never wandered … this book, for what it is worth, is for those who are not afraid to walk the path alone difficult if no one else is to be had for the business.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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