The Man Who Is Capturing a City’s Ghosts on Film
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this semi-highbrow director isn’t afraid of hamming it up.
By Sanjena Sathian
Anik Dutta’s house consists of two flats in an apartment building in chic South Kolkata. Inside are bright white marble floors and ethnic décor that could suit a Pottery Barn: Eastern Flair Edition. It’s across from a Chinese restaurant; next door sits an empty lot where one of the city’s beloved old intergenerational homes has just been torn down. Probably for a bougie café.
His house is not officially haunted. But metaphorically, it is.
Dutta, one of West Bengal’s most beloved modern filmmakers, is obsessed with Kolkata’s changing landscape, and his films address the city’s tidal shifts. His breakout, in fact, tells the story of a gaggle of ghosts on the verge of being evicted from their longtime classic Kolkata home, thanks to a promoter’s plan to build a “mini-Singapore”-esque mall. Ah, gentrification and its eerie discontents. Here in the state that birthed famed Satyajit Ray — the only Indian to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars — Dutta hopes to carry on the legacy of Bengali intellectual culture.
He insists on preserving the milieu of this state where literacy is a given and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore is as venerated as Gandhi.
A longtime adman turned feature-film writer and director, 55-year-old Dutta hit it big with his debut, Bhooter Bhabishyat (The Future of the Past), which was a surprise box-office hit and was adapted into Hindi. Following his second, Ashchorjyo Prodeep (Astonishing Lamp), he’s working on a third Bengali movie and his first original Hindi script.
While Indian regional cinema has never had a great track record at breaking big with mainstream Western audiences, some 300 million people worldwide speak Bengali — so there’s no shortage of potential viewers for Dutta’s work. “Bengalis almost feel they have a cultural duty to go and see my films,” he says. But Dutta isn’t quite targeting all those millions, says Ipsita Barat, head of the film studies department at St. Xavier’s College Kolkata, adding that Dutta makes movies appealing to an upper-class, well-educated audience while touching on political and historical themes.
Dutta himself embodies the Bengali tradition of adda, long conversations encompassing politics, literature and culture. Our chat spans two hours in his living room over chai with a venture onto his balcony while he takes a quick smoke. He divagates into long-spun stories about the history of his city, where he’s spent almost all his life. He recounts the violent Communist movements of the 1970s and the man he once spied in the park who’d lost a limb in the bombings. He recalls the weird wandering street poets and the leftist liberal arts colleges where “money was a dirty word.”
“There are lots of clichés about Calcutta,” he admits. Still, he insists on mourning — preserving — the milieu of this state where literacy is a given and India’s Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore is as venerated as Gandhi.
To an outsider, Dutta’s flicks might seem more bombastic than highbrow, blending Tagore-quoting goondas (thugs) and the occasional dance number — crucial in any Indian film. During Dutta’s time in advertising shows, he says, he learned, “You have to connect with the audience.” It helps that he’s tapping into a sentiment ubiquitous in upper-middle-class Kolkata these days. The city that was once the cosmopolitan capital of the British empire, playing host to global industry, to Germans, English, south Indians and more, is today hemorrhaging its citizens as they flee to Mumbai, Delhi or the west. Dutta’s narration is familiar: The Communists who reigned for 34 years had the right intentions — no one’s about to support the conservative party here — but they chased away industry, instead breeding stagnation and corruption.
It’s ironic, then, that Dutta still supports himself with advertising. “I’m not a Marxist or anything,” he says. He feels a tinge of guilt for being a cog in the corporate machine — but what’s an artist to do? Making regional cinema, he says, is practically a pro bono affair. Even his commercial work has an adda flair, though, says Arghyakamal Mitra, who’s edited both Dutta’s feature films and some ads: “He has a certain sense of narrative, the Satyajit Ray sense of narrative, which we all try to nurture and take forward in our own way.”
The son of a tea estate owner, Dutta was expected to enter business. He followed the pure science track in high school, despite his love of drawing and the arts, then enrolled in St. Xavier’s for a degree in economics — but found the act of drawing supply and demand curves dull. After years of the ad world and nearly abandoning his filmy dreams, Dutta broke through with Bhooter, which boasts a cast of characters including a former Muslim warrior, a Hindu displaced by partition and a modern millennial who sings rock songs reeking of political platitudes. It’s delightful, sometimes smart, sometimes silly. (The ghosts have a social-networking site called “Spookbook.”) Ashchorjyo tackled a modern-day Aladdin theme, to slightly less acclaim, while his next project, “in the garb of a thriller,” explores Kolkata’s recent history. His protagonist is a sci-fi writer and a fellow at Oxford teaching history who goes missing. Dun, dun, dun.
As for breaking out of Bengali? It’s not a top priority, though the Hindi films and even an English studio have come a-calling. The Bollywood adaptation of Bhooter flailed; Dutta says he wishes he didn’t have his name attached to it at all. But he says he doesn’t want to go Hindi-ward just for a bigger audience. He is, after all, a hometown boy to the core.