For the first time in the history of Indian cinema in Kolkata, Nandan, the West Bengal Cultural Complex, has decided to screen award-winning documentary films at Nandan II commercially. This means that the entry to the screenings on week-ends – Saturdays and Sundays, will be based on tickets purchased across the counter. This is one of the biggest signs of encouragement to documentary filmmakers who earn fame abroad but the audience at home remains deprived of the opportunity of watching these films except at film festivals.
The government of West Bengal under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee is backing the movement through this programme. Yadab Mandal, CEO, Nandan and filmmaker Haranath Chakraborty, CEO Roop Kala Kendro confirmed the development. Sandip Ray, chairperson, Nandan has been a pioneer in the fulfillment of this long-cherished dream of all documentary filmmakers.
The word ‘documentary’ was used for the first time in 1914, in reference to In the Land of Head Hunters, a film about American Indians. But beyond the realistic was the magical. That same year, a 22-year-old film student from the US named Jessica Brothwick spent a year in the Balkans. “During the cholera rage in Adrianpole, everything connected with that terrible disease was painted black,” she wrote later. She continued: “While the scourge was at its height, I went down into the gypsy quarter to take a film. The people in this part of the city had never seen a camera before, and when they saw me pointing my black box at various objects they thought I was operating some wonderful new instrument for combating the disease which was destroying them. Quickly surrounding me, they came and knelt upon the ground, kissing my feet and clothing, and begging with dreadful pathos that I should cure them.”
Nandan II, a 200-seater auditorium was under-utilized except at festival time or through rentals given out to private functions. This is one way of productively utilizing the theatre for creative purposes to spread the message to that section of masses that is interested in watching documentary films but have no platform to watch them. The entry is uniformly pegged at Rs.30/ticket. The first two films screened at Nandan II on May 5 and 6 were Sourav Sarangi’s Bilal and Supriyo Sen’s Wagah that have won several awards. The package for this month contains Sen’s Way Back Home on May 12 and 13, Shyamal Karmakar’s I Am The Very Beautiful and Baba Black Beard on May 19 and 20 and Mrinmoy Nandi’s Khelna Bati on May 26 and 27.
Saurabh Sarangi’s Bilal, an 88-minute documentary film shot in one of the darkest slum pockets in Kolkata, has won awards at 14 film festivals in India and abroad. Strange but true, that this film was rejected by the selection panel for the Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary, Short and Animations films in February 2010. Kuldip Sinha, Director, Films Division and MIFF, could not give any reason for the exclusion of this film along with four other documentaries from Kolkata. Bilal is an India Finland co-production with support from Jan Vrijman Fund, Amsterdam, Official Development Aid from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland and in association with YLE, Finland.
Bilal is about a three-year-old boy born to blind parents but has normal vision himself. The 8x10 feet partitioned room he lives in, with parents Shamim and Jharna and little brother Hamza, is almost completely dark. Bilal lives in Taltala, a low-working-class neighbourhood in Kolkata where the rains flood the streets and children play around freely in the flooded bylanes; where the sun does not care to shed its brightness; where the yellow shop-sign of Bilal’s father Shamim’s once-upon-a-time STD booth stands as a silent signifier of somewhat better days. Where there is no milk left for tea because Bilal has finished it all. Hamza also has normal sight.
The film is visually dark because there is hardly any light and the filming team organizes some temporary lighting with the help of Shamim to get things going. It is dark because the audience is challenged to keep its eyes glued to the screen which often goes pitch black, or, is very dimly lit with the street lights streaming in, or sometimes brightened by the bright lights of the film’s lighting equipment. The only scenes that are bright are the ones shot on the streets outside. The film unfolds one of the darkest underbellies of Kolkata where humans are forced to eke out an apology of existence in sub-human conditions. Bilal stands out as a critique on the documentary form itself through the absence of the hierarchical relationship that evolves between the director and his subject. It is difficult to merge with one’s subject and yet retain one’s objectivity specially when there are such stark differences between the filmmaker and his subject.
Supriyo Sen’s Wagah is the story of an extraordinary event that takes place at the only border crossing between India and Pakistan. Every evening, thousands of cheering spectators gather to witness a patriotic parade for the ritual closing of the border. “I was fascinated by the way around 25,000 people from both sides of the Wagah border (that draws the metaphorical and political lines between India and Pakistan) in the north, gather in crowds just to watch the parade,” says Sen about his inspiration for the film. I discovered that kids, who live near the border, actually run an indigenous business in selling CDs and DVDs of films made on this parade and the watching crowds. My film is a point-of-view depiction by three children of this parade.”
This 12-minute documentary bagged the Berlin Today 2009 Award. It was produced by DETAiLFILM. The Berlinale Talent Campus announced the competition inviting filmmakers to make a 12-minute short film on the concept and the ideology of ‘border.’ Wagah was short listed among five finalists from 350 entries from 106 countries.