Kolkata Chromosome | Shamik Bag
When the roof of its main auditorium collapsed in April, Nandan, the showpiece state-owned art film multiplex and cultural complex in Kolkata, had just completed 25 years of existence. Nandan was among the first multiplexes in India when it was established in 1985 with two auditoriums; a third was added soon after. What added to its aura was the fact that it was conceived as a venue for non-commercial cinema and an extension of the city’s influential film society movement, set up and supported by the state government.
Termites, it was reported, were behind the collapse of thefalse ceiling that happened between film shows and left nobody hurt. The insects left behind a fragile wooden facade of the ceiling after years of slow-chewing the core—an act that was promptly linked to what many Nandan veterans feel is the gradual rot at the film complex.
The ceiling was restored ahead of the week-long Kolkata International Film Festival, which began on Thursday, says the complex’s chief executive officer, Jadav Mondal.
Art house: The Nandan complex being repaired before the ongoing film festival (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)
But this may not undo a bigger setback suffered by Nandan. In a move felt to be loaded with populist aspiration, West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee shifted the film festival’s inauguration from Nandan to the Netaji Indoor Stadium. Though Nandan is still the festival’s fulcrum, stripping it of the inauguration venue honour is a dent in its reputation.
Since its establishment, the complex had come to be recognized as part of the cerebral nucleus of the city. Almost as an ode to Nandan’s grip on the city’s imagination, an oft-repeated jibe would mention “Nandan and Chandan” (Chandan being the son of the former chief minister, the late Jyoti Basu) as the two main contributions of Basu to Kolkata.
Basu, however, is said to have been indifferent to the cause of cinema, even remarking during a film festival inauguration speech at Nandan: “Cinema finema ami bujhi na. Buddha bollo tai elam” (I don’t understand cinema finema. I came here on Buddha’s request). Former chief minister and cinema aficionado Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (or Buddha) was then the state information and culture minister.
Banerjee “never shared her predecessor’s (Bhattacharjee’s) fondness for Nandan”, an English national daily reported after she announced her decision to shift the inauguration venue. Nor is much known about her fondness for cinema.
Then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at last year’s festival.(Samir Jana/Hindustan Times)
In a city where culture and politics often share the same bed, Nandan had played a cushioning role for the former Leftist chief minister. Bhattacharjee was a regular at Nandan on weekday evenings when he would sit for private screenings—European arthouse, Hollywood war cinema and the film festival selection being his preferred choice—and meet civil society intellectuals over tea.
But the “rot” had already set in by then at Nandan, which was being run by the writ of Writers’ Building (the state secretariat), contends Premendra Mazumder, vice-president of the Federation of Film Societies of India. While Nandan was initially conceived as a platform for “healthy cinema”, even formulaic mainstream Bollywood and Bengali films were being released there in recent years, he adds. “Nandan had deviated a lot from the original vision. From being a space for non-mainstream cinema, Nandan had become just another multiplex. It couldn’t become the film academy as was originally contemplated.”
Among those who envisioned Nandan was Satyajit Ray. The late film-maker, who was a founder-member of the Calcutta Film Society and the Federation of Film Societies of India, also created the Nandan logo and played a role in the complex’s striking architectural design. Ray had a yardstick in Paris’s Cinémathèque Française, which not only has a voluminous collection of films but is a one-stop guide to cinema culture with screening halls, a library, reading rooms, conference halls, a thematic restaurant, museum and memorabilia, says Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, professor at Jadavpur University’s film studies department and a member of Nandan’s advisory board. “Importantly, before Nandan, there were few screening spaces for non-commercial cinema in Kolkata. Even for screenings organized by the film societies and clubs, stand-alone halls had to be hired,” he adds.
In the Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson’s biography of Ray, the predicament of film societies is explained well. The book mentions that as a member of the Calcutta Film Society, Ray felt they had acquired a bad reputation among professionals as “conceited highbrow theorists who do nothing but debunk the Indian cinema—which is of course far from the truth”. For the Calcutta Film Society, Ray made available all books and magazines, while the late critic, film-maker and co-founder Chidananda Dasgupta provided a room in his house for meetings, discussions and film viewings. But lacking a place suitable for screening films regularly, they took to doing the rounds of various rooms belonging to members, Robinson writes. “On one occasion, in the middle of our discussion,” Ray is quoted in In the Inner Eye, “our friend was summoned by the owner of the house and summarily told that he would not put up with film people spoiling the sanctity of his house.”
Years later, Nandan provided relief. Its three screens, combined seating capacity of around 1,400, and inexpensive tickets (rates continue to be in the Rs 40-70 range) was the best way to watch world and Indian regional parallel cinema. Ray, who had first met Renoir in Kolkata when the French film master had come down to shoot The River (1951) in Bengal, is believed to have watched Renoir’s A Day in the Country there. An equally noteworthy film society event was a scripting class taken by Ray based on the Italian film-maker Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic L’avventura—probably the only time Ray had done so, notes Mukhopadhyay.
The inauguration ceremony at the complex last year
Antonioni, too, was present at Nandan during a retrospective of his films in 1994. In The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the biographical sketch of the Italian director by Sam Rohdie, the author writes about the episode at Nandan: “The reception for Antonioni in Calcutta was extraordinary. Not only on the first night when he appeared, but every afternoon and every evening when his films were screened; the same warmth, the same crowds. Every seat was taken, all the aisles filled…. The atmosphere was chaotic, expectant, excited, with a real hunger.” Other acclaimed film-makers like Argentines Fernando Solanas and Eliseo Subiela and Pole Krzysztof Zanussi too have made multiple visits to Nandan during the Kolkata Film Festival, along with one-time visitors, film-makers such as Amos Gitai, Catherine Breillat, Gus Van Sant, Jafar Panahi, Miguel Littin and Tehmina Milani.
On non-festival days, Nandan was given up to its regular patrons: students at the well-stocked library, cinephiles, the city’s young cinema-literate intellectuals, wannabes and furtive lovers around the jheel, the British-built water tank meant for the fire-fighting department, over which the Nandan structure came up.
Pack-up: A worker at the end of the film festival in 2010
“Almost three generations have benefited from Nandan, which has had a specific clientele for good cinema. The complex nurtured the minds of many creative professionals and bred a certain open-mindedness about the arts. Many who have gone on to become established film-makers started their careers with the adda sessions at Nandan,” claims Anshu Sur, who headed the Nandan administration between 1992 and 2004. “I’m not sure if Nandan will play the same role any more,” he adds.
His pessimism stems from the fact that from 2007 Nandan saw “attitudinal changes” in its administration. During his tenure at Nandan, Sur says he made concessions for the screening of films like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, James Cameron’s Titanic, Mani Ratnam’s Roja and Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali—the reasons ranging from mass entertainment in the case of J urassic Park and Titanic, aesthetic and social relevance in the case of Roja, and refusal to screen by mainstream distributors in the case of Rudaali.
The glut of mainstream commercial films released in recent years in Nandan, Sur feels, “might be thought of as a revenue model but maybe doesn’t explore whether the original objective behind Nandan was getting hurt”. That the spaces vacated since the shifting of the film archive from Nandan to a better-equipped building at Chalachitra Shatabarsho Bhavan in Tollygunge, haven’t been utilized creatively also shows that enough thought has not gone into it, he feels. “But above all, Nandan needs to get rid of the commercial interest,” Sur says. His opinion is reflected by a senior member of the executive council of the Kolkata Film Festival: “The screening of Dabangg and Ray’s films cannot be part of the same policy. Nandan requires a definite cultural policy.”
Controversial films, especially ones that cast a critical eye at the policies of the erstwhile Left Front government, were also reportedly shunned at Nandan. After Nandan withheld its screening in 2005, a signature campaign was organized for Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Bengali film Herbert, which held no sympathy for the erstwhile political order of the state. “Nandan’s preview committee had objected to the film, saying it will send out wrong signals to audiences. But they didn’t explain their position in writing,” says Mukhopadhyay. After protests, it was eventually screened and ran for three weeks. The film has since gone on to achieve cult status, as much for its aesthetic merits.
One Day from a Hangman’s Life, a Drik India-produced documentary film by Joshy Joseph, also ran foul of the Nandan authorities, as did director Kaushik Ganguly’s critically acclaimed Arekti Premer Golpo, ostensibly for its blatant content on homosexuality. “Since all these films, including mine, had a censor certificate, it wasn’t Nandan’s role to play super censor,” says Moinak Biswas, associate professor at Jadavpur University’s film studies department, who co-directed Bengali film Sthaniyo Sangbad (2010), which takes a look at the intrigues between land sharks and local politics in a refugee colony. “There was favouritism in Nandan and the dominance of one party,” Biswas claims.
As in other spheres of life in Bengal, change has come to Nandan too. A new advisory board is in place, though there are murmurs of protest about it being packed with people from the commercial film industry. Meanwhile, the new CEO admits to not having formulated a plan for Nandan’s turnaround yet. The termites, for now, have been controlled.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org