Three days after being diagnosed with fourth-stage lung cancer, Kolkata-based film-maker, poet and bohemian Goutam Sen was found pitching for a documentary film on a legendary sportsman who had recently survived a brush with death.

Senior officials of the commissioning body, Films Division (Kolkata), felt that in Sen’s proposal last year for a film on P.K. Banerjee—the Indian football icon who was left paralysed on the right side after suffering a debilitating cerebral stroke a few years back—there was a “convergence of the spirit for life". Not sure if the film-maker would be in the right state of mind to interpret issues of his own mortality as well as that of his subject, Films Division decided to commission two documentaries—Sen’s film on P.K. Banerjee, and another one on Sen filming Banerjee. It now plans to release the second film at select multiplexes in metros around September—Sen’s film remains unfinished. A Kolkata premiere is likely to be held earlier, in August, at the Nandan cinema.

Ruminations on the impermanence of life, the gumption of struggle and the certitude of death form the philosophical fibre of A Poet, A City & A Footballer, directed by Joshy Joseph, a four-time National Award-winning documentary film-maker and deputy director general in-charge, Films Division (Kolkata). In between the two characters of Banerjee and Sen, dealing with the deferment and the approach of death respectively, the film flows delicately between the zing of life of the footballer and the mellow melancholia of the poet-film-maker, awaiting death, but not before completing his film on Banerjee. Banerjee declared earlier by Fifa as the Indian footballer of the 20th century, is famously cited for a goal that helped India draw against powerhouse France at the Olympics in Rome in 1960, among other on-field feats, and the “vocal tonic"—the rousing pep talk that Banerjee employed as a coach to galvanize players as well as students in schools and colleges—that is indicative of the energy Sen sought in his film.

In between, Joseph, using an absorbing non-linear structure characteristic of his film-making, astutely weaves in the city. Kolkata, through Joseph’s eye, is a city where the Chinese community is hemmed in through diminishing numbers. Here, jaywalkers negotiate busy crossings impervious to life-threatening hazards, and banyan trees sprout and splinter through colonial edifices—Bengalis have good music sense, but no traffic sense, jokes Joseph, a Malayali film-maker settled in Kolkata, over the playing of Rabindrasangeet at traffic lights. Rot and revival, fame and fatalism are as much part of Kolkata’s narrative as the two human characters in A Poet, A City & A Footballer.

The 105-minute film engages viewers through a languidly desirous pace in sync with the solemn theme of mortality. The camera captures the poignancy of the poet’s long pauses while in his hospital bed, or when he clenches his fist tightly while describing Banerjee’s indomitable spirit to overcome his paralysis and life-odds. While in hospital, Banerjee had met a fan struggling against cancer. The fan, Sen mentions in the film, went on to live a few extra weeks. When given the news of Sen’s cancer, Banerjee had enthused the film-maker to fight on.

In June 2013, when the shoots for both films were on, Sen died. He was 49. His film on Banerjee is incomplete; morose as it seems, the curtain drops on Joseph’s film with Sen’s death. It is an issue that can open up Joseph’s film to criticism. Hasn’t the idea of A Poet, A City & A Footballer germinated from an impending, assured death? Would the film have been completed—or even ratified its premise of life, survival and death—without the bereavement?

To Joseph’s credit, the film-making happened with the full consent of Sen, its dying protagonist. The film portrays the Bengali poet and film-maker through a remarkably humane, soft, introspective light—a bohemian, given to drinking and smoking, whose evocative verses lace the film’s script and whose generosity of character allowed baul musicians and other visitors to stay over at his home for years. In his death, Sen takes a piece of Kolkata with him and viewers can only commiserate. “Sen has been my friend for many years," Joseph says. “I was deeply affected by his death."

Sen’s death scene is appropriately fleeting but leaves a deep imprint on the senses as an inconsolable bereaved member places Sen’s favourite packet of cigarettes on the lifeless body about to be committed to the funeral fire. In A Poet, A City & A Footballer, the camera had returned often to the river. Gazing at the water, Sen was asked: “How do you conclude the movie?" “You know," Sen had replied, “the flow of life goes on and on…"

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