ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY in conversation with filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee, who talks about travel, films and his relationship with the cities he has shot in – Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai
From Titli to Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky… why are so many of your films set in Delhi?Apart from the fact that I grew up in Delhi and know it well, what fascinates me is that it’s the city where the faultlines of India are exposed most. Where absolute feudalism conflicts with absolute consumerism. They are two completely incompatible ideas belonging to two different periods of the planet’s history coexisting cheek by jowl. The compromises they make with each other and the conflicts that erupt are fascinating to watch in Delhi. Patriarchy and consumerism, feudalism and consumerism… it’s most apparent in Delhi.
Having grown up in a DDA flat, you also wanted to represent the Delhi that you know, not what Mumbai feels about Delhi…
Yeah. Now it’s done enough. Because till a decade ago, when Khosla Ka Ghosla was released, everybody associated Delhi with India Gate or Qutub Minar or such historical staples. Outside of Garam Hawa and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, nobody had gotten into the belly of Delhi. There might be some films that I’m missing, but nobody got into the actual bloodstream of Delhi. But since I was from Delhi, I was not even conscious of [the stereotypes]. And Kanu (Behl; director—Titli) is also from Delhi though he’s about eight years younger, but from roughly the same background. Extremely middle-class. Neither upper nor lower, but absolutely, firmly in the middle of the middle class…
Places seem to influence you and your films quite significantly. What kind of memories do you have of Delhi?
I have no nostalgia for Delhi and I have nothing I hold onto. I only go to Delhi because my parents are there. I am not a very nostalgic person. After Khosla Ka Ghosla, I made Oye Lucky… which was in Delhi. But LSD could have been in any small town in north India where Hindi was spoken and Bollywood was understood. Shanghai was solely set in Mumbai, Bombay Talkies was also set here. Visually, Shanghai came from just outside of the room where I’m sitting right now, in Parel, Mumbai.
You can see Shanghai right from where I am in my 20th floor apartment. Bombay Talkies was not only Mumbai… it was shot in a chawl within walking distance from my office in Lalbaug. And Detective Byomkesh Bakshy was treated as a fictitious world of old Calcutta that I visualised in my head as I read those books. So I’ve moved on… I go back to Delhi if a story goes to Delhi. I really don’t have any nostalgia for it anymore.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy draws a lot from the Kolkata that you read about in Satyajit Ray’s Feluda and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh series in your adolescent years. How did you recreate old Calcutta?
We did everything we could. Trams rides, heritage walks, going through a lot of historical records and black and white photographs, meeting different kinds of people to researching street sounds–from sounds of the industry to hawker’s cries. A very handy manual was Radha Prasad Gupta’s Kolkatar Feriwalar Dak (O Raster Awaz) on the calls of bazaar sellers, which we used to create a soundscape for Calcutta in the ’40s.
What was it like going to Calcutta? Was the city different from how you imagined it to be?
It kept evolving. The thing is, you start from the flash of a memory which is childhood. Then you go from there and start building on the soundscapes. As you start building on the soundscapes, your memory becomes less constructive and your thinking of the scenes becomes more constructive. My memories of these kind of stories was: “It was a dark alley and the last ‘red turban’—a code word for thieves—had walked his tired round around the corner, and now there was just the gas lamp in the fog of Calcutta that was witness to this macabre event I am about to recount…” That’s how all these pulp stories started. Where the headlights of a car were compared to the eyes of a hungry predator in the jungle… You start from the memory and take off from there.
If cities were characters, what would Delhi be?
Delhi is not any one thing. It is two enemies forced into friendship.
Mumbai, I think, is an accident of commerce. If you read the history of the city, it languished as a commercial centre for 100 years. A death zone of malaria and pestilence… nothing happened. It’s only after Surat had its downfall that Bombay came up, mainly through trade. First, ship-building, then cotton. So it’s an accident of commerce. Of course, that doesn’t demean Mumbai in any way.
Across the world, these kind of societies are usually independent—Hong Kong, Mumbai, New York—they are entities to themselves and often they can be quite different from the rest of the nationalistic identity that they belong to. They haven’t come up because of the so-called nation state they belong to, but have come up because of some other reasons, which are totally different. And usually they are extremely cosmopolitan and mixed in terms of their population. So a number of conflicting cultures exist together for commerce.
That would also hold true for Kolkata, especially in the 1940s when there were American GIs stationed there, Chinese natives, a war going on…
It was, it was. It was a trade centre but what had happened was that Calcutta had a slightly different history. It was the first cultural centre that the British colonials founded. And as a result the influence on the development of the city was quite cultural. It was informed by the late 18th century British belief system – a hodge-podge of puritanism, egalitarianism, rational ideals, enlightenment, everything kind of rolled together into one strange kind of a character. And you can see it in the Bengali bhadralok.
It’s almost dying, the quintessential Bengali bhadralok would be in his late 80s today, the average middle-class bhadralok – anybody from Amartya Sen to my father—would belong to that. Amartya Sen is an intellectual because he’s an academic but the fact is that it is a continuation of a tradition from Jeremy Bentham, David Hair, Derozio, Thackeray, 19th century novelists to Tagore, the upheaval of the ’30s and ’40s and there it stops…
When did you start travelling? What has changed since then?
I started backpacking in the early ’90s. From the Jaisalmer and Goa that I have seen, we have a world of difference today. The slightly repulsive part of the Indian travel scene has come about in the last 5-6 years, where we’re seeing the bad Indian traveler who’ll come from the cities to a beach and not take off his trousers and sit cross-legged on the waves in his trunks. Or in a baniyan under a waterfall. It’s fairly elitist for us to say this. But from a tourism point of view, it will drive away the tourism dollars. It will drive away the Indian tourists who want to go there and peace out. I am finding less and less places in India to be peaceful. And the few peaceful places that I go to in India, I swear to god I will not reveal to anybody (laughs)! And I’m not alone. People who are looking for peace have now stopped recommending.
What your favourite places to travel? What other places in India inspire you, besides the places you’ve shot or lived in…
I won’t. I won’t tell you because then everyone will start coming there. (‘Think of what we face as travel writers every day.’). I can tell you what’s slightly going wrong with travel right now. What’s happening is that the world over, people are moving towards boutique hotels and homestays and because of the sudden rise in the Indian traveller, the boutique places and homestays are in danger. They tell you to step into a different environment and experience that, whereas the typical Indian traveler wants to take his TV, his match, his housie, his whatever-it-is and transform the land he’s travelled to into the land he has just left. A few resolute people are still holding on and they are not giving into popular culture.
But everybody is not so lucky. Places like Goa are exhausted, ravaged and raped. Six years ago about 500 chartered planes landed in Goa. Last year there were less than 100. And it has happened because of political meddling and lack of awareness of what a western traveller wants. India, as a tropical hot paradise, is often a joke compared to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bali and Indonesia. We earn a fraction of their tourist dollars. Secondly, it’s become much more convenient for an Indian wanting to get out of the noise, trash and crowd of Indian travel destinations, to travel to Sri Lanka or Maldives. A person will think twice: should I pay the airfare for Goa or Bentota? Same paise mein foreign chale jate hain. Then when you land there, you realise it’s so much like Goa or Kerala, except a lot cleaner, people are more chilled out and it’s simpler to be there.
What kind of a traveler are you today?
Now we have kids so we go any place where the kids can be happy. Our ideal place is to go to a homestay where we can cook ourselves or we tell the cook what to make. We are at our happiest over there. Eating simple food and enjoying new places has become the most peaceful way of relaxing. And of course, lot of walking. If you’re not walking then you’re not on a holiday.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared on 13 November, 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at http://www.cntraveller.in/story/delhi-is-two-enemies-forced-into-a-friendship/