24 June 2013

Post Facto - Gastro-gallivanting: Culinary capers in Calcutta

My Sunday Guardian column this fortnight:

Dacres lane, Calcutta
n Calcutta in June, you invariably sleep to the sound of rain. Having thumped and clattered its way through the night, it arrives at a civilised pitter-patter by morning. But by then it has already succeeded in waking you up.
The fitfulness of such a morning can be compensated for — as can most things in Calcutta — by food. In this case, by an early expedition to Bentinck Street for the traditional Chinese breakfast, which members of the city's longstanding Chinese community produce and sell by a street corner, at the mouth of a lane called Chhata Gulley. At 7am, the wide stretch of the street around Poddar Court is occupied by a series of fish and vegetable sellers. Displayed on plastic sheets on the ground are the many varieties of summer gourds that grow in Bengal — potol, dhondhol, lau, jhinge, chichinge, uchhe, korola — and the even greater varieties of leafy vegetables — kolmi shag, notay shag, lal shag, palon shag. Amid this proliferation of raw stuffs, we nearly miss the breakfast stalls. Their number has diminished to about five, of which only one makes what to me seemed the highlight: large vats of soup, one with meatballs that seem substantially made of pork, and one with fishballs. A thirty-something woman, with features that are an appealing mixture of Bengali and Chinese, sits on a low seat on the pavement, her skirt hiked up to her knees so she can sit comfortably, spooning out the soup. Two generous-sized meat or fish balls are spooned into each bowl of soup. A sprinkling of chopped spring onions and your 30 rupee breakfast is ready. The fishballs are firm and springy (and thankfully not too fishy), while the meatballs are a little fattier but very tasty. The soup itself is mild, yet flavourful and full-bodied in the way that only good stock can make it: not quite as thin as broth, but neither subjected to the ignominy of thickening with cornflour. Refills of the soupy liquid are free, but we decide to get another meatball each. There are also fish and prawn shuimai, which are not too bad in terms of the thinness of their wrappers, but aren't prettily finished: they make for rather dumpy dumplings.
They ought to have been supplemented by what I have hitherto eaten in Chinese restaurants in both Delhi and New York as 'bao', but what everyone in Calcutta seems to know as 'pao' — large, soft steamed buns stuffed with a sweet and spicy pork or chicken filling. But there were none that morning. There was one (Indian) woman with a small board that advertised them among her wares, but she didn't have any. Instead she offered us chicken momos, which we didn't venture to try — not even to figure out whether they were actually shuimai being sold as momos, which would be an odd reversal of a practice frequent in mid-range Delhi restaurants.
eanwhile in Lake Gardens, the middle class South Calcutta neighbourhood in which my mother's family has lived for years, the superb hot shingaras made by a one-man-show called Swapan da now vie in the local popularity charts with a highly-regarded new momo-stall. "There are a whole lot of northeastern students who have moved into our neighbourhood," said my aunt by way of explanation.
The city has always been a place of mixture and substitution, and food is its most active laboratory.
Another afternoon we found ourselves on Dacres Lane, in the office district of Esplanade, where lunchtime sees a flood of low- and mid-level office workers arrive for a piping hot meal. On offer is the now quintessential list of sinful Calcutta snacks whose origins lie in the fusion of British food with the Bengali love of deep frying — fish chop, fish fry, mutton and chicken cutlet. But what Dacres Lane is really famous for is a hot plateful of stew — chicken or mutton in mild gravy, with a couple of carrots and a big piece of potato, served with two hunks of bread to sop it all up. There is something quite remarkable about the fact that something as recognisably European in origin is a street food in Calcutta, available for fifty rupees. "Our food has pepper, not red chilli powder," said the friendly Bubai, frontman at the popular Chitto'r Dokaan. And yet their chops and cutlets are always served with a very Indian accompaniment — slices of raw onion and a fiery chutney of some sort, or else the super-pungent Bengali mustard sauce known as kashundi.
The city has always been a place of mixture and substitution, and food is its most active laboratory. As we stood around our small table on Bentinck Street, eating hot spoonfuls of soup, our companions were a group of Manipuri students and two little local Chinese children. The little boy downed his soup somewhat angrily and then wandered around with his head butting out, like a bull looking for something to knock down. The little girl, his elder sister, had rejected the boring Chinese items on offer in favour of a large plate of kochuri and aloor-dom.

6 June 2013

Actor, auteur and the bhadralok’s fearless agent provocateur: Rituparno Ghosh

An obituary I wrote for the Sunday Guardian:

Rituparno Ghosh’s films might have been derided by some as “middle-class”, but he was exceptional in the sensitivity and attentiveness with which he depicted domesticity, relationships and gender politics, writes Trisha Gupta
TRISHA GUPTA  1st Jun 2013
Rituparno Ghosh with Deepti Naval in a still from Memories of March
ituparno Ghosh's cinematic oeuvre — he made a remarkable 19 features and one short in a career of 21 years, as well as totting up four acting credits – was never credited with greatness. Serious film aficionados, in Bengal and outside, were in any case unwilling to grant that label easily to any Bengali filmmaker after the end of the Ray-Ghatak-Sen era. Also, his films, at least until the mid-2000s, were perceived as being middle class, and thus somehow automatically middlebrow. Later, of course, there was his so-called "lobh" (greed) for Bollywood, casting Aishwarya Rai in Chokher Bali, Abhishek Bacchan in Antarmahal, Amitabh in The Last Lear and even Bipasha in Shob Charitro Kalpanik, a fact which made his artistic credentials suspect (with some reason), while giving him unprecedented leverage in the national media. There was also the additional criticism that his films weren't 'cinematic', that they seemed like 'filmed plays'. In a telephone interview I did with him in 2008, he responded to this criticism with typical fair-mindedness: neither delusional nor self-deprecatory, outspoken but not defensive. "People have this simplistic idea that if you shoot outdoors it becomes cinema, and if you stay indoors, it's a play. By that criteria, only Kurosawa is cinema, not Bergman. I'm not saying I'm Bergman, or that Raincoat is great cinema, but I do find it a little undemocratic to not acknowledge my kind of cinema as an equally legitimate form."
Thinking about his films now, I feel as if the closed-door chamber dramas, the 'talky' films set in middle-class Bengali milieus that he made with such consummate ease, share more with television than theatre. Rituparno never actually made films for television (though he hosted two popular chat shows on Bengali channels: Ebong Rituparno on ETV Bangla and later Ghosh and Company on Star Jalsha), and in fact the one thing his films have been credited with is bringing back middle class Bengali audiences to theatres in an era when the lowbrow kitsch on offer had driven them away. But unlike a lot of filmmakers, Rituparno never turned his nose up at the television format. In the 2008 interview with me, he spoke twice of being grateful to Doordarshan, crediting its wide-ranging Hindi and Bangla programming for his not having grown up "judgemental about cinema", and for opening up Ray's repertoire to him in a way that it had not been available before.
But it seems to me that television for Rituparno was not just about access to cinema, but about a viewing experience, a sensibility. In a recent interview, he has said "television facilitates a more intimate viewing, and a more intimate connection with the characters". It was watching Jalsaghar on television that foregrounded for him the decaying zamindar's relationship to his mansion, and became the kernel that led to Unishe April's central focus on an ageing dancer (Aparna Sen) and her house. (The daughter (Debashree Roy) "came much later", and though the film was read as an adaptation of Bergman's Autumn Sonata, Rituparno always said he had not watched it then and never managed to watch it later because "a sort of mental block developed".)
The truly remarkable thing about Rituparno's films for me has always been his ability to create layers of empathy, to see why people are where they are, and not to mock them for it.
It was no accident that so many of Ghosh's films unfold within the four walls of a house. The large zamindari mansion appears over and over, a crumbling hard-to-maintain remnant in Bariwali (The Lady of the House), a just-surviving symbolic thing that might still come in useful by being mortgaged in Utsab (The Festival), a stifling patriarchal space in its supposed glory days in Antarmahal. But the space of the home is something he was attentive to in every film, and attentive in a way that few men are: the gulf between the interior and the exterior, the joys of domesticity as well as its possibility for suffocation — these are themes that Ghosh seemed effortlessly to understand and gravitate to. Perhaps they came to him along with the women he created on screen, whose relationships to space he was able to delineate with such precision and sensitivity. I think of Rituparna Sengupta's Romi in Dahan, discovering to her dismay how vast the social distance was between her Anglophone parental home in Sunny Park and her in-laws' home on Golf Club Road, finding that one "accident" means that she is no longer to go beyond her balcony, that her right to the city has been taken away. Or of Mamata Shankar in Utsab, listening anxiously for the sounds of conversation between her son and her niece, constantly watching out for the casual slide into intimacy that the secret spaces of the ancestral house she knows can enable. Or even Aishwarya Rai in Raincoat, somehow managing to be half-convincing as the stuck-at-home housewife, with Rituparno's ever-attentive detailing — a bra-strap peeking out from Rai's sari blouse — creating the sense of somehow domestic deshabille.
s a filmmaker in India today, Rituparno was remarkable for having written every single one of his films (barring the few that he adapted from Tagore – Chokher Bali, the rather lovelyNoukadubi, or from other people's novels, like Dahan), and for me it was his writing, his ability to capture conversation – especially conversations between women, unfailingly attentive to the nuances of generation, class and educational divides — that made the best of his films such a joy.
Several obituaries now have described Rituparno as having travelled from respectful conformism to blatant transgressiveness, and certainly in recent years, he made a deliberate attempt to open up the questions of gender and sexuality that he had allowed to remain dormant earlier, not just as a filmmaker (Chitrangada) and actor (Aar Ekti Premer GolpoMemories in March) but also in his stunning personal appearances in female attire. These films often seemed self-indulgent, especially because one knew he was playing some version of himself, but perhaps it was a phase he had to work through. But sex had always been a presence in his films, challenging a deep-rooted Bengali middle class hypocrisy where sex and money must never be mentioned, though everyone knows they're operating everything behind the scenes. Sex as negotiation tactic (Dahan), as patriarchal imposition (Antarmahal), as youthful frisson or remembered yearning or security (Utsab), sex as bridge or breakdown (Dosar), even sex as thoughtless indiscriminate surrender to your body: sex in Rituparno's films was never "just sex". And yet it was not soppily covered over by romance, it was allowed to be messy and dangerous and spilling beyond the boundaries of propriety. The presence of real sex — even if heterosexual — made his films non-conformist long before this last phase.
The truly remarkable thing about Rituparno's films for me has always been his ability to create layers of empathy, to see why people are where they are, and not to mock them for it. Even a Dahan, with its clear narrative contrast between different kinds of women, cannot become in Rituparno's hands a linear, liberation narrative like Dor. There is a lucid call for the pleasures of going it alone, but there is also an understanding that everyone makes compromises, and that sometimes compromises are the only way to live and love.
His non-judgemental style could extend even to crime. "In an ordinary detective story, it is the hunter and the hunted – there's no relationship between them except of wit," he once said. "But how can you be so unemotional about a person you are practically obsessed with?" For long my favourite Rituparno film was Shubho Mahurat, an Agatha Christie adaptation with a superbly twinkly Rakhee as a Bengali Miss Marple. I'm glad there's a Byomkesh Bakshi film to look forward to.