Calcutta was, and perhaps will be always be the essence of what British Raj was. It was the first capital of British India, and remained their first love. Moving the capital to New Delhi was a political decision, Calcutta was still the darling. And you can still see vestiges of it, spread across the City of Joy, the eternal city. Today’s Kolkata is filled with the relics of the colonial past than any other city in India, including Delhi — from Victoria memorial to all those grand buildings on the banks Hoogley to Park Street, everywhere.
Calcutta has also inspired a number of foreign films, a long time before Danny Boyle and Hollywood. The first film comes to mind is Jean Renoir’s The River (Le Fleuve, 1951). It’s the film that gave a break to Satyajit Ray. There’s another film, ‘The Bengali Night’ (1988), starring Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak. The film was based on an autobiographical novel, ‘The Bengali Nights’ (1933) by Romanian novelist Mircea Eliade. The real life inspiration of the character played by Pathak, called Gayatri, Maitreyi Devi, had lot of objections about the film, as the film was ostensibly laced with orientalism.
Legends say, Mircea Eliade had come to India to study under Maitreyi Devi’s father, and the young couple was infatuated with each other. When Maitreyi Devi’s father found out about the relationship, he sent Eliade away. Much later, Eliade would write about his experience in a novel and it was an instant hit in Romania. When Maitreyi Devi found out about the book, she wrote to Eliade and extracted a promise that he would not allow the book to be translated into English. Eliade kept the promise as long as he was alive. After he was dead, an English translation appeared, and the movie rights were also sold by Eliade’s wife. Unhappy with how the Indian girl was portrayed in the novel, Maitreyi Devi decided to tell her side of the story, and the result was the wonderful Bengali novel ‘Na Hanyate’ (It Does Not Die, 1974). It is said that Sanjay Leela Bhansali took the inspiration for his film, ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ from this novel, though the film does not acknowledge it.
And, there’s India Song (1975, starring Delphine Seyrig), the film by French author Marguerite Duras (1914-1996). The film uses Calcutta as the backdrop, and was shot exclusively in on the outskirts of Paris. In the context of modern theoretical understanding, you can call the film a study of colonialism and feminism, but Duras’ lyrical moving images defy definition. The film juxtaposes two constructing structures, a white woman in colonial India going through the routines of a party one night as the camera languidly follows her (If it reminds you of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amor (1959), you know that Duras wrote the screenplay of the film.), and these languid images are contrasted with relentless voice-over narration the contents of which does not have any immediate bearing on the images on screen.
Apart from India Song, Duras did another film on Calcutta, ‘Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert’ (1976). This despite the fact that she never visited India. Wikipedia tells me: “Calcutta in Duras's depiction is a place full of hidden sorrow under a veil of joy and charm. Some critics note that the film has been "hailed as an experimental feminist text that simultaneously critiques colonial culture, women's status in society, and representations of the female body. Feminist critics make much of the fact that all of the voices in the play/film are disembodied and that the characters are seen as physical bodies devoid of direct dialogue...”
Duras grew up in French Indochina, and later wrote the novella, ‘The Lover’ (1984), about a young western girl’s love affair with a Chinese man against the backdrop. The book, which was made into a movie in 1992, is perhaps the best work for which Duras is known for.
More on Marguerite Duras here.
On story behind Na Hanyate here.