I sometimes wonder why cyclones often have bizarre names. Fani immediately reminds one of a serpent and its deathly fangs. Amphan, pronounced ‘um-pun’, means sky in Thai. As actors, we accept or reject movies on the strength of a script. But why an apparently innocuous name like Amphan—a name that Thailand proposed in 2004—decided to strike a rather laidback and benign city like Calcutta confounds me. Mother Nature probably wanted to test the City of Joy’s limit of perseverance.
The sheer destruction that Amphan has left in its wake is there for all of us to see, but the emotional distress it has caused is unimaginable. The city has lost over 5,000 trees—that’s almost an entire generation gone. It is bound to upset an already tottering ecosystem. Trees are the hallmark of some of Calcutta’s streets. The Southern Avenue, for example, is probably the leafiest road in south Calcutta. It abuts the Dhakuria Lake and the two world-class golf courses—Royal and Tolly—where Calcutta’s lungs reside.
Heart-breaking stories of tragedy abound. Two young men electrocuted by an unseen live wire, the asphalt sheet swept off a village street, a tree slicing a minibus into half on the Golf Green-Howrah route…these vignettes are simply horrifying. When I hear that my manager Sharmistha has been without electricity for five days and paid Rs 180 for two candles, I am aghast. When I hear that my maids, who hail from South 24 Parganas, have lost their huts and their humble belongings have been washed away, my mind goes numb. We are trained to act. We laugh, we cry, we go ecstatic and we can sink to the depths of despair on screen. But I am now caught in a belligerent crossfire of emotions. This script is for real, you don’t need to act. Mother Nature is the ultimate producer and director.
As an actress, there is no clear definition of ‘family’ for me. My husband, my children, my mother, my mother-in-law, my in-laws…is that all? Not quite. From the spot boy to the technician to the make-up artist, the directors and producers, my co-actors and of course my thousands of fans, they are all family. My extended family is like an ocean and my heart goes out to each one who has suffered from the fury of the cyclone. In our lifetime, Amphan has been the worst natural calamity we have seen. Calcutta was certainly not prepared for it. And coming as it did at a time when millions are suffering from a deadly virus, Calcutta’s back was broken. My profession has taken me across the world but there is nothing like Calcutta. There is life in every leaf, every brick and every whiff of air you inhale. That’s why Calcutta is the City of Joy. I am devastated because the city’s heritage spots have been ruined.
I had recently shot at College Street in North Calcutta for Agnidev Chatterjee’s Jihad with Rohit Roy. We went to the famous Coffee House and used hand-pulled rickshaws in a few scenes. I reckon College Street is the world’s biggest repository of old books. Every shop is unique. It’s a bibliophile’s paradise. To see books floating in dirty water is tragic. Not far from College Street and across the serpentine Central Avenue is Kumartuli. We were shooting here for Sujit Mondal’s Anweshan with Ronojoy Bishnu. It’s the place where artisans mould the clay from the river Hooghly into shapes of the gods we worship round the year. Amphan did not spare many sheds under which the idols of Durga and Kali are made. That leaves me with a question—why did Mother Nature attack artisans who create gods with their own hands?
Calcutta may not keep pace with the glitz and glamour of New York or Singapore, but it’s probably the only city in the world that has learnt to live with its heritage and old charm intact. College Street and Kumartuli are fine examples. I really don’t know if these book shops will ever recover. The clay artists probably will.
College Street, Calcutta, after Cyclone Amphan.
Sandip Ray’s Nishijapon (After The Night…Dawn) comes close to resembling the devastation Amphan has caused. The 2005 movie was a multi-starrer and I was playing the lead role alongside Soumitra Chatterjee, Dipankar De and Parambrata Chatterjee. It was the story of a dysfunctional family stranded in a forest villa in the mountains for days after a sudden earthquake envelopes the area in darkness. The bridge that connects the house with civilisation is destroyed. Landslides and incessant downpour wreak havoc and as hunger and panic build up, the urge to survive reveals the true nature of every person. People contemplate suicide as well. I think Calcutta is facing something similar. No aid will be enough. The mental destruction will be irreparable.
I have twice come close to facing nature’s fury. But one incident that remains vivid in my mind is a flight from Calcutta to Singapore when I was expecting my second child. It was three hours of mayhem in the skies. The aircraft was rocking under the impact of the storm. I have experienced air pockets many times, but this was different. All the passengers were screaming, the flight attendants were terrified, but the pilot kept his cool. I was virtually staring at death and I was more concerned about my baby at that advanced stage of pregnancy. Fortunately, we landed in Singapore in one piece.
But that was only three hours of horror. I can imagine what Calcutta must be going through. The city has looked beautiful in recent years. There has been a lot of work done to improve the civic amenities. Now all that is lost. It will take a lot of time to rebuild Calcutta. It was good to see the Prime Minister conducting an aerial survey. This is the right time to come together—not just for our national leaders, but for the masses too. Religion, caste, class should not divide us. In the eyes of an Amphan or a coronavirus, everyone is equal and only a united front can help salvage the situation. There are at least a dozen movies either on the floor or waiting to be released. But in Amphan, I have seen the biggest screenplay ever. It’s been a harrowing experience but humbling too. It’s time to accept nature’s fury and move on.
(As told to Soumitra Bose)Rituparna Sengupta is a National Award winning actress and producer who works in Bengali and Hindi cinema