April 06, 2020
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Apu Goes To Amragachi

Thanks to Drishya, villagers in Calcutta's backyard are getting a taste of world cinema classics

Apu Goes To Amragachi
Narendra Bisht
Apu Goes To Amragachi
These films don’t contain any Bollywood glitz or kitch. They are mostly in black and white. And the dialogue is usually indecipherable, in Italian, French or Russian. Yet, rural audiences in West Bengal are congregating in their villages to watch world cinema classics unspool before their eyes. Right from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Charles Chaplin’s Great Dictator to Vitorrio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief. And with each screening, this band of young men are shrinking the distance between film-rich Calcutta and the cinema-starved villages of North 24 Parganas, Nadia and Birbhum in interior Bengal.

Using a hired projector and a clutch of classic VCDs, Drishya—a student film study circle set up by a few post-graduates from Calcutta and Jadhavpur University—has been travelling to villages to hold screenings, since October 2003. Says Drishya’s Chiranjeeb Mukhopadhyay, 26, "Research conducted by our friends showed how electronic media was challenging folk forms. Villagers were abandoning rich folk forms and travelling 12-14 km to see the latest Hindi movies, or hiring VCDs." To combat crass commercial cinema and offer them more aesthetic choices, Drishya brought along films that were different from Bollywood’s balle-balle wedding galas and divorced-from-reality designer dreams. The group offered organic cinema made by Ray, Ghatak and Godard, whose evocative lyricisms didn’t need sexily picturised songs, heroines in chiffon saris or crude ‘item songs’.

The group began with Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (Adventures of Goopy and Bagha), 1968, knowing that people would relate to the spoken Bengali. A Bengali cult classic, Goopy, is a fairy tale where the lead pair have the power to conjure food out of thin air. During one evocative scene where Goopy and Bagha shout out for rasogullas, gulab jamuns and puris, "a collective sigh" went through the crowd, recalls Drishya’s Sunetro Bandhpadhyay. "No one missed the theme of starvation, and the fact that soldiers were willing to put down weapons and eat rather than wage wars," adds Chiranjeeb.

Next up was Italian neo-realism, which hit our national theatres in 1953 with Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen that told a heart-rending story of debt and then loss of two acres of land through Shambhu, a rickshaw puller, played by Balraj Sahni. Made six years earlier, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was thematically similar and Drishya believed audiences would relate to it since rural societies are not yet automobilised. And they did. But not quite how Drishya imagined. While the language (Italian) was no barrier while connecting to the bicycle-theft, a father-son relationship and post-war desperation, most of the audience left after the screening, leaving the Drishya’s team despondent. But ten minutes, they returned, refreshed after tea to ask, "when is the next show?" "That was our first taste of visual victory," says Chiranjeeb.

Today, they have held 40 such screenings, mostly preceded with a short folk performance and sessions where clips of Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India and Ray’s Goopy are shown to contrast directorial approaches to fantasy. Rural kids have been drawn to Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows.

This roving film appreciation course has also travelled into other cities. It will be in Delhi’s nsd this month and later in Mumbai’s mill areas and the interiors of Uttaranchal and Kashmir, where Drishya has been invited. In demand, but short of funds, the group has been going through tough times. They don’t have the software for Indian language subtitling, for instance, which is very costly. "Our aim is to create an NGO foundation so Drishya’s work can carry on regardless of exams and studies," says a member of the group. Drishya can be contacted at: 27-B, Indra Biswas Road, Calcutta-37. e-mail: drishya_films@yahoo. com Phone: 0-9830523405.

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