Outside: the throbbing big city life, its rumbles and roars, people following cricket. Inside: in the spacious Calcutta office of the Munich-based Fanesfilms, it's business as usual. Receptionists wave visitors to their seats, someone speaks softly on the phone, heels click briskly along the polished floor; informally dressed, immaculately fit Germans, scripts in hand, go about their work: in this place, cricket belongs to another planet.
In comes Norbert Preuss, fiftysomething producer of The Shadows of Time, a Bengali film on a Bengal-based story, and plunges into business straightaway. Director Florian Gallenberger, 31, who won an Oscar for his short film Quiero Ser (I Want To Be) in 2001, is busy shooting. This is the first time a foreign film unit has chosen to handle a patently Indian (Bengali) theme, shooting entirely in India, using the local language. A cross-cultural landmark clearly. But what is the rationale for such a film for a German filmmaker? Preuss looks thoughtful: "The story could be that of India itself. It deals with a person who starts from nothing, but builds himself a fortune through hard work, tracing his journey from pre-Independence to post-independence Bengal. But life is not all roses. Fate denies him his one love whom he knew as a little girl and never forgot. They meet again in later life, a brief encounter, a surge of old feelings...I should not tell you more."
Gallenberger, for whom shooting in Calcutta was an experience in itself, and Preuss were approached by the talented writer/director Helmut Dietl, who developed the storyline for Shadows. Dietl's Schtonkl! had won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film in 1993. Gallenberger himself wrote the screenplay for Shadows...in German. It was translated into English and then Bengali.
Gallenberger is quite effusive about shooting in Calcutta. "Initially we looked all over for our locale. But when we reached Calcutta, we needed to look no further. Whether we shot old city areas in Kalighat or Bagbazar, or buildings like Writers Building and Lalbazar police headquarters, the ambience was unique. In some areas, time had been frozen. This congruence of the old and the new is unique and there is no alternative to shooting in Calcutta."
Shadows... covers several decades in an epic narration format. Ravi and Masha are teenagers working for a living in a carpet factory in Bengal. They love each other, but are forced to live apart and marry others. Years later, Ravi makes his way up in the world, and India becomes independent. Ravi and wife Deepa meet their friend Yani and his wife (none other than Masha) at a party. They come together briefly, their old emotions rekindling, before parting. Later, disillusioned with life, Ravi finds Masha abandoned by Yani, who suspects that she bore Ravi's child.... From this point the story heads for its unexpected climax.
The cast is totally Indian. Prashant Narayanan and Tannishtha Chatterjee play the mature Ravi and Masha, and Soumitra Chatterjee and Sova Sen portray their aged versions. Says Sen: "Playing the old Masha was a new experience. The entire unit was so disciplined and orderly, it was a revelation. Everything went like clockwork!"
How well will Shadows... do commercially? Preuss says it will be aimed at an international audience with a yen for better cinema. Can such ventures help establish a new trend? "Certainly," says German scholar and writer Subhoranjan Dasgupta. "Calcutta has always evoked strong intellectual interest from Germans, from the dramatist Franz Kroetz to Gunter Grass, and now Gallenberger.... The other day, filmmaker Ronald Reber, here in connection with the film festival, said he was astonished by the high quality response in the city to his difficult films and marvelled at people quoting from Nietzsche and Heidegger!"