Kolkata’s Romance With Ruin: Why the City Calls Out to Bollywood

Kolkata is not hard hitting: it has a softness, it is humane and it captures emotions beautifully.

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Entertainment
5 min read
Trams, an inherent part of Kolkata’s public conveyance have been used exhaustively to narrate tales of all kinds. (Photo courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ <b>The Quint</b>)

In the heart of south Kolkata’s Lake Market, Giselli Monteiro, a Brazilian model whom Imtiaz Ali had cast as a coy Punjabi girl for his film Love Aajkal, stands with her heart aflutter in the balcony of an imposing pink and white mansion.

On the pavement across the house, a turbaned Saif Ali Khan waits for one glimpse of her, chasing her to Kolkata from Punjab.

This was 2009, but in the film, it was a throwback to the Kolkata of 1960s, when the parallel love story of Saif Ali Khan (Veer Singh) and Giselli Monteiro (Harleen Kaur), unfolds in the film.

A film shot in Delhi and London, Love Aajkal in part flashes back to Kolkata – juxtaposing a modern day Saif-Deepika love story with one from the 60s.

South Kolkata house in Lake market where the movie, ‘Love Aaj Kal’ was shot. (Photo courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/&nbsp;<b>The Quint</b>)
South Kolkata house in Lake market where the movie, ‘Love Aaj Kal’ was shot. (Photo courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ The Quint)

Almost six years later and after the Sujoy Ghosh mystery thriller Kahaani became a big brand ambassador for Kolkata, filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee shoots his stylised version of Detective Bomkyesh Bakshi recreating the Kolkata of the 1940s.

An old Chinatown lane in Kolkata. (Photo Courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ <b>The Quint</b>)
An old Chinatown lane in Kolkata. (Photo Courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ The Quint)

“While Bomkyesh had to be based in Kolkata, the city is fascinating for its architecture, hand pulled rickshaws, trams, ferries and the entire public transport system,” says Dibakar speaking to The Quint.

Just like Victorian London is inseparable from Sherlock Holmes, so is Bomkyesh from Kolkata where many ethnic communities live and a detective journeys from one part of the city to another.
Dibakar Banerjee, Filmmaker

So move over Switzerland, New York, London and the tulip gardens of Holland, for quite some time now the favourite shooting location of the Bollywood films is the eastern city.

A still from the movie Gunday outside Calcutta High Court
A still from the movie Gunday outside Calcutta High Court

Love Aajkal to Kahaani to Piku to Dibakar’s Bomkyesh, Kolkata is the big canvas enriching the visuals.

Actor Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps in recent times has lived more in Kolkata – a city where he had lived and worked before his Bollywood career – than anywhere else, for the purpose of his film shoots.

A still of Amitabh Bachchan cycling on Kolkata’s roads in <i>Piku. (</i>Avishek Mitra/ <b>The Quint</b><i>)</i>
A still of Amitabh Bachchan cycling on Kolkata’s roads in Piku. (Avishek Mitra/ The Quint)

Kolkata paparazzi, always on the alert to chase him on shoots, would capture him either pillion riding with Nawazuddin Siddiqui in TE3N or cycling for Piku on Kolkata’s roads.

I always suggest to people, whenever you are depressed, pay Kolkata a visit. The city has such attractive archaic and Gothic buildings and its scenic beauty can make you content at any time.
Amitabh Bachchan

Iftekar Ahsan of Calcutta Walks, speaking to The Quint at a Bollywood location walkabout, says: “One reason for Bollywood’s fascination with Kolkata is its freshness as a backdrop even now. The city has economic stagnation and so even many of the old buildings are in various stages of repair (or disrepair), offering something which is not flat.”

“Modern is not always rich. Kolkata is not hard hitting, it has a softness, it is humane, it works for capturing emotions,” says Iftekar, who did the location hunt for Dibakar’s Detective Bomkyesh Bakshi.

The city also is a good setting for intrigues and mystery. The city has still so many beautiful cast iron works as part of its architecture which also add to the mood of such films. As Mirza Ghalib once said, this is a city that lives in the past and in future at the same time.
Iftekar

According to Iftekar, the Kolkata riverfront is also dramatic and it is here in Kolkata that time often stands still.

Iftekar Ahsan, who did the location hunt for the film ‘Byomkesh’ in front of now closed Nanking restaurant, Kolkata.  (Photo Courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ <b>The Quint</b>)
Iftekar Ahsan, who did the location hunt for the film ‘Byomkesh’ in front of now closed Nanking restaurant, Kolkata. (Photo Courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ The Quint)

Dibakar even promotes his film on the website with images and texts on the location like the now closed Nanking Restaurant near old China town.

The home of real Chinese food in Calcutta, the place welcomes its guests with violins on the stairway. It is frequented by the glamorous stars of the film industry and has a beautifully carved Chinese Church above it.

“For the more adventurous, there is the Chinese street food to try and if you want to go all the way, there are the opium dens, legal, of course to crawl to. Don’t judge it by the seedy lanes that surround it, in the years to come superstars Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar will be waving at their thronging fans from the Nanking balcony. Mark our words for it,” it goes.

According to Iftekar, the presence of several successful Bengali filmmakers in Bollywood now is perhaps one more reason for Kolkata emerging as a favourite shooting destination.

Parineeta film poster
Parineeta film poster
Location is an organic part of the film, and Kolkata being my homeland, I have almost gained a masters degree in memorizing it, where I can easily exploit a situation turning it into a thriller or something ludicrous, it’s always comfortable for me.
Filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh

What Adds to Kolkata’s Charm?

Iftekar listed out eight reasons leading to the Bollywood beeline to Kolkata.

  • The inherent texture of the city owing to its economic stagnation with many old buildings still escaping the hawk’s eye of realtors.

  • Kolkata is not flat and the city prides itself for its shades and colours.

  • Bengali ethos as seen in the city in its softness, making it more humane.

  • The colonial architecture combining Bengali Baroque and neo-classical offer a beautiful cinematic effect.

  • The cast ironwork of Kolkata is beautiful.

  • Bengali roots of some of the prominent filmmakers in Bollywood now.

  • Durga Puja, when Bengali aesthetics peak, and the idols and the presence of Kumartoli idol makers’ quarter.

  • Only city in India with China towns.


(Photo Courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ <b>The Quint</b>)
(Photo Courtesy: Sujoy Dhar/ The Quint)

(Sujoy Dhar is a roving writer, a foreign correspondent and Group Editor of news agency IBNS. He can be reached at @sujoydhar)

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