How an American Fell in Love With Kolkata’s Dogs and Made a Film
40 years back, a US documentary editor and filmmaker Howard Alk wandered the streets of a bygone Kolkata chasing his muse. Four decades later, Kolkata seduced his son, also a filmmaker, to come find his. The City of Joy etched deep lines of love and history on both.
While Alk Senior had come to capture the life and work of the elusive Lakshman Das Baul, brother to the renowned Purna Das Baul, Alk’s son Jesse’s tryst with Kolkata could be termed destiny.
“My family was living in Ottawa when I was born and my father was editing both, the Baul film and Janis, a film he made about Janis Joplin. After those films were completed, we moved back to the USA but unfortunately, my father passed away when I was still a child. A few years ago, my mother passed away, and that had something to do with my decision to make a film. It was something I desperately wanted to do, and I realised that if I didn’t at least try, I would regret it for the rest of my life. So when my father’s partner for the Baul film invited me to visit West Bengal in 2010, I accepted it and quickly fell in love with Kolkata.”
How Jesse Got Smitten With Kolkata’s Dogs
His father’s passion project on the famous Baul singer, however, never got released. The filmmakers had followed Lakshman around West Bengal for an extended period of time, filming what he felt was important for them to see. Today, there is a low-quality copy up at baularchive.com.
“We thought the Beta SP tape that version came from was the last existing copy of the film, but I recently came into possession of a full print of the film – probably the only one in existence. We are looking into making a new transfer, but it is an extremely expensive process with our limited means. When I came to Kolkata in 2010, in a way we were retracing the filming of that 1971 film. We even went to Ramkeli Mela near Malda, the same fair my father had filmed in, all those years ago.”
Though Jesse was smitten by Kolkata as soon as he had set foot, it wasn’t the humans but the dogs who elicited the first strain of any emotion.
“It wasn’t just the difficult conditions I found them in, but their ubiquity and the sense I got that they were deeply lonely. It seemed to be a parallel society, alongside but separate from the rest of Kolkata. My original idea was to make a film about the city from a street dog’s perspective. Those days, I was looking at city symphony films like Jean Vigo’s A Propos De Nice and animal focused experimental documentaries like Swedish filmmaker Mikael Kristersson’s Kestrel’s Eye, and that’s how I imagined the film, completely visual-based, with very little human dialogue.”
But the film slowly became more about the human feeders and caretakers who form a network of base-level support for the street dogs.
As the title of the film, Pariah Dog came very early, Jesse and his crew knew they wanted to cast humans who also fit the idea of ‘pariah’ in some way… people who did not fit into the mainstream of Bengali society, who went against the grain and were also somewhat isolated.
A Love Affair With the City
The documentary, which has begun doing the rounds of festival circuits and has won the Best Feature at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, showcases Subrata Das, an auto-rickshaw driver who feeds 80 dogs across South Kolkata, all the way from Dhakuria to Chetla.
A fantastic performer who is quick to sing, play the harmonica, dance and give long and sometimes outrageous lectures that he calls ‘dialogues’, Subrata was the first person to be filmed. In Bansdroni, Milly Sarkar, the descendent of a very elite family on one side and a Russian/Japanese mother on the other, lives in her enormous ancestral home in need of repair with many street dogs she has taken in. Nearby, Kajal Halder lives on Milly's property and helps her look after dogs in a small shelter near the Tolly Nala.
Up in Dum Dum, Pinku Dasgupta is an artist who drives a ‘toto’ to make ends meet. He takes care of multiple street dogs in his house and neighbourhood, and works on his art in his spare time.
A lyrical, open-ended film, with a mix of character-based verite and at times almost surreal elements, the team worked doubly hard to gain intimate access into the lives of the locals.
“I was really interested in showing not just their work, but hopes and dreams. What makes someone give up their entire life to care for animals? Is this foundation solid enough to build a satisfying life? Why is it that some people take suffering of others onto themselves, and why don’t more of us?” are thoughts Kolkata and its people made Jesse think repeatedly.
Interestingly, Jesse has always been a Satyajit Ray fan and loves the Apu Trilogy. But apart from some Ritwick Ghatak and Mrinal Sen gems, the young filmmaker did not watch too much of Indian cinema while making his documentary.
“I wanted to react directly to what I was experiencing in Kolkata without referring back to what I learned from Indian cinema. Although I did watch Piku by the end of my stay, and thought it was hilarious, I don’t know if I would have really gotten many of the jokes if I hadn’t been staying in India for so long,” he says.
Living in Kolkata was like a dream, according to the American who filmed all over the city, Maidan to Tangra, including the fisheries and puja pandals.
Working on a film for over five years with an all-Bengali team and living with a Bengali family was an incredibly immersive experience.
“It helped that I didn’t have any other foreigners working on the film. After the edit, I brought on some US and Canadian partners to finish the post production, but during all those years of the shoot it was just myself, my executive producer Aditi Sircar, my sound recordist/co-writer Koustav Sinha, my camera assistant Rajib Kuila, with some assistance from line producer Soumitro Saha. I video chat with my Kolkata people at least once a week and am really hoping to take Pariah Dog to an Indian film festival tour,” Jesse says.
Among the dogs that this honorary Kolkatan most misses, from his time in the city, is Buro – a 15-year-old dog who lived in Bakul Garden road in Bhowanipore, with a pack of his descendants.
Jesse had filmed Buro and also intervened when the canine had fallen ill. Mystically though, after Buro passed, the rest of the dogs in his pack adopted Jesse’s crew.
“From watching me care for the oldest member of their pack, they decided that I was one of them. After that, whenever I would walk through their territory, the entire pack would escort me all the way through. It was quite a feeling. They didn’t expect food. Indian street dogs are really quite phenomenal creatures.”
(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B076NXZFX8)'. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)