The flavour of Kolkata

The flavour of Kolkata
The youngest balloon seller on the first day of Times of India Happy Streets 2016 (17th January). Shot by Pradip Ghosh.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Happy Streets

A group of men boxing… sketching on the street…..youngsters playing football (with mini goalposts in place) or a game of volleyball or badminton…young boys and girls zooming on roller skates or cycling around…..children practising karate……adults practising yoga or meditation, and all of it in the middle of the street on the Park Street-Camac Street-Little Russel Street-Russel Street quadrangle with no traffic around……sounds absolutely surreal! Then what will it be if one sees all of this actually happening on two consecutive Sunday mornings?

Welcome to Happy Streets, a gift to the city of Kolkata from Times of India (TOI) in association with Kolkata Police. This is its season 2 in Kolkata after a successful debut in 2015.

As TOI, known for creating innovative events over many years in Kolkata (and in other cities), describes it, “Happy Streets is to promote community bonding and healthy lifestyle for the people of Kolkata. The objective is to reclaim a stretch of road space from automobiles and opening them to the public every Sunday to create a whole new healthy, sustainable & vibrant city street experience. Everyone is welcome to participate in healthy activities of all kinds, from highly intense Zumba to street cricket, Yoga or other games like basketball, football, badminton and karate or just enjoy a theatrical performance.”

Here are glimpses of what I saw on my first ever visit to Happy Streets on 31st January and on 7th February. It will be an experience to cherish in a long time.

Balloon sellers this young to old were aplenty to cater to the carnival mood

The police deployment was noticeable. Senior police officers were on duty so that we have unhindered fun.

The longest queue was at the rent-free cycle booth.

The cycles were being issued upon submission of an I-card and mobile phone.

Ah! She finally got hers after a long wait.

The age of visitors had a wide range. 

The Facebook photo booth was a popular attraction

The stage at the Park Street-Free School Street crossing

Volleyball arena

Cashing in on the need for breakfast after the morning activities

It is expected to continue over the next few Sundays. It starts at 6.30 am and goes on till 9.30 am. Keep an eye on the Happy Streets Kolkata Facebook page or on the paper. Head for it with your family if you can, for a new experience in life.

#HappyStreets #TimesOfIndia #ParkStreet

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Review: Bastushaap

A large section of the audience defines a movie in the ‘thriller’ genre as one that thrills by showing visual thrill, like it is in a crime thriller. Such a movie entertains them. But a good psychological thriller has the same ability to engage the viewer with the development of the story and entertain as well. Sadly we do not get to see well-made psychological thrillers on Bengali screen. Bastushaap arrives in this void.

The posters drew curiosity in the beginning of the new year- Five main characters played by capable actors (including popular faces) facing the camera in the backdrop of a room in some old, rich home pairing with the logo of the film which implies a curse in relation to the way the house is built, making a pun of the old Bengali word ‘Bastusaap’ (Meaning a snake who lives in old, often abandoned homes guarding valuable property).

Kaushik Ganguly’s Bastushaap tells the story of ex-army man Arjun Dasgupta (Abir Chatterjee) who appoints Bastu Shastra and feng shui experts and partners Kushal Mukherjee (Parambrata Chatterjee) and Timir (Kaushik Ganguly) to set the bastu of his bungalow in a hill town in Bengal right. His small family comprising his wife Bonya aka Bonny (Raima Sen) and elder sister Antara (Churni Ganguly) is at disharmony deep within. It has gone through unfortunate incidents and many have advised Arjun to look into the ‘Bastu’ of the house to set things in order. How far Kushal and Timir are able to do so and whether ‘Bastu’ is the main problem leading to the disharmony of the family is what the film is about and are best viewed on screen.

The film was touted to be a romantic thriller which is s less explored genre. The story is short and well-written and the screenplay and storytelling make the film a compelling watch. The dialogue is a high point and I loved a rare quality in it- brevity. There are some crisp lines that stay with one (Like “Pahare bonya-o toh surprise”). What I especially liked is Kaushik’s ability to bring out the psychological aspect of the story competently, delving deep into the mindscape of his characters touching upon the unsaid tension and well-guarded feelings. It is essentially a chamber drama and the setting in the hill town is perfect. Without giving out the details, the romantic track was the best I have seen in Bangla cinema recent years. The story also sets the audience thinking on introspection for the ‘Bastu’ of the mind and dealing with the inner demons to expect a positive outcome from life.

The film draws heavily on the performances of the five characters all of which are well etched out both in writing and execution by the director. It helps the audience relate to the psyche of the characters.

Parambrata has come up with a nuanced and well-measured portrayal of Kushal and it is definitely part of his best work to date. It is well known that he is articulate as a person and this trait is often used by directors by getting him speak a lot. In this film, he was required to talk less and speak a lot through his eyes and finer facial expressions. Kushal is attractive in an intellectual way which is rarely found on Bengali screen, something that aptly finds an expression in the term ‘Thinking woman’s sex symbol’. Param also has a great chemistry with Kaushik and the duo offers some nice comic moments.

(Source: Parambrata Chattopadhyay's Facebook page)

Abir was a pleasant surprise for me. Conceptually his name may not crop up if we think of who would fit the bill of a former but young army major. But his portrayal of the arrogant and adamant Arjun Dasgupta has beaten any such apprehension. Apart from the dialogue delivery (he has some of the good lines) it’s the physical acting that makis it a flawless performance hitherto unseen. Due credit goes to Kaushik as well for achieving it. He looks dashing, helped by the mustache, and should score big with the female audience of all ages.

Raima is excellent as the silent and lovable Bonya aka Bonny who is not happy the way life and her husband have treated her. The sorrow and her urge for love come out brilliantly through her face, especially those expressive eyes.

Antara was not an easy character to play.  She is disturbed (for the life-shattering incident), finicky (wants the home perfectly in order), brutally straightforward, yet talented. The English song sung by her on her lips is one of the precious moments of the film. I can’t remember anyone other than Churni to have done complete justice to such a character.

That Kaushik never fails to deliver as an actor is given now. We know he can shine in even a five-minute role (Recall Chotushkone). He would have overshadowed Param and Abir if they had not excelled in their roles. He is that good as Timir, who is unimpressive and foolish at times but knows his job really well! His saying “Ami jawkhon bolechhi bonduk thik achhe, toh thik achhe.” is clap-worthy. This is also one of the memorable lines from the film.

The music by Indradip Dasgupta doesn’t have a lasting impact but helps to carry the scenes. Bonny Chakraborty has sung a nice title track. Being a chamber drama, the cinematography had little scope, yet Gopi Bhagat’s camera provides the essential support in the development of the story and the characters.

Like the last year, this year starts well in Bangla cinema with this film. Hope the treat continues in the months to come. Keenly looking forward to Kaushik’s Cinemawalla, among other films.

(All pictures except the first are sourced from the Facebook page of  GreenTouch Entertainment)

#Bastushaap #BanglaCinema #BengaliCinema2016

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chinese New Year celebration at Yauatcha

Chinese New Year is one of the most important and auspicious festivals in the Chinese calendar. This year marks the Year of the Monkey, occupying the ninth position on the Chinese zodiac. The combination of the monkey sign with fire heralds an adventurous year full of confidence, decisiveness and innovation.

Yauatcha, the fine dining oriental dining stop at Quest, is celebrating this festival with a limited edition signature menu featuring dim sum, mains, desserts and cocktail.

The menu comprises of newly introduced dishes ranging from Truffle and English Carrot Dumpling to Kiwi and Black Olive Dumpling in starters, mains such as and Braised Pork Belly in Spicy Yellow Bean Sauce with Cigar Mantao Roll and Stir-fry Mock Chicken in Hunan Style Spicy Sauce, and desserts like the Crunchy Caramel with Honeycomb Ice Cream and the Cocktail Cherry Chaser.

 Lobster Ho Fun Roll with Black Pepper Sauce
Seafood Shui Mai

Braised Pork Belly in Spicy Yellow Bean Sauce with Cigar Mantao Roll
Vegetable Mahlak Udon Noodle 

 Crunchy Caramel with Honeycomb Ice Cream

In addition, the restaurant will be transformed with unique red origami monkeys.

#Yauatcha #ChineneseNewYearMenu

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Monday, January 25, 2016

An afternoon with Christine Manfield in AKLF

It was the closing day of the well-organised Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) which took place at various venues including Oxford Bookstore, Victoria Memorial, Town Hall steps and Tolly Club, covering a wide range of subjects in standalone or book release-linked discussions over 14th to 17th January.

The first session of the event was the release of the new book ‘A Personal Guide to India and Bhutan’ written by Australian Masterchef, food and travel writer Christine Manfield, by veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi, followed by a conversation between the Masterchef,  him, musician and food writer Nondon Bagchi and chef Sharad Dewan of The Park, which was the venue. It was succeeded by showcasing Christine’s book ‘Dessert Divas’ with Meera Syal and a demo of one of the desserts from the book.

Before proceeding further, a few facts about Christine Manfield:
  1. She is deep into food tourism and has been conducting food trips to India for years. She has been travelling to the country by its length and breadth for the last 20 years. Her coffee table book ‘Tasting India’, which is said to be a delectable cross between a coffee table book and a travelogue, is an outcome of this.
  2. Use of spices is her forte. Her favourite spices include chilli (first in order), turmeric, saffron and mustard seed. No wonder she is known as Mistress of Spices.
  3. She can’t live without rice and chilli. So much so that she carries chilli to places that don’t grow them.
  4. When she’s at home, she shops daily and doesn’t like stocking up for days. Sounds like a quintessential Bengali habit? There’s more to relate for Bengalis. Her Bengali favourites include luchi, shukto (she finds it really light and cleansing) and kochuri on the streets.
  5. Though she’s been a guest chef on the Masterchef Australia, she doesn’t think such ‘game shows’ are the right platform to learn to be a good cook or chef.

Reference: Her interview in t2 by Samhita Chakraborty in 2011.

Back to AKLF. I regret turning up late at the well-attended first session. But the short while I witnessed, was thoroughly enjoyable. Christine is good to listen to. She is well-spoken and articulate and has a good sense of humour. Because of her long experience of India, she knows Indian food by heart.

(Left to right) Christine Manfield, Nondon Bagchi, Vir Sanghvi and Sharad Dewan

The Q&A session that followed was interesting too. An old gentleman asked why a nation’s cuisine changes when it crosses the nation’s borders. The reference was to Chinese food which as he had experienced and heard, was bland in China and very unlike what is available by its name in India, even if Chinese cooks make it. Vir said he didn’t agree to the blandness thing completely because food in China has a wide variation in taste. While food in Peiking is bland, Hunan or Szechwan food are spicy. Nevertheless, the question was addressed.

The beginning of the Q&A session

Sharad said the similarity in taste depends a lot on the water. One of the things a dish derives its taste from is water and as that varies with a change in geography. So the taste of food changes too, no matter how authentically it is attempted to prepare.

Christine’s view was that a cuisine in the first place has to appeal to the people having it. So the taste of a cuisine can change in different corners of the world to some extent to adjust to local taste.

Nondon shared an anecdote of his younger days. He was in Chennai on a trip and became broke towards the end of the trip. So they had to survive on cheap local food. He still remembers the sambhar he had there. Back to Kolkata, he has had sambhar at many places cooked by south Indian chefs, but it has never been the same. It is impossible to replicate the original taste far away from an area.

 Interaction with audience

In this context, here is a word on the ‘Kolkata Chinese cuisine’. The early Chinese cuisine of Kolkata, served in restaurants like Nanking in the 20s’ was subtly flavoured, close to what it is in China. But with time, the taste evolved to suit local taste more. Thus green chilli sauce was born, marrying Chinese and Indian flavours, in the hands of a Chinese gentleman living in the city. It was followed by other sauces like chilli garlic and hot garlic which have nothing to do with China but everything to do with Kolkata’s palate.

There was a supposedly short tea break between the sessions. But given the wide array of items served- finger food and dessert, and the large attendance, the queue was slow to move and seemed never to end. There were chicken breast (mini) cutlet (with tartar sauce), small mangsher shingara with tentuler chutney (tamarind chutney), Joynagarer moa, sandesh and mini lemon tart among other things. Not surprisingly, with such a delectable spread the short break was getting longer and the moderator lady had to make repeated calls to the audience to be back on seats.

 Mangsher Shingara (left), chicken breast cutlet (centre down), Joynagarer Moa (Centre up), ), sandesh (right up)
and mini lemon tart (right down)

In the next session, where Christine’s new book ‘Dessert Divas’ was showcased, she was introduced as ‘The queen of decadent desserts’. In Christine’s words, a dessert is ‘seduction through the eyes’. The book is divided into six chapters and four seasonal sections including summer desserts, winter desserts and spring desserts. This session saw a full house.

Over the next half an hour or so, we saw the title pages of the desserts in the book projected on the screen at the right and Christine described one by one. I must mention, the names are imaginatively and wittily given.

(Left to right) Christine, Meera Syal and Sharad Dewan

The Summer Desserts section has desserts like ‘I go to Rio’, a banana-based dessert- ‘Bananarama’, named after a popular rock band, ‘Bite the Pillow’ (The pillow is of marshmallow with lemon tart at the centre). There is one called ‘Sticky Fingers’ made with pomegranate, fig and organic honey. The pomegranate seeds are soaked in the honey and the longer they are in the honey, the better they taste. There was another one called ‘F.I.G. J.A.M.’, which seemed it meant the obvious, but the audience had a good laugh when she expanded the name. It was …..'F**k, I’m good, just ask me'.

“Apples are good in winter”, she said. So the Winter Desserts section had many apple-based preparations. ‘Bithday Suit’ was one of the desserts and the demo that followed was of this. ‘Queen Bee’ and ‘Adam’s Downfall’ were two others.

Spring Desserts had names like Rock the Kasbah, Strawberry Fields Forever, Menage a Trois and Mocha Bomb (A chocolate mousse on the bed of espresso ice cream).

She moved on to the table at the left for the demo of ‘Birthday Suit’. The printed recipe had been circulated to every audience member before the session. She explained every step in great detail and much of her interaction with Meera happened at this stage. It was made of meringue puff, white chocolate mousse, lemon curd (made of egg yolk, castor sugar, lemon juice and cold, unsalted butter), raspberry and raspberry sauce.

Session over, the audience was privileged to taste it. I liked it because of the tangy raspberry sauce.

#AKLF #ChristineManfield #DessertDivas

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