The flavour of Kolkata

The flavour of Kolkata
The city is known for its old alleys. One such is shot by Atanu Pal.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The rise of Bengali neo-mainstream cinema

Which was the biggest blockbuster coming out of Tollygunge in 2015?

No prizes for guessing. It’s Belasheshe. It generated an unprecedented buzz and ran well for months. Such was its resonance from the Bengal box office that Eros – a big production and international distribution house in Mumbai picked it up and released nationally. The biggest of production houses in Kolkata acknowledged its exceptional success and its amazing ability to attract the non-Bengali audience.

(Source: The film’s Facebook page)

Now, which was the second biggest success in 2015?

The position was shared by Rajkahini and Shudhu Tomari Jonyo where the latter was an out-and-out potboiler and the only big success to boast of among so-called mainstream releases.

Cut to 2016. The same questions come back.

The numero uno was Praktan. This time it was nationally distributed in 40 centres right at the time of release in May by Eros. A smart move that paid off big time. It collected Rs 6.5 crores in the box office till the first seven days of October1.

The second biggest was Zulfiqar. Its collection crossed Rs 3 crores in 9 days flat1.

None of the movies named above (except Shudhu Tomari Jonyo) fits in with the perception of conventional Bengali mainstream cinema. However they struck a chord with a wider audience than so called alternative or urban cinema and they were lapped up by the audience week after week.

Is there a trend that has started showing?

There is. In two years on the trot a new kind of mainstream cinema overshadowed the conventional mainstream flicks that fuel the stardom of the names like Dev, Jeet and Ankush. Remakes of south Indian movies – a staple diet of Bengali mainstream cinema– are clearly losing the plot and a major success is becoming more and more elusive with passing time. None of Jeet’s movies clicked big time at least in Bengal in 2015 and 2016 (Badshah, for which he had made news with his Rs 1 crore fee reportedly did well in Bangladesh but not Bengal). Other than the saving grace - Shudhu Tomari Jonyo in 2015 Dev hasn't met with great success too in the kind of cinema that built his stardom.

The neo-mainstream cinema with good content is connecting with audiences far and wide, beyond familiar urban territories (commonly referred to in the trade as ‘Howrar opare’) and made with reasonable budgets they are leading to producers smiling all the way to the bank. They are being loved by the urban and suburban viewers, classes and masses alike.The credit for this feat goes to the respective filmmakers -Shiboprosad-Nandita of Belasheshe and Praktan and Srijit Mukherji for Rajkahini and Zulfiqar.

This genre has started adding glimmer to the pathetic state of popular Bengali cinema thanks to the dominance of poor south Indian remakes for a painfully long time. Evidently the films by Shiboprosad-Nandita and Srijit  brought back a large section of people to the theatres in Kolkata and districts (for instance, places like Baruipur and Seoraphuli) who had lost the habit of watching movies in theatres.

In terms of dimension of release too they are showing signs to be a potential game-changer. Leveraging the impact of Belasheshe, the makers of Praktan released it in 101 theatres in Bengal - unprecedented for this kind of cinema. Such was the excitement in the trade with its release that even a shut down theatre in Agarpara (north suburbs of Kolkata) re-opened with a hope of a good time screening the movie. When Zulfiqar was releasing, Srijit rued the number of theatres it was allocated vis-a-vis Gangster from the same production house. Zulfiqar got 75 theatres while Gangster got 125. When the box office results came in, Zulfiqar left the latter much behind validating the director’s wish of a longer theatre list.

If this trend of neo-mainstream cinema gets bigger in the next few years, there will be a paradigm shift in the mainstream cinema market driven by better content. It will be good for the audience as they will have a bigger and better choice of movies.

Half a dozen films are scheduled to release this year which can be categorized in this genre, made by directors like Shiboprosad-Nandita, Kaushik Ganguly, Srijit and Anik Dutta (of Bhooter Bhobishyot fame). Looking forward to see if they are able to fan the trend and make it bigger and stronger. 

The role the audience can play in this scenario is spreading the word about the movies before and after release in their own circles including social media. Audience contribution in raising awareness can be critical in the success of this kind of cinema. There are cinema groups and pages dedicated to Bangla cinema on Facebook where they can participate. We the Audience is one such group. This will surely help this trend bloom into a major change.

1. Ei Samay, 9th October 2016

#TollyDiaries #BanglaCinema           

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Kolkata sandwich trail part 1 : Chandni Chowk-Esplanade

This is one culinary influence Kolkata seems to have got from Mumbai that I am happy about. Mumbai loves its sandwiches and it’s not hard to spot a roadside sandwich stall in many parts of the city. I am fond of the sandwiches that Mumbai offers.

As it is, I am always on the lookout for healthier snacking and sandwich happens to be one of my favourite snacks. I find it a happy marriage of health and taste.

It’s pleasing to note that Kolkata is increasingly warming up to this delicious, filling and pocket-friendly snack. In the last five years or so a couple of roadside sandwich stalls have opened in Chandni Chowk-Esplanade area adding more variety to the already available wide number of snacking / light meal choices. There are five, all on a straight line from the Bentinck-Street-Ganesh Chandra Avenue crossing to where Bentinck Street ends in Esplanade. So, this stretch can easily be named ‘The sandwich zone’. All the stalls make the sandwich in front of you and offer a generic menu of grilled vegetarian sandwiches - veg sandwich, special veg sandwich (with mayonnaise), veg cheese sandwich, corn sandwich, paneer sandwich etc. The fresh-from-oven sandwiches are served with potato chips and tomato and chilli sauce on the side. The taste and pricing are more or less the same in all the places, so if you find one stall busy, you may walk down to the next. The pricing is honest – it starts from as low as Rs 25 (veg sandwich) which is the cost of an egg roll.

They pat some bread spread on the bread slices, put sliced vegetables - tomato, onion, carrot and capsicum between them, sprinkle spices (which add to the delicious taste) and put it to the griller. Add Rs five and get a squeeze of mayonnaise and another Rs five to get a cheese slice in your sandwich. If you are looking for a quick, light meal, one should suffice. It’s a favourite with office-going and field executives.

The first shop I noticed is on Prafulla Sarkar Street since my workplace shifted to the area nearly seven years back. It is next to a cigarette shop and close to White House which is what the ABP office is known as. This sandwich shop is definitely the oldest in the area and makes tasty stuff, but my complaint is the sandwich bread it uses – much smaller.  Other than this, one of the early starters is on Ganesh Chandra Avenue, at the crossing of Bentinck Street. Facing Bentinck Street standing on GC Avenue it comes on the left footpath. It is quite in demand but what puts me off is that it takes the longest among all to serve. My favourite one is located just diagonally across the road (on RN Mukherjee Road), called Birju Stall.  This is very popular too and takes the least time to serve.

 Birju stall

The next one is opposite erstwhile Orient cinema (now a commercial building), opposite the Princep Street-Bentinck Street crossing. I’ve been here too and they do a good job.

Since I love my chicken grilled sandwich and none of these roadside stalls but one serves it, my go-to place is a small, modest eatery on GC Avenue called Café Upper Crust (It has the Upper Crust cake shop at the ground floor) and you can find it on the left in a few minutes walk from Bentinck Street to CR Avenue. The cheese chicken grilled sandwich they make is finger-licking good and comes at a pocket-friendly price of Rs 80. It qualifies as a hidden gem of the area for the sandwich, if nothing else.

 Cheese Chicken Grilled Sandwich at Café Upper Crust 

Back to the street and coming to the exceptional one as mentioned in the above paragraph. It’s named Bombay Grilled Sandwich and located opposite Tipu Sultan Mosque at Esplanade, in front of the cloth merchant Akberally’s, serving non-veg sandwiches. The only variety is chicken though, but that’s none short of an exciting discovery on Kolkata streets as I haven’t found a single roadside stall elsewhere serving chicken sandwich.

Idiosyncratically, it is attached to another sandwich stall serving veg sandwiches only, called Sandwich Hut, and they appear to be from the same owner. The chicken sandwich which I had from Bombay Grilled Sandwich recently had a generous serving of succulent tiny pieces of mayonnaise-soaked chicken, with the usual vegetables and it made love with my palate effortlessly. The bread was a shade smaller than regular sandwich bread which is used in other stalls, but who cares when you get that goodness, that too at an incredible Rs 40!

 My grilled chicken sandwich in the making at Bombay Grilled Sandwich

#sandwich #Kolkatasandwich #snacking #Kolkatasnacks#healthysnack #streetfood #hiddengem

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Conversations with Srijit Mukherji

“Dhur, ora abar audience naki, audience toh amra….Dekhechho tomaay je tweet-gulo korechhe taate kirawm banan bhool!” (You call them your audience! Have you noticed their tweets? They can’t even spell right in English! Mind you, it’s us who are THE audience you can call your own.)

His core audience is this possessive about his work! And he probably realized it in this fashion only after his last release Zulfiqar (October 2016) – a double adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser and Anthony and Cleopatra into an unabashed mainstream movie – his first full-fledged attempt to mainstream cinema by his own admission. 

The above is a glimpse of the candour with which the director spoke in this recent chat show.

Right from the day Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, a well-known performing artist, conceptualiser and director of refined and innovative cultural productions, posted on his Facebook profile that the last edition of his live talk show ‘Conversations’ in 2016 would feature director Srijit Mukherjee as the guest, requests kept on pouring on his timeline for blocking seats. I know Sujoy for a long time as I’ve organized shows directed, anchored and performed by him, and I was aware of his live talk show for a long time. So, I wasted no time to confirm my presence.

Conversations, as Sujoy says, is the only live talk show in Kolkata.

I walked in at The Palms, the multicuisine restaurant on Southern Avenue, the venue, well in time around mid-December. Someone in a black shirt walked in alone just ahead of me. I noticed that it was Srijit.

The medium-sized banquet kept filling steadily and as Sujoy took the mike just past 7.30, not only the seats were full, but many were standing at the rear.

Conversations started on the most speculated topic about Srijit at this point of time – his Mumbai stint – Has he shifted base to Mumbai for greener pastures? Will he not come back?

Srijit clarified that he has not shifted base at all and has no intention of doing so now. He shared that the first time he went to Mumbai was when he was offered to do a Hindi remake of his niche film Hemlock Society – a black comedy. It did not work out as the actor who would play the protagonist suggested a few changes in the script. Since then it has been a wait for the most successful director of Bangla cinema of the present times to make the first Hindi film on own creative terms. And Rajkahini, which made Mahesh Bhatt ecstatic, gave him the right opportunity. As it is well known, its remake is under production in Hindi as Begum Jaan with Vidya Balan in the titular role under the banner of Mukesh Bhatt and Mahesh Bhatt. Srijit added, the character of Begum Jaan was originally written for Vidya, which explains the abundance of Hindi lines said by the character played by Rituparna Sengupta in Rajkahini.

I was aware that this was not the first time Srijit’s film was being remade in another language. The one before Rajkahini, and the first, was Hemlock Society in Marathi. The director informed that it was named Welcome Zindagi.

The director revealed that he had to shoot Begum Jaan on a shoestring budget compared to Hindi cinema. He, in fact, has always had to work within a tight budget in his seven-year-long directorial career (Rajkahini is known as a prime example) and has learnt to live with it. To be more precise, he added, except for the cost of cast, the Hindi version wasn’t much ahead of the Bangla original in terms of budget. Then the film suffered huge adversities in the making (again, a fate of some of Srijit’s films). The director of photography quit the unit days before the first schedule and the set of the haveli where most of the film happens, erected in Jharkhand, was devastated by strom. To put it in perspective the director quipped, “It was resemblant of what we see of the puja pandal of Mudiali during its making in the month of August”. The shoot for a day had a plan A and a plan B depending on real time condition of the shooting zone. The cast and crew went through immense hardship through the shooting and the director saluted the spirit of Vidya in pulling it off.

Srijit informed that talks are on to remake Hemlock Society and Chotushkone (his immensely successful thriller) in Hindi. He is also researching on Noti Bonodini for a film on this legendary theatre actress from Kolkata.

Around this time, Sujoy, who was steering the conversation deftly, turned to the audience and invited questions. Someone asked Srijit whether he would be casting directors as some of the central characters in the Chotushkone remake, to which Srijit informed that things were different in Mumbai. Here in Bengali cinema, also in Marathi and Malayalam cinema, directors are revered like star actors, while in Mumbai it is a star-driven system. So it won’t generate as much of curiosity as it did when the famous directors Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghosh played the protagonists in Chotushkone. He was quick to add that Sanjay Leela Bhansali was a bright exception.

He talked of his experience of waching Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of the friends he had made in Mumbai, on the sets. The whole cast and crew is scared of him and his obsession with details is the stuff legend is made of. It can so happen that he spotted one of the many group dancers in the rear of the floor not doing his/ her step right and as a result he will halt the take and do a re-take even if it is the fourteenth one. Srijit named an A-list actress who appears completely different when Sanjay is on the sets. Sanjay even shows dance steps his heroine if he is not satisfied with the take. Many don’t know that Sanjay is good at choreography and he directed the song sequences of 1942 : A Love Story.

Sujoy asked Srijit about the most hotly debated topic about him of the times – what prompted him to make a hardcore mainstream flick like Zulfiqar (released in October 2016). At the outset, Srijit admitted that Zulfiqar was unlike his other films and it didn’t work at a critical acclaim level and it evoked extremely polarized reactions. Many people from his core audience had problems accepting that he had made a mainstream movie. But the director set the record straight saying that he really wanted to have a shot at mainstream cinema.

Elaborating on the audience reactions to Zulfiqar, the director disclosed that there was a sharp divide between his core audience and the new audience he got with the film (like those in small centres like Baruipur and Seoraphuli). In the age of social media, everything is open to public. So the tweets and Facebook posts praising the film were noticed by his core audience members many of who were unhappy that the film was attracting such quality of audience. Srijit quoted a representative remark to show how strongly dismissive a section of his core audience was of this new audience –“Dhur, ora abar audience naki, audience toh amra….Dekhechho tomaay je tweet-gulo korechhe taate kirawm banan bhool!” (You call them your audience! Have you noticed their tweets? They can’t even spell right in English! It’s us who are the audience for you.). The director, however, made it a point to acknowledge in the show that he owned his new audience just as he owned his core audience.

The director urged the audience in the show to let him make his kind of cinema. “Please don’t box me, let me be”, said he.  

Since he now has a body of work built since 2010, Sujoy asked him to pick his favourites. Srijit stated that it was like picking his favourite children, however, if it had to be done, it would be Jaatishwar, Hemlock Society, Baishe Shrabon, Chotushkone and  Rajkahini.

The conversation was at the last lap. Sujoy invited questions from the audience and many pitched in. Noted film critic and journalist Shoma A Chatterjee attended the show and she shared her honest view on Srijit that he could do much better. She added that directors shouldn’t act as protagonist in their own films as that runs the risk of narcissism. Srijit gracefully accepted this and revealed a piece of information for the first time – When he was making Autograph (his debut film), Shoma wrote a wrong email to him with a word of encouragement. She narrated her story of struggle in it. Srijit acknowledged that it was inspirational to him.

Post event, the director was surrounded for photographs, selfies and more questions which seemed endless and showed the stardom he enjoys in his city.

There was some refreshment for the audience post-show from The Palms. I liked the succulent and done-to-perfection chicken kebabs and the fried vegetable wontons.

Finally, one line for the host - It was such a delightful and insightful conversation with a sprinkle of wit and humour (by both the host and the guest) because of the excellent conversationist Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee. I am looking forward to the next season of Conversations. 

#TollyDiaries #livetalkshow #conversation #SrijitMukherjee #Cinema #BengaliCinema

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Thursday, January 05, 2017

The khiri kebab in UP Bihar Restaurant

I first heard of this dish more than five years back in a business meeting with Nizam's manager. He strongly recommended us to check it out at their adjacent restaurant Moghul Garden (which is basically the section of Nizam's that serves beef) in New Market. He also mentioned that it was unlike a beef kebab as it was made of cow’s udder.

About two years back, my deputy was raving about this eatery with a strange name - UP Bihar Restaurant. She had loved the beef dishes she had there the previous evening and being a fellow foodie, mentioned it as a must-visit place serving awesome khiri kebab. I bookmarked the restaurant mentally to check it out.

I still couldn’t make it there though I passed by it or took a nearby road countless times. Then t2 (the tabloid supplement of The Telegraph) gave the final nudge. In a one-page article earlier this week on beef delicacies to look for this season which covered UP Bihar Restaurant, khiri kebab was the only dish mentioned if one visited the restaurant in the evening. I turned up the same evening.

It’s a few outlets away from Nizam’s. An old and worn-out place which has resisted change with time and pretty downmarket in appearance and nature. It appears to be a restaurant owned by a Muslim family from Bihar or UP and frequented by Muslim customers for its beef dishes among other things. The place is not small and has old Kolkata-style small curtained cabins for family dining at one side. It serves the cheapest of meals to the blue-collar working class as evident from the multiple printouts pasted on the walls showing rice and dal available at Rs 8 and 6 only. There are some basics in place but - attired waiters and mouth freshener post-dining for instance.

The khiri kebab that came quickly looked inviting. And the first few bites told me why it was such a gushed-about dish. It’s unlike any beef dish I had experienced before (largely because of the body part it is made of). The small chunks of meat finished on tawa with onion rings and a dash of chilli were soft, juicy, a wee bit chewy and worked a lethal charm for the tastebuds. The chewiness is in fact part of the sensorial experience (it’s sort of what you get in gizzard). There were tiny burns at places but the taste merits overlooking it.

If you are a passionate foodie looking for just good food and don’t care for the ambience for the sake of it, go and savour the khiri kebab in which UP Bihar Restaurant proclaims specialization. And you don’t get better value for money with twenty pieces at just Rs 92! Over everything, it will give you a pure old Kolkata experience which I love!

My next visit doesn't look too far and I would like to check out its beef biryani in particular.

#khirikebab #beef #beefkebab #delicacy #HiddenGem #OldKolkata #Kolkatafood #NewMarket

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