kolkata marigold flower seller ghat

This is Kathleen’s Kolkata


Believe it or not, Indian films have somewhat influenced my choice of travel destinations in India. I enjoy watching Indian films (with English subtitles, of course) but would like to quickly add that I’m not inclined towards Bollywood masala films. Thanks to a Bengali friend living in Delhi who introduced to me an array of critically acclaimed Indian films that portray vibrant and riveting stories; films par excellence in terms of screenplay, directing and acting that may not necessarily perform well in the box-office.

Over a period of time, I discovered more Indian films on my own, and these films happened to feature the city of Kolkata or Calcutta, depending on the era in which the films were based. The first of which was Kahaani, a mystery thriller film about a pregnant woman searching for her missing husband in Kolkata. The entire film kept me on the edge but it was the frenzied, climactic scene of the last day of Durga Puja festival when the Goddess Durga was carried out in the streets of Kolkata amid music, dance, blowing of conches, ululation and married women smearing vermillion powder on each other’s face, left me spell-bound and captivated. It took a few more Kolkata-themed films (which I will share shortly in this post) and three years later that persuaded me to book a flight to Kolkata to experience the festival myself.

kolkata durga puja married bengali women vermillion on faces
Married Bengali women with vermillion powder on their faces

My real-life experience of Durga Puja festival was not as chaotic as the film but more restrained and yet positive. This was because I spent the time pandal-hopping in the suburbs of Kolkata with a local friend. We visited three puja pandals that were walking distance in the neighbourhood, and I was amazed by the creativity and innovation displayed by the communities in building pandal structures of various themes. And the part which I found most interesting, if not, a little poignant, was bidding farewell to Maa Durga. I saw married women wearing red and white sarees, queuing up at the pandals to apply vermillion powder, feeding the Goddess Durga sweets with much love and adoration as one has for her own mother. Devotees worship Durga not only for her victory over evil but as Mother of the Universe as well.

kolkata feeding goddess durga sweets
Feeding sweets to Durga

Another mystery thriller film that intrigued me was Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, a Calcutta whodunit based on an adaptation of a dhoti-wearing, quick-witted private eye character who remains one of the most popular figures of Bengali literature. What I loved about this film is that the production set and cinematography depicted the politically volatile era of Calcutta in the 1940s complete with its old-world charm of vintage cars and trams, Chinatown, smoke-filled coffee houses, structures of crumbling grandeur, all of which I recognised during my trip in 2015.

kolkata indian coffee house
Indian Coffee House

During my walkabouts in Kolkata, I saw the decaying red three-storey brick flats with green shutters known as Bow Barracks; walked along the streets of Tiretta Bazar, home to India’s only Chinatown; and drank (bad) coffee in Indian Coffee House on College Street which incidentally was one of the film locations for Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. As I explored the city over a period of three days, I was enchanted by its heritage architecture, quaint charm, confluence of cultures, a city mixed with modernity and old grandeur, and soon I began to understand that Kolkata has become both muse and leading characters for films nowadays, and to some extent, for my travel experiences as well.

kolkata bow barracks ironing service
At Bow Barracks – ironing service, anyone?

The last film that I would like to mention is Piku, a comedy-drama about the short-tempered Piku, her grumpy and ageing father who suffers from constipation and the owner of a taxi company, as they embark on a road trip from Delhi to Kolkata. By this time, I was able to identify the familiar icons of Kolkata (even though I hadn’t visited the city yet!) but interestingly, the thing that I detected in the film was the Bengali pronunciation of words. Their accent and pronunciation are fascinating, often dominated by “o” and “osh” sounds. “V” is pronounced as “B”. “Pradesh” and “Vijay” are “Pradosh” and “Bijoy”. I had observed and noticed the same when I was in Kolkata. The popular Bengali sweet “rasgulla” sounds like “roshgolla” as if their mouths are full of rashgulla as they speak 🙂

Some may say that film-makers romanticise the old-world charm of Kolkata and that they are not painting the true real life of the city. Perhaps it’s one way to establish a connection with the city – its past, glory and heritage. And for those who are returning to their Bengali roots, maybe the past can help them create a new future for the city and its people.

kolkata victoria memorial
Victoria Memorial

And as for me, the foreigner who passed through Kolkata for a short time, a glimpse into this City of Joy is enough for me to remember and cherish for a long time. And if I do forget Kolkata once in a while, I can always watch the movies 🙂

*This post was written for Maverickbird in Oct 2016 and you can read the original version here.

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Are you planning a trip to Kolkata soon? How about booking your accommodation here?

And did you know that you can download and convert my Kolkata posts into GPS-guided articles? You may find them here and here.

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6 comments

  1. This is such a beautiful take on Kolkata! Being a bengali and a frequent visitor to Kolkata, I could resonate with all your thoughts on Kolkata. There’s this charm in the city which instantly draws you towards itself. This post brought back so many childhood memories when I used to visit every year to meet my relatives!

    P.S You must also watch Lootera and My Japanese Wife, fine movies shot in the villages of West bengal.

    1. Thanks Anu 🙂 I have watched Lootera – absolutely loved it – my favourite scenes were the last half of the movie in Dalhousie. Hmm, My Japanese Wife was too dry for me, unfortunately, hehe..

  2. I love how you’ve braided movies & the your Calcutta together. It adds yet another spark to your wonderful article and it was great fun exploring the place with you! The Durga Puja part is so beautiful, I imagined the ladies offering food to the goddess with so much love and devotion:)

    1. Thanks Divya! To tell you the truth, I was watching Barfi on TV, haha! I was surfing the channel and came across the movie. Then it occurred to me that Kolkata-themed Indian films that got me inspired to travel to Kolkata in the first place 🙂 I had the request to write a guest post on Kolkata but I didn’t know what exactly to write – so luckily this idea came to my mind 🙂

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