At 84 (almost — he’ll celebrate his birthday on 1 February), Pradipta Sankar Sen is hardly the archetypal superannuated man portrayed by Charles Lamb that school kids were once forced to read. Rather, Pradipta Sen, as he is known, is an exceedingly busy man these days, holding meetings, writing memorandums, getting them signed by luminaries, meeting the press, running from one end of the city to the other in trams (his favourite mode of transport), buses, metros, i.e. public transport, in short a hectic schedule that would put men and women half his age to shame.
Sen’s reason to be so driven may raise a smile in many, maybe even a few eyebrows. After all, he is engaged in what he himself knows is a Canute-like attempt at rolling back the waves of time. Yet, he cannot bring himself to give up without a fight. It would not be a life well spent otherwise. So the brows above his fine aquiline nose are furrowed. Will he able to save his beloved Calcutta Film Society from the marauding market forces and keep it in the room it has been located in for the last 60 years?
The room is unprepossessing enough, barely 300 square feet on the second floor of one of those massive mausoleums that once earned Kolkata the epithet of the “City of Palaces” but is now dilapidated and forlorn, with a dark dingy staircase and a creaky lift that often does not work; the brass plate bearing the name ‘Calcutta Film Society’ is dull and lacklustre. Yet, this is still hallowed ground for Pradipta Sen. For this is where Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen and many of cinema’s greats had once debated and discussed films and filmmaking, argued over “good” films and “bad”, whether film was art at all, etc. etc. generating, to put it briefly, a whole new film culture.
Pradipta Sen is the working president of the Calcutta Film Society that Ray and three friends had started on 5 October, 1947 – when Ray was merely an executive in an ad agency, his filmmaking days still a long way off. It was then the country’s sole film society as the one that had been set up in Bombay (now Mumbai) the year before had already folded, giving Calcutta Film Society the accolade of being the longest running film society in the country today. Initially held in the homes of Ray or Chidananda Dasgupta, another founding member who went on to become a reputed film critic, Calcutta Film Society moved into its current premises in 1956.
The film society movement can work in unexpected, uncharted ways. Take the village that practically plays the lead role in Ray’s path-breaking Pather Panchali. As Ray wrote in My Years with Apu, “The village that we selected for the film was recommended to us by one of the founder-members of the Calcutta Film Society, Manoj Mazumdar. It was only four miles from the city which meant we could make daily trips. One afternoon, Manoj took us to the place of a relative of his in the village which was called Boral. Boral was a big village with a school and some of it had acquired the look of a small town and didn’t suit our purpose. But then the mango trees, the jungle of bamboos, open fields, ponds with water lilies in them and old thatched mud houses were exactly right for us. We had been looking for a river near the village as in the novel but we decided to drop that.” Like all educated Bengalis Manoj Mazumdar had read Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali and thanks to his initiation into the mysteries of filmmaking via the film society he was in a position to make a meaningful suggestion.
Pradipta Sen had just joined The Statesman newspaper as a junior sub-editor when Pather Panchali released. He remained a journalist all his working life but his passion lay elsewhere. He, and many like him, some in government service, some in private concerns, some in newspapers, some in insurance, whatever, were the foot soldiers of the city’s cultural cognoscenti. They avidly watched the most recent releases, more than once if they were “good”, saw the latest plays, read their Sartre and Camus, their Manik Bandopadhyay and Jibanananda Das, analysed them threadbare over heated debates in coffee houses and tea shops and provided the critical mass necessary for creative talents to thrive and flourish. As Sen points out emphatically, “Pather Panchali became a hit, a landmark here in Kolkata, long before it was discovered by the world.”
It also gave rise to a film fever that soon had the city’s intelligentsia in its grip. No surprises, therefore, that it was not long before Sen and his friends turned the corner, literally, from the Central Avenue Coffee House in the heart of the city, a walking distance from most offices and across the road from The Statesman, and climbed up the steps of Bharat Bhavan next door to become full-fledged members of the Calcutta Film Society. Pradipta Sen joined in 1958, becoming joint secretary a year later. He has been an office bearer since.
His eyes still light up at the memory of those glory days – the many festivals, the scintillating discussions, the start of the Federation of Film Societies at a table in that very room. They made the film society into a living, breathing, pulsating organisation. That was then. Now they are in danger of being evicted from their historic abode as the Life Insurance Corporation, the current owners of the building, have demanded a “market rent” from them that is way beyond their means. Appeals have been made, a meeting last Monday (18 January) have bought them some time but in his heart of heart Sen knows that the end is nigh.
It’s not just a matter of money. Infusions of money do take place from time to time. A recent well-wisher helped them refurbish their room with a built-in screen and a new projector, a coat of paint, etc. so that they can hold screenings followed by discussions in their own place rather than pay commercial rates for a hall. Membership, even in the heydays, never ran into thousands so membership fees never amounted to much anyway. No, the real problem is the lack of enthusiasm over the society in the city today.
Sen, who needs the help of his grandniece to enter new numbers into his cell phone, is fully aware of Netflix and direct streaming, DVDs and YouTube and the many new-fangled ways that have made watching movies from across the world easy, common place, even mundane. Social media have made face-to-face discussions passé. The much vaunted film culture that the film societies wanted to inculcate is dismissed as intellectual snobbery. Cinema itself has lost its magic. In sum, no one cares for film societies any more.
Sen is also the chairman of the Dover Lane Music Conference, the city’s leading classical music conference, held in the third week of every January. “You get some young people for Dover Lane,” he says. “They don’t stay on for long but at least there is a continuous stream of young people coming in to help. But for the film society, there is little interest. We were the younger generation who took over from Manik-da and Chidu-da and made it into our life’s mission, but there is no one to take over from us.”
Aparna Sen (who is also the daughter of founder-member Chidananda Dasgupta) and Gautam Ghosh and Srijit Mukherjee and other leading lights of today’s filmdom are ready to sign appeals and even make cash donations for the society whenever asked to but they don’t really need it in any way. They had in fact rallied round in 2011 to revive the Calcutta Film Society which had been languishing even then but like all such do-gooding efforts, it did not take long to fizzle out.
Whether the Life Insurance Corporation cuts them slack vis-a-vis the rent or not, the flame, Sen is sadly aware, cannot be kept burning for long. His biggest regret: what will happen to all those rare, priceless books and magazines that they have collected over the years?