In a long active life of eighty four years, I have lived in many cities. Each has contributed to my life significantly but I think that Kolkata was the most bountiful so far as my love affair with Film is concerned. That started when I got married in 1940 and moved to Patna where my husband was working. Patna of forties was hard on women as I learnt very soon. My husband Kashinath was out on a business trip, being used to the ways of Bombay, I took out his bicycle and ventured out to see the town. I soon got into trouble as ‘Janana’ on bicycle in those days was unthinkable. Children started shouting and asking people to come and see the strange sight. They started weaving in and out of my path. I started seeing films because there was no other leisure activity that I could pursue and we started discussing films. When I went to Leeds University on a government scholarship in 1946, I joined its film society and soon acquired some idea of film aesthetics and a passion for cinema. On returning to Patna in 1949, some film aficionados like me got together to start Patna Film Society (PFS) with Arun Roy Chaudhury and me as its joint secretaries. When I started working in the Education Ministry in Delhi, there was a repeat exercise for setting up the Delhi Film Society (DFS). In 1959, when the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI) was established, Chidanand Dasgupta and I were elected as joint secretaries with Satyajit Ray as its president.
Prior to leaving Patna, I had heard about a new kind of film that Satyajit was making; but I saw it first at a morning show at the Regal Theatre in Delhi. It bowled me over. I saw it again the next day and once again with friends. We showed it and its sequel Aparajito in DFS. We invited Ray and he came with 3 reels of Paras Pathar and talked to our members. Pity we never recorded the talk. As the secretary of the DFS I wrote and asked him whether we could have a preview of his new film Devi. He promptly agreed and sent the print even before its commercial release to which Krishna Menon and Aruna Asaf Ali came by inviting themselves. As FFSI corresponded with embassies and Information Ministry, I was in touch with him by letters but it was strictly on the basis of Mr. Ray and Mrs. Mulay. The relationship became more personal when I came to Calcutta on transfer from Bombay as the regional censor officer. I was initially glad about being deputed by my Ministry to Censor office as I thought I could see uncut films, and not only see them free but be paid for seeing them. I soon learnt that it was a mirage as very few of the films that I saw were the kind that I would have selected for a film society screening. But there were other gains. In Calcutta, I had more time than in Bombay and learnt a lot by watching and discussing films with Bengali directors like Arundhati Mukherjee, Tarun Majumdar, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. My Bombay friend Rita Ray (Kobita Sarkar, the writer) had also moved to Calcutta. When foreign delegations came around, I being the highest ranking officer in films was asked to look after them and I tagged along quite happily with them to studios and meeting with directors. Satyajit in particular was very helpful. During this period, Mr. Ray became Manik, Bijoya his wife became Monku and Mrs Mulay was replaced by Vijaya. Manik had an excellent library from which I borrowed books. He also gave me his copy of Ashanisanket that he had long thought of making into a film. He had marked in the book the portions he would keep and those that he would omit or change. He thought it would be a good exercise for a student of cinema like me. I read his script of Alien. The film never got made because of counter script claims. Anybody who is familiar with Manik’s scripts would know that the Alien script bears his mark right from the first page. I am glad that a German artist Matti Braun has put up a visual show in Dublin Project (of art promotion) based on Manik’s script from 1st to 3rd September 2005. I understand that it was well attended and liked. (Those interested can check on http://www.project.ie ).
Thus the first precious gift of Calcutta to me was these friendships; I learnt a lot about filmmaking and film aesthetics in Calcutta and in particular from Manik and Rita. Another director of international fame whom I met in Calcutta and who contributed to my understanding of cinema was Louis Malle. He came to India in 1967 as a member of the French Film Delegation. It is ironical that my interest in Cinema began on acc-ount of restrictions on women in Patna and that my contact with Malle was established because I was the ogre- the censor officer. The word Censor was like a red rag to a bull so far as Louis Malle was concerned. I was asked to meet the delegation and arrange screening of the French films that they had brought. When Arun Pramanik the then FFSI secretary and I met the delegation at the airport, he did not know who I was. Manik was away in Phillipines to receive the Magsaysay award. Malle was disappointed that he would not be able to meet him. All was well till the festival began. By then Malle had learnt who I was. He could barely wait to snub me. That night at the state dinner, given by the chief minister of West Bengal, he was sitting next to me. On the cover of the festival brochure (it was designed by Manik), he wrote ‘I hate all censors’ and passed it to me. I was taken aback but knowing the troubles he had with censors, I kept my cool, even managed a smile and asked him how he wanted me to take his remark –laugh it off as a poor joke or neglect it with a stiff upper lip? He was contrite and apologised immediately. I think he made inquiries about me and probably learnt that I was not bad as censor officers go and to boot I was a film buff. We soon became very good friends and our friendship survived via letters, telephone calls and mutual visits till he died in 1994.That at the ripe old age of seventy eight I embarked on a mega research project is entirely due to Louis.
At a film festival in Montreal, as I was watching a film on Renoir, in the portion relating to The River, Adrienne Corri describes in glowing terms how Renoir who was depressed by his American experience revived in Calcutta, I felt that somebody (not me, since I was an old woman of seventy three) should research about what is it that India has given to such talented and sensitive persons like Renoir or Rossellini. But Malle’s death in 1994 in L.A. compelled me to take the project on. He had terminal cancer and when I spoke to him, he asked me when I would visit him. I planned to go but he died before I could. After his death, I was going through his letters. It was then that I realised how India had helped him to get rid of his devils: identity crisis and suicide. The information had come to me in bits and pieces and I had not grasped its significance. Manuel, his son had also sent me Malle’s travel diary. Nobody else had theses unique sources. So I started writing up a research project and looking for funding. India made significant difference to later films of both Renoir and Malle. It is a pity that Malle’s India films have been condemned without being seen in India. I have discussed all these things with written record of both Renoir and Malle in my book on the project ‘As Others See Us’ that I am dedicating to Ray and Malle. It is a study of how India has been imagined in films made by foreigners from 1901 to 2000. I have collected information from all over the world, and located nearly 900 films (not videos except two: a Polish one and a French one). I analyse the societal factors of each era that influenced imagining of India. This mega research work would not have happened had I not been in Calcutta when Malle came. This is the second great gift of Kolkata.
The third gift has been my entry into filmmaking. As a censor officer I saw more trash than genuine articles. I felt that if I were to make a film it could not be much worse. Both Manik and Louis encouraged me to indulge my desire. My Calcutta office was at the Akashvani Bhawan; as I passed along the river Hoogly I would sometimes see the amazing phenomenon of tidal bore. I was intrigued by it and wanted to know why on some days the tide came as a rising wall of water on one side of its banks and on some days it came normally. None of my friends knew. So I spoke to officers of the Port commissioners of Calcutta. They were delighted with my query and drew diagrams to explain how the surface tension of water, its celerity which in combination with the amount of silt in the river bed cause the phenomenon. I did not fully understand what they were telling me. But I researched and learnt about it. I thought that there may be other ‘buddus’ like me who would like to know; so I embarked on my enterprise after going back to my old job in Education Ministry. But film is a costly business. I was not rich but was very rich in my friends and supportive daughters. My two daughters, Shree and Suhasini, Dr. Amitabh Sen, Shantanu Ray, Gopal Dutia, advanced money that was a loan if I could return it otherwise it was a gift. Others contributed in kind. Gangubai Hangal gave music; Kobita Sarkar wrote the commentary, Louis Malle sent some negative stock. Madhav Kunte an engineer cum media man from Pune did excellent animation. Bidesh Sarkar, a young enthusiast agreed to handle production problems; he also roped in Shakti Banerjee for camera and Modhubabu for editing. The shoestring budget could not support a synch camera or a good sound recordist on locations. All sound was recorded on cassettes by amateurs like Michel Ruquet a French film buff then in Calcutta. I knew that the quality of field sound needed to be compensated by a very good voice for the commentary. Satyajit had a lovely deep voice and he spoke impeccable English which sounded Indian but was not a caricature of it as it is in many foreign films. I approached Manik and asked whether he would speak the commentary.
“How long is the commentary?” He asked.
“About 4 minutes or so.” I replied.
“And the film; how long is it?”
“About 18 minutes”. I said.
“Good, that is how it should be. But I am very busy at the moment. Can’t you get somebody else?”
I kept quiet. “Taakaa nahi boozi?” (No money I presume). He asked searchingly.
Again I kept quiet. Finally, he laughed and said, “Okay, I have to be in Bombay for some work. We will do the recording then.”
He kept his promise. Not merely because I was his friend but it was my first film and to him it was important to help anybody who seriously wanted to make an independent film. Later, he spoke commentary for Bansi Chandragupta’s film on Kapil Sagar. But this was the first time he spoke commentary for any other film except his own.
This film was sent by the Government of India to Mannheim film festival and was later bought by the Films Division. I could repay my loans. But most important it taught me how a good educational film can widen the horizons of learners. Making of the film on a shoestring budget also taught me about different aspects of filmmaking; I also learnt humility in criticizing films of others especially if they were their first films. The Tidal Bore was a descriptive informative film. Later I made others that challenged and stimulated students/children to think. It also led me satellite television and other exciting enterprises in the area of educational technology. But it all began in Calcutta.
Vijaya Mulay (Akka)
Pioneer of Film Society Movement of India. She did her Masters from University of Leeds, U.K. She worked with Film Censor Board, UNICEF. Made films like The Tidal Bore, headed Centre for Educational Technology, took up several research works on cinema. Received Life Time Achievement Award from India’s Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Based in Canada and New Delhi.