Indranil Roychowdhury’s 31 minutes long film City of Love was released for international audiences on youtube last year, tracking the journey of a young woman and her family between Kolkata (India) and Homs (Syria). Asmita Das reviews.
A drone camera pans across rows and rows of buildings over a crowded neighbourhood of Kolkata. The shot (cover image) continues and soon the scenario shifts and the location is no more Kolkata, but Homs (Syria). The smooth change in location makes it difficult for the careless eye to notice the shift immediately, had the subtitles not been there. But it does not take long for one to notice the major difference between the two scenarios – lack of life. While a bird’s-eye-view showed Kolkata as a thriving city full of life and love, the glaring lack of it marked the landscape of Homs (image 2) with its homes hollowed out, a trail of destruction and devastation – a graveyard.
Bhalobashar Shohor (City of Love) is a short film by Indranil Roychowdhury that brilliantly captures the sense of alienation one can feel even in the middle of a crowd. Caught between love and war, the three characters (the protagonist, Annapurna; her husband, Adil; and her daughter) caught in between, battle out the harshest truth of modern reality. She fell in love and eloped with a man who worked with a construction company and was posted under a four-year contract in faraway Damascus (modern day Syria), in the ancient city of Homs. All she dreamed was a better life, a family with the man she loved. They have a beautiful daughter but their happiness is soon thrown asunder by the unrest that followed with the Syrian Civil War of 2011, and her dream of setting up a family of her own is shattered. She is urged to go back to her country with their comatose daughter (who is struck by shrapnel) at the earliest by her husband, who could not make it with them as he was not fit to fly because of his injuries. And then began her long wait interspersed with visits and phone calls to the Syrian embassy. A new fight begins as she struggles to keep herself afloat and continue her daughter’s expensive medication with almost little to no hope, and wait for her husband to return and join them. She comes back to her parental home as a guest, obliged to have been accepted back and given a roof above her head. Her alienation in her hometown is complete and one is reminded of the dialogue between the two lovers where he believed that once one leaves Kolkata they never come back while she believed that they do if they wanted to. This is, however, shown in restrospect much later in the film when the finality of the situation had struck.
The film opens with a singular voice singing Jasimuddin’s popular folk song from Bangladesh (and originally recorded by SD Burman) Rongila Rongila Rongila Re. Its lyrics ran as – “Amaare chhariyare bondhu / koi gela re bondhu” (O my enchanter / Where did you leave me and go, my friend), clearly establishing the pangs of separation the film engages with. This beautiful rendition is punched with wails of siren and a radio broadcast in Arabic. Within a few moments, as the audience registers these independent bits of sound, they are transposed between the plains of Bengal (on both sides of the international border) to the barren bomb ridden city of Homs in Syria. Not much of Homs is shown at the time when they were living there, only to be told that till before 2011 it was no different than Kolkata or Dhaka or Lahore or Mumbai where millions every evening returned to their loved ones. They still do in Kolkata, in Mumbai, or Lahore or Dhaka but not anymore in Homs where only the remnants of a 2000-year-old history remains in debris. The folk tune comes back in the background to haunt the audience.
The muted expressions speak louder than the few dialogues that are uttered in the film, making the gripping portrayal of a family decimated by war and violence as real as possible. Much is spoken through the city’s soundscape and the ambient sounds that capture the essence of present day Kolkata. The city with its 300-year-old history and teeming population continues to live each day; the everyday existence of its people rarely paused by reports of war or bombardment – life goes on. For those who are affected, like our protagonist, life comes to a stop; their existences determined by the tensed conversation with diplomatic representatives and the long harrowing wait. What seems far away suddenly becomes too close to home. The refugee crisis and tension in South Asia has been broiling for quite some time, and the film touches a raw chord without any obvert mention of the same. That is what makes the film universally appealing. It reaches out to the human emotions of separation, alienation, the desire for a sense of belonging, loss, etc. The final blow is struck with the caller’s (audiences by then know that it could only be the emotionless reticent voice of the embassy representative) voice muted by the passing train as she strains to hear the inevitable that she was refusing to accept till then. She quietly breaks the pola (the red bangle worn by married women in Bengal) in the dead of the night. But her quietude was the lull before the storm that was brewing within her, and the following scene, which some may say borders on the grotesque, makes us witness to a mother snuffing the life out of her child in a deathly embrace.
The film is an Indo-Bangladeshi collaboration with stellar performances by notable actors like Jaya Ahsan, Ritwick Chakraborty, Sohini Sarkar and Arun Mukherjee. It is an independent production and the director has avoided the usual distributor-producer circuit by releasing the film on YouTube. He makes an appeal for support, both through viewership and finance, so that many more such projects can be successfully undertaken. The video has already received 300,000 views till date and nothing seems to be stopping it. The universal appeal is evidence of the demand for such films; the need of the hour is to spell out the shared trauma of those affected amidst the millions who remain unaffected and go on with their lives.
[All images used here are screen grabs from Bhalobasar Sohor]
Asmita Das is a researcher at Film Studies, Jadavapur University. her doctoral research centres on the Muslim Social. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.