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Setting the Story

July 31, 2012


A still from Kahaani (2012)

For Bollywood certain details like the background of some characters or the city they belong to isn’t important beyond a point. The only time the location gets some importance is when it’s a part of the title like Howrah Bridge (1958), An Evening in Paris (1967) or Love in Tokyo (1966). When that’s not the case, Bombay is automatically assumed to be the location for most Hindi films irrespective of the genre or the period and when the going gets boring, Bollywood travels out of Bombay to set a story - Delhi 6 (2009), Love in Tokyo, Johar Mehmood in Hong Kong (1971), Ab Dilli Door Nahin (1957).

For Bollywood sometimes the simple act of specifying the story’s non-Bombay location ends up being the difference between a regular film and a good one. Imagine films like Kabul Express (2006), Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Dev D (2009), Paan Singh Tomar (2012), or Kahaani (2012) and the first thing that strikes you is just how intricately the location of the film was woven into its plot. The unapologetic ravines of Chambal and the harshness of a war torn Afghanistan are as important to Paan Singh Tomar and Kabul Express as the leading characters. Kahaani takes places during the run-up to Durga Puja, a time when Kolkata truly comes alive and that fervor runs parallel to the main story. Kahaani’s plot of Vidya Bagchi’s (Vidya Balan) relentless search for her missing husband, a computer analyst, seems to have found its ideal setting in a city where a lot of the past is lost. Interestingly much like her search for a loved one Kahaani’s visual narrative is manic enough to mirror the sentiment. Be it the locations, the people on the streets, the iconic symbolism in the form of tram, traffic jams, Metro, hand-pulled rickshaws, Kumartuli craftsmen making clay idols, luchi and chai on the streets Kahaani’s cinematography (Sethu) and production design (Kaushik Das, Subrata Barik) manages to capture the passion of Kolkata. What also works in the film’s favor as far as depicting Kolkata goes is the use of resident actors who get the local enunciation, something that ‘Bollywood’ repeatedly takes for granted bang on.

Bollywood might Bombay in its films right from titles like Bombay to Goa and Bombay 405, Bombay Boys, and songs like Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan (CID, 1956) or Yeh Bombay Sehar Haadson Ka Sehar (Haadsaa, 1983) but ironically it’s Kolkata that is the old favorite of filmmakers. The Calcutta connection between some of the most iconic Indian films like Do Bhiga Zameen (1953), Devdas (1955), Pyaasa (1957) and Howrah Bridge (1958), Kabuliwala (1961), Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) and 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) only shows just how much cinema loved that city.

A few years ago it was Mani Ratnam’s Yuva (2004) that used students politics in modern day Kolkata as it’s setting but Pradeep Sarkar’s Parineeta (2005) is what truly rekindled the city as a location in Hindi cinema after eons. A period film, Parineeta went overboard to portray its Bengali flavor and unlike Kahaani it never really used the imagery of Calcutta as a true character in its storytelling. As a Bengali himself, Ghosh could have been naturally inclined to go over the top but somewhere his attitude of taking ‘‘Kolkata for granted” enabled him to use the right amount of familiarity with the city in order to portray it as a character. Chinatown (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Casablanca (1942) – some films are forever associated with their locations and Kahaani joins Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992) and Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) amongst the other loved Indian films that will be connected with Kolkata for a long time.

Frequently overlooked in the light of performances, writing and other aspects of filmmaking, the setting of the story adds a silent albeit a very powerful dimension. Imagine if BR Chopra has shot Naya Daur (1957) in a studio rather than the real location that was used…the film wouldn’t have been half as powerful. The impact of any location on a film can be gauged from Sholay’s (1975) Ramgarh and Champaner in Lagaan (2001). A fusion of many Indian villages, both Rangarh and Champaner might be figments of their writers mind but they are as real as Sydney from Dil Chata Hai (2001) or the dark Mumbai underbelly from Satya (1998) or Company (2002).

Every time Bollywood gives the locations of its stories something more than just a passing thought, the films turned out better. The spaces we occupy end up having a major influence on our lives and if our films claim to be about people like you and I, then its high time Bollywood thought of locations as something more than incidental.


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Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.