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The Legend of 1900

1900

It is a rare film that can capture my attention from the first shot, and hold on to it with such unflagging determination, till the very last. The Legend of 1900 is one such film. It just takes me in, lures me into its whimsical world… with some help from Ennio Morricone’s beautiful music, Lajos Koltai’s breathtaking cinematography, solid performances, and of course, the protagonist’s deep, soulful eyes.

I would not generally call Tim Roth beautiful but he is so beautiful in this film. He plays Danny Goodman T.D. Lemon 1900… the young handsome pianist… who was born and brought up on a ship and never sets foot on land. 1900 spends his days gazing at the changing colours of the ocean, observing the countless passengers who travel across the Atlantic, and playing his piano. He discovers his love for music very early in life and his gift is such that he can make the instrument come alive under his lightest touch and respond to him, like a lover in the throes of passion.

The scene, where Max, the narrator of the story, first meets 1900, is something straight out of a dream. It is a stormy night and the ship is being cast topsy turvy in the ocean. Max struggles desperately to not be sick and keep himself from yet another fall when he is accosted by a young man, who looks serene and absolutely untouched by the chaos around. Max staggers after this courtly, graceful apparition into the majestic dance hall, where he is invited to ‘forget his misery’ and share a ride, atop the grand piano. 1900 starts playing as the piano moves and slides like a dancer across the floor and soon Max is laughing with sheer joy. Everything in the ship is in turmoil but 1900 does not have a hair out of place. He is at home. No oceanic storm can dispel the calm from his face or the quiet laughter from his eyes.

Roth does have the finest pair of eyes, doesn’t he? How eloquent! How deep! One look into those enigmatic depths and we know that 1900 is not quite of this world. He is dreamy, and guileless, brooding and firm, generous and impish, kind, self-absorbed, and above all mysterious… just like the sea.

At one point in the film, 1900 expresses surprise when he is told that the ocean is the most beautiful thing in the world, and that the sea has a voice. He tells Max that perhaps he needs to get ashore to understand this subtle beauty. That perhaps he needs to stay on land for sometime in order to be able to hear the call of the sea. But, even though he tries, he fails to leave the ship. Because, he is the sea, isn’t he? Or, at least, an extension of it. How can he survive going away? How can he be objective about the sea? How can he hear its voice when it is so deeply anchored within him? The music that he creates is music born of the sea.

There is a touch of guilelessness about 1900, on account of the unique circumstances surrounding his birth and upbringing. But, he is also uncannily perceptive. His mind takes him to places he has never actually seen, to understand those whom he has never actually met. The part, where he speaks of New Orleans during spring… when he describes the descending fog as a sharp white blade that decapitates everything from neck upwards and makes headless passersby bump into each other, is surreal. Max wonders how a man who has only a limited existence can know of such things, such rich details.

Likewise, 1900 has the ability to compose tunes that seem to spring from a magical well. Music that reaches out to all, be he rich or poor, plain or sophisticated, self-contained or worldly. He observes and understands the people on board the Virginia. He can plumb their secret deeps and look into their core, unbiased and all-seeing. 1900 plays the music that those people inspire. And then curiously, the music becomes those people. Not a crowd of faceless strangers but individuals with their own special brand of humanity. A man who bears the burden of memories he cannot forget. A prostitute who dances and sways but who would be a nun. A murderess with her silent lover. A young man who is eager to pursue fortune and fame and the promise of America.

Pruitt Taylor Vance plays Max Tooney, the trumpeter, with such honesty and emotion that we experience his devotion to 1900, we feel his pride and wonder and sadness. He is the common man who gets a glimpse of greatness and wishes that his gifted friend would receive all the fame and accolades that he so richly deserves. Time and again, he encourages 1900 to cross the gangplank and step into the real world and embrace success, fortune, and also, the happiness of a normal life, a life that is perhaps less than immense. He draws a pretty picture of 1900 in a domestic setting. Enjoying the banalities of an ordinary life,  in the comfort of a fine house, and in the company of his wife and friends.

It is obvious that Max has good intentions for his friend but we cannot ignore the hint of sadness or wistfulness in his voice when he speaks of 1900 engaging in the averageness of everyday life. Perhaps, Max cannot bear the thought of his friend being anything but extraordinary. Or more probably, he knows in his heart that 1900 will never be normal, even if it signifies only obscurity and loneliness. At the end, Max is forced to accept this fact in the most heartbreaking way. The Virginia is decommissioned and set to be demolished with dynamite. And yet, 1900 chooses to remain on the ship, thereby signing his own death warrant.

1900 does give an explanation of sorts to Max, if only to help him reconcile to the inevitability of his grim decision. He tells Max why he cannot choose the city. Because, the immenseness of the city frightens him. The city that never ends. Too many roads, too many choices. He tells Max that he cannot make music on a piano that has countless keys. He needs his piano with the eighty eight keys, no more no less, to create infinite music.

Is 1900 truly afraid to embark on a trail that is too wayward, too full of uncertainties? Is he a coward? Is that his tragic flaw? He could have embraced the possibilities; could have attained much. For he is a pianist without compare. A musical genius. Who can forget that sizzling duel between 1900 and the swaggering Jelly Roll Martin, the man who created jazz? 1900 is, at first, mesmerised by Martin. He allows himself to take a backseat and just enjoy the music that the jazz-king conjures up. But eventually, 1900 realises that divine music is not enough for Martin, who needs to publicly humiliate and annihilate his rival. And, that is the moment when everything just turns on its head. 1900  drops his easy slouch, bends over the piano with a powerful certitude and plays up a storm… his fingers moving with the speed of a tornado. The keys crackle with the energy and mad intensity of the performance. And lo! The cigarette sizzles and lights up! The audience is left astounded, bereft of speech. As if struck by lightning. What an absolutely spectacular scene!

When the utterly defeated Jelly Roll Martin gets off the ship, 1900 remarks, in his usual offhand manner, “Fuck jazz too.” That moment actually sums up the whole idea of 1900 for me. I do not think that it is cowardice that leads our solitary hero to turn his back to the world. Land comes to represent not only beauty or promise for him, but also pure avarice. The greed of man that keeps asking for more and more till all beauty is stripped and only ugliness is laid bare. It is this greed that 1900 rejects, with such finality. This refusal to be content. Not love. Not normality.

Love is the only thing that actually tempts 1900 to abandon his ship. For a little while, at least. Melanie Thierry plays the girl, whose angel face captivates 1900 and he ends up composing the most perfect music, while looking at her. There is such wonder and longing and innocence in his gaze. The scene where they stand apart in the pouring rain, she staring at the grey foggy sea and he just looking searchingly at her with the record clutched in his fingers, is beyond lovely. And the other scene, where he walks through the women’s dormitory at night just to get a glimpse of her and steal a soft, sweet kiss, is so bewitchingly beautiful. Lovely and sad. Because, even though there is love in his eyes, there is resignation too.

It is not arrogance or selfishness that leads 1900 to break his deal with the music producers. It is not the reason why he breaks the only record of his exquisite composition, to pieces. No. It must be remembered that he created that particular piece of music for the girl and he wants to gift it to her as a token of his regard. It is his to give and hers to keep. Only hers. He prefers destroying the music than letting strangers possess what is so precious to him. The young lover is unable to give the record to his beloved, unable to confess his feelings or claim her. She belongs to the world and he is not able follow her there.

The Legend of 1900 is filled with much beauty and poignancy. Many moments that make us think and muse. That defy strict interpretations and inspire deep sentiments. We keep looking back, mulling a word or a scene, over and over again, just to grasp its elusive significance. 1900 declares that he always goes back and his story is compelling enough to keep taking us back in. A magical experience indeed. Thanks to Giuseppe Tornatore, that masterful filmmaker. And, Alessandro Baricco for the beautiful Novecento monologue, on which the film is based.

Before I end this meditative piece, I must mention Tim Roth again. His performance is undoubtedly excellent. Roth makes us believe in the genius of 1900… in the fire and innocence and purity of his soul. In the way the pianist loves and celebrates music, even when he has no piano to play. Roth lights up the screen with his charisma. And, did I mention that Roth has the most beautiful eyes? Well, he does.

Copyright © 2015 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

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On Lootera

 Review-of-Lootera-2013

“How sad and bad and mad it was/ But then, how it was sweet!”

Once in a while, I come across a love story that is so spellbinding that for days I feel consumed by it. My imagination is aroused, my emotions are engaged. I feel dreamy and uplifted and shattered. A strange sense of elation sweeps over me and takes me to a lofty, secret place. Lootera is that kind of story.

Much has been said about this film… but, I just wish to reflect on the aspects that etch themselves in my mind. I want to brood on the simplicity and heartbreaking loveliness of Lootera… on the way it portrays love and complexity in a bittersweet relationship. I wish to remember its earthiness, whimsicality, even its imperfections and dark overtones…….. the moments of transcendence, and its stark beauty. I want to think about some of the possible interpretations of the visual, verbal nuances and gestures in the story.

I have to admit that Lootera is not altogether perfect. Very few films are. And, one that attempts to recreate The Last Leaf by O’Henry is already treading a very difficult terrain. For it requires a great deal of genius to transform that short masterpiece of a story into an equally wonderful and heartwarming piece of cinema. But, Lootera comes pretty close.

The lyrical strains of Sawaar loon and the unfolding scenes of the song…. the poetic ambience of days long past, the quaint style, the sensuous pace… everything takes the viewer to a different, more romantic world. The woman gracefully braiding her hair and admiring herself in the mirror… she casting delicate yet speaking glances at the darkly dashing man… he answering her looks, sphinxlike yet yearning…. fascinating!

He is attractive and mysterious. She is beautiful and pampered. He has a gray past and she has lived a most sheltered life. He has a quietness about him… while her eyes are alight with mischief and life. He is like a powerful gust of wind that shakes her world. And, she is like a trickle of cool water that seeps into his soul, slowly and surely.

The scene where Pakhi meets Varun is such an arresting one. She hesitantly peeps out of the car window, after the accident, and sees him struggling with the fallen bike, before sitting with his back against a tree. She is immediately intrigued by the handsome stranger. Varun’s face is quite inscrutable when he sees the radiant Pakhi, but is obviously struck. That night, Pakhi stands before the light bulb and keeps switching it on and off…. her face a mirror of unadulterated joy. Every soft look, every unsaid word, every small gesture acquires a meaning. Even the poem that they recite together, when Varun visits Pakhi’s home…. underlines the fact that something rare and glorious has happened.

Sonakshi as Pakhi, is beautiful and luminous…. the spark in her eyes, the warmth in her smile, her spirit, her genuineness, even her frailty. At the picnic, when she half reclines on the ground, playing carelessly with her hair… when she just looks at Varun… she resembles an enchanting and enigmatic mermaid… who is waiting for her lover.

Ranveer as Varun, has never been so smart or interesting. The clean-shaven chin and back-brushed hair make him look like a man of the world. He carries with him a whiff of adventure, something unknown and exciting. He is also brooding and brings a certain edgy intensity to the proceedings. Varun is self-serving and yet, when he glances at Pakhi, it is not with indifference or even mild interest alone. The more he tries to disguise his feelings, the more he reveals… the slow burn in his eyes, the hesitation and shyness in his infrequent smiles, his lapses into complete silence… all tell a story.

Despite his better judgment, Varun agrees to become Pakhi’s drawing teacher. Armed with a book, he thinks of teaching… but mainly, he hopes to be near Pakhi. A hope that he conceals from himself too, perhaps. The scene where he tells her that drawing leaves is easy and then proceeds to paint, blithely heedless of his lack of skill… and she looks on amused… is a very endearing one. It shows his vulnerability, an innocence in him.

Varun admits to Pakhi that he does not know painting and becomes her student instead. The time they spend together only draws them closer still and seals the bond between them. They talk of their innermost wishes. She wants to write. He wishes to visit chandrataal and paint a masterpiece that will grant him immortality. He confides his feelings for Pakhi to his friend, Dev, who gently reprimands him and tells him that he does not have the privilege to be in love. Varun rages in silence but accepts the truth of Dev’s words.

Pakhi is, at first, angered and hurt by Varun’s rejection but when she learns about his imminent departure, she cannot help but go to him. The night scene stands out because it is so fraught with emotion and passion. There is also a simplicity or artlessness in the way Pakhi offers herself to her lover and asks him to stay. He is powerless in the presence of such devastating honesty. The soft click of the door closing is more staggering than a sharp gunshot.

The soulful lovemaking scene engenders much hope for the young couple. And yet, Varun is fated to betray Pakhi and everything she holds dear. For a while he is tempted to pursue his own happiness, his love… but soon realizes that his past would catch up with him and she may only be left with loss and loneliness. So, he leaves. Just like that.

They meet again, of course. However, this time the setting is very different. Manikpur was bright and sunny. Dalhousie is gray, with snow all over. This half of Lootera imparts a keen sense of desolation, hopelessness. The once cheerful Pakhi is now sullen and mournful. She dwells on her ill-health and Varun’s betrayal. Anger and hatred consume her, day and night, and she agrees to participate in a police plot to nab the lootera. This in turn leads to the shocking scene where Varun, in the haze and heat of the moment, pulls the trigger on his one and only friend, Dev.

The scene where Pakhi crouches behind a curtained door watching Varun, who is standing outside. He notices the open window and is strangely pulled to it. The way he just stands still and stares at the emptiness…….. as if a powerful force is holding him in a thrall… so compelling! Later, after Dev’s death, Varun storms into the house to confront Pakhi… as if he always knew that she was there.

By this time, Pakhi’s rage has dwindled but she cannot bring herself to forgive or hope. Her mood is as dismal as the weather and she keeps counting the falling leaves of the tree, outside her window, convinced that when the last leaf falls, she will die. She broods on the story that her father had once told her… about a Bhil warrior king whose life was preserved in a special bird. His foes send him a wife, who finds the bird and kills it and thus, slays the king too. Pakhi, in her lonely state, likens herself to the Bhil warrior, who is destroyed by the one he loves.

Anyone who is familiar with The Last Leaf would not be surprised by the ending of Lootera. Varun is consumed by guilt and even though he could escape Dalhousie to save himself, he chooses to stay. The last few scenes of the lovers together are fraught with much emotional violence and upheaval. Varun has to force Pakhi to even take the medicine that will save her life. She fights Varun with all the power of her bruised and beaten soul.

Pakhi is immersed in her dark world but she is concerned about Varun and refuses to give him up to the authorities. Perhaps, she understands his past, even forgives him a little… but, she cannot emerge out of her abyss of hopelessness. Only the falling leaves hold some sort of interest for her. At last, only one leaf remains, wavering in the cold winter landscape. When Varun realizes that the falling of that leaf would spell the end for the downhearted and wasted Pakhi, he acts at once. The leaf that Varun paints looks like it has been hand drawn by an artless child… but as it flutters triumphantly in the morning breeze, it becomes a symbol of his love for Pakhi, his penance for all past betrayals. It becomes his masterpiece.

At the end, Varun lies lifeless on the snow but, he has managed to waken the light of hope in Pakhi’s eyes. She smiles now. Perhaps, she will even write the books that she always wanted to write.

It is clear why Varun leaves. He cannot endanger Pakhi any more. But, why does he court death? Why does he not simply surrender? Is dying the final penance? Or, does he think that there can be no happiness, no future?

It may also be that Varun has finally found peace.

Love has been beautifully depicted in Lootera. It is childlike and strong, playful and enriching. It is flawed, quiet, poignant and passionate. Love is hatred and rage. Rest, understanding and forgiveness. But ultimately, it is the depiction of love as sacrifice that makes this film so magnificent and heartbreakingly sweet.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2014 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

He Saw Her…

cot1

Young love as depicted by Pierre Auguste Cot

He saw her walking towards him. And the world turned into a wash of smoky light. People and objects became dark smudges on a trembling white canvas. All colors and content, all shades and significance converged inside her.

He looked at her, dazed and dazzled. As if she was covered in light. There was an engagingness about her, a pleasantness, a grace. She was an angel in repose. A flower in a desert. As sweet as a lullaby. As lovely as dawn.

He parted his lips to speak. But, his breath was caught in his parched throat. He was like one submerged in a molten dream.

She looked at him and her true gaze traveled into his soul. The shine in her kohl-lined eyes, the shy smile tugging at the corners of her soft mouth, her slightly inclined head… kindled hope inside him. His hooded eyes glimmered softly like ash-covered embers.

He wanted to sing. Songs of love and ecstasy. He wanted to be a poet for her. To compose Keatsian odes on her beauty and winsomeness. Instead, he spoke only in muted tones… and her simple replies infused him with warmth and laughter.

They walked, not going anywhere in particular. The busy thoroughfare was like a grassy vale. The tall buildings were snowy mountains. The overhanging cables seemed like wispy clouds floating about. The chaos was only like intimate silence. So lost was he.

He was engrossed by her presence. Every tiny movement seemed to say something. Her lowered eye lashes meant wordless acquiescence. Maybe. Or, it meant a delightful confusion. Her smiles hinted at abiding promises. Maybe.

Her words held him in a thrall. A slave to her comeliness, her intelligence, her charm. He felt her strength, her spirit… sincere and free. Her need to be herself. He also felt her vulnerability. He wanted to be her shield. Screen her from profanatory eyes, discourteous speeches, from all ugliness and turbulence. And, sadness.

He crossed book stalls and museums, food stores and cafes, with her by his side. He walked under the beating sun without feeling any discomfort. He saw everything anew and felt everything with more vividness and depth. Those moments acquired a preciousness in his eyes and he wished to hold them in an unyielding grip. He wished to never let them be swallowed up in the mirage of time. To keep her by his side, forever.

Where could he bury his happiness? So that, no one would steal it. And, it would remain as big and fresh and magical as it was, on that day.

He led her to a seat, under the spreading branches of a tree. Their bodies brushed against one another. Burning awareness coursed through his veins. Yet, he had never felt so peaceful, so at ease with another person before. She was like an extension of his body. He could tell her everything and she would understand. Together, they watched the world go by.

Gently, he reached out and she rested her head on his shoulders. It felt natural, inevitable. Their hearts whispered to each other. They built a bridge between them, with words and silences… while understanding and compassion flowed into them like a broad and placid river.

He did not kiss her. No. Commitments, novel undertakings, excitements, realities could wait for another day. Dreaming of sunny skies, beautiful sunsets, and starry climes… experiencing the endless drizzles, the gentle zephyrs, the delicate mists could wait. That day was reserved for observation alone. For seeing fully. And, for allowing oneself to be seen.

Copyright © 2013 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

Remembrance

It has been almost six years since my father passed away. It has become marginally easier to remember him these days. Tears don’t well up automatically at every thought of him. But a sense of unreality still persists. It is still difficult to think of his absence as a void that will remain forever. It is still impossible to quell the sense of overpowering loss or subdue that feeling of overwhelming regret, at the thought of his untimely death.

At this point of my life, I stand on the threshold of significant changes. I greet new faces and look forward to new beginnings. There are unguarded moments, however, when I sit contemplating the present and weaving dreams of the future…when images of my father and thoughts from the past, flash across my mind. And then the realization dawns on me that he can never be there to smile on my good fortune… or appreciate the wonderful things in my life. He can never be there to give me his all-embracing support and acceptance… or be there to comfort me in moments of sadness.

All that remains of the vibrant man, with that candid and brilliant smile,  are a few photographs, a few belongings, and a whole gamut of memories.

When I cook something and it goes unappreciated, I invariably remember my father. I remember how happy he used to be even when I would serve him something tasteless… just because it was something I had made. If I gave him a small gift, he would cherish it like it was the greatest treasure. After he passed away, I found among his personal belongings…. things that I had given him. Faded greeting cards… a torn wallet or an inexpensive and empty bottle of aftershave. He had kept them all.

Whenever I feel neglected, a bit forsaken or, taken for granted, I unfailingly  remember my father… and I am filled with bittersweet memories. I remember… his excessive pride in me, in my little achievements…  his belief in me, even when I did not live up to general expectations… his great love for me, even when I was following a selfish path.

I remember how alive he was, even during those last days. His mind was sharp and inquiring and he would enthusiastically take part in all my plans…. as much as his weakening health and dwindling strength would allow him. He would want to hear about my activities, my thoughts. Only now, I can fully understand how important it is to have a listener who grants you complete and undivided attention.

How he loved old films and songs! He would hum along with his favorite singers and reminisce about the bygone days. There was a part of him that always dwelt in the past. He had faced disappointments and hardships… that had made him somewhat disillusioned. But he never for a moment ceased to hope or dream for my future.

I look at his photographs and remember how young he was and how handsome. My father was as good looking as a movie star. And no, I am not exaggerating. He had a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose…. his dark eyes would crinkle with laughter, and his hair was always so well-groomed. His black, wavy hair was his secret pride… I can still see him… standing in front of a mirror, bending a little and, meticulously combing his hair. Even when illness took away his health and looks, his hair remained black and beautiful. I would, sometimes, tease him about his swarthy complexion. He would get a serious look on his face and insist that he was not dark but ‘coffee-brown’ and that his European friends really liked his skin tone. How we would all laugh at this little conceit!

My father was a great admirer of Uttam Kumar, the Bengali movie star. He would always want to watch the reruns of Uttam Kumar movies on the telly… so much so that I would get slightly rattled. Because, at the time, I would prefer watching programmes that were more exciting than boring black and white classics. It’s only now that I truly appreciate the craft and thought that would go in the making of those films. It’s only now that I understand what a wonderful performer Uttam Kumar was and how right my father was in admiring him. These days, when ever, the handsome face of the late screen idol flashes across the silver screen, I think of my dad. How I miss watching those lovely Uttam Kumar films with my father, by my side!

I go through my father’s old files and certificates and am repeatedly reminded of his many achievements and talents. In his youth, he lived in a glamorous world and met celebrities and VIPs on an everyday basis. He was used to gourmet food, sumptuous ambience and yet, there was nothing he liked more than the simple pleasure of spending time at home, surrounded by his loved ones. He really loved us, his family and when I look back and think of all the things that he had done for us….. I feel a deep sense of love and gratitude. Not once did he deprive his family of things that truly matter… like good food, books etc. Once in a while, he would make my sister and me wait for a second new outfit or a Walkman but that only taught us about the value of things. My father abhorred wastage of any sort and he would insist that we finished our food properly, before leaving the dining table. He gave us valuable life lessons in his quiet, firm, yet unobtrusive way.

Strangely, even the demise of my father has brought me closer to an understanding of something significant. That death is not just a vague, unfamiliar occurrence but a reality that I need to be prepared for. One day it will come to me. But if, at the other side of the veil…. in the middle of all the darkness and overwhelming terror…… I find the familiar, dear, dear face of my father, then I don’t have anything to fear. Death has, in a way, lost some of its sting. Of course, I fear the idea of loss still but there is a kind of hope too. A hope of meeting my father again.

Now, I see my son, toddling about, busy as a little bird, flitting from one object to another. I see the same broad forehead, the well-defined curve of his upper lips, the determination in his chin, even the same squarish palms…. and I can’t help but think of my father. There are so many similarities. I just know that had my father been alive today, he would have simply doted upon his grandson. Because he was not only loving but also knew how to demonstrate his affection well. He knew how to laugh and make others laugh. My boy would surely have been one pampered little guy! However, these wishful thoughts only make the well of sadness inside me threaten to brim over.

My son will know about his grandfather through photographs, that do speak a thousand words… through a few personal items, that can be so revealing. Also, I hope to tell him stories that will help him build a near-complete picture of his grandfather… stories that will also keep memories of my father burning brightly in my heart.

Copyright © 2013 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.

It is said that happiness is not experienced, it is remembered. Whenever, I think of Durga Puja, I am inundated with memories that light up my being. Where ever I may be, the moment Mahalaya ushers in Devi Paksha or the fortnight of the Goddess, I begin to imagine the white ragged autumnal clouds, the sweet fragrance of shiuli or, the uplifting beats of the Dhaaki. I picture the host of cottony kaashphool, swaying softly in the breeze or the endless rows of gleaming lights, illuminating the city nights. Mostly, though, I conjure up the tantalizing smells, colours, and textures of food and more food. Because, the advent of Ma Durga, from Kailash to her maternal home, is not just an occasion for performing religious ceremonies or indulging in prodigious creative and artistic endeavours, it is also a time to celebrate food and appreciate all that is succulent, flavorsome or, simply divine.

I take particular pride in the fact that we, Bengalis, are known for our enthusiasm for culinary excellence. Even on an ordinary day, a Bengali will make way, unhurriedly, along vegetable shops and fish marts, looking for the freshest ingredients. Like a true artist, he will bring together everything needed to create a veritable gastronomic delight. So, when it comes to bhog or traditional food offering that is prepared in honour of a Goddess, who is also a beloved daughter, it is only to be expected that a Bengali will pull out all the stops to accomplish something quite extraordinary.

Bhog literally means ‘pleasure’ and it is a pleasure to remember the times that I have queued up, in various pandals, just to taste the bhog of the day. It could be khichuri, a dish made with moong dal and gobind bhog rice, served with labra, a mixed vegetable preparation. Or, it could be luchi aloodum, which is fried puffed bread accompanied with spicy potato curry. It could also be mutton kosha, pulao, vegetable navratan korma, even water chestnut curry. After hours of traipsing around the city, shopping and pandal-hopping, my friends and I would parade into our para pandal and not only savour the delicious bhog items but also unselfconsciously ask for second helpings. Unmindful of the heat, the crowd, the crumpling of our starched new sarees while perching on the floor, we would direct our attention solely to the steaming hot bhog in the brimming clay malshas or overflowing shaal leaves.

No matter how great the food at home would be, we would not miss an opportunity to flock at a puja pandal, when bhog was being served. Like bees to honey, we would be drawn to the simple but perfectly cooked dishes and the incredible variety of sweets. The array would be mind-boggling and intensely tempting- the dry mutton liver preparation and cottage cheese curry at the Mullicks of Bhowanipore, the darbesh and motichur at the Debs of Shovabazaar, or, the sweet perakis, gojas and narus at Lahabari. The distinct and delectable flavours of Puja bhog could never really be duplicated at home. And, who could resist the bonhomie and warmth of eating with friends and strangers alike. Be they Jew, Muslim or, Christian, Bengali or Marwari, Asian or European, all got together as if in a great outdoor party. Every time I have bhog, I wonder at the way food can erase all stripes and spots. The way it can transcend religion, class and, other differences, to bring together people for one reason alone- to experience the wholesome goodness of expertly prepared food.

Puja celebrated in rural Bengal also has its particular brand of charm. At some places, Puja has been performed since hundreds of years and I would find it fascinating to be a part of it. The Dey Bari Puja at Bhediya, Basirhat comes to mind. Foodwise too, these Pujas boast of deeply ingrained traditions. Teesta Dey of Dey Bari reminisces about the lobster khichuri that was served as bhog, in the past. Later, due to financial constraints, it was replaced by khichuri or luchi with aloo dum. A village puja might lack the funds and grandeur of a Kolkata one but, it still has plenty to offer in terms of uniqueness and character. And, of course, incomparably tasty food.

No matter how far from Kolkata a Bengali is, he will carry the love for the Goddess and cultural traditions in his heart and try his best to recreate the feel of home, in places all over the world . Even if I am in Mumbai or New York or some other strange city during Puja, I unfailingly come upon a pandal with the gorgeously decorated idols and of course, the wonderful bhog. It is as if a piece of Bengal exists right in the middle of a foreign land. The food may not perhaps be the best that I have ever eaten but it lifts my spirits and takes me closer to my family and friends.

There are so many memories associated with Durga Puja and I could have elaborated on any one of them but my fondest memories are those attached to bhog. As George Bernard Shaw says, “there is no love sincerer than the love of food.” When we partake of bhog, we share so much more than just a meal. We share things like friendship, togetherness and laughter, everything that makes life worthwhile and good.

[I wrote this article for the Good News Tab.]

Copyright © 2012 [Good News Tab]. All Rights Reserved.

Moulin Rouge

To visit Moulin Rouge or the ‘Red Windmill’ is to remember things past. The very name of this restaurant, in the heart of Park Street, evokes a Parisian world of lights and music, glamour and glitz. It brings to mind not just the romance of fin de siecle Europe but also the savoir faire of Calcutta, during the 1970’s and 80’s. After all, Moulin Rouge is one of the very few nightclubs in our country that, during its heydays, flaunted cabaret artists and jazz musicians and, attracted an exceedingly sophisticated clientele. This is where the legendary Carlton Kitto jammed with jazz virtuosi, in front of an audience that could appreciate good times and feel at home with pure pleasure.

To visit Moulin Rouge is to also experience a sense of decline, an unappeased yearning to recreate a fabled, rose-coloured era. Every aspect of the place, from the lacquered walls and scarlet tables to the ornate ceiling and yellow chandelier, calls up memories of a past that was famously opulent, sensual, and celebratory. And, memories can make us conscious of passing time and diminishing charm.

Hidden away behind the darkened glass doors of Moulin Rouge are the remnants of a more glorious world. One that is a trifle worn around the edges. The tall chairs are vintage but the plush seat covers are somewhat faded. There are giant paintings of can-can dancers but live performances do not take place any more. Well-to-do customers come and go but the fine patrons, who were known for their impeccable social grace and their discerning ear for music, are rarely seen. Even the stewards are hoary-faced and burdened with the weight of years. The piano stands but gone are the people who once created magic with music. Only the genial-looking saxophonist, Paul Mullick, accompanied by keyboardist, Cyril Manual, arrive during the weekends to give a tantalising taste of the days of yore.

Carlton Kitto, who played at Moulin Rouge during the early 1970’s, reminisces fondly of the past. With a hint of nostalgia in his voice, Carlton remembers the French jazz singer, Delilah, and fellow artists like, Julian Saldanah, saxophonist, George Chater, double bass player, Rudy Rodericks, pianist, and, Johnny Edmonds, drummer. “Regulars and jazz-lovers would queue up for hours because there were so many things to look forward to- the cabaret, the can-can dancers, the music, even the food. The Chinese kitchen was extraordinary. I really enjoyed playing at Moulin Rouge,” says Carlton.

At nights, when the red lights are glowing , it is impossible to miss the quaint windmill sign of Moulin Rouge. The menu is an interesting combination of Continental, Chinese, and Mughlai cuisines. Nondon Bagchi, drummer and food enthusiast, remarks, “Moulin Rouge serves good quality, old style Park Street cuisine. Standard Continental favourites like Chicken a la Kiev or Fish Finger with tartar sauce, are prepared well. Overall, the food is decent.” Nondon also recollects that the present Starlit Bar, adjoining the restaurant, was once known as The Bar Barrel. It shared a one-way glass wall with Moulin Rouge, through which the customers at the bar could enjoy old western melodies, playing in the restaurant.

Considering the many dining options at Park Street, a surprisingly large number of customers still frequent this old haunt. Rich, young couples looking for a cosy corner, aged men and women reliving their bygone days, people wishing to partake of the colourful history of Kolkata, all wander in. The soft, sad strains of the piano and saxophone combine, waft out into the street, and cast an enchanting spell perhaps. Sabita Adhikary, a regular customer, states, “I come to Moulin Rouge because of its old world ambience. It also helps to remember that this is where Uttam Kumar and other glitterati once gathered to relax and enjoy the art of entertainment.”

In a changing world, where progress is, at times, synonymous with trivialness and banality, Moulin Rouge has become a symbol of permanence. There is an illusion of everlastingness about a place that refuses to alter with time. However, as one leaves, one wishes that Moulin Rouge would polish up the interiors and restore the paintings to their original brilliance. Most importantly, one wishes for the music, fun and gaiety, that hangs about like a half-forgotten melody. The strength of Moulin Rouge lies in the glory of its past and the road ahead is to embrace this very past, with passion and imagination.

[I wrote this article for the Good News Tab.]

Copyright © 2012 [Good News Tab]. All Rights Reserved.

Mist

‘I would imagine that the deep and dark/ May fall apart and that a soul in prison/ will flame upon the mountain-side/ above all life or tragedy or heart,/ O, that the deep and dark will fall apart/ so that the spirit knoweth whence it came/ and where to it soon goeth, fire to flames…’

I imagine myself- standing on the edge of an abyss- an unfathomable depth- as fiercely savage as the subterranean hollows, depicted on canvas, by the likes of Salvator Rosa or Piranesi.

I behold the terrible chasm- remembering life and thinking almost unconsciously of death- and my mind is filled with a dark terror- agonised by the fear of the unknown.

In the first numbing moment- sheer trepidation reduces me into a shapeless mass of unrecognisable matter- my soul like an abject worm grovels in the dirt. Weakly, I close my eyes- no longer able to resist the wave of chaotic unreason that overwhelms my rational mind, as I stand subdued- in the dreadful presence of the incomprehensible.

Time stands still but despite my secret wish- I cannot pretend to be unresponding and unseeing forever. Gradually, therefore- quaking with barely-suppressed horror and revulsion, I reopen my eyes…. And to my infinite eyes, instead of the precarious slope- I gladly see the morning-mist… rising from the unseen depths and unselfconsciously reaching out for the heavens above.

The mist slowly enshrouds me- like an enormous cape- from head to foot- and what lies before undergoes a metamorphosis. The reality that like an octopus had spread its tentacles around me- is converted into the substance of vapour.

I enter- willingly, into this warm cocoon of illusion and etherealised sensations.

I scarcely view the events that occur in a world- which, is now only a foggy dream- obscured by faint memories or perhaps by a desire for forgetfulness. The strange sounds- I strain my ears to hear are almost unearthly- because they seem to arrive from an unimaginable distance.

Ugliness fades away- warts and wounds disappear- the world appears beautiful and unreal. There is, of course, pain and suffering but there is also a realization of the insubstantial nature of things.

Unembodied time ceases to matter. Nothing is distressing enough to threaten my ephemeral dreams- no hope of immortality- no lasting desire for glory or fame.

There remain just momentary illusions- nursed for momentary pleasure. Perhaps- this is why- poets, sometimes chase those ‘wind-enchanted shapes of wandering mist’- and yearn to escape to their distant lands of enchantment on the ‘viewless wings of poesy’- Rapturous at the thought of begetting feathers, in the manner of these men of unbridled imagination- I, too, allow fancy to play upon the surface of my vision.

Consequently, as the clouds of paradise descend upon the lowly ground, trees become giants, shacks become fortresses, and, men become gods.

The world is invested with such incorporeal and awful beauty that I seem to breath and exist in a trance- and my apprehension grows dim with wonder- I dizzily fall on my bended knees to worship life- that has become as exquisite as poetry.

Nothing is commonplace for I recognise the spirit encapsulated within the shadowy form and as I look at the darkening sky- I suddenly realize that I do not feel indifferent- any longer.

I wonder why? Maybe, I have learnt at last- to seek- the essence beneath the romance; the eternal truth beneath mundane reality.

The mist has endowed sight to my soul.

The caverns become visible once again, below the sky flecked with stars- I look down into the mouth of the bottomless chasm and this time- feel no fear.

Slowly, silently- I raise my arms- spread them like wings, and allow my relaxed body to fall over the edge- into the gaping void- I fall and fall and this sensation of dropping- almost floating on air continues…

Memories rush back but I recollect not the single incidents or the isolated moments but the integrated-coherent whole and the insignificant planet grows and grows in understanding to ultimately equal the illimitable universe.

Time flows past, like the liquid sky and the innumerable moments attain a sort of timelessness.

Everything is draped in epiphanic rejoicing for the stars- burning like flames of fire- in the open heart of the abyss tell me that I am a part of legend- a part of eternity.

The deep and dark has finally fallen apart and the end has become the beginning.

[Another article that I had written for my college magazine.]

Copyright © 2002 [Violet Dolui]. All Rights Reserved.