Kolkata (known as Calcutta until 2001) is often superseded by the likes of Mumbai and Delhi when it comes to on-screen imaginings. Yet it has provided a key location for world-renowned Bengali filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray, who have documented the city over many decades. As a result, even for cinephiles who’ve never had the good fortune to visit, it’s a metropolis that has time and again besieged the imagination.

Straddling the Bay of Bengal, Kolkata was once a colonial city and trading port of the British Empire, but it also has a rich history of political resistance. With its extensive cultural legacy, it occupies a unique position in the development of art and politics in India. In the 1960s and early 70s, the transformation of Calcutta into an axiom of leftist agitation inspired many filmmakers to explore the radical sociopolitical shifts that were taking place at the time.

Famous landmarks that repeatedly shape the on-screen urban topography of Kolkata include the Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, the Hooghly River, Dalhousie Square and the shopping district of Chowringhee. Its cinematic past is anchored in the founding of the film studio New Theatres in the 1930s by producer B. N. Sircar, which contributed to the development of Indian cinema through technical and narrative innovations.

With the recent success of the thriller Kahaani in 2012, Kolkata has re-appeared on the radar for many filmmakers and studios, and rightly so.

The Big City is currently in cinemas nationwide. Satyajit Ray: The Language of Film runs at BFI Southbank until the end of August.

Calcutta (1946)

Director: John Farrow

Calcutta (1946)

John Farrow’s deftly made B-picture interweaves action, noir and the thriller into a curious mix. Although the film is set in Calcutta (all of it studio bound), the title seems less about letting us know where we are and more about the orientalist imaginings of colonial India. At times one hardly notices that we are in Calcutta. In fact, the only explicit reminder is anchored in the unsurprising representations of the Thug cult: the amplification of a xenophobic caricature of ancient India.

The Hotel Imperial where Neale Gordon (Alan Ladd) resides is a hackneyed bricolage of colonial iconography, while the Calcutta bazaars offer a fantastical construction of a colonial India that was fading away. All in all, a lesson in the ways in which Hollywood often exoticises India, yet Farrow’s craftsmanship shines through.

Do Bigha Zamin (1953)

Director: Bimal Roy

Do Bigha Zamin (1953)

Bengali filmmaker Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin – Two Acres of Land – is a cornerstone of popular Indian cinema; a work that fuses Marxism, melodrama and neorealism into a virulent assault on the capitalist system. The story focuses on a peasant farmer, Shambu Mato (Balraj Sahni in scintillating method mode), temporarily migrating to Calcutta to earn enough money so that he can stop his ancestral land from being swallowed up by industrial capitalism. As he works the streets as a rickshaw puller, Roy strips away the city’s mystique, instead presenting an unforgiving urban jungle in which migratory workers like Shambu are imprisoned.

Roy made the film against the turbulent backdrop of the refugee movement in Calcutta, and Shambu’s story becomes a microcosm of displacement in which the city inflicts cruelty on those who come in search of work and prosperity.

The Big City (1963)

Director: Satyajit Ray

The Big City (1963)

Ray opens with a shot of the Calcutta tramway, a symbol of technological modernity. This was the first of many films Ray would set in his home city of Calcutta, focusing on a lower-middle-class Bengali family who must face up to the prospects of unemployment and the realities of change, expressly in terms of gender roles.

Set in the mid-1950s against a Nehruvian backdrop that was looking forwards, Ray’s film was shot in the 1960s when Nehru’s dream of a new India was beginning to fall apart. His depiction of Calcutta is rooted in a modernity that alludes to progress and erudition. However, it is a reality somewhat removed from the social and political upheaval that would radically transform Calcutta in the late 1960s. This is an imagined Calcutta, crafted from a romantic inclination in which spaces and places feel open, fresh and tinged with an ambiguous optimism.

Calcutta (1969)

Director: Louis Malle

Calcutta (1969)

When editing his epic personal voyage through India, titled Phantom India (1969), celebrated French filmmaker Louis Malle discovered he had hours of footage that could pay tribute to the city of Calcutta, its people and the turbulence it was going through in the late 1960s. Adopting a largely observational approach, the resulting film – for which Mrinal Sen assisted Malle on some sequences – is an exploration of the many contradictions of the city.

Malle’s treatment of poverty, slums and rituals is at times touristic, which attracted controversy. In fact, Satyajit Ray found Malle’s intentions dreadful. Considering the rich cultural past and traditions that have been intrinsic to the evolution and identity of Calcutta, Malle’s selective approach – which largely focuses on despair – demonstrates the impossible task of trying to get under the skin of an urban metropolis that has a long and influential history in the global south.

The Adversary (1970)

Director: Satyajit Ray

The Adversary (1970)

Ray’s deeply personal portrait of a Calcutta in the maelstrom of social turmoil was one of his most openly political films. The transience of a rapidly changing Calcutta is realised in the iconic image of Siddhartha making his way to a job interview on a bus crammed full of commuters. Unlike past images of Calcutta in Ray’s work, The Adversary harbours a notable claustrophobia and agitational ambience that situates the city as suffering from an inescapable tension.

A city under siege from political violence is exemplified in the unpredictability of everyday situations, such as the bomb that explodes in a local cinema or the rabid mob that assaults a member of the Bengali elite. Siddhartha’s youthful urban alienation, visualised through comical dream sequences, renders Calcutta a quasi-hallucinatory landscape. The results are a key audiovisual historical document of the era.

Interview (1971)

Director: Mrinal Sen

Interview (1971)
© Kunal Sen

Interview was the first in a tetralogy of leftist political works from Indian Parallel Cinema filmmaker Mrinal Sen. Calcutta ‘71 (1971) would have been the obvious choice in terms of best exemplifying Sen’s near apocalyptic imagining of Calcutta in the social and political turmoil of the late 1960s and early 70s. However, Interview was Sen’s first work to adopt a quasi-street reportage film style, which was both immediate and authentic in its depiction of the city as a chaotic urban landscape under siege from protests, strikes and violence.

Ace cinematographer K. K. Mahajan’s groundbreaking handheld camerawork, via a lightweight Arriflex, permitted Sen to fully embrace on-location shooting, communicating a raw and unfiltered depiction of a city in which statues and buildings are subject to iconoclastic assault from Maoist Naxalite revolutionaries. Startling montages, reportage and reflexivity merge into agitprop alchemy.

36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)

Director: Aparna Sen

36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)

Produced by Shashi Kapoor, Aparna Sen’s debut feature – about an ageing Anglo-Indian teacher, Violet Stoneham (played brilliantly by Jennifer Kendal), trapped in a post independent Calcutta – is a poignant exploration of cultural identity, loneliness and patriarchy.

Life at Chowringhee Lane is one of monotony for Violet. It’s only after a former student and her boyfriend come to stay that the void is temporarily filled. With great finesse Sen captures the rhythms of Calcutta daily life, particularly in an extraordinary montage of Calcutta at night juxtaposed to ‘Silent Night’. Violet comes to realise she is out of synch with the changes in society, increasingly relying on nostalgic memories to help cope with a paralysing self-imposed seclusion. Sen’s Calcutta might be a place of diversity, but it is also one in which anonymity is an affliction.

Kahaani (2012)

Director: Sujoy Ghosh

Kahaani (2012)

In director Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, Kolkata emerges as a significant character, weaving a spellbinding geographical tapestry of a city that few filmmakers had exploited to such unconventional visual terms. Kahaani made Kolkata popular again with filmmakers, providing a reminder of a substantial iconographic cityscape that had gone out of favour in contemporary Indian cinema.

It’s a taut thriller with Vidya Balan in the main lead, and the city depicted is one we had never seen before on screen: everyday life and the reality of the streets are articulated through secret cameras, communicating a spontaneity that also celebrates Kolkata landmarks, including the Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial. There is a tactile feel for the city, which creates a spatial intimacy that brings us closer to the action. Ghosh also integrates Kolkata’s cultural life into the narrative, including scenes at the legendary Durga Puja festival.

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)

Director: Dibakar Banerjee

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)
© Yash Raj Films PVT. LTD.

The fictional Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi appeared in a popular series of stories penned by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay and published between 1932 and 1970. A large-scale production from Yash Raj studio, this 2015 film adaptation sees filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee recreate the Calcutta of the 1940s as a brilliantly realised cosmopolitan melting pot.

With the late Sushant Singh Rajput perfectly cast in the lead, Banerjee’s film is audaciously stylish. A central focus architecturally is old Chinatown in Tiretta Bazaar, which the film noirishly connects with the opium trade. Banerjee avoids Calcutta’s classic landmarks and monuments, envisioning both a global city looking outwards and a thriving space for trade populated by Muslims, Jews, Chinese people and Hindus. Developed through two years of research, this is one of the most dynamic and visually diverse imaginings of Calcutta put on film.

Manohar & I (2018)

Director: Amitabha Chaterji

Manohar & I (2018)

Director Amitabha Chaterji’s hypnotising urban story is a slow-burn tale of two loners in modern-day Kolkata. Generations apart, the pair meet regularly to share stories, forging a relationship that discloses expressions of despair, solitude and love. What characterises Chaterji’s particularly unique celebration of Kolkata is the way in which the camera is close to the streets, tracking the characters as they speak and unmasking a spectral side of the city marked by alienation and loneliness.

The monochrome, noir-like photography also imbues the locations with a magical quality, with many sequences shot at night. The characters become inseparable from the urban environment, particularly in the extended tram journey in which the widescreen compositions magnify the ordinariness of the city.

Further reading

10 great films set in Mumbai

By Devika Girish

10 great films set in Mumbai

In the shadow of Apu: in praise of Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy

By Omar Ahmed

In the shadow of Apu: in praise of Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy

Deep cuts: 10 lesser-known Satyajit Ray films

By Matthew Thrift

Deep cuts: 10 lesser-known Satyajit Ray films