Kolkata, a 76-year-old auction house and two brothers who constantly bicker before the camera – Ed Owles’s documentary The Auction House is packed with charm, wit, and tough love.
Shot between 2010 and 2013 at The Russell Exchange, the documentary follows its owners, the brothers Anwar and Arshad Saleem. They frequently argue about the precarious condition of their finances and the direction that Kolkata’s oldest surviving auction house needs to take, and their differing personalities emerge through their tiffs. Anwar is the older, dapper London-returned entrepreneur who resembles a 1950s actor in his manner, while Arshad is the younger, submissive and tradition-bound sibling who was saddled with the business set up by their father after Anwar left for the United Kingdom. Anwar is dismissive and patronising towards the permanently stricken-looking Arshad, and he can be crushing in his pronouncements. “My brother has done his best within his limitations,” declares Anwar, casting himself as the knight who will prevent further ruin.
As a later sequence establishes, the brothers are bound by tenderness and affection. The Auction House, which was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival, suggests that the story of the Saleems is not just an account of a family business trying to stay relevant, but also the story of Kolkata, a metropolis that has caught up late with the globalisation windfall, and one that is awkwardly trying to keep step with the economic progress that has animated other Indian mega-cities. “The relationship says so much about the city, East-West, and India-England,” Owles said.
The filmmaker worked on The Auction House soon after he finished assisting on The Bengali Detective, directed by Phil Cox and produced by his company, Native Voice Films. “It was my first time there and I used the opportunity to be out there and do some research, and I visited all sorts of people,” Owles said in a phone interview from London. He chanced upon The Russell Exchange on Russell Street during a walk, and was “blown away by the visual clutter of the place – the junk and the nice stuff”. Within seconds of his entering there, Anwar walked up and started chatting. “He started telling how he had just gotten back to Kolkata,” Owles said. “He is a very gregarious guy, and the film was a combination of this great place and all sorts of people from different sections of society.”
The words “auction house” conjure up images of candelabras and Victorian-era dinner sets, but a quick look around The Russell Exchange challenges expectations. Many of the goods piled up there for sale are everyday items that have the potential to induce buyer’s remorse, such as whips, DVDs, ugly vases and kitchen equipment. The weekly auction on Sunday establishes the regular clientele of The Russell Exchange – many of them collectors buying things they don’t seem to need – which makes Anwar fretful. He lends out the space for a fashion show, and just for one day, the auction house mills with the kind of perfumed crowds with whom Anwar hopes to hobnob.
On other days, The Russell Exchange trades in squabbles and complaints. The documentary was initially about the workings of the auction house, but it soon came to centre on the ties that bind and gag the Saleems. One of the funniest and most telling sequences is a circular conversation between the brothers, during which both are unyielding in their positions. “It was later into the shooting that the film became about the brothers’ relationship,” Owles said. “Arshad wasn’t sure what to make of me – he thought I was making a propaganda film about his brother. Like most documentaries, it was incremental, and they trusted me.” It also helped that Anwar is a flamboyant character, the kind who gnashes his teeth on camera with a twinkle in his eyes. “Everything he did was a sort of performance,” Owles said.
Ultimately, the key that unlocks the family secrets proves to be the quieter sibling. “Arshad welcomed the chance to have his say as soon as he knew I was not pursing any other angle,” Owles said.
Kolkata also emerges as one of the film’s most important characters. Like the Irani cafés of Mumbai, the auction house appears to be an institution whose time has come, but one that has such deep meaning for its associates – the employees seem to have been there forever – that it would be a shame if it lost out to e-commerce sites such as OLX. “It was an interesting time to be in Calcutta,” Owles said. “I know it better than other cities, and I could be wrong here, but it seems to have a bigger colonial hangover than other places. I walked around freely and nobody approached me or bothered me. That hasn’t happened to me even in Mumbai. I made quite a few friends there.”