The journey of Asansol, located along the Damodar river on the West Bengal-Jharkhand border, mirrors that of any once-thriving mofussil industrial hub in the country.

Closed factories dot its geography. The few big industries that survive get by with the help of doles and regular job cuts. The air, water and soil are poisoned critically, owing to decades of wilful violation of environmental laws. Communal skirmishes and aggressive assertion of hard line right wing forces in public spaces characterise the days and nights.

Malls and multiplexes, meanwhile, are busy selling fantastical dreams and promises of a utopian future to Asansol’s residents. The narratives in these spaces, as well as in the films playing in the few remaining single-screen theatres, reflect little of the real concerns and everyday lives of people in Asansol’s industrial belt.

So when a day-long film festival that offered something other than the commercial fare was organised by the People’s Film Collective this November, people in the area responded with enthusiasm. Prior to the screening, common citizens lined up to support the initiative, through financial contributions, moral support and volunteer work.

On the day of the event on November 18, the Bar Association hall in the district court complex in Bardhaman, where the inaugural programme of the collective’s Asansol chapter was held, was packed to capacity. More than 120 people turned up to watch three documentaries and a feature film. On the schedule was Anand Patwardhan’s Raam Ke Naam, Faiza Ahmad Khan’s Supermen of Malegaon, Biju Toppo and Meghnath Bhattacharya’s Gadi Lohardaga Mail and Ektara Collective’s Turup.

Several attendees had travelled more than 40 km from the industrial outskirts for the programme and had to leave early to make it home before nightfall. As they made a rushed exit, they reaffirmed what members of the collective’s Asansol chapter had sensed during discussions with the area’s residents before the screenings– that there was an urgent, intense need for such an initiative.

Turup, which weaves a delicate tapestry of caste, class, gender and religion in small-town India, had just ended. “Such incidents [exposing communal fault lines] keep happening around us every day,” remarked someone from the group. The others in the hall voiced their agreement. Later, a few promised to volunteer and support the collective’s future initiatives.

Filling a gap

Formed in 2013, People’s Film Collective is an independent, people-funded cultural organisation in West Bengal. The collective has been organising an annual film festival in Kolkata over the last five years, apart from regular monthly screenings in the metropolis and children’s movies in schools and hamlets within and outside the city.

“There is no space barring collectives such as ours – be it multiplexes, single screens, television or even regular DVD stores – where the best non-fiction and non-commercial fiction cinema from across the country is available,” said Dwaipayan Banerjee, a PhD scholar at Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences and one of the founding members of the collective.

This year, People’s Film Collective started two new chapters in West Bengal: Asansol and Birbhum. The Asansol chapter of the People’s Film Collective comprises local residents, including students, teachers, research scholars, lawyers and activists

“There is a gaping vacuum in non-metropole suburban and rural spaces as far as engaged cinema viewing is concerned. We are trying to fill this gap,” said People’s Film Collective co-founder Kasturi Basu.

Such alternative cinema can do more than just entertain, engage and inform – it also has the potential to solve some of the socio-economic problems in the region.

Subir Hazra Chowdhury, former chairman of the Steel Executive Federation of India, sees immense possibilities of such an initiative, especially in the industrial belt.

“As a technocrat who has lived and worked in the area for 36 years, I have seen how industries have collapsed.” he said. “My personal experience, as well as the insights I have gained from various people running or managing industrial units in the area show that the narrative of industries running into mounting losses is only partially true. The real stories of what is happening inside these industries never come out.”

According to Chowhdury, there are political and financial vested interests at play in declaring a unit sick or profitable. This is where cinema can come in, he believes. “In such a scenario, screenings of and discussions on documentaries and films that tell the story from close to the ground have tremendous relevance.”

The Asansol-Raniganj-Durgapur industrial belt, despite its fall from grace, accounts for almost 60% of West Bengal’s total turnover from the industrial sector. It is home to rich reserves of coal, steel and power plants, apart from other allied and small industries.

“One of the major problems in these parts is that people in the city are blissfully unaware of all that is happening in the downfield areas, where there is massive displacement, job cuts and flagrant violation of labour laws,” said Suman Kalyan Moulick, associated with the Asansol Civil Rights Association. Like Chowdhury, Moulick sees the potential of cinema in narrowing this gap.

A glimmer of this was seen during the November 18 screening in Asansol’s district court, where the audience was made up in equal parts of city residents as well as those from the industrial and mining belts in the outskirts. In attendance were a cross-section of Asansol residents, from colliery workers to salaried professionals, students, members of theatre groups and trade unions, teachers, lawyers, poets and writers.

Tapping into earlier traditions

Asansol was once a vibrant space for cinema, theatre and literature. But the industrial decline of ’80s and ’90s was accompanied by the fading out of cultural activities as well.

“Asansol was among a clutch of mofussil towns in Bengal like Naihati, Bally and Berhampore that was host to a thriving film society movement in the post 1970s period,” said Subhendu Dasgupta, film scholar, researcher and former Professor of Economics at the University of Calcutta. “The culture of watching and discussing cinema developed alongside a variety of other initiatives focussed on street theatre, little magazines, people’s music and discussions on science. These emerged out of the earlier generation’s quest to know and educate themselves better about their lives and place in the larger world.”

The Film Study Centre associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI’s Cine Club of India were born out of this current. The two groups would hold film festivals, often jointly, that gave viewers access to cinema that did not make it to commercial theatres. For children like me growing up in Asansol in the early ’90s, such events presented us with the lucrative prospect of watching a film in a theatre with full parental endorsement.

“I travelled to Asansol on several occasions during those days, delivering public lectures and participating in discussions on cinema, among other things,” said Dasgupta. “Like in other mofussil towns, there was a big overlap in Asansol between people who were active in the film society movement and those behind platforms to promote scientific temperament, environmental struggles and resistance movements.”

But when nationalised industries, the backbone of the region’s economy, started running into losses and closing down, youngsters and aspiring middle class residents left the city in search of education and employment. With no fresh blood to infuse in initiatives like Film Study Centre and Cine Club of India, they began to die out.

Active members of these groups, most over 50 years old, are now thrilled at the prospect of meaningful cinema making a comeback to the city.

Several community and neighbourhood-based clubs, trade unions and local NGOs have also expressed interest in holding screenings for the People’s Film Collective, which would be free and open to all. Schools have responded positively to the prospect of hosting screenings of Little Cinema meant for youngsters.

Road ahead

The Asansol chapter of the People’s Film Collective now wants to go a step beyond its predecessors – by taking cinema to the working class quarters in the outskirts of the city. “Even in the heydays of the film society movement, the audience remained largely middle class,” said Dasgupta. “Very little of the screenings and discussions were able to reach and touch the lives of those toiling with their bodies.”

Alongside the screenings, the collective will also attempt to document the life and times of Asansol and its residents in collaboration with local practitioners and researchers. Perhaps, productions emerging from such efforts could also be a part of the first People’s Film Festival in Asansol, planned for late 2018.

Aritra Bhattacharya is an independent journalist, a PhD scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, and a member of the Asansol chapter of the People’s Film Collective.