Joshy Joseph’s new documentary has a triple-barrelled title and multiple layers folded into its 105-minute narrative. A Poet, A City & A Footballer is about the late Bengali poet and filmmaker Goutam Sen, the footballer PK Banerjee, an Eastern hemisphere romantic view of life, poetry and the ability of cinema to bring several ideas together into a coherent whole.
A summary of the recently completed documentary’s themes alone reveals its scope and ambition. The Films Division production explores Sen’s unfulfilled quest to make a documentary on the legendary footballer PK Banerjee, which was cut short when Sen was diagnosed with cancer. As Sen wasted away, his film seemed doomed to die along with him, but another one took birth – Joseph’s account of Sen’s rage against the dying of the light.
The film includes conversations with Sen, his former partner and family members, scenes from the shoot of the feature film Jongol Mohol that Sen was making in the middle of all the excitement, and excerpts from footage that would have gone into his Banerjee documentary, had he lived to complete it. Sen died in 2013.
The convoluted journey started when Joseph, who is deputy director general in-charge of Films Division’s Kolkata office, watched Sen pitch for funds for his Banerjee film. The filmmakers were good friends, and Joseph noticed how Sen, who had already been diagnosed with cancer, was struggling to breathe while building his case. When members of the Films Division commissioning body asked Sen if he would be able to finish his project, he replied. “Filmmaking is my medicine,” Joseph recalls.
VS Kundu, the Director General of Films Division, noticed that Sen’s film was “getting blended with his own life story,” Joseph adds. “Kundu asked Goutam to make an autobiographical film, but he wasn’t sure if he could complete it.” Joseph, meanwhile, could sense that a documentary about the abortive project was brewing, but he was held back by his concern for Sen.
Two films better than one
Kundu suggested combining the films, and a shoot of sorts got underway. A friend translated Sen’s poems into English, but the filmmaker got conscious while reciting them on camera. “I could do nothing, I couldn’t intervene, and meanwhile, his body was withering away,” Joseph recalled. A few days later, they were waiting outside Sen’s hospital room, watching him discuss his poems, his creative muses, and his PK Banerjee film. The camera kept rolling over the next hour and a half. “I made the film around those one and a half hours,” Joseph said.
Despite his condition, Sen did shoot a bit of footage with Banerjee, which have been included in Joseph’s documentary. “While Goutam was in the hospital, he was trying to construct a film with PK Banerjee, but when he actually met him, the experience was different,” Joseph said. “I found that the onslaught of stories [by Banerjee] was starting to make Goutam helpless. Since the PK Banerjee story wasn’t part of my original material, it challenged me thoroughly.” The structure he adopted helped give shape to the scattered footage. A Poet, A City & A Footballer is divided into non-linear chapters, somewhat like a novel. “The structure happened because of Goutam, this storyteller, challenging my structure,” Joseph said.
The chapters capture the essence of the city that has been Joseph’s home for the past 17 years. Joseph met Sen at a national awards ceremony several years ago. “He was a representative of a Bohemian type, one in which sport and art overlapped” Joseph recalled. “I remember when I came here that there was hardly anybody who didn’t have anything to do with poetry and football.”
The West Bengal that Joseph moved to was a Communist bastion at the time, and the filmmaker soon got a taste of its ability to control culture. His independently made documentary One Day From a Hangman’s Life, a dramatised account of the hanging of convicted rapist Dhananjoy Chatterjee in 2004, was briefly banned by the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government. Joseph got involved with Bengali intellectuals who condemned the ban, among them the writer Mahasweta Devi. Joseph found strains of the intellectual life he had left behind in his native state of Kerala. “The Kerala of the seventies and the eighties is no more, it’s now a consumerist place that believes in appearances,” he said. “Calcutta is not bothered about appearances.” It’s still a city where it is possible to strike engrossing conversations with absolute strangers that go beyond politesse, he added.
Joseph’s love for Kolkata comes through in the impressions of the city, which have been beautifully lensed by cinematographer Manesh Madhavan, and the conversations with its denizens, many of who speak with passion for the arts – and football. Banerjee turns out to be a consummate performer, narrating his journey into football and fame with camera-friendly bombast. As Banerjee prattles on, Sen watches from the sidelines, smiling to himself but also silenced by the verbiage.
It might surprise some that A Poet, A City & A Footballer is a Films Division production – its non-linear structure and quasi-experimental and meditative approach to narrative do not conform to the widely held perception of the government organisation as a propaganda churner that records the state’s often imaginary achievements with doggedness and dullness. In recent years, the Films Division, especially under Kundu’s dynamic leadership, has surprised many detractors. The organisation has been pushing the boundaries of the documentary form, commissioning films on a variety of subjects, regularly releasing its better regarded productions on DVD and on the internet, and creating a weekly screening space for independent documentaries.
“It is bullshit that the Films Division doesn’t prove the infrastructure for people who want to make documentaries,” asserted Joseph, who has been on the organisation’s rolls for as long as he been in Kolkata. “This place has a tendency to create a bubble. Anybody working here for two or three years can become a tehsildar. So some filmmakers die.” Others flourish and manage to leave their personal stamp on their creations, as is the case with A Poet, A City & A Footballer, a documentary about many filmmaking passions melting into one engrossing and poignant whole.