Bengali writer Sankar’s 1962 novel Chowringhee is set in Central Kolkata’s Chowringhee area in the 1950s. The acclaimed novel gets a contemporary update in Srijit Mukherji’s Shah Jahan Regency. The January 18 release stars Parambrata Chatterjee, Abir Chatterjee, Anjan Dutt, Swastika Mukherjee, Anirban Bhattacharya and Mamata Shankar in key roles. While the setting of Sankar’s novel is the fictional Shah Jahan Hotel, Mukherjee’s Bengali-language film takes place in 2018 in an establishment called Shah Jahan Regency.
The story of Chowringhee concerns the tragic lives of the inhabitants of the palatial Shah Jahan Hotel. “A lot of Kolkata has changed,” Srijit Mukherjee told Scroll.in in a previous interview about the film’s departure from the novel. “Its values, its ethos, and its demographic have changed. The hotel industry has changed. The city has become darker in many ways.”
The characters in the novel include Marco Polo, the imposing hotel manager who is a Greek orphan raised by Italian priests. There is the Anglicised receptionist Sata Bose and airhostess Sujata Mitra, with whom Sata falls in love. Hostess Karabi Guha gets romantically entangled with Anindo Pakrashi, the scion of a wealthy business family. Anindo’s mother, Mrs Pakrashi, leads a double life.
Other key characters include private detective Byron, Scottish cabaret dancer Connie and Marco Polo’s enigmatic secretary Rose. Hotel launderer Nityahari literally washes everybody’s dirty linen, and his conservatism provides a counterpoint to the licentiousness that sloshes around at Shah Jahan Hotel.
Drifting in and out of the proceedings is the omnipresent narrator who shares his name with the author of Chowringhee. The novel’s Shankar provides a peek into the lives of the characters. Shankar’s protagonist is passive, but little escapes his eye. Early in the novel, when Sata Bose is about to reveal one of the hotel’s many secrets, Shankar tells him, “I can hear, yes, but I’m mute. Whatever I hear stays inside, it never comes out.”
Chowringhee was first adapted as a film of the same name in 1968 by Pinaki Bhushan Mukherjee. This version starred Uttam Kumar, Utpal Dutt, Subhendu Chatterjee, Supriya Devi, Biswajit Chatterjee and Dipti Roy. Subhendu Chatterjee played Shankar, played by Parambrata Chatterjee in the new film.
The novel begins with a poem that Sankar credits to one AC Maffen. Speaking to The Telegraph in 2017, Sankar said that the idea of writing a novel about a hotel came to him after two years of writer’s block. On a rainy evening in Kolkata’s Esplanade area, he chanced upon a book of poems. The lines in Maffen’s poem sparked thoughts in Sankar’s mind, and when he saw the bright light emanating from the nearby Grand Hotel (now The Oberoi Grand), he knew what his next novel would be about.
“Our life is but a winter’s day:— AC Maffen.
Some only breakfast and away;
Others to dinner stay and are full fed;
The oldest man but sups and goes to bed;
He that goes soonest has the least to pay.”
Maffen’s lines come at the beginning of Chowringhee and capture the transitory lives of the novel’s characters, who find peace nowhere but inside the Shah Jahan Hotel.
It ends poorly for most of the characters, especially the women. The men survive and persist, even though they do not have it too easy. The one ray of sunlight in the gloomy novel – the blooming romance between Sata Bose and Sujata Mitra that begins in the hotel – is not allowed to glow brighter.