Back when I didn’t know him, my friend Gautam wrote a column in memory of his great uncle, old-school film PR man B.B. Benegal. BB worked the gold-end of the glamour industry, in a glorious city of mismatched palaces. Ballads can be sung of such men. Indeed, I believe obit. eds. keep a few at hand, in case of abrupt goodbyes.
Such post-mortem serenading, however, lacks the memory of love at close quarters. The touch of sepia-tinged affection from people who lived in the world the departed helped create, who knew its drawing rooms and kitchens, and its secret crannies. “Where Trinity Got His Face Painted” is not available online, which is a pity, because it is as much a recollection of a fond relative, as it is a testament to a city, to a time, and to an age.
And while great uncles are difficult to communally share, such memories of shared spaces should be in a common pool. Because in a rooted culture like ours, where people seldom shuttle between houses and cities and parts of the country every few years, places and spaces become the histories of people. Even while people forget their own histories. Quite quickly. During a Founders’ Day walkabout of the old school buildings, for instance, a classmates of mine wondered aloud where, in them, the American soldiers had parked themselves during WWII. A whole host of younger girls walking with us were astonished. “There were doublew doublew two soldiers in Calcutta?” they gasped. “Wasn’t the war in Europe? And Japan?” At this point, the Berlin Declaration hadn’t completed its fiftieth decade.
So, in public and self interest, please add to the collection of spatial and cultural anecdata, to your own portraits of a time in a place, be it city, town, village, or street. Make a project of it, or a blog, or a book. Take pictures. Write down old street names. Tell us tales. You know you want to. And you know we will love you for it 🙂
To start you off, here are excerpts from Gautam Benegal’s “Where Trinity Got His Face Painted”. The portrait of A Time in A City, featuring Calcutta.
I look into Mackenna’s gritty eyes that squint in the desert sun, the whites flecked with red and mauve and creamy shades, the pupils a mixture of black and purple. He has a six shooter in his hand and as he looks back at me daring me to draw, my father adds a whirl of smoke to the barrel with a flourish and then turns around and smiles at me. It is 1975.
BB Benegal’s film publicity studio was on the top floor of 32/1 Dharamtolla Street, the Jyoti Cinema building. One part of the old structure was Jyoti cinema and the other housed musty film distributors offices, pathology labs, dentist’s chambers and some residential apartments. To my brother and I, it was a hive of magical grottos – where we sifted through ragged posters of Bengali films, brown with age, opened rusty cans of silver nitrate films, uncoiled them to peer at the frames, breathed deeply the acrid fumes of bubbling test tubes, stared into bottles of urine sputum and stool, and marveled at plaster of Paris casts of teeth and jaws.
And of course there was no lack of paint, brushes or paper in our father’s office if we felt messily inclined to be artistic. The building had an ancient lift with brass fittings and a collapsible gate that never closed at the first two attempts, and the white mustachioed octogenarian who had probably come with the lift when it was installed, knew us but never spoke. Or, you could take the wooden staircase, take them two at a time, running your hand along the wooden banisters polished by countless hands over the years, panting as you raced each other into the office.
Today is Saturday, the day we get to watch a movie. The one we are going to see today is, “Trinity Is Still My Name“. […] My brother is on his knees under the desk leafing through some old dusty publicity photos. He is looking at Raquel Welch in “One million years BC” with his mouth open.
So how do they make such huge banners out of that photograph? They have an epidiascope – a projection machine underneath which you place the photo. It projects it in whatever size you want on the banner, and my father simply sketches the outline of Raquel Welch roughly with a pencil. Then he paints it. Naresh and Nonibabu cut paste the titles from colored poster paper. My grandmother makes Konkani food like Upkari and Khorombo, which I don’t much like, but have to finish every last morsel of, or else my bappadadu glowers at me.
I wonder how Noni and Nareshbabu can stand this food day after day, and that too with toast. Dekchis of Upkari and Khorombo are sent up for them and they make the toast themselves on an electric sigri hunched over on the floor near the plug point. At least my father is a Konkani, so I am used to the food, but it must be torture to these hapless pureblooded Bengali brothers.
When he started the studio in 1943, BB was a pioneer in the world of film publicity for English films. With little else than a degree in painting, he had migrated to Calcutta from Mangalore. Calcutta, which was then the foremost Indian city in many ways, still considered the second city of the Empire, and the place to realize your dreams, much as Bombay is now. There was an HMV Gramophone Company showroom in this building on Dharamtolla Street and they had a room behind the showroom. BB hired it and made it his workshop cum residence. This is where he got his first commission.
His wife Vimala separated the living quarter from the workspace by spreading a saree across the room, dividing it in half. The trams trundled past outside, and in the large courtyard of the building, right outside his window, the thelawalas relaxed, chatted, fought and thumped out rotis, BB painted cinema hoardings, signboards and portraits – in fact anything he could get – day and night. MGM, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, British Film Distributors, Paramount, Columbia… all came to his doorstep. Soon BB could hire a flat on the third floor to live in, and a studio space on the top floor for his office. This was during WW2 and the streets of Calcutta were full of British soldiers and American GI’s. The great cinema halls – Lighthouse, Elite, Minerva and New Empire were showing films like Gone With the Wind, The Purple Heart, The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca – and you could see BB Benegal’s hoardings and film posters outside and inside these cinema halls.
We don’t have to buy tickets of course like the rest of the world. If my brother or I want to see a film, bappadadu or my father just writes a little note and hands it over to us. The manager of New Empire cinema sits in an office that you never would have imagined existed from the outside. The doors are flush with the wall of the foyer and its only when they open up you realize there is a room inside. Like a chameleon room. (The manager of Roxy cinema has a chair in his office that has a secret staircase underneath it. So that he can make a fast getaway if irate moviegoers come to gherao him for whatever reason, he explained to me once kindly.) I can see the Trinity posters all around me which I had seen my father paint only a few days before. I swell with pride as the cold blast of air conditioning meets us as we enter the foyer. I look around at the crowd and think, “If only they knew!”
BB Benegal’s office celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 1983 with a big bash in the office. Beer flowed, and the best Chinese, Tandoori, and Mughlai food was brought in. The whole family and extended family was invited. As were his clients of many years. My grand uncle had epicurean tastes even in his eighties, perhaps none too wisely, because on that very night after everyone left, he got up to raid the fridge. With disastrous consequences.
He died in a nursing home a few days later and that was the only time I saw my father cry. When BB’s body was laid out in that same courtyard in 32/1 Dharamtolla street where he had started his career so many years ago, MGM, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Paramount, Columbia… all came to his doorstep.