“Where Trinity Got His Face Painted”

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.

UPDATE: This is now a crowd-sourced meme, called Spaces Have Tales. Read more about it here, and all posts in the category here.

*****

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.

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23 comments

  1. This is wonderful. I’ve been thinking about something similar, you know, about travels and writing down things before I forget them…:)

  2. No, friends aren’t enough. When she first stopped writing, I pushed her for YEARS to get writing again, only succeeding sporadically. This girl, she needs *deadlines* (completely unrelated to the writing, that is. Only then does she turn to writing as procrastination. Hrrmph. Jottoshob.)

  3. How about a rectangular box with a timer, a bulb and a ‘ding’er. We will start it off and tell her that she has two produce three hundred words in thirty minutes in two layers or else the memory will burn or get soggy or stick to the bottom of the brain or something. The tension would be pulpy.

  4. Now that i have been me, i admit the idea is very good. Even now i tend to take the long cut walking through quiet residential areas smelling of dull domestic bliss and the utterly comprehensible little crises.

  5. I write novels, and many of them are set in India long ago. Trying to recreate what places were like is difficult, sometimes, without local histories, which are often the association of places with stories. Encouraging people to record their experiences of place is a great idea. It’s also an important part of creating sustainable urban spaces: people tend to care more if a place has a recorded history. Many neighborhoods also have discovered that there is money to be made, artfully preserving a moment in the past.

  6. Thank you, James. I hope you’ll chip in, too. You’re probably better suited for the job than most, since with personal memories, you also have the training necessary to record them well 🙂

  7. Thanks, Rimi. I’d add that in India *right now* this is very important. I remember returning to Hyderabad after an absence of only eight years. My wife was with me, and I wanted to show her the city I used to know – the neighborhood I lived in, called Domalguda, but it literally wasn’t there anymore, except for a few stray buildings. All the suburban bhavans had been knocked down and replaced by high-rise apartments; their owners had shifted to Banjara Hills. But a few landmarks remained, like King & Cardinal. I remembered it as a place where college students used to hang out, women on the left hand side, men on the right. People went there for the ice cream, but I liked the dhal fry with parotas. There was a lot of flirting and horsing around that used to go on there. But that was a time when the universities in Hyderabad were out in the countryside, or on the edge of the city, and students had to come into town to have fun. Himayathnagar also was an upper middle-class neighborhood, then. I doubt if it’s such prime real estate, now.

    • This is far too true. My friend T currently lives in a flat that overlooks a gorgeous, gorgeous old house — well maintained, unlike most old houses in the old-money part of town — but talks are on to demolish it, because the house is both too large and unwieldy, and too small (in terms of personal rooms and bathrooms, I imagine) to accommodate the burgeoning family. It’s heartbreaking.

  8. I could mention Amethyst, one of my favorite hang-outs in Chennai. A restored mansion, in Gopalapuram, a short walk from Sathyam Cinemas, but tucked down a side street in a residential area. Popular with locals and videshis in the know (like yoga students from Deshikachar’s place, and wierdos like me). The house used to be the city manzil of one of the princes of the Madras Presidency in the days of the Raj. I used to know which one! I think it was the Raja of Venkatagiri, or some place like that. It’s one of the last little vestiges of the garden houses that used to cover what the British called “Choultry Plain.” I like to sit there and watch the foreign yoga students gorge themselves on chocolate cake. 🙂 It’s almost as fun as eavesdropping on the college students hanging out on the patio. It’s a great place to read, write, and chill.

  9. Amethyst led to a lot of copycat boutique-cum-cafes in old buildings, I remember at least two more in Madras. Byloom in Calcutta reminded me vividly of Amethyst when I went there 10 days ago.

  10. I thought Amethyst was expensive, too. 🙂 Not the go-there-everyday sort of place, for people on a budget. However, they didn’t mind if you just ordered tea or coffee and sat around for hours.

  11. Somewhere on the interwebs is a huge cache of old Calcutta pictures taken by WWII soldiers. It is a glorious thing!

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