Monday, December 11, 2006

Now, rickshaw only in the reel life

Somdatta Basu | TNN

Kolkata: What is common between Balraj Sahani and Om Puri? Both have pulled the rickshaw on Kolkata streets.

Be it period drama (Parineeta ) or old classic (Do Bigha Zameen ), pure love story (Amar Prem ) or the West glorifying the Indian slums (City of Joy ), filmmakers, time and again, have turned to the shaft-yoke imagery whenever they wanted to portray Kolkata in its elements.

The screen travails of the hand-pulled rickshaw from Satyajit Ray to Rituparno Ghosh will fortunately assure the carriage at least lives in reel life even as Bengal’s Marxist lawmakers handed the death sentence to it.

For Pradeep Sarkar, who directed Parineeta, the rickshaw brings out the ‘‘slow, yet steady’’ Bengali attitude: ‘‘The rickshaw is part of Kolkata’s psyche. The time-frame (1960s) of Parineeta warranted portraying hand-pulled rickshaws. They were an integral part of the city then.’’

Kolkata alone has claim on the hackney-pullers, say the directors. ‘‘It may be seen as a form of slavery, but the handpulled rickshaws should be preserved as part of our heritage. There can be certain routes on which they can still be allowed to ply. If they are abandoned, the city will lose part of its tradition. And we shall not be able to use rickshaws in films any more,’’ rues Sarkar.

But the rickshaw is very much there in Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s forthcoming flick, Two Boys and A Girl . ‘‘There is a parity between the hackney carriage and the city. It has been repeatedly used in films simply because of its familiarity with Kolkata,’’ says Dasgupta. Personally, though, he would never take a ride. ‘‘But it is one of the non-polluting vehicles the city will ever have. Before banning it, we should get rid of our autos and buses.’’

Decades ago, middle-class women on hand-pulled rickshaws was a common sight on city streets. ‘‘Naturally, it found reflection in cinema,’’ says veteran filmmaker Tapan Sinha. The rickshaw has been a ‘‘common’’ prop in many of his movies.

Om Puri, who lived with rickshawpullers for some time to get into the skin of his character in City of Joy , says, ‘‘When there is flooding in Kolkata, handpulled rickshaws are the only solace. They are symbolic to the City of Joy.’’

While City of Joy was happening, a rickshaw was parked in the garage of the Oberoi Grand. ‘‘Fifteen days before the shoot, I would get up at 5.30 am, dress scantily, cover my face with a dirty towel and practise,’’ recalls Puri. His two passengers were real rickshaw-pullers; one would guide him, while the other warded off inquisitive passengers.

The experience lingered on his mind. ‘‘When we went to Hong Kong for a promo, I took my wife for a rickshaw ride, She sat on the passenger seat, while I pulled the rickshaw,’’ signs off Puri.

The Trivia

Most of the rickshaw-pullers are migrants from Bihar who leave their families at home & spend 10 months of the year in Kolkata

In July 2005, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government heralded a total ban on this antiquated form of transport. But this was not the first conflict between the pullers and the government

24,000 rickshaw-wallahs are enrolled with the All Bengal (hand-pulled) Rickshaw Union

Rs 30 was all a rickshaw-wallah would need to renew his licence.

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