By Murray Schneider
In mid-March, Bird and Beckett bookseller Eric Whittington stage-managed a four-day Indian film festival of Bengali movies at the Richmond District’s Balboa Theater. Whittington bookended “Indian Cinema – Beyond Bollywood,” with Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury “Aparajita Tumi,” a two-hour movie filmed last summer entirely on location in the Bay Area and “Nagmoti,” directed by Gautam Chattopadhyay and filmed in Bengal.
Glen Park is depicted in several scenes in Chowdhury’s film.
If how a neighborhood is portrayed on the silver screen has something to do with its reputation, then the village will someday compare favorably with other cinematic and legendary San Francisco locales.
Last July, movie director Chowdhury filmed actress Padmapriya Janakiraman strolling along Chenery Street. The morning was crisp and sunny. As the script called for, she stepped first into Bird and Beckett to avoid unsolicited attentions from a former boyfriend and then joined him later for a latte at Higher Grounds.
The only cinematic incongruity in the couple’s brief caffeine encounter was the legion of 36-Teresita buses turning past Manhal Jweinat’s window’s onto Diamond Street during the “reel” time it took the couple to rub away frothy foam from their lips.
This aside, Bird and Beckett’s proprietor had his own take.
“The neighborhood had a wonderful time when the scenes were filmed,” said Whittington, who first viewed the finished product at its premiere this January when he visited India. “Now we all have a chance to see it.”
When Jweinat was told after the festival that had the audience blinked it might have missed his acting debut, he joked:
“I had my five seconds of fame!”
“Actually, I’ve seen the film more than once now, and I haven’t seen Manhal yet,” smiled Whittington, “It was more like two seconds!”
This wasn’t the first time Whittington and the 1926 Balboa Theater have partnered. Most recently Jimmy Ryan and his Bi Bop Band played the art deco venue and, while Bengali moviegoers lined up to purchase festival tickets, across the lobby Bird and Beckett Friday night jazz man Chuck Peterson and his trio played a muted rendition of the standard, “I Can’t Get Started.”
Bishu Chatterjee, a bass player, is another Bird and Beckett regular, and his brother’s film “Nagmoti” was screened before a festival audience of nearly 100.
Chatterjee, who completed his doctorate in economics from the University of California at Davis and presently consults on California energy policy, moonlights fronting “Bengal & Beyond,” a quartet that fuses Bengali and American jazz.
“Bishu stored the print in his garage for ten years,” said Whittington, who introduced the film, which depicts riverine gypsies living in the Ganges delta southeast of Kolkata. The film won the 1983 prestigious Silver Lotus award for the best Bengali film at the National Film Awards, India’s equivalent of the Oscars.
The two-hour film, which Chattopadhyay wrote and scored, portrays itinerants residing on the outskirts of a traditional Bengali agrarian community. They are held in suspicion, and the film ends tragically when a gypsy young woman is prevented from making the transition to a more settled life.
“Gautam was a talented man,” said Chatterjee, whose brother died suddenly of a heart attack in 1999. “He was sincere, honest and uncompromising.”
“Chattopadhyay was a legendary musician, ethnomusicologist and filmmaker,” said Whittington. “Before he became famous for his films, his folk-rock band “Moheener Ghoraguli blazed new trails.”
Earlier, Omar Rodriguez, the Balboa’s manager said: “This is exactly the kind of programming the neighborhood needs.”
There’s clearly a growing audience for such work. A young woman who hailed from Cole Valley, but whose origins go back to Bangladesh, pocketed a ticket stub she’d just received from Rodriguez. “I love Bengali movies,” she said, “and I’m excited about this film festival.”
The Bay Area has become a magnet for a wave of Indian immigration, one of the plot threads woven through “Aparajita Tumi,” which turns on familiar themes that each immigrant group has wrestled with since the beginning of the American experience.
Whether in Silicon Valley, San Francisco or the East Bay, Bengalis aren’t going unnoticed. Anyone who has browsed Whittington’s independent bookstore shelves knows he stocks a wide collection of international titles from every corner of the world. “I’m pleased to see Bengali interests and others in the Indian community reflected at our bookstore,” said Whittington.
Other places as well. “This was born out also by the groups of people attending the festival,” said Whittington, anticipating Satyajit Ray’s classic Bengali film, “Aranyer Din Ratri,” which closed the festival. “There’s nothing to rival the thrill and good feeling of a grand movie-going experience in a real theater with a crowd of excited moviegoers.”