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A park for Apu and Soumitra

A theme park to memorialise the beloved actor Soumitra Chatterjee needn’t be tacky. It could be a new way to engage with heritage

Painted electric junction boxes in Kolkata pay vibrant tribute to the city’s heritage in ways that link it to the present.
Painted electric junction boxes in Kolkata pay vibrant tribute to the city’s heritage in ways that link it to the present. (Photographs by Sandip Roy)

Soumitra Chatterjee won many accolades in his storied acting career—the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the Padma Bhushan, the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur. But he probably never expected to be memorialised as a theme park.

After the beloved actor died in Kolkata in November, the West Bengal government announced it would create a park themed around his famous 1959 debut film—Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, or The World Of Apu, the third part of his famous trilogy. The managing director of the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation has told the media that expressions of interest from bidders have been invited for the project.

There is, incidentally, already a Sonar Kella Park that pays tribute to another of Ray and Chatterjee’s legendary collaborations—the first Feluda detective story Ray filmed, set in the Rajasthan desert. This is our version of Parks And Recreation, the nostalgia edition.

Ray’s biographer, Andrew Robinson, described Apur Sansar as “a film one virtually cannot avoid being moved by”. But unlike Star Wars or Pirates Of The Caribbean, it does not scream theme park. A friend sardonically wondered what the park props from a film with as humble a setting as Apur Sansar might be—the torn pith topor headdress of a Bengali bridegroom, a dingy garret room above the railway line, a wooden flute, a book of poems, a face illumined in the light of a struck match.

“What is there in your eyes?” the newly-married Apu asks his young bride as she lights his cigarette. “Kajal,” she replies shyly, a word that means both mascara and the name of the son she will bear him. Can a theme park ever capture that tenderness of the human heart?

There are thankfully no plans for any Apu merry-go-round or the Apu-Kajal roller-coaster but we must never underestimate our capacity for tackiness. After all, Kolkata is also a city that paid tribute to its love for football with a statue of two enormous legs, with a globe/football in the waist region and nothing above it. It’s apparently supposed to represent Cristiano Ronaldo’s free kick but it’s also a free kick in the stomach of the Bengali’s cultural smugness. “It hits you in the pit of your stomach. It looks as if it has been beheaded at the waist. It also signifies a brutal end to imagination,” wrote Chandrima S. Bhattacharya in The Telegraph, in a horror parade of Kolkata’s worst public art, in 2019.

But at least an Apur Sansar park is nostalgia rooted in its own culture. It’s certainly a marked improvement over the little Big Ben that suddenly sprang up in Kolkata after chief minister Mamata Banerjee rhetorically asked, “Why can’t Kolkata be another London?” It was installed for 1.36 crore on the road to the airport, the same airport that no longer has direct flights exist to London. Kolkata is not the only city scouring the world for its attractions. Delhi has its own round-the-world wonder tour, with its shuddh desi Eiffel Tower and Giza Pyramid made of metal scrap like bicycle parts and old appliances. Chandigarh has its “not so grand” Eiffel Tower left over from An Evening In Paris tribute at the 2013 Chandigarh Carnival. An Apur Sansar park at least acknowledges the richness of our own heritage instead of recycling someone else’s.

Nostalgia is a bad word in the modern world. It holds us back, keeps us trapped in the rear-view mirror, perpetually pining for a home we cannot return to. Bengalis are masters at it and some Kolkata neighbourhoods with peeling homes, shuttered windows and money plants creeping across the iron grills of the balcony, already look like an Apur Sansar theme park. But nostalgia doesn’t have to be a dead end. It can also be part of reinvention.

I remember how astonished I was when electric junction boxes around Kolkata started getting a face lift. Usually drab grey blocks covered with handbills plugging tuition classes and massages, they suddenly became vibrant tributes to the city’s heritage. Satyajit Ray lived at 3, Lake Temple Road, said one near that address, while the train that mesmerised young Apu in Pather Panchali chugged across its olive green backdrop. In the part that was once home to Kolkata’s fabled nightlife, electric boxes paid tribute to Biddu of Disco Deewane fame, who started his career at the nightclub Trincas, as well as a pink-and-white swirly nod to Flurys, the iconic Swiss patisserie famous for its rum balls and baba cakes. “The idea is to celebrate the city through its stories,” Muder Patherya, the brain behind the project, tells me.

Patherya had originally thought of getting a blue plaque for the wall of a house in his neighbourhood, where Ray once lived (incidentally, Soumitra Chatterjee too lived there later). “But it does not work in Kolkata. Someone would just take the plaque,” Patherya says. The electric box seemed more immovable. And playful. “We tend to see heritage in the past tense. We have given it a contemporary sense,” he says. In the process, it has also helped artists who once painted signboards but have struggled to survive in a world of flex printing. There are other examples, like the old tram car reimagined as a library running through Boipara, Kolkata’s neighbourhood of books.

While the snobs among us might recoil at the idea of an Apur Sansar park, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea. Unlike a Feluda-themed café or an R.D. Burman coffee shop, the would be part of the public commons. It’s a different way of engaging with the past but it’s better than jettisoning it altogether in pursuit of a fibreglass cut-rate Big Ben.

The irony is that the same neighbourhoods that boast of heritage-with-cappuccino cafés are losing the houses that gave them their unique character. Those houses with red oxide floors and iron grills have given way to dull apartment buildings. It’s pointless to lament the loss of heritage because you cannot save it just by placing a Do Not Touch sign on it. We have to value the house because it represents a kind of architectural style that is unique, not just because Ray or Rabindranath Tagore once spent a night there. There are too many of these mansions in the city, home to the Renaissance men and women who lived there, now dusty mausoleums nobody visits.

I have walked into an Industrial Museum in Kolkata which looks like some dusty bureaucrat’s office and found a treasure trove of forgotten artefacts under creaking fans and ugly fluorescent lights—blue and white boxes of Milk of Magnesia, bottles of orange Cantharidine hair oil, green boxes of Kalmegh, the chiretta plant extract my great-grandmother swore by for a healthy liver, and a “rational cough cure” called Kasabin. The pharmaceutical display is like an ode to Bengali hypochondria. “Do not take photos,” the guard told me sternly. I asked if they did not want more visitors. He looked at me strangely. He told me that every year they would hear a shutdown was imminent; they have clung on somehow. Perhaps 10-12 people visit in a month. They survive by trying to stay out of sight.

An Apur Sansar park might not be the most sophisticated way to salute our heritage or pay tribute to a legendary actor. It may end up being utterly tacky. But in a city where a Jyoti Basu Water Treatment Plant and a Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port get mired more in politics than tribute, a park might literally be a breath of fresh air. Who knows, it could even open us up to new flights of fancy—the Sholay safari ground and Pakeezah amusement park, maybe even the Amar Akbar Anthony fantasy park.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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