If nostalgia was a country, someone once told me, Kolkata would be its capital.
It was not meant as a compliment. Kolkata’s nostalgia can be a bit faded, frayed at the edges, gently mouldering into rubble while the traffic signals warble Rabindrasangeet.
But what Kolkata thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Or, rather, what Kolkata thought yesterday, India thinks today.
Nostalgia is the new cash crop of the season. From the web series Jubilee to the impending return of Campa Cola, this is clearly boom time for remembrance of things past.
The very meaning of nostalgia, however, has changed. When the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined it in 1688, he identified it as a sickness that had two essential components—nostos, or the desire to return home, and algos, or the pain that comes from being unable to do that. By the early 20th century, some psychoanalysts thought it stemmed from the trauma of being expelled from the safety of the mother’s womb.
But what we are seeing now is a different kind of nostalgia. Instead of melancholy sepia, it’s a fizzy feel-good type of nostalgia. When Reliance announced it was relaunching Campa Cola, its press release hoped that older family members would “cherish the nostalgia”, while the younger post-Campa Cola generation would enjoy its “crisp refreshing taste”. Either way, it’s all about “feeling good and having fun with all the rest”. Nowhere does anyone mention that Campa Cola was basically a Coca-Cola wannabe when the real Coke had been booted out of India.
Jubilee ratchets the nostalgia trip up a notch. It reimagines the birth of the Hindi film industry but with so much creative licence that the viewer is never really sure where fact ends and fiction begins. Instead of being nostalgia for an imagined past, it audaciously reimagines the past as it might have happened somewhere in the multiverse.
It’s familiar but disorienting, with an “everything everywhere” and a “once upon a time” feel. Was that character based on Dilip Kumar or is it Ashok Kumar? Is that meant to be a Madhubala or a Nargis? Or shades of both? The soundtrack evokes the 1940s-50s without relying on actual cover versions of old hit songs. So Jubilee’s Babuji Bhole Bhaale salutes Aar-Paar’s (1954) Babuji Dheere Chalna, while its Saare Ke Saare Akele is a hat-tip to Dekhi Zamaane Ki Yaari from 1959’s Kaagaz Ke Phool, lyricist Kausar Munir tells the news portal Scroll.
In that sense, it’s not Mamma Mia!, the 1999 musical which plugs in golden oldie ABBA songs into a brand new storyline so a middle-aged audience can sing along. In Jubilee, these are new songs even though they feel familiar enough to hum along with. It’s nostalgia but without the algos.
Jubilee isn’t alone. The cultural space is filled with series that are revisiting, reimagining or recreating the past, whether it’s straightforward documentaries like The Romantics, about Yash Raj films, or historical epics about the Chola empire. The past has become big business. Munir calls it the “Downton (Abbey) effect”.
Sometimes, that past being recreated might never have really existed. But that does not matter. It’s all about nostalgia as a product. That’s not new. Old- school turntables and cameras have long had an aura of retro cool. At the Kolkata Book Fair this year, one of the busiest stalls (other than those selling biryani) was one selling Sulekha pens and ink in different colours. Even I succumbed to the lure of permanent blue-black, though I still have not written a line with my new fountain pen.
When nostalgia is done well, though, it can hit the bulls-eye. Saregama’s Carvaan is nothing more than a music player with a bank of songs. The songs play randomly, as they would on the radio. The user has little control other than selecting the genre or mood. My mother was a little wary at first, distrustful of yet another gadget. But before long it became her afternoon companion, like a transistor radio of yore, one she could fall asleep with next to her, like she once did on a warm summer afternoon, listening to the radio. If it only had an announcer telling us the next song was requested by Geeta Kumari from Jhumri Telaiya, the illusion would have been complete.
Artists are often wary about nostalgia. It can be cloying, draining a story of blood, replacing it with syrup. That might have been what film-maker Terrence Malick meant when he said, “Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown anything.” Artists can drown in that syrup like ants if they are not careful.
But Jubilee shows that it does not have to be that way. Nostalgia can be playful too if it’s done right, taking the story forward into new and unmapped territory instead of trapping us forever in the rear-view mirror.
However, that requires imagination, not just research. And funding. Many old houses in Kolkata have been restored as Instagram-friendly boutique cafés. While gentrification and cold brew coffee isn’t the same as saving a vibrant architectural heritage, at least a few beautiful old houses have been saved from becoming boxy apartment buildings in a city which otherwise only values the land they stand on, not the style they were built in.
Recently, Kolkata marked 150 years of its tram service. At one time, horses drew trams through the streets. It’s the only Indian city to still have the trams, though there are fewer and fewer every day. All over the world, cities that got rid of streetcars are rediscovering them in an age where sustainability has become a huge concern. Kolkata has them but thinks of them as belonging to its past and cannot imagine them as part of its future. In April, barely a month after the big anniversary, an advocate and a tram lover filed a petition when she discovered 11 tram cars had been put up for auction. That auction was cancelled. Now a sweets of Bengal hub has been planned in the huge Nonapukur tram workshop in the heart of the city.
At the event marking 150 years of trams, the German consul-general talked about how West Berlin, swept along by the American car craze, got rid of its streetcars in 1967. East Berlin still had them, a relic of the Communist era. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the west rebuilt some streetcar lines to reconnect with the other half of the city. The consul advised the transport minister to build on what Kolkata still has instead of squandering it. Germany would be happy to offer technical assistance, he said.
But the minister seemed more interested in talking about all the electric buses the city was buying. Trams would remain, he said, but as a “nostalgia” ride. But they don’t have to be relegated to nostalgia, transport consultant Suvendu Seth tells me. Streetcars were perfectly viable as a modern mode of transport but it requires a shift of perspective. The irony was that we were having the conversation at a buzzing Tram World café that now takes up a chunk of an old tram depot in the city. Cafés are big business and nostalgia goes well with coffee and sandwiches.
“Perhaps Kolkata will have to get rid of its trams completely, like many cities in Europe, before it realises it needs them back,” film-maker and tram activist Mahadeb Shi tells me.
If three things make Kolkata Kolkata, it’s trams, the Howrah bridge and hand-pulled rickshaws. They make up a nostalgist’s map of Kolkata, the shot that establishes the city in any film. The Howrah bridge isn’t going anywhere. The tram is clinging on, though barely. But nostalgia for hand-pulled rickshaws is something we can definitely do without.
When I see a cheerful #SoKolkata selfie taken from a hand-pulled rickshaw in 2023, I realise that while nostalgia done right might give us a Jubilee, nostalgia done wrong can lead us to a very dead end.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.