Big Screen Music

A documentary tracks Kolkata’s long-lasting love affair with Bob Dylan

A poster of the documentary ‘If Not For You’.  

Bob Dylan calls himself the Baul of America and he simply loves khichdi. The revelation came in 1965 during a conversation Dylan had with Baul singer Purna Das. This was the year that Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, had brought Das to perform at The Fillmore in San Francisco.

The two singers were staying with Grossman (who also managed Janis Joplin; Peter, Paul and Mary; The Band; Odetta; Gordon Lightfoot and Ian & Sylvia), whose home was in Bearsville in New York. “When we shared the stage, we communicated through our music,” recalls the octogenarian Das, his wispy long hair tied back in a ponytail.

The Baul singer appears in a 2019 documentary titled If Not For You that chronicles Kolkata’s enigmatic love affair with the Nobel Prize laureate’s music. “We would cook one-pot meals,” says Das in the film, speaking in Bengali. “[Dylan] started loving the spicy Indian khichdi.”

Bengali fandom

Directed by Vineet Arora and written by Jaimin Rajani, the nearly 25-minute feature is a tribute to Dylan who turns 79 in May, and its focus is the singer’s long-standing influence and fandom in Bengali culture.

Baul singer Purna Das in a still from the documentary.

Baul singer Purna Das in a still from the documentary.  

The black-and-white film traverses shots of the sleepy city underscored by video interviews of various Kolkata singers and musicians such as filmmaker, actor and songwriter Anjan Dutt, who credits Dylan with having sparked his romance with Kolkata; musician Nondon Bagchi, who performed the American singer’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ in Trincas on Park Street in 1968; and folk musician Arko Mukhaerjee, who performs his own rendition of ‘I Shall Be Released’.

Rajani elicits surprising revelations from his subjects. “The theme of the documentary demanded that we show how notable musicians and academicians of Calcutta have been inspired by Dylan's body of work. And as a resident of Calcutta, who has spent a significant amount of time researching Dylan, it was quite effortless for me to think of who I wanted to interview,” he says. He even managed to convince veteran singer Usha Uthup to record a cover of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ for the documentary.

The 28-year-old Rajani may have known who to interview, but accessing them turned out to be daunting. The reclusive Das, in particular, was most elusive.

Musician Nondon Bagchi in a still from the documentary.

Musician Nondon Bagchi in a still from the documentary.  

With rumours of his passing floating around, Rajani had all but lost hope, wandering around different Kolkata neighbourhoods asking for Das’ whereabouts. Finally, he landed up at his doorstep and met Das’ son Dibyendu.

“I rang his bell uninvited,” smiles Rajani. From Dibyendu he learned of Dylan’s whirlwind two-hour trip to India, the only time he had stepped foot in the country.

Visiting the city for Dibyendu’s wedding, the American singer left India like a bolt of lightning as soon as word of his presence got out. “But Das kept me hanging,” says Rajani of the Baul singer’s reluctance to appear on camera.

“I visited his home in Dhakuria several times before we finally got to record him. In fact, more than half the people in the film turned me down initially.” In the end, the writer’s doggedness paid off.

Dylan code

Rajani left a corporate job in Mumbai to work on his passion — music — and lives according to a code of conduct set by Dylan’s music.

Jaimin Rajani with his prized Dylan memorabilia.

Jaimin Rajani with his prized Dylan memorabilia.  

“I was that person who lived in the past and in nostalgia,” he says. It was Dylan who taught him to move on. So much so that the musicophile has in possession an enormous volume of his music — over 7,000 songs, including bootlegs and live recordings that have been collected over the years.

There’s prized memorabilia too, including a limited edition Bob Dylan harmonica in the key of C and a copy of the singer’s photo from India’s first youth magazine, Junior Statesman, edited by Desmond Doig in the 60s. “When Dylan won the Nobel in 2016, I received phone calls as if I had something to do with it,” laughs Rajani.

Though developed in just three months, If Not For You feels like the culmination of a lifetime for Rajani. The film has been screened at small gatherings and festivals, including at Lou Majaw’s Dylan festival in Shillong, and Rajani hopes to show it in Mumbai and Delhi soon.

A small production it may be, but If Not For You has truly managed to capture how Kolkata will forever be under Dylan’s ‘dancing spell’.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 2:05:31 PM |

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