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All beginning, no middle or end

Things went downhill at Roopkala Kendro from 2005.  

Satyajit Ray’s handwritten scripts, film footage and documents have vanished from here; the staff is underpaid; students are apprehensive of their future; classrooms and laboratories are vacant, the computers are old and the software dated. This is the story of the 21-year-old institute of film and social communication, Roopkala Kendro, in Kolkata, the brainchild of noted film director Goutam Ghose. It has now been pushed to the verge of ruin by bureaucratic apathy.

It all began in the 1980s when Ghose, director of the celebrated documentary Hungry Autumn on the Bengal famine and its impact on cities and villages, and the Italian film producer, Sergio Scapagnini, discussed the prospect of making a series of documentaries on social issues. Scapagnini assured Ghose of financial assistance from the Italian government and the two decided to form a dedicated body that would make documentaries on topics ignored by the establishment and mainstream media.

Satyajit Ray helped by writing to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 1988. An Indo-Italian agreement was signed in June 1995 and so was born the institute at Salt Lake, a Kolkata suburb (under the Information and Cultural Affairs Department, West Bengal), with departments in cinematography, editing, animation and direction. The institute of social communication was to be an autonomous body, to which Italy would gift the very latest equipment.

But for the next four years, no files moved. The frustrated pair, Ghose and Scapagnini, came close to scrapping the project. “I was absolutely clueless about what was making the system so slow. Almost four years passed, but those files (sent for approval from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting) didn’t move even an inch. I believe that the officials couldn’t understand my objective — to train a bunch of young people on audio-visual techniques,” says Ghosh.

Then, in 1998, Ujjal Chakraborty, a well-known artist, writer, music composer and calligraphist, was appointed as a special teacher in the Animation department. Anita Agnihotri, a celebrated writer, joined in 2001 as Director and CEO, and the momentum picked up. The snake-infested land in front of the building got a makeover, a new building came up, the syllabi of different courses were revised and the institute got a logo. The academic council was formed with Ghose as chairman. Scholars such as Dipankar Home, doyen of quantum mechanics; Partha Chatterjee, historian and anthropologist; Dwaipayan Bhattacharya, political scientist, and other noted scholars became members of the Council. Mita Chakraborty’s documentary on life in the Sundarbans, completed in 40 days, became the institute’s first production. In 2005, Ray’s son, Sandip Ray, gifted about 50,000 pages of Ray’s handwritten scripts, digitised by Kaushik Ghosh, to the institute.

Agnihotri established new sections in the institute, such as the Satyajit Ray Study Centre, an open-to-all archive for the preservation of the digitised versions of Ray manuscripts, and the Satyajit Ray Film Vault for the preservation of scientifically restored negatives of old Bengali films.

Things went downhill when, in 2005, Agnihotri was replaced. The CDs containing Ray’s scripts went missing, as did the documentary on the Image Makers of Kolkata, made by Ghose. Then, Ghose too was removed as Chairman and succeeded by several bureaucrats. Ghose’s absence created a vacuum. Resources and new equipment stopped coming in.

Soon, a series of interviews (200 hours), between filmmaker Ujjal Chakraborty and cinematographer Soumendu Roy on the poetic language of lighting, also became untraceable. Today, a sepulchral silence reigns.

Frustrated students who thought they had signed up for a two-year course find themselves at a dead end. “We haven’t even got a fully equipped computer with updated software in two-and-a-half years. Who will be responsible for the time we have frittered away?” asks Samprikta Bag, a student of Animation. The present Director and Joint Director say that tenders have been floated.

This could have been a seminal institution, given the people who created it and their vision. A lot of damage has been done, but with some political will, Roopkala Kendro could still be revived, to celebrate cinema and train young enthusiasts in the craft of filmmaking.

Partha Mukherjee is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker based in Kolkata.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 4:39:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/All-beginning-no-middle-or-end/article14429875.ece

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