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Calcutta Journal Entry - Day 2

Dear Chaz,

My first full day in Calcutta. Breakfast in hotel coffee shop, with Hannah Fisher, Uma de Sousa, Gus van Sant, and a Brazilian named Cesare Canova who sent his regards to you, so we must have met him before. In the lobby, ran into 85-year-old Gillo Pontecorvo and his wife, and reminded him that we were eating minestrone in his flat in Cartehegna, Columbia, when the call came that his "The Battle of Algiers" had been nominated for the Oscar.

We went over to the Film Centre, six screens in one complex, where I was asked to introduced "The Sixth Sense." Strange deep-pile plush red carpeting over a very uneven floor, so that I fell over straightaway after stepping onto it. Thought myself clumsy until I observed people staggering all over the theater; the pile caught the tips of their toes.

The film was shown in the wrong aspect ratio, so that the microphone was visible in most scenes. Hannah went out to complain but was not successful. Film well-received. Then to the offices of Ansu Sur, director of the festival, and his assistant Sanjay Gosch, who Hannah says is the brains of the outfit. Mr. Sur found in a cluttered office with an array of telephones, and nothing on the wall but a very large photograph of the Bengal poet Tagore. I told him Tagore had spent two years in Urbana. This drew a blank. Standing behind Mr. Sur was his secretary, a young man who did not have an office of his own, but simply bent forward to answer the telephones and present papers for his boss's approval. Rows of chairs along the walls, occupied by various people who sat and watched, as if it were a waiting room. Box lunches served. Mr. Sur kept picking up a big red telephone and asking his secretary why it did not work.

TV interviews. I did one with a very well-informed journalist, and another with one who was utterly clueless. Uma kept explaining to her who I was, and she kept describing her "assignment," which was to talk about the new Indian films in the festival. Uma told her I had as yet seen none of them. She said in that case I could discuss them "in general terms." Finally she sat me down in front of her camera. "This is a statement-driven show, not a question-driven show," she told me. "Look at the camera, and at the signal from me, start talking." I nodded. She said, "New Indian cinema. Go!"

Sanjay told me the selection of Indian films was not good this year because the official government film festival in New Delhi has kept many of the prints. Hannah and I went to a film he recommended, which was incredibly incompetent--not just bad, but incompetent. Left after a scene where a witness to an accident was grilled by a policeman who shook him violently by the shirt, after which the witness fainted and the policeman's assistant brought him around with smelling salts. "Do not tell anyone you have talked to us!" the policeman tells the suspect. "Our meeting must remain a complete secret!" Then the witness is delivered back to his home in a police car with the red light flashing on the roof, not a good way to keep the secret.

Went back to hotel, three hour nap. Hannah and Uma attended a launch party in the hotel for a new book about classical Indian garments of 19th century, written by designer who based her new line of clothing on them. Many Indian supermodels in attendance. H & U call me to say that although we are supposed to attend a festival event tonight, they have at the party met the wife of the Superintendent of Investigations for the Calcutta Police, and it is her birthday, and since Hannah revealed it was also her birthday, the chief's wife has invited us all to her party.

I wait to meet them in the lobby. This is the first hotel lobby I have ever been in where everyone looks like a model for the ad about the lobby. No one in sight except guests exquisitely well-dressed. All of the women in beautiful saris. No women wearing anything else. Staff in costume: Turbaned doorman, Philip Morris bellboys with little red caps, sari-ed receptionists. A three-piece string band plays a Stephen Foster medley: "Camptown Races," "Beautiful Dreamer," "I Dream of Jeannie." Ends with "The Star Spangled Banner." Into the lobby clops an American, wearing Nikes, blue jeans and a blue T-shirt. Looks incredibly ill-garbed and out of place.

We drive through the night to the headquarters of the Calcutta Police, where the Superintendent has a large grace & favor apartment. Meet Calcutta ruling elite: Board directors, surgeons, paper manufacturers. Common question: "Do you play golf?" One man's daughter a reporter for CNBC Asia; graduated from Columbia Univ School of Journalism. Six degrees of separation: I say Prof, Jim Carey, assistant dean of school, was my professor at Illinois. Man says daughter often spoke highly of Prof. Carey.

Into bedroom to sit on bed with wife of surgeon, wife of restaurant owner who graduated from Cornell School of Hotel Management, where son is now a freshman. Superintendent's wife comes in, puts on Bengal music very loud on CD player, does traditional Indian dance for us. Much discussion of Calcutta as cultural capital of India. Complaint by restaurant owner's wife that everyone is all the day long talking poetry and politics, and has no time to do any work, so one cannot get gas or water service repaired. Discussion of 86-year-old Marxist prime minister who has been pleading for a year to be allowed to resign because of poor hearing, eyesight, bad back, faltering memory, but Communist Party will not let him resign because he is their most popular figurehead, and "they have no one to bring up after him." Quote with approval from Calcutta Telegraph editorial: "His party must have pity on this old man and admit that biology applies even to Marxists." Dinner served: Prawns, lentil (dal), califlower, rice, savories, breads. Delicious. Home to bed.

Cheers, R

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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