CALCUTTA, India--This is the story of one afternoon at the Calcutta Film Festival.
I meet my driver outside the hotel. Everyone in Calcutta who has a car has a driver. This is not because they are too lazy to drive themselves. It is because they are too frightened. Driving in Calcutta traffic is like living inside a dangerous and violent video game.
I clamber into the back seat of my Sumo Tata, a Jeepish vehicle that looks capable of scaling the Himalayas. Half the front windshield is obscured by a large sheet of paper identifying me as an official guest of the Government of West Bengal. We roar into the street at full speed without the slightest glance to see if there is any approaching traffic. That is their problem. You try to avoid running into anything in front of you, and everybody behind you tries to avoid running into you.
There are no white lines on the streets in Calcutta. They would be a waste of good paint. Cars drive wherever there is an opening. In general, you stay on your side of the street, unless an opportunity opens up on the other side. Every square inch of the pavement, from curb to curb, is occupied by cars, buses, taxis, people, and the occasional horse. In America we squander half our streets with empty space between vehicles.
All drivers honk their horns constantly. There is a kind of code. Some honks mean, "Pedestrian, jump out of the way quickly as I am not going to stop." Others mean, "I am now cutting you off." Little toots mean, "Don't get any ideas about slowing down because I am maintaining a constant speed and am one and a half inches from your rear bumper." Long angry blasts mean, "You are heading directly toward me in my lane." Then there is a happy little tap that simply means, "I exist."
A bus drives at right angles in front of four lanes of traffic. We stop suddenly. This is unusual, because Calcutta drivers hardly ever stop except, occasionally, at their destinations. We do not stop quite soon enough and crash into the taxi in front of us. My driver and the taxi driver exchange many observations and much advice to each other in Hindi. They do not however get out of their cars to inspect the damage, perhaps because anyone foolish enough to get out of a car in the middle of this traffic might just as well go ahead and throw themselves under the wheels of a speeding truck in the same smooth motion.
We arrive at the Lighthouse Cinema in downtown Calcutta. This is a vast old movie palace originally built by the J. Arthur Rank organization, in the days of the British Raj. The street outside is a riot of joyous capitalism. There are luggage stores, motor scooter repairmen, clothing merchants, a used book stand, a sari shop, and countless fast-food vendors cooking bread and savories over small stoves in the open air. That's just in the street. The sidewalks are also jammed. There are no American chains here, perhaps because opportunists would open fast-food stands right there inside McDonalds to supply snacks to the people waiting in line.
I am greeted at the door of the Lighthouse by John Mantosh, the owner of the theater. We go up in an elevator that contains framed photographs of Shirley MacLaine and David Niven. in John's office, I meet his wife, Susie. I have been told she is the granddaughter of the King of Nepal. She reminds me of Rosie O'Donnell.
She takes my photo. "With Susie it is nothing but click-click-click all the day long," John tells me. "We just took the children to Disneyworld in Orlando. Susie exposed 500 rolls of film. We have every second of the trip recorded on film. She started with a picture of us opening the door to leave the house. Then a picture of us walking through the door. Then a picture of us closing the door. Then a picture of the closed door."
Susie bubbles with good cheer and offers everyone tea.
"If I lived in Calcutta, you would be my good friend," I tell her.
"Are you hungry?" she says. "You look a little hungry. Let me get you something." "I just ate," I tell her, and change the subject: "Are you really the granddaughter of the King of Nepal?" This is a rather personal question, but with Susie I sense that one does not stand on ceremony.
"My family were the powers behind the throne," she says. "My grandfather was the man who ran everything for the King of Nepal. Here he is right here." She plunges into her handbag and extracts a six-inch stack of snapshots, many of which show her children standing beneath an oil portrait of a distinguished man in a turban.
"It is time for the screening to begin," says John.
We are going to see "Two Women," a film from Iran by Tahmineh Milani. I have met the director and her husband, the architect Mohammed Nikbin, at several festival dinners and they have become good friends. They arrive and we all file into the balcony of the theater. Paul Cox, the director from Australia, is along, too. We settle down. Advertisements on the screen advise us that the theater brought us sound in the 1930s and now brings us stereo. Other ads tell us where to purchase the best belts, and ask us not to spit. The movie starts.
"The sound is too shrill!" says Tahmineh Milani. She gets up to find the projectionist, which is not going to be easy, because you have to go outside and up some stairs and through an office to find the projectors, which beam the picture through a wall into the theater.
It is a powerful film. It tells the story of a woman who is a brilliant math student in Tehran, whose life is destroyed by a stalker who follows her everywhere. The stalker throws acid at her cousin, and then chases her on his motor scooter, and her car crashes into some children. She doesn't kill anyone, but his scooter does claim a life. The stalker is given 13 years in jail and vows to kill her when he is released. But the woman's father is outraged because she has brought disgrace on the family in the first place, by attracting the attentions of the stalker. She is pulled out of university and returned to a small town, where her family makes her marry a wet-eyed middle-aged man who is pathologically jealous and keeps the telephone locked in a cabinet.
"Two Women" is not only well-acted and directed, but subtly persuasive. Without making a single overt statement about the male-dominated fundamentalist regime in Iran, it makes a strong argument about women's rights. I am so absorbed I hardly notice that the sound has been adjusted and now sounds fine.
The story arrives at a crisis. The heroine's father has locked her in a room. The lights go up, and a card saying "Interval" flashes on the screen. Ushers appear with trays of Cokes and potato chips. We stand up and discuss the movie so far. Susie reappears.
"You look hungry," she says. "Let me get you something."
"I am having some potato chips," I say.
"Your mouth says you're not hungry, but your eyes tell another story," says Susie.
The movie starts again. I am astonished that Tahmineh Milani has been able to make "Two Women" in Iran. Obviously there is more freedom there than we have been led to believe. Once again I am wrapped up in the story. There is a tap on my shoulder. It is Susie. She has brought me a pizza and a cup of coffee.
Reader, what could I do? I ate the pizza. It was one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten. And as I sat in the balcony of the Lighthouse Cinema in Calcutta and ate Susie's pizza while watching a brave film from Iran, I felt something, and it was happiness.