Prataya Saha on his Bengali-language film, Shonar Khacha, which revolves around Kolkata’s fading heritage buildings, and subtly explores family and gender dynamics

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A teacup with a broken handle, an ominously ticking pendulum clock, pills being ground in a stone mortar and pestle (khol nuri). Prataya Saha’s Shonar Khacha (The Golden Cage) says a lot in less than 10 minutes without saying much of it out aloud.

Set in the Kolkata of 1989, this Bengali short film is all set to be screened in six cities in the UK in October and premiere in Canada at the largest South Asian Film Festival in North America — International Film Festival of South Asia (IFFSA) in Toronto — on October 14. For an independent Bengali short, it’s a remarkable feat.

And that’s not all. Even before that, from September 22 to 28, Shonar Khacha will make its theatrical premiere in Oakland, California — marking the beginning of its Oscar-qualifying run and, in the process, solidifying its place among the best in the international film circuit. Saha's last short, Mein, Mehmood — a tale of non-English-speaking migrants in Dubai — made a splash at international film festivals last year.

An everyday tale

Shonar Khacha is a simple tale at heart, much like most of Saha’s other films, which deal with everyday issues — things we see but do not give much thought to. The “golden cage” is essentially a palatial heritage building somewhere in Kolkata, once teeming with people but now home to a total of six occupants.

The “practical” middle brother — “alone, like the house” — wants to sell it off for a better life, while the proud older sibling, despite the all-round decay and hints of a financial crisis, stubbornly carries around the corpse of a long-dead aristocracy. And stuck in the middle is the latter’s wife, a woman who bears both the burdens of the nostalgia of that heritage and the practical concern of an imminent survival crisis.

And, then, there is the house; and there is Kolkata — the two unspoken central characters of the film. As the residents of the “golden cage” desperately cling on to their once-glorious past while surviving the challenges of a rapidly changing world, so does the decaying house, and to those who know, so does the city outside, only whose unmistakable sounds can be heard throughout.

A film true to its roots

For Saha (37), whose films have won 27 awards across 14 countries, with Mein, Mehmood making waves at film festivals last year, it’s “the unique blend of historical richness, cultural exploration, and the portrayal of human emotions in a changing world” that makes Shonar Khacha stand apart from the rest.

“It’s a film that has stayed close to its roots, in terms of showing the authenticity of a bygone era. Making an authentic period drama requires a lot of effort, understanding, knowledge, and money. And when you have shoestring budgets for short films, it becomes very difficult. So, I feel very proud that we have been able to circumnavigate the obstacles. And we are really happy with how authentic the film is looking right now,” Saha, who shuttles between Bengaluru and Dubai, told The Federal.

A lot of pain went into creating that authentic look and sound. A newspaper from 1989, crockeries and kitchen tools from that era, starched and wrinkled cotton saris, and even old clothes worn by designer Sounak Sen Barat’s father — all these were sourced and managed “through jugaad”.

A lot of work also went into the use of lenses and the colour palette to give the film the grainy, soft look of the 1980s instead of the crisp, digital look of today. Recreating the sound of 1980s’ Kolkata by painstakingly eliminating electronic horns and incorporating the sound of a diesel train engine and the bells of a hand-pulled rickshaw were laborious tasks for a low-budget film with limited resources.

An ongoing struggle

Yet, based in 1989 as Shonar Khacha may be, the “struggle of preserving the past while playing tug-of-war with modernization” is an ongoing reality, not only for Kolkata but for entire India. As social structures crumble, so do heritage structures, leaving the once-upper class caught in a time warp. Neither can they go back to the past, nor can they fit into the present.

It brings back memories of Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958), the tale of an aging landlord whose heydays are long gone but his prestige is much more to him than the impending doom. The Roy Chowdhurys of Shonar Khacha are not landlords, but a dying city-bred aristocracy that faces the same struggle some 30 years later.

“That only goes to show how little has changed,” says Saha, denying any direct influence of Jalsaghar, though he admits that a “subconscious influence of Ray” would certainly be present in his work. “Sound designer Apurv Prasanna and I watched Ray’s Apur Sansar twice or thrice and dissected the sound design again and again to study how a period film’s sound should be made. For instance, we incorporated more bird sounds.”

A love letter to Kolkata

But Shonar Khacha — featuring Saha’s usual collaborator Anshulika Kapoor in the lead, along with Deboprasad Haldar and Sounak Sen Barat — is not only about fading heritage. It also subtly explores family and gender dynamics. And all of this is backed by a soulful soundtrack composed by Sanjeev T.

Even as the film ends with the message that “there are over 700,000 heritage structures in India, of which only 4,000 are protected”, Saha points out that the message will resonate with all traditional societies, for example France, where the “struggle to preserve heritage while moving on with the times” is very real.

But despite the universality of the concept, at its core, Shonar Khacha is Saha’s “love letter to Kolkata, a city that has witnessed centuries of history and transformation”. “People who are part of the city will definitely feel nostalgic when they see the film because we have tried to stay true to it as far as possible,” Saha signs off.

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