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How the Howrah Bridge played out in Bollywood

By Saibal Chatterjee
February 24, 2018 12:00 IST
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'To this day, not a year passes when Bollywood does not head to Kolkata to train its cameras on the magnificence of the bridge and the flow of life that pulses along the river across which it spans,' says Saibal Chatterjee.

IMAGE: Rani Mukerji and Abhishek Bachchan in Yuva.

The Howrah Bridge is 75 years old. And it is 60 years since a fictional murder shook it in the Ashok Kumar-Madhubala-starrer of the same name.

Much water has passed under it since then, but movie cameras still continue to find angles to the view, startling enough to return for more.

Character actor Om Prakash, playing the tangewala Shyamu in Shakti Samanta's Howrah Bridge (1958), took a wide-eyed passenger on a quick tour of Calcutta, ending the ride on the titular cantilever, the exact site where the super-hit crime drama had opened with the discovery of a murder most foul.

This is where it all began.

The number that Shyamu crooned on the way in the voice of playback singer Mohammad Rafi, Suno ji ye Kalkatta hai, may have vanished into the black hole of time, but the imposing steel structure -- the bridge was commissioned 15 years earlier, on February 3, 1943, without much fanfare so as not to attract the attention of Japanese fighter planes -- imprinted itself forever on the nation's consciousness.


IMAGE: Om Prakash singing Suno ji ye Kalkatta haiin Howrah Bridge (1958).

Over the years, the bridge has survived many a threat: World War II air raids, grave technical challenges and ever-increasing traffic.

However, in India's popular cinematic imagination, the imposing structure has always evoked romance, thrill and awe -- three ingredients that invariably constitute the spine of a crowd-pleasing Hindi movie.

The Bridge has towered over the entry to Kolkata for 75 years now.

Ever since Samanta borrowed its name for the title of the film starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, Mumbai film-makers, cameramen and actors have flocked to what could be described as the eastern metropolis' Tower Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge rolled into one.

The affair has stood the test of time.

Well, the name has changed since -- in 1965, it was rechristened Rabindra Setu -- but the old rubric has stuck in the minds of those who have grown up knowing the bridge as Kolkata's most instantly recognisable urban symbol.


IMAGE: Madhubala and Ashok Kumar on the poster of Howrah Bridge.

To this day, not a year passes when Bollywood does not head to Kolkata to train its cameras on the magnificence of the bridge and the flow of life that pulses along the river across which it spans.

It has been a steady stream. The makers of Yuva (2004), originally titled Howrah Bridge, Parineeta (2005), Love Aaj Kal (2009), Kahaani (2012), Barfi! (2012), Lootera (2013), Gunday (2014), Piku (2015), Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) and Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017) have chosen different routes to wend their way around the city, but none of them ever left without weaving the bridge into their respective narratives on one pretext or the other.


IMAGE: Rahul Ravindran and Chandini in the Telugu film Howrah Bridge (2017).

Even films made in South India -- the Telugu language love story Howrah Bridge (2017) and the Kannada-Tamil bilingual thriller Howrah Bridge, scheduled for release in April 2018 -- have found a more-than-superficial connection with the engineering marvel in faraway Kolkata.

In 2008, Malayali director Blessy set Calcutta News, a film that addressed the trafficking of women, in Kolkata.

In 2009, Tamil actor-director Cheran filmed large parts of Pokkisham (Treasure) in the city. Needless to say, neither film gave the Howrah Bridge a miss.


IMAGE: The poster of Shakti Samanta's Howrah Bridge.

Samanta's Howrah Bridge, about a Rangoon businessman who rushes to Calcutta after his brother is found murdered and is soon on the trail of a bunch of dangerous criminals, wasn't the first non-Bengali film shot in the city.

French cinema great Jean Renoir filmed The River (1951) in Calcutta, but, contrarily, without drawing the bridge into the frame.


IMAGE: Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra in Barfi!

In 1953, Bimal Roy alluded to the then 10-year-old structure in Do Bigha Zameen as did Satyajit Ray in Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone), released a few months ahead of Howrah Bridge.

The Guru Dutt classic, Pyaasa (1957), was set in Calcutta -- rather intriguing because the protagonist is an Urdu poet, or maybe not all that surprising given Dutt's affinity with the city where he spent several years of his life -- but the film was shot mostly inside a Bombay studio.

Yet, in one of the rare exterior shots in Pyaasa, Howrah Bridge loomed briefly into view.


IMAGE: Amitabh Bachchan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Te3n.

Howrah Bridge is perhaps not even the most filmed Kolkata site.

That distinction belongs by a fair margin to the glistening white marble Victoria Memorial at the edge of the Maidan.

But the visual potential that the bridge, the shimmering water that flows under it and its bustling environs offer is a DoP's (director of photography) dream come true.


IMAGE: Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh in Gunday.

From the robust Durga puja festivities and the subsequent idol immersion sequences in Gunday -- livened up by Priyanka Chopra in a red-bordered white sari -- to the melancholic strains of Chingari koi bhadke toh saawan usse bujhaye(Amar Prem, 1972), the pensive Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi (Khamoshi, 1970) or the playfully romantic Kabhi neem neem kabhi shahad shahad (Yuva), the bridge has served as an effective and evocative backdrop to many a musical number.


IMAGE: Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan in Parineeta.

Film-makers have, of course, sometimes, cheated, most notably Samanta himself. Failing to secure permission from the Calcutta Port Trust to shoot on the Hooghly, he filmed Chingari koi bhadke in Natraj Studios, Mumbai, using a back-projection of the bridge.

For Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi, however, director Asit Sen and cinematographer Kamal Bose went the extra mile. They actually filmed on location as the boat with Rajesh Khanna and Waheeda Rehman passed under the bridge.

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Saibal Chatterjee
Source: source