Chambers Of Intrigue

There are many localities in the metropolis that can easily be styled as ‘the heart of Calcutta’, and because of each one’s diversity and points of interest, none compete for primacy. As most would agree, one such heart is the Hogg Market area. (I’ve never been a fan of ‘New’ in location names, as New invariably becomes Old…) Just to its north, in a zone rich with highlights but more sedate, stands the Municipal Corporation’s landmark headquarters. Contiguous with it, via a sky bridge that was probably meant to be temporary but has been there so long it’s part of the furniture now, is the fine annexe block housing longstanding institutions like Nizam’s Restaurant. Such a progression demonstrates one of Calcutta’s best characteristics of intrigue: one highlight leads to another, and another, and so on.

At the top of Hogg Street is the beloved Deco façade of Elite Cinema. But instead of plowing towards it for (another) inspection, a rather significant mass on the right commands my attention, particularly in the present afternoon’s light, in tones out of an old lithograph.

A sparsely-wooded mound of mellow sandstone? A geological anomaly in this land of alluvium? Seemingly left alone, for some legendary reason? No, there are signs of architectural, even ornamental, formations up there. A hoary ruin then, pre-Calcuttan, and plainly sophisticated, though not in the classic Bengali sense… Perhaps?

Not at all. It says right up there, in solemn but confident letters: FUTNANI CHAMBERS. ‘Multi-use’ might classify it. Obviously commercial. Residential, too: there’s a gentleman gazing out a window with a view, smartly-clad and plainly at home.

Truly, the Futnani is one of Cal’s tour de force spectacles. Embedded in this particular urban heart, an epic assemblage indeed. It serves as one of those omnibus ‘masala’ buildings, such as Chungking Mansions in Kowloon, only with much greater class and character. Condition-wise, the remains of fabled Gaur look better than this! Domes once topped with silver now await sensitive restoration. Letters that once glowed in neon need re-tubing. Still, as in sites of elder Bengal, there’s no doubt about the Futnani’s solidarity. Like so many buildings of high heritage quality in town, the bricked bulk beneath, exposed due to exfoliated stucco, appears stout and intact. Whether ‘cosmetically-challenged’ or ‘fashionably-distressed’, it should not be assumed by looks alone that the building in question is in critical condition, or anywhere near it. Safety, wiring, crowding, are different matters entirely.

The curved corner of the Chambers ushers us into Corporation Place. A lower-key high street of a small town really, with almost-zero traffic, easygoing inhabitants, and a bit of quietude. A standard lineup of shops, eateries and lodgings fills the street-side spaces, proving the Futnani lives yet. Its palatial frontage runs all the way down to Free School Street. The upper stories are heavily but simply embellished, and I always wonder, what’s up, in, or back/behind there?

However, right across the street, halfway down, a revelation: the gigantic presence of the Society Cinema. A genuine Art Deco movie palace! Twin towers loom far above, framing a huge centrepiece of windows divided by columns topped with curved capitals. The effect is like the spillway of a Public Works dam. It’s also a bit grim, as the entire place is shut fast, at least on this matinee afternoon. Tattered vestiges of movie posters clutter the marquee, forming an unintentional work of pop art.

Standing in front of this monumental masterpiece, I’m rendered speechless. Having worked in similarly-sized theatres, and having endured their demolition, I always get a bit apprehensive, then protective of orphans like this. With the venerable Metro over on Chowringhee undergoing its next incarnation, I pray that the Society’s karma will ensure a glorious rebirth.

Well, back on the Futnani strip, things are winding down. A chai stall offers friendly exchanges with staff and customers. Entrepreneurial kids proffer first-quality chilies, and everybody gives a wave in reply to mine. Another day done in Corporation Place.

As dusk gathers, standing by the Elite, I glance back up at the Chambers, where its name is still proclaimed, and at one time,in living colour.Too bad the neon is no more. A deep, candy-red would be perfect. And when it starts to glow in the evening, Futnani will once again be a destination address, while over in Corporation Place, the Society will be sharing shows with the Star Theatre, everything from classic Bengali drama to anything progressively Bong. Admittedly, a fanciful prospect, but a heartwarming one.

Stay curious, have fun, and be sure to come when Calcutta calls!

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