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From Oscars to dump yards- The tale of Salim Baba

The city of Kolkata amuses one and all with its obsession with heritage and its infatuation with┬álegacy. But time and again a turbulence of hypocrisy has been running beneath the facade of┬áfelicitation. Cinema and all its patrons call Kolkata the mecca and its men the messiahs. From satyajit┬áRay to Rituporno Gosh, KolkataÔÇÖs scribble has fascinated the celluloid since its inception but the ones┬ápreserving the footprints have often been washed out in the tides of oblivion.

ÔÇÿSalim BabaÔÇÖ (directed by Tim Sternberg ), a 2008 nomination in the ÔÇÿbest documentary (short)ÔÇÖ┬ácategory at the Oscars and a 2009 Emmys entry is a film about a 55 year old Salim Muhammad and┬áhis family who own a century old manually operated film projector which they call the ÔÇÿBioscopeÔÇÖ┬áand use to show films to the local people.Salim baba has inherited it from his father and basks in the┬áhope that his sons would carry on the legacy. The nomination was a big news, the celebrations were┬ábigger. Newspapers flocked to his North Kolkata residence and microphones chocked his cramped┬ároom. News flew, accolades followed.

Cut to 2014. Salim Muhammad,nature beaten and grey still owns the projector with pride and plays┬áfilms, collected from waste reel and continues amusing people. The boys too have pledged to carry it┬áforward. The siblings love the ÔÇÿlittle FlickermanÔÇÖ alike.

Of July 2014, the bioscope cart is parked at its usual spot where it has been taking refuge since┬á14th┬áthe last 50 years, a footpath across Salim BabaÔÇÖs residence. At around dusk, it is dragged by a group┬áof police officials to the Jorasanko Police station, Kolkata.ÔÇØAbbu (Salim Baba) was out to run a few┬áerrandsÔÇØ recalls Jasim , the eldest of the siblings. Jasim pleaded, tried to keep them away from the┬ábioscope, but the Policemen wouldnÔÇÖt listen, neither would they stop.

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At around five in the evening on the same day, Jasim accompanied by his father visited the┬áJorasanko Police station. The hostile, unfriendly Government servants greeted them with neglect┬áand oblivion. The police officials said, they didnÔÇÖt know anything about the bioscope, only officers at┬áBhawani Bhawan would be of assistance.The Bhawani Bhawan officials in turn sent them to Lalbazar┬ápolice headquarters with an application to the District commissioner. They were later asked to┬áenquire after the Durga Pujas.

ÔÇÿWe suffered a huge lossÔÇÖ, laments Jasim, talking of how the uncalled for harassment, affected┬átheir income that surges by virtue of the ÔÇÿBioscopeÔÇÖ during the festive seasons. Post the Durga┬ápuja celebrations, a hopeful Salim Baba confronts dejection when he is officially informed that his┬áprojection cart will never be returned as it does not have a license, a number plate or anything that┬ámakes it a legal entity. The family since then has been knocking doors in search of remedies.

This particular case, not only unfolds the irrationality of the system but also underlines the futility of the human conscience. The man who was given a pedestal of world wide recognition has now been put on the court of evidentialism. He has been asked to provide legal testimonials to authorise the ownership of an entity he has blown life into, through his years of nurture and care.

Further, this unfortunate incident, disturbs the harmony of democratic infrastructure. Jasim sits stark when he recalls how the police officials refused to name the complainant who lodged a legal complaint against the bioscope without a number plate. Is this the form of transparency we boast of?

Salim baba, works at a tea stall, jasim does embroidery, Ashraf, his younger brother manufactures┬áchappals, and all of them together preserve the century old bioscope. A question that goes┬áunanswered is, Where was this stringent patrolling when the Bioscope was the cynosure of the┬ámedia, both national and international?. Where were the legal patrons who now question the cartÔÇÖs┬álegitimacy?, why didnÔÇÖt they confiscate it then?

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A visit to the Jorasanko Police station, Kolkata, would speak of the apathy of the Government┬átowards this mark of heritage. The Bioscope cart lies abandoned at the dumpyard, and once in a┬áwhile, sees use as the dumping bin.ÔÇØOnce I get it back, I shall mend itÔÇØ states Jasim who visits his┬ábioscope every day, only to ensure that they havenÔÇÖt ripped it apart yet.

All this is new for salim baba, a man who was celebrated by the biggest of media brands is now┬áclueless of the proceedings he has been put amidst. Pragmatic minds would ask a few questions to┬áthe family who owns the Bioscope and neither are they afraid to answer. Copyright infringement is┬áa serious crime; So is it because they showed films on the travelling projector without legal rights,┬áthat the cart has been confiscated? ÔÇ£We collect refused reel, cut and edit those, make our own small┬áclippings and play it on the projector for children who happily pay a rupee and get hooked on to the┬áBioscopeÔÇØ, states Jasim.

A film called ÔÇÿLittle FlickermanÔÇÖ, directed by documentary filmmaker Subha Das Mollick, depicts the┬áintimate association of the Bioscope with Salim Baba and his family.The news of this unfortunate┬áincident was communicated to her recently by Ashraf and Salim Muhammad themselves. The┬álamenting film maker recalls how Salim Baba once asked her ÔÇÿyeh Oscar kya hota hai?ÔÇÖ on knowing┬áabout the Academy Awards hoopla that was growing around him.┬áSwearing to stand by the family in such a doomed time she states with rage how the Bioscope is┬ánothing but a source of ingenious entertainment. ÔÇ£it is travelling cinema that happened through┬áthese carts, that made films popular in IndiaÔÇØ, she informs.

The bioscope on wheels, that encompasses zero fuel consumption, and zero fuel emission, has violated the legal code of conduct and should be thrashed to pieces, however many generations might have passed it ahead, however many smiles might have been brought on the regular mundane faces, and however many accolades might have crowned it. But at the end of the story, the accolades are smashed, the appreciation is thrashed, the crown is broken and the Bioscope is dumped.

In this era of social, individual and intellectual independence, let us not let a few indifferent┬ásections demolish an entity that breaths history and spells heritage. ItÔÇÖs time we stand united and┬ágive Salim Muhammad and all those who sacrifice their daily bread and mend pieces of history,┬ájust to keep a legacy alive, a reason to trust the constitution and its bearers. Let Kolkata celebrate┬átravelling cinema, once again.

About Anirban Bhattacherjee