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In the early 1950s, Satyajit Ray was a filmmaker in search of a producer. He had no experience in making films and little money but he had filled a notebook with sketches, illustration and dialogue of the film he wanted to make: Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), based on Bibhutibhusan Banerjee's novel of the same name. To shoot the story of Apu and Durga and their magical awakening to the life around them, Ray chose Boral, a village on the outskirts of Calcutta, with the lush verdure of a rain-fed terrain typical of Bengal. He returned to it about a decade later, in 1968, to shoot a scene of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne in the dense bamboo groves near a pond — where Goopy and Bagha, played by legendary actors Tapen Chatterjee and Rabi Ghosh, respectively, meet the bhooter raja (the king of ghosts), who grant them three wishes.
A carpet of dried leaves rustles in the breeze near the pond, and the greenery soothes city-hardened eyes. But, like the rest of Boral, now a municipal town on the southernmost periphery of Kolkata, the idyllic setting of Ray's films is a picture of innocence lost. Rows of flats tower over the pond, which is dry and disfigured by a spreading scab of grey flyash. Four months ago, builder Tapan Bhattacharya, who is also a member of the ruling Trinamool Congress, began to fill the pond with flyash so that he could construct an apartment complex on it—this is the most rampant form of encroachment in Kolkata, which has, in the last two decades, lost many of its wetlands to this illegal practice. But a group of residents, including the CPM councillor of the ward Chayan Bhattacharya, as well as a few Trinamool members, protested against it and got a stay order. "Tapan Bhattacharya had come up to me with some documents, claiming that he had paid Rs 72,337 to the collector's office and obtained permission to fill the waterbody. I didn't find the papers convincing and wrote to the director general (project management unit) to clarify my confusion about the character of the land. They did and the project got stalled," said Bhattacharya, councillor of ward 111. Earlier too, he said, a reputed builder had offered him a lot of money to fill the pond and build flats but he declined. "I will resist as long as I can," he said.
As the city pushes southwards, the landscape made mythical by Ray's films has become just another provincial suburb of Kolkata, with traffic-choked lanes, ugly concrete structures and predatory builders. While in the heart of the city and its oldest paras or colonies, century-old houses are being razed to make way for high-rises, at its margins, ponds and fields are losing out to real estate. Property prices in Boral have gone up in the last two decades and for realtors, it is a lucrative investment. "Since 1990, when the Metro Rail extension work began here, prices have gone up. According to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the price of a cottah of land was Rs 50,000 in 1995. It stands at Rs 3 lakh now," said Bhattacharya. Apartments that sold for Rs 500 per sq ft in the early '90s now cost Rs 3,000 per sq ft.
The house where Pather Panchali was shot is about three km from the pond. The dilapidated house where Sarbajaya and Harihar lived with their children and the widow Indir Thakrun, is now a concrete one-storeyed structure, secured with iron gates. Houses with dish antennaes have sprouted around it and cellphone towers are visible. A part of the bamboo grove where Apu idled away his hours remains, though the pond has been swallowed by thick shrubs. Near the house are a few banyan trees, impressive structures that would have fired the imagination of the boy. The mud road is now a narrow, concrete strip. "I came here after my wedding, about three years ago. I have only heard about the heritage of this house. It has been renovated long before but my in-laws and my husband still talk about the days when Pather Panchali was shot here," said Mitali Mukherjee, the youngest daughter-in-law of the family.
Gora Ghosh, over 60 years old, was a school student when Ray shot Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne at the bamboo plantations that his family owned. "I have vivid memories about how the lead cast shot with a live tiger here," he said. That scene had been shot in Birbhum but due to technical problems, a reshoot was needed, recalled the filmmaker's son Sandeep Ray. "It was a day's shoot but the excitement it generated was palpable," he said.
Ghosh has witnessed the change in Boral. "It was a pollution-free, peaceful village with thick greenery. But as the population increased, buildings started coming up. First, there were one or two storied houses. Now even six-seven storied buildings are common," he said. Even till 1985, he says, the ponds were brimming with water, but as the population rose, the government put up several pumping stations and overhead tanks. The underground water level fell and the ponds dried up. "Very few of the water bodies remain. They have dried and only lowland remains," he said.
Apu and Durga, while wandering far from home on lazy days, would perhaps have found little to wonder and discover in this Boral.