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The City in Cinema, and Cinemas in the City: South City Mall and Locations of Display

November 10, 2012 | By

Somewhat surprisingly while there are numerous studies on 19th Century Calcutta,[1] enquiries on the political history of Calcutta from the partition years to the political upheavals of the late sixties and early seventies are rare,[2] and are conspicuous by the absences. In this context, cinema becomes an important visual evidence of the changing cityscapes.

While during the 18th and the 19th Centuries Calcutta was designed as a city primarily for the benefit of colonial regime, certain sections of the city emerged as crucial sites for political and cultural subversions at a later period. Moreover, this city changed drastically after Independence and partition, living through one of the largest immigration in South-Asia. From the ‘city of sahibs’ and Bengali ‘intellectuals’, in a short span of time Calcutta re-emerged as the ‘city of refugees’. The architecture and maps altered as the ‘south’ of Calcutta was extended, and re-surfaced as a ‘central’ locality of sorts. During this period the lanes and the by lanes of Calcutta charted the history of political struggle.

South City Mall

South City Mall

The southern sections of the city got dotted with small factories, and lines of make shift shops and houses, which were remarkably different from the milieu of ‘north’ Calcutta or the pucca (permanent) structures of the ‘Brown sahibs’. The location discussed here, is what used to be sometime back Usha Factory in south Calcutta, which is on Anwar Shah Road, near the Tipu Sultan’s Masjid. In 2003 it was declared ‘sick’ or unprofitable, and was made defunct. It was then sold off to a real estate consortium. The factory per say was of course demolished, large water bodies or lakes filled up with rubbish, and the construction of the South City began around 2004.

While the project till date is sort of ‘under-construction’, on the land of this defunct factory now stands a colossal, overwhelmingly large shopping mall or the South City Mall(cum housing estate), that underlines our economic shifts from a rambling industrial condition to an arguably emergent post-industrial condition. However, this paper in not a study in economic-history or urban sociology, the approach here is interdisciplinary, as it aspires to read the transformations of our spaces and cultures, streets, memories and images, from the perspective of visual culture studies. I specifically study one particular aspect of the present, the emergence of the ‘South City Mall’ with multiplex cinemas. Appearing like large ship the ‘South City’ consists of new housing (Calcutta’s tallest buildings), and is located on one hand near slums (or Muslim ghettos) on the other near Bengali Hindu middle-class houses. At a distant a single cinema (ironically named ‘Navina’ or New), a make-shift bazaar selling fish and vegetables, and opposite to the mall a small liquor shop -called ‘Solace’- still survives. This paper tries to comment on the multiplicity of urban life, and the unprecedented contemporary developments.

South City Towers

South City Towers

The city in cinemas

Somewhat surprisingly while there are numerous studies on 19th Century Calcutta,[1] enquiries on the political history of Calcutta from the partition years to the political upheavals of the late sixties and early seventies are rare,[2] and are conspicuous by the absences. In this context, cinema becomes an important visual evidence of the changing cityscapes. For instance, Chinnamul (Rootless, Nemai Ghosh, 1951) was an IPTA collective production that addressed the ‘gaze’ of the immigrant, who entered the city from far off villages to ‘lay claim to the reality and the time in question’ (Moinak Biswas, 2002, p. 29). Often this film is regarded as the sole cinematic document of partition and immigration. Families eventually migrate to Calcutta leaving behind their homes and land, and as filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak would put it by abandoning an entire ‘landscape’, to traverse onto unknown territories and a new cityscape.

Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak in his essay on ‘Film Making’ writes about this ‘lost landscape’, and the ‘lost faces’ and the ‘lost language’[3]. He insists with partition ‘words/language and images are lost’ forever. Moreover, we have lost an ‘entire way of being’. Therefore, he craves for an imaginary re-union. In Komal Gandhar (E-flat, 1961), he brings up these issues and creates a thematic triad, which deal with problems of re-union of the individuals[4], of theatre groups,[5] and of two nations. Ghatak uses multiple sound tracks and songs (marriage song, boatmen’s song, IPTA songs etc.) to reinstate the theme of unification. Like the theme, the camera in his film searches for a lost territory. It pans over tall grass and bleached-out sky, in a frenzy, like a madman looking for his lost object. The E-flat musical note is used to describe the beauty of this lost terrain.


In Mrinal Sen’s films[6], the post-colonial, the post-partition, ravaged city, with refugees, beggars, street dogs, footpaths, dustbins, hi-drains etc., re-emerge with a certain kind of vitality. The beginning Sen’s of Interview (1970) show these emergent spaces; or even its last sequence, deploys fast cuts and juxtaposes shots of city toilers, bazaars, bridges etc., with the smiling face of the protagonist. Alternatively, in Calcutta 71 (1972), the young political activist is shown running through the Calcutta by lanes. These images are then compared with images of Bangladesh, and Vietnam War. His famous documentary style is evident in these films as he uses photographs from newspapers etc.

Sen’s ‘progressive’ background forces him to locate national and local politics within the larger international politics and bloodshed. In fact, he uses various forms, like the mime or uses the sound of radio and other location sounds to make meaning of ‘contemporary’ conditions. As opposed to several films on Calcutta (including recent international productions like Namesake, 2006), which repeatedly show Calcutta as an old colonial town with a lost world grandeur, or several other popular films which are predominantly shot within the studios, some of the films of the period actually show the political vitality and the emergent cityscapes.


 The city in a new light

The Indian nation-state had strong socialist inclinations and public sector investments were enforced during the Nehruvian era, even when it safeguarded the interests of the petty capitalists. Moreover, after the Left Front Government was elected to power in Bengal in 1977, one of its key successes became the land reform programmes and a populist mobilisation of the working class people. Amidst such socialist aspirations were significant shifts in the economic policies of both Congress Government at the centre, and Left government in the province. In Calcutta for instance, the stretch from Jadavpur to Garia, was dotted with small-scale factories like Bengal Lamp, Sulekha (ink) factory, Dabur etc., which have now all become defunct, and are in the process of becoming housing complexes with shopping malls. David Harvey[7] writes how a neoliberal state ‘surrenders to the global market’, and favours ‘governance by elites’. While, India is not neoliberal ‘state’ per say, nevertheless, its neoliberal aspirations and shifts are self-evident. Even when this paper is not a study in economic-history of Bengal, it is crucial for visual culture studies to understand the ramifications such social change.

Appadurai (1990)[8] has written about ethnoscapes (spaces produced through inflow of people, like immigrants etc.,), technoscapes (inflow of technology etc.,), finanscapes (flow of global capital etc.,)   (the ‘repertoires of images and information’), and ideoscapes (ideological shifts connected to western world-views), as he wrote about the Global/Local dichotomy. However, it also important to study the cityscape or the structural changes that occur when immigration happens, or the physical shifts that take place (with globalisation of economy and culture) when flyovers, multi-storeyed buildings, or shopping malls are built by erasing old houses, parks, water bodies; or when neon signs, digital bill boards etc., are erected like patchworks in the blue sky. Suddenly familiar spaces, the narrow lanes, the grocer’s shop across the road, the old house built by forefathers, seem to be devoured by other geometric structures. Of course, it is a matter of nostalgia, but not without a sense of history. Moreover, it may be fruitful to explore contemporary Calcutta from such perspectives.

Calcutta 71

Calcutta 71

Cinemas in the city

Located on the Prince Anwar Shah Road, ‘The South City’, has been described as a city within the city. At the gate of the colossal structure is the shopping mall, with an over whelming façade. Built on 31-acres of land the 35-storeyed residential buildings with high-speed elevators are the tallest buildings in Calcutta (and eastern India). Opposite this ‘South’ city, is a predominantly Hindu middle class locality (Jodhpur Park), and a little further there is a Hospital. On South City’s left there is the slum-area which comprises largely Muslims. Further down, there is a College, a single theatre, a flyover (towards the Lake), a Mosque and beyond that a cemetery. In fact, there is Mosque structure built in 1830s, and a cemetery ground within half a kilometre of South City.

The South City constructed by the Merlin Group on the grounds of the defunct Usha Company (which had about 1,600 employees), was designed by an USA based company while the ‘landscape design’ was done by a company based in Singapore. Besides housing eastern India’s largest shopping mall, with 6 screen multiplexes, the project also includes swimming pools, school, car parks (for 800 cars) etc. In the advertisements, it was described as ‘an oasis in the midst of chaos’. The total investment for this project is about 70 Million Rupees, which could employ up to 10,000 people and generate 10 Millions Rupees through taxes.

Non-Resident Indians have booked more than 20 percent of the flats, and the prices for the apartments are up to 5 Million Rupees. While, the Sunday, 7th September, 2003, issue of The Economic Times, put the South City mall as ‘a shoppers’ paradise,’ the South City itself stands tall like a space ship amidst narrow roads, bustling slums, local bazaars and working class people. It aspires for ‘life style revolution,’ which would necessarily encourage widening of the roads, and construction of flyovers etc. Briefly, it ensures most definite changes in our urban geographies, by dislocating workers, factories, and local houses. Moreover, one major case that came up regarding the South City is connected to the question of environment. A huge water body of about 1.31 acres was located within the premises of the Usha factory. By the end of 2005, Vasundhara, an environmental activist group, marked that a large section of the water body had vanished and the towers III and IV were being constructed on that space. Similarly, my friend who lived in a three-storied house adjacent to this structure shifted elsewhere primarily being unable to cope with such violent ruptures in everyday existence. For us, who have visited her place several times in the last fifteen years and more, it’s a sharp break in the stream of memories of friendly gatherings, fervent political discussions, discourses on art, history, and literature, as well as heady parties with drinks from the opposite liquor shop ironically named ‘Solace’.

Structured like a ship or whatsoever, there are ‘decks’ or rather various levels at the South City Mall. The centre is left vacant; and the shiny floors reflect the starry lights placed above. There are shops, and rows of shops, with mannequins, and men and queens; glass windows and mirrors, as well as other reflective panels that hold up to us our idealised self-images. Then there are CCTVs and digital billboards that monitor us and play with moving images. There are also multiplexes that screen recent Bollywood films and Hollywood blockbusters that transport us to fantastic zones. Often several working class families living in close proximity visit (decked up ‘for the mall’) this labyrinth of desire on the weekends or during festivals. These visits, which were particularly popular when the Mall was open for public in January 2008, seem to replicate cultures of visiting local fairgrounds. The variety of people and their costumes and gestures, reminds one of the reminiscent popular sub-cultures, and which perhaps reproduced through the vibrant cultural practices of Durga Puja or Eid.

Lefebvre (1974) writing about ‘social apace,’ insisted that ‘(Social) space is a (social) product’. He elaborated on the ‘science of space’ (underlining the physical space as well as the mental space) and highlighted how we confront ‘an indefinite multitude of spaces’. He asserts (1974, p.8):[9]

[E]ach one plied upon, or perhaps contained within, the next: geographical, economic, demographic, sociological, ecological, political, commercial, national, continental, global. Not to mention nature’s (physical) space, of (energy) flows, and so on.

In response to this, Harvey (1979)[10] had written about ‘Social Justice and the City,’ and had theorised problems of geography and ‘ghetto formation.’ Interestingly, while globalisation tries to repress such spaces (the ghetto for instance) in its attempt to form a shopping mall, or a multiplex cinema perhaps, this ‘many-spaces’ or whatever is rarely a space of total control. Sometimes, as we have seen in the case of the South City mall the repressed return with great vibrancy to lay its claim on this ‘space-ship,’ that has ‘landed’ in their locality.

The neo-liberal economic policies of the Indian Government are projected through the interconnections between the spatial transformations of urban spaces, inflow of multinational investments and the shifts in everyday living, and consumption habits. Certainly, there is an unprecedented boom in land and property business and associated fields. The upwardly mobile neo middle-class (specifically the double income group), their spending abilities, and desires seem to have played a crucial role in the ways in which big cities are changing, and in the construction of housing complexes, shopping malls, and multiplex cinemas. The growth of multiplexes is of course connected to the new economic policies that encourage new middle class lifestyles. To quote (Fernandes, 2004, p. 2415) [11]:

The growing cultural visibility of the new Indian middle class marks the emergence of a wider national political culture in liberalising India. This visibility represents a shift from older ideologies of state socialism to a political culture that is centred on a middleclass-based culture of consumption. Middleclass consumers represent the cultural symbols of a nation that has opened its borders to consumer goods that were unavailable during earlier decades of state-controlled markets.

Therefore, within the framework of urban developments and emergent consumption economy, new leisure systems grow for the urban middle class. For instance, the Housing complexes and shopping malls also include Multiplex cinemas to increase ‘footfalls’ in a shopping mall. Moreover, the policies to permit the multiplexes to deploy ‘dynamic ticket pricing’ posit the multiplexes in an advantageous position compared to the single theatre with blurred projections, unclear sound, seats with bugs, dirty toilets and stale popcorns.[12] Arguably, multiplexes are producing new kinds of cinema cultures and cinematic forms within the Bollywood.

Partha Chatterjee (2004)[13] writes about urban structures and cultures of Calcutta, from the 1950s and 1960s, and the nature of its growth through the 1970s and 1980s. Further, he describes (2004, p. 145) how in the (imagined) post-industrial, global, ‘Bourgeois’ metropolis, “globally urban, consumer lifestyle and aesthetic will take root. There will be segregated and exclusive spaces for shops, restaurants, arts, and entertainment….” Of course, he hopes that, our social conditions will ‘corrupt’ such cities, which then will be ‘impure’ and ‘inefficient’. The last section of the paper looks into the ‘corrupted’ nature of the South City, which so self-evidently aspires to be a global pad.

Solace survives

In ‘Of Other Spaces’ Foucault [14] criticizes our reading of histories predominantly through the temporal axis, and emphasises on our need to ‘notice space’, and understand that it is not a ‘homogenous and empty space’ but ‘the space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, in itself a heterogeneous space’. Foucault proposes the concept of Heterotopias (as opposed to Homotopias or even Utopias), and writes about the various principles like the strangeness of ‘cemetery’, multiplicity of theatre (perhaps cinemas as well), he links heterotopias with ‘slices of time’, like the museum or it’s opposite the fairground, as well as brothels and colonies etc. Finally he writes, ‘[t]he ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionages take the place of adventure, and police take the place of pirates.’ In a sense, the South City mall is Foucault’s ship, or at least it is located on a ‘fairground’ which entails middle class apartments, as well as local shops, bazaar, mad men, dirty huts, old Mosques, college, and cemeteries.



A recent Bengali film Herbert (Suman Mukhopadhyay, 2006)[15] seems to address the shifts within the Calcutta cityscape, and acknowledge the heterogeneity of our urban landscapes. Herbert, is a story of an under-educated orphan who is a ‘failure’ of sorts, but eventually becomes ‘successful’ as he learns to talk to ghosts, and ‘becomes’ a revolutionary through a series of unintentional events. Herbert chooses locations of north Calcutta, the old wrecked houses, railways tracks, river ways where signs of ‘modernity’ (like the dish antenna) leave a stain.

More recently, Sthaniya Sambaad (an unreleased feature film by Moinak Biswas and Arjun Gourisaria) tries to produce a historical trajectory of this development and violent changes. Referring back to Ghatak, and shooting in south Calcutta, Biswas and Gourisaria show the everydayness of refugee live, and its vitality despite the under-developments. Using a language (bangal bhasa) that is lost in transition, the film produces a cinematic language that is new and relevant.

Within these frameworks, the mall may be seen as the ‘populist insertion into the city fabric’. Jameson (1984)[16] would describe a place like the South City mall as a ‘new total space’ that ‘corresponds a new collective practice, a new mode in which individuals move and congregate, something like the practice of a new and historically original kind of hyper-crowd’. Nevertheless, this space is a space of everyday negotiations, where besides the obvious environmental and structural ruptures the complex is also causing water, electricity and traffic problems for the neighbourhood. Moreover, while the gigantic ship with sweet perfumed air and pleasant music draws us in; and as the ever burgeoning middle-class armed with credit cards head towards the mall, the ‘outside’, which it aspires to cut off, or ignore and repress, returns like the ‘real’ leaving its marks on the glossy glass skin of the mall.

The heterotopias Foucault talks about is not about a harmonious coexistence of the odds. In this or our case, different worlds are posited next to each other through a history of violence, rupture and tussle. If the Global imaginaire tries to suppress and dominate the local, sometimes this hierarchy is destroyed as sub-cultures (like melas, or loud programmes at the street corners etc.,), and sub-spaces (like the local bazaar, and cemetery etc.,) come flooding back with unpredictable dynamism. Moreover, a huge labour force that resides in the neighbouring colonies seem seize their rights to enter such spaces by joining in as sales persons in the numerous shops and restaurants. It is no longer about horizontal positioning of different of places and practices, but rather a vertical placement of diverse layers constantly fighting each other out.

Finally, it may be fruitful to use Michel de Certeau (1984, p.91-110) from The Practice of Everyday Life where he describes how ‘walking’ in the city re-produces its own topography. ‘They walk-…they are walkers…,’ he insists. ‘[W]hose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an “urban text” they write….’ He reads such walking as ‘speech acts’ as walking ‘creates a mobile organicity [emphasis added] in the environment, a sequence of phatic topoi.’ Indeed, as a huge number of ‘non-buying’ working class families queue up on the weekends to mark their presence, and enter elitist power zones; one can hear their footsteps whispering as it were, as they leave footprints on middle-class aspirations.


Acland, Charles, 2003, Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes and Global Culture, Duke University Press, Durham and London,.

Baudrillard, Jean, 1994, Simulacra and Simulations, University of Michigan Press, Michigan, pp.1-42.

Best, Steven and Douglas, Kellner, 2008, ‘Debord and the Post modern Turn: New Stages of the Spectacle,’

Beynon, John and Dunkerley, David (Ed.), 2000, Globalisation, The Reader, The Athlone Press, London.

Bose, Nirmal Kumar, 1965, ‘Calcutta: A premature metropolis’, Scientific American, 213, pp. 91-102.

During, Simon (Ed.), 1993, The Cultural Studies Reader, Routledge, London/NY.

Goss, Jon, 1993,’The Magic of the Mall: An Analysis of Form, Function, and Meaning in the Contemporary Retail Built Environment’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, no. 83, pp.18-47.

Hubbard, Phil, 2003, ‘A Good Night Out? Multiplex Cinemas as Sites of Embodied Leisure’ Leisure Studies, No. 22, pp. 255-272.

Kundu, Anil Kumar and Nag, Prithvish, 1996, Atlas of the City of Calcutta and its Environs, National Atlas & Thematic Mapping Organistaion Ministry of Science and Technology, Govt. Of India, Calcutta.

Lechner, Frank J. and Boli, John (Ed.), 2000, The Globalisation Reader, (2nd Edition), Blackwell Publishing, USA/UK.

Malpas, Simon (Ed.), 2001, Post Modern Debates, Palgrane, NY.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas (Ed.), 2002, The Visual Culture Reader (2nd Edition), Routledge, London/NY.

Prasad, M. Madhava, 1998, Ideology of the Hindi Film, A Historical Reconstruction. OUP, Delhi.

Shiel and Fitzmaurice (Ed.), 2001, Cinema and the City: Film and Urban Societies in a Global Context, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.


[1] Most well known ones being and Partha Chatterjee’s (1985) and Sudipta Kaviraj’s(1995) works.

[2] See Chatterjee, Joya, 1994, Bengal Divided, Hindu communalism and partition, 1932-1947, (South Asian Studies 57), Cambridge University Press, UK.

[3] From  Chitrabikshan (Bengali), 1984, no. 18, 1-2; also see Ghatak’s Cinema and I, 1987, Ritwik Memorial Trust, Calcutta, and Rows and Rows of Fences, 2000, Seagull, Calcutta.

[4] Apparently this film also negotiates Ghatak’s personal relationships with IPTA and his wife.

[5] See- Sudhi Pradhan (Ed.), 1979, Marxist Cultural Movement in India: Chronicles and Documents (1936-1947), pp. 294-304, on the rifts within the front.

[6] See Mukhopadhyay, Deepankar, 1995, The Maverick Maestro, Mrinal Sen, Indus (An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), New Delhi.

[7] From A Brief History of Neoliberalism,  2005, OUP. He suggests (2005, p.78):

[t]he period in which the neoliberal state has become hegemonic has also been the period in which the concept of civil society…has become central to the formulation of oppositional politics. The Gramscian idea of the state as a unity of political and civil society gives way to the idea of civil society as a centre of opposition, if not an alternative, to the state.

[8] In Featherstone, Mike (Ed.), 1999, Global Culture, Nationalism, Globalisation and Modernity, Sage Publications, London.

[9] From The Production of Space (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith), Blackwell, UK/USA.

[10] See Social Justice and the City, Edward Arnold, London.

[11] See Fernandes, Leela (2004) ‘The Politics of Forgetting: Class Politics, State Power and the Restructuring of Urban Space in India’, in Urban Studies, Vol. 41, No. 12, pp.2415-2430.

[12] I must thank Ardrian M. Athique for letting read his draft paper on multiplex cinemas.

[13] In The Politics of the Governed, Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Permanent Black, New Delhi.

[14] See ( accessed on 20.10.2008)

[15] An adaptation of a contemporary classic written by Nabarun Bhattacharya, 1993.

[16] See Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 2006, Duke University, Durham (first published in 1984 as “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, in New Left Review, Vol.146, pp.53-92).

This is a truncated version of the essay on transformations of Calcutta through partition, political shifts, and globalisation.

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Madhuja Mukherjee teaches in the Dept. of Film Studies, Jadavpur University. A section of her Ph.D thesis has been published as the book New Theatres Ltd. 2009, NFAI, Pune. Currently she is doing research on posters and lobby cards of 1950s and 1960s.
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