Cat Sticks was not a movie I thought I could relate to. It is set in Kolkata but a Kolkata I never knew.
It’s a city that sprang to life in cemeteries and unfinished houses and dingy dank underpasses, long after the one we thought of as the bhadrolok city went to sleep. This was the “brown sugar city” of junkies and dealers. I was oblivious to it.
Photographer Ronny Sen tells me about a big fancy hospital that now stands on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass on the city’s eastern edge. Around 1999-2001 it was all open field. “Just little bushes,” says Ronny. “But the moment you sat you saw hundreds of little candles. People were just smoking up in those places. It was a surreal sight.” Near the busy Sealdah station, a 24×7 drug den, the only place you could get brown sugar at 3 in the morning, is now a Big Bazaar.
Cat Sticks is a movie about that time. Ronny wrote and directed it. The movie has won an award at Slamdance and just had its Indian premiere at the Kolkata International Film Festival. Set over one rainy night in Kolkata, it’s a story about addicts searching for a high. The black-and-white photography, the sound of falling rain, all give the film a kind of tremulous texture, as if the story could shatter any moment, like mercury spilling out of a thermometer.
“It was very biological. I had to tell these stories before they vanished,” says Ronny. But these were not the stories we are ever encouraged to tell. The college boy turned junkie sitting in a street corner waiting for the dealer. The transgender sex-worker desperate for a fix prostituting herself with a truck driver she calls Raja. The boy sitting naked on the commode, the tap running so its noise can mask the sound of him polishing the foil as he preps brown sugar. Three men walking into an abandoned aircraft looking for a safe space to get high. “I had heard from friends they would go into a plane and smoke,” says Ronny.
It’s a Kingfisher aircraft, chuckles Ronny. He found it in a rotting film city, abandoned after some Ponzi scheme went bust. They discreetly blotted out the “fisher” and left the King. At the film screening in Los Angeles he suddenly spotted Siddharth Mallya, the scion of the Kingfisher good times. “He said he liked the film and told me, ‘you made the best use of our planes’.”
It’s not easy to tell these stories because drug stories are supposed to have a clear-cut trajectory — tragic backstory, descent into abyss, valiant struggle to come clean and then an unambiguous No To Drugs message. Cat Sticks tells its story neither through the lens of the judicial/ medical system nor morality. Here two men strip naked, searching for a vein on each other. It’s like a ballet, devastatingly tender. “It’s tender because one addict helping another is unparalleled,” says Ronny. It becomes slapstick comic as two addicts steal from a shop and then try to sell the stuff back there itself. And then it turns horrifying. Someone tells a story of waking up in hospital with his mother in the bed next to him. He was there for his addiction, she was there because she’d tried to kill herself unable to deal with his addiction.
There is nothing in the film which is not true, Ronny says. A friend told him that when he and his friend were looking for a vein it was like dancing in the moonlight. The man who woke up next to his mother died recently from cancer. And there are the stories that didn’t make it into the film. Like the woman who came home so high she could not understand what her critically ill mother was saying. The mother died that night. “And she has never been able to stay clean since,” says Ronny.
Ronny has his own stories too, his own rock-bottom. “In 2009, when I could clean a floor I finally felt some self-respect,” he says. Before that he’d had his own tortuous journey, getting beaten up on the streets of Kolkata, sleeping in shopping malls, hanging out with ragpickers. “I remember going through my phone. There were 250-300 names and not a single person I could call,” he says.
But he does not want to dwell on his story. “This is the story of hundreds and hundreds of us,” says Ronny.
I didn’t think this film would be my story. But at the end of the film I wasn’t so sure any more. Brown sugar is just the substance. The real story is about the power of addiction. Who among us is a stranger to that?
The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis likes to let everyone know his opinions whether asked or not.