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It’s time to strike camp again: Shifting homes, shifting lives
ADITYA MANI JHA  17th Aug 2013

A still from Spandan Banerjee’s latest film To Let.

hree years of living sans roommates at college, plus a year in Delhi now; I've been living alone for four years now. In the second of those years, a plump-looking white-and-brown cat decided that my books, my morning newspaper and my glasses were fair game for a friendly game of We Chew (Almost) Anything. Little did I realise that the little one wasn't looking for a home so much as the feline version of an amusement park. Kafka (an unfortunate name, I know), like a lot of cats, had immediately marked her territory — the rest of the world be damned. I was reminded of Kafka and co. (for by the time I left campus, she had a thriving brood of her own) by Chhotu, a cat with a brief but vital appearance in Spandan Banerjee's To-Let, which saw its first Delhi screening a couple of weeks back, at the Max Mueller Bhavan.

To-Let is about the life of an average Delhi tenant; a peripatetic existence with fresh challenges every day. Desmond Morris — the film's director of photography — is one of the people Banerjee has followed during the process of moving house. Desmond and Farah have six cats, including Chhotu. Desmond describes how they had to introduce the cats to their new home very gently indeed. "They (the cats) will go last, because it has to be done very delicately. So Chhotu marks his territory. (...) He's even marked my computer. So that is his, okay? There are some suitcases which really smell of him. So we're gonna carry those bags, put that into a room, and hopefully he'll think, 'Yeah, these are around, so this is my space'."

In one of the first scenes in the film, Banerjee calls Delhi "my city of 9 addresses and 16 years" adding, for good measure, "Like difficult loves that require constant struggle, Delhi has never been an easy city to love". I remember being thoroughly briefed about the dos and don'ts of the city before I actually moved here. Had Banerjee not been warned about the life of a (perennial) tenant in this city? "There were people advising me to invest, but shifting houses was the most exciting aspect of my new life for me — the fact that the physical space around me could and probably would change every 11 months," Banerjee told me.

But home isn't merely a space to unwind — or socialise. For artists, it gradually evolves into a comfort zone where their creative energies can be channelised most efficiently. Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam of Indian Ocean (who were the subject of Banerjee's earlier documentary Beware Dogs) discuss their own struggle — to find a decent place where they could jam and compose music. Orijit Sen — the creator of River of Stories, India's first graphic novel — had very graciously invited the band to come and play at his Karol Bagh residence, because he and his wife Gurpreet "liked the music, and they loved to have company". Very crucially, Banerjee does not use archival footage of the band jamming at the Karol Bagh place. Instead, they are shown playing cricket, clowning around, basically echoing Sen's proposal to them, "Just come. Be."Image 2nd

What else can a person ask from a house, after all? All it needs to be is a place is where you can simply come, and be.

But life doesn't work that way, as writer/artist Sarnath Banerjee points out in an earlier segment in the film. "While travelling between Delhi and Calcutta, there would always be this gentleman who'd take out his suitcase, put on his lungi, take his toothbrush out — and suddenly, in ten minutes, he has actually created his home system. (...) That is an ideal situation — that you create 'home' in the abstract."

Sarnath's comment reminded me of the fact that Banerjee's earlier film You Don't Belong was about bauls — tracing the history and progression of a particular baul song. Clearly, the image of a musician constantly on the move, a gypsy of sorts, is one which Banerjee is quite intimate with. "I wouldn't use the word 'gypsy', but yes, the core question of where we belong is inside all of us", Banerjee says.

"'This is my home' is a prefixed notion, whereas things like your personal space are, in reality, a little mixed-up."

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