Dog day afternoon in Kolkata

Anuradha Sengupta | Updated on June 28, 2019

Heads and tails: A still from Jesse Alk’s debut film, which premièred at Montana’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this year   -  IMAGE COURTESY: JESSE ALK

An American film-maker captures the unusual love stories between the city’s stray canines and lonely residents

When New York-based Jesse Alk first set foot in Kolkata in 2010, he fell in love with the city’s animals and birds. Sitting on the terrace of his rented accommodation, he watched kites take one last flight before sunset. At night, he observed bats on the trees of his neighbourhood and stayed awake to the howling of stray dogs till the wee hours. The relationship between Kolkata’s humans and non-humans soon became an obsession for the 45-year-old American, who continued visiting the city over the years. His first film, the 77-minute documentary Pariah Dog, captures the umbilical link between Kolkata’s stray dogs and their human companions. After its première at Montana’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in February 2019 in the US, Alk’s film was screened at Krakow Film Festival (Poland) in May and SF Docfest (US) in June. It travels to the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival in Australia next month.

Love interest: Jesse Alk continued to visit Kolkata over the years for the filming and editing   -  IMAGE COURTESY: JESSE ALK


Edited excerpts from Alk’s interview with BLink:

How did you end up making a film about stray dogs in Kolkata and the people who look after them?

I first came to Kolkata in 2010 on the invitation of a family friend who had been coming to India for 40 years. I decided that I would read nothing more about India or Kolkata before my trip, and let everything be a surprise. And the first surprise of all came at the old Kolkata airport, where I encountered a pack of street dogs lounging on construction sand in the arrival area. There was a casualness with which animals were integrated to the urban space in India that really struck me. Throughout that first trip, I found that of the many things I loved about Kolkata, the connection between animals and people was the most interesting to me.

As I continued to return to Kolkata over the next few years, I developed a minor obsession with the street dogs. I photographed them, watched them, fed them biscuits, and it struck me that a film about their lives would be an incredible way to also make a portrait of Kolkata. I initially conceived the film as vignettes of the dogs’ lives, with an occasional dog “feeder” mixed in. But gradually my focus shifted to the human element — the people who were also struggling to find their place in this massive, crowded city, and who found some sense of purpose by connecting with these neglected, lonely animals.

How did you get to meet so many interesting people? How long did it take you to make the film?

I was lucky to have a lot of support from the street dog/animal welfare community in Kolkata, including many from the Kolkata Street Dogs Facebook group. One meeting would lead to another, and my crew and I would follow any lead we had about interesting people involved with the dogs in some way. I was looking for people who were unusual, charismatic, and whose connection to the dogs was on a very personal level, as opposed to an intellectual level; people who were a bit lonely, and who were questioning why the world was the way it was, and unable to stand the lack of compassion that has become a staple in city life all over the world. We finally focused very tightly on four individuals, and didn’t have much room for anything else.

Although I had been planning the shoot since 2013, the film really began in February 2014. We finished shooting in late 2017, and after returning to the US to log all the footage, I came back to Kolkata for seven months to do the final editing.

Can you narrate a few interesting anecdotes related to the shooting of the film and the people/animals in it?

Subrata Das, one of the main people in the finished film, was an incredible person to work with. He was sweet, funny and outrageous. Despite the fact that his English is not great, and I barely speak a few words of Bengali, we developed a strong friendship. Even when there was no one to translate, I would often meet up with him with no camera, just spending time together, communicating as we could in English with a bit of Bengali thrown in. Subrata is a natural actor, and made no distinction between a documentary and a fiction film. To him, we were making what he called “my movie”, and he was the star. In many ways, that’s true. One day I heard him in a huge argument with a man on the street, and we walked up and began filming. The man was a little drunk, and objected to Subrata feeding the street dogs. Suddenly, the argument escalated, and Subrata (who is 65 years old) was challenging this young man to a fight. Both were yelling, and neighbours had to come and pull them apart. We finished filming, and when we caught up with Subrata down the street, he turned and winked at me. “Was it good?” he asked. We just had to laugh. Subrata is like that.

Did you find the lives of stray dogs and their relationship to people around the city in any way different from how it is where you live?

A person who lives in Los Angeles or Chicago might be disturbed by scenes of Indian street dogs eating trash. But if you tell the average person in India that in the US we have very few street dogs, because we kill almost four million unwanted pets per year, you’ll get a very different reaction. Which scenario is more upsetting? Personally, I think in the US, we like to see things neat and clean, and are very good at ignoring what goes on behind the scenes to keep it that way. I include myself in that way of thinking, and living in India has taught me a lot about my own culture, and how we are able to accept and ignore these contradictions in American life. But when you explain to an average person on the streets of Kolkata that Americans incinerate millions of animals per year to keep from having too many strays, they might think you are describing a horror film.

Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata

Published on June 28, 2019

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