A thousand rupees?” offers one brother, holding an “old slide viewer” to his audience.
The wall behind him is piled halfway in what appears to be a tangle of wood. The eye has to adjust to identify anything: table legs, intricate shadows of nameless instruments, the mesh of a tennis racket, the swell of clothes – all in a creative number of orientations and from a misty assortment of dates and places. A crowd stands in any available space, looking just as squeezed. “Very nice,” says one man. The hammer is slammed.
This is the story of the oldest auction house in India. Founded in the 1940s, the Russell Exchange is a well-known and loved provider of jobs, money and curiosities for decades in Calcutta. But how long will this last? Ed Owles‘ film, The Auction House: a tale of two brothers brings to the Opening Gala night of the Open City Docs Fest a full-of-life portrayal of two brothers trying to save their struggling family business.
Elder brother Anwer left Calcutta for London in 1969, which left younger Arshad having to take on the running of Russell Exchange without help from his brother or sick father. Forty years later, Anwer returned. He describes the business he left as one to which “Britishers, French, maharajahs, film stars” flocked and the source of his family’s identity and life. His pride is evident and understandable: as a car passes Russell Exchange, a girl inside shouts “the auction house!”
It is easy to question what the Russell Exchange is doing in India’s modern economy. Just like India itself, time passing is one of the only constants in the Russell Exchange: it is in the fading of the façade, the collection of dust and the continual collision of old and new. India and Calcutta, though, are changing in a very different way; they are growing. Every object that passes through Russell Exchange’s doors is a glimpse of outside: unwanted furniture, objects without name or use, the results of attic clean-ups. This is no longer a stream of precious collectibles: it’s mainly junk. But the brothers are still determined to trade like gold merchants, like they are living in the city they knew as children.
From fanatical collectors to those who just want some cash, there is no typical buyer. One man has been visiting every Sunday for over 35 years, bidding for vast numbers of items each time and keeping them all. Three houses are filled with his china dolls, furniture, clothes… anything he can get his hands on and, as he describes himself, adore like his own children. The staff also see Russell Exchange as more of an addiction than a job, a provider of community spirit as much as of livelihoods. As a result, the viewer’s attention soon shifts from the trading and the slam of the hammer and aligns more with the locals’ concern over Russell Exchange’s future. After all, when Anwer gathers his staff around him, his focus is on putting food on the table rather than on the golden years. It is these human moments which close the distance between the viewer and those in the film.
“My brother has done…his best,” Anwer says upon his return “…within reason.” However intense some people’s affection is for Russell Exchange, even that can’t eclipse the business’s lack of sales and a possible end of the road for those who rely on it. Arshad’s voice seems small beside his brother’s, but there is one thing the brothers agree on: the importance of the business to the family, the community and themselves. And that they need to save it. The Auction House is put through a series of renovations. There is painting, plastering and complaints of “too slow”; there are talks of hosting a fashion show and prospective “crème de la crème” guests; there is even a whiff of a lucrative rent to a gentleman’s club, but it stinks too much of alcohol. The importance of money to both brothers is not lost, but neither is their dedication to those around them and to a certain morality.
The family shares grieving glances as Anwer and Arshad bicker from opposite ends of the dinner table, looking like two heads of a household that only has room for one. Even after such a long time apart (or perhaps because of it), sibling rivalry dictates many of the brothers’ exchanges. Arshad is very much the younger brother, whilst Anwer has travelled and experienced work as a banker, in the media and even as a restaurateur. Come sunset though, the brothers are reminiscing on a rooftop over Calcutta and their hidden affection is illuminated. Any hesitations, resistance or qualification of compliments only makes it more human. The brothers’ relationship is a particularly watchable focal point, with any arguments framed by rarer but more precious moments of tenderness.
There are good days and bad days, retirements and celebrations, arguments and reminiscing. Owles’ choice of footage provides a needed objectivity: despite the intimacy, fairness isn’t compromised and the film stays an account, not a judgment. Reality is shown whether good or bad.
The Auction House: A tale of two brothers is about family; the connections of the birthplace in tandem with the opportunities of the new; and the power of hope against the uncertainty and struggle for the future.
The Auction House: A tale of two brothers has its European premiere at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London WC1 at 19.00 on June 17 in the Opening Gala of the festival.
It is followed by a Q&A with Director Edward Owles and the two protagonists, Anwer and Arshad, before the opening night party in the Cinema Tent, Torrington Square. Get tickets here.
openDemocracy is an Open City Docs Fest media partner.