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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
He is currently directing Abar Aranye, a sequel to the Satyajit Ray classic Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). In it Ghosh reunites much of the surviving cast from over thirty years ago. While that film had marked the Bengali film debut of Simi Garewal, this time around its Tabu making her Bengali film debut.
He was in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the premiere of his film Dekha starring the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee as the opening night film of a festival of Bengali cinema organized by Prabasi.
What is your first cinematic memory?
I think it was when I got a gift from my uncle—a Kodak Brownie box camera. I was 8 years old. That was perhaps my first encounter of looking at the world through a frame. That was my entry into the world of images. Even when I had no money to buy a film, I would look through the viewfinder from our balcony or sometimes take a close up into my grandfather’s ear. Dadu tomaar kaanta dekhi (dadu, let me see your ear). That was the initiation.
Though you are Bengali, your first feature film was in Telugu—Maa Bhoomi. Why?
It was an accident. I’d been making documentaries and ad films before that. The first feature film offer came from Hyderabad. The producer who had financed Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya saw some of my documentaries. He asked me, “Why don’t you make feature films?” I said I was not prepared to do that. I wanted to explore my country through the documentary camera. He urged, why don’t you try?
I thought I can try but I can’t make a film in Telugu—I can do Bengali, Hindi, or even English. But they said unless we make the film in Telugu, the common people of Andhra Pradesh will not understand.
The film was based on a short novel of Kishan Chander—Jab Khet Jaage. The subject was the Telengana peasant uprising. I wrote the first draft in English. After traveling in the Telengana area I realized my script was crap. The real script emerged after our research and travel. It was an adventure; we had very little resources but tremendous enthusiasm. Most of the actors were non-actors, amateurs in small theaters, and I was also new. The film had a lot of financial problems but eventually became a big commercial success.
Did you have to unlearn anything going from documentaries to features?
No, basically the grammar of cinema is the same—the expression or way you look at the world is different. For me, documentaries and features are not separate entities. Only, you have to shift your focus. In feature films you enact the reality (or unreal situation) around you; but in a documentary it’s almost confrontational with reality. Like Lindsay Andersen said, “Documentary is a creative treatment of actuality.” I enjoy making both. I was not making documentaries to enter the world of feature films.
But one of your first documentaries Hungry Autumn, which was about famine, had to be smuggled out of the country?
It was shot in 1974. I shot the entire film on a small hand wound camera, which we then blew up to 35mm. Hungry Autumn was perhaps the first independent documentary produced in those days. Most documentaries were sponsored either by commercial companies or the government. But it was a different kind of effort—we wanted to show the reality.
But when we completed the film, it was the period of the Emergency in India. Sukdev, a friend and a great documentary filmmaker said, “If you give it to Censor Board for certification, they will ban the film.” So it was not cleared, though it won awards in major festivals like Oberhausen and Leipzig. We had to wait and we got the certification with great difficulty.
What about this theme of the river that runs through so much of your work? The river is almost a character in Paar, it’s a major force in Antarjali Yatra and in your latest Dekha, it is the river the blind protagonist keeps returning to for solace?
In many of my films I have used the river as a metaphor for life. The flow of a river is an integral part of the human civilization. We all remain in the liquid in our mother’s womb. Perhaps that is why when you grow up, you seek the touch of a river. I heard stories of great rivers from my grandmother because our ancestors came from East Bengal, which is full of rivers. Unconsciously, the flow of the river, the sound of the ripples, comes into my system.
The famous scene in Paar where Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi herd the pigs across the river—was that really shot on the river?
Yes, of course. It was a very difficult shoot and Naseer was not a very good swimmer. Perhaps he told a lie that he knew swimming to get the role. I think he learned swimming in a small pool at the Sea Rock Hotel in Bombay. But learning in a small pool and swimming in the Ganges during the monsoon in July is another thing. Shabana was a very good swimmer—very courageous. It was an adventure.
I shot the climax almost at the beginning of the first schedule. I told the producer if we don’t succeed we have to drop the project. And he agreed. Samaresh Basu, the writer of the story on which the film was based, was very scared. He said “Goutam, don’t do it. It’s very risky.” I said, “We are young, energetic, and adventurous—let’s try.” When you make films, it’s not just making a film—it’s part of a human adventure.
Paar, Dakhal, Maabhumi—all these films are about feudal exploitation. What drew you to that as a topic?
I came to know rural India and the common folk of our country when I was making documentaries. That was so enriching because I was born and brought up in an upper middle class family in a city. After Hungry Autumn, I wanted to explore my country, particularly what we call the subaltern or marginalized people. After all they are the majority of the population. Most of my films dealt with these people—either tribal gypsies, common farmers, or fishing folk. And I have placed this huge population against the backdrop of nature. Dekha is the first film which is close to my own class or milieu.
In Paar and Dakhal there is a sharpness of anger. Dekha is much quieter. Shashibhushan played by Soumitra Chatterjee is disappointed with the world as well, but in a more reflective way.
In a way Dekha is much more ironic. Because in Dekha, I wanted to see our own class in a mirror. When you express your feelings in cinema it has to be subtler, the anger has to be more suppressed. Anger is necessary, but I didn’t want to show it overtly. Like chhai chaapa agun—fire suppressed in ashes. It’s there. Like there is anger when you come to know that 40 cotton farmers committed suicide and that appears on the fifth page of the paper, and the cricket news is on the front page. What does that mean? It disturbs me—the indifference.
At the screening in Fremont, every time there was a reference to sex in the film, people were giggling nervously though they must have seen sex in many English films. But people seemed uncomfortable especially in the sex scenes between unlikely people—Sarama, the young mother played by Debasree Roy and the blind singer Gagan. Or when Soumitra Chatterjee in a grandfatherly role as Shashibhushan makes sexual banter with his young admirer Reema.
When he says “amaar shomoy thakle tomaay noon golmorich diye chhariye kheye nitaam.” (If I had the time I would sprinkle you with salt and pepper and eat you up.) People are not used to see this kind of things in Bengali cinema. It’s another middle class taboo— sex is fine in a Western movie or even a Hindi movie. But why in Bengali film? But sex is part of our life. And what we have to understand is that except for human beings no other species plan sex and violence. We should talk about that in film.
Reema is a little naughty and Shashi enjoys that—it is much more about play than sex with her. But with Sarama, it’s a much more complex relationship because she has an infatuation with Shashi though he is much older. When Shashi hears the sounds of primal lovemaking of the elephants in the forest everything changes. I see nothing bad in sexuality—it’s much better than violence. Our audience has set ideas about heroes, heroines, and vamps. I try to make human characters instead.
Now you won a national award for Dekha as did Soumitra Chatterjee for his role as the blind poet. But both of you refused the awards. Why? Have national awards lost their credibility?
National awards have lost their credibility for various reasons. The obvious reasons are claims about lobbying, about coteries. I chaired the jury the year before. The entire selection process was not correct. You have to see so many films. There is no screening—any big festival has a screening committee that selects films and finally a handful of films is presented to the jury. Here you have to see all 150 feature films. After seeing them all you are tired, and I am sure you make mistakes.
The year Dekha was nominated was worse, because 48 hours before the official announcement of the awards, the big story came out in The Statesman said that there was widespread lobbying and jury members had walked out. I thought it was very insulting. Not just for me and Soumitra. Both of us thought that somebody had to raise a voice and ask for some kind of reform process. I wrote a long letter to the President of India and to the concerned ministers saying that I am not a negative person. We refuse this as a token of protest and would like to give some suggestions as how we could improve it. I got a reply from the secretary of the President—we shall see what happens.
A critic has said that serious Bengali cinema now has just become Bengali cinema that takes itself seriously and it is increasingly a claustrophobic incestuous hall of flattering mirrors.
When you are disturbed, you use all this kind of jargon. Some critics also say why don’t you tell a straight story. No, because we have enough of telling of straight stories. There is no dearth of good stories in Bengali literature. But depending on stories all the time means you never come out of storytelling. You don’t conceive anything original for cinema. When you take up a story—it’s not just a translation from literature to cinema. It’s a transformation from one medium to another. And there is a big difference. Literature is primarily cerebral—you have to read. Cinema is direct—like music. It just hits you.
Cinema gives immense possibilities of playing around in time and space. So why can’t we do something, which we call cinema of ideas—that’s what Dekha is. There is no story as such—there are moments, feelings. But it all depends on the subject—like a children’s film needs a simple narrative.
Is the middle class returning to cinema halls in places like Kolkata?
I have never had a problem with my audience. Whenever I release my films, I always got a niche audience. Sometimes the film did well, sometimes it did not—that’s different. But Bengali audiences are very keen to come back to the theater—the success of Dekha, Paromitar Ek Din all show that. But you have to give them a good quality film. The condition of theatres needs to be improved. Theatres were like temples and palaces. In the ’30s moviemakers in the U.S. created a dream world. That’s an area NRIs can play a big role—infrastructure development. Now people don’t mind paying a little more for tickets.
How can NRI Bengalis make a difference? Hindi-speaking NRIs are having an impact on Hindi films because they now make a sizable portion of the audience.
There is immense possibility. They are looking for their own cinema. The way they reacted to the film at the Naz cinema was exciting. But you need good entrepreneurship to distribute the films in place where Bengalis are staying. You know, it’s the fourth largest language group in the world now. It’s a huge community—from West Bengal and Bangladesh.
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|