Chowdhury started his career as an ad filmmaker and television serial producer and currently produces the popular serial Megher Palok. His second film, Antaheen (2009), a story about love, waiting, and loneliness, went on to win four National Film Awards including one for Best Film.
Chowdhury was in the Bay Area recently shooting for his third film Aparajita Tumi. The film stars Prosenjit Chatterjee, Indraneil Sengupta, Padmapriya, Kamalinee, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Kalyan Ray and Tanusree Shankar. Aparajita Tumi is the first Bengali film to be shot entirely in the United States and is expected to have a simultaneous worldwide premiere here. The film deals with the mindsets and lifestyles of Bengalis in the United States.
Tony, welcome to California. This is your third film as a director after Anuranan and Antaheen. Both your films have received excellent critical reviews as well as success at the box office. Please tell us a little bit about them. Where and how have you found your inspirations for your films?
With my films, what I do is tell a story without worrying if it will work. For example, a lot of people said to me that Anuranan had a very thin story line, and some even said to me that Antaheen had no story line! But I believed in the scripts. Anyway half the time, our lives do not have any story, just incidents and moments. And the films worked, even though we never consciously designed them to work. My films arise from my thoughts and my experiences. They are very honest films.
The stories for Anuranan and Antaheen were both original and mine and I co-scripted them. I had the story of Anuranan for a long time but I could not find anyone to produce it. One day my wife Indrani, Jeet, another friend who backed out later, and I decided to produce it. We just started with our own money.
When the story of Aparajita Tumi, “Dui Naar, Haate Torobari” by Sunil Gangopadhyay came out in Saradiya Ananda Bazar, I read it and liked it. I went to Sunilda and said I wanted to make it and he agreed. I had been to England and America multiple times and with globalization most of the human experiences are very similar the world over. If there is sunyata (emptiness), then the emptiness is the same everywhere. People grieve in the same way everywhere; they rejoice in the same way, their ways of seeking are the same too. I found a very strong parallel with incidents in my life, so I felt compelled to tell the story. Again, I don’t know if it will succeed in the box office or audiences will like Aparajita Tumi. With each of my films I have tried to change the grammar of the telling. The more you grow, the more you know, you become more adventurous, and the more you try to experiment with your life.
With Aparajita Tumi, my experimentation with the filmmaking has been one of discovery. We allowed our reactions and those of the actors to shape what was happening next. A lot of the final outcome is how the mood, the space, and the actors brought about the moment. My cinematographer Ranjan Palit is a documentary film cinematographer and has done Vishal Bharadwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf. He was like an actor relating to the scene. He became part of the character. Traditionally, directors design every shot. But here we did not want to do that for this film. We wanted to just extend what was seen through the camera. I am not a very “design” person or articulate person. I like to just “let it happen.” I take inspiration from moments; I live on moments. I look at cinema as a visual medium not a literary medium. I tell my story visually.
Can you relate any special incidents from the making of these films?
Well, a lot of interesting things happened. We were shooting a sunrise shot in Sikkim for Anuranan at the 200-year-old palace grounds at Rabdentse. It was a chilly winter October night. The actors and production crew had to walk almost 25 minutes to reach the edge of a mountain for the shot. It was pitch dark. We switched on our cell phone screens and trekked slowly up. Sunrise was at 4:45 am and we were there at 3:00 in the morning. That’s when we realized that our production crew had forgotten the torches and the lanterns. I didn’t know how to take the shot.
I resigned myself that we could get the light after, but not at, sunrise; Rahul Bose [who played the lead] and the child actor from the movie sat down and waited. It was past 4:45 am. Then it was like a miracle from God; the lights arrived, followed by the camera. Amazingly, the sun slowly began to rise like it had waited for us! Sunil Patel, our cameraman, took a gorgeous shot.
During Antaheen, we were shooting on the 14th floor of a building. The clouds had deepened and I could see the rain coming. It was a stunning visual. We were high up with a panoramic city view, lightning streaking across the sky, the rain just rolling towards the city. I told my cameraman Abhik Mukhopadhyay to roll the camera; we just had to capture this moment. But as luck would have it, the camera just locked! Once a camera locks, it takes at least half an hour to remove the magazine and get it working again. I was deeply disappointed.
Later, we were shooting 35 stories high in South City with our protagonist Radhika Apte and now, twice as high up, we saw the same stunning visual of the rain coming in to the city! I felt as if someone was sending us this as a gift, saying, “Go on, play!”
When we were shooting for Aparajita Tumi, we faced a lot of delays. Our visas were refused at first, and we faced other hurdles too. We had planned to shoot near Lake Tahoe in a snowbound cabin. When we finally were able to start shooting, we discovered that all the snow had melted and we could not get the ambience we needed to create an intense, romantic moment. We started searching for other venues and saw some really wonderful ones, but nothing seemed to work out.
Then we went to Carmel to visit a beachfront house recommended by a friend. As we walked in to house, I saw that there were statues of Buddha everywhere and I was just enveloped in a sense of perfect synchronicity: as if this was where we were supposed to be all along.
Your films are portrayed in reviews as being extremely sensitive. Does this come from your own personality? I recall what Marlon Brandon said once in an interview with Truman Capote: “Sensitive people are so vulnerable; the more sensitive you are, the more certain you are to be brutalised, develop scabs.”
Oh I don’t mind being brutalized over my sensitivity. In fact, I love to suffer. If you are sensitive, you will suffer. Suffering helps. Often people tell me that I can be insensitive to others too. I lose my rationality. But these qualities help me make my films.
Nandini Pal teaches elementary school in Oakland, CA. She edited an Indian American newspaper for many years.