20 September 2008

Interview: Rituparno Ghosh

On the eve of the release of The Last Lear, I interviewed the filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh for this week's Tehelka. Read the story here.

And below is the longer version, from which the published interview was culled:

An ex-advertising man who made a quiet cinematic debut with his children’s film Hirer Angti (1992) before grabbing attention with National Award-winning mother-daughter saga Unishe April (1994), Rituparno Ghosh has established himself as one of those few Indian filmmakers whose prolific output (15 films in 16 years) is also consistently interesting. While more than happy to be feted as heir to a Bengali artistic tradition led by Tagore and Ray, Ghosh is remarkable because he is also unselfconsciously enthusiastic about all things Bollywoodian, from Om Shanti Om to Aishwarya Rai. Which probably explains why he’s managed to become that rare thing – a genuine crossover phenomenon.

You’re one of the few filmmakers currently working in India who invariably write their own screenplays. Were you already a writer, before you thought of becoming a filmmaker?
I was a copywriter with an ad agency, so I used to play with words, yes. But no, I started writing really for my films. And I find it hard to direct someone else’s script, just as I find it hard to write for other people.

How much of your film is already ready in your head before you walk onto the set?
Writing is my greatest point of engagement with my film. When I write a line, I know exactly how it should be directed. So I direct very mechanically. Direction is a technical job, writing is free-flowing. In the past, I have had scribes to whom I dictated the script, to get the dialogue right. Now I don’t need to do that any more. I’m never majorly in love with my scripts – sometimes my assistant directors are surprised when I say they can change something. It’s not set in stone just because I wrote it.

Do you have a freer relationship with those films that stem from your own idea – like Titli or Utsab – than those that are adaptations, say Chokher Bali or Dahan?
Not really. What inspires me in a novel is the core of an idea. I don’t feel the need to be loyal to the narrative, only to the spirit. For example, Chokher Bali was written in 1902, and filmed by me in 2003. Tagore himself was not happy with the ending. His novel ended with the widow Binodini going to live in Banaras, devoid of all desire. My film emphasized her independence – the letter Binodini writes when she leaves talks of her own desh, which should be read not as country, but as space or domain. Another thing is my use of the colour red for Binodini’s shawl. In 1902, red meant passion. But the entire 20th century has taught us that red is also the colour of revolution. So when I use red in 2003, it is revolution through passion. Here I am ahead of Tagore, because he didn’t have the benefit of the last 100 years.

How much do you think your work as a filmmaker is shaped by your Bengali roots, and by growing up in Calcutta, with its the traditions of art, literature, and cinema?
A lot. I was born of painter parents, so I was exposed to art exhibitions right from childhood. Now I realize that my visual training began then. I went to an English medium school, but there was a strong vernacular upbringing at home. When I turned six, my father gifted me a copy of the Mahabharata in Bengali, and read it aloud to me one chapter at a time. If I didn’t know the meaning of a word, like vyuha, (as in chakravyuha), he would say, keep listening, you’ll understand. My father also put me in the habit of consulting a dictionary, and taught me never to mark a book with anything but a pencil. To this day, I read the newspaper with a pencil in hand. From South Point School I went to Jadavpur University, which was a melting pot of ideologies and backgrounds. Calcutta being a left city, it was almost fashionable to be leftwing. I studied Marx as my special paper in Economics. I went to film festivals. But it was watching Satyajit Ray’s films that made me decide to become a filmmaker. I had seen some before, but in 1975, Kolkata Doordarshan happened, and the whole of Ray’s repertoire opened up before my eyes. I am grateful to television for that.

You’ve spoken of Ray. Popular Bengali cinema too used to be of a very high quality till the sixties. What has changed in the last few decades?
You know, Bengali directors like Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar were placed in the popular cinema bracket because we couldn’t find any other place for them. But they were realist too, only their realism was styled differently from Ray or Ghatak or Mrinal Sen. Nowadays an actor has to feature in a certain kind of film to come up with a credible performance. That wasn’t the case with Bengali cinema earlier. When Soumitra Chatterjee got the National Award for Best Actor this year, I commented that even if you took away all his parallel cinema performances, he could have got the award for his roles in popular cinema alone. The same authors, the same sensibilities were being put on screen: Ajay Kar’s Saptapadi and Ray’s Jalsaghar were both based on stories by Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay. Only the cinematic treatment differed. I think the day Bengali cinema lost its literary roots, its core connection to the culture was snapped. Not that cinema must have a literary backbone: Tagore himself said that only if it moves away from the story will it become true cinema. But in Bengal, cinema didn’t acquire a new vision; it didn’t give up narrative – the stories just became inferior.

Who are the current Indian film makers whose work interests you?
I grew up watching all kinds of films, both Hindi and Bangla, again because of Doordarshan. Which is perhaps why I’m not judgemental about cinema. Maybe I can’t make all kinds of cinema, but I’m open to all kinds of cinema. I would watch a Rock On or a Taare Zameen Par with as much passion as anything else. I enjoy Farah Khan’s work as much as Farhan Akhtar’s. I loved Naseer’s first film, Yun Hota To Kya Hota. I like Vishal Bharwaj’s work very much. And all these lovely new films, like Honeymoon Travels, Mithya, etc. Sanjay Bhansali is I think a very important filmmaker, though I may disagree with some of his films. So many others: Priyan, of course Mani Ratnam, then Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal. I think Benegal is the last remaining Indian renaissance man.

You’ve shifted from working with only Bengali actors to working often with Bombay-based ones, and twice worked in a language other than Bengali. Was there something inherent in Raincoat and The Last Lear that made you make them in Hindi and English respectively?
The Last Lear could only have been made in English. But Raincoat could easily have been in Bengali. In hindsight, maybe it should have been. But if I stick to using only Bengali actors, I am denied a vast repertoire of talent. And I think it’s easier for me to make a film in Hindi than for Hindi-speaking actors to act in Bengali. Like in Sunglass, Naseer has a significant role in both the Hindi and Bengali versions. In both, he speaks in Hindi – because he just cannot speak Bengali. I think we need to explore the idea of multilingual films. When we talk of crossover films, we talk only of Indian films with an international sensibility. But we can have a huge crossover within the country itself. Think of a film like Roja, where a Tamil girl in Kashmir finds herself unable to communicate and has to resort to sign language – that poignancy got lost in the Hindi dubbing. No-one has given a thought to the marketing potential of such crossover films. We make unconventional films and try to fit them into conventional marketing avenues. But if one-fifth of the experimentation that has happened in production went into marketing, I think we’d have a different film industry.

Your work has been seen as centering around complex women characters, with men being either absent or weak or ogres: eg Dahan, Bariwali, Antarmahal, Shubho Mahurat. Would you agree with this characterization?
In Dahan I now think I glorified the women and was horribly judgemental about the men, which was very simplistic. But I am very interested in the theme of vulnerability. I would say I’m anti-patriarchal. Bonolota, Kirron Kher’s character in Bariwali, is not very different from Harry in The Last Lear, though one is a woman and the other a man. Both are vulnerable to the greed and politics of an organized power system – you could call it the patriarchy of art.

In fact, the world of art, especially of films, and the idea of stardom, appears in several of your films, right from Unishe April through Titli, Bariwali and Shubho Mahurat, to The Last Lear.
I am interested in the perception of power that comes with fame and the human frailty behind that, the vulnerability which people want to deny. And because I am most conversant with the show business, my study of power, of control and manipulation, is located there.

There is a criticism one sometimes hears of your films, that they’re not “cinematic enough”, or that they seem like “filmed plays”. Would you like to respond?
People have this simplistic idea that if you shoot outdoors it becomes cinema, and if you stay indoors, it’s a play. By that criteria, only Kurosawa is cinema, not Bergman. That what you might call chamber dramas, can be excellent cinema has been proved by Bergman. I’m not saying I’m Bergman, or that Raincoat is great cinema, but I do find it a little undemocratic to not acknowledge my kind of cinema as an equally legitimate form.

Are there some films you’ve made that you’re more attached to than others?

There is always a tendency in a filmmaker to defend the films that have been condemned or haven’t been watched enough. So I would say Antarmahal, which I think is a very powerful film, and Ashukh, which is little seen, and Dosar. I’m too close to The Last Lear to comment on it.

You’ve made a children’s film, Hirer Angti, and more recently a mystery, Shubho Mahurat. Are those genres that you’d like to work in again?
I wanted to make a whole detective series with Ranga Pishima (Rakhee’s character in Shubho Mahurat)! It’s very difficult to make a non-judgemental crime story, which is what I tried to do with Shubho Mahurat. Grey characters, no police intervention, nothing: the detective knows who’s committed the crime, but she does nothing. I deliberately had women as both criminal and detective, because they’re inherently more tolerant. In an ordinary detective story, it is the hunter and the hunted – there’s no relationship between them except of wit. But how can you be so unemotional about a person you are practically obsessed with?

Why did you choose to adapt Utpal Dutt’s Aajker Shahjahan into The Last Lear? Is the film much changed from the original play?
I saw Aajker Shahjahan as a college student, and was very moved. Plus there was the question of cinema’s relationship with theatre, which interested me. And I wanted to take Utpal-da out of the context of Bengal. He is known to Hindi film-goers only as a comedy actor, but he has such a tremendous body of work as a playwright. The original play is about the vulnerability of old age as well. There the relationship between Shahjahan and his daughter Jahanara echoes the relationship between Lear and Cordelia. So when I thought of making something with a universal appeal, I arrived automatically at Shakespeare. That’s how The Last Lear was born.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 5 Issue 38, Dated 27 September 2008)

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