A moment from Ronny Sen’s film “Cat Sticks"
If you freeze the very first frame of Cat Sticks, post the film credits, and analyse the mise-en-scène of the long shot, there is an abandoned aircraft in the distance, rain pouring relentlessly and three men hidden under their umbrellas, making their way towards the aircraft, all in black and white. Immediately, this very first frame, heavily invested with meaning, establishes the many elements that are essential throughout the film. The abandoned aircraft lends a surreal effect to the scene, its haunting imagery making the atmosphere seem almost unreal. The rain is omnipotent throughout the film as the timeline of the movie spans a few hours of one particular night. The use of black and white chiaroscuro is essential to director Ronny Sen’s aesthetic even as a photographer and acts like a canvas wherein the film comes alive. It is then an important question to ask, what kind of people would be making their way towards an abandoned aircraft and the answer to that is drug addicts, the main subjects of the film.
Ronny Sen’s debut film, Cat Sticks, explores in excruciating detail, the lives of the hidden brown sugar — an adulterated, cheaper form of heroin, also known as ‘smack’ — addicts of Kolkata. We got in touch with the eminent photographer and now filmmaker to know more about his film. Excerpts follow:
What led you to make your debut film Cat Sticks?
I came to films a little arrogantly. I was getting bored with photography and was trying to work with other mediums like video. There were stories of drugs and addiction I had lived with for many years and I was desperate to tell them and film was possibly the only way. Addiction is largely understood through the monologue of psychiatry and the modern society is in no mood to talk to the person who is still suffering. Cat Sticks begins with the line, "This is for my dead friends to come back from the night.' This is precisely the reason the film was made.
Could you take us behind your creative process of the scriptwriting and shooting of the film?
While I was experimenting with videos, some of my friends who were aware of my work and also knew these stories, encouraged me to make a film about it. Theodore Shivdasani, Soumyak Kanti De Biswas and Tanaji Dasgupta, approached me and expressed an interest in producing Cat Sticks. Moinak Biswas helped me with the story while I was working on it initially and later I worked on the script with Soumyak Kanti De Biswas. I was desperately looking for a cinematographer who understood the language of black of white and then I found Shreya Dev Dube who became my eyes for Cat Sticks. We slowly started casting and after many tedious rounds of auditions we began a long process of workshops which went on for months. Actors like Tanmay Dhanania had to lose so much weight just to get the biology of a certain kind of an addict right. During the workshops something happened which was absolutely not my idea, they went and stole from a real shop because they had to enact a similar situation in the film, obviously they went back and returned it but it was a tough few months for them. There are numerous such examples of the tremendous hard work all the actors had to put up and how bizarre it got at some points. The entire sound had to be designed on post and the film had to be dubbed because we were shooting with rain machines with generators making loud sounds all the time. If you listen to the sound of Cat Sticks you will understand the genius of a sound designer like Sukanta Majumdar. The way he has created the portrait of the city at night while it's raining continuously is insane. The idea was also to use rain and black and white as a canvas where the film can happen, if you know what I mean. After I was making the rough cut with editor Nikon, London based Oliver Weeks came on board and worked on the music. I was looking for someone who understood grunge and western classical music. Anyone who is high on heroin or brown sugar can’t listen to edm or techno, they can listen to grunge. Finally, it was Tanaji Dasgupta the producer who was the captain of our ship and he was the one made everything possible from pre production till today when we are playing at festivals.
A moment from Ronny Sen’s film “Cat Sticks”.
Tanmay Dhanania as Byang and Sounak Kundu as Potol
The movie is shot in some unusual locations, especially the abandoned aircraft. Could you tell us more about the locations used in the film?
The locations are mostly in Calcutta. A few days before we went on the floors a murder happened in one of the location and we had to start looking for another location. Everyone was scared because we were using rain machines and we didn’t have the money where a few days of extra shoot could be accommodated. The aircraft was in an abandoned film city but there was a lot of production design work which had to happen. The lamp post, the grass, the interiors of the plane everything was entirely designed by our very talented Devika Dave who was the production designer.
What is the significance of the title of the movie, Cat Sticks?
It’s a brand of wax matches used to chase brown sugar for a uniform flame which the wooden matches can’t produce. Brown sugar when heated on a foil produces smoke which can be chased on a foil through a pipe. The wax match sticks are used to heat the foil above which the brown sugar is. So the wax match sticks in this case ‘Cat Sticks’ is just a catalyst.
A moment from Ronny Sen’s film “Cat Sticks”.
Raja as Biplab
What were some of the challenging aspects of making this film?
The rain machine! We could do lesser number of takes because we had limited water. Imagine about the supply of water only for the aeroplane shot. And we are a small film! Also, the dubbing because the actors had to perform twice. Some actors like it, some don’t. So, it’s a tough one. I will probably never dub a film again. I don’t know! I am not sure.
What do you hope the viewers take away from this film?
That they don’t understand addiction at all and it’s perfectly fine to not understand something. Everyone deserves a life of dignity. Not only the ones who are courageous, even the cowards deserve to live, the way they want to, with dignity and respect. We need to learn empathy and compassion, not mercy. And that no addict seeking recovery need ever die.
To read our review of the film, grab a copy of our bi-annual print issue of October 2019 - March 2020!
Text Nidhi Verma
Images © Craigmore Films. All rights reserved.