There is a thin line between genius and eccentricity, traditional and out dated, dull and organic, and learned and pedantic - and as a filmmaker; Rituparno Ghosh manages to neatly straddle these multiple paradoxical worlds.
His storytelling takes viewers on journey after journey of complex characterisation, subtle symbolism, detailed realism and infinite cultural allusions. Having made his statement, he remains both loved and hated, but seldom ignored by critics and audiences world over. Describing himself as an Indian and thoroughbred Calcuttan, much like the city, he is a blend of intellectualism and idealism closely knitted into a strong sense of pragmatism and warmth - a synthesis of the old and the new. He made his mark in Bengali cinema, has created award-winning almost cult-cinema, and has even dared to cross over into Hindi and English films.
Much like his cinema, Rituparno is a refreshing change form the usual! A modest yet self-assured man, he is willing to recognise his filmmaking for what it is, and while his movies might not always spellbind, it definitely impresses and stands out with its varied themes, daring initiative and sometimes-unconventional casting. His cinema can be comfortably nestled into the larger gamut of World Cinema; a hit at most film festivals since the 90s, it continues to entertain and create cinematic dialogue. The movie mogul shares with us his journey so far, and his brutally honest views about cinema and filmmaking.
With both your parents being artists and documentary filmmakers, you had a direct reference for your interest in cinema; but you graduated in Economics before turning to films. How did this turn of events happen?
Well, when my father shot his first documentary, a biography of Devi Prasad Roychowdhary, it was all very new for me because I actually saw a film being made at home. I used to sort out and tack the shots on his behalf; that’s how the whole mystery of filmmaking was demystified right in front of my eyes. I was in my early teens then, and, coincidentally, television also came into Kolkata around the same time. That was when I discovered more of Ray. So, on one hand I was unearthing the stuff of filmmaking, and on the other, I found myself discovering this master. So it wasn’t really my father; it was Ray who inspired me to become a filmmaker.
I also started disagreeing with the documentary form of filmmaking. I refused to look at a documentary as a documentary. There was a strong temptation in me to create stories. To create a situation and not accept it as it is.. This was my initial grounding. I went on to study economics, because my parents wanted me to study something very hard-core, so that my future was secure. After my post-graduation I started working in advertising, and did so for ten years. Ad-films honed the craft of filmmaking in me and gave me my technical grounding.
“'I once had a fight with a European film jury, they were criticising our films for being too slow, and I said yes, but that’s our lifestyle!'”
So, how exactly did you get involved with feature filmmaking?
I began making feature films under very strange circumstances. I was making a docudrama where Shabana Azmi (the then chair-person for the Children’s Film Society) was doing the narration. While watching the film, she asked me if I wanted to make a children’s film, and gave me my first feature film to direct! By the time the film was commissioned, Jaya Bachan had come in as the next chairperson. So, these two women were my first producers.
How do you understand the contemporary Indian film industry?
Entertainment in general has become varied. There is a whole range of filmmaking happening in India right now, and it has become far more diversified than earlier. If you look at say, an Omkara, an Om Shanti Om, or a Saawariyan, they are all beautiful, but definitely not similar. The work mainstream needs to be redefined because it has found various segments, each at niche in itself; the size is what differs. It’s not as pervasive as it used to be. With the coming of multiplexes, it has become like channel surfing. You have your popular channels and less popular channels as well, but you cannot ignore the existence of a channel. I think cinema also needs to be studied in the same perspective.
The pace of filmmaking and the patience threshold of audiences have changed to quite an extent. The remote has literally become the visual violating ballet. Earlier, filmmakers were scared of stepping out of the formula as it might have displeased their audiences. That isn’t the issue anymore; pace has become the object of prime importance. I’m not very fond of making pace-y films. Since, I’ve dealt with Indian middle class life to a large extent, it’s as if its own language. I once had a fight with a European film jury, they were criticising our films for being too slow, and I said yes, but that’s our lifestyle! Think about it, in Europe people on the roads walk much faster than we do. The pace of life is different. I don’t think a European film has an artificial pace, it is determined by the demands of the subject. But here it has become the other way around, you are not allowed to choose a subject, which requires langurous treatment. You have to coform to a certain type of subject matter, which will suit the quicker pace. In that respect I find myself more traditional.
You have made Bengali, Hindi and English films. What is your politic on these three languages?
Hindi was not something that came to me as a natural choice. It happened because I was working with actors who were not strictly Bengali speaking. Over time they began insisting I make a Hindi film, and I realised that it would be easier for me to direct a Hindi film that for them to act in a Bengali one, because my command over Hindi is greater than their command over Bengali. But I did feel handicapped directing in Hindi, because while I insist on writing on my own lines for all my films, here I had to resort to a dialogue writer. Initially I insisted that my Bengali dialogues be translated to Hindi, but that could not work, so the entire rhythm of the scene that I had perceived through my dialogues was getting disrupted. If I find a good writer I will make another Hindi film. English and Bengali are both languages I’m extremely comfortable with. My comfort is important because I write my own films. The writing itself creates most of the acting that you eventually get to see. If I don’t enjoy a felicity with the language, then I’m not allowing my actors to enjoy a total benefit of my direction and I am depriving myself the benefit of my own direction as well.
“'I am a very natural person and I react to my subject matter very organically. I could ascribe it to my observations and the fact that I’ve grown up in a very literary and visual environment.'”
Directing and writing, two sides of the same coin?
I have written most of my films and both come to me as easily as the other. But when I am directing the film, I don’t consider it to be my script. It’s like a script has come to me and it’s all about making it work with the choreography, the actors and the context. I don’t have any affinity towards my own lines.
Aishwarya Rai, Ajay Devgn, Arjun Rampal, Amitabh Bachan, Priety Zinta etcetera. Your casting goes against the usual typecast, is this going to be your trademark?
I don’t know. I can certainly tell you it was not about showing people that see I can do this to Amitabh Bachan or that with Aishwarya Rai. Most of my work is based more on my personal bond and shared understanding with the actor rather than the routine of casting. I think understanding each other solves a lot of problems and on top of that if the person is even closely suited to that character, that is an added bonus! I create the character, so suitability is very relative and never absolute. No actor is indispensable before he/she is cast, only after the casting takes place does he or she become integral.
Your films have a very strong sense of characterisation and dialogue. What kind of research goes into this aspect of your cinema?
I am a very natural person and I react to my subject matter very organically. I could ascribe it to my observations and the fact that I’ve grown up in a very literary and visual environment. I have seldom made an effort, my references to literature, art, etcetera, come into course whenever needed.
The Last Lear, got its share of criticism and praise. In fact most of your films get very mixed reviews. Why do you think this is so?
Did it get any praise? I hadn’t heard of it! I don’t know why I get polarised reviews. Either people love or hate my films; there’s never been a lukewarm response. But, positive or negative, I would rather have it this way; at least it is an intense reaction. It is difficult for any reactor to come to terms with rejection from his people, but you have to understand it. At the end of the day every reaction, has some consequence and is worth giving a though to.
Our conversation with Rituparno Ghosh was first published in our Film Issue of 2008. This article is a part of Throwback Thursday series where we take you back in time with our substantial article archive.
Text Shahnaz Siganporia