TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF MAKING ARTHOUSE CINEMAby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri December 6 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 19 mins, 10 secs
In a free-flowing conversation with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, Suman Ghosh talks of dealing with the disappointment of Aadhaar, the making of The Scavenger of Dreams, the trials and tribulations of making films that are not market-friendly, and the ‘embarrassment’ of having four films lined up back-to-back, a first in his career.
Suman Ghosh is a rare entity in contemporary Bengali cinema. A filmmaker who is fiercely protective of the quality of his films and unwilling to compromise. A director who keeps balancing star-driven projects like Nobel Chor and Basu Paribar with arthouse passion projects like Shymal Uncle Switches off the Lights and The Scavenger of Dreams, which has been the rage at international festivals of late. Experiencing a slump in the wake of his Hindi film Aadhaar being stopped from releasing even after it was approved by the CBFC, the filmmaker has bounced back in no uncertain manner.
In a recent media post you mentioned being on the verge of quitting films in the wake of your experience with Aadhaar. The death of Soumitra Chatterjee, the pandemic, and the Adhaar imbroglio – how does a filmmaker/creative person cope with these? How did you emerge from that low phase?
Aadhaar was a film I made with a lot of sincerity and dedication. Not that I don’t do all my films with sincerity and dedication but it was my first Hindi film and I based it in a village in Jharkhand. I had no clue of what Jharkhand was, how the locals live, behave. So I went there a couple of times and lived in the villages in Jharkhand when I was writing the script. It’s a practice I follow these days. The geography of a place, its inhabitants provide you with a lot of nuances, which I incorporate in a script. I live and work in the US, which means I have to leave my family and my little daughters every time I travel. In Aadhaar the process of doing that, researching, travelling, living in Jharkhand, took three years from the time I started thinking about the project. I was happy with how it turned out. I had a wonderful cast and crew.
And then the film was stopped seven days before release, even after it had been cleared by the CBFC. I don’t want to go into the details of what transpired, but it was a shocking experience, not only for me but for my entire cast and crew. Even now, three years later, Vineet Kumar Singh, the hero of the film, and the entire cast and crew hope that Aadhaar will be released someday.
It was traumatic and I didn’t know what to do, how to put it all behind me because I had invested so much energy and thought in the project. I was signed for another Hindi film and that too didn’t work out for several reasons. I think we go through moments in life when nothing seems to be working in your favour. Of course, as you rightly mentioned, Soumitra Chatterjee passed away. He was almost a father figure to me. So, all things considered, it was as if I was on a downward spiral and had no idea how to arrest that. I would say that my daughters offered a lot of solace at the time. Watching them grow up, spending time with them, learning to look at life from their perspective helped me cope with and emerge from what I was going through.
I remember a nice conversation I had with Srijit Mukherji over the phone from Miami at the time. He was my junior in college and we share a relationship beyond our pursuits in Bengali cinema. He said, 'Suman-da, look at your work. You have made star-studded films like Basu Paribar and Kadambari, while being a regular at a festival like Busan. How many of us have done that? Chaka ghurbe (the wheels will turn), Suman-da.' What he was trying to do was encourage me to look at what I had achieved.
I think that only work can bring you out of such a mindset. I generally have a positive outlook to life and I always thought, okay, this too shall pass. I tried every means possible for Aadhaar to be released. Nothing happened. I realized one had to look to the future. That is how I started writing or thinking about doing something in Bengal.
The dream project I wanted to make was Kabuliwala. I think it is a topical film, and you will know why when you see it. I needed Mithun-da (Mithun Chakraborty) to play the central character, otherwise I wouldn’t have done the film. I had always been in touch with him and when I met him in Bombay during the time I was writing my book on Soumitra Chatterjee (he gave an endorsement for the book) I told him about Kabuliwala.
I saw he was excited but I didn’t know whether he would agree. He was not doing too many films at the time. In 2022, Mithun-da starred in Prajapati, which went on to become one of the biggest hits of the decade in Bengal. Somehow it started falling in place. I spoke to Srikant Mohta of SVF about the idea of making Kabuliwala with Mithun-da. He was game. I called Mithun-da, who agreed. I started writing the script only after that. Slowly, I got out of the slump, kept on working at my own pace.
I worked on a documentary on Aparna Sen and on The Scavenger of Dreams. It was tough to get back to work after the experience I had with Aadhaar but all of it came together over the last year.
Coming to The Scavenger of Dreams – share something about the origins of the film, the NYT story that piqued your interest. And your own observations and experiences that drove you to making it.
I read an article about a waste collector in Silicon Valley about five or six years ago. It said that what is trash for someone is treasure for another. I found it fascinating that in terms of economic well-being, it is garbage that connects the highest strata of society with the lowest. I started thinking about what a family of waste collectors would be like and realized that I had no clue about them – I had never thought about their life. I was sufficiently interested to start researching about them on my visits to Kolkata. I interacted with many waste collectors and learned about them, became friends with many of them and had long addas.
The idea began germinating in my mind. It needed two years of research before I was sure that I could proceed with the subject. My assistants made videos of their activities and sent them to me in Miami. Slowly, the story began to take shape as I began to grasp certain aspects of their life.
I decided to submit my project to the Asian Project Market in Busan where it got selected. They select ten or fifteen projects every year out of hundreds of applications. That such a prestigious market selected it was an affirmation – I could go ahead with the subject.
The Scavenger of Dreams has interesting parallels to your previous film, Searching for Happiness – primarily in the way both involve improvised shooting and real locations. Scavengers were an important part of Searching… too. Tell us something about this aspect of the film. Since both films lack what is called a plot…the narrative flows as a series of vignettes that have a life of their own.
A seminal film that got me thinking on this mode of filmmaking and on acting as such…different forms of acting or truth in acting…is Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece Close-Up. I saw it almost twenty years back or so and it struck me how improvised shooting can add so much. Of course, in the Indian scenario people like Mrinal Sen have done this but Kiarostami’s Close-Up had a more direct impact. It came at a time when I was more aware of cinema aesthetics, which had also changed over time. This genre-bending work opened my thought process on cinema. I made Shyamal Uncle Turns off the Lights with non-professional actors.
Searching for Happiness was a different ball game altogether because I was working with a four-year-old girl. Even if the girl was six years old, she would understand direction and follow accordingly. How could I drive the story through a four-year-old? However, I needed the innocence of a four-year-old girl. That was the challenge. It is true that there was no plot – just a loose idea that my daughter Maya had mentioned. I told myself, let’s see what happens, how the story unfolds if I take the child who played the role, Shahida, to the streets.
In contrast, for The Scavenger of Dreams, I had a clear-cut story in mind. In that sense it’s different from Searching…. There was no dialogue as such when I was writing The Scavenger of Dreams. The way I wanted to do the film was, I would take two extremely capable actors, Sudipta and Shardul. The rest would be non-actors. And I would try to bring them together. I needed two professional actors who would conduct the proceedings. In Searching for Happiness, though Sudipta was there, it was Shahida’s film, about a four-year-old girl. It was a more uncertain way of storytelling.
In The Scavenger of Dreams I needed the professional main actors to navigate the story I had. Yes, I didn’t have pre-written dialogues but that’s because once you have dialogues, the non-actors lose spontaneity, they can no longer be themselves. Also, I didn’t want to constrain Shardul and Sudipta, hinder their organic process through written dialogues. But in this type of film I think much more research is needed. I made them immerse themselves in their characters – they practised collecting waste, they interacted a lot with waste collectors in slums. So that the character seeps into them and then whatever emerges is basically their character speaking.
I did another thing…remember the girl, the Zomato delivery girl, who was ousted from the village because of caste issues, and Nemai-da’s (Nemai Ghosh) surreal scene where he says Jay Bhim…it was a reflection of, a comment on prevalent realities. I delved into the lives of each of these characters and brought out aspects of their lives that I could incorporate in the story. For example, I would tell Sudipta and Shardul that Asha, the delivery girl, had this problem – she was married, her husband beat her up, and so on and so forth. And I wanted that truth to come out when the shot was being taken. That is her reality. Remember how in the conversation Sudipta brings up her marriage and she cries? That is a truth I cannot get from even the most professional of actors.
I was trying to see how the truth of their lives meshes with the requirements of my script. For example, there’s Sanjoy, the waste collector whose brother had died the previous day. He cries on screen. His brother had actually died the previous day. I could not have scripted it for him to act. My effort was to bring out the truth of the character and have him react in his natural way in front of the camera.
There’s a folk song that the women sing that says ‘there are no stories without kings and queens…the poor die of starvation but the king and queen drinking water becomes news’. That’s a remarkable statement and kind of lies at the heart of the film. Tell us something about how you came about this song and how it is pertinent to the film.
It’s a song by Badal Sircar and I give all credit to Sudipta for bringing it to my attention. When she was researching for the project, I accompanied her often to the slums. We saw that during the afternoons these women sit in clusters and sing. Sudipta suggested this song – she comes from a theatre background and was aware of the work of Badal Sircar. I thought it was so apt. I told her, why don’t you sing it with them in the film? As you rightly say, it summarizes the film.
The film’s production design is a class act – the shanties, the interiors of Birju’s hut, the junkyard where we have a couple of telling sequences (the child on a swing made of tyre, Nemai Ghosh sitting against an upturned thela). Tell us about the process of creating these spaces.
The production design was the result of what I would call a jugalbandi between Monica Bhowmick and my DOP Ravi Kiran Ayyagari. Ravi was into documentary films and had been Ranjan Palit’s assistant. Everybody knows Ranjan Palit’s contribution to documentaries with Anand Patwardhan and others. So, Ravi has that eye. The visual aspect of the film owed itself to Monica and Ravi. Again, all of it, I think, came from research. The shanty was a real one, but completely overhauled by Monica who chose all the elements carefully. So that we could convey the shabbiness or the claustrophobic ambience of their lives, they even make love in that space, you know, that sequence below the bed, and all of these came out of our research. We thought of the objects that we could have in the junkyard where Nemai Ghosh sits and Munni plays on a swing.
There’s an unhurried, even pace about the narrative so that when Birju explodes in that sequence it comes as a blow to the gut even though we know that Birju has a short fuse. Tell us something about the deliberate nature of the pacing and the build-up to that sequence.
Here, I would give a lot of credit to my editor, Subhajit Singha. The film was shot in an atypical manner, providing for a lot of jump cuts. And the pacing, as you rightly point out, was important. It was necessary for the viewer to be sucked into these lives slowly, and then, you know, that scene where Shardul bursts out becomes even more effective. The languid nature of the narrative was planned from the script level but came to life on the editing table. As I said the film didn’t have pre-written dialogues and it was necessary to convey the impromptu nature through the editing. It was deliberately paced in order to soak in the audience to that milieu.
In Shardul and Sudipta you have two scalding performances – what were your inputs and interactions with them in preparing for the roles?
I have mentioned before how I wanted the actors to immerse themselves in the characters. A lot of the elements in the film came from our research, an intense process lasting months where Shardul and Sudipta went to the slums, interacted with real-life scavengers, observed how they went about their lives and work. In them I had two of the best performers in the country. I told them that I wanted honesty and truth in their performances…don’t go for anything else. They should not be sympathetic to the characters. The audience shouldn’t sympathize with their characters. But there should be empathy. That is a crucial difference, I told them.
When we were structuring the scenes, both of them had interesting insights to offer. Consider Shardul’s character, he is what we would call ‘rawg chawta’ in Bengali, a hot-headed guy. He does not think through the consequences of his words and actions, he is rude to his wife. His character comes through so well in the way Shardul walks, his body language. It isn’t a character you have sympathy for. But of course, there’s honesty and truth in the way he operates. You know, you might actually wonder why he is behaving the way he is. There are a lot of gender issues I bring about in this film, on women working and how patriarchy operates. A character is not all black or all white. I wanted them to bring out the many shades.
This is a kind of film that has more or less gone out of fashion. Bengali cinema was at the forefront of it at one time, but there’s little of that any more. Indian cinema too swears more by the RRRs and the Pathans. Under these circumstances, how does a film like this become viable? What is it that drives you to try these experiments despite the bleak environment? How do you get funding and recover costs for films like these? How do filmmakers wanting to tell personal stories like this work in the current environment?
Yes, it is a bleak scenario. There’s no doubt about that. This kind of film, dealing with the lower echelons of society in this manner, is not market-friendly. Audiences avoid watching these. It’s extremely difficult to make them work, raise money and recover the investment. But my previous experiments, namely, Peace Haven, Shyamal Uncle and Searching for Happiness, have paid off. I have been lucky.
First of all, these have to be made with extremely low budgets. Though I made them with some of the best technicians in the country, and wonderful actors, I told them that you do a film like this only if you are invested in the subject and not for any other reason. Forget about going to Busan or any other top festival or MAMI. You have to really believe in the project. I got a lot of help from my cast and crew in terms of making the project financially viable. Because I couldn’t raise money, I started off with my own money. And then luckily, I got another investor who invested in the project.
I was fortunate to get buyers for Shyamal Kaku, Peace Haven and Happiness after they became international successes. Shyamal Kaku was picked up by a distributor in North America and it was on Amazon Prime. Peace Haven was picked up by Netflix after a very successful run. Searching for Happiness is there on Hoichoi now, as are Shymal Kaku and Peace Haven. These films were made on minuscule budgets, but I didn’t compromise on the quality because of the budget. The Scavenger of Dreams too has begun with a bang on the festival circuit. That way, I have been lucky. But luck cannot stand in for a business model. I’m still trying to find a viable business model for these types of films. I don’t intend to give up. I will go on trying these.
Also, OTT platforms are reluctant about films like these. They prefer top stars and saleable subjects. So, it is a tough battle for sure. How do filmmakers engage with personal stories in the current environment? Maybe, like I am doing, taking a chance and believing in your passion. Take Mrinal Sen, for example. His films didn’t run in theatres at all, but he kept on believing in his work. Even Buddhadev Dasgupta was not successful at all theatrically. But even thirty or forty years after they made their films, these are being watched, rediscovered, analysed. There is a rich heritage of such films. I think it is important to back these. Films like these need to be sustained, promoted, keeping aside market considerations.
You are in a rare fecund phase – a film wooing international audiences (The Scavenger of Dreams), another documentary ready for release (Aparna Sen), a big film in post-production (Kabuliwala), setting up your own production house named after your daughters, and another long-cherished dream of working with Sharmila Tagore coming through in your next film. For someone almost on the verge of giving up, that’s a remarkable turnaround. How did this come about? Tell us a bit about each of these – Aparna Sen, Kabuliwala, Sharmila Tagore and the production house.
Yes, now that you put it that way, it is quite embarrassing with four films bunched up together. I had shot two of these last year, namely, the documentary on Aparna Sen and The Scavenger of Dreams. Scavenger had its world premiere at Busan recently. The documentary is supposed to have its international premiere at a very prestigious film festival. I cannot announce it now.
Kabuliwala will be released on Christmas. I use the word ‘embarrassing’ because I really believe that if you want to do a film sincerely, honestly, it is extremely difficult to do more than one film a year. I have maintained that throughout my career as a filmmaker. I feel that the main problem plaguing Bengali cinema is that the cast, crew and directors are making four or five films a year, which is bound to affect your quality. I don’t want to fall in that trap.
But as I mentioned, there are times when nothing seems to work. I went through that. I was in a slump after Aadhaar. So, it is good to have a phase when all of it is coming together. I never dreamt that Sharmila Tagore would agree to act in my film. But after Gulmohar happened, I was tempted to approach her, hoping that she would probably consider doing a Bengali film. But she was very, very adamant about the script – she had to be 100 percent impressed with the script. And when I read the script to her, she agreed. I didn’t want to delay the Sharmila Tagore project, Puratan, after that. So yes, I’m guilty of making two films this year, which I never do. And I’m trying to preserve my honesty, dedication and sincerity in each project.
The production house actually has something to do with your previous question about funding for such films. I thought that a regular producer would not fund a film like Happiness or Scavenger of Dreams. These are not marketable projects. These are experimental, and I have been lucky with them, but why would a producer put himself at risk? That’s why I decided to open my own production house and try to get funding without having to depend on other producers. That’s how Maya Leela Films happened. And in future, I want to work with other directors also through Maya Leela Films if I find interesting projects.