The critically acclaimed filmmaker spoke to us during the 13th Habitat Film Festival about his influences, filmmaking and his latest film, Rong Beronger Korhi.
There are a million similar stories everywhere because we are all connected: Filmmaker Ranjan Ghosh
New Delhi - 03 Jun 2018 9:00 IST
The recently concluded 13th Habitat Film Festival in New Delhi screened director Ranjan Ghosh’s film Rong Beronger Korhi (2018) on the penultimate day of its 10-day run.
Ranjan Ghosh is an acclaimed Bengali scriptwriter and filmmaker. He co-scripted the film Iti Mrinalini: A Unfinished Letter (2011) with filmmaker Aparna Sen, thus, becoming the only scriptwriter Sen has ever worked with as a director. His debut feature Hrid Majharey (2014) was inspired by English playwright William Shakeapeare’s plays, mainly Othello, and has been hailed as a successful adaptation of the Bard in the Bengali language. It has been included in curriculum of Shakespeare and Indian Cinema at NYU Tisch Graduate School.
Rong Beronger Korhi is his second feature film which follows an anthology of four stories revolving around the ‘colours’ of money in everyday life, and how it plays a pivotal role in life and death, and all that lies in between. Here is the conversation between Cinestaan.com and director Ghosh at the festival.
Why did you choose adaptation as the beginning of your trajectory, taking on the challenge of adapting classical texts and contextualizing them to a local culture?
I think when you reach out to classic literature — world, India or Bengal — you have this vast unexplored bodies of work. I have my own stories. I just felt while writing my first story, that it is a spin-off or is inspired by several Shakespeare plays.
I would not want to use the word adaptation for my work like the films Omkara (2006) or Haider (2014), rather it is a case of inspiration. My first film has several iconic elements from Shakespeare, but it is my own story. I have grown up reading a lot of literature — from Bengali in my childhood to world literature after my graduation (in Physics) — and when scripting a film, these influences often organically creep in. I find it quite pertinent to acknowledge these influences that are an integral part of my work.
I use the word adaptation primarily due to the massive cult-like status your first film received. I would like to talk about the regional context you come from — West Bengal.
Since these are Bengali films, the first and the foremost challenge is the bhadralok culture. Whenever you adapt Shakespeare in Bengal, you have to look up to the hallowed figure of Shakespeare. However, since I was not a student of literature, I was not in awe of Shakespeare.
I had read his works and thoroughly enjoyed them beyond a classroom set-up. Thus, I could take Shakespeare and mould him to a contemporary context where I could break that fear of adapting Shakespeare. In fact, many Jadavpur and Presidency College students asked me quite awe-struck and curiously about my daring to adapt Shakespeare for my first film and doing it quite skillfully. I told them that is probably because I don’t fear Shakespeare like the bhadralok awe and respect.
Now, if I were to adapt Feynmann’s lectures of Physics into a film, I would be quite fearful and awe-struck because of being a Physics graduate. Not having studied Shakespeare within an academic and bhadralok propriety, I had a certain fearlessness that made me work with his plays quite freely.
Speaking of fearlessness and absence of awe, were you equally fearless when you worked with Aparna Sen while co-scripting her film?
Aparna Sen is my mentor and I know her for a decade now. While working on Iti Mrinalini: An Unfinished Letter (2011), I asked her about her decision to choose me to help co-script. She said that it was due to me being a precocious young man. Apparently, that was a compliment.
Regardless, over the decade I have received a lot of advice and scolding from her. However, she has been a strong influence on my literary and cinematic sensibility. What I was a decade ago, and what I am now, I owe a lot of it to her counsel.
Apart from Aparna Sen, who has influenced you as a scriptwriter and a director, coming from the legendary filmmakers that West Bengal has given us?
Initially, we grew up on the holy triad of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. That was the first influence that made me want to be a filmmaker in class 8 or 9. After that I started watching a lot of world cinema — Hollywood, European and Indian.
I haven’t set any favourite filmmakers to avoid following any directorial style. I have been influenced by Pedro Almodovar, Steven Spielberg, Michael Haneke, Mani Ratnam, Aparna Sen, but I don’t quite follow their style of cinema, I would like to have my own style.
Coming to the film we have just watched, Rong Beronger Korhi, you decided to do an anthology film. Traditional anthology films usually work with different directors telling different stories treated in their distinctive styles. How did you structure and negotiate the coming together of the film. How did you navigate them?
My God! Your question makes it sound so difficult to do [laughs]. Well, honestly, I did not put so much of thought into it because I am a very impulsive human being. When the stories were in place, I wanted to keep it very simple. I did not want the treatment — camera or design — to complicate things.
One of the most challenging things in cinema is to take complicated matters and bring them simply to the audience. So, if you have noticed the visuals of the film, it is shot very simply. There is no camera work, so to say. You will not notice the camera, you will just notice the characters.
I believed that the stories have enough potency to hold on their own. Apart from this, I wanted to keep these stories direct as well. After the screenplay was done, Aparna Sen read it and she really liked it. She asked me what kind of visuals I was looking at. I described the visuals and the simplicity I desired, and she liked it.
Of course, achieving simplicity can not only be very difficult, but it can also generate great profundity. More complex mechanisms might not necessarily be profound.
Absolutely, because you know as they say that you should not let the camera come between the character and the audience. The moment the camera comes in between, the audience gets a little jittery. An absent camera leads to the audience immediately relating to the character.
I was also a little curious about the cosmic shots in the film. You’ve got a planetary view of the Earth, the recurring image of the turning sky which is a very temporal image, and the rattling storm of the second story, or the earthquakes in the stories. This is a curious use of cosmic imagery. What were your thoughts around this choice?
I wanted to achieve two things. Firstly, that we are all a part of the universe. These are little stories in one corner, but there are million similar stories everywhere, because it is the Mother Earth [the character of Basundhara] who is narrating these. Secondly, I wanted to connect these stories under the same roof, as they say. As you and I are talking under this roof [sky], two other people are somewhere in Brazil or elsewhere. All these are connected, us and them are connected through the sky and the moon. That is what I wanted to achieve.
The character of Basundhara is quite cheeky and playful, yet reproaching, quite like a mother. Considering the character is made of voiceover, was it difficult to achieve this multi-dimensional personality simply out of a voiceover narration?
No, it was not difficult at all. I visualized it and I looked for all those videos — copyright free ones — on the internet. I wrote the voiceover and looked for someone with a very earthy tonality in her voice. She should not sound like Aparna Sen — sophisticated and erudite. The voiceover is done by a veteran theatre actor who fit the bill of all that this voice needed to carry in its earthiness, playfulness and sadness. It was very organic and my impulsivity helped.
I get it when you say you are an impulsive director. When you’re scripting or directing, one is ideating and generally buzzing with possibilities. However, when it comes to editing, when you revaluate all that you have done, chop and hack and have pangs at letting things go, how impulsive are you then?
I am very democratic that way. The editor is allowed to kick me out of the room. I give him the entire freedom with one request that it must follow my vision and emotion. I am actually working with stalwarts from the Bengali film industry. I give them that space and they respect me for being a no-nonsense director. It is a very healthy collaboration.
Towards the end of the film, you go for the very iconic image of the Durga visarjan that we have seen in multiple films, and it is always a deeply evocative image. Why did you go for it? Was it the Bengali in you who could not resist the iconicity of it?
I could not resist in closing the film with the image. As the son plays the dhak [drum] to his mother’s visarjan [immersion] in flames, the image of the goddess’s face sinking in the water was a parallel I couldn’t not have. Very conventional and cliché, but a good cliché.
Finally, we’ve had Shakespeare and also other inspirations, what’s your next project?
So, I just completed the shoot of my next film, Ahaa Re. The title is a play on ahaar [food] and also the exclamation. It is a love story between a rich Muslim Bangladeshi chef and a Hindu home-cook in Bengal, with elements of food, set against the backdrop of Calcutta. I can just tell you that the shoot has been very decent. Shooting is like shopping, if the bazaar is good, the cooking is great. So yes, the shooting has been good
A comment on contemporary Bengali cinema and the directions its taking?
I think that the contemporary Bengali cinema is finally coming out of the huge shadows of the masters and going into new directions with renewed vigor of stories and aesthetics.