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Maybe, Mayurakshi is a subtle sarcasm on idea of ideal woman we look for: Atanu Ghosh

The Bengali filmmaker engaged in an in-depth conversation with us on the sidelines of the 13th Habitat Film Festival about his latest feature film, Mayurakshi.

Atanu Ghosh speaks at the screening of Mayurakshi at Habitat Film Festival 2018.

Prateek Rawat

Widely acclaimed director Atanu Ghosh presented his National Award-winning and Chitra Bharathi for the Best Indian Cinema Award 2018 feature film, Mayurakshi at the recently concluded 13th Habitat Film Festival 2018 in New Delhi.

Ghosh sat down with Cinestaan.com after a houseful screening of the film and discussed the motivations, complexities and simple profundities of the highly acclaimed film.

I recently saw the film Pupa at the festival. One can’t help but compare it with your film Mayurakshi because of the similarities of concerns like the ailing father, the absent mother, the son who goes to the US and the many dynamics of a typical Bengali bhadralok family set in the modern context. Could you talk about the bhadralok scenario that these films are trying to tackle by getting to the heart of the coming of a cosmopolitan modernity, its impact on the community and its familial relationships?

Actually, there has been a tussle between tradition and modernity in Bengal which has been more or less restricted to the urban enlightened class. This tussle has led to many stories. Quite a few films have been made, especially in the last decade. Mayurakshi actually deals with a peculiar situation, in the sense it is not a usual father-son story. It is not often that you find yourself in such a situation where somebody plants a character from the past and makes you react to it. The middle-aged son is being told to “marry” after two failed marriages. He is probably 50-55 with a son, and the problem is that the father is visualizing him as being 20. So, this particular aspect when pitted against a typical bhadralok community showcases the tussle this guy is facing. When he comes back, he first tries to blame the caregivers for his father’s condition. During the next phase when the father is disgusted with his beard, he goes to shave it and then decides against it. Then, he prepares himself for dealing with his illness.

How do you tackle death with old people? There is a tendency in urban Bengali society that you tend to avoid giving bad news. Death is one such bad news. So, it is quite a bit of contrast that the son ultimately acts cruel and gives his father a fake death news. The typical elitist struggle to find some escapist way to circumvent the problem and not tackle it directly, this is the issue that has come up in the film. Ultimately, the son chooses to tackle it directly and uproot it. Still there are pangs of conscience bothering him. This is an important exploration which has come back again and again in my films, like Ray of Light (Ek Phaali Rodh, 2014). There also the aspect of the peculiar hypocrisy of tackling or avoiding human crisis of the urban community is dealt with. The pure clean image that the community wants to maintain is the bone of contention in this crisis.

I use the reference of the bhadralok primarily because the father and son are quite archetypal in their characters. The father represents the quintessential bhadralok intellectual from the last century, and his degenerating mind provides a commentary on the society at large. The son’s concerns are more materialistic, his belonging to the bhadralok is a loosely based derivate of the bhadralok identity in the contemporary context. Thus, the film works on multiple levels of medical diagnostic and caregiving, metaphysical and almost allegorical take on an irrevocably changing society. In such a dynamic, I can’t help asking about the absent/present women in the film. There is the caregiver and the friend as female characters but there is a certain de-gendering there. The archetype of the absent/dead mother is a recurrent trope which represents a certain kind of figure. Then, there is Mayurakshi herself who is very interestingly placed in the film. She is almost a fiction of a degenerating mind, who becomes a real person for us as the story unfurls through allegories, idioms etc. Between the fiction and the real, she ultimately receives a fictitious ending. Neither here nor there, neither past nor present, she is the other woman who replaces the mother as a connection between the men. Could you deconstruct this dynamic of femininity and womanhood in the film to see what is happening with the women here?

It’s a very interesting aspect that you’ve told [about]. This woman, Mayurakshi, what we make out of her tends to be a little digressive through the bits and pieces we get about her through the course of the film. What we get to know of her brings out a very ideal daughter-in-law for a person who is more or less raised on certain values and adheres to certain customs. Mayurakshi has a pure soul and fits into the bill of the wife who this man wants his son to have. This dynamic brings back the conflict between tradition and modernity we were speaking of.  

Curiously, the woman who leads to Mayurakshi had been helped through a very tumultuous life of alcohol and drugs. Maybe, Mayurakshi is a subtle sarcasm on the idea of the ideal woman we look for. Probably because I didn’t want a moralistic stand on the film. Morality is quite embedded within our society. That leads us to being escapist. Certain things have been thrust upon us by our previous generation. So, here is a situation — metaphorical and metaphysical — that you can’t play safe in.

Alternately, the son shares an interesting relationship with the other woman in the film. It is one of those ‘we pick up where we left’ friendships. Curiously, this woman is married, she has a peculiar life which is given through various clues in the film. She wonders about getting dementia and how her daughter would reject her and her businessman husband would call her a bad investment. There is another connotation here that her peculiar way of life makes her act in a different way. She is not understated or an introvert, because of an inner self she wants to conceal, and an outer self she wants to project. Yet, another problem coming out of the conflict of tradition/modernity where a string is pulling you back. She is actually not a true woman since she does not reflect her personality in full.

The housekeeper represents the typical working class which has been struggling to make ends meet in urban areas, after migrating from rural areas. She is more traditional and conventional, responsible and obedient. Many viewers have asked me where they can get such a housekeeper. [laughs] There are people who say that the son has left the father in safe hands.

Cinema has always used tropes of madness and memory throughout its history. In this case, there is a psychological medical condition of dementia. When we speak of a degenerating memory, we are thinking of an absence of a conscious narrativized memory. However, when we speak of memory, it is never a linear narrative. It is some parts fiction and some parts record, called upon by different physiological or situational triggers. So, taking the idea of memory and bringing it to the father who is still wise and curiously rational even in his irrationality, you are creating a grounded trope out of dementia, unlike the usually preferred literariness of madness. The degenerating memory of the father turns the past into a haunting specter for the present where the film is firmly located. Memory almost acts like an energy or a force, which when unrestrained by dementia, it touches and disrupts everyone around the father — from the son to the other members. Could you comment on the many aspects of memory that develop — from how we conceive of it, to the way medicine thinks of it – and how it is played out in the narrative?

Actually, I feel that the subject of memory is so vast, it is less than a drop in the ocean in this film. What is interesting is the irrationality. Whenever we lose our memory, we try to reconstruct it in some way or another. There is an instance in the film where he quotes a poem and forgets it halfway. Then he reconstructs it using a very modern couplet which even the non-literary housekeeper realizes is amiss. There are some peculiarities about losing memory which we can write volumes about, but the main aspect here is the inconsistency it creates. This inconsistency is one of the prime forces which govern the passage of time for this story. That is why I stuck to the present with no flashbacks, the prime objective being that the film is entirely about the past, so my narration within the film should be restricted to the present.

Here, since the immediate memory is partially erased or is haphazard, I felt that memory is something which could be explored in different ways. We have taken one small aspect of its inconsistent nature but it’s a huge field to be dealt with in a myriad of ways. This is a subject which has got some very interesting scope for exploration, and we took a small bit of it. Still, I don’t think the intricacies of losing memory is very much there in the film because it would lose its spontaneity. People often ask me about the choice of a Gladstone reference over Tagore or other hallowed figures. I counter that when a person is losing his grip on memory, these words of wisdom come without any rhyme or reason. The only connecting bit is that the father is disgusted with his environment, reflected through the newspaper and the TV.

What I have found is that when people get old (like with my father) they reject quick transformation of images. Since, television has now become a rapid change of images, most old people disregard them. When my father was in his second stage of dementia, he enjoyed movies of a classical nature. I showed him Solaris (2002), and he was glued to the screen. He rejected flashy images. Another aspect is that whenever something strikes memory like a shock that disintegrates everything, then there is a shift in the perception of memory. For examples, when the father in the film is told that Mayurakshi is dead.

Moving from these philosophical ideas to your aesthetics, how do you manoeuver yourself when you come up with ideas, since you’ve worked as an editor, writer and director across telefilms, feature films and other formats?

I think you need to put yourself into every department of filmmaking. It happens more easily in documentaries than fiction because the latter has people (cinematographers, colourists) you can entrust certain duties to and keep yourself relatively detached. I try to maintain the close-knit involvement of the director of documentaries in my feature films as well. Probably owing to the fact that I do not have a very structured script with me when I go on a shoot.
When you are devising a scene, while writing you have certain visual ideas. With actual actors and locations, you get more concrete and focused ideas on which you can play out the technicalities and other departments. These things come up on the set. There you have to put in all your multiple selves as a cinema practitioner. You have to achieve your sequences through the eyes of an editor and a cinematographer. Except music, which doesn’t come in the moment to me. That is usually a post-shoot evaluation. I think that is how the form of my films are.

Could you comment on how the camera places itself in these quite unsuspecting corners in your films? It occupies a non-intrusive space even when it steps forward for intimate closeups. Then comes that one moment of the father looking directly at it, and the way you build up the extended metaphor of the window across three objects. It is something I have noticed in quite a few Bengali films recently.

There is an unobtrusive angle to it. It is to make it as if it is being seen by somebody. It is intimate at times, but not too intimate to dictate the audience. I find it jarring to thrust statements on the audience. I would love to work on something more immersive where the camera takes a more subjective but also an objective look. I haven’t tried that yet as all of my films follow this non-intrusive aesthetic. I mostly try to posit the camera as a chronicler of events while giving statements at times.

This particular shot you speak of is quite shocking and the interesting point is that Soumitra Chatterjee asked me about the conviction behind it. He said that I was inviting criticism [laughs]. I was willing to take the risk and it was quite worth it. Ultimately, this sort of deliberate shock within the fabric of the film, I think is also important.

I would love to make a film which stays detached all the time and for one shot it gets extremely immersive and intimate. That, I think is an important play with the form and quite fun.

Finally, what’s next?

Well, I haven’t decided yet. But something very different where I can break away from what I have done so far. There are certain issues where you can play with the form in very interesting and weird ways. So, I am looking into that possibility.

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Habitat Film Festival