Interview Bengali

I see a little of Basundhara in me: Rituparna Sengupta on her understated character in Ahaa Re


In an exclusive interview, celebrated Bengali actress Rituparna Sengupta and filmmaker Ranjan Ghosh talk about their Ahaa Re journey.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Ranjan Ghosh’s latest film Ahaa Re (2019) undertakes a compelling exploration of relationships with all their complexities and nuances.

The film traces the journey of a Muslim chef from Bangladesh, Farhaz Choudhury (Arifin Shuvoo), as he nurses a wounded heart and comes to Kolkata, where he meets Basundhara Ganguly (Rituparna Sengupta), a Bengali home cook par excellence.

Farhaz falls in love with Basundhara, but she shuns his advances and this initiates an introspection for both characters as they seek to address certain questions within themselves.

Basundhara has a quiet, self-assured air. Her placid exterior does not convey the tumult of emotions within her. The intricately penned script allows subtle insights into her mindscape as we try to grasp what she is going through.

The character is played with remarkable sophistication by Sengupta who conveys layered emotions through a simple look or gesture. The film also gestures towards religious and age bias in relationships, only to brush them off as being quite irrelevant when it comes to the more serious business of finding love.

The film was received with thunderous applause by an adoring audience at the 14th Habitat Film Festival in New Delhi when it was screened on 22 May.

A true foodie, Ghosh, after ensuring that he gets a chicken burger and fries as a takeaway meal, spoke to Cinestaan.com along with Sengupta, who is also the film's producer. The two shared the journey of making the film and bringing a mature romance on screen. Excerpts:

You mentioned that you are a foodie, but the film has other personal resonances, of your ancestors coming from Bangladesh. How much of that was part of the journey in deciding to make the film?

Ranjan Ghosh: Very much, because, firstly, being a foodie and not being able to cook, that was a personal aspirational space I wanted to visit. I wanted to probably realize a dream which is never going to be realized — that of being a masterchef some day.

The other thing is that I have always longed to go to Bangladesh because of my ancestors. I always heard from my mother about how things were when she was a kid and then they had come here. So there was the personal connect there. And I am a romantic at heart, so it had to be a love story.

Some stories are assigned to you and some you write on your own, the characters develop on their own. This had that inspired quality to it.

The character of Basundhara is really the film's mainstay, with very little dialogue. You have to really build that sense of a character who is taking in a lot. There are little details that define her character, for example, her obsessive cleaning. It’s just a tiny reference, but why is she obsessed with cleaning? What is going on in her mind? There are all these details that come up. How did you conceptualize the character of Basundhara as this understated, quiet person who is strong in her own way?

RG: Well, I am probably saying this for the first time. Probably the character of Basundhara is inspired by traits of my mother and some experiences of my sister in her life.

So, Rituparna, I wanted to ask you that as well, because we are talking about Basundhara’s character. How hard was it for you to bring her to life? Because she is defined by her relationships and also bound by them.

Rituparna Sengupta: I am feeling so good that you have seen the film with such interest and in such detail as we have tried to bring out our performances with minimal dialogues and nuances in the situations. So, I am feeling absolutely happy that we could be successful to a point where you could realize these things.

This film is all about realization. As the journey begins, you see how a man realizes the loss of his girlfriend and how he again faces loss through another woman and this woman has also faced loss in her life. And Basundhara always felt her life is lost. And she was fighting her own demons and she could not find a way out because maybe her mind was trembling with something which she wants to accomplish, but her situation did not permit her. So that’s a very tough fight she was putting up within herself.

I think Basundhara’s whole life is within herself, it’s not about the surface. So I always feel, to answer your question about how I relate, I have always put up a fight within myself, because be it coming from a middle-class family and establishing myself....

RG: Establishing credentials [as an artiste]....

RS: With my own performance, be it my school, my results or dance performance or my responsibility to my family, I always fought that battle. When I came into the film industry, I was sort of a rebel. And then as a woman actor, that is another fight I had to put up within myself because when I came to this industry it was all male-dominated and you could hardly get any [meaty] role.

And you know, when you aspire to become a wife or a girlfriend or a mother, you are written off from this industry. They say bye bye, there is no work for you, no room for you. I wanted to make a difference in that. And that was a huge fight within me and I was not lobbied by any big producer or production house, so I was always my individual self, which was putting up that very difficult fight with everyone, be it my directors, my actors, my scripts. So, it was always a sort of quest for me.

Also, my analysis of Basundhara goes a little deeper because I am a woman and I see a bit of Basundhara in me. Maybe too much of Basundhara’s silence is not me, but the pain, the agony, the giving nature, these traits that she has, somewhere I identify with the Basundhara in me deep down. And this sort of patience, one thing I must say the film industry has taught me is patience.

RG: She [Sengupta] is immensely patient. She is very headstrong in a patient way.

RS: Yeah, I try to be patient not only in my work, not only in what I am doing as a performer, but also I have to be patient in too many things — about my own responsibilities back home and in my family, because with a lot of things the buck stops with me and I have to take huge decisions of life about me and about other people as well. So, taking charge of your own self and people around you is not a trivial job. That’s what Basundhara is also doing. And in the ownership of something, the ownership of a relationship, that’s where I found Basundhara is very much like me.

I think characters like Basundhara should be etched out because people have become too impatient, there are too many alternatives, too many options in life. If it’s not working out, let’s go our separate ways, let’s figure out what to do. You know, I am not [like that], because I come from a very different background. I come from a joint family where feeling for one another is much more important than feeling for your own self.

And that sense of a community life, of being together.

RS: There is a part of Basundhara where she is going to that orphanage and feeding the children. So she has that motherly instinct which is at a loss. I also have that feeling when I see somebody deprived or in a deplorable condition. I also try to lend a hand.

RG: Because one knows her personally, you know she has a lot of humanism in her, a lot of passion, compassion, empathy for people. She has that, otherwise koi ek director aaya ek script leke, usko film banana hai, heroine ka role hai, mai produce kyon karungi [some director comes to you with a script and wants to make a film, there’s the role of the heroine, why would she also produce the film]?

You [Sengupta] also mentioned that you didn’t want to get other producers on board because you thought the vision would get diluted.

RG: Exactly!

So you wanted to nurture the script....

RG: Absolutely. It's like a baby. Maybe that’s why she has been my Basundhara from the beginning. The moment she heard the script, she did not mention she had tears in her eyes. She wept, and wept every time she heard the script, twice, thrice, she wept every time. That does not happen to just about anyone. So probably that’s why she has been able to be Basundhara.

But isn’t it difficult to get roles like these, to find nuanced characters? What are the kind of roles that excite you?

RS: See, as actors we are very greedy. We always want to get something very different, very difficult, very interesting, very sensitive, very out-of-the-box. It’s difficult. It’s also difficult for people to always write such great characters. I always feel my character has to be something that's not seen before. Because I feel very hungry to get roles which will say something very different about me, a Rituparna who has not been seen or explored. So I always try to probe those areas and give my directors some hint that write something which will give me a high to enact.

I am a very emotional person, so I want to delve into very difficult emotions which are not seen yet and people might want to see me in a completely different avatar, like maybe in something psychological. But basically I am very fond of romantic roles. Not the typical ones. I want to see mature love. At the same time I want to challenge myself and say, what next, Rituparna? What is your next passion, your next thought? Aren’t you becoming too lazy to perform? Those kinds of thoughts always provoke me, so I am always ready to accept challenges.

Watch this space for the second and concluding part of this interview.

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Habitat Film Festival