Bengali filmmaker Ranjan Ghosh on his upcoming film Ahaa Re and what he learnt from mentor Aparna Sen
Ahaa Re director Ranjan Ghosh opens up about his previous films, Hrid Majharey and Rong Beronger Korhi, and working with 'Czarina' Rituparna Sengupta.
Those watching the Bengali film industry keenly will tell you that filmmaker Ranjan Ghosh is a name that you simply cannot afford to ignore anymore. Ghosh has made two films so far – each quite different and unique from the other, and his films have a certain sensitivity that is rare in the glitz, glamour and rush of commercial Bengali cinema these days. Poignant, deliberating and always encouraging the viewers to think, his impressive brand of films is making a mark in an industry that has always welcomed newcomers and new ideas with open arms. With his new film Ahaa Re just around the corner, Ranjan Ghosh is gearing up to give us another delectable offering.
Excerpts from a detailed interview:
Q: Describe your journey to become a filmmaker.
A: The journey to filmmaking was an interesting one. I decided that I wanted to direct films when I was in my ninth or tenth standard...In fact, it was in my tenth standard that I had told my parents about it. And I was told that I could do whatever I liked after graduation. I think they did not take me very seriously at that point of time. So, when I actually joined merchant navy to earn money to support my film education that I had already planned I would surely do later, they were actually surprised. They asked me repeatedly if I was sure I wanted to take up films, to which the answer was always an emphatic ‘Yes!’ After spending five odd years traversing the globe, I joined the two-year filmmaking course at Whistling Woods in Mumbai. My specialisation was Screenwriting, and whatever I know today, I am grateful to my teachers Anjum Rajabali and Ashwini Malik. They were the very first ones who had shaped me as a screenwriter-director. And that was before I met my mentor Aparna Sen.
Q: What was the experience of working with Aparna Sen like? Tell us some of the key things you learned from her.
A: It was like another year and a half at another film school. And it continues to this day. I've known her for a decade. Working with her has been one of the high-points of my filmmaking career. She is that rare someone, other than my parents, who has shaped my worldview. Whenever I am with her, I become a sponge. Well, almost! I talk less...Listen more to whatever she has to say. And, let me assure you, you can learn a lot from that!
Some of the key things that I learnt from her — to be able to retain objectivity about your work, to keep a certain distance with it and also, perseverance, dedication, professionalism, detailing, and most importantly, the ability and willpower to do what exactly you want to do without being afraid of the result. A filmmaker needs to be fearless, and I see that so, so vividly in her. She is an intrepid director. That has rubbed off on me. And probably that contributed to my debut film later on.
Q: The story of your debut film Hrid Majharey is very Shakespearean in nature. Tell us more about the film.
A: Hrid Majharey is always special to me because it was my first baby. As a student of Physics, I was intrigued by the fact that Sir Isaac Newton used to indulge in alchemy. I wondered how someone who had discovered gravity could have such dichotomies within himself. Also, I would see a lot of my fellow students, all in our department, wearing tabeez and rings with astrological stones. At the same time, they were budding physicists. This intrigued me. It stayed with me.
Later, at Whistling Woods, while scripting my first feature film, I tried to form a story from this memory. While writing it, I found that somehow Othello had cropped into the story in a big way. There were elements from Julius Caesar and Macbeth too. I guess that was from my childhood memories of a Shakespearean introduction when my mother would be reading out to my sister from The Merchant of Venice in her study. All this happened very organically. After that, I nurtured those elements and the characters seemed to take on a life of their own and did what they were ‘destined’ to do! Destiny, free will, love, jealousy, betrayal – all important elements of any Shakespearean play form the bedrock of emotions in Hrid Majharey.
Apart from being included in the UGC Literature Archive through the ‘Shakespeare in Bengal’ project conducted by the English Department of Jadavpur University in 2014, Hrid Majharey was included in a PhD thesis, ‘Shakespeare and Indian Cinema’, at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University in 2015. In the same year, Oxford, Cambridge and the Royal Society of Arts (OCR) Examination Board enlisted the film in the syllabus for its A-Level Drama and Theatre course – the only other Indian film to feature besides Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara. It again featured in a 2016 conference on ‘Indian Shakespeares on Screen’ organised by the British Film Institute and the University of London to commemorate 400 years of the Bard’s death. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Q: You directed two big names in the industry and two extremely talented actors as leads in your first film. How was the experience working with Abir Chatterjee and Raima Sen like?
A: Ethereal! I couldn’t think of anyone other than Abir and Raima for the characters. I was a first-timer but they made me so comfortable right from the very first day they came on board. Both are absolute professionals, and while working with them, I learnt so much! Raima is a director’s actor. Abir, on the other hand, is very immersive by nature, so one had the opportunity to experience both these types of performances. Sohag Sen was our acting coach, and she was immensely helpful. There would be constant pranks on the set by Raima, while Abir was more restrained. And I was always tense. I must say I had a harrowingly good time creating Hrid Majharey.
Q: Let’s talk about your second film a bit. How did you conceive the idea for Rong Beronger Korhi?
A: After Hrid Majharey in 2014, I wasn’t getting a producer... even though the film earned a lot of praise. Finances were low, and so was my spirit, I guess. I was writing random concepts one after the other. I noticed that money had crept in, almost surreptitiously, in the stories. For example, in one, money had played an important role in the relationship between a bickering tribal couple. In another, money dictated the relationship between two poor lovers. They had to give up their love and settle for something else, but luck had altogether different things in store for them. In two other stories, we see some tragic lives with money assuming almost opposite meanings. I felt that money was the common element in all these stories — a very important element that was bringing out different emotions through these different stories. As I rewrote them, money became the central character that coloured the lives of the other characters. Then came the idea of naming the stories after colours, and hence the name Rong Beronger Korhi.
Q: The film did get embroiled in some controversy, didn’t it? What was that all about?
A: This resulted from an interview I had given to a national newspaper after my film’s screening at the NFDC Viewing Room at IFFI Goa 2017. When asked about the film’s content, I had mentioned about the stories, the names of the characters, etc. Ram and Sita were the names of two tribal characters who were applying for divorce in the first story. That story was published, and the next thing I heard was that some right-wing fringe group was up in arms against the film and wanted it banned. I was stunned because no one had actually seen the film. Just a single line of information was enough for those people to get offended. These days it has become a norm, or fashion, or compulsion, I don’t know what...to get offended. I appealed to all concerned to have patience and let the CBFC watch the film, but the fringe group sent a deputation to the CBFC Kolkata office demanding a blanket ban on the film without giving it a screening even. I was fortunate that the CBFC stood its ground, watched the film and passed it uncut without a single modification.
Q: Yes, it did get a release, finally – that too without any cuts. How was the response?
A: The theatrical response was lukewarm in the opening week because there was hardly any pre-release publicity. People didn’t know that the film was releasing. Monday onward, as the reviews started coming in, people started watching the film. Rong Beronger Korhi got positive press from almost all the leading dailies like Anandabazar Patrika, Ei Samay, Bartaman, Aajkal, Sangbad Pratidin, Citizen, Cinestaan, Firstpost, etc. But the damage — caused because of zero publicity — took its toll on the film. The first weekend was bad at the turnstiles. It was taken off the theatres just when people were becoming aware that a film called Rong Beronger Korhi had released.
Q: Your upcoming film Ahaa Re seems delicious – if one can put it that way. From the trailer, it seems to have to do a lot with food. What can you tell us about the film?
A: Yes, it is about food. But more than that, it is about love and humanism. ‘Food’ is the body, ‘Love’ is the soul. Raja, a rich Bangladeshi Muslim chef comes to Kolkata and meets Basundhara, a middle-class Hindu home delivery cook. They connect and become friends through their shared passion for food and cooking. Their story thereafter is a journey towards ‘achieving’ love.
Our lives are full of trials and tribulations, and, still, each one of us has such inspiring stories that all the externally imposed identities of caste, colour, creed, religion, and other social sanctions are rendered irrelevant. Ahaa Re explores this thought through the story of Raja and Basundhara.
Q: This is your second collaboration with Rituparna Sengupta. In fact, she was the only actor in your previous anthology film Rong Beronger Korhi who had not one but two roles. Would it be fair to say the two of you have now struck the perfect professional rhythm?
A: It was a long cherished dream to collaborate with the longest reigning female superstar of contemporary Bengali cinema. I call her the ‘Czarina’, the ‘Numero Uno of the East’. A great human being, a tremendous actor, and an intelligent entrepreneur, she’s a rare combination of sheer grit and childlike simplicity. Immensely patient, she tackles any problem with divine grace. It was a great honour to collaborate with her on Rong Beronger Korhi. And, with Ahaa Re, I have become an ardent admirer. So much to learn from someone who has already spent twenty-five years in the industry, and still going steely strong.
She is the producer of Ahaa Re, and she has pampered me silly, I must admit. The way she has supported me right from the beginning, I am indebted to her. I was not getting a producer for this film for the longest time. The script was written way back in 2015, and I was looking for funding ever since. But that wasn’t coming through because people felt there was a whiff of ‘Love Jihaad’ in the story, which I strongly disagree with. She heard the script in 2017 and came on board immediately as an actor. She too tried to get me a producer but in vain. And then, sometime in December 2017, when I was touring Rajasthan and was enroute Jodhpur from Jaisalmer, I got a call from her. She said she was producing Ahaa Re!
Q: We’ll also see Bangladeshi actor Arifin Shuvoo in the film – he comes across as a promising young man. How did he come on board?
A: I was hell bent on casting someone from Bangladesh for the role of the Dhaka Chef. I felt that casting someone from here would go against the very grain of the character, even though we have some brilliant actors here, and I did not want to compromise. Rituparna Sengupta showed me Arifin Shuvoo’s pics, I checked his interviews on YouTube, and I was instantly convinced that he could play the hero. While shooting, I was stunned by his acting prowess. And I firmly believe that the audience will share my conviction when the film releases this Friday, 22 February.
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