IFFI 2018: Abyakto director Arjun Dutta on filmmakers who inspire him, and reach of Bengali cinema beyond Kolkata
Abyakto has been nominated for the Centenary Award for the Best Debut Feature Film of a Director at the ongoing International Film Festival of India (IFFI).
He watches both Ingmar Bergman and Karan Johar. He practices Nichiren Buddhism. His debut feature film is making waves in the festival circuit. And he is only in his 30s. Meet Arjun Dutta – writer, storyteller and filmmaker, whose first feature film Abyakto (The Unsaid) has garnered great praise from audiences and contemporary filmmakers alike at the recently concluded Kolkata International Film Festival. Arjun is now headed towards Goa, where Abyakto has been nominated for the Centenary Award for the Best Debut Feature Film of a Director at the International Film
Festival of India (IFFI). We chat with him on cinema in general, the filmmakers whose works inspire him, and on Abyakto.
Arjun, hearty congratulations on what is being called around the industry as one of the most poignant debuts in recent times. Tell us about your filmmaking journey. Where did you grow up? And how did you become a filmmaker?
I was born and raised in Kolkata. I finished my schooling from the Assembly of God Church school. I completed my graduation in Sociology from Maulana Azad College, and my Masters from Presidency College. I never went to a film school, nor did I have any film-related background in my family. I have not even assisted any filmmaker. Whatever I have learnt of filmmaking I have learnt myself – by doing and making mistakes.
It must have been tough?
Oh yes, it was! In fact, I remember, when I was making my first short film Main in Heaven, I faced a lot of problems, as you will imagine – because everything I knew about the process of filmmaking was just textbook knowledge – things that I had read. I was bungling everything up. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a great team though. And my parents have always been very supportive – they knew very early on that I was not cut out for a nine-to-five job. And I also practice Nichiren Buddhism, so that has helped me a lot, especially with my panic attacks and tackling stress. After my first short film, I took two years to learn and plan. Then I made my second short film The Sixth Element. It was a film about the relationship between two
women, and this time, things were relatively easier. The film did very well in the festival circuits. It was shown at the Cannes short film corner, and was even nominated at the NETPAC from
Bangladesh. That gave me the courage to write and direct my first full length feature.
Tell us a little bit about the journey of Abyakto. How did you conceive the idea, and how easy or difficult was it to get the producers, actors and crew on board?
I had written the story of Abyakto a few years ago, but I wasn’t really pitching it actively. I was busy pitching other scripts instead. As it usually happens, I was facing a number of rejections. It was then that my friend Sudeep took me to meet a producer gentleman named Tarun Das. I narrated the story to him and he was visibly moved by it. He said ‘yes’ on the spot and we began our journey. I will be ever grateful to Sudeep for his help – in fact, the title of the film too is his contribution. One by one, people kept coming on board, and I am very, very fortunate to have had such a supportive team. Everyone was extremely talented, but there’s one individual among them who deserves a special mention – and that’s my music director Soumya Rit. A highly educated and trained musician himself, his score is one of the highlights of my film.
I completely agree. The music stays with you long after the film has ended. Let us talk about the cast. Did you always have Arpita Chatterjee in mind as Sathi?
Not exactly, but I was sure in my mind that I wanted someone who would look the role both in her 30s as well as her in her 50s. Arpita fit that description remarkably well. I had also been following her work closely, and I noticed that unlike many of her contemporaries, she wasn’t appearing in every other film. She was choosing her subjects carefully. She is extremely committed to her work, and I was fortunate to have her say ‘yes’ to Sathi’s role. For that matter, Adil da (Adil Hussain) too is such a wonderful person to work with. Extremely grounded, very easy to work with. For him, the script is everything.
As a filmmaker, what kind of subjects appeal to you?
I’m a big fan of cinema, to be honest, I just love watching films – any kind of films. Bergman inspires me the most, of course. His Persona is one of my favourite films. In India, I like the work
of Satyajit Ray, I think Shakha Proshakha is my favourite among his works. I like the works of Tapan Sinha as well, and Ritu da (Rituporno Ghosh) is obviously one of my all time favourites. I
like the play of interpersonal relationships in cinema. I am really drawn to it. I wouldn’t want to make something grand, I’d rather make something small, but deep. In Abyakto too, if you think
about it, it’s a very simple story about the relationship between a mother and her son. Everything else that’s there in the film is just an add on to this central platform. I remember there was a film called The Help, starring Octavia Spencer. I had thoroughly enjoyed it. But I am equally thrilled by the cinema of Karan Johar as well.
How important do you think is it for a film to have a social message – either direct or indirect?
What is very important for me is to remember that first and foremost, the audience is coming into the theatre to be entertained. Social messages are important, of course, but one can’t set out with an agenda to send out a social message through one’s film, because it will show. I personally am not for such kind of force-feeding, if I may call it that. I could have easily promoted Abyakto around the social message it carries, but I chose not to do that. As I have been saying to everyone who has asked – it’s just a mother-son relationship story. That’s all there is to it.
What is it that you think needs to be done in order to ensure that regional language films reach out to larger audiences within the country?
We need to focus on good content. We can’t show the audience the same thing over and over again. We need original stories that are interesting, and that have a far-reaching appeal. And why just within the country? We need to make movies that will have a global reach. Anyone in the world should be able to relate to them and enjoy them. As I always say to my friend and fellow film enthusiasts – ‘Think bigger! Think outside Kolkata!’
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