Nazarband filmmaker Suman Mukhopadhyay: 'No art can be created if the artist isn’t politically aware'
Suman Mukhopadhyay — actor, filmmaker, playwright, and theatre director — talks about his film Nazarband's premiere at the recently concluded Busan Film Festival; Kolkata as a character in the story; and if all art is political.
Suman Mukhopadhyay is an actor, filmmaker, playwright, and theatre director, among other things. He also is a voracious reader who recently chose to adapt the Bengali novelist Ashapurna Devi’s Chhuti Nakoch and make the film Nazarband, which premiered at the Busan Film Festival recently. The film, starring Indira Tiwari and Tanmay Dhanania, is a story of two people, Vasanti and Chandu, recently released from jail, who find themselves navigating the bustle of Kolkata in their bid to leave the city and build new lives for themselves. Firstpost caught up with the filmmaker shortly after the film’s premiere at Busan.
First things first, why did you choose Chhuti Nakoch?
I wanted to make a tele-series on Ashapurna Devi’s works a long time ago. I had tried to make it for Doordarshan, focusing on 12 or 14 of her stories. However, it didn’t include Chuti Nakoch. The series never materialised but I obviously continued to read her stories. When I read this one, I was amazed at the way Ashapurna Devi breaks away from domesticity in the story. Her stories are set within the interiorities of the home and the family but in this story, things are happening outside domestic spaces, out on the streets. I was amazed at the tremendous cinematic potential of the story and could see a cinematic architecture emerge out of it. We read a lot of stories but some just come at you with a cinematic possibility that never leaves you. It becomes a part of your subliminal memory and haunts you. When this story refused to leave my mind, I went to Ashapurna Devi’s family and bought the rights to Chuti Nakoch, without knowing when I’d actually end up making the film. This was around 2010 or 2011.
Tell us about Chhuti Nakoch’s journey into becoming Nazarband
After I acquired the rights to the story, I started writing a rough screenplay. The South City mall had just come up in Kolkata and I remembered how that place used to be the Usha Factory. People who worked there lost their jobs and homes pretty much overnight. The slums where they lived were razed to the ground and after that, no one knew where those people went. On that same site emerged the tallest buildings for the richest people in the city. That is like a ghost of the city that got into my head and the screenplay. That sense of a past home that has now disappeared was there in the story and it all came together in my head. The story was literally attacking me from all sides.
And how did Chandu and Vasanti take shape?
I kept thinking of people who spend their lives in Kolkata but yet are considered outsiders, made to feel like forever immigrants. They are people like Chandu and Vasanti. Bengalis have a strange habit of name-calling people who are not Bengalis. They’ll call them mero, khotta...to this day! Irrespective of their class, we have a way of looking down upon people who are not Bengali. There is a strange regional power play at work here which continually marginalises these people. Even in 2020 we haven’t been able to shake that off. I decided Nazarband will be about these people. I wanted my protagonists to be two people who still haven’t been able to assimilate within this city. Consequently, it became evident that the language of the film would be Hindi.
But that isn’t the language you usually work with…
That’s why I realised I needed help writing the screenplay. My old friend, Anustup Basu teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has worked with me since Herbert. Anustup went through the script and made some edits. Then we had Asad Hussain join us, initially as the dialogue writer, but over time, he contributed a lot more to the script. That’s how the final screenplay took shape. A result of all of our labours put together.
And how did you meet Tanmay Dhanania?
For this film, I knew I needed to find actors who would become one with the crowd. I did not want people on the streets recognising them. I had seen Tanmay’s work in Brahman Naman and Garbage, and really liked him. I was in Mumbai a few years ago and decided to give him a call. We met up and spoke about the film for 20 minutes or so. Then we started talking about growing up in Kolkata, about the city, and other things. I had a feeling that he’d be able to do justice to the role.
What about Indira Tiwari?
I was in NSD directing Chekhov's Cherry Orchard and though Indira was not one of the students I was directing, she’d often hang out in my classes. Nazarband was very much brewing inside my head when I saw her; just noticing the way she looked, behaved, and carried herself, I had a feeling that she’d make a good Vasanti but I didn’t really bring it up.
So you asked both of them to appear for an audition?
No, I really don’t have faith in auditions. I don’t think you can judge an actor’s worth through a two or five-minutes-long decontextualised performance. I can’t work like that. When the film got financed and we were finalising on the cast and crew, I got in touch with Indira and Tanmay and decided to do a workshop. We all met in Kolkata and through the workshop, it became very clear to me that they were the right choices for Chandu and Vasanti. I saw them inhabit their characters. They seemed to fit right in. For the three months we filmed Nazarband, Indira didn’t wash her hair. They barely even changed out of their costumes. That level of dedication really helps a film and there is no way I would’ve known that from an audition.
And you have a British cinematographer?
Yes, Kate McDonough. Having her work with me was like having a new set of eyes looking at Kolkata in a way that I had not seen it, in spite of having grown up here. She had worked here before and every time I needed something, she’d make sure it’s done. It didn’t matter if there wasn’t enough light. If there was a shot I wanted, even in the dingiest and narrowest of lanes, she’d make sure it’d be filmed. I have never heard her say no.
The city plays such an important role in the film. It’s difficult to imagine it being set anywhere else in the world…
Yes, Kolkata is the third protagonist of the film. The architecture of the city had to be an extension of the characters’ emotional and psychological state, always lurking in the background. So the walls, the lanes, the skyscrapers became obvious reference points. The cinematic language that emerged naturally moved away from the hackneyed and iconic Kolkata visual registers. The depiction of the city had to become an extension of the characters and their emotional journey. You’ll see a lot of birds in the film; they’re as much a part of the idea of the city as much as, say, the Howrah Bridge or the Victoria Memorial. Hawks, or what we call cheel in Bengali, sparrows, and pigeons...those represent the reality of living in the city. Way more than those hackneyed symbols. This city represents a circularity of life and we always keep coming back to the same place, over and over again. That is what a lot of great literature is about.
Expanding the conversation beyond just the film, what do you think is the responsibility of a filmmaker or an artist today?
I can't take the intellectual responsibility for all filmmakers but I can talk about my own personal choice. I have had the privilege to be born in a family that has always been artistic and very politically motivated. Every artist I saw around me took their socio-political responsibility very seriously, even when I was studying Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, my entire department was geared towards a very strong political perspective of things. All that put me in a context where I came to believe that no art can be created if the artist isn’t politically aware. They have to be engaged in the political movements of their times and be voicing their concern about the prevailing political situation.
That is very evident in your plays…
All the plays that I have directed, all the films I have made, there has always been a political awareness. You see it in Herbert, Teesta Paarer Brittanto. I directed Mephisto after the Gujarat Riots. They all stem from a sense of political responsibility. I think an artist has to voice their political responsibility and engage people politically and ask them pertinent questions about the times they live in. I think that’s important and an artist, according to me, can’t be oblivious to this.
Do you see that among your colleagues today?
There are a lot of filmmakers and actors who are great professionals, but their idea of activism is a retweet or a like. There is a lack of real engagement with the society they live in. There is a need to be a part of socio-political movements, a constant effort to engage with them. I am not saying that’s all you talk about but there has to be a growing sense of political responsibility.
How important is the culture of protest to the process of creating art?
If there is a need, then yes an artist has to take to the streets and shout slogans. Then to that politics, you add your artistic sensibility or talent. I don't think the world of an artist can be devoid of politics. The mark of an artist ultimately lies in the way in which they can artistically articulate that politics in a form that is cinematically viable, artistically innovative. But the political core has to be there.
Are the political and/or creative instigations different for when you make a film and for when you direct a play?
No, the process of getting inspired is the same. When I was making Teesta Paarer Brittanto, in 2000, everyone was asking me how I could make that story into a play. If I can see the architecture of a play within a given novel, then I will mould it that way. I have always thought of a play whenever I have read Debesh Roy’s novel Teesta Paarer Brittanto, never a film. Likewise, for Herbert (the 2005 film based on Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novel of the same name), I never thought I’d make a play out of it. It came as a film to me. There is an intrinsic difference between the two mediums; I can read a text as a play and as a film.
What defines that?
I think the characters determine it for me: be it Bagharoo in Teesta Paarer Brittanto, Herbert, or Chandu and Basanti. And then the socio-political context. These two are the biggest determinants. There is an internal logic to telling a story in theatre and telling it in film. I read many disparate texts at the same time, be it Ishiguro or Rabi Shankar Bal or Garcia Marquez. Some texts just appear to you as a film, some appear as a theater. I am not saying one literature is greater than the other but one makes you want to make a film out of it, and another makes you build a performance text. There is perhaps no logic to this and if I tried to draw a logic, it’d probably be false. It is a subliminal, subconscious thing that I can’t articulate. It just hits you and provokes you to make art.
What kind of art have you been making in the pandemic?
Actually, this pandemic has made me come to a halt, to take a break. This was very important for me — this need to deal with life with a completely different perception. I was operating on a set routine which suddenly came to a complete halt. I was in Mumbai and didn't know how to deal with this. The first two weeks, I thought I’d try and finish pending projects. But I was so mentally disturbed and exhausted that I wasn’t able to do any of that. Then I decided to only read books, I completely stopped watching films. I got back to reading the classics, all works that have created paradigm shifts within the history of literature and the way we see the world. Texts I had read as a student of literature, I chose to go back to those books, figure out what it really means to read a literary text and appreciate it. This pandemic has been a time to reconstruct the basis of my knowledge for me, and re-question it.
But the virtual opening night reception at Busan must’ve been a welcome distraction?
It was amazing. The people at the Busan Film Festival were meticulous about every little thing, down to the last subtitle. I was really praying that there was no power cut and that I don’t lose internet connection during the 30-minutes-long Q&A. That’d be very embarrassing! It was such a new and strange experience to sit in India and speak to folks in South Korea watching your film, to see your face being projected on such a huge screen! They had very interesting questions, there were translators, and it was very interesting to be in that process of receiving questions from moderators and the audience, and then to have the moderators translate them and then my answers. People seemed to have loved the film, and the organisers said that they wanted to ask more questions. I could see them waving in appreciation. I think it went well and the way Busan carried out the festival and its selection process, in the middle of a pandemic, was really appreciated. The news of the film’s selection was indeed such great news amidst the pandemic, and it really helped ease my cynicism a bit.
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