Chokher Bali begins with a quotation from Tagore about his dissatisfaction with the end of the story: "Ever since Chokher Bali was published, I have always regretted the ending. I ought to be censured for it," he wrote. How did you interpret this, and is there any way in which you tried to bring this out in your own adaptation?
Yes, because the conclusion is completely different from the novel. In the novel, the end is quite funny: all of a sudden everybody becomes very hunky-dory, they are like a good family, and both of them go touch Binodini's feet! The two men, Mahendra and Behari: "Bhaabi [sister-in-law], please forgive me, I was mistaken." And she pardons them, and goes off to Benares and leads an ascetic life. Suddenly she becomes very clinical and antiseptic, devoid of all passion, because that is the right thing for a widow to do.
See, this is a serialized novel. Tagore started with the forbidden passion of a widow, more because of reasons of titillation, he had to draw people to read his novel because he was editing the magazine! It got a bit out of hand midway, and all the holy Brahmins, their hair went up in holy smoke [laughs] and they almost started lambasting Tagore, so he himself not being a Hindu (he was a Brahmo, what I explained earlier), decided not to fiddle too much with Hindu sentiments and restored her to the conformist, Hindu domesticity that society demanded at that time. Later on, two months before he died, when he had no stakes left, he repented, saying, "Why did I do this? Neither could I please my reader, nor could I please myself. Why did I do this?" A major criticism had come out: why did he make Binodini an adulteress, somebody craving life, if he had to banish her to a lifeless existence eventually? And he was so touched by the review, perhaps that is what he had wanted to do with her: give her more life, give her more craving, more love of life, and indulge her whole demand for life. He had not admitted it all this while, only two months before he died, he wrote, "I need to be seriously criticized for it, I deserve this criticism. I should be punished for it."
Today, when you read the novel, you can make out that this cannot be the ending. A lot of people wanted Binodini to get married to Behari. I think that would have been a solution 30 years ago when people were propagating widow remarriage, they would have been content if she were given another marital home. But in today's time, I think a woman can live on her own completely. She does not require a male surname, or title, or an appendage of any kind to help her lead her life. She has gone through relationships, she has gone through a marriage, and nothing has helped her. What has helped her to be herself is her own self and her accomplishments, her strength, her enigma. She should have gained the courage to live by herself.
In the letter she writes when she leaves, Binodini mentions her own desh, which is not "country," it should not be translated or read as country; it should be read as a space, a space or domain. The events in her life are of course taking place at the same time as the freedom struggle in which women were not included. So a woman does not have a country of her own, just as she has no surname of her own; a woman has the country of her husband, she belongs to the country of her husband, as she carries his name. But a woman can have a space. It is better for a woman not to be confined to a particular country, not to be confined to a particular identity. A male can never change his identity; a woman can. For an independent woman, therefore, I would wish to define it as space or domain. And that is what Binodini speaks of at the end.
And your ending is quite emancipatory in fact, a freeing gesture?
Yes, I thought so. I wanted to keep an unresolved ending, narratively.
The music in your films is spectacular. And in Raincoat, you have Gulzar write the lyrics.
No, I wrote all the lyrics for Raincoat except for the two wedding songs. Mathura nagarpati kahay tum gokoli jao is mine; Piya tora kaisa abhiman is mine as is Akele hum nadiya kinare. I wrote the lyrics for all these. And this is not Hindi, I don't know Hindi, I don't write in Hindi. It is Maithili, which is a conglomerate language, a mixture of Sanskrit, a little bit of Hindi, and Brijbhasha.
What kinds of musical and poetic traditions have you been informed by?
I have read a lot of poetry. Of course if you're Bengali, it is fashionable that you read poetry. You start with Lorca, and then the left poets. Allen Ginsberg, for instance, lived in Calcutta, and even though he wrote in English he was a major influence. Then the Iliad, of course. We also have some very illustrious poets in Bengali, and all that is read. Mao Tse Tung's poems are appreciated and read by everyone. So it is a real mix.
As for music, Calcutta has always had a tradition of Western classical music because of the basic settlement of the British there, as the first capital. If you go to really old, aristocratic Calcutta houses, you will find long-playing records, very high-brow music. That was the tradition. The finest Western musicians belong to Calcutta, the cellists, the violinists, they all went from Calcutta to Bombay slowly. And Tagore himself is brought up on a tradition of Western music which he gradually transformed into his own music. If you go to the core of his music, you find a strong Western classical element. The entire music in Chokher Bali is taken from Tagore songs; they are basically the Tagore interludes playing, but you can just see the largeness of the music, sense its depth and texture, and the influence of the Western classical tradition.
Also I think the classical qualities of Chokher Bali were accentuated by the music. This is something people who have not read Tagore miss out on: he has written an opera about these four characters in Chokher Bali, which is almost the same, and that forms the musical text of the film. The title music, for instance [hums] is taken from there. These four men and women, all indulging in a love play, together with a group of almost ethereal singers, it's like Midsummer Night's Dream, or an oracle, like the Greek chorus, they all sing the emotions and they see what they are doing. They come on stage and almost pre-tell you the story, the events that will follow.
In Chokher Bali I have used the musical potential almost to its fullest, more so than in others, because it demanded that. My other films are more sparse in terms of music. Raincoat, for instance, follows a much more native, plaintive kind of Indian music. We purposely made it different because it was a simple story and the music reflected that.
You have talked about Ray and Ghatak, but who else would you characterize as influences on your work?
Bergman, undoubtedly. The later Kieslowski. Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror, The Best Intentions), I love his films. Quentin Tarantino; I don't want to make films like him, but he fascinates me. Godfather can be one of the all-time bests. Abbas Kiarostami. I would like Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in that order. Sometimes Wong Kar-Wai. Pedro Almodóvar is my magical favorite. One of the jewels of world cinema, although somehow it petered away, is Like Water for Chocolate by Alfonso Arau. He has not made any other noteworthy film.
What are you working on now?
Various subjects but I am seriously contemplating doing something on the Mahabharata, the epic. And I think it is time to do that because it is constantly being misinterpreted as a religious text, which it is not, it is an epic. So I am very keen on this.
Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society