Rituparno Ghosh and the 'Intellectual Film' in India

Chokher Bali (2003)

Acclaimed Bengali film director Rituparno Ghosh has been referred to as the heir to legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Ghosh lives in Calcutta, where he was born and raised. He attended Jadavpur University where he studied economics. He has directed and written screenplays for 11 films, all but one in Bengali. His works include Unishe April, Dahan, Bariwali, Shubho Mahurat, Chokher Bali, and Raincoat.

Chokher Bali (A Grain of Sand), nominated for the Golden Leopard at the 2003 Locarno International Film Festival, was screened at the Asia Society on April 9, 2005, as part of the Third Annual South Asia Human Rights Film Festival. Rituparno Ghosh was in New York for the screening and this interview was conducted then.

To what extent do you think growing up in the cultural and intellectual milieu of Calcutta influenced the kind of filmmaking you came to do?

Calcutta is critically important to my upbringing as a filmmaker, as a person, as who I am today. It is not Bengal, it is Calcutta, and the distinction between the two is important. The moment we talk about Calcutta we think of Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore, but Bengal is not that, Bengal is much more than that. It is a state which has been severely affected by Partition. Compared to the other states of India, West Bengal is far more progressive and I am very proud that I live there. Unlike Bombay, for instance, Calcutta has been completely unaffected by the rise of fundamentalist movements across the country.

Because it has been the earlier capital, Calcutta has basic infrastructure, it is a vast treasure trove of knowledge: there is the National Library, which is Asia's biggest library. There is the Asiatic Society. There are a lot of important intellectual institutions and organizations in Calcutta. If you are doing any serious work which demands intellectual attention, Calcutta is the place in Bengal.

At the same time, Calcutta is not a very high-brow city. It is a very ordinary, plain city where you can mix with different kinds of people; it is not a bureaucratic city, it is not a clinical city. It is a very warm, pulsating, vibrating city, almost like New York, and certain areas of London remind me of Calcutta too. It is busy, there are people walking on the streets all the time, jostling against each other, there is constant energy and complete over-reaction to everything: when people in Calcutta are happy, they're crazy, when they're angry, they're crazy as well! In Calcutta you see everything that a Bengali has in a slightly refined and filtered form, so it makes the city very interesting.

And how were you part of the cultural life of the city as you were growing up?

I was growing up in the midst of Calcutta's leftist culture, as opposed to the right culture which ruled the rest of the country. Calcutta has been, since my consciousness awakened (in the mid- to late-'70s), a left city. I am talking about 30 years ago, so we were much less aware, now you grow up much faster, you are exposed to things much faster. When I was finishing school, television arrived in Calcutta. So since the dawn of my political awakening, there has been a left regime in Calcutta, and it was almost fashionable to be a leftist without even necessarily knowing the complexities. I studied economics and read Marx extensively for my special paper at university.

Then of course Calcutta was the city of Ray. I went to a university where there were cultural activities happening every other day. To this day, I regret having studied economics because that has been of no help to me. It has not come in handy professionally ever. I wish I had studied comparative literature, or history, or something like that. But now when I look back, what was interesting, why I do not regret my academic days, is that I was exposed to so much there. I spent five years at the university, at Jadavpur University, which was a newer, rebellious university, more culture-oriented. I saw virtually my first Ritwik Ghatak films, my first Ray films there, it was at Jadavpur that I was initiated to film. Jadavpur has its own film society, own theatre society, I saw my first Habib Tanvir there as well. So a lot of things happened in those five years at university which shaped my life.

My father was a documentary filmmaker. He was basically a painter, as was my mother, but he dabbled in filmmaking. He first made a documentary film on a famous sculptor who was his teacher. I was 14 then and I used to go to shoots with him, he was doing it in 16mm, using a hand-crank camera. The film was edited on our dining table, we had to eat elsewhere. I remember sorting out shots with him. So the whole miracle of filmmaking was demystified in front of me. I knew as a young child that it is not very difficult to become a filmmaker, you don't need to have special abilities or special training to be a filmmaker. At the age of 14 I knew what filmmaking entails: what is a rush print? How is it edited? What is a final print? When do you do mixing? What are the layers of sound? How do you mix them, how many tracks are possible? All the technicalities were clear to me because it was all happening at home. What is a sync sound? What is a foley sound? What is a non-sync sound? I knew all this.

I decided that I wanted to become a filmmaker, and unlike my father, I wanted to become a storyteller. I couldn't relate to documentaries. There were times when I had to help my father with scripting. We would discuss his script, it was like a family affair, everybody was discussing the script. My mother was a painter, she knew the sculptor who the film was being made on, so we all discussed the film. I had suggestions which my father never received very graciously because he was into hard-core documentary: what has not happened has not happened. One could not distort truth, but he also did not want to interpret truth. Later on, in hindsight, I know that I was interpreting truth, which was looked upon as distortion.

In Bengali, is it true that the word for film and book is the same? A number of your films are adaptations of novels and short stories as well.

Yes it is, the word for film and book is boi. But as far as my work is concerned, most of my films have been my own. It is true that Raincoat was an adaptation of O'Henry and Chokher Bali was a straight Tagore story. But if you have seen Raincoat, you see that it is far removed from O'Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." O'Henry's is a short, three-page story, and it is very different from the story I tell in Raincoat. In his story, Jim and Della, husband and wife, buy Christmas gifts for one another: Della has always wanted tortoise-shell combs for her hair, she has extremely long, beautiful, cascading hair, and Jim always wanted a nice chain for his watch. Jim sells his watch and buys the combs, comes home, and sees Della who has cut off her hair to buy the chain for his watch. That is O' Henry's story.

The first film I did was an adaptation, which was a children's film and it was adapted from an existing novel. My third film was adapted from a novel based on a true story. I have eleven films, Raincoat was my tenth, and now I have eleven. The most recent, called Antar Mahal (Views of the Inner Chamber) has yet to be released. So only four of my films are adaptations.

In almost all your films, as far as I know, you are both the director and the screenwriter. Is this true?

Yes, and the storywriter also. In all my films, I write my screenplays. Ray did this, Ghatak did that to an extent, Mrinal Sen does it too. I think I have a natural flair for writing and actable dialogues come to me very easily. When I'm writing the script, I'm actually constructing the film in my head. So it becomes very simple.

Most of your films have been in Bengali, yes?

Most of them, yes; in fact, apart from Raincoat, all my films have been in Bengali. Out of 11 films, 10 have been in Bengali, Raincoat is the only Hindi film I have done.

Why is that?

Because Bengali is my vernacular, and Calcutta is not that cosmopolitan. Bombay is the most cosmopolitan of India's cities. Bombayites can't speak Hindi because the city is a conglomeration of various communities and they pick up a very mixed kind of Hindi. There is no vernacular root in Bombay, very little vernacular root. But Calcutta has a very strong vernacular root, Bengali cinema is celebrated, all its libraries carry Bengali films. This is also an example that has been set in front of us: yes, you can work in your vernacular and be an international director.

I am also very comfortable with the language. Unlike a lot of people from my generation who are gradually starting to lose their vernacular roots, I am very well versed in it. I have been brought up in a very close and warm family atmosphere, my grandfather lived with us, and I had constant interaction with the extended family; it was a very warm childhood and this where I formed my roots, and my relationship to Bengali.

Do you see yourself as part of the tradition of parallel or art cinema in India?

There has been ample controversy on this issue: what is parallel cinema? What is art cinema? There was a time when people believed that such divisions should exist. Every film is not meant to please everybody. That was a valid argument. But then with the Mani Kauls and the Kumar Sahanis, film became so incomprehensible that the audience became quite disconnected. There were some esoteric directors with whom film became completely incomprehensible. That was the era when non-narrative was getting in. India is a very story-based country, it has its fables, its fairytales, it is nurtured on a whole host of stories and narrative. It has a very strong narrative tradition of its own. Suddenly non-narrative was not quite happening there. So that is why it was labeled as "art" cinema. Earlier everybody went to see films like that. Nobody had a problem seeing a Ray film. They thought they would call it an intellectual film where you have to exercise your intellect. In Calcutta, strangely, we never used this term "art" film or "parallel" cinema. The common parlance for this was intellectual film, and this was not meant to demean it at all, this was not a sarcastic remark but a genuine description. So where you have to exercise your intellect, where the film is clearly not made only for entertainment, that was the subtext of what constituted intellectual film.

To that extent, you see yourself as part of this tradition, the tradition of intellectual film in India?

Yes.

Many critics have pointed to the similarities between your Chokher Bali and Satyajit Ray's Charulata (also a Tagore adaptation). Would you go so far as to say that your film was a tribute to him?

No, I would not say so. There are portions which are tributes, yes. People only remember the opera glasses from Charulata, and the swing sequences. But in Ray the opera glasses were used for completely different reasons. In Charulata, the glasses were a window to the open world, whereas in Chokher Bali, they are used voyeuristically. There are certain things that are common between that time and this time: for instance, you can't change the four-poster bed, all Bengali cinema has used it. Just because the opera glasses came back later, hardly anybody has used them, but I have used them.

I am supposed to be somebody who belongs to Ray's school. But I am not defensive about that; I am quite pleased, very happy; I think children should look like their parents [laughs]. I am a successor of Ray and it is his cinema that we have all been brought up on.

Where I differ from Ray is the following: firstly, Chokher Bali is in color. We have not seen Charulata in color. I don't know what kind of color scheme Ray would have had in mind. In Chokher Bali, the color plays a very important role; the whole copperish tint with the red, it plays a definite role. We do not know what role color would have played in Charulata. Ghare-Baire (Home and the World), the other Tagore film that Ray has made, as a piece of cinema, or as an aesthetic piece, is a complete disaster. So therefore the comparison immediately goes to Charulata, critics do not even mention Ghare-Baire. This was another film that Ray did, it is a far more important novel, but it is considered to be one of Ray's lesser works. And I think Charulata is one of the most flawless films I have ever seen.

The whole sense of restraint in Charulata, in terms of emotions, in terms of everything, is exemplary. He was depicting one part of the culture which is the non-Hindu culture of Bengal. There was a non-idolatry religion called the Brahmo religion, and Charulata belonged to that period and context. It was the religion of the "enlightened"; all the intellectuals, virtually all agnostics, were taking up that religion. Chokher Bali on the other hand depicts a typical Hindu aristocratic household, with all its vices, its drudgery inside; for instance, the pitiable conditions of the widows were not so harsh with the Brahmos, they were far more sublime. Here it is much more hard-hitting and raw. So I think that is another difference.

Next: "I wanted to keep an unresolved ending, narratively."

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