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?
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."