Tathagata Ghosh, director and screenwriter, gained recognition with Miss Man, the story of a gay man in a village. His other shorts include Dhulo and The Meat. These films are a strong mix of the personal and the political, and the technique is extraordinary. So it's inevitable that this conversation begins with a question about craft.
Congratulations Tathagata. This is a great honour. How did you develop your cinematic eye? Or let me put it this way. Can one "develop" a cinematic eye, or is it something you have to be born with?
I was always drawn to painting and writing stories from an early age. I learnt Indian classical painting, and whenever I used to write something, even a poem, I used to illustrate it. So I was a visual person from early on. In my high school days, I started publishing a quarterly magazine in Bengali with a couple of friends. I used to collect stories from well-known Bengali writers. I contributed to the magazine as well and illustrated the stories and poems. It was during this time that I thought of filming one of my stories. It felt like the illustration was crying out to me and requesting me to make it come alive by moving it. I picked up a handycam that one of my uncles used to lend for weddings, called a few friends and shot a scene from the story. I knew nothing about filmmaking then. But it just made me fall in love with cinema even more.
Before that, my love for cinema was restricted majorly to Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak or Tapan Sinha. That day, me with the handycam in hand and watching my friends act, against a setting sun by the rail track, filled me with so much strength and passion that I knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I developed my cinematic eye through moments like this, moments which made me fall in love with the art form again and again. It is my collaborators who inspire me to 'look' at things differently. It can be from an actor giving a suggestion about incorporating a little detail in the behaviour of a character or my DP asking me to frame a shot from another angle that changes the whole 'gaze'.
I feel directing is getting the right people under one roof. I always try to do that and develop myself and my 'eye' in the process. And finally, I would add that this 'eye' forms when you research or meet your subjects on whom you want to make the film. Great suggestions and views on life can come from anywhere. It has happened to me that I have travelled to a particular place to see a location for a film and suddenly a stranger there tells me something about the place that changes everything. It can be an anecdote about that place that gives me a new way to look at it or it can be about a person who might have lived in that place, which would find its way into the script. Thus, I am constantly deconstructing myself to form a unique 'cinematic eye' that is growing out of real life experiences and encounters.
You call yourself a soldier of cinema, giving a voice to the voiceless. There have been other filmmakers who have done this. What, in your opinion, sets you apart?
I heard the term 'soldier of cinema' from Werner Herzog. He calls himself that, and Herzog has been a huge influence in my life – not only for his films, but as a person. I feel I am his student, like many other filmmakers in the world. There is something sacred about the term and hence, more than a filmmaker, I call myself a 'cinema soldier' or 'cinema warrior', battling with all the obstacles that come your way as you discover the truth of a story you want to tell.
When I have visited a place, be it for casual travel or on some work, I have met new people. I love to have conversations with strangers. I start talking to them about their lives and also ask for suggestions on various crises of my own life. This might sound bizarre. But it is just to understand how they would have solved it had they been in my place. And some of them have given me simple suggestions that never occurred to me in the first place. So I let myself get inspired by them and also, in a way, make them part of my own journey. I feel like I am carrying the unfulfilled dreams and hopes of many such strangers on my shoulders. And hence, when I am writing a script, those dreams and hopes find their way in. I truly feel I involve all of them this way in my process. I do give them a voice.
I do not know if this sets me apart. But I feel this definitely gives me a very different approach to life. I love the thought of a collective dream and collective filmmaking. I can hear so many voices in my head because of this.
Is there a reason your films are set in rural Bengal?
The simple answer is that I have spent a lot of my childhood in my village. Those were my formative years. Village life has inspired me to grow as a human being. It has shown me what simplicity is. It has kept me humble and made me understand my roots. Hence, setting a film in rural Bengal is not deliberate. It is very organic. Since every story starts with our selves, I always imagine my character's journey from a village in Bengal.
I also feel that the landscape of rural India is gradually changing and it is only through my films that I can capture them as they are now. I was recently filming a short documentary in my village in Bengal, and I was astonished to see the socio-political change in the climate of the place. I visit my village annually during the Durga Puja and every year I discover a new village. So through my films I try to freeze those corners of rural Bengal that I am afraid might not be there the next year.
Miss Man is told in hallucinatory fragments. Dhulo is relatively straight storytelling. The Meat has the structure of two parallel video phone calls. Do you strive for a different style for each film?
What you say is true, but it is never a conscious choice. It happens organically as the process unfolds from scripting to production and then to post-production. It also has to do with how I am feeling at that moment when I am telling a particular story. The script of Miss Man was completely linear. But once I met my lead actor Arghya, he changed my outlook towards the film and the world that the film belongs to. I listened to his stories, and during filming the structure just changed.
The montage sequences weren't supposed to be there at all. But on the sets I saw Arghya just sitting by the riverbank lost in his world or just looking blankly out of the window… These moments felt so true and authentic that I asked my DP Tuhin to film them. I didn't know I would end up using them eventually. I realised that I am living in the world of the dreams of my protagonist, and those moments define him. Hence, I started putting together those moments almost in a trance-like state. So, I didn't come to the structure. Rather, the structure came to me.
Even for The Meat, we were all stuck in our homes during the lockdown last year. And I knew I had to tell this story because I was tremendously disturbed by the horrific images of migrant workers that we saw every day. I saw that there is only one way to do the film without stepping out of our homes – through a video call format. So I used my limitations to my advantage.
As far as Dhulo (The Scapegoat) is concerned, there was no way to tell the story other than through a simple brutal narrative style. I didn't want to beat around the bush and wanted the film to be like a straight slap on the faces of people who are creating political divide in our country. It is an expression of my anger and it can't be in any other way than a blunt, straight format.
Your films are filled with questions about identity: being gay, being Muslim, being man/woman. Is that something you think about a lot?
I do think about identity a lot. I am always asking myself a fundamental question: Who am I? And my answers are different every time. I do not know whether those answers are right or not. It is because of this that I ask those questions in my films through my characters. And I explore them as much as I can. After engagement with the audience or even my cast and crew, I try to find if my answers were correct.
Coming from a middle-class Bengali family and dealing with a lot of personal tragedies from an early age, I was always in search of my connection with the world around me whenever I felt lost or lonely. So the search for identity has always been a central theme of my films.
You cast real-life queer people in Miss Man. But the woman who plays a Muslim in The Meat is a Hindu in real life. How do you decide when this "authenticity" is important?
Representation is very important to me. I always want people from the community to represent themselves when their stories are being told. And that is why I made those casting decisions in Miss Man. I know it would have been a different film and possibly not as authentic had someone else played those characters. I didn't have to direct my actors much as a matter of fact. They just behaved. It felt like I was shooting a documentary at times. They have lived similar lives like we see on screen and hence there is so much truth in those performances. Both Arghya and Ratrish (who played the transwoman mentor character) elevated the film, as they brought so much to the plate.
I often feel that when a cis male plays a transwoman in a film, the mass often perceives that being a transwomen is all about a man dressing up in a woman's clothes. The conflict of the soul and mind is never discussed. But that's what also makes who we are. I am not taking away from the performances of anyone here. I am just saying that there are so many talents out there from the queer community that it is high time we let them be a part of their own stories.
For The Meat, we shot the film during lockdown without stepping out of our houses and I knew that I needed four actors whom I knew inside out to pull this off. I have been working with Payel Rakshit for a long time and she was cast because a lot of logistics were involved. But having said that, I feel she did a fine job. Her haunting eyes are my biggest weapons. Then again in Dhulo, I cast this wonderful actor called Ali Akram in the role of the Muslim villager. And I was glad that it worked out because Ali also made me familiar with a lot of nuances that his character should have. Be it the costumes or the make-up or even the way the character engages with others around him.
You produce your films. Do you do it deliberately or because it's difficult to find producers for indie short films?
I have done it so far with success maybe because they were shorts. I don't know if I could have done the same had they been feature films. I don't like the idea of 'seeking approvals' for my projects from others. I have been part of such meetings with people, whom I had approached for funds. But you can't imagine the kind of bizarre questions that they asked. You often start to doubt yourself in the process. Your passion can even take a hit. I also faced situations when the control over the final cut is being snatched away from you. I broke down one day when I found that unbeknownst to me, a project of mine was re-cut by a producer. And I could not do anything about it!
To avoid situations like these, I decided to produce my own films. I have full control over the film. I am not answerable to anyone. And I can do anything I want with the medium. I only owe it to myself and I am ready to own up to my mistakes and learn from them. I did what Herzog advised in an interview: "Roll up your sleeves, work as a bouncer if needed for a year, save money and make your films."
There is a beautiful line uttered by the gay protagonist of Miss Man. He says he is attracted to women, but he doesn't know whether as a man or a woman (himself). This is a very nuanced look at sexuality. How do you discover such "plot points", so to speak?
Thanks for the kind words. It is one of my favourite lines in the film, too. I discovered it from my numerous conversations with Arghya Adhikary, who played the protagonist. Before production, I conversed with him for many days. And it is during one of those conversations, I asked him this very question: Does his character truly know whether he loves the woman as a man or a woman? That's how it found its way to the script. And I feel that the line actually describes the spirit of the film, because it's two souls that fall in love and not two genders.
There's a line in Dhulo: "All I ever wanted was a happy family". That theme runs through all your films. Is this a small political statement, that you want everyone to coexist as a "family" in India?
You are absolutely right! That is exactly why that line is so important to me. That is what I wish for all my friends, family and everyone around me – just to live a happy and fulfilling life. No matter what the challenges are, we need to be united and fight the odds together. The concept of coexistence, which India was known for, is now a thing of the past. With intolerance on the rise, I am scared every day. Hence, when the protagonist in Dhulo delivers the line, I feel she is speaking on behalf of all of us. At the end of the day, our wants are simple. We might crave for something materialistic, but essentially all we want is to be happy; and someone to share the happiness with. I lost my father early and he believed in my dreams when no one else did. I miss him and hence through the concept of 'a happy family' in my cinema, I try to live those moments that I never got the opportunity to spend with him.