In his latest film, Aditya Vikram Sengupta connects memories of his grandmother to his love for old Bengali songs and films. He casts Lolita Chatterjee, a yesteryear actress to play a character inspired by his grandmother; and Chatterjee's passing away recently only adds to the poignancy. As in his debut feature Asha Jawar Majhe (Labour of Love), a wordless, intimate study of the minutiae of the everyday life of a working class couple in Kolkata who, due to different working shifts, meet for a brief period during the dawn, Jonaki doesn't rely on dialogue (whatever little dialogue the characters speak are in a deliberately stilted, theatrical fashion). Instead, it creates a phantasmagoria.
The film is about an eighty year-old woman's reminiscences of her youth, centred on her separation with her lover (Jim Sarbh). But this is not a film about plot; it is an experience, strange and dreamlike. For instance, when we revisit a childhood scene of Jonaki being bathed by her mother (Ratnabali Bhattacharjee), we don't see her as a little girl (although the presence of a young girl in the film is bound to confuse many viewers), we see her eighty-year-old self retrofitted into that memory. Or like a magic trick, in another scene when characters exit a room, they don't leave through a door, they just reach a point and disappear into thin air. With frames that are painterly, and scenes that could be art video installations, Jonaki follows the logic of dreams.
The film had its India premiere at the India Gold section of the Mumbai Film Festival. In an interview, Sengupta spoke about the creative genesis of the film, a movie scene that changed his life, hunting for old locations in Bengal, and the connection between dreams and cinema. Edited excerpts.
Jonaki is very close to how dreams feel. Is a large part of the film from dreams you've had?
Most of it. There are three major things that put this film together. I was very close to my grandmother. She belonged to a very affluent family, her father studied in Oxford and he suddenly passed away. After that the whole family fell apart and when she was 16, she got married off to my grandfather. They shared a very cold relationship. My grandmother stayed with me, she would tell me stories about her childhood and it was always filled with pain and regret. She couldn't get over it. I would imagine these stories when I would sleep beside her at night, and I would think of them in my own way as a child. So you have this almost picture bookish quality to this film because I would imagine it in a very simplistic way. I wouldn't understand everything in it because I have never seen her mother or her father, or the house where she lives.
She was in coma for about 4 years. 4-5 months after she died, after her death sunk in, I started dreaming a lot again. I started having these strange dreams about her calling me up from the crematorium — there is a scene in the film where Jonaki is in a wheelchair and is disappearing and you can see fire in the background. I would wake up in the middle of the night with a deep, strange feeling. It was very sad, and it was very different from the kind of sadness we feel in real life. The only way you can describe it is by recreating it. All these things came together. It is a tribute to her life and death, and me coming to terms with it.
People tend to forget what they dream. Would you write them down so that you don't?
I generally remember — I remember things from my childhood: feelings, smells, atmospheres. I also forget a lot of my dreams, but if I remember after I wake up, then there is no way I am forgetting it. Even when I am awake, when we are just going about our daily life, things, which are not deliberate, just come to my head. I feel dreams are like a film that the subconscious puts together for you: there is one location, and there is a character who just does not fit in that location, and maybe it sounds completely bizarre and maybe this character is talking to a character he has never met in his life, or it could be a milkman.
In the Q n A session after the screening, you emphasised on the mystery aspect of the story. You said everyone is free to make their own meaning. Do you think this mystery is important because leaves room for the creative viewer to apply his own imagination, and as a result of which he can have a deeper involvement with the material?
I think so. Because nowadays people are used to being told everything. The phone is telling you everything. People don't use their brains at all. When you have to reach somewhere you get it on the map. There is no awareness of the surroundings. When you reach point A to B looking at google maps and on your way back if your phone stops working you realise you haven't looked at the road at all and you wont be able to come back. You don't know the shops, the trees, the posters on the wall that were there on your way. People aren't just aware of the real world anymore. And the real world has stories to offer. Everything we see around us has a story behind it. It's just us who fail to see that story. So when I make a film, I like to show and not tell… There are clues in my films, and and the audience is almost like a detective solving this puzzle.
A film that made me feel that I want to make films was Asif Kapadia's The Warrior (2001)… There was a scene, in which Irrfan turns around and holds the sword at the girl's neck. The scene changes from the desert to a snowy mountain, and he finds snow on his shoes. It really stirred something inside me….There is a moment in Asha Jawar Majhe, when Basabdutta and Ritwik's characters meet in the woods. It is a tribute to that.
Who are your favourite film directors?
I feel very embarrassed when I'm asked this question. I haven't seen any film by Bergman. I have seen only one Tarkovsky film, Ivan's Childhood, which was forcibly shown in our film studies course (which I really liked). Apart from a lot of topical books on magic or birds, I don't read much either. In fiction I have read 4-5 novels in my life. I feel it, kind of, makes me look around more. I love to see and absorb things around me. I am very close to people and humans. I am not the person who sits in the room and writes. I am a very hands-on person. I travel around the city, whatever normal people do in life, and that gives me fodder. For example, back in the day, when carpenters would build something in your house, and when there was no Pepperfry (online furniture shopping store) around, the carpenter would come to the house and stay for month. I used to get up from sleep, go to him, and I used to work with him all day. So, I love these things.
But early Bengali cinema is something I am very close to. Not just Ray, everything else, Tapan Sinha and all. A film that made me feel that I want to make films was Asif Kapadia's The Warrior (2001). My friend had seen it in the UK, and had told me that I should watch it. There was a scene, in which Irrfan turns around and holds the sword at the girl's neck. The scene changes from the desert to a snowy mountain, and he finds snow on his shoes. That scene really stirred something inside me. And I felt that this is something I really want to do. When I met Asif at the London Film Festival, I told him that it is you who actually drove me into taking this craft so seriously. There is a moment in Asha Jawar Majhe, when Basabdutta and Ritwik's characters meet in the woods. It is a tribute to that.
You also use old songs and films in Jonaki.
I have used two Bengali songs by Santidev Ghosh, and there is a song called "Georgy Girl," a track I'm very fond of because my mother used to play The Ventures instrumental version of it on the record in my childhood. It immediately transports me to that time and smell, and it's very personal. There is a film that plays in a scene in a movie theatre is Antony Firing (1967), and it's Lolita's scene that's playing.
The spaces form an integral part of Jonaki. Where are these places?
The location hunting was very rigorous. One of them was a burned down school in North Bengal. They were about to clear it out and rebuild it. But we asked them to stop, we shot there and told them that after that they can do whatever they want. We shot at a regular shooting house, Basu Bari in Kolkata but the way we saw and designed it, we made it look completely different. We found a bungalow in a jute mill near Kolkata, which was left abandoned overnight, for some reason. When we opened the doors, they said they are opening it after 20-25 years. But even then, we found a mosquito net there, one of the cupboards was open, and there were still letters and books inside. It was such a crazy experience. Jonaki (his wife), who has done the production design, was also very moved by this freezing of time that we were experiencing.
I have been very attached to old things. Old photographs, rust, moss, walls… I have grown up in a very old house. I love these things because they capture time. It comes naturally to me and it works both for and against my film. Some of my friends say that if they see any more decay in my film they are not going to work with me.