Readers outside Bengal will recall Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay primarily as the creator of Apu in what is arguably one of the greatest Indian novels, Pather Panchali. It might come as a surprise to those who have read his other celebrated works and a couple of hundred classic short stories that his oeuvre also included two stories on an occult practitioner, Taranath. Bibhutibhushan’s son Taradas added twenty-odd stories, and Taranath Tantrik enjoys something of a cult status in Bengal today, in print, installation art, a graphic novel, and even a house temporarily recreated as the former tantrik’s den.
Q gives this character a new lease of life in Hoichoi’s fascinating new web series Taranath Tantrik. The series is a visual and aural delight with Q’s quirky aesthetics in full display. A triumph of production design, it gives us a glimpse of a unique world, one that has not been explored with such understanding and eye for detail onscreen.
Set in the 1940s – a box radio at a roadside shack blares news of Churchill and Stalin, Hitler and Eisenhower, the disappearance of Netaji Bose and the dropping of the atom bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the series uses the classic trope of two young friends sipping tea and discussing, with a healthy dose of scepticism, the exploits of Taranath, and then making their way to the elderly tantrik(played with visible relish by veteran actor Jayant Kripalani, all matted locks and flowing beard) who then introduces them to his world of the occult.
The series has the director’s stamp all over it. Describing the ambience and the world of a tantrik in words is one thing – but to convey the same visually without degenerating into the banal and what we generally see of screen explorations in this genre is a challenge that Q rises up to with characteristic aplomb and visual flair. This is material right up his alley and one can see that the director is having a field day, giving free rein to his imagination. We talk to the director about his fascination for the occult and the pagan, and how that shaped the vision of the series.
What is it that prompted you to take this on? It is not as if this is very well known of Bibhutibhushan’s works, at least outside Bengal.
Surojit Sen, my colleague and my partner in crime for many years, introduced me to Taranath Tantrik. We have been on the lookout for marginal characters from Bengal, especially before the emergence of the Brahmo Samaj and the thorough gentrification of Bengal because of our interest in alternative lifestyles practised in our region. Taranath was created by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, who was also instrumental in creating many a mainstream ideals and characters. So, this has been on our minds for five years and we have been doing quite a bit of research into the idea of ‘Taranath’, the idea of ‘the city-based tantrik’ and also the idea of tantrik families in rural Bengal.
Bibhutibhushan’s writings on the botanical mysticism of the Palamau region fascinated me as a child and I’ve been a fan of his non-fiction writing for a long time. When this came about, I was not surprised at all because I was aware of his interest in the paranormal and the pagan practices of Bengal and Bihar (now bordering Jharkhand). In fact, one of my favourite characters from my childhood, my father’s uncle who was a sanyasi, used to live in Ghatshila which I visited pretty often as a child with my dad. I think all this sort of came together in the series.
Why did you choose to make this as a web series rather than a film?
Well, it had the potential of a film for sure, however, over the last two years the way the narrative of the web series is overtaking the narrative of the film is fairly alarming in terms of pop culture phenomenon. I, for one, am not surprised at all and I welcome this as something that is pretty progressive. The three-act structure of film is fairly limiting and I’ve always found it stifling in my storytelling because I would like to tell a story without the conditions of strife and conflict that the three-act structure relies on. I realized that the potential of this as a series was enormous because the stories were already written as shorts and each episode was something that you could take out of individually but when looked at holistically they made even more sense.
What are the liberties you have taken with the original stories, if any?
Obviously the third dimension will add a layer to the narrative in the way that the original manuscript or the written word will be viewed through a sort of a lens and the lens will have its own impact on the narrative. That said, the major decision was to stick to Bibhutibhushan’s Taranath who is fairly radically different from Taradas’s Taranath. In the latter’s stories the character is a little different, more domestic, more urbane, less intense, and also less knowing of the ways of the tantrik world, which is not surprising since Taradas himself was not a practitioner and we don’t know exactly how much his interest was in the dark occult practices.
So, I relied heavily on Bibhutibhushan’s text and I gave special emphasis on the way women were depicted there and did my own take on it … I felt quite free and the stars were aligned and we were very mindful of the way we would approach this very intense and extremely vibrant spiritual space because that’s where I really wanted to go with it.
Consequently, I ended up making a few changes in the general narrative because we took six stories out of Taradas’s oeuvre and we used those as platforms to take-off from – particularly working with time. A big change was the depiction of Taranath’s family which Taradas had shown as a Brahminical system and I didn’t want to do that. Instead, I went with the tantrik family who were already practitioners and showed his grandfather and grandmother who play a big role in one of the stories, ‘Jwarasur’. They were serious practitioners of the art and we show through symbols and textures and structure how Taranath is carrying the legacy forward.
I’m interested and intrigued by our pagan past. I want to explore whatever is possible of this and I do not want to look at it from the cynical gaze of a rationalist urban person, which I’m not. I’m very much a believer of transgression and transcendence.
The realm of tantrik-ism is loaded with sexual and many other licences that are not allowed in the ‘normal’ space. However, the series is surprisingly muted.
There is very little serious work that has been done in terms of cinema or popular culture dealing with the subject of tantra. Whatever has happened in the last ten or fifteen years has been terribly regressive, deplorably narrow-minded, completely unethical, really bad TV. As a result, people look at it as black magic and negate the whole 2000 years of this kind of culture of different sort of physical, spiritual awakening exercise which is humanly possible. It is partially obviously due to the Brahminical system and the Aryan system overpowering everything else in the last hundred years of gentrification.
I’m interested and intrigued by our pagan past. I want to explore whatever is possible of this and I do not want to look at it from the cynical gaze of a rationalist urban person, which I’m not. I’m very much a believer of transgression and transcendence. It is my responsibility to address this as a serious subject.
Tell us something about the production design.
Design was one of the primary pegs in the construct of the idea of Taranath, because tantra is about design and even life is also about design. Sound and design are what make tantra what it is – understanding sound and design from a sublime perspective was going to be the key here. I knew from the beginning that this was going to be another exercise in design like Tasher Desh which is the last design exercise I had done on film. I wanted to actively seek out images I had created earlier and see how those would react when placed in the current context. What a lot of people do not know is that my interest in this goes back a long way when I started making Love in India and I found ‘dehotatwo’ (worshipping through one’s own body) at the end of the film. Since then I have been obsessed by this practice that is very much a part of Bengal, part of who we are. I find this practice extremely liberating and more often than not it has informed what I do and the decisions I have taken.
Your thoughts on the music and the colour palette.
Jojo and I have been long-time collaborators. He has been the sound designer for most of my films. Many of our interests overlap and that includes tantra; he has a keen interest in the paranormal. Over the years he has explored a large number of indigenous sound samples related to pagan practices, textures of ‘noise’, which is how we arrived at an electronic sound for the series. Then we started to look for the analogue component that would define the soundtrack – the one thing that would be the ‘voice’ of Taranath. It was then that I found a video on Facebook of a young boy in Calcutta, Debjit, playing a contra-bass with a bow. I had not seen anything like that anywhere. I immediately connected with him. Jojo and I worked out a four-hour studio session with him and developed a thematic ‘sound’ that could work in a melodic way, a choral way, and at the same time, be beaten down into noise and still work.
About the colour I was clear from the outset that it had to be in black and white, which would not only enhance the period feel but also bring in a sense of the ethereal to the visuals in sync with the mood I was aiming for. To that I decided on a subjective application of elements of primal colours – and red has always held a great fascination for me. At the same time my approach to colour has always been minimalist. I am scared of colours and stick to the ones I know and are friends with, the ones I know will do what I want to do. As I said, the stars were all aligned and like everything else, the music and the colour scheme too just fell into place.