Debuting with Podokkhep (2006), Suman Ghosh made a name for himself as an intellectually stimulating filmmaker. On the eve of the release of Basu Paribar, he talks about working with Soumitra Chatterjee, Amartya Sen, his love for literature, and his journey in cinema.
On Basu Paribar
About twenty years ago, as a PhD student at Cornell University, I read this novella by James Joyce called “The Dead.” I thought it was very cinematic, something that would lend itself well to a Bengali adaptation that Rituparno Ghosh or Aparna Sen should ideally make. The rights to Joyce became available in the public domain about five years back, and that’s when I decided to make it. Though on the face of it this is a family drama, there is a larger perspective, which is Joyce’s, providing a macro view of life that I have tried to address.
I have worked with Soumitra kaku (Chatterjee) since my first film, which fetched him the National Award. He is like a father figure, and whenever I come to Kolkata we have unending addas. So apart from working with a legend, doing a film with him is an excuse to spend more time with him. I have always been in awe of Aparna Sen. And she once told me, ‘Tumi toh Soumitrar shonge eto adda maro, amar shonge toh maro na.’ (You talk to Soumitra so much, but not with me) So, I asked, ‘You mean I can drop by anytime for an adda with Aparna Sen?’ And she said yes, ‘Of course you can.’ To be able to work with them made this film special.
I am a Calcutta boy, and studied in Don Bosco, Calcutta Boys’ School, then Presidency – where my interest in cinema as a filmmaker started taking root. While in school it was actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, Soumitra Chatterjee who captivated me. Then I went to the Delhi School of Economics for my master’s, before getting through to Cornell. I remember calling Goutam Ghose, the filmmaker, and telling him that I wanted to go to the film institute in Pune, and not to Cornell. I was a bit taken aback when he said, ‘Are you crazy? It’s one of the best universities in the world, and filmmaking is such an uncertain vocation. You can always try your hand at it later.’ After all these years, I realise the importance of what he said.
Cornell has a fantastic film department. The first time I saw through an eyepiece, a 16mm camera, it changed my world. It was at Cornell that I discovered the best of world cinema. One of the films I watched at the time which shook me up was Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It gave me an insight into the power of cinema – the possibilities it offered of exploring psychological depths. Cornell also introduced me to a genre I was not even aware of – experimental films. The films of Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren were important in shaping my cinematic language. Towards the end of my PhD, I started making the documentary on Amartya Sen.
Looking back, I realise that the stories I film are mine but the ideas originate from literature. In this instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I am attracted towards the older generation and kids. And the human lifecycle, the way in which the old become like children, fascinates me.
On Podokkhep (2006), his first film
Looking back, I realise that the stories I film are mine but the ideas originate from literature. In this instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I am attracted towards the older generation and kids. And the human lifecycle, the way in which the old become like children, fascinates me. If you notice, Soumitra’s character becomes almost childlike as the film progresses. The tree sequence, where the father and daughter go over the photo album, is a metaphor for life. That was the core idea, the larger truth I look for in a film.
On Nobel Chor (2014)
The film originated from what Amartya Sen said after Tagore’s Nobel medal went missing: that yes, it is deplorable, but we should realize that at the end of the day it is just a piece of metal. It is important to get it back but it’s more critical to ask ourselves how much of Tagore we have imbibed in our daily lives. There is a scene where Kaushik Ganguly slyly compares the ‘saleability’ of Tagore today vis-à-vis other celebrities. Mithun Chakraborty’s character has the medal but cannot sell it! Or the sequence where the goons are after Mithun, and one of them points a gun at him. He puts the portrait of Tagore in front of him and the thug cannot bring himself to shoot, because of the portrait of Thakur, ‘god’.
On Kadambari (2015)
This is my most fully realised film. If you think of the Renaissance in Bengal, I find it intriguing that someone like Kadambari becomes a part of the most illustrious family of Bengal and develops her personality to the extent of becoming Tagore’s muse. What was it about her that attracted Tagore? At the same time, she longed for acceptance, she loved Tagore in her own way, suffered pangs of jealousy after Tagore got married. Ultimately, she is trapped in a world of her own. And the last quarter of an hour, one room, one character, no dialogues, epitomises the situation she finds herself in. She had wanted to go to the party the Tagores are having, but no one comes to get her. She is alone … and silence is the most powerful tool in what is essentially a visual medium.
On The Argumentative Indian (2017), the documentary on Amartya Sen
Kaushik Basu was my PhD advisor at Cornell. And Amartya-da had been his advisor at the London School of Economics in the early 1970s. In that sense, Amartya-da was my academic grandfather. He intrigued me in many ways from my days at Presidency and DSE. Given his varied interests and achievements, in economics, philosophy, cinema, literature, he is the last of the Renaissance men – the kind we have lost in this age of specialisation.
While completing my PhD at Cornell, I met him at a party at Kaushik-da’s and asked Kaushik-da if Amartya Sen, then a Master of Trinity College, would agree to a film. Kaushik-da discussed it with him and told me that he was not averse to the idea but that he wanted to speak to me. I remember it was the day before my PhD defence, I was nervous about that, and he called me and we talked. He enquired about my economics work, and when he learned that I had my defence the next day he told me to put the phone down and concentrate on the PhD. He called me back after my defence, we spoke for over an hour, after which he gave his approval.
It was an immensely satisfying experience to see this genius up close, though making it was a logistical nightmare. You get a glimpse of the mind when he is talking about his cancer at the age of eighteen. He is never sentimental about it. He took it as a problem, something he had to solve. The doctors gave him a limited time, but he started his own research to address it. That is why I kept that sequence. Even in his interactions with Gandhi, the questions that came to his mind as an eleven-year-old – on religion and superstition – are a precursor to what was coming.
I shot the film in 2002. I could not distribute it, but in the fifteen years since, the world had changed so much. I was disturbed with a lot of these changes. I was talking to my brother in Boston about this frustration when I realized, what better a vehicle than have Amartya Sen, still championing the causes he stood for over fifty years, talk about the new world order. That’s where I picked up the thread again and it gives a fascinating view of two different epochs through one of the greatest of contemporary minds.
On Aadhar, his first Hindi film
I never had any ambition of doing a Hindi film, but for Aadhar the main character is a Jharkhandi, so it needed the language. I was impressed by Drishyam Films and what they had done in the last five years with films like Masaan and Newton. Aadhar is a pan-India concept, in the genre of Newton, but a different story. I pitched to Manish Mundhra and he said that this was exactly the type of story that Drishyam was looking for.
On his love for books
If I am in Miami, I teach at Florida Atlantic University. I love doing research in my areas of development and labour economics. As far as hobbies are concerned, well, there’s reading, reading and reading. In the last few years I have become very interested in Korean, Chinese and African literature. I love ‘discovering’ authors from all around the world – discover in the sense of getting to know well-regarded authors through their works, say, for example, Roberta Bolaño, who writes in Spanish, or the works of Korean author Han Kang and Chinese authors Mo Yan and Yan Lianke.
As far as my dream project – I have just begun work on The Poacher, an international project, an Indo-British co-production that I am excited about.