Writing Matters: In Conversation with Ratnottama Sengupta
Ratnottama Sengupta is a well-known personality in the world of media and films in India.
Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam Kadam, Me and I, That Bird Called Happiness. In 2018, she debuted as a film director with And They Made Classics, a film that captures the journey of her eminent father, an award winning screenwriter cum author, Nabendu Ghosh.
Having grown up in an atmosphere surrounded by all the Bollywood greats, Ratnottama Sengupta gave Team Kitaab an exclusive with stories of growing up amidst Bollywood legends like Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Nutan, taking us with her through her unique journey to both penmanship and films. We present her journey to you in two parts…
Team Kitaab: What made you choose your calling that of a person who writes on cinema? From what stage in your life have you been writing, especially on cinema?
Ratnottama: Sometimes, life decides your choice of calling…
I was born into a household which had books on the shelves, on the table, on the bed, underneath the bed too. I grew up ‘playing’ with books, ‘reading’ books even before I knew the alphabet, looking at the illustrations and admiring the images. Since my father was an MA in Literature, he had the cream of world literature in his ‘library’. And because he was simultaneously writing screenplays (for most of the major names of Hindi screen through 1950s-60s), he would get the film magazines and cine broadsheets too. So I grew up symbiotically connected with the parallel worlds of letters and images.
After I did my MA in English Literature, I wanted to be either a lecturer in a college or a journalist — two professions that would give me a chance to continue a life with letters. Reading books and writing out my thoughts. I applied for two jobs: As a trainee subeditor at the Indian Express and a lecturer in the National College, Bandra. It so happened that I was one month into journalism when I got an interview letter from the College. I was in a fix, so I went to Ms Homai Shroff, head of English Dept at Elphinstone College. She heard me out, then said: “What? You are already a journalist and you want to join Academics? Don’t be stupid!”
That decided it.
I must add that even in the Indian Express I was considered most suited to be with ‘Screen’ since I was the daughter of Nabendu Ghosh. On his first day there, film journalist B K Karanjia looked at me and said, “Nabendu’s daughter can’t simply sit there and cross the Ts and dot the I-s. Go out and write…”
Team Kitaab: Your father Nabendu Ghosh was an eminent scriptwriter for classics like Sujata, Bandini and Devdas and directed the much awarded and reputed Trishagni. He translated stories to scripts for the screen and expressed himself through films, would this have impacted your choice of calling? If so how?
Ratnottama: My father would go to the Mohan Studios, work on screenplays during the day, come home, have his dinner and sit down to write his own stories. But as a child all I knew was that he is a writer. I didn’t know what he was writing, and until I was in my teens, I didn’t know he wrote for films or what ‘screenplay’ is. However, I had cousins in my house — some who were art directors, some cinematographers, many who were assistants to directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Ritwik Ghatak, Sushil Majumdar or Basu Chatterjee. So, the dining table conversation always revolved around cinema.
And then, my father was teaching at the Film and Television Institute of India, so many of his students came to our house. When my brother went to study cinema I would go and spend time conversing with them in the canteen or under the ‘Bodhi Tree’. I would watch films screened in the evening and listen to the discussion that followed.
Finally, as a deeply regarded member of the National Film Development Corporation Script Committee, Baba would get scripts to assess. Many of these he would ask me, as a literature student, to go through. Many were Marathi plays being adapted to screen. Many were stories in Bengali film magazines like Ultorath. He would seek my opinion – perhaps as the lowest common denominator — about the ‘cinematic possibility’ of a story. On looking back, I realise that was my grooming in the art of cinema.
Team Kitaab: In 2001, you were given a national award for your writing on cinema. From then, you have moved on to make your own film. Can you share with us your journey from a writer of films to a director of one? Why did you choose to make a film?
Ratnottama: As is clear from what I have said so far, both writing on films and making films were a natural fallout of my birth and upbringing as the daughter of a multifaceted personality, a polyglot artist like Nabendu Ghosh. Here’s why:
As a child, I have played on studio floors. As a school girl I have seen Dilip Kumar prepare, axe in hand, for a scene where he had to run up panting. While in college I have played part of a college crowd for a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film. I grew up playing with the children of the children of directors, actors, cameramen — all of this was ‘routine’, part of our extended family life.
And then there were the ‘visitors’,so many writers, actors, assistants who were later major directors. They were simply like family — Kaku, Mama, Dada — in and out of our house. So, films were not make-believe centred on glamorous celebs, films were livelihood. And somewhere, because of the idealism nascent in the Bimal Roy school of filmmaking, the humanism that laced Baba’s literary oeuvre, and the benevolent socialism practiced in our house, cinema was Life as it told the story of Everyman to the commonest of Common Man.
Because I was steeped in cinema, writing on films came naturally. After we had watched Teesri Manzil, Mrs Bimal Roy asked me, then only in pre-teens, what I thought of it. My answer to that made her respond, “You speak like a film critic!” Yes, I was writing about the films I saw in international film festivals — if only for my dear diary. But some of those writings made my father say, “Do this more seriously. You have the makings of a writer.”
Again, it was my father who gave me one of his just published stories and said, “You should direct this film.” I have translated it as “The Story of Fatima” (in That Bird Called Happiness).
Actually, for his birth centenary, I wanted to make that film. But filmmaking is a time, money and life consuming effort. And when my father’s birth centenary was celebrated in 2017, I was not ready with a film. That’s why I decided to make And They Made Classics…Joy Bimal Roy had given me the interview he had recorded when he made Remembering Bimal Roy. I was privileged to make the hour-long documentary featuring Nabendu Ghosh 10 years after he had passed on.
Team Kitaab: Movies are a visual and aural process of immersion for most. How important is scriptwriting to creating the impact?
Ratnottama: Sight and sound, yes, but ultimately cinema employs these to tell the story of human lives. And how do you unfold emotions if not through drama. A story is the bony structure of a film. The difference between a film and a literary work is that when writing you look for emotive words, those with nuances to convey feelings. In films you have to think of visuals, which is why character casting is so important. The conflict of characters leads to drama, which is again a play of emotions — feelings that have no physical form. A screenwriter has to flesh out in visual terms what can be written on paper in a single sentence. Say, you have written, ‘All the people in the village were living happily when the invaders came…’ How will you show that? Happiness is an emotional state — how will you depict it? And if you don’t show a happy village, why should invasion spell unhappiness, sorrow, suffering?
This is why my mother described screenplay as ‘direction on paper.’
Team Kitaab: You have written a book on the erstwhile artist Krishna Reddy. Can you tell us how he fits into your area of interest?
Ratnottama: As I said earlier, I would look at the pictures in the books even before I came to the alphabet. And there were books on Art in Baba’s library — on Van Gogh, the Impressionists, the German Expressionists, the Surrealists, on Indian miniatures and folk paintings, portfolios of Tagore’s paintings and Jamini Roy… When I was in Elphinstone College, everyday my friend Bhavna and I spent a couple of hours in Jehangir Art Gallery and Cymroza – after Samovar– which opened my eyes to Contemporary Indian Art. After my Masters, as I travelled extensively in Western Europe, I got a wide exposure to the European Masters — as much in the churches and cathedrals, at Notre Dame, Sistine Chapel, St Mark’s Square, Florence, as in Louvre and Pompidou Centre, Portrait Gallery and Royal Academy and so many British Museums…
Coming to Printmaking; it is one form of expression that links art with literature. It was in Delhi that I came particularly close to this form of art practice — through the Printmakers at Lalit Kala Akademi’s Garhi Studios. And then, I met Krishna Reddy in one of his visits to Delhi — and I wrote about his art in The Times of India. What fascinated me about this artist who pioneered viscosity or multicoloured printmaking was the ease with which scientific method blended with philosophic content. Krishna Reddy (1935-2018), a product of Santiniketan, went to Paris in 1950, at a time when Europe was coming out scathed by the holocaust. Hence their artists were going away from photogenic fidelity to deconstruction, abstraction, surrealist expressionism. Krishna was on a reverse journey, so to say, as India was emerging from centuries of imperialism – foreign domination, really – and harking back to the traditions of Ajanta caves, the various miniature forms, the patachitras that flourished in the bazaars at pilgrimage centres. Krishna Reddy’s path-breaking work impacted printmaking worldwide. He made New York his home in 1975 but would return to his roots every few years. To the end, the man was so humble, down to earth, one with the universe!
All of this must have come out in some way in my feature — which is why he sought me out with a request to pen this book, Krishna’s Cosmos, published by Mapin. The book was a learning process for me. The biggest gain is that my understanding of how art is an expression of philosophic reflection on life.
Team Kitaab: You have curated a number of exhibitions and film festivals. Can you share some interesting insights on these with us?
Ratnottama: Every curation, be it an art exhibition or film festival, is born out of a desire to exemplify a line of thought. Beginning with Amrit Sagar, I have curated at least 30 exhibitions. That first one was about ‘Water’, exhibiting paintings in watercolour by artists across India. It came out of the thought that the articulation of the very word ‘Water’ gives rise to as many different even contrasting images. You may think of the pitter patter sound of the falling rain; he may think of waterlogged streets; she may think of a drought hit farmland; Tom think of the thirsty crow; Ram might think of the buffaloes soaking in shallow river… And I always think of the cry of “Paani aaya (Water’s here)!” This was the wake-up call for the tenements in Bombay of 1960. People in the neighbourhood would scramble out of their beds and their chawls (tenements for relatively less monied working class) to queue up at the community tap with buckets and pitchers to collect their day’s requirement.
‘Anaadi’, on the other hand, was about how political expediency or administrative requirement change geographical boundaries, but heritage cannot be carved. M F Husain had designed the invite cum poster for the exhibition that showcased abstract and folk paintings by Madhya Pradesh artist — in 1999, when Chhattisgarh was carved out of that state.
Film curation, likewise, illustrates several thoughts that have struck me over these 45 years of serious, professional film viewing. Take the one on Human Trafficking, done for ‘Apne Aap Women Worldwide’ with the American Centre in Kolkata. It showed the all-pervasive, worldwide trade where innocents are sold into the flesh trade, to benefit brothel owners and pimps. This trade is the third highest profit-making business after guns and drugs — and who pay with their lives, health, dignity, happiness? Women and children.
‘The Little Languages’ festival, now institutionalised by the Kolkata International Film Festival, was born out of the thought that films are made to focus on the problems faced in remote areas of Arunachal, Assam or Manipur, the western coastline of Kerala-Karnataka, in the foothills of Himalayas or the forest infested pockets of Jharkhand or Orissa where little known languages such as Sherdukpan, Rabha, Kordoba, Khorta, Santhali or Byari are used. These are generally off the radar of the national news media. But the rise of terrorism, return to village of an IT professional, triple talaq (Islamic divorce) are some of the themes these films have highlighted. Language is the vehicle of not only everyday communication, it is the mode of commerce, philosophy, songs, myths. So, when a little language dies, with it goes the poetry and proverb of a people who might not even have a script. And the UN has identified so many languages that are vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, and dying. In fact, by the end of the present century the number of spoken languages would be halved, given the growth of computerised communication and emojis!
‘Gandhi Revisited’ is the series I am currently curating for the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata and for Singapore too.
Team Kitaab: Being on juries of awards and film festivals must have been an interesting experience. What makes a film tick for you?
Ratnottama: A film critic is nothing but an initiated viewer — one who has learnt to ‘read’ films, read the visuals, images, sound effects, music, facial expressions — the stringing together of these. And also has to interpret them in the context of the politics underlying the narrative.
Being a critic, being in the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), being in a festival’s screening committee, an awards jury — all are linked in the way you look at cinema. It is an art wherein the form and content are so integrally linked that one cannot stand without the other. This is most difficult to put into effect because the expertise of so many professionals are involved. It is like a symphony where a hundred instruments give rise to one single strain. and yet, the critic has to discern the fluidity that has gone into that.
I am saying all this to explain that there never is one single factor that can make a film tick for you. The problem of illegal immigrants is different from that of senior citizens, from that of LGBT, or that of physical handicap. You wear the same glasses but not the same mindset in reviewing them.
Team Kitaab: Recently, you have been on a spate of translations. Can you tell us what books you are translating?
Ratnottama: At the moment I am translating Nabendu Ghosh stories about prostituted women. Market Price will be a collection of five stories, about how vulnerable women — widows or girls from under privileged families — are duped in the name of marriage; about the auction of virgins in Chitpore of 19th century; of the social price of WW2 on orphaned girls and the determination of a girl in a brothel to come out and make a new life. It ends with a love story — a chapter in the life of Gauhar Jaan, who lived as a mistress but was celebrated for her singing and dancing. She was the first singer recorded on 78 rpm by the Gramophone Company in India. The 600 records in ten international languages popularised Hindustani Classical music between 1902 and 1920.
To be continued next week…
Dear Reader, Please Support Kitaab!
Help promote Asian writing and writers. Become a Donor today!