Writing Matters: In Conversation with Ratnottama Sengupta (Part 2)
This is the second part of the interview with Ratnottama Sengupta, national award winning journalist, writer and filmmaker, an exclusive, where she talks of not only legends like Meena Kumari and Utpal Dutta but also takes us on a journey of cinematic history and discusses the impact of social media on cinema along with more about translated books of Nabendu Ghosh.
A quick recap of the earlier interview leads us into the world of glittering Bollywood where the former Arts Editor of The Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, spent her formative years to emerge as a writer and filmmaker; her childhood amidst legendary stars; her observation as a curator of exhibitions which bring out the hidden voices of less known languages, art forms; her experiences as a biographer, author and translator.
Reader Ramashish Roy writes on our website: “Many thanks to ‘Kitaab’ for publishing this interview which portrays commendable work done by her( Ratnottama Sengupta) and most importantly it also depicts the nuances of the unforgettable golden era of Classical Hindi Cinema. Will eagerly wait for the next episode of this interview.”
Reader Antara Mondal writes: “Simply brilliant! Excellent and expansive interview…Loved the elaborate answers. Looking forward to Part 2 eagerly.”
Please enjoy the concluding part of Ratnottama Sengupta’s interview with Team Kitaab.
Team Kitaab: Your father, Nabendu Ghosh, other than being an eminent scriptwriter, was a well-known Bengali writer. Do you agree the he is a master storyteller with his pen on the pulse of the need for social, economic and political reforms? Can you tell us a little more about how relevant are the stories that you are translating to the current socio-political set up?
Ratnottama: In other words, the social, political and economic relevance of Nabendu Ghosh’s writings more than half a century after they were crafted.
Baba never let me do anything on his behalf, to ‘promote’ him. He’d say, “As long as I am there, you don’t worry about my writing. You concentrate on yours.” And by God’s grace, he lived to write till the ripe age of 90. But since he was in Bombay after 1951, and writing amid people who didn’t know Bengali, he came to be better known as a screen writer. Within a year of going to Bombay, Baba had taken a conscious decision to write screenplays on the stories and novels of other writers — if they had cinematic possibilities. For, celluloid lives only when it beams dreams and dramas of jubilation on a larger-than-life canvas. And since literature for him was ‘pointing fingers’ he continued to write about deprivations, injustices, inequities.
When I took to translating his stories, I was amazed at the wealth of social, historical, and economic documentation contained in them especially about the 1940s, which are the founding years of the nation. “Learn from those you admire but write from life around you,” his father had said to him when he started writing as a schoolboy. And he did just that and became the voice of 1940s. Quit India movement, riots before and post Partition, the Bengal Famine, these realities we more or less know about. But the rationing of clothes during WW2, the tribals’ fight for fishing rights in the wetlands of Chalan Beel now in Bangladesh, the thugees, the price paid by industrialisation in terms of family values, the corruption of morals in political life, the flights of science and the weakening of faith are some of the issues he addresses. Frankly I did not know so much wealth was lying to be tapped. And once I chanced upon it, I could guide a student of Banaras Hindu University who has just claimed a Doctorate for his work on “Contemporary Politics and the novels of Nabendu Ghosh”.
Team Kitaab: You seem to be on a revivalist journey of recounting the history of cinema and arts in India. Can you share your perceptions and views with us on the importance of such revivalism? Or, is it just a recording of history?
Ratnottama: There’s a saying in Bengali, “Whenever you see a pile of ashes, blow hard. You just might chance upon a gem beneath it.” That’s what I do – and here’s the gem I chanced upon as I prepared to participate in the Maajha House Litfest in Amritsar last November. Titled ‘Sarhad Paar: Kuchh Khoya Kuchh Paaya’, it focused on the Partition. I focused on how the Partition led to the convergence in Bombay of directors from Bengal, writers from Lucknow, lyricists from Jaipur, actors from Lahore, musicians from the Punjab, actresses and producers from Madras. They forged a common language, a common style of narrating stories, a standard formula that reached out to every nook of the country, and thus the world got Bollywood. Aren’t such heartwarming re-visits good for the world that has known only the hatred caused by the Partition?
Also, remember, a nation that does not know its own story is bound to repeat its own mistakes. Information is power, but in a world burdened with an overload of information, how many can sift or blend them to generate knowledge? That’s why the need to revisit the wisdom of our forefathers.
Team Kitaab: A few years ago, you published a translation of a novel for children written by your father about space travel and multiverses called, Me and I. I believe he wrote the book for his grandsons. Can you tell us about it?
Ratnottama: His grandson, Devottam Sengupta, translated Me and I. Nabendu Ghosh had dedicated this novel to his two grandsons, my son Devottam and my English-born nephew Nick Ghosh. It is a space travel fiction for young adults. Bengal has a rich tradition of literature for young readers, but space and time travel are less traversed zones. Satyajit Ray wrote The Alien long before ET came on screen, and he continued to pen science fiction for the young. Me and I is about doppelgängers from Twin Planets. It is not merely a fantasy. It had its seed in a science journal Baba had picked up on the book-laden College Street — and the hypothesis of the existence of a parallel or twin cosmos is now being seriously discussed. The author has also blended in philosophy and mythology too. It’s an Einstein-meets… well, Nabendu!
Team Kitaab: You scripted a short film on your father, called Mukul. Does this have to do with the protagonist of Me and I. Can you tell us a little about the film?
Ratnottama: Mukul is the protagonist of Me and I. And Mukul is also the title of a short biopic made in 2009. It was directed by my brother Subhankar Ghosh (director of the much awarded Woh Chhokri, among others) to celebrate the many creative expressions that made Baba the man he was. What’s common between these two works? The name ‘Mukul’. It was the pet name of the writer whose full name was Nabendu Bhushan – later shortened to Nabendu Ghosh.
Team Kitaab: You grew up in an atmosphere teeming with prominent Bollywood personalities. Did some incident impact your life or have a hand in making you who you are today? Can you share it with us?
Ratnottama: A string of childhood memories…
# Mohan Studios, 1962/63. Bimal Roy behind the camera, Meena Kumari in front of it. The clapper board goes ‘Benazir, Scene X Shot Y…’ A tarana (music score) sounds on the loudspeaker, and she sits up from her reclining position. “Cut!” Brights lights flood the floor. The make-up man comes and touches up the heroine’s face. The director has meanwhile conferred with his unit.
“Action!” he calls out. “Aa-aa-aaa…” the tarana rings out again.
“Cut!!!” Once again, the scene repeats itself.
After the fourth take two seven-year-olds stroll out of the floor, bored to bones. Filmmaking can be so painful!
# Indrapuri Studios, 1968. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nabendu Ghosh, Utpal Dutt, Tapas Sen and Mrinal Sen had gathered for a special preview of a film Sen had just completed for Film Finance Corporation. A 12-year-old me had tagged along. They watched in complete silence as the strict bureaucrat from a metropolis took a break from his rail board office in the Kutch backwaters, went on a wild duck shoot, was charmed by an innocent village belle and pardoned her husband, a corrupt ticket collector. The viewers were engrossed in the pristine landscape, the unspoilt villager, the incorrigible bribe-seeker. And they laughed when the quirky disciplinarian stood before a mirror, stripped, made faces, yelled and danced in joy, feeling liberated from the harness of doing the ‘right’ thing.
The New Wave in Indian Cinema had just been ushered.
# 1969. Saraswati Chandra had become a super hit in the theatres. The songs were on the radio all day long. Nutan, a familiar face I had watched in Sujata, Bandini, Milan, was an idol although we’d watch barely two films a year. So, when the lead actor of the film came home to seek a role in a film Baba was scripting, teenaged me was taken aback. Even heroes need to seek roles.
# Six-month-old Sabiha was the infant child of our neighbours, Ludy Bhabhi and Ikram Kashmiri. She was the child at the core of the family drama, Meri Bhabhi. The day after a fire scene was filmed on her, I gave a ‘Thank you’ prayer to a concept called God for keeping the little darling safe through the hazardous retakes.
# FTII, 1972/73. Sitting in the canteen, or under the ‘Bodhi Tree; watching Citizen Kane or Day for Night in their darkened auditorium; trying to understand the significance of Charulata embroidering a handkerchief or the barred railway track in Komal Gandhar; and then hearing Baba discuss Abhimaan or Raja Jani: willy nilly I was critiquing cinema of every make and size.
# 1977? Baba gives me a script from NFDC, 36 Chowringhee Lane. “Read this. What a lovely script. And it is by Aparna Sen. The actress is not sitting back on her histrionic success!”
As you can see, I grew up with an insight into the rough and tough existence of those who create magic on screen. I understood the importance of hard work; of counting pennies to make dreams come true; of the ephemeral nature of glamour; of the fluidity required to make art reach Everyman. All this has shaped my film criticism, and also the ability to script a narrative.
Team Kitaab: What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to focus on translations or making films or curating?
Ratnottama: Curation, editing and translating, filmmaking — I want to continue all three. I am myself writing a monograph on Nitin Bose and editing one on Ashok Kumar. I am completing a study of dance on the Hindi screen. And I am scripting a two-story film, Birth of a God. Curating film festivals on Gandhi, and an exhibition on ‘Pushing Barriers in the Practice of Printmaking’ are simultaneously on.
Team Kitaab: Since you have been critiquing and analysing films for a long time, how do you think cinema has changed over the decades? How do you feel cinema fares in the context of the arrival of social media and digital filmmaking?
Ratnottama: How cinema has changed over the years could be a dissertation paper, mind you!
# The three separated brothers reunited formula ruled the Hindi screen for years after Independence. Its success was driven by the nascent desire of the people to see the tripartite carving of the Indian subcontinent overruled. It has died a natural death now that nobody expects a merging of the lands.
# The Ramayana Revisited was a masked desire to cling on to the family values that were disintegrating once industrialisation and urbanisation set in.
# Mera Bharat Mahaan kind of films were needed to reassert our national pride and the greatness of our way of life when ‘Country with a Begging Bowl’ had become our image abroad.
# The Parallel Cinema incorporated the new ways of cinematic unfolding in Europe and established a break with the Bimal Roy-Guru Dutt-Mehboob Khan-Raj Kapoor kind of cinematic narrative.
# When the underworld started funding films, and democracy was faltering, vigilantism and angry young man going against the government or authority became the new mantra of success.
# Post-globalisation, when successful Indians abroad were the only stories being told at home, once again Dilwale Dulhania type of stories showed that rooted values are still the best. Likewise, when the whole world was rejecting the seniors, a success like Baghban showed that years don’t matter so much.
# The fall of Communism marked the fall of European cinema. Russian, Polish, Czech, German, Hungarian, even Swedish cinema suffered a setback and Hollywood took giant strides to enter their space. They used technology to dub their films into Tamil. Marathi, Malayali too. BUT – Bollywood withstood its ground because it did not lose touch with the home viewers nor the native mold of story-telling.
Has social media or Digital Technology changed cinema? Social media — and I mean Netflix and YouTube — has certainly transformed the cine-viewing habit. Often now viewers are opting to watch films on the large TV screen or on laptop, on the tablet, or smartphones… So, the ‘silver screen’ in a darkened auditorium has given way to multiple options and made its way into everybody’s everyday experience.
But has cinema changed its essential character, the way it did in a post holocaust or industrialised world? I don’t think so. More importantly the need for cinema has not whittled down. If anything, it has grown in our lives. Thus, animation rules a child’s life world over. The soap operas are for the retired or house-bound lives, the rom-coms for one set of people, space travel or Star War series for another set of minds. Technology has aided the making of fantasies, not put a lid on it. Because? Cinema, like literature, has human beings at its core. Men and women, big or small, rich or poor, with their loves and losses, follies and fantasies, pains and privations will remain of eternal interest to creators. For, through every little drama in a protagonist’s life, we get to know ourselves a little better.
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