How did you hit upon the theme of “Khashi Katha”?
I took a while to make a feature film, for lack of producers, because I have always wanted to make a film on my terms. Essentially, I find the struggle of the underdog to be a subject worth dealing with. It is an “underdog” story told by an underdog.
While researching for a documentary on women boxers, it had struck me that there is a potential for an interesting feature. Why not have the story narrated by somebody who is doomed to be slaughtered? The lowest rung in the food chain, with a philosophical outlook of life, tells the story. The voice of the castrated goat is the east Bengali dialect (the refugee community, which has been displaced and is always regarded as the classical underdog). The characters and subjects had to be minorities for effectiveness, and authenticity, since Kolkata has nearly 20 Muslim female boxers.
Did the story occur to you spontaneously? Was the similarity in narrative technique with The Arabian Nights deliberate?
I was conscious of Arabian Nights, but also very much conscious of Bengali folk tales, especially those in Thakumar Jhuli , where stories are told of talking animals (very smart ones, too). Though these tales are children’s bedtime stories, there is a universal appeal which touches every adult. The Bengali audiences in general have been brought up on easy-to-digest simple tales, and my idea was to take off from that.
You chose to depict the story of a lower-middle-class family with an ailing, forcibly retired leather craftsman father, a failed boxer son working as an enforcer for a private bank and his talented sister who is an aspiring boxer. Why is boxing a dominant motif in the story?
The community I have depicted in my film very much exists in pockets of Kolkata. Only, the bhadralok tends to look away. The reality is far grimmer, but I had to construct the world of petty crime, motivation of women boxers—to get a job in the reserved sports quota—and the current industrial scenario in the city. Boxing is also a body contact sport like no other. You hit somebody and you also get hit. No other sport is so painful. You are getting hurt deliberately. Boxing is more of a metaphor in Khashi Katha . It is not a sports film, and it is also not about winning. It is about people who, against all odds, fight to gain self-respect and self-confidence.
For all the tight pacing and crisp mise en scene, the film has a distinctly pessimistic feel. What was the reason behind this treatment?
Going by the global, national and local scenario, it is very difficult to be cheerful. However there is always a sliver of a chance that we shall overcome and hold onto our self-respect, come what may. That keeps us going. That keeps us looking forward to the next day. That is one reason why I am in awe of Ritwik Ghatak. There is tragedy. There is calamity. There is despair, but finally there is Hope. I even added songs set to contemporary rhythm rather than the mandatory Rabindrasangeet that several directors are squeezing in to pander to Bengali sentiments.
Bengali cinema today is either a pale copy of Telugu or Hindi films, or worse, a kind of pretentious artistic posturing. Do you think your kind of cinema can make people sit up and think while being entertained?
Khashi Katha has not done too well in the box office. Apart from the inept distribution and poor promotion, the film was withdrawn from the theatres when it was gradually picking up momentum. There has been a progressive regression in the audience over the years. The so-called film movement, which started in the 1950s, did not take off.
Television has also played havoc, turning the audience numb and lazy. There are marketeers who pose as critics catering to page three needs. Serious criticism is dead. Of late, we have just about discovered sex, naughty double entendres and puns which pass off for wit though a few directors are trying to give their best. Bengal has not produced any film worthy of international standard since Ray died.
What is the kind of distribution/exhibition networks available to film-makers like you today in Kolkata in particular and West Bengal in general?
See, when we are fighting for that commercial space we have to compete with the biggies. But presently, there is more supply than demand. Even Nandan, the State-owned cinema hall, refuses to screen your film beyond a week if the opening is poor. A film often picks up after the first week due to word of mouth and late reviews. Some film-makers will say a product will speak for itself, but big producers can hold onto the halls, while independent producers/distributors lose out. It has recently happened with a couple of other good films. It’s a catch-22 situation.
How do you think distribution/exhibition networks can be improved in the near future so that serious but entertaining films like yours can be seen by a large paying audience?
Okay, agreed that big commercial film need aggressive marketing because they have more at stake. But brute market forces can always be checked. The media in Bengal plays favourites, and there is always a trend to kill anything that is bold and outrageous. Largely everything works in coteries—like you scratch my back, I scratch yours.
Why did you chose film-shooting on Fuji negative over video despite the fact that film-processing laboratories are closing one after the other? Digital video will be the way films will be made now. Will it just be the advent of a new technology, or will this new technology affect the form and content in films?
I am a product of a film school and I think in terms of the big screen. A film shot in celluloid has a different look, which can only be “felt” when you experience it in a dark theatre.
There is a big debate right now all over the world on this subject. True, film is obsolete, and we tend to romanticise the past. But it is a fact that the mise en scene and the aesthetics of film are very different from digital images.
Budgetary consideration was the only reason I shot my second film, Kolkatar King , inspired by Brecht’s Three penny Opera , in the digital format.