Interview: Goutam Ghose

Inimitable storyteller

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Goutam Ghose. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Interview with film-maker Goutam Ghose, currently working on Lala, an Indo-Italian venture.

IN a world where a new deity is created every Friday, Goutam Ghose is a rarity. He prefers to wait and watch, read and write. And then finally make a film. Once, he waited almost 20 years to make Moner Manush, based on a novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. The result was a riveting film, transcending barriers of space and time. Another day, he dabbled in the ugly world of distressed beauty and cruel poetry. The result was Yatra, one of his lesser appreciated works. No project is taboo, from Shankhachil, dealing with the trauma of Partition, to Lala, his upcoming Indo-Italian co-production which tackles the plight of the displaced, the deprived and the dispossessed. Incidentally, even when he talks of Partition, it is from the less-talked-about Bangladesh angle, unlike, say, Tamas and Train to Pakistan, which highlight the trauma in Punjab. Yet, he is a much feted film-maker, winner of 16 National Awards at the last count.

Speaking to him can be an intriguing experience. One moment he is like a river in spate, and the next he is all quiet, all tranquil, almost like a sleepy stream. When he does come alive, he packs a punch, holding back very little, saying it all in his inimitable way. Excerpts from a chat with him as he plans his next films:

You got yet another National Award, your 16th, for “Shankhachil”, an Indo-Bangladesh production. What is the secret of these awards?

I don’t know. I make films. That is all I do. Other things happen. It is like music, sometimes you get minor notes, sometimes major notes. I am happy. For me, making a film, telling a story and taking it to the audience is the biggest high.

After three Indo-Bangladesh films, including the much-talked-about “Moner Manush”, you are fast becoming a truly international film-maker with your next project, the Indo-Italian project “Lala”. Can you share with us some details about the film?

I have been so busy finalising the details of Lala that I could not attend the screening of Shankachil in Delhi and other places where I am told it got very good response. As for Lala, it is an English-Hindi bilingual, though there will be a sprinkling of Italian too. We are beginning shooting in late August or early September. It is a human interest story of displacement. Built around the Narmada project, it tells the story of a hawker in Mumbai who hails from Madhya Pradesh. He has been displaced by the Narmada project and his life’s ambition is to own a piece of land for his father. We are looking for a new face to play Lala.

It seems like a rare story of displacement and deprivation in our cinema. Otherwise, we seem to be specialising in selling dreams to audiences.

Yes, the disparity between the rich and the poor is growing every year. And that is reflected in our cinema too. Our mainstream Hindi cinema is all about glamour, maybe even dreams and escapism. I always make serious cinema. We must remember that we are a nation where the number of landless has grown over the past five years to 14.5 crore. There are huge multitudes who do not own even a yard of land. That has to be shown in cinema too. Cinema has to speak serious language.

When multiplexes came into being, it was believed that serious film-makers would capitalise on the boom and make their presence felt. Why has it not happened?

Shankhachil did well at multiplexes. However, we cannot see multiplexes as one monolithic entity. In many States, there is a law governing them whereby they are supposed to show a certain percentage of regional language content. For instance, in Maharashtra and Karnataka, they have to give preference to regional films. So serious films of other languages get left out. In West Bengal, no such special attention is given to Bengali cinema, but we do have a tacit understanding with multiplex chains. The collections of my films like Shankhachil, even Moner Manush, have been fine. Even at single-screen theatres, the response has been good. But what we do need today are not multiplexes but miniplexes, those small theatres with limited seats offering only basic comfort and affordable admission rates. Not everybody can afford multiplex tickets. So we need to bring down the ticket rates. Miniplexes, with limited investment and basic amenities, can be more useful for serious cinema.

Talking of multiplexes, we seem to have lost the age of silver jubilee or golden jubilee hit films with their arrival. How do you look at that piece of nostalgia?

Yes, we have lost the age of silver jubilee hit films. Forget 25 weeks of uninterrupted run, nowadays if a film runs for 25 days, the producers and the stars celebrate. They celebrate even if the film is not a big hit because the vibes have to be good for the next film. But, frankly, for a Shah Rukh Khan or an Aamir Khan film, they recover their money in the first three weeks. The number of screens playing their films is so high because the idea is to make instant profit and not wait for six months. The stakes are too high. We are living in the age of market economy. Profit is the governing mantra.

To that extent, are you not a bit of an oddity in the entertainment industry?

Yes, maybe, I am an oddity in the commercial film industry because I make serious, contemporary films. They may not have big stars or glamour, but people cry after watching my films. We cannot underestimate our audience. Why do we go to a cinema hall? Just for entertainment or to while away time? No. I feel, people go to experience time which does not feel like time. They can see a story of a hundred years in two hours or a story of 10 minutes in two hours. That is the beauty of cinema. As a film-maker, I have always tried to give new experience to my audiences.

Commercial cinema audiences go by formula; that may or may not work. For every super hit, there are multiple failures which do not get talked about. It is speculation. It is a matter of gambling, there is no written way of making a commercially successful film. I don’t bother about all that. I make my own films. It is fine if I can convey my feelings. Sometimes there is lukewarm response, sometimes people are really moved.

Yet, your films have a consistent visual language, from “Paar” to “Yatra” to “Moner Manush” and “Shunya Awnko”. Every frame seems to speak. How do you say so much with so few words?

My films have a visual language because I visualise them. Even while writing the script and the screenplay, at every stage, I visualise my films. If you can convey through silence, you do not need dialogues. Visual poetry is beautiful in itself. All the time, I am imagining my films, conceptualising them.

Is that why you opt for international projects, transcending the language of the spoken word?

Well, it helps if you can convey without speaking, but for me, a story has to hold my attention for it to take the form of cinema. In Lala, this 14-year-old Indian boy meets an Italian writer-film-maker who is in India on an assigned project. Basically, he is here to film the parikrama around the Narmada. There is an ancient belief of doing the parikrama of 108 kilometres in three years. Here, he meets the boy and discovers that the boy’s village has been submerged because of the Narmada project. This man gets intrigued, he blends his parikrama with the story of the boy. There is a strong human story waiting to be told.

Your film has an Italian connection, which is not exactly the politically correct thing to do these days...

(Laughs) No, no, it has nothing to do with culture or politics. It has a lot to do with external affairs. And on the subject of Italian connection, we must remember our age-old ties with Italy. Students of history will remember Niccolao Manucci’s close connection with Dara Shikoh. And Manucci hailed from Venice. Our Italian connection goes beyond contemporary politics.

While you relate the tale of a boy displaced because of the Narmada project, our cinema seems to have forgotten the have-nots, the inhabitants of Bharat in the relentless bid to please urban India. How disconcerting is that at a human level?

Very disturbing. We have forgotten the proletariat; in the new age economy, it is only profit that matters. I strongly feel that this trickle-down theory is an abstract concept, completely utopian. You have to support the unprivileged, the deprived. Not just the government but even private enterprises have to come forward with welfare projects for the common people. Else, there will be conflict in society. Have you wondered why the tribal people have gone into the red corridor? It is not that they were won over overnight. It is their systematic exploitation that has taken them across the fence. As a film-maker and as a human being, I have always tried to be compassionate towards common people. We should not forget the wisdom of the common people. Tribal people know what sustainable development is better than corporate houses. They have lived with nature. For corporates, money is the most important thing, but unless you take care of nature, your profits will vanish in 10 years.

The common man knows the land, the law of the land, its ups and downs; they know how much can nature give, and when it will strike back. We have to show their stories. However, these days, I come across terms such as “feel-good” cinema. It is a very subjective term, very debatable. Feel good for whom? But then that is the beauty of cinema, in fact of the art world. It speaks various languages.

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