Sujoy Ghosh’s Kolkata gaze

The writer-director on his new film, shooting the city of his childhood in new ways and pulp fiction influences

Sujoy Ghosh. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Sujoy Ghosh. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Sujoy Ghosh has been making films since 2003 (his debut film was Jhankaar Beats). In his small body of work, he has largely succeeded in not being pigeonholed. His last two films and the forthcoming release, however, reveal an obsession with Kolkata.

Kahaani (2012) was about a pregnant woman in search of her missing husband in an alien city, danger lurking in unlikely corners. This year’s short film Ahalya, a modern take on the eponymous mythological story, was set in a tasteful, affluent south Kolkata house. Ahead of the release of Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, the writer-director talks about his love for stories with a sense of place and his creative inspirations that range from Satyajit Ray to Hindi films. Edited excerpts from an interview:

A still from ‘Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh’.
A still from ‘Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh’.

‘Kahaani 2’ isn’t a continuation of ‘Kahaani’. The characters are new but some of the actors, including the lead played by Vidya Balan, are repeated. What is the connection between the two films?

It is not a sequel in the strict sense. We are trying to associate brand Kahaani with strong content that is ideally women-oriented. It is focused on entertaining the audience. It could also have a message, which, if the audience gets, would be great.

The film is set in Kolkata, Chandannagar and the hill station of Kalimpong in West Bengal. ‘Kahaani’ and your short film ‘Ahalya’ were set in Kolkata too. It seems more than a coincidence.

I enjoy setting my films in Kolkata and other parts of Bengal. Like Woody Allen does almost everything in New York city. I would like to find a way of making films set there, as much as it is possible without forcing it. Whether it is Ahalya or Kahaani, the trick is to present a new Kolkata every time. My characters are as believable as the world they inhabit. In Kahaani, the character of Bidya Bagchi comes to Kolkata for the first time. Everything is new for her. She sees a lot more than a person who lives there would, say, for instance, Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Teen, which I had produced. When Bidya is walking, she will turn and look at the street, the signs, its name that reads Bishwambhar lane. Whereas Bachchan will just walk past. The Kolkata in Kahaani 2 is a little different because it is a policeman’s (played by Arjun Rampal) Kolkata. He knows the nooks and crannies of the city—everywhere from South City, Tangra to Lansdowne market. Kolkata is the most noir of all noir cities. When the character is a little lost, when she doesn’t know where she has come from and where she is headed for, I can take you to a lane that seemingly doesn’t have an end and a beginning. What the Bhool Bhulaiya does to you in Lucknow, I can do that to you with a lane in Kolkata.

More than your earlier work, your films set in Kolkata have a strong sense of place. Can you tell us about the experiences you draw from?

Like many Bengali kids, I have grown up on books. In every thriller or adventure, whether it is James Hadley Chase’s Mission To Venice or Satyajit Ray’s Gangtokey Gondogol, the place is always a character. Somewhere, that got into my system. In Kahaani, for instance, an obvious reference to the Feluda movie Joi Baba Felunath (1979) was the use of the phrase “running hot water”. The guest house where Vidya’s character stays in is called Monalisa. The only reason we chose it is because to me, Monalisa means mystery. The location of the guest house, Rajani Sen Road, also happens to be where Feluda’s fictional residence is. These are very personal things. It didn’t matter what it meant to anyone else. But it informed the shot-taking, the interiors of the hotel (great job by our director of photography Setu and my assistant director Abhishek Sengupta) and it all fell into place.

I believe the source of your take on genres like fantasy, mystery and supernatural is your childhood reading as well.

I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I hadn’t read the pulp crime fiction of Swapan Kumar, detective stories of Nihar Ranjan Gupta, the children’s stories of Hemendra Kumar Roy, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Buddhadeb Guha, Sunil Ganguly. Even some Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. I never used to read the newspaper as a child. I would just fold the first page of Anandabazar Patrika and read Aranyadeb (the Bengali version of Phantom) and on Sundays, Mandrake (The Magician). There were the popular Bengali children’s magazines like Anandamela, Shuktara. I couldn’t read much of the Bengali issues of Chandamama since my father thought I am buying more books than required.

My father was benevolent about letting me read although we had a hard life—he was a taxi driver. We weren’t so poor, we were okay. My mother who was a doctor—yes, I have a disparate family—introduced me to Enid Blyton, Alistair MacLean, Tintin, Elvis Presley, The Beatles.

One of my favourite childhood memories is when my father would take me for taxi rides. It was a very cool thing to sit in front of the Ambassador. He would allow me to turn the meter. That is how I came to know the nooks and crannies of the city.

The twist in ‘Ahalya’ was very similar to, one of Ray’s short stories ‘Professor Shonku O Aschorjo Putul’ (‘Professor Shonku And The Strange Doll’), where an artist traps his guests as live miniature models.

It wasn’t deliberate. It was more of a modern take on Ramayan where Ahalya is turned into stone. I was trying to invoke the feeling of a man being stuck inside it. A stone doesn’t show any emotion, so I had to replace it with a doll. It actually came from Geeta Mera Naam (1974), starring Feroz Khan and Sadhana. There is a scene in the film where they mummify people. They would be made to sit on a chair, taken down and come out of a glass cubicle as a doll. Many people say that Kahaani has similarities with Taking Lives (2004), a film that has Angelina Jolie. I would like them to know that I have also grown up on Hindi cinema. I have seen Parveen Babi taking her stomach out and putting it back several times in Khud-Daar (1982). I also remember A.K. Hangal telling Bachchan that if you are pregnant, nobody will suspect you.

As for Ray, he is my film school. You see, we deal with the same emotions in cinema—love, hate, jealousy and so on, and that will never change. He teaches me how to tell them differently. For instance, in Nayak (1966), a girl in the train is sick and needs to take medicine. Her dad is trying to open the bottle of syrup but he just can’t do it. The cap is stuck. Enter Uttam Kumar. He tries it once and opens it in one go. He becomes a hero in the child’s eyes and, in turn, the audience’s. It’s a great way to establish the hero. And in Kahaani, you see Rana (Parambrata Chatterjee) struggling with a computer, getting increasingly frustrated, pressing all the wrong keys. When nothing seems to work you have Bidya Bagchi entering the scene. She just presses two buttons and it is working. Rana is awestruck and for the whole film she becomes his hero. These are the kind of things you learn from Ray. You don’t cut and paste. You learn the method and apply. And honestly, every time I rip off from Ray, I proudly proclaim it.


The director picks his five favourite Kolkata

Mahanadi (1994)

It’s a Tamil film that stars Kamal Haasan. I saw it only once on Doordarshan but it had a lot of impact. That is where I first saw Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district. While growing up, it was like a myth that one couldn’t ask one’s parents about. The film shows Haasan’s character go there in search of his daughter who has become a sex worker. It was like a person being thrown into another kind of jungle altogether. It provoked me; that is what art is all about.

Parineeta (2005)

It made me feel nostalgic. After a long time, we saw a full-fledged, gorgeous-looking film set in Kolkata. The way Nataraja Subramanian shot it is pleasing to the eye and Pradeep Sarkar’s eye for detail is amazing. Also, two words: Vidya Balan.

Ganga (1960)

Rajen Tarafdar’s film is about the lives of fishermen. It showed a rural Kolkata that exists within the modern city.

Agantuk (1991)

The people make the city. Ray’s Agantuk showed families I was used to seeing around me. It was a critique of the suspicious Bengali mind and questions our prejudices and our ambition to prove ourselves right. Utpal Dutt’s character, who wanted to go out there and dance with the tribals, is the change we resist.

Kharij (1982)

Mrinal Sen’s film, like Agantuk, was about these simple Kolkata folk. It is about a domestic help who loses his life, and what the family goes through following his death. It is a slice-of-life film about normal lives that expose our biases within a household—an incredible study of a city family.

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