Ratnottama Sengupta travels down the path of nostalgia with her ancestors, her parents, eminent writer, Nabendu Ghosh and his wife, Kanaklata
Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh of Dhaka was an advocate who had mastered in both, Sanskrit and History. And he was a kirtan singer par excellence. Both these traits have familial roots: His father was a court clerk, his cousin a doctor of those times. And all the males in the Vaishnav family — devotees of Prabhu Jagadbandhu Sundar of Faridpur — were good singers, a talent that was to continue with his sons and grandsons.
It was for his kirtans in particular that P R Das, brother of freedom fighter Chittaranjan Das (1870-1925), asked Nabadwip Chandra to join him as his junior in Patna High Court. The year was 1920. Bihar which was a part of the Bengal Presidency, was steeped in casteism. The Ahirs — Yadavs who tended cattle and sold milk — were exploited by the Bhoomihars, who were Brahmins, and if they retaliated, they were arrested and put in jails. By 1920s, the freedom movement too had gained steam but the political prisoners were also clubbed with the ‘hooligan’ Yadavs. Nabadwip Chandra fought courtroom battles to win this deprived section their political right, and came to be highly respected – a father figure for a large section of people in Bihar.
In fighting those battles Nabadwip realised one thing: the acute need for education among the so called Backward Classes. “Unless a person has education, he or she is not respected and remains vulnerable to exploitation, economic or otherwise,” he maintained. And education is best spread through mothers. Consequently he sought marriage alliances for his sons with daughters of teachers, sisters of lawyers and doctors, and — later — with undergraduates and graduates.
His elder son was married to Kalyani, the daughter of a school teacher. His third son’s wife, IA passed Sundara, was the daughter of a BA-BL – a lawyer in Bhagalpur. His fourth son’s wife, Namita was again the daughter of a teacher from Ranchi — and she was a graduate who was already teaching before she married, and did her MA after her wedding. So had Nabadwip Chandra’s daughter Rani who, after her tying the knot with Mahesh Chandra of Jorhat, completed her schooling and mastered in Economics. Further she taught in JB College, Jorhat and went on to become the vice principal whose students included Tarun Gogoi who rose to hold the high office of the Chief Minister of Assam.
In fact, Nabadwip Chandra’s own wife, Suniti Bala, was the daughter of a minister in the minor royalty of Jessore — a man who won a gold medal as one of the first matriculates of British India. His entire family was keen on education — and Suniti was not only literate, she received formal education at home before she was married at the age of 15 — which was pretty advanced for the first decade of 1900s. All her life, after child bearing, rearing kids, attending to household chores in the kitchen, she would spend her ration of leisure hours reading books and in her later years, telling stories to her grandchildren.
Nabadwip and Suniti’s second son Nabendu inherited his parents’ love for letters. And he took it to a much higher level as a writer who carved a place for himself in the history of Bengali literature and of Hindi Cinema. He started writing early, when still in middle school, as he wrote for and co-edited a handwritten magazine. Even as a teenager he would attend Sahitya Sammelans and while in College he got published in sought-after literary magazines.
But Nabendu did not stop with words alone. Along with singing kirtans, a talent he inherited from his father, he trained himself to dance in the mould of Uday Shankar. He would regularly dance and act on stage, in Patna and elsewhere in the state, and subsequently played memorable cameos in Bombay films too. Before he passed away at the full age of 91, he had penned 16 novels, 28 collections of stories, and nearly a hundred screenplays for Bollywood classics.
On January 31, 1944 he married Kanaklata. Sister of advocate Bhupendranath Ghosh from Malda. She turned out to be an architect of human lives. Kanak was born to Chandrakanta Ghosh, a landed gentry who was forward looking enough to will large tracts of agricultural land to his daughters at a time when all they were entitled to was Streedhan — jewellery given at the time of marriage. Still, his wife Dakshayani, who was ‘Karta’ — head of the Hindu joint family — after his death, decided to live a part of her sunset years in Vrindavan, the holy land of Vaishnavs.
Kanaklata had not completed her school years when she was married to Nabendu. But being a doughty soul, the 16-year-old not only read Nayak O Lekhak — Nabendu’s first published novel; she got it critiqued by an academic cousin (who later became a professor) before she consented to the marriage with a man older to her by ten years.
Kanaklata’s own education had to be shelved as she became a mother twice over; lost her first born; faced an uncertain future as Nabendu lost two successive government jobs because of his ‘seditious’ – anti-imperialist — writings; and then Partition uprooted the family that had to leave Bengal and seek livelihood in Bombay’s tinsel town. But, despite her young years, it was she who instilled in her husband the spirit to soldier on with his pen and not succumb to any compromise in his literary efforts.
She herself did not surrender her appetite for formal education to circumstances. Years after her sons and daughter had graduated from universities and she had become a grandmother thrice over, she enrolled in Open Classrooms and got her Master’s certificate in Bengali language.
In the intervening years? Her home provided a platform to umpteen writers, country cousins, sisters, nephews, nieces, even to nobodies. She was there at 2 Pushpa Colony when they wanted to pursue higher education in Bombay, or make a career in the country’s financial capital, or shine in the tinsel town. She helped to negotiate marriage proposals, and she supported in every way she could, those who sought medical intervention by specialists. Simultaneously she secured the financial future of her nuclear family by judiciously building houses and investing in government bonds.
Most of all, Kanaklata was the architect of the lives of her three offspring. Her eldest son Dipankar who, as a child, was legendary in family gatherings for his mischiefs and pranks, was groomed in Shivaji Military Preparatory School. Thereafter she ensured that he trained in Medicine at the Nil Ratan Sarkar Medical College in Kolkata. Once he became a doctor he served with Oxfam during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
This education stood him in good stead when he went to UK and joined the Royal Army Medical Corp that swung into action during skirmishes in Belize, the Carribian country in Central American land, in 1986, and again in Desert Storm, the first Gulf War of 1991. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, he was serving in Belsen, where the Nazis had set up a concentration camp sometime in 1943. He went to the minefields of Bosnia, which Princess Diana visited in 1997. In mid-1990s he was stationed in Brunei, where the British Military protects the Sultan; at the turn of the millennium, he was in Cyprus, which the British forces use as base for both military and humanitarian operations in the region that often saw dissonance. What a rich life of experiences in helping the injured and ailing!
At her insistence, Kanaklata’s second son Subhankar was trained in direction at the Film and Television Institute of India. He came out to be Associate Director of Damul (1984). He rose to partner his father in the making of the classic, Trishagni (1989), to direct the National award winning Woh Chhokri (1993). With teleserials like Yugantar, Nishkriti and Dances of India showing on Doordarshan he was a name to reckon with on the National network in its heyday. Then he went on to teach filmmaking in Mumbai’s Whistling Woods and to set up the wing of Filmmaking Studies in the National University of distant Fiji.
And Kanaklata raised the youngest of her brood, their only daughter Ratnottama, to cultivate the inheritance from her father, in literature, cinema and the arts. Even before the word global environment gained currency, by demonstrating how not to chuck everything in the bin, she drove home to her daughter the concepts of ‘re-use and re-cycle’. Blessed with green fingers, she shared with neighbours and friends the fruits of her ‘farming’ in the patch of green surrounding their Goan-style bungalow in the Mumbai suburb of Malad – and inculcated in her children the importance of green environs. Cooking, she taught me, was as significant in our everyday life as banking or management of money. And she drilled into me when I was still in school, that “you must earn, even if it’s only a hundred rupees every month. Else, even your own children will not respect you.”
I am always delighted to give this one example of her practical thinking. Soon as her daughter joined college, the home-maker booked a Life Insurance policy for her and directed her to pay the annual premiums. And how could she do it without compromising on her studies? “Simple. Clean the house, sell the waste to the raddiwala; put the ‘income’ in the bank.” At the end of the year, she had the money for the insurance premium and also the experience of banking. This, at a time, when majority of account holders in the bank were men.
Through all this, long before the world started celebrating International Women’s Day, Kanaklata had taught her daughter to be “no less than a son.” For, she ingrained in her, “there is nothing you cannot do if it spells well-being for people in your care…”
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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In a medium that is known for its regressive content, Gajra Kottary, novelist and short-story writer, has time and again gone against the tide and broken taboos. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at five shows she has written that went against the grain and emerged triumphant…
Growing up in the 1980s, one of the many pleasures of a less cluttered and leisurely time was the birth of the TV series. Many people I know would swear by the fact that the first of these represented the best of Indian television. Even close to forty years later, I can still rattle off the days on which each was telecast: Karamchand on Mondays; Hum Logand then Buniyaad on Tuesdays and Saturdays; Khandan on Wednesdays; Ados Padoson Thursdays; Yeh Jo Hain Zindagion Fridays. You had stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Basu Chatterjee make fine works for the television.
Sometime by the end of the decade kitsch entered in the shape of Ramayan and Mahabharat. I moved on and lost touch. A resurgence of sorts happened with the coming of cable television, and we had path-breaking shows like Shanti and Tara. And then it became increasingly difficult to keep track of TV shows. The shows changed beyond recognition. Led by the likes of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, they became more and more ridiculous in the worlds they represented. One word came to be bandied about regularly with respect to soap operas: regressive.
However, like all generalised judgements, a blanket application of the word is unfair to a number of serials that tried to, and often succeeded in breaking taboos, while operating within the limitations dictated by the medium and the grammar of its narrative. And the one writer who has time and again bucked the trend, gone against the tide, is Gajra Kottary, the creator of historic shows like Astitva: Ek Prem Kahaniand Balika Vadhu.
Journalism and Fiction Writing
One of the reasons Gajra manages to break new ground in her television narratives might have something to do with her training as a journalist. “IIMC [Indian Institute of Mass Communication] was a tough course to get into and we had a few fresh graduates like me, and a whole lot of older and established professional journalists from other non-aligned countries studying with us, a great mix,” she says. It provided her with a grounding in fact-based narratives while polishing her skills as a writer, of which she had provided glimpses in college, when two stories she wrote got published in Eve’s Weekly, along with two fiction-style middles in TheTimes of India. “The IIMC stint helped because as I have observed over the years, I have more respect for the sanctity of facts even while taking my flights of fancy than others in the business. I take fewer creative liberties than others. I have done more realistic shows on television which helped forge a distinct identity for my writing.” But it also left her confused since political and economic writing held no interest for her and Delhi offered avenues only for those.
Destiny intervened in the form of Cupid. Falling in love with Sailesh Kottary, a “hotshot and hardcore journalist”, she moved to Bombay. It was here, as a “stay-at-home mom”, that she gave wings to her imagination and honed her writing skills. Watching serials like Saans and The Bold and the Beautiful might also have helped imbibe certain aspects of writing for a visual medium. Her first work of fiction, Fragile Victories, a collection of stories, led to her first assignment in television. She had sent a copy of the book to Mahesh Bhatt, who passed it on to Soni Razdan. Impressed by the collection, the latter signed Gajra up for the story and screenplay of her first TV production, Hamare Tumhare(2000), which marked her TV debut, before Astitva made everyone sit up and take notice.
If IIMC shaped her in some ways, another skill-set that has held her in good stead probably came from her experiments in writing fiction. Fragile Victories was followed by another collection of stories, The Last Laugh, and the novels Broken Melodies, Once Upon a Star, Girls Don’t Cry and Not Woman Enough. These helped her to keep to a discipline that could go missing in the never-ending juggernaut that is the TV soap opera. They also are testimony to her willingness to push the envelope when it comes to narratives and characters. Not many know that much before Indian writers, particularly women, began addressing issues of sexual identity and same-sex relationships, Gajra had written about these in her fiction. As she puts it, these themes “continued to ‘consume’ me”. Not Woman Enough may have been published as an e-book only recently, but it evolved from a story that she had published way back in 2003. “I felt that I hadn’t done justice to the theme in the short format, so I wrote a full-length novel titled Not Woman Enough and felt finally relieved of my obsession.” Another story, ‘Two Gold Guineas’, evolved to her third novel Girls Don’t Cry, a pun on the expression ‘boys don’t cry’ and “an ode to the bravery of women and the friendship between a grandmother, mother and daughter”.
What is startling about these works of fiction is her ability to address taboos. Not Woman Enough not only deals with a same-sex relationship, but Gajra has the audacity to set it in rural Rajasthan as opposed to an urban setting, where it would have probably been just another story. She has the perspicacity to understand that the stakes are so much higher for first-generation characters experiencing the forces of social liberation while battling age-old customs. It is the same acuity that she brings to bear upon her iconic TV shows, which have time and again shown what is possible in a medium that allows little leeway for out-of-the-box thinking.
Astitva: Ek Prem Kahani (2002-2006, Zee TV)
Running 668 episodes, over a period of three-and-a-half years, this is the series that launched Gajra into the big league. Today, twenty years after the first episode was aired, an older woman-younger man relationship might appear staid. But back then it was bold, and Indian television had not seen anything like it. It made an icon of its lead, Niki Taneja, who plays a doctor who falls in love with a man ten years younger. What stood out is the maturity with which the series unfolds, largely devoid of the excesses that came to mark television in later years. “The first TV show maker I decided to call upon was Ajai Sinha, who had directed shows like Hasrateinand Justajoo. He had been planning a show called Astitva with a bold theme and my timing was bang-on. It spoilt me enough to believe that television too was conducive to the kind of work I felt happy doing.” That this show managed to hold its own against a raging Kyonki, speaks volumes of the writer.
Balika Vadhu (2008-2016, Colors TV)
2167 episodes! Yes, you read that right. One of the longest-running shows on Indian television, this cemented Gajra’s reputation as a writer. Here again, Gajra was going out on a limb addressing a much-abused tradition prevalent in large parts of India. And sure enough, the press wasn’t flattering. It is one show that divided opinion like few others. “Yes, we received some negative press, because Anandi was this irrepressible kid, a happy child who kept bouncing back despite dealing with the dark consequences of child marriages of the past playing out in the present. It was a calculated approach as child marriage is a dark and gloomy issue. It was a conscious decision here as we needed to keep the cheer, but critics felt that we were glorifying child marriage. I think they were missing the woods for the trees.”
One possibly needs to understand the medium and its viewership to get a sense of what Gajra means. Unless the packaging is glossy enough – colourful clothes and jewellery – audiences might have been put off entirely by what is a repulsive subject. “And that would mean we would not be able to get across the underlying message of the show. These tactics are important due to the challenge of the medium of television, and the terror of the remote control. It was a classic case of the sugarcoated pill doing its work.”
Apart from the writing, the series was also recognised for its iconic performances and comments on several social issues that ail Indian society, which were woven in organically without being preachy. It also had an authentically rustic feel thanks to Purnendu Shekhar, whose concept it was. Those decrying the glossy packaging forget that the issues the series addressed included girl child education; peer, sibling and parental pressure to do the best; child labour; the begging racket; forced prostitution behind a legal façade; quacks and medical malpractices; date rape; adoption; alcoholism; divorcee and widow remarriage; trafficking in women; surrogacy; juvenile delinquency and teenage crimes, among others. From the comfort of our air-conditioned condos and offices, far removed from these realities, it was easy for the elitist press to criticise the series.
One standout episode dealt with the protagonist’s first experience of menstruation. This is a subject still, despite Padman and the increased conversation around it, spoken of in hushed tones. It is fascinating to hear Gajra’s take on this: “I remember how we involved Avika’s [the child actor who played Anandi] mother to explain to the child privately about menstruation before we shot the scene showing a young girl’s trauma when it happens to her as a bahu in a conservative household. Lots of people wrote to us about delaying the marriages of their girl children after watching Balika Vadhu. There was a girl who was emboldened enough to annul her marriage that had happened as a child when she turned eighteen. We received mails even from parents of city girls who were now reversing their decisions to get their girls married by the time they were sixteen.”
There was of course the flipside of popularity, when the writer received a death threat on Twitter if she dared to kill off the character of Shiv (played by Siddharth Shukla). “Those were the early days of social media, so real people started to write in with their reactions which were usually very intense and sometimes downright ridiculous.”
This series, spanning 55 one-hour episodes, was a huge challenge, involving as it did a historical figure, and one of the most important religious figures of the world. But trust Gajra to approach the subject from a refreshing point a view: as she points out, in school textbooks we go straight from the story of Gautama leaving home to being under the Bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment. But his experiments to arrive at the truth had many stages to it. As she says, “What it did was to dispel my own myths about the Buddha’s life. I had always felt disturbed about his abandonment of his wife and child for his own spiritual search.”
It helped that the show came to her at a point in life when the strong opinions and idealism of youth, both professionally and personally, had given way to the realisation that nothing is or can be ‘perfect’. By the time the show was done she too had evolved to accept that the Buddha had to be true to his heart’s calling. “I understood the ‘larger purpose’ of his life. I came to terms with the ‘abandonment’, though my heart still bleeds for Yashodhara and Rahul. What also helped was learning about Yashodhara’s evolution, albeit painfully, to want to join his sangha voluntarily, and him helping her find her ‘larger purpose’.” The series focuses on aspects of his life after the Enlightenment that many are not aware of. It is this larger view that shapes the series, making it a departure from the dime-a-dozen ‘mythological/religious’ shows with ‘special effects’ that blight our senses.
Extramarital affairs are the oxygen to the beast that is the TV serial. Offhand, I can think of not one serial that does not have a million and more permutations and combinations of the theme. So, it takes a really perceptive writer to give this tired trope a new perspective, and Gajra manages that in Silsila, upending the traditional way that extramarital affairs are portrayed. “Is the ‘other’ woman necessarily a femme fatale, a super-cool career woman, and the wife a boring domestic goddess or could it be the other way round also?” she asks.
The series provides further proof of her ability to give a new spin to a theme that’s been done to death. As she says, “I am emotional about this show as it was inspired by what happened with some close friends and associates. I needed a relief from all the social stuff in Balika Vadhu. Also, I believe that an author’s voice in terms of standing for the right thing can and should reflect in any kind of story, even if it’s not apparently one on a social issue. The classic extramarital affair with the eternal conundrum is a fascinating aspect of human relationship … does a third person enter the picture because a marriage is already collapsing or does the entry of a third person lead to the collapse of a marriage. Is it the cause or effect?”
Molkki (2020-2022, Colors TV)
After Silsila, it was back to a classic social issue for Gajra. At the heart of this show is the tradition of bride-buying in Haryana, which in turn has its roots in the scarcity of brides due to female feticide/infanticide. As Gajra says, “Molkki was a Covid baby, my second project with Ekta Kapoor and it was made keeping in mind all commercial considerations.”
Female infanticide is a recurrent theme in several of her stories. She writes about it in her novel, Girls Don’t Cry, while Not Woman Enough, published as an e-book by Juggernaut, has this as a strong strand, being part of the protagonist’s backstory impacting her psyche. Again, what needs to be noted here is the writer’s willingness to explore issues that contemporary television is not known for, even if the execution falters given the demands of the medium.
Addressing the Regressive Nature of Television
But Gajra does agree that on the whole, television is regressive. Though it is described as a writer’s medium, there’s only so much that writers can do in terms of trying to infuse new ideas and nuanced storytelling in the face of TRPs and other market considerations and entrenched beliefs that ‘bas yahi chalta hai’. So, writers take the easy way out, churning out what the studio executives want. “For the handful of people prepared to take the risk and at least try to do things differently, there are scores of others who would like to use every gimmick in their book and keep regurgitating bad content.”
In terms of audience profiling too, what’s happening with television is that most of the intelligentsia has shifted to web shows. The television viewership class has gone lower down in the social scale. So when content is being made and consumed by a non-thinking class, it also starts reflecting in the TRP studies. The classic chicken-and-egg syndrome.
Gajra is currently basking in the success of her latest show, Na Umr Ki Seema Ho, which recently celebrated its hundredth episode. The show is being hailed as ‘different’ by many. As she says, “The most heartening comment that I often get to hear is that ‘it’s the first TV show I have started watching after many years’, from people who had switched full time to watching web shows.”
Any grand obsession, a show she would like to write? “As far as TV goes, I have always dreamed of doing a version of one of my all-time favourite films, Abhimaan, with or without the music background. The subject becomes more and more relevant every decade. Frankly, no channel wants to touch it. Though the people one speaks to share my admiration for the story, the ‘system’, they say, is not conducive to making it. I also want to adapt my first novel, Broken Melodies, as a web show or film. It’s the story of a girl growing up in the seventies, torn between the values and stifling world that her classical musician father [an autobiographical element given that Gajra is the daughter of the classical maestro Pandit Amarnath] represents and the liberation that the English education sponsored by her mother affords her.”
One can only say, more power to writers like her, and the breaking of glass ceilings and taboos.
(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)
Shantanu: You grew up in Delhi in the 1980s. That was the birth of the TV era with Hum Log, Buniyad, and all those glorious serials. Did any of these influence you?
Gajra: You’re so right, Shantanu, they hugely did, except that there was no plan that I had then, to actually use that impact to write something similar. I loved both these shows purely as a viewer. HumLog did tackle social issues, for example, dowry, but why I liked it was that it showed the clash of values within a family with different generations, and through that, it entertained and made one feel and think – the sensitization process as its termed. Later, I learned that Hum Log was inspired by the Sabido method (originating in Mexico) where TV is used as a medium to bring about positive social change by making viewers ‘feel and think’ rather than preaching to them.
I loved Buniyaad for a purely sentimental reason. My parents were from Lahore and Multan respectively and had come as refugees to Delhi, so we had grown up hearing stories of Partition and here was a show that brought that era alive for me in an extremely moving and entertaining way. So maybe subconsciously both these shows did impact my psyche – as in it was possible to talk emotions that were universal, even while having a responsible author’s voice.
Shantanu: What do you attribute the change in the style and content in TV soaps, first with Tara and Shanti, and then Kyunki Saas Bhi…
Gajra: Tara and Shanti were the first movers, coming in like a breath of fresh air after the DD days which were associated with somewhat stodgy storytelling, Buniyaad etc., being the shining exceptions. Tara and Shanti were great in terms of revolving around thinking and evolved women, but perhaps were ahead of their times…they still are, given where TV storytelling has gone.
By the time Kyunki Saas came to TV screens, middle- and lower-middle-class homes could afford a TV set, so there was a genuine need for TV to go more middle class in its appeal. So, we had a plethora of shows with joint families and generations under one roof, which truly was the reality of such homes, and which therefore connected with the masses easily. Ekta Kapoor also upped the drama quotient hugely, so there was no way it wasn’t going to work with the masses.
Unfortunately, however, everyone went about copying the formula and there was the overdose factor. So, TV honchos were afraid of trying different subjects and worlds and that for a very long time became the bane of TV writers.
Shantanu: On Buddha: ‘dispel your own myths, you say …’ What apart from his abandonment of his wife and child haunted you. Do you reconcile with the abandonment once you had done the writing for this? Did it make sense now?
Gajra:Buddha, the show, came to me at a point in life when the strong opinions and idealism of youth – both in professional and family life – had given way to some acceptance and the realisation that actually nothing is or can be ‘perfect’. And certainly not any decisions of life that we might make. So, we might as well make the decision, and accept and live with the consequences as positively as one can. I know that that’s so ‘anti’ the way today’s youngsters think!
So yes, from his wife and family’s point of view his decision seemed ‘selfish’ but he had to be true to his heart’s calling and that so-called ‘selfishness’ of his is what made him give so much to the world to make it a better one. I understood the ‘larger purpose’ part of the Buddha’s life after I started researching more and more while writing the story for the show. I came to terms with the ‘abandonment’, though my heart still bleeds for Yashodhara and Rahul, when I think about them. What also helped was me learning the historical truths about how Yashodhara evolved, albeit painfully, to want to join his sangha voluntarily at some point, and him helping her find her ‘larger purpose’.
Also, what I realised is that in school textbooks we go straight from the story of Buddha leaving home to being under the Bodhi tree and achieving enlightenment and uplifting the world. This had been my myth too. But, in reality, the Buddha’s many experiments to arrive at the truth had many stages to it. He went through extreme deprivation, abnegation, self-loathing and much else, before he arrived at the eight-fold path – the most practical and fair way to lead life in any time and space.
And he certainly did not advocate renunciation for all or even the perception of Buddhism as a religion. His was the ultimate live-and-let- live approach to life – just that his methods helped his followers lead a life of peace and equanimity within their chosen path. Through writing the show I realised that there could be no other way of life that was so compatible with the modern way of thinking and doing. So I am not a ‘Buddhist’ but I still try to recall the eight-fold path at various difficult points in my life and it really helps me.
Shantanu Ray Chaudhuriis a film buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has contributed to a number of magazines and websites like The Daily Eye, Cinemaazi, Film Companion, The Wire, Outlook, The Taj, and others. He is the author of two books: Whims – A Book of Poems(published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin/Puffin).
In conversation with Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the protagonist of a Satyajit Ray film and now is a bi-lingual writer of fiction and more recently, a non-fiction published by Om Books International, Satyajit Ray:The Man Who Knew Too Much
“[O]ne would like to remember Ray as one of the last truly great renaissance men of Bengal, moulded much in the tradition of Tagore, in the sense that his genius manifested itself in manifold directions: film-making, photography, writing, composing poetry, limericks, music, designing, drawing, developing new typefaces, you name it.
“For a long time, he was also our most distinguished cultural ambassador to the world.”
This perhaps is the one of the most apt descriptions of a man whose films were legendary in our lifetime and a part of the concluding chapter in The Man Who Knew Too Much by Barun Chanda. The book is an exhaustive account of Ray and his major films, how he made the films, what were the influences he had, how he directed the films and how versatile he was. Chanda is clearly impacted by this giant of Bengal renaissance, which started with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the eighteenth century and encompassed Tagore.
The book is as much a memoir by Chanda about Satyajit Ray as it is a narrative about his films. Structured unusually, this non-fiction has an introduction sandwiched between two sections, the first being Chanda’s own interaction with Ray as a hero of his award-winning film, Seemabadha(1971), and the making of the movie; the second being the narrative that covers the titular content (borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1956 thriller), The Man Who Knew Too Much, about the genius of Ray as a filmmaker. Chanda shows us how Ray was truly unique and very gifted. He would remember all the dialogues and be intent on being involved with every part of film making, from costumes to camera, lighting and makeup — which is probably why his films had a unique touch so much so that he has to date been the only Indian filmmaker to win an honorary Oscar which Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn, collected for him as he lay sick in bed (1992) breathing his last, saying: “Dear Satyajit Ray, I am proud and privileged to have been allowed to represent our industry in paying tribute to you as an artist and as a man. For everything you represent I send you my gratitude and love.”
And this note has been quoted by Chanda to bring out the uniqueness of a man who counted luminaries like Arthur C Clarke, Jean Renoir, de Sica, Kurusawa, Cartier-Bresson among his friends. He has unveiled the unique persona further. “As Ray was wont to say, everything that he had done earlier in his career, helped prepare him to be a complete filmmaker. His sense of framing stemmed from his knowledge of still photography. His deep love of Western and Indian classical music helped shape him as a music director. His sense of art direction came from his earlier stint at D.J. Keymer. His power of illustration helped him design the sets of Hirak Rajar Desheand Shatranj ke Khilari, both marvellous instances of art direction. And a combination of these two factors facilitated his making of some of the most original and impressive cinema posters ever.”
Chanda goes on to describe the full genius of Ray’s film making which even stretched to scripts, songs — both the lyrics and music often, and of course his ability to visualise the whole movie beforehand. Ray is quoted as having said: “I have the whole thing in my head at all times. The whole sweep of the film.”
Interspersed with anecdotes about the films, the text highlights the eternal relevance of some of the dialogues and lyrics that Ray wrote himself. For example, listening carefully to the lyrics of ‘Ore Baba Dekho Cheye’ (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, 1969), one could see it as a comment from a current pacifist in today’s war-torn world. This book actually seems like an eye opener not only to understand Ray’s films, but also to find out what the world needs from the media, an important comment in times of false news and sensationalism.
However, the book is not all adulation. It is also a critique of the persona of a visionary who could risk all for realising his vision. Chanda tells us how to attain perfection, Ray could risk necks: “There was an element in Ray bordering on ruthlessness. To get a certain effect on the screen he wasn’t averse to taking risks, at times to dangerous levels.”
New perspectives are brought in from unpublished interviews: “In an unpublished Bengali interview of Ray which is in the possession of Abhijit Dasgupta, one-time chief of Doordarshan, Kolkata, when asked about his film Sadgati, the maestro is quoted to have said: ‘One needed to make a film on this story immediately. As a Marxist, Mrinal Sen would have probably made it differently, more angry … Had this film been angrier I’m not sure it would have served the purpose any better. I don’t think display of anger alone can lead to much of an achievement. To my mind a truly politically angry film hasn’t been made so far. Until now what has been done is to shoot at safe targets. It hasn’t made any difference to establishments in any way. If one were to achieve this kind of a thing, I would sooner be a political worker than a filmmaker.’”
While looking at the maestro through an objective lens, Chanda finds it hard not to express his affection for the giant who impacted not just him but a whole generation of movie goers, film personnel and the world. His last sentence says it all:
“As far as I’m concerned, he [Ray] is always present. Not past. Not even past perfect.”
Chanda, a man who started his life working in the same advertising agency as Ray and dreaming of being an actor, with four books and multiple films under his belt, himself mesmerised audiences as a protagonist in Ray’s award-winning film and then suddenly withdrew from the industry for two decades. Why would he do that? Let us find out more about him and Ray in this interview.
First of all, let me tell you I am very honoured to be interviewing a Ray hero from a film I have watched multiple times. So, tell me, why did you act only in one Ray film, have a hiatus of twenty years and then go back to acting with Hirer Angti in 1992, the year Ray died. Did it have anything to do with Satyajit Ray’s presence or influence?
No. I’ll tell you what – after Seemabadha, I got a cluster of film offers, nine-ten offers and I did not accept anyone of them because they did not seem to be significant enough. I wasn’t interested in making money out of films or becoming a film star. I was interested in acting in good films. If they came my way, I would do. If they didn’t come my way, I wouldn’t. I would go back to my profession which is advertising. I was very happy there.
So, these offers that came didn’t quite satisfy me. And Manikda did not call me back again for whatever reasons. The other significant filmmakers like Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak – they did not call me. I suppose I was branded as a capitalist actor. Or Imperialistic actor! I suppose it became ingrained in their mind I was an executive and nothing else. They felt they could not bend me into the roles in their film. A pity!
Is this your first non- fiction? What led you to think of writing a book on Satyajit Ray?
Yes, it is my first non-fiction. I had harboured this thought for a long-long time but there is a natural reluctance about writing anything. I am, by and large, a lazy person and there were a whole lot of things that were pretty personal, and I thought, you know, let it be stored in my mind. Maybe, I could narrate to my close friends’ circle certain stories and certain things that happened between me and him. But not for everyone. Even in this book, I have not mentioned a whole lot of things that are too personal, which he confided to me in good understanding that I will not tell another. I won’t speak about it.
Then the centenary year came, and many asked me why I did not write my out my memories. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri was one of them. He said the time is right and you have such wonderful anecdotes and experience, put it down for posterity. When I did the first part, I realised it could not just be my experiences but also something larger – in the sense what kind of a man was he in real life.
I was also dissatisfied with the books I have been reading about Ray and his works — starting with Marie Seton, who was supposed to be a gospel on Ray. I found it was a narration of his films in chronological order and what she thought of them. It was film-based assessment, not of the man himself or his qualities separated from the films. So, I decided to explore his persona. This book is quite different from any written on him. I have sections on music, editing with a whole lot of films but not in a chronological order. That is passé. The second part started with what has not been done. As I progressed, newer sections dawned on me – a whole lot of sections I have not used. I wanted a chapter on “The Rise and Fall of the Ray Empire” – but then thought I’d rather not finally. It would have been terrific, but I did not, perhaps want to spoil the public feeling about Ray. I did not want to criticise. I did do a chapter though — “Director or dictator”.
Absolutely. Your book is dispassionate but has no scandals or any unfair criticism. In fact, it seems to be based on not just your memories but also many interviews and lot of research. Can you tell us what went into the making of this book in this context? What kind of research and who all did you interview? How much time went into the making of the book?
I used Ray’s experiences with actors who are no longer alive – like Chabbi Biswas or Tulsi Chakraborty. I have used Aloknanda Roy who happened to work with Chabbi Babu in Kanchenjunga. I used the living actors. I did not interview Soumitra Chatterjee – I know his feelings on Ray. So, I did not interview him separately. But there is a lot in the book about how Soumitra da perceived Ray or his equation with Ray.
The book worked well for me – I would have gone to a madhouse but for this book. You have to believe me. For it helped my sanity, writing this book during the Covid period. The eighteen months—closer to two years. I could really concentrate on something as I am an outgoing person – not that I am a club person – but I would like to meet my friends, lead an active life. Suddenly, I felt imprisoned – it was like house imprisonment. So, I turned my attention to writing this book and whatever I could get out of YouTube, whole lot of other’s books, Ray’s interviews. One gentleman, Abhijit Dasgupta, who was the head of Kolkata Doordarshan, had conducted an interview. He gave me part of it which I found very intimate. You could do a book on Ray and Mrinal Sen dispassionately –Mrinal’s films would be of historical importance but not of relevance otherwise whereas Manikda’s films can be watched again and again because it touches your heart.
That is so true. Your book is structurally unusual with an introduction in the middle of two parts. Why did you follow such an unconventional format? Do you feel it helped your presentation in any way?
Yes. Because I was writing a different book. No one has written a biography in two parts. In a way it is not a biography, but it is trying to understand and appreciate Ray as a filmmaker. That’s what the book is.
I was in an advantageous position to write on Ray. Actually, Dhritiman Chatterjee could have done the same. I admire Dhriti for his thinking, but I guess there is an innate laziness. He did interview Manikda but I do not know where the tapes are.
I felt the way I did it was the right way. The book came naturally to me. For somethings, I went out of my way — like the titling.
To this date, no Indian director has made a film where the title is relevant to the film. The film follows from the title. The thought is not there. But it is there in the West. That is why you have people like Saul Bass. Ray wanted to do things himself – that might have been why he did the titling too. He would draw and present to the art director who would work further on it. I should have had a whole lot of drawings in this book, but it was not readily available.
I continue to feel I could embellish certain chapters, especially on music. Debojyoti Mishra, a film music director, has written a book in Bengali which actually traces from where Ray has borrowed what piece of Western Classical music. It is not unlike Tagore – there are analogies in the use of music between the two.
Ray spent a few years in Santiniketan when he was young, I think around 1940. Was he impacted by Tagore? Can you tell us about it? Did he meet Tagore or have any conversation with him as it was a year before Rabindranath passed on?
He did not actively seek out Rabi Thakur. He was a very shy person. There is no mention anywhere in his writings about seeking out Tagore, knowing very well Tagore held his father and grandfather in great esteem. His mom knew Tagore well. But he never sought him out. It is rather difficult to understand why he did not utilise the time speaking with Tagore. Maybe, Tagore was inaccessible. I could have asked him, but I never did. I do not know why I never asked.
Why would you borrow from Alfred Hitchcock to name probably one of the last of the Bengal renaissance men? Can you please elaborate?
I thought that the title was absolutely apt. As a director he knew more than any director did. It described him to perfection. He would draw, give music and work with his basic idea with the rest of the team.
What would you say is Ray’s most major contribution to the world?
The brilliance of Ray’s portrayal of the village was outstanding. You watch the film and think you cannot improve on it. And Ray knew it and has said it.
Does Ray continue to impact current trends in cinema?
Ray was a classicist. The film making style has moved away from that. He would not move the camera unless it became imperative to his film. But now, cameras are handheld, and they have fast shooting. Film making has transformed with the emergence of the web series. Shooting has become so much easier and quick, though they work very hard. There is something more raw about web series. The feature film is more stately, more crafted. Films have enough time. You cannot get a good film if the actors are not brilliant. You cannot shoot a good film in ten or twelve days as they do for web series. That is not physically possible. In the West, they take eighty to ninety days to shoot a film.
Ray wrote many novels on Feluda and Professor Sonkhu. Yet made few films on them. He made films of others’ books rather than his own. Can you tell us why?
Maybe, the writing part started late in his life. It was propelled by his need to feed Sandesh and he had to supply stories to Desh — one per year, for the pujaspecial. His writing came as an offshoot – it was an accident. But the preparation was there – if you read his scripts or lyrics, they are fantastic. The scripts he wrote were brilliant. There is much to admire and respect about him. He was a writer too.
You are known to be a writer too. Are your books impacted by your association with Ray?
What I learnt from him was how to write dialogues. The publisher of my Bengali books, Tridib Chatterjee, said he found my dialogues “smart”. Ray’s writing was very tight. I tighten my descriptions. I do not expect the readers to read a book like Tom Jones.
Can you tell us about your other books? Coke (2011) interestingly, is available in both Bengali and English. So, which came first — the Bengali book or the English? Are they both your handiwork? Tell us a bit about your novels?
I wrote it in Bengali first and then wrote it in English later. Actually, it was not a direct translation. I write in both the languages. Another one which is in English is Murder in the Monastery. The second edition is being brought out by Rupa, should be available on Amazon soon hopefully. Post-Covid, people have gone into hibernation. So, many have complained they cannot get it.
I have two books in English, Coke and Murder in the Monastery. The others are in Bengali.
Which genre is preferable to you — murder, mystery thrillers or non-fiction like this one?
I get my high writing fiction, especially crime.
Are you giving us any new books in the near future?
Yes, a collection of short stories in Bengali, probably after the pujas. I have created a character called Avinash Roy. He is learned and intelligent but not overtly brilliant like Sherlock Holmes. My favourite character [fictional] among detectives is that of Inspector Morse – I have seen the TV series but not read the books. He was very human. Absolutely brilliant. But coming back to my current book, it is also facing delays, but I am hoping it will be out this October.
Thank you for giving us your time and answering our questions
Ratnottama Sengupta pays a homage during the 27th Kolkata Film Festival to Jean Claude Carriere, the legendary screenwriter of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, first performed on stage in 1985 and then released as a film
A Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for someone decorated with a Padmashri? One easily understands the Oscar when you spell out that the awardee had written the screenplay of a hundred and more films for the Who’s Who of World Cinema – starting with Luis Bunuel, and going on to Volker Schloendorff, Milos Forman, Pierre Etaix, Jacques Tati, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima, Louis Malle, Abbas Kiarostami, Philip Kaufman, Jean Paul Rappaneu, Jacques Deray… not necessarily in that order. The Padmashri also falls in place the minute you hear it was for the writer of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata. Indeed, how many names have bridged the inner core of two extreme cultures of the East and the West, so smoothly as Jean Claude Carriere?
This French writer-actor’s equation with the land of Kauravas and Pandavas was way beyond that of any tourist who may’ve visited India twenty-five times. For, this was the man theatre legend Peter Brook had zeroed in on to play his Ganesha. Meaning, act in the play? No, he was to write the nine-hour magnum opus that would ensue after sunset and end at sunrise at the theatre annual that identifies Avignon in France. Who could’ve imagined his interpretation that the five sons sired by different deities — Yama, Vayu, Indra, the Ashvins — could be cast as men from different races, leading to Yudhistira being blonde and Bhima an African? This, remember, was three years before Doordarshan started airing the B R Chopra epic that continues to enthral.
But why am I comparing Carriere – whom I had the good fortune to meet on one of his visits to Delhi – to Ganesha? Simple: Siddhi Vinayak, the God of Fulfilment, was the ‘scribe’ Vyasa approached to pen down his magnum opus – and he laid the condition that Vyasa should not pause in his narration of the events even once. Vyasa agreed on the condition that Ganesha would not pen down the words without comprehending their depth, their emotion, their implication… Carriere had done just that for Peter Brook. And the mythology had stayed within the writer. Hence, three decades later, he wrote a lyrical text for Sujata Bajaj when the Paris-based Indian artist from Kolkata exhibited her iridescent body of work titled Ganapati.
At least eight years of reading and researching had gone into Mahabharata, 1974 onwards, before Carriere’s forays to India started in 1982. And four years later, it mesmerised viewers in the desolate quarry outside Avignon. For the two following years, the play was performed in French and English, it toured the world for four years, it was adapted for television as a six-hour series, it was shortened to a three-half hour film screened in India, Carriere wrote Battlefield based on it, and published a book sketching his India tours… The 25 actors seen in Avignon 1987 came from 16 countries – and the only Indian was Mallika Sarabhai who played Draupadi!
“I compare India to Draupadi in the dice game – she keeps unfolding,” Carriere famously said later. Elsewhere he said he felt that India was a mansion where one room leads to another, that to yet another, and that to some more rooms… In India, Carriere observed a unique continuity since the antiquity now lost in time — one he did not find in either Greece or Egypt. That is distilled in the book, In Search of the Mahabharata that chronicles the three initial years of his journeys in diary-like jottings and numerous sketches. “They have more immediacy, more intimacy, greater feeling than camera,” he told the book’s Delhi-based translator, Aruna Vasudev.
Carriere of course was a seasoned hand at adaptation. Long before the curtain fell on his 91 years, he had adapted the German novelist Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum, 1979) and French Marcel Proust (Swann in Love, 1984) for Volker Shloendorf; the Russian Dostoevsky for the Polish Andrzej Wajda (The Possessed, 1988), the French journalist Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour, 1967) and French poet Pierre Louys (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977) for the Spanish Bunuel, French dramatist Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1990) for Jean-Paul Rappaneu, Czech Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988) for the American Philip Kaufman… And what was the key to this success? It lay in Carriere’s belief that “a scenario is created when you and the director establish a near telepathic communication. This requires on both sides a receptiveness and a trust which can never be taken for granted. The writer must submerge his ego since, ultimately, it is the director’s film and you are there only to facilitate him.”
My first experience of this ‘facilitating’ was Happy Anniversary (1962) that won director Pierre Etaix – who co-produced it with writer Carriere – the Oscar for Best Short. Half-a-century after its viewing the 15-minute short remains vividly etched in memory. A woman is preparing a romantic dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary while the husband is running around and making stops to pick up gifts for his wife. But the Paris traffic is against him, and by the time he reaches home the flowers for his wife have wilted, and his drunken wife has finished dinner and fallen asleep. What a captivating comment on urban realities!
Carriere’s most abiding partnership — his 20-year-tie with Buñuel – had started in 1963 when the Spanish director was looking for a French co-writer to adapt The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau. The maid who exposes the sexual, religious and social repressions of the middle class provincial French families set the keynote – social satire – that Buñuel would repeat in Belle de Jour. Its erotic narrative with subversive wit exposed bourgeoise hypocrisy through a respectable doctor’s wife who enjoys her afternoons as an inmate of a high-class brothel. Buñuel’s absurdist humour not only alerts viewers to the failings of the French bourgeoisie, but it also sets the tone for his constant anti-establishment ire. In The Milky Way (1968), two tramps set off from Paris to make a pilgrimage to a Spanish shrine and on the way meet characters who expound on the six central ‘mysteries’ of Catholic dogma. Another amusing anti-clergy film, it reveals Buñuel’s target shifts from the church to the military, to the state — that is, only within the different faces of establishment. This influenced Carriere to later state, “In art a certain anti-conformism is necessary.”
Jean Claude Carriere was a remarkable storyteller, it is clear, just as it is that he had no dogma. Effortlessly he could move from one world to another. One of ideals and spirituality, to that of warfare and political spoils. As one reviewer noted, “he had the knack of entering the dream world not on the wings of some abstract imagination but on the legs of reality – with absolute groundedness.”
Carrier knew what he wrote was not for publishing, it was written not to be read but to be transformed into a film. He is known to have said: “If you want fame, and a beautiful statue made of yourself, don’t be a screenwriter. The writer disappears. He works in the shade.” It was absolutely essential to be forgotten. His art exemplified this, though not the writer who also acted in some films. He knew, if not forgotten, very often screenwriters are ignored. That is why, in his Honorary Oscar acceptance speech in 2014, he expressed his happiness that such an award was given to a screenwriter. For, “they are like shadows passing through the history of cinema. Their names do not appear in reviews, but still they are filmmakers,” he asserted sharing his Oscar with screen writers around the world.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. Ratnottama Sengupta has the rights to translate her father, Nabendu Ghosh.
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Now people began to hear of Badshah Salamat’s close links with the region of Braj. His visit was described in a dhrupad —
Shah Chhatrapati Akbar visits the Braj region,
Kings of the seven islands, nine regions and ten directions tremble.
Cavalry, infantry, elephants, and brave warriors,
With bows, arrows, swords and spears.
Not one blot on the clothes of Humayun’s son,
How formidable was the army of Jalaluddin Muhammad.
The region of Braj was not far from Fatehpur Sikri. It is said that Badshah Salamat, having listened to the poetry of Surdas, asked when he met him, ‘Surdas ji, God has made me powerful and all the talented people sing my praise. Why don’t you sing my praise too?’
Surdas sang the following words in reply: ‘No space in my heart.’
Badshah Salamat thought, ‘Why would he sing my praise? He would sing if he had the greed to seek something from me. He is a man of God.’
Finally, Surdas sang: ‘Seeing God is like nectar for the thirst that the eyes have.’
Badshah Salamat asked him, ‘Surdas ji, you can’t see. How do you know what this thirst is that the eyes have? How come this metaphor?’
When Surdas kept quiet, Badshah Salamat said, ‘His eyes are with God. He sees there and describes what they see.’
Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘He should be given something but he has been initiated into Vaishnavism. He has no desire.’
People say that when Badshah Salamat heard that the Vaishnav poet Govindswami sang very well, he went out to listen to him in disguise.
Badshah Salamat was fond of travelling incognito among people. In the sixth regnal year, corresponding to about 1560–61 ce, a large group from Agra had camped outside the city on the way to the shrine of Salar Masud Ghazi in Bahraich. Badshah Salamat went to their gathering incognito but some petty criminal recognized him and the word began to spread. To convince people otherwise,
Badshah Salamat rolled his eyes upwards. When people saw this they said, ‘Such eyes and expressions can’t be that of an emperor.’
As Govindswami sang the Raga Bhairav, Badshah Salamat was sure he would not be recognized. But suddenly, as he sat listening, these words escaped his lips, ‘Wah, wah!’
Recognizing him, Govindswami said, ‘This raga has lost its value.’
At this Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar said, ‘I am the Emperor.’
Govindswami replied, ‘If you are the Emperor, keep to it. But this raga has lost its value because you listened to it.’
Badshah Salamat then thought, ‘I am the ruler of one country. For him, the grandeur of three worlds is meaningless. Why would he obey my command?’
It is said that Badshah Salamat heard an artiste sing the poetry of the Vaishnav poet Kumbhandas and said, ‘Would there be anyone like him who sees God in this manner?’
The artiste replied, ‘Saheb, he lives even now!’
An excited Badshah Salamat asked for Kumbhandas’s whereabouts. The artiste replied, ‘There is a village near Shrigovardhan called Jamunawat. He lives there.’
When Badshah Salamat’s men reached the residence of Kumbhandas he was in Parasoli. Reaching Parasoli, these men said, ‘Badshah Salamat has asked for you.’
Kumbhandas said to them, ‘I am no servant to the Emperor. What do I have to do with him?’
Badshah Salamat’s men said, ‘How do we know what you have been called for? We are under orders from the Emperor to get Kumbhandas ji. Here is a palanquin and a horse. Please mount and come with us. We have to take you.’
Kumbhandas had no option. Wearing his shoes, he said, ‘Brother! I have never mounted a conveyance. I will go on my own.’ When Kumbhandas reached Sikri on foot, Badshah Salamat
said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, come. Please be seated.’
Badshah Salamat’s elegant tent had precious stones and frills. Even so Kumbhandas felt his home Braj was far better because Shrigovardhannath ji played there.
Badshah Salamat said, ‘Kumbhandas ji, you have written much poetry in praise of Vishnu. That is why we have called you here. Sing for me some poetry in praise of Vishnu.’
Kumbhandas thought, ‘The real patron of my voice is Shrigovardhandhar. But now that I cannot avoid it, I better sing something to ensure he does not ever ask for me. Let me say harsh words. If he minds, so be it.’
Kumbhandas remembered, ‘One who has been adopted by Lord Krishna is always safe. He would come to no harm even if the whole world turns against him.’
Then he recited —
Devotees have no need of Sikri.
One walks one’s shoes threadbare, God’s name forgotten,
And salutes those whose face brings no joy.
O Kumbhandas, without Lord Krishna, these are false destinations.
They say Badshah Salamat felt unhappy when he heard this but said to himself, ‘If he had any greed he would sing my praise. He is a true devotee of his Lord.’
Irritated with Badshah Salamat, Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni said, ‘… Hindu infidels, who are indispensable, and of whom half the army, and country, will soon consist and as whom there is not among the Mughals or Hindustani Muslims a tribe so powerful, he could not have enough. But to other people, whatever they might ask for, he gives nothing but kicks and blows…’
When it began to be murmured in Fatehpur Sikri that Badshah Salamat had turned Hindu, Sheikh Abul Fazl was forced to respond,
‘This rumour is spread because His Majesty, being of an open mind, would meet Hindu holy men, raise the rank of Hindus and be kind to them in the interests of the welfare of the country… There were three reasons these rumours spread by evil men gained currency. First, people following different religions gathered in the darbar, and because there was something good in every faith, everybody got some bit of praise. Secondly, because of sulh-i-kul, people of various kinds got spiritual and worldy success. Third, the crooked ways of evil people of the age.’
(Excerpted from Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2021)
About the book
Conventional historical accounts tend to paper over seemingly minor events related to Akbar’s life, to the detriment of a comprehensive appreciation of one of the most important figures of Indian history. Shazi Zaman fills the gap with this remarkable novel rooted in history.
Akbar’s writ ran from the Hindukush in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east, an empire his father Humayun and grandfather Babur had only dreamed of. And his religious policy, boldly unorthodox, was as fierce a contest with the clergy, particularly Islamic, as were his military campaigns with his political opponents. Most histories give us Akbar the commander who never lost on the battlefield, and the fearlessly iconoclastic ruler. But we rarely come across the restless, questing soul who wished to reconcile a sensitive and compassionate heart to the sometimes ruthless obligations of statecraft; and the man who, in his struggle for sulh-i-kul, peace with all, could dare to treat as equal not only all faiths—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and others—but all life as well—human or animal.
With a scholar’s rigour and a storyteller’s insight, Shazi Zaman, in this transcreation of his acclaimed Hindi novel, sifts through fact and many an anecdote to paint a complex yet enchanting portrait of one of the world’s great monarchs. There isn’t another book, as vast in scope and as layered, to help us fully understand the phenomenon that was Akbar: the unsparing pragmatist and benevolent ruler; the austere leader and indulgent friend; the unlettered prince and philosopher-mystic.
About the Author
Shazi Zaman started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since then worked with several media organizations. He has had a long association with the ABP News Network as a senior executive producer and as their Group Editor. He has been on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. Akbar is his third novel. His earlier Hindi novels are Prem Gali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism ke Log.
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Gita Viswanath and Nikhila H explore how the world of moviegoers has changed with time and with COVID19
During the pandemic, people all over the world watched a lot more films due to the lockdown than they normally do. The use of social media also increased exponentially. The proliferation of OTT (Over the Top) platforms has given immeasurable access to cinema and other modes of entertainment to those who have the means and technology (such as internet connection and steady bandwidth, viewing devices, etc). While some term this phenomenon as a democratisation of film-viewing practices in a given society, others feel that the nature of cinema is bound to change in the absence of a collective social experience of film viewing.
The history of the motion pictures has seen a shift from 35 mm to 70 mm; the decline of the latter, and then its resurgence in the 1980s. During these times, going to the cinema was an event in itself. It necessitated the rituals of planning, the booking of tickets in advance, dressing up and stepping out of the homes. The singular mark, if we identify one, of this era of film spectatorship, would be its collective nature. It was not uncommon to witness several members of the audience cry, laugh, or cheer together. While there are several films that show their characters watching a film withing their plot, Abbas Kiarostami’s entire film Shirin (2008),focuses on women audience’s responses to watching a film on the legendary lovers, Shirin and Khusrow. The story of the lovers reaches us exclusively through the soundtrack. The creation of the star was also a consequence of collective viewing. The euphoria surrounding the star, at times translating to audience performances in the form of whistling, hooting, flinging coins at the screen, and performing aarti (a Hindu prayer ritual)when the star appeared, could not have happened in the isolation of the home.
By the mid-1970s, almost all major cities in India had television broadcasts. The growing popularity of the television, even with its diminished screen size, as a means of watching films challenged the primacy of the cinema hall as a site of exhibition. The spatial shift from the public cinema hall to the private homes as viewing spaces is also a consequence of the arrival of television. However, the total individualisation of the viewing experience was yet to happen. Families, at times, even neighbours, would gather in front of the television, where the Doordarshan telecast around 6 pm and ended by 10 pm. Programmes were made specifically to appeal to groups of people across age, occupation, and class. While Tania Modelski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Women’s Narrative Pleasures (1982) argues how television, particularly soap operas play upon women’s fantasies and feed their longing for an alternative to their isolation within the nuclear family, it is also possible to argue that watching films on television meant being subjected to informal censors within the family and domestic situation.
Scholars have talked about how cinema-going created a new kind of sociality and public sphere around cinema. In the Indian context, a short story by a Kannada feminist writer Vaidehi titled “Gulabi Talkies mattu sanna alegalu” (Gulabi Talkies and small waves) for instance, gives us a glimpse of how through cinema-going the public sphere became accessible to women, otherwise sequestered within their homes. Girish Kasaravalli’s film Gulabi Talkies (2008) ostensibly drawing from the short story, gives us an insight into the fantasy worlds opened up by cinema for women, as well as delineates the destruction of that social imaginary and their proclivity for fantasy, when women got pushed back into the private sphere with the coming of television.
Soon after, the advent of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) and Video Cassette Player (VCP), became hugely popular ways of watching movies with the added advantage of recording them for repeat viewings. Lending libraries mushroomed and entire families were able to watch a movie for the price of, or perhaps, less than that of a single movie theatre ticket. In India, this led to a complete change in leisure practices to the extent that cinema hall owners ran into huge losses and most theatres that had seen their glory days had to either shut down and get converted into shopping complexes or lay in a state of neglect.
The 1990s heralded the era of the multiplex that once again drew audiences to theatres, at least in the urban areas. With admission rates way higher than single screen theatre tickets, the multiplex became a site of the upper middle-classes flush with funds in a newly globalised, consumer-driven economy. This even gave rise to an entire new genre of films called the multiplex film. Young filmmakers with exposure to world cinema cashed in on this change and made films that may not have been feasible in the era of single screen theatres whose audiences comprised people from different classes. The more homogenised audience of the multiplex enabled filmmakers to produce films that catered to the taste of a particular segment of the market.
And then came mobile telephony in the new century. The miniaturised screen size transformed film viewing, which was essentially a public and later family/group activity, into a highly individualised one. Today, it is not unusual to see different members of a family watching different films on their phone screens in the same house or even same room – the use of headphones or earbuds making it even more convenient.
We are all familiar with the phenomenon of the intermission/interval; peculiar to film screenings in India. This device, as Lalitha Gopalan has noted in Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema (2002), even became an important consideration while scripting the film wherein the interval would be located at a turning point in the narrative. The interval in cinema halls also provided the scope for sale of snacks, which in the era of multiplexes turned into a focal point with the aim of providing a wholesome and complete form of entertainment for the audiences.
Turning our attention back to viewing films on the laptops or phones, we may say that the act of determining the interval is also controlled by the viewer. We could stop watching to eat, to visit the washroom, to turn off the stove, to get the door, or when the plot slackens and our interest wanes, to doze off. With the alarming speed with which attention spans are decreasing, filmmakers are turning their attention to short films.
The abundance of OTT platforms for distribution of films has led to easy access to world cinema. Until some years ago, it was difficult to view international films unless one frequented film festivals. Now, it is a different story. Platforms such as Mubi, Netflix, Prime Video, among several others, provide us with opportunities to watch films from all over the world. Just as in the case of the rise of multiplexes, similarly, OTT platforms also have proved to be a boon to filmmakers. Professional organisational set-ups, constant demand for fresh scripts, and scope for experimentation have made OTTs viable for young filmmakers.
At a time, when socialising in the real world became highly restricted, a flurry of activity was visible in the virtual world. One such popular enterprise was the formation of online film clubs to watch and discuss films, which the authors of this article also engaged in. What is interesting about such groups is that the film viewing experience is not collective. We do not watch the film to be discussed together; rather, we watch them at our convenience after deciding upon the film and only get together virtually to discuss our individual responses in the process of a personalised experience of viewing.
Let us think about the nature of spectatorship that online groups engender. The sense of the collective does not stem from the act of seeing, which, in any case, happens in the privacy of our homes. Rather, it stems from the sense of a joint endeavour and the need to contribute meaningfully to it. While most theories of affect talk about the process of experiencing cinema, it may be equally important to look at the communicative aspect of affect; hence articulating what we feel about a film is a way of affirming and making available for ourselves (and others) how we feel about a film. Lakshmi Srinivas (2013) talks of how film viewing is framed by the social aesthetic, that is, film is a pretext, which provides a context for the social experience of film going. The audience response in any Indian theatre, she argues, provides a frame for the filmic experience; similarly, in our isolated film viewing case, the Saturday meeting becomes the ‘social’ within which our filmic experience may be framed.
With COVID-enforced isolation and restriction to stay in the house, films and social media platforms became a way of escape and reaching out, though not in the same way as the more conventional ways of watching cinema. The need to have social interactions beyond the family may have motivated some of us to embrace the world of online interaction. The form of discussing films (and virtually all of the films we discussed spoke to and of the contemporary times) on our Facebook group, Talking Films Online, for instance, became a way of thinking beyond and outside the oppressive present. It helped most of us gain a perspective by contextualising the present itself, while we seemed to be in danger of being cut off from the known and the familiar past. Thus, the activities of watching films and logging in for discussions on Saturdays became a way of regaining a hold on our lives, when we all felt adrift.
The lockdown gave many spectators who were part of online film groups, the experience of seeing and hearing and being seen and heard on screen. While initially thrust upon as an inevitable fall-out of the situation, people soon learned to equip themselves with better devices (where possible), requisite apps, necessary accessories to be better seen and heard. Being part of the discussions on the films, recording them and sharing them make participants content generators in their own right, leading at times, to the creation of independent YouTube channels for uploading the recordings of the discussions and for live broadcasts.
Thus, the shift in patterns of spectatorship over time goes beyond a mere change in ways of viewing films. Rather, the ways of generating content to accommodate these changes have themselves transformed. The resultant transformation in modes of sociality is just about beginning to become apparent.
Gita Viswanath is the author of a novel, Twice it Happened, a non-fiction book, The ‘Nation’ in War: A Study of Military Literature and Hindi War Cinema, as well as a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems and short stories have been published online. Two of her short films, “Family Across the Atlantic” and “Safezonerz” are available on YouTube.
Nikhila H. teaches in the Department of Film Studies, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Her areas of research interest are Filmic Translations and Gender Studies. Her recent publications have been on remakes and multimodal translations. Her current projects include a commissioned essay for a volume on Shyam Benegal for Edinburgh University Press, and for a collaborative volume on New Cinemas of India.
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