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Independence Day Interview

In Conversation with Goutam Ghose

Goutam Ghose: Photo provided by Niyogy Books

Goutam Ghose is a well-known award-winning film director, scriptwriter and even actor. He has been the only Indian to have received the Vittorio Di Sica Award from Italy in 1997 and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in July 2006. Ghose has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival.

But did you know he has also authored a number of books? Just as he bridges borders with his poetic films that touch the human heart with a range of emotions, he does the same with his books. He takes up burning issues with artistry, never inciting with rage or hatred but conveying by his skill with the camera and words. He has created a world without borders with his transcontinental outlook and approach.

His reaction to the Ram Janmabhoomi riots was Moner Manush (2010), a film based on Lalon Fakir’s life, knitting together the best in Muslim and Hindu traditions instead of filming the clashes and the violence. Published in English as The Quest (2013), the book is a powerful dramatisation with pictures from the film. The book, like the film, is also an emotional lesson in humanism. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel on Lalon Fakir’s life, the film is beautiful. But the book allowed me to mull over the words, which have been translated by Sankar Sen. It is a book that needs to be read when casteism and religious divides take precedence over humanitarian values. By bringing these songs into translation to readers unfamiliar with Bengali, both Ghose and Sen have opened a world of love and tolerance to new readers, who will hopefully find the time to mull over the wisdom of these songs.

‘What was your caste when you came here,
What caste did you take on arrival, dear,
What would be your caste when it’s time to go -- 
Ponder and tell me if you know.’

-- Translated by Sankar Sen, from The Quest

 His other book that traverses the silk route and journeys through China, Beyond the Himalayas (2019), transcends boundaries and fills the reader with a sense of exhilaration. It is based on his documentary of the same name. Both these recordings of their journey along the silk route are worth viewing and reading. They show humans are the same across all borders. The book, interspersed with lovely pictures of the landscape and mature writing pauses on history at the right junctures. The narration is poetic in both the book and the documentary.

Though Ghose claims that these texts and photographs capture memories of the film, both his books transported me to a different time and space. I saw the films after reading the books, but both were energising, emotionally charged and entertaining. It takes one through different parts of the world and gives a new perspective to a 4000-year-old route. Initiated and organised by Major Hari Singh Ahluwalia and Deng Xiaoping’s son, the travels in Beyond the Himalayas took me across borders to areas I have never visited and now, I hope to visit post pandemic. It acquainted me with cultures that excite. And The Quest reinforced the belief, through the depiction of Lalon’s life, that humanism exists despite the degradations of history. That riots can be calmed with the soothing notes of Lalon’s lyrics, rich in wisdom, would be a win for the human spirit.

Like all great artistes, Ghose speaks in beautiful poetic sentences about concepts that touch the human heart and imagination. In this exclusive, he speaks not just about his film-books, but about the real journey and issues he is facing through the pandemic, including the delay of his film with an Italian male lead and his new short film on the current times, Covid-worn and waiting…

You are a very well-known film director, cinematographer, and music director. You have directed award winning Bollywood and Tollywood movies. Normally books come before films but from two of these films, you have made books. Why did you go in for making books of the films?

I have loved books since my childhood. The shape and form of it, the touch and smell of a book fascinate me. They will never die even if we read on the screen rather than by turning pages of a physical object. A certain sense of the sacred has surrounded books from civilisations’ inception. In cinema, be it fiction or non-fiction, we write a script at the pre-production stage. A film-book is all about times gone by — a book of memories, of both cyclic and linear time. My producer from Bangladesh, Habibur Rehman Khan, had liked the idea of film books and had published three wonderful books on Padma Nodir Majhi (Boatman of the Padma River, filmed in 1993), Moner Manush (filmed in 2010 ) and Shankhachil (Unbound, filmed in 2016) in Bengali. Niyogi books of India has published a beautiful pictorial English version of Moner Manush as The Quest and also Beyond the Himalayas, my journey along the Silk Road. Another lovely film book is Pratikshan’s bilingual centenary tribute to Bismillah Khan (Bismillah in Banaras the film Goutam Ghosh made, 2017).

Is dubbing or subtitling the film not an easier option than doing a film-book?

Well, dubbing or subtitling is for watching a language film, but a film book is meant for reading. It becomes a part of your book collections. I have some wonderful film books published from Europe and United States.

Moner Manush is based on Lalon Fakir’s life and on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Why did you feel there was a need for a separate book after you made a very powerful film on it?

Lalon Fakir is an eternal savant. Scholars have been doing research on Lalon’s life and philosophy since long. It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and the implied significance, it seems as if he was an erudite scholar tutored in an age-old system of education.  His faith was not guided by any particular religion, rather it could be said to be comprised of the mysticism of Sufi and the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberalism of the tantric sect of Buddhism. My film on Lalon fakir is research on this great man aswell. The Bengali film book contains important articles by scholars besides the script, reviews and memoirs.

Do you feel that the message of Moner Manush is relevant in a world beset by not just divides but even a pandemic? Is there something we can learn from the story?

Yes, of course the message of Moner Manush is even more relevant in today’s intolerant world, a world of greed and opportunism. The pandemic has victimised the togetherness of the human race but how can we survive without empathy? I don’t know how good the film is, but Moner Manush will serve as a gospel to those who revere humanity.

Lalon says as his own introduction “I am a human.” How important is that for humankind to see themselves as humans over titles of caste, profession, and economics?

The baul (minstrels in Bengal) community had renounced all recognised institutions of religion and revolted against long established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith, they had found a large expanse under the sky which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Under that open sky, Lalon had found the truth in Humanism.

Lalon dreamt of a borderless world. Do you think adopting his outlook can change the outlook of nations which draw borders between the species? Do you think it is implementable at a personal, national or international level?

I think all mystics believe in borderless space of Earth where all centennial beings live in peace and harmony. But the wheel of time had moved in the direction of Divide and Rule. John Lennon’s Imagine has become the iconic song on the dream of a borderless world. It may have been a failed dream, but I confess it might have been one I shared growing up in India and will cherish till the last breath of my life. Let it be a dream and a wonderful utopia.

Beyond The Himalayas was first a documentary film. How long was it and when was it screened? How many episodes is the film?

Beyond the Himalayas was made as a documentary film during our expedition through the Silk Road in 1994. The final edited version is four-and-a-half hour long. It was shown in Discovery Channel in five parts in the late nineties. A shorter version was screened in BBC as well. The Indian national TV had screened a Hindi version of all five episodes.

The book seems to cover lesser than the documentary. Is that true or do the visuals/ music just seem to impact us more? Why did you leave out Pakistan?

Well watching the film with arresting visuals and absorbing the soundtracks of the trail is a linear viewing of our journey along the fabled Silk Road. It is very, very exciting indeed. But the film is also a journey back in time with many references and anecdotes from history. For instance, while showing the travel through the deadly Taklamakan desert, I referred to Sven Hedin’s(1865-1952) expedition of the region. I quote: ‘The first European to map this desolate region was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. His first expedition in 1895 was very nearly his last.  The local guide supplied enough water for four days in the desert instead of ten requested. When the caravan lost its way, the guide was the first to die. The others became insane with thirst, drinking anything — even Sheep’s blood and camel’s urine. By the fifth day, the men, camels and other livestocks were all dead except for Sven Hedin and one other man. Hedin writes in Through Asia, “If I was doomed to die in the sand, I wanted to be properly attired. I wanted my burial clothes to be both white and clean.” But fate was on its side. Spying the dark green side of an oasis, he dragged himself to safety. “I stood on the brink of a pool with fresh cool water, beautiful water. I drank, drank, drank time after time. Every blood vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge.”’

Here the film-book helps the readers. One can refer back to the time past and time present more deeply to understand time as a metaphor of history.

How many days were you on the road? What was the experience like?

We were out for almost ten weeks covering a distance of 14,000 kms. The journey was fascinating for the entire team. There can be no journey more enchanting than the route we took. The collective trove of memories has made the Silk Road so memorable. We had to negotiate extreme weather conditions in Central Asia and Tibet. In a single day, we experienced two extremes. While negotiating the desert, temperatures rose to 48 degrees Celsius, and by nightfall when we pitched camp at Tianshan mountains, the temperature fell to 2 degrees. The situation is almost like the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — desert to snow in the blink of an eye.

Did you travel through the part of the route Marco Polo used? Did you find it much different from what you had imagined?

Well, the travels of Marco Polo described the wonders of the silk road, cities far greater than his own and a world more significant than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The silk road was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling along for 4,000 years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the East and the West. It ran from Xian in China to all the way to the Mediterranean. There were many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia.  We could not follow the planned route through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia via Khyber Pass because of the civil war. The government of India did not want us to take such risks. All the members of the expedition, including the jeeps and equipment, were flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on 18th May, 1994.

With the silk route being revived, do you think this film has significance?

Xuanzang took back over 600 Sanskrit text. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Yes, the film is still significant because it carries the memories of time. We were the first group of travellers after many, many years to cross three new republics after the collapse of Soviet Union and a vast territory of China. Now, the route is open to tourists, and I was told that many travel packages are available all along the mighty river and its tributaries. I would like to revisit the cauldron once again to understand how those multi-ethnic republics have survived the onslaught of modern times with its regional rivalries, new mafias, and consumerist pressures. I wish the new silk route trade brings peace and harmony in this intolerant world. Travellers today can choose from many trails as we did during our expedition. My favourite was Xuanzang’s (602-664 AD) trail. I quote from my book. “At 27, he set out his pilgrimage until he was 43. Unconvinced by the translations available in China, he sought the true teachings of Buddha in the holy lands of India. He walked alone into the great unknown, crossing the world’s greatest deserts and its highest mountain ranges. He faced death many times and his courage and equanimity impressed kings, bandits and barbarians alike. He lectured at monasteries and debated with learned monks and by the time he reached his destination, his reputation as a great sage had already preceded him. Xuan Zhang was not the only Chinese pilgrim to visit the homeland of Buddhism, but he was the most important. Like a death star that keeps releasing energy for thousands of years, he continues to be a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.”

You are making a new film I believe rooted in the present pandemic. What is it about? Will you be making that too into a book?

My 2019 film Rahagir or Wayfarer, starring Adil Hussain, Tillotama Som, Neeraj Kabir, had travelled to many festivals and received awards and appreciations but unfortunately, we could not release it in public theatres due to the pandemic. Another multilingual film is also stuck for obvious reasons. I could finish the Italian shoot in January 2020, but the Indian shoot did not happen till date. It is so frustrating.

Meanwhile, I have finished a short film Memories of Time on pandemic days. It is about a happy, cultured couple living in the heart of Kolkata. Like everyone else, they are caught in the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The film travels back and forth in time as they try to navigate through these hard times and search for fresh air and sanity. The film is an exploration of their fears, realisation and going back to nature. It’s from my own experience — how I have navigated 2020 and moving through the course of this pandemic. I think one can really publish a film-book because it has so many elements, the fear of people and the inhuman approach of the human race and then the migrant labours — their terrible conditions, the psychological problem of people confined inside their home and the most importantly, the problem of the children. They are confined as if in a prison. They can’t go to school. They can’t really meet their friends. I think this could be a very, very interesting material for a film-book.

Thank you for giving us your time.

Click here to read an excerpt and see photographs from his book Beyond the Himalayas.

Goutam Ghose: Courtesy: Creative Commons

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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Categories
Essay

Corona & the Police

By Subhankar Dutta

A policeman wearing a ‘corona’ helmet in India to educate civilians on the pandemic

With the onslaught of the massive pandemic worldwide, state and central police forces’ activities increased significantly in India. From the street corner to the deep alleys, the police became one of the frontline forces having close proximity with the suspected victims and also with communities. While describing the exercise of power by the state apparatus on public, Foucault, the French historian and philosopher asserts, “We should not forget that in the eighteenth century the police force was not invented only for maintaining law and order, nor for assisting governments in their struggle against their enemies, but for assuring urban supplies, hygiene, health, and standards considered necessary for handicrafts and commerce” (The subject and power, p784).

Pondering upon the huge impact of the first wave and the ongoing second wave, we can see a close resonance of Foucault’s words in our present condition: the pandemic, nationwide lockdown, stay-at-home orders, curfew, and the overcrowded vaccination centers. This new avatar of police forces started to be seen, initially, with the awareness campaign during the first wave of the corona. Several creative re-creations of popular songs and dance numbers were performed by the police at the street corners, residential areas, markets, and other public spaces. Kolkata police gave a twist to Anjan Dutt’s iconic song ‘Bela Bose’ and cheered up the citizens staying inside the home during the national lockdown. The initiative taken by the Gariahat police station was acclaimed worldwide and shared by the Kolkata Police Twitter handle. Similarly, the celebrated song from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) ‘O re sahar basi (Oh, the city dwellers)’ was deftly modified by the Rabindra Sarobar Police Station to reinstall patience and faith in the citizens.

Policemen in Kolkata performing Satyajit Ray’s famed film song adapted to create COVID awareness

Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra police also adapted the popular Bollywood number ‘Zindagi maut na ban jaye Yaaro’(Friends beware, life should not become death)’ from the 1999 Amir Khan action-drama Sarfarosh and made it a corona awareness song.

Madhya Pradesh police performing corona awareness song, an adaptation from Bollywood movie Sarfarosh

Few more popular reincarnations of songs like, ‘Ae Mere Humsafar’ from the film Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) to “Ae mere deshbaisyo, ghar me hi tum raho. Bahar coronavirus hain, bahar na niklo (O my countrymen! you stay at home. Coronavirus is out there, do not come out)” by the MP Police; ‘Mera mulk, mera desh, mera ye watan (My country, my homeland)’ from the film Diljale (1996) by the Andaman Nicobar Police; and many more were modified and sung by Indian policemen to spread awareness as well as to keep people positive during the new-normal.

The Kerala police went a step ahead in this new creative exploration came up with a unique dance number, and the official uploaded video became an instant hit. Following a similar line, police from Chhattisgarh, Pune, Delhi and other states and cities, also made us experience a new creative side of them: an experience like roadside concert even in the lockdown. Not only in India but also the Spanish policemen were seen singing on the empty street of Majorca during their nationwide lockdown.

Police officers adapting popular song to educate on the pandemic

Holding placards, wearing coronavirus-inspired helmets, donning the attire of the Yamraj ( the god of death in Hindu lore), and the pop-cultural renderings of singing and dancing are the innovative side of the police, directing us towards a new orientation and new conception of the word ‘police’. Owing its origin to the Medieval Latin ‘politia’ meaning citizenship or government, it has changed its significance a lot with time. In the past few decades with growing urban violence, Maoist upsurge in several parts of India, student protest in the premier institutions, and communal combats around events and organisations, the term police and its social significance tend towards a more limited understanding of law, order, and control.

The ongoing pandemic presents before us a new image of police who sing songs, deliver food, campaign for health awareness, assist the migrants with food, water, and shelter; quite a close rendering of the words of Foucault, showing a new compassionate side of them. While we are disturbed, both physically and mentally, watching the viral videos of lathi-charge following the Tablighi Jamaat, huge mass gathering at Bandra (Mumbai) or Anand Vihar, or the farmers’ protest at Delhi, we should also look at the other side of the coin: a new public role that Indian police have been assigned.

Lokmani, a low-income wage-earning woman in Andhra Pradesh, giving cold drinks to the on-duty policeman with affection, was a warm acceptance of this new role: a mutual exchange of respect and care. The Indian police, which is often criticized for rudeness, bribery, and high-handedness, has to be seen from a more humane angle during this ongoing pandemic. A report prepared collectively by Hanns Seidel Foundation and Janaagraha Trust in Bangalore suggests that ninety percent of the surveyed citizens are accepting the police from a new positive perspective. A similar narrative prevails almost throughout the globe.

But what is the new lesson to be learned? It is something that demands mutual consents from both the government and the citizens. What corona taught us is a new image of the police and thus refers to a reformed legal sensibility that we all should bring into existence and carry forward. Our popular Bollywood films have often presented the hero figure or the ‘saviour’ image of police in the hits like Singham, Mardaani, Simba to Article 15, and many others. But when it comes to the real scenario of the police-public relationship, the narrative is quite different.

They are seen as the ‘privileged alien forces’ who are an obstacle to the smooth life conduct of general citizens. Similarly, the police station is also perceived as a place of fear and terror. The different spectacle of ‘policing’ by the police and other contextual brutalities created a fear-figure of them, very authentically. In our childhood, policemen were used to instill fear in us. This was probably the start of imbibing the ‘fearful-figure’ syndrome into our minds. But it is essential to bridge the gulf between reel life and real life, and the corona crisis provides us an idiom for that. This new attentiveness of the police towards the public, their different methods of spreading awareness, helping families in cremation, and other pandemic related help have made them a new emblem of hope and courage. As the Commissioner of Delhi Police, SN Shrivastava tweeted recently, “Policemen are living upto the motto of ‘Service’, even though it entails risk to their own safety. Despite many of them falling sick, it has not dented their morale and desire to help citizens gasping for breath. They are the ultimate saviour.”

On our part, we need to transform our concept of tyranny associated with policemen to a more humane identification of these men as our local guardians or local legal representatives. The government, on their part, should ensure the same by giving a permissible space where the local police and administration can frolic at ease. The police, because of its proximity to the public, can become a significant tool for public health, risk management, and other inclusive public services. The legal system could re-animate its view of law and police, from as an over-autonomous power which is separate and self-contained, to a kinder configuration where they are more constructive, interpretative, and contextual: rooted in the local life, local necessities. It is like giving the police more power: power to become more humane.

However, though this will not change mindsets overnight, it widens the possibility of making the police and the citizens work for each other in the future. Hopefully, corona will respond one day by becoming endemic or disappearing, to either the ‘Go Corona, Corona Go’ chanting at the Gateway of India, or to the vaccination drive (the sooner, the better), but the new affinity that is building up between the police and the civilian should be retained for a better future. As the corona crisis continues to hover, it has proven that we could learn to build a reciprocal sensibility between police and public for the benefit of both.

Go Corona chanting in Mumbai

Whenever the necessity comes, we should again be together with a safe distance and sing with the Chhattisgarh cop, “Ek pyar ka nagma hai, hum sabne ye thana hain, milke ab humko corona ko harana hain (This is a song of love, we have all decided in unison, together we need to defeat corona).”

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Subhankar Dutta is a Research Scholar and Teaching Assistant at Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Bombay. For more details, please visit the link. https://subhankarduttas.wordpress.com/

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