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Essay

New Perspectives on Cinema & Mental Health

Between 1990 and 2017 one in seven people in India suffered from mental illness ranging from depression and anxiety to severe conditions such as schizophrenia. However, the depiction of this in cinema has been poor and sensationalist contends Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

‘In a lot of films there is the underlying message that all the patient really needs is love and affection. There is a tendency in films to try and normalise mental illness by saying that patients don’t need treatment, they need love. The audience gets the two extremes and what we are not getting are portrayals of people with chronic illness.’ – Dr Cleo Van Velsen, psychiatrist

A poet loses his mental balance on seeing his beloved fall to her death. And what do his family members do? They approach a dancing girl in a brothel to marry him in a bid to get him cured. In a fit of madness, he even rapes her, and she becomes pregnant. But the typical ‘good Indian woman’ that she is, she perseveres in her effort. A few convoluted plot-turns later, the poet gets into a brawl with the villain, resulting in the latter falling to his death, much like his lover. Lo and behold! He is cured, though now he has no memory of the dancing girl.

A nurse in a mental hospital is asked to take care of a patient as part of an ‘experiment’ that its dictatorial army doctor president wants to conduct. The patient is cured but it affects the nurse’s emotional stability. Insensitive to her turmoil, the doctor, preening with the ‘success’ of his experiment, more or less browbeats her into another one with a new patient. With disastrous consequences. Not only is the science/medicine of it dodgy (romantic love to cure a person), it also has the doctor spouting a line like ‘there’s nothing like a woman’s love and care to heal an unstable mind’, while the inmates going around the institute are, in the words of writer and critic Madhulika Liddle, the quintessential Hindi-film, “singing-screeching-long-haired lunatics in films like Khilona, Pagla Kahin Ka, Anhonee, etc”.

These are two of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated films, both huge commercial and critical successes: Khilona and Khamoshi. And both equally and criminally unaware of what mental health entails. Over fifty years later, on the evidence of films like Atarangi Re, Hasee Toh Phasee, Judgemental Hai Kya, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Anjana Anjani, Tere Naam (in Hindi) and Hridpindo, Habgi Gabji and Bela Shuru (in Bengali), films continue to be as clueless about mental health conditions (MCHs) and how to deal with them.

As Vidushi Duggal, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Accept, says, “Mental health issues are grossly misrepresented in Hindi cinema. First, there is a tendency among filmmakers to select only the more overt (and hence the more ‘dramatic’) MHCs for portrayal, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder to name a few. Second, the lack of proper understanding and research, coupled with creative liberties aimed at sensational dramatisation, manifests as misinformed content.”

Her colleague and co-founder of Accept, Nikita Ramachandran, also a clinical psychologist, adds, “The depiction of mental health, despite advancement in literature, conversations and growing awareness remains largely uninformed. The core of this depiction is a viewing of mental health from the lens of chronicity and severity of illness. The scope of mental health has largely been limited to insidious mental health conditions such as depressive disorders, OCD, schizophrenia, with some focus on developmental disorders such as intellectual disability, autism or learning disorders. This depiction itself poses a problem, due to the association of mental health with illness/disease. The illness-lens fails to consider a fundamental truth – that mental health exists by virtue of being human.”

Leave alone such classic portrayals as A Streetcar Named Desire, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Hour of the Wolf, going back to the 1950s and ’60s, to more contemporary ones as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, A Beautiful Mind, Silver Linings Playbook, one would be hard-pressed to find one Hindi or Bengali film which addresses the theme with any verisimilitude till almost the new millennium.

There was the odd Mahesh Bhatt film like Arth and Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayi. One character that might escape attention when we talk of MHCs is the tenacious cop played by Boman Irani in Jijy Philip’s My Wife’s Murder, which has an interesting and understated subtext linking a food fetish with subtle melancholia.

Over the last couple of decades, films depicting mental illnesses have proliferated, sadly, with little responsibility and almost no understanding. While it is interesting that the films that managed to get some of it right were all made in the new millennium – reflecting a greater awareness about MHCs and greater acceptance in popular discourse – it is equally frustrating that some of the most pathetic films too have been made in the last two decades. As Vidushi Duggal says, “They depict an oversimplified and skewed portrayal of the MHCs in question, replete with stereotypical and insensitive portrayals that are magnified for dramatic effect.”

But this has been par for the course from, say, a Pagla Kahin Ka in 1970 and other films of the era which showed electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as the cure for all symptoms of ‘madness’, to Krazzy 4 in 2008, where four patients suffering from every disorder possible escape the institution they have been committed to. Their experiences and conditions are then played out for laughs in a manner that is not only insensitive but also offensive.

The Films That Got It Partly Right

Dear Zindagi: That this Gauri Shinde film has been feted in the India media despite its problematic therapist-client relationship says a lot about how starved we are of responsible content. It needs to be applauded for its very nuanced take on mental health (Alia Bhatt[1] is a revelation), with none of the cliches that we are used to. It is also one of the few films that has its protagonist seeking therapy and that depicts sessions with a psychiatrist. As Vidushi Duggal says, “I can think of no realistic psychiatrist in Indian cinema. SRK’s[2] character may come close to a halfway decent portrayal of a psychotherapist in practice, but it too has problematic elements.” One major problem pertains to the relationship between the client and therapist with the latter even taking the former out to the beach for ‘sessions’ and talking about his own failed marriage and relationship with his son. A strict no-no as far as therapy is concerned in real life. As Anupama Chopra pointed out, the film offers a “Vogue version of therapy – a lovely expansive Goa house, sessions during walks on the beach, cycling together and dialogue like har tooti hui cheez jodi ja sakti hai[3]. It’s manicured and pat.”

Taare Zameen Par: This much-lauded film gave us the very real world of a dyslexic child and his relationship with a teacher who recognises his problem and inspires him and people around him to come to terms with and understand the very real gifts the child possesses. Though the child’s trouble with simple arithmetic is more a trait of dyscalculia than dyslexia, it remains a rare Hindi film that has found mention in peer-reviewed academic journals like Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology and Indian Journal of Psychiatry. These journals have praised the film for its general accuracy in depicting dyslexia which “deserves to be vastly appreciated as an earnest endeavour to portray with sensitivity and empathetically diagnose a malady”, blending ‘modern professional knowledge’ with a ‘humane approach’ in working with a dyslexic child. However, it needs to be mentioned that dyslexia is a learning disability and not a mental illness. That the filmmakers club it with other mental illnesses shows how mental health is not correctly understood.

15 Park Avenue: The story of a woman, Mithi (Konkona Sen Sharma[4]), conjuring a utopia in her mind – an imaginary house, 15 Park Avenue, that gives the film its name, happy mother of five imaginary children, wife of an imaginary husband – and living with it, Aparna Sen’s [5]film, shattering and affecting in equal measure, addresses mental illness with a sensitivity and accuracy that almost all Indian films lack. The telling moment when Mithi’s sister (played by Shabana Azmi[6]) tells the psychiatrist (Dhritiman Chatterjee[7]), “What right do we have to take away the happiness she gets from her imaginary world?”, raises an issue that is rarely addressed, the subjectivity of reality: hallucinations can be just as compelling as ‘reality’. Just because someone’s perceptions of reality is at variance from ours, does it give us the right to term the former ‘abnormal’ or object to it?

Death in the Gunj: Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut is another rare film that addresses the unravelling of a fragile mind over a family holiday. Given that the film is set in 1979, an era when there was no conversation around the subject, there is no overt mention of mental health. Also, though Shutu (Vikrant Massey[8]) may be the one who comes across as prone to what could be called mental health issues, the film strips the veneer off the ‘loving family’ to show how we are complicit with our toxic masculinity and bullying in driving a frail mind off the rails.

Other films that got aspects of it right are Black, which despite going over the top in many crucial sequences offers a very nuanced understanding of Alzheimer’s, and Kartik Calling Kartik, one of the first Hindi films dealing with schizophrenia.

The Bad and the Ugly

Tere Naam: Leading the list would be this Salman Khan [9]starrer that featured a mentally unstable protagonist whose head is shaved, and who is tied in chains. The mental hospital sequence in the film is a gratuitous misrepresentation. In a gross failure of messaging, like Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul in Darr, Radhe Mohan’s obsessiveness, in keeping with the tradition of ‘heroes’ stalking women in Hindi films, is presented as worthy of emulation. One aspect of Hindi films dealing with mental health issues that needs to be called out is the manner in which they position unrequited love/obsession as a trigger, often portraying that as a fashionable antihero statement. Which of course harks back to Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, the original ‘antihero’ who could have done with psychiatric consultation.

Vidushi Duggal says, “While many films have gone on to give this impression, I would be wary of making that connection as it is yet another example of misinformed sensationalisation. Mental health issues are complex and have multiple causal factors – genetic, biological, psychological and social/environmental. Nikita Ramachandran adds: “The depiction of someone unravelling or descending into a breakdown or developing a mental health condition is an inaccurate portrayal, as well as an overgeneralisation that caters to the general theme of love, attempting to add an ‘interesting’ dimension or layer to this portrayal of love. Equally problematic is the manner in which mental health has been pathologised for a long time. Behaviour seen as deviant, classified as ‘abnormal’, characters depicted with mental health issues were villainized. The violent death has been an age-old trope of a satisfactory ‘The End’, where closure has been synonymous with death and a general depiction of ‘good over evil’.”

Bhool Bhulaiyaa: A psychological horror comedy (!) that ostensibly deals with dissociative identity disorder (DID), this colossal hit makes a series of missteps about mental disorders. Hypnosis as a cure for DID, ‘treatments’ rooted in superstition (including a psychological condition that is cured when the doctor slaps the patient), ‘psychiatrists’ who applaud themselves as godmen – it is an endless list of shocking distortions. Akshay Kumar [10] as a psychiatrist. Need one say more?

Atarangi Re: ‘I am a psychiatrist, and I know women.’ That’s a dialogue a doctor mouths and that’s the level of discourse around mental health this film stoops to. In another sequence the doctor clubs together people with bipolar, psychiatrist disorders and schizophrenia in a manner that’s downright offensive. In one sequence, the ‘imaginary’ character Sajjad, a magician, is supposed to make the Taj Mahal disappear and fails to do so only because the patient has popped a pill immediately before the ‘act’. Filmmaker Aanand L. Rai is a serial offender when it comes to woeful depiction of mental health issues, with the protagonists of Tanu Weds Manu Returns shown consulting a marriage counsellor in an asylum! The man describes his wife’s irrational behaviour as an example of bipolarity to which the doctor responds: “In that case, every woman is bipolar.”  

Anjana Anjani: Writing about the ‘hollow space in my heart’ that made her use the term ‘death thoughts’, Therese Borchard says in her blog, “The most difficult thing I will ever do in my lifetime is to not take my life.” That is everything that is wrong Anjana Anjani, where two adults battling life crises enter a pact to take their own lives. A hugely problematic representation that romanticises suicide, it makes a mockery of the breakdown that drives people to such despair. 

Hasee Toh Phasee: The protagonist here, described as ‘mental Meeta’ in the film’s promotional material, blinks her eyes incessantly, twitches her nose, is extremely jittery – all of which are shown as symptomatic of ‘madness’. She is constantly popping pills to control these sensations which lead to odd situations.

The Situation in Bengali Cinema

Such is the paucity of characters dealing with MHCs in Bengali cinema that a few filmmakers I reached out to, could not come up with a single film on the subject. One pointed out Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin for its realistic and heartfelt delineation of the character of Khuku, a girl with intellectual disability who is referred to as ‘schizophrenic’ by other characters in the film. Uttam Kumar’s[11]1955 film Hrad, based on a novel by Bimal Kar, is another instance of a film that places its protagonist in an asylum. He seems to have forgotten parts of his life and behaves in a manner that make people feel he is ‘mad’. There’s of course Deep Jwele Jaai, the Bengali original of Khamoshi

Three recent films stand out as examples of how clueless writers and filmmakers are when it comes to depiction of MHCs. Shieladityo Moulik’s Hridpindo is the story of a woman who, because of an accident and the brain surgery that follows, is left with her fourteen-year-old self, with no memory of her life after, including her husband. However, her pronounced lisp and the way she behaves, constantly demanding attention, leaves you wondering if she is a child of seven! Not to mention that a film dealing with a brain surgery is called Hridpindo.

Raj Chakraborty’s Habgi Gabji, the title a take-off on PUBG, addresses the very relevant theme of gaming and mobile addiction and its frightening consequences on young minds. Bolstered by a good turn by child actor Samantak Dyuti Maitra, the film, despite its noble intentions, suffers from the same problems that beset many other films of the genre. The child is taken to a psychiatrist. However, the session does not take place in a professional space but in the doctor’s drawing room. There is little emphasis on understanding, prevention and cure, with a large part of the meandering script devoted to the child’s violence and alienation. Which is disappointing given that the WHO has defined gaming disorder as a “pattern of behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities” and has flagged the escalation of gaming as a major health risk.

Bela Shuru, one of the biggest successes of 2022, is a high-intensity melodrama with a social message, typical of films by the filmmaker duo Nandita Roy and Shiboprasad Mukherjee. It addresses the onset of Alzheimer’s in the elderly but the symptoms that the wife displays – smearing her face with vermilion, among others – is more in tune with lunacy than the more insidious effects of Alzheimer’s. It is obvious that the filmmakers opt for the overdramatic and take creative liberties in the depiction of mental health issues, dumbing down the narrative, in the process bracketing different illnesses under the same umbrella and distorting the truth.

The lack of proper representation in Bengali cinema is also surprising given that its biggest icon, Satyajit Ray, introduced the world to many unheard-of mental health issues in his stories. Nakur Chandra Biswas in the Shonku books, for example, is a psychic who experiences flashes of the past and future. Barin Bhowmick-er Byaram is the story of a kleptomaniac who has been through therapy. The protagonist of Bipin Chowdhury-r Smritibhrom suffers from a curious case of memory loss, while Fritz explores the childhood trauma of its 37-year-old protagonist. In the Feluda story, Dr Munshi-r Diary, we have a patient who suffers from a persecution complex, an irrational fear or feeling that one is the object or target of collective hostility and persecution. What is fascinating is that Ray wrote about these conditions decades before they became part of the public discourse in India. However, none of these were adapted into cinema.

The Responsibility of Filmmakers and Writers

It is critical to note that cinema plays a significant role in shaping, creating and developing one’s understanding of reality. Films have of late started investing in an intimacy director/coordinator. Maybe it is time to have good psychiatric consultants too. Nikita Ramachandran says, “Mental health and emotional well-being are nuanced, and every story is different. It is challenging to depict the many layers, and also portray these in ways that will resonate or connect with the larger audience.” Vidushi Duggal is of the opinion that, “While acknowledging that an exhaustive depiction of all nuances of mental health is beyond the scope of a time-limited medium that is essentially designed for entertainment, as a community we need to remain cognizant of the potent and pervasive influence of cinema on creating awareness and developing/shaping attitudes. This calls for responsible filmmaking that involves adequate research on the mental health issues being portrayed.”

(Note: For Vidushi Duggal, who listened. Nikita Ramachandran, thank you for your inputs.)

A shorter version of this essay was published in Telegraph earlier

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is 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).

[1] Indian film actress

[2] Indian film actor, Shah Rukh Khan

[3] Translates from Hindi as: “all broken things can be repaired”

[4] Actress and Director

[5] Actress and Director

[6] Actress

[7] Actor

[8] Actor

[9] Actor

[10] Indian film actor

[11] Actor (1926-1980)

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How Gajra Kottary Weaponises Words

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 Log[1]and then Buniyaad[2] on Tuesdays and Saturdays; Khandan[3] on Wednesdays; Ados Pados[4]on Thursdays; Yeh Jo Hain Zindagi[5]on 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,[6] 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 Kahani[7]and Balika Vadhu.[8]

Gajra Kottary with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

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 The Times 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[9] 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[10](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 Hasratein [11]and Justajoo[12]. 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[13], 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.”

Buddha (2013-2014, Zee TV, DD[14] National)

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.

Silsila Badalte Rishton Ka[15] (2018-2019, Colors TV)

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[16] and other market considerations and entrenched beliefs that ‘bas yahi chalta hai’[17]. 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.

Looking Ahead

Gajra is currently basking in the success of her latest show, Na Umr Ki Seema Ho,[18] 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.”

Shantanu and Gajra with the lead actors of Na Umr Ki Seema Ho. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

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[19], 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)

Addendum

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. Hum Log 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 Chaudhuri is 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).

.

[1] TV series, translates to ‘We – the People’

[2] TV series, translates to ‘Foundation’

[3] TV series, translates to ‘Dynasty’

[4]   TV series, translates to ‘Neighbours’

[5] Comedy TV series, translates to ‘This is life’

[6] TV Series, translates to ‘Because the Mother-in-law was a bride too’

[7] TV Series, translates to ‘Identity: A Love Story’

[8] TV Series, translates to ‘Child Bride’

[9] TV Series, translates to ‘Breath’

[10] TV Series, translates to ‘Ours & Yours’

[11] TV Series, translates to ‘Desires’

[12] TV Series, translates to ‘Search’

[13] TV Series, translates to ‘Because’

[14] Doordarshan or DD, Indian public service broadcaster founded by the government of India

[15] Translates to ‘Changing Relationships’

[16] Target Rating Points

[17] Hindi phrase: ‘This is what works…’

[18] ‘Age is just a number’, literal translation ‘Age has no boundary”

[19] Translates to ‘Ego’, 1973 Bollywood film

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Essay Interview Review

The Ultimate Genius of Kishore Kumar

An exhaustive essay by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, one of the best film critics from India, an editor and writer along with an interview with the writers of the book, The Ultimate Biography, on the film legend and genius called Kishore Kumar

Kishore Kumar

Introducing the Genius of Kishore Kumar

Singer, composer, lyricist, director, writer, actor — Kishore Kumar was all this and more. Apart from Satyajit Ray, I can think of no other person in cinema whose talents ranged across so many departments. As a playback singer, he had no parallels – not Mohammad Rafi, not Hemant Kumar, no one came close. As an actor, he was almost surreal in comedies like Half Ticket and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi[1]. It is only because we do not view comedy as an artform at par with tragedy and melodrama that his contribution as an actor has not been acknowledged. As a director and writer, he balanced the almost surreal Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi [2] with the minimalist Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin[3]. It is immensely sad that he did not have more films and songs to his credit as a composer and lyricist.

Take a look at these dialogues —

Kya dekh rahe ho, Prashant?

(What are you seeing Prashant)

Uss raaste ko jo duur pahariyon ke beech kho gaya.

(I lost myself in that distant road among the hills)

Haan, musafir aur raaste ka gehra sambandh hai. Shayad uss raaste ko dekh kar tum apni naye safar ke shuruwat ke barey me soch rahe hogay.

(Yes, the traveller and the road has a deep relationship. Perhaps seeing that road, you are thinking of a new start for yourself)

Jindegi ek safar hai, Joseph sahab, aur uss raaste ka koi anth nahin. Har purani raah ek nayi raah ko janam deti hai aur manzilon ke silsile kabhi khatam nehi hote. Sirf uska saath denewale musafir badal jatein hai.

(Life is a journey, Joseph sahab, and that way has no ending. A new path is born of old roads and the stories never end. Only the traveller changes.)

Theek kaha tumney, Prashant. Saath denewala musafir hamesha badal jatey hain. Magar na jane kyon log phir bhi jazbaati ho jatein hai. Darasal zindagi ka maqsad hai zindagi ka saath nibhana, par tum in raston ka saath nibhakar chaltey ho. Aisa kyon?

(You are right, Prashant. The travelling companions always change. But people for some unknown reason become emotional. Actually, the goal of life is to be with life, but you walk along the paths. Why?)

Unhi raaston mein hi toh zindagi hai, Joseph sahab … kahin khushi, kahin ansoo, kahin dukh, kahin hahakar, kahin itni bhook aur lachari ki insaan par zindagi bhari hain, aur kahin itni khushiyan ki aadmi sambhal hi nahin sambhalta. Hamein in sab ka saath nibhatey chalna hai … uss anjaney andekhe path par … jiska koi anth nahin…

(Those paths is where you find your life, Joseph Sahab… Our Life is full of happiness, tears, sorrows, despair, sometimes it is full so much hunger and desperation that life becomes a burden and sometimes there is so much happiness that it spills over. That unknown, untrod path knows no end.)

– A sequence from Door Ka Rahi[4], 1971

So entrenched is his reputation as a comic star that it might come as a surprise that this exchange above was scripted, directed and acted by Kishore Kumar in one of his most atypical roles.

In the wake of his madcap antics in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961), and the sustained lunacy of Half Ticket (1962, where he plays Vijaychand vald Lalchand vald Dhyanchand vald Hukumchand alias the child Munna, as also his own mother, in a performance that has no parallel in Hindi cinema), Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein [5](1964) was probably what audiences and critics of the era might have least expected from Kishore Kumar.

Why only audiences and critics? As film folklore has it, even elder brother Ashok Kumar was sceptical of his ability to deliver the emotion required for serious songs. Composer Chitragupt had reportedly composed the beautiful ‘Itni badi yeh duniya’ [6](Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan[7],1966) only with Kishore Kumar in mind and even recorded it. Only to have the star of the film, Ashok Kumar, on whom the song was to be picturized, veto it. Ashok Kumar felt that his younger sibling did not have it in him to give the song the pathos it required and that only Mohammed Rafi could do it justice. The song was recorded again, this time by Rafi who did a brilliant job.

And yet in his directorial ventures, Kishore Kumar time and again presented a facet of himself that other filmmakers never tapped and no other producer had the vision to explore. Which is why each of these films had the singer multitasking as producer, director, actor, writer and composer.

Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein

Based on the 1958 Western The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is the story of a soldier, Shankar (Kishore Kumar), who returns from a war to find that his wife and father have perished in a fire that has destroyed his house. The trauma has robbed his ten-year-old son Ramu (Amit Kumar in his maiden film appearance) of his voice. Shankar sets out on a quest to treat his son and restore his voice. On the way, they are waylaid by a villainous Thakur (Raj Mehra) and his thuggish sons (played by Iftikhar and Sajjan). They are rescued by the kind-hearted Meera (Bengali superstar Supriya Devi), who shelters them and becomes a surrogate mother to Ramu.

It is unlike any film that Kishore Kumar had starred in (barring probably Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir[8]). And though the inspiration may have been James Edward Grant’s story directed by Michael Curtiz, it is the influence of Satyajit Ray that is apparent in the making. The singer-director had reportedly watched Ray’s Pather Panchali[9] thirteen times before embarking on his directorial debut. The setting is rural (barring one sequence set in the city) and the director gives us a close look at the landscape, the ramshackle hutments, the swaying fields, the water rippling in the ponds, even the dog that follows Ramu every step of the way.

The film is of course now part of Hindi film legend because of its songs. Kishore Kumar himself wrote that ultimate father-son anthem ‘Aa chal ke tujhe’, a sequence that in the bonding between the two recalls the final sequences of Ray’s Apur Sansar[10]. Shailendra penned the other classics, including Koi lauta de meray[11]and Jin raaton ki bhor nahin hai[12]and two Asha Bhosle gems. But it is in the way that Kishore Kumar eschews all trappings of his comic persona to capture the little moments around the characters that the film stands out in the midst of the fluffy entertainers that characterised the era. Interestingly enough, Iftikhar, who plays the main villain, also designed and painted the film’s title cards.

The film was critically well-received, with even the impossible-to-please Baburao Patel of Filmindia calling it a film that “just misses out on being a classic”. Though not a big commercial success, the film did well enough, and Kishore Kumar had the last laugh vis-à-vis another film at the time which was expected to be a blockbuster. As Kishore Kumar narrated in his now-cult interview with Pritish Nandy, “It started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself … Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar for 8 weeks for his film April Fool[13], which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So, he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? … Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?”

Door Ka Rahi[14]

With Door Ka Rahi (1971), Kishore Kumar goes a step further with his character. Hindi cinema seldom has a drifter as the protagonist. As a people, we do not take to characters who do not have a definite goal in life – in the world of Hindi films that either means pursuing the girl you love or avenging the death of your family and loved ones. Prashant (Kishore Kumar) is unlike any hero in Hindi cinema. He does not have a love interest. He has no family of his own. He refuses to settle down at one place. Prashant reminds me of Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s Razor Edge[15].

The film opens with a sequence of an old man trudging his way through the snow before collapsing. As he breathes his last, he reminisces about his life and the many people he has known and whose lives he has touched. There’s Karuna who wants to set up home with him, there’s a group of orphans he takes care of, there’s his friend Vimal (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his family that includes his wife and her brother Jeetu (Amit Kumar) who are being exploited by their local zamindar and moneylender. In the final episode of the film, he comes across a widow Monica (Tanuja) and her father-in-law Joseph (Ashok Kumar). He reminds them of George, Joseph’s son and Monica’s husband. Even as Joseph proposes that he stay back and make a life with Monica, Prashant has to take a decision on the larger calling that beckons him.

If one thought that Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein would be a hard act to follow musically, Door Ka Rahi goes one better with what are possibly the finest philosophical numbers in any Hindi film ever. No other Hindi film in my view has songs that so evocatively capture the essence of a film. If Shailendra’s ‘Chalti chali jaaye[16]’, rendered by Hemanta Kumar in a splendid baritone, echoes the eternal journey that is life, Irshad’s words in ‘Panthi hoon main’, ‘Khushi do ghadi ki’ and the ephemeral ‘Beqarar dil tu gaaye ja’ evoke a spirit that few lyricists in Hindi cinema have managed. There’s also Manna Dey’s ‘Ek din aur gaya’ and the Kishore songlet ‘Mujhe kho jaane do’.

Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin

While Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Ka Rahi marked a break from the standard film fare of the times and Kishore Kumar’s image as an actor, Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin (1980) demonstrated his penchant for experimentation – one that earned the filmmaker plaudits from none other than Satyajit Ray himself.

He not only did away with songs – in itself a huge creative decision given his stature as a singer – he decided to shun music altogether in the film. Thus, you have that rare Hindi film that does not have a background score. Instead, there is a remarkable array of natural sounds filling in – the crunch of feet on snow, the rustle of leaves, the soughing of the breeze, and silences which accentuate the bleak and forlorn ambience of the film. 

The film begins with an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes watching a bird in flight against the vast expanse of the sky, accompanied by the azaan[17] on the soundtrack. The camera pulls back to reveal a man holding on to the bars of a prison window. Aslam (Kishore Kumar) is serving a term in this jail set in the middle of inhospitable mountainous terrain. He talks to the warden (Raza Murad – who is nameless in the film and is always addressed as ‘Inspector Sahab’) about how suffocating imprisonment can be for a man, and how envious he is of birds. At the first opportunity he gets, Aslam makes a run for it with his prison mate Ghulam Ali.

While Ghulam Ali dies during the escape, Aslam finds himself in a farm inhabited by a mother-daughter duo, Olivia (Bindu, in quite a turn with her grating voice, in one of her rare starring roles) and Jennifer (Shyamalee). His presence sets off a chain of events involving the women, both of whom take a fancy to this man from nowhere. Interestingly, if in Door Ka Rahi, Prashant is a free spirit refusing to be tied down to one place or any human attachment, in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin, Aslam seeks to break free but fails. The escape from the prison only leads him to another one in the form of Olivia and Jennifer’s house. As he tells the inspector at the end, the world, life itself, is a prison. The only difference with his erstwhile prison is in scale. And the only escape lies in death.

Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein[18]

The last of these atypical films that he directed was his final outing too – Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein (1989). Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar passed away while the film was in production and it was Amit Kumar who completed it. Unlike the others in this list, Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein is not a very distinguished piece of filmmaking with a dated story celebrating the greatness of motherhood that belongs more to the hoary 1950s. It is surprising that Kishore, who broke away from established mores in the other films, zeroed in on this hackneyed theme for his swansong, which looks more like a love-letter to wife, Leena Chandavarkar.

The film tells the story of Gauri (Leena Chandavarkar) who brings up her son Niranjan (Amit Kumar) single-handedly. She nurses a secret about Niranjan’s father which forms the crux of the film. Niranjan grows up with the question about his father haunting him all his life. He travels to the nearby town for his higher studies, and it is here that he comes in contact with a man (Raj Babbar) who claims to know Gauri and gives Niranjan an unsavoury take on her past. Niranjan confronts his mother, but she refuses to divulge her secret, leading to the two falling out. The rest of the film deals with the story of Gauri’s past and Niranjan’s realization that he has been unfair to his mother.

It’s a poor film in every respect but it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic about a film that recreates one of Kishore’s cult crazy songs, ‘Allah Allah … Bhagwan bhagwan’ (Hum Do Daku[19], 1967). Or one that has what is probably Kishore’s last playback for Rajesh Khanna (who has a cameo in the film), aptly titled ‘Mera geet adhoora hai’[20]. It was reported in the media at the time that the director had wanted Amitabh Bachchan in the role. However, the star was not forthcoming and that affected the relationship between the two. Kishore in fact hinted at this in an interview at the time and named Manmohan Desai as the one responsible for the rift between him and the star whose voice he was.

Then there is the music of course. A standout album, this has some of Kishore’s most lovingly crafted songs. He himself sings two gems while Amit Kumar has four numbers which count among his best, including ‘Main ik panchhi matwala re[21](which he had earlier rendered in Door Ka Rahi) and the life-affirming ‘Beeti jaaye[22](the mukhda[23] of which harks back to the antara[24] of one of his hits from Jhumroo, ‘Ge ge ge geli jara Timbuktoo’[25]. The composer in Kishore Kumar could not have asked for a better album to bid adieu.

The Call of the Distant Horizon

There are certain aspects that one finds in common across these films. An old man looking back on life. A loner as the protagonist – a man with a love for the road as well as the road less taken. A man with a unique philosophy of life. Time and again in these films you have the protagonist articulating that he does not know who he is, nor where he comes from or is bound for. As the character in Door Ka Rahi says – door ko apne qareeb bula leta hoon aur khud ko apne se door kar leta hoon (I embrace that which is faraway while I distance myself from me). There’s a lingering sense of the fleeting nature of life, a longing for a lost past. These lines from the film that Kishore hums hold true for almost all the protagonists across these films:

Mujhe kho jaane do duniya ki nigahon se parey

Jahan na dhoond sakey koi nazar mera nishaan

Koi awaaz na pahunche, koi aansoo na bahey

Kisi tinke, kisi zarre ko na ho mera ghuman

Meri laash par rakhde kudrat hi ek safed kafan

Rooh ko meri nazaron mein hi kho jaane do

Dastaan meri hawaon ko hi dohrane do[26]

There’s an affinity for birds and the freedom they epitomize, for animals roaming in the wilderness, and for people at the margins, for example, the madman who befriends Ramu in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. And a genuine feel for harmony. It says something that the protagonist in Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a Muslim (the climax has a beautifully understated sequence where Aslam offers namaz while the police officer waits to arrest him) while Christians are pivotal characters in two of these films.

None of these films is set in a city. The cinematography (Aloke Dasgupta in the first two and Nando Bhattacharya in the rest) captures the everyday sight and sound of the countryside. There’s a song in a bullock cart in each of these films (barring Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin) which articulate a philosophy of life and that of the film – Door Ka Rahi and Mamta Ki Chhaon Mein begin with such a song. There’s a feel for the topography that is very ‘Western’ in its look. Parts of Door Ka Rahi evoke Shane [27]as the man rides from one destination to the next (Shane was probably a favourite of the singer as his unfinished film Neela Aasmaan[28]has a song, ‘Akela hoon main is jahan mein[29]’, inspired by Shane’s theme). Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein is of course based on a Western and Kishore invokes the look of the original at many places. Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin stands out for some breath-taking shots of the barren snowy terrain against which the drama plays out.

These film of Kishore Kumar may not have been great commercial successes. And his craft as a filmmaker may not secure him a rank among the best. There is however no denying his desire to go out on a limb and give us films that leave you with something to reflect on. He was seemingly unperturbed by the fact that the films wouldn’t run. As he told Pritish Nandy, “I tell my distributors to avoid my films. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most … Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made.”

And yet he made them. Why? “Because,” as he said, “the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say.”

On the evidence of these films, despite their flaws, the spirit behind them has the power to move the viewer too.

Book Review of The Ultimate Biography

Given the range of his contribution and the eccentricities that defined his personal life, a biography of Kishore Kumar that adequately covers his life and times is a tall ask. Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Parthiv Dhar’s exhaustive biography of the legend, audaciously titled The Ultimate Biography, pulls it off – well, almost.

For one, it is a pleasure to come across a biography of a legend like Kishore Kumar that does not seem like an armchair hack job (refer to, say, Aseem Chhabra’s book on Shashi Kapoor, Yaseer Usman’s on Guru Dutt, Rajeev Vijaykar’s atrocious ones on Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Dharmendra and the many banalities that go for biographies these days). At close to 600 pages, this one is a painstakingly researched tome. And it does not even talk about his repertoire as a singer in that great a detail. As co-author Anirudha Bhattacharjee tells me, “If I were to make a selection of even a hundred of his songs – an impossible task – and talk about them, this book would have gone beyond 2000 pages.”

Despite that, what the book covers by way of the trajectory of Kishore’s life is commendable. The authors have gone to great lengths to get first-person accounts, supplementing that with a great eye for trivia and other obscure facts. They incorporate all of this in bite-sized chapters, most of them three to four pages long, so that the reading never gets tedious. It also gives the book that essential quality in an era of short attention spans: you can open to any page and start reading. Though it does come at the cost of a detailed analysis of any one aspect.

And it is a delight to have such detailed indexes – a general one and a song index – in a book. Most publishers have abandoned the index to cut costs.

If I say the authors ‘almost’ pull it off, it is because the language leaves something to be desired. It could have done with a more rigorous copy-edit. The book gets off to an unfortunate start with the preface whose first paragraph had me scratching my head. And the inelegancies continue to haunt the careful, close reader off and on, with erroneous words, wrong sentence construction, often the syntax at odds. The authors seem to get carried away with the information they have to share, and some passages are a trifle overblown.

One would also have loved to see the authors playing it a little less safe, assessing Kishore Kumar vis-à-vis his contemporaries, or providing a more comprehensive reading of his directorial ventures. Or for that matter talking of what accounts for his popularity in the years after his death. During my growing years, I distinctly remember reading about him being dismissed offhand – Naushad’s comments are part of cinematic folklore (he in fact left the jury when it was decided to honour Kishore with the Tansen Samman). I grew up with people who swore by Rafi and Manna Dey, Naushad and Madan Mohan. And Kishore, despite his popularity, was someone who always came off second best in these conversations. Something shifted in the last thirty years. It would have been fascinating to understand what did. In response to my question on this, Parthiv Dhar says, “Nothing changed. Naushad was an aberration.” He goes on to mention the crowds at Kishore’s funeral. Which is not the issue here. Something in the way we consume music has led to a Kishore and RD [30] fandom like it probably never existed during their lifetimes. Why is it that with the opening of the airwaves, so to say, Kishore and RD have ruled almost all channels broadcasting music? None of their contemporaries – not Rafi, not Laxmikant-Pyarelal, definitely not Naushad or Mukesh – have enjoyed the kind of revival they have. 

The authors do not leave anything out – but the text often tends to become a chronological litany of facts. Fascinating, no doubt. And invaluable. But I could never shrug off the feeling that a book that has so much history and offers such delights, with authors who know the subject so well and don’t stint on research, should have been a little more.

Interview

Tell us something about the process of writing the book. Given that all the dramatis personae are long gone, how difficult was it to put information together.

Parthiv Dhar: Anirudha-da and I go a long way. In fact, around 2004-05, we started a campaign for the Bharat Ratna for Kishore Kumar, and did quite a fair bit of work. Probably it was at that time that writing a book on Kishore Kumar crossed our minds. I remember, we were clueless on the structure of the book owing to the multidimensional persona that Kishore was. My visit to Khandwa in 2010 and Anirudha-da’s book on R.D. Burman (with Balaji Vittal) winning the national award provided the much-needed impetus. Graduating to Kishore was a natural progression.

The visit to Khandwa made me realise that it would be a crime not to write a book on him, given the paucity of knowledge. Kishore himself did not help matters much by being extremely economical with the press. The Khandwa and Indore visits brought me close to his friends and their families, his caretaker at the Ganguly House, his college professors who went out of their way in sharing with us breath-taking anecdotes and documents. Fittingly, the book is dedicated to Khandwa. Apart from that we had a fantastic time at Bhagalpur, interacting with his relatives like Ratna-di, daughter of his cousin Arun Kumar, getting a treasure trove of unknown events related to his maternal side. Meeting his secretary Abdul was also a high point in the making of the book.

The decision to structure the narrative by ragas and their times: dawn, afternoon, evening. You slot Aradhana[31] in the evening. I found that interesting.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The structure with ragas developed organically given the enormous amount of material we had. The first draft was over a 1000 pages long. Giving it the structure enabled us to get clarity. As for Aradhana appearing under an evening raga … Madhubala passed away in 1969. That was probably a setback. His mother too passed away after a year. Kishore’s tenure as a hero had almost come to an end. He was forty. If we go back in time, K.L. Saigal passed away at the age of forty-two. Critics were urging Lata to stop singing in the late 1960s. She withdrew from the Filmfare awards after 1969. Hence, we equated the time with the evening of their lives. And extrapolated it to Kishore Kumar’s as well. Kishore had great strength of character and turned the tide … but that’s another story.

Would you say that Kishore was the one true maverick genius of Hindi cinema, maybe even Indian cinema? The only other person who comes to mind is Satyajit Ray.

Parthiv Dhar: Kishore Kumar was a phenomenon, the likes of whom you rarely encounter. He was perhaps the only person in showbiz whose reel and real lives were mirror images of each other. Precisely why there was no reason for him to ‘act’. You never knew whether he was acting on screen or being his own self. That held true even for his real life. His ratio of hits to total songs composed must be one of the highest in the world. He tried everything that the camera and the studios offered but unfortunately there were occupational hazards that clipped his wings. Had some of his unreleased songs and movies seen the light of day, he would have been unassailable. That he did all these only by pure observations and without any formal training made him a genius. As Rama Varma told us in a chat, he had the ability to identify shortcomings in a particular guitar string in the midst of a session without even looking at the guitar or the guitarist. Genius would be too small a word for him. However, we have not assumed much in the book and left the readers to judge for themselves.

What in your view is his greatest contribution to the art of playback singing in India? The one thing that sets him apart from all the rest.

Parthiv Dhar: Definitely the fact that he made singing appear so easy that emulation became an everyday affair. The clones would, of course, realise that the songs were after all not everybody’s cup of tea. But everyone would attempt a Kishore song. The very fact that he was an actor made him think like one when he would playback. Also, he was perhaps the only one to develop his texture and baritone with infrastructural progress each decade after independence. This led to him being probably the only one to realize that tragic songs need to make the audience cry, not the singer.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: All our male singers except Bhupinder and too some extent Yesudas have been tenors. Maybe the timber has varied, but they are tenors, nevertheless. In my opinion, K.L. Saigal, Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Mullick were tenors who had a unique quality in their voice: ‘dhaar’ and ‘bhaar’ (sharpness and weight). This they used to great advantage. For other singers, it was a case of either/or. Hence, Kishore could playback for Dev Anand using his ‘dhaar’ (Hum hain rahi pyaar ke[32]), complement it with some ‘bhaar’ and ‘mizaaz[33]’ when he sang for Rajesh Khanna (Kuch toh log kahenge[34]), and use his ‘bhaar’ when he sang for Amitabh Bachchan (O saathi re[35]). He also had a strong swarranth[36], which gave the songs resonance. Plus, his flux density was unique. Even with such a heavy voice, it would remain steady when negotiating long notes, something very difficult to achieve. I know from experience as I sing.

He sang Saigal’s ‘Dil jalta hai[37]in reverse, set the Malthusian theory to tune, introduced scatting, yodelling, nonsense/gibberish words (bam chik chik) to music in India … where would you place these innovations in his output? Do you think his comic genius came in the way of him being taken seriously as a singer for the longest time?

Parthiv Dhar: He was born to innovate, and his childhood is testimony to that. Lateral thinking and he went hand in hand. Domesticating jackals, singing in reverse, giving nicknames to almost every friend, composer … the list is endless. How he handled the goof-up in Baap re Baap [38]is a terrific example of his innovation. Similarly, making a wardrobe malfunction in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi the reason for executing anything and everything as a director’s prerogative could be another.

However, it is probably not true that his comic persona had anything to do with his singing. He started his career with several serious songs while simultaneously making people laugh in his movies. He gained recognition as a serious actor courtesy his roles in Bandi[39] and Naukri and was known as a sufficiently good actor. He sang for all the top music directors till as late as 1958. That he had a long gap after that could be attributed to his preoccupation with Madhubala’s health.

Let’s talk about him as an actor … would you agree that as a comic he had no parallels in India? It is only because comedy is not regarded as a genuine art form in India that there has been little recognition of him as an actor.

Parthiv Dhar: A very difficult question and not proper to say that he had no parallels. It should not be forgotten that he was a hero in almost 99 per cent of his films, a fact renowned actors would be proud of. While reviewing Bandi, critics had placed him above his more famous brother (in those days). As mentioned earlier, he did not enact comedy, it was in his DNA although by nature he was an equally serious person. His comedy was a mix of slapstick, mimicry, antics. Very few would enact comic role as a hero for the entire length of time without appearing stale. Kishore Kumar had that quality.

Where would you rank him as a filmmaker? Do you think he tended to overcompensate for his madcap image with his own films which were ‘serious’? Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin is a rather daring experimentation, even if the execution is amateurish. Even Ray commended its sound design. Your comments.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: As a filmmaker, he was a lateral thinker. He tried unique subjects. But the issue is that he got entangled in too many activities at the same time and could never devote himself properly to making films. Had he concentrated only on filmmaking, he might have made some great films. Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin could have been classics.

You devote an entire chapter to Laxmikant Pyarelal. His songs with LP are not spoken of as much. You correct that, though you focus on their early collaborations…

Anirudha Bhattacharjee: We focused on Mr X in Bombay[40], Sreemaan Funtoosh [41]and Hum Sab Ustaad Hain[42] primarily because these films gave him the dimension of a singer first and a hero later. Till then Kishore was viewed as an actor who also used to sing. People forgot Mr X in Bombay (it was a bad film) but remembered ‘Mere mehboob qayamat hogi[43]. Ditto for Sreemaan Funtoosh and Hum Sab Ustaad hain. Most did not even see these films. But ‘Yeh dard bhara afsana[44]’ and ‘Ajnabee tum jaane pehchane se lagte ho[45] became classics. So, on one side, Kishore emerged as a singer, while the actor gradually faded into the background. LP had a key role in this transformation.

(Originally published in The Telegraph, Kolkata)

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is 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).


[1] 1958 movie produced by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[2] 1974 movie directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[3] In the Distant Valleys, 1980 film directed by Kishore Kumar, also the lead actor.

[4] The Distant Wayfarer, 1971 film

[5] Under the Shelter of the Sky

[6] Such a Large World

[7] Is there Love in Stormy Weather

[8] Traveler, 1957 film where Kishore Kumar played the lead

[9] Song of the Little Road, 1955 Satyajit Ray film

[10] The World of Apu, Satyajit Ray film 1959

[11] Someone return my… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[12]  Where nights do not have a dawn… lyrics of a song sung by Kishore Kumar

[13] 1964 film

[14] The Distant Traveler, 1971 film written, directed by Kishore Kumar who acted in the lead role.

[15] 1984 book with a title based on the Upanishads

[16] Let’s go on… lyrics of a song

[17] Prayers calls of the Muezzin

[18] In the Shadow of a Mother’s Love

[19] We, Two Bandits

[20] My song is half sung

[21] I am an intoxicated bird

[22] Past goes

[23] Middle of the song

[24] Start of the song

[25] Those who go to Timbuktoo

[26] Translation of the lines:

Let me loose myself from the sight of the world
Where no one can find me:
No voices reach me, no tears be shed for me, 
No straw, no inklings trace my thoughts.
Drape my body in a white shroud.
Even spirits should lose sight of me --
My being should only waft in the breeze…

[27] 1953 American film

[28] Blue Skies, 1961 film

[29] ‘I am alone in this world’

[30] RD Burman (1939-1994), Indian music director who composed film scores for more than 300 movies.

[31] Worship, a 1969 film

[32] ‘We are wayfarers of love’

[33] Mood of the song

[34] People will say somethings…

[35] O Companions…

[36] Ending of the song

[37] ‘The heart burns’ sung by legenedary singer KL Saigal(1904-1947)

[38] My God!, 1955 film starring Kishore Kumar

[39] Slave, 1957 film starring Kishore Kumar

[40] 1964 film starring Kishore Kumar

[41] Mr Funtoosh, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[42] We are all Experts, 1965 film starring Kishore Kumar

[43] ‘My Sweetheart will be a astounding’

[44] ‘This moment filled with pain’

[45] ‘Stranger you look familiar’

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is 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).

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Categories
Contents

Borderless, October 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

The Sky … Click here to read.

Conversations

Anthony Sattin, an award winning journalist and travel writer in conversation about Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World, his recent book published by Hachette, India. Click here to read.

VR Devika talks of the dynamic Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly who sought justice for Devadsis and prostitutes and discusses her book, Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights published by Niyogi Books. Click here to read.

Translations

Daridro or Poverty by Nazrul has been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

The Browless Dolls by S.Ramakrishnan, has been translated from Tamil by B Chandramouli. Click here to read.

Two poems from Italy by Rosy Gallace have been translated from Italian by Irma Kurti. Click here to read.

Flowers of Love Bloom Everywhere, a poem for peace, written by and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

Aalo Amar Aalo (Light, My Light) a song by Tagore, has been translated by Mitali Chakravarty from Bengali. Click here to read.

Pandies Corner

Songs of Freedom: Moh-Reen is an autobiographical story by Amreen, translated from Hindustani by Janees. These stories highlight the ongoing struggle against debilitating rigid boundaries drawn by societal norms, with the support from organisations like Shaktishalini and Pandies. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Michael R Burch, Kirpal Singh, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Ron Pickett, Saranyan BV, George Freek, Pramod Rastogi, Mike Smith, Gayatri Majumdar, John Grey, Vandana Kumar, Ahmad Al-Khatat, Rhys Hughes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In Crossing the Date Line, Rhys talks of his fascination with this imagined construct. Click here to read.

Essays

Epaar Bangla, Opaar Bangla:  Bengals of the Mind

Asad Latif explores if homeland is defined by birth. Click here to read.

The Wabi-Sabi of Making a Living

Aditi Yadav calls for taking a break from hectic work schedules. Click here to read.

Just a Face on Currency Notes?

Debraj Mookerjee writes of Gandhi’s relevance and evolution. Click here to read.

A Mother, a Daughter & a Demon Slayer?

Meenakshi Malhotra checks out the festival of Durga Puja, declared the a heritage festival by UNESCO. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

Candice Lousia Daquin explores festivals and the God gene in We had Joy, We Had Fun…. Click here to read.

Musings/Slices from Life

KL Twin Towers near Kolkata?

Devraj Singh Kalsi visits the colours of a marquee hosting the Durga Puja season with its spirit of inclusivity. Click here to read.

A Five Hundred Nautical Mile Voyage to Tasmania

Meredith Stephens writes of sailing to Tasmania when the pandemic had just started loosening its grip. Click here to read.

Keep Walking…

Ravi Shankar recommends walking as a panacea to multiple issues, health and climate change and takes us on a tour of walks around the world. Click here to read.

The Matriarch of Hirronk

Ali Jan Maqsood introduces us to a strong matriarch from a Balochi village. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Drill, Fill, Just Chill, Devraj Singh Kalsi gives us humour while under a dentist’s drill. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

Suzanne Kamata writes of her A Ramble on Bizan, focussing on a writer, also by the surname of Moraes, who lived on Mount Bizan more than century ago, moving to Japan from Portugal having fallen violently in love. Click here to read.

Short Stories

Half-Sisters

Sohana Manzoor explores the darker regions of human thought with a haunting psychological narrative about familial structures. Click here to read.

Homecoming

Rituparna Mukherjee gives a poignant story about missing home. Click here to read.

The Phosphorescent Sea

Paul Mirabile journeys with his protagonist into the depths of the ocean. Click here to read.

The Literary Fictionist

In Deathless are the Words, Sunil Sharma explores madness and ideators who believe in the power of words. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

An excerpt from Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee. Click here to read.

An excerpt from A Handful of Sesame by Shrinivas Vaidya, translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Somdatta Mandal has reviewed BM Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakir. Click here to read.

Basudhara Roy has reviewed Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More, a collection of the maestro’s writings and illustrations. Click here to read.

Categories
Editorial

The Sky

The sky is, was and will be.

It stretches without borders, without interruptions, without contentions, unifying all under its life-giving ambience. We live nurtured by the sky, the water and the Earth. If we think back to times before humans made constructs and built walls to guard their own, to times when their ancestors roamed the Earth and moved to meet their needs, the population was not huge, and resources were abundant. Our species lived in consonance with nature. People revered natural forces and found trends that evolved into traditions and constructs which eventually made their progeny forget that the sky, water and Earth did not belong to them. These belong or perhaps exist for some reason that we do not comprehend despite the explanations given by science and religions. Being merely transient passers-by through these, humanity, unlike dinosaurs, has an urge to survive and be like the sky — with a past, present and future and a sense of the eternal. Though we all have short lives compared to the sky, Earth or universe, we continue to find ourselves in a homo centric world that considers all else to be made to meet their aspirations. But there was a time, when humans lacked this arrogance. They just tried to survive. And move with shifting rivers in an unbordered world.

Exploring such times, is Anthony Sattin’s profound book, Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped our World. He converses to reinforce reviving the concept of asabiyya or bonding between humans so that they find it in their hearts to move forward with necessary changes to avoid following in the footsteps of mammoths. A change maker who redefined constructs for humankind, a devdasi’s[1] daughter who rose to become a pioneering doctor and activist a hundred years ago, is Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy. We have an interview with her recent biographer, R Devika, who authored Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights.

The books reviewed this time include one featuring the writings by the greatest change maker in cinema — Satyajit Ray. Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More while Professor Somdatta Mandal has given us a candid opinion on BM Zuhara’s The Dreams of a Mappila Girl: A Memoir, translated from Malayalam by Fehmida Zakir. Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the  Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated from Bengali by Devalina Mookerjee brings unexplored dark mysterious forces into play and has been reviewed by Basudhara Roy. We have an excerpt from the titular stories of Tarantath Tantrik. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay(1894-1950) was a legendary writer from Bengal. He wrote stories and novels, some of which were immortalised in cinema, such as the Apu triology by Satyajit Ray. The other book excerpt is from a translation from Kannada by an upcoming voice that needs to be heard, Maithreyi Karnoor. She has brought to the anglophone world Shrinivas Vaidya’s Handful of Sesame.

In our section on translations, we are privileged to carry voices that remain relevant to date, Tagore and Nazrul. Nazrul’s poem on poverty, Daridro, has been translated by Professor Fakrul Alam and we have a transcreation of Tagore’s inspiring lyrics (Aalo Amar Aalo) to energise one’s life with the refulgence of light. Rosy Gallace’s poetry has been translated from Italian by Albanian writer, Irma Kurti. Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, has translated his own poem on peace for us. And a Tamil short story by S Ramakrishnan, has been rendered into English by B Chandramouli. It is an interesting potpourri as is our poetry section, which even features poetry from Iraq by Ahmad Al-Khatat. We also feature poems by Michael Burch, Kirpal Singh, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Jonathan Chan, Ron Pickett, George Freek, Gayatri Majumdar, Vandana Kumar, Mike Smith and many more along with the inimitable witty ditties of Rhys Hughes which not only make us laugh but also wonder…

Evoking humour is not easy, but we do have a few such writers who manage it very well. Hughes has given us a tongue-in-cheek piece on the dateline, which has more than humour. And Devraj Singh Kalsi has shared his discovery that laughter is the best medicine to shrug off a dentist’s drill. He has also visited the colours of Durga Puja which, with its spirit of inclusivity, transported visitors in one marquee near Kolkata to the iconic Malaysian Twin Towers. Thus, bringing festivals in October into our purview. Candice Lousia Daquin has actually explored why we celebrate festivals and the God gene… Did you know we have a biological need for spirituality?

Suzanne Kamata has introduced us to Mount Bizan, which houses a writer by the surname of Moraes – Wenceslau José de Souza de Moraes, an expat writer who lived in Japan at the turn of the twentieth century. Wonder if he could have been related to the Anglo Indian writer, Dom Moraes? Aditi Yadav has also given us an essay on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi with its world view centred on imperfections and transience. Ravi Shankar has suggested walks for all of us, sharing his experiences in the Himalayas, the Caribbean island of Aruba and in many more places. Meredith Stephens has written of sailing to Tasmania.

The essay that brought back a flavour of home for me is one by Asad Latif, now a journalist in Singapore but long ago, he was an icon in India. We are very privileged to have his writing on what borders do for us… a piece exploring the idea on which we base our journal, also perhaps with a touch of Anthony Sattin’ s asabiyya. ‘Pandies’ Corner‘ starts another run, showcasing women’s tryst for freedom. Amreen’s ‘Moh-Reen’, her own story, translated from Hindustani by Janees, is a brave start to the series. The voices ring out asking for a change, to heal social norms to accommodate love and kindness with the backing of Shaktishalini and Pandies as does the unsupported solo voice of an older woman from Balochistan, Ganji Baloch, brought to our notice by Ali Jaan Maqsood.

We have fiction from Sohana Manzoor – again bringing to fore strange stories of women rebelling against social norms. Paul Mirabile explores death and the sea in a horrific story. Sunil Sharma’s fiction explores madness and ideators, making a social comment on recent happenings. As the sky stretches out to accommodate all kinds of writings, all creatures great and small, we try our best to give voice to a fair cross section from around the world as we have done this time too.

There are as usual pieces that we have not mentioned in this note but they are all worth a read. Do drop in to check out our contents in this October issue. We are truly grateful to our contributors who continue to connect with words and thoughts that waft along with clouds. We would like to thank Sohana Manzoor especially for her wonderful artwork. The journal would not be a possibility without the support of the whole team and our valuable readers who make writing worth the effort. It is lovely to be read and remembered for the words we write.

Wish you all a wonderful October.

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com


[1] A woman ‘married’ to Gods and forced to live as a mistress to mortal men.

Categories
Review

Satyajit Ray Miscellany

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More

Author: Satyajit Ray

Publisher: Penguin Randomhouse

There could be any number of books on Satyajit Ray. Even after thirty years after his death, he continues to be written about. The present book Satyajit Ray Miscellany: On Life, Cinema, People & Much More, as the title suggests, is everything that the veteran filmmaker India had put in black and white.

As part of the Penguin Ray Library, the book has more than seventy rarest essays on filmmaking, screenplay writing, autobiographical pieces, and rare photographs and manuscripts.

“Ray is a singular symbol of what is best and most revered in Indian cinema” as the film director and scriptwriter, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has put it and the actor, Ben Kingsley, complimented him: “Satyajit Ray, I salute you. The greatest of our poets of the cinema.”

One of the doyens of world cinema, Ray gave a “unique aesthetic expression to Indian cinema, music, art, and literature. His writings, especially, autobiographical works, thoughts on filmmaking, screenplay writing, and eminent personalities from art, literature, and music, among others, are considered treasure troves, which largely remained unseen and therefore less known till date.” Ray was a writer of repute – his short stories, novellas, poems, and articles, written in Bengali and translated into English, have been immensely popular. Author of the famous Feluda stories, Ray’s Bengali books have long been bestsellers. 

Ray was awarded the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1992 – the year he was also awarded India’s highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna, and also when he breathed his last.  

Writes Sandip Ray in the ‘Foreword’ to the book: “Since his schooldays, my father was a cinema addict in the true sense of the term – lapping up Hollywood movies of Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and others as well as the timeless comedies of Chaplin and Keaton. The hobby gradually turned into a serious interest. The formation of the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with a few like-minded friends opened to him the diverse range of European cinema, and in a sense, acting as a catalyst to his writings on cinema. In his first two articles, he heavily criticized the make-believe stereotypes of erstwhile Bengali cinema and called for soul-searching among the filmmakers. The result as he himself remarked later amusingly – ‘Nothing of that sort happened. The piece was simply shrugged off by the people of the trade as yet another piece of tomfoolery by some arrogant upstart who saw only foreign films and knew nothing of local needs and local conditions.’”

The book has been enchantingly divided into: ‘Satyajit Ray – A Self-Portrait’, ‘A Director’s Perspective’, ‘Personal Notes’, ‘Reminiscences’, ‘Festival greetings LP Sleeve Notes’, and ‘Miscellaneous Writings’. There is also a chapter on the ‘Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives’. Together, these writings bring to the fore fascinating anecdotes of Ray’s eventful life.    

About the art of Rabindranath Tagore, Ray wrote: “Tagore took to painting at a later stage in his life. Some manuscripts dating back to his youth show doodles in the margin which suggest a natural flair for drawing. After that, there is nothing to show that he had any interest in visual expression until, when he was well over sixty; fantastic forms began to appear in his manuscripts. Where one would normally cross out a word or a sentence, Rabindranath turned them into grotesque creatures. These emendations were stung together until the whole page took on the appearance of a tapestry of words and images. In time, paintings and calligraphic drawings began to appear as independent efforts, unrelated to manuscripts. Blue-black ink gave way to transparent colors, and the subjects became more and more varied. The output clearly suggests that Rabindranath was absorbed in his new pursuit and enjoying the experience. The lack of formal training was compensated by an instinctive feel for rhythm, texture, and spacing. There was also the calligraphic virtuosity when he used the pen. (His unique and beautiful Bengali handwriting– which came to be known as the “Rabindrik” script has been widely imitated.) But the brush, too, was frequently used. Some of the efforts were purely abstract while others dealt with subjects which covered a wide field.’

Ray considered scriptwriting to be an integral part of direction. Initially, he refused to make a film in any language other than Bengali. In his two non-Bengali feature films, he wrote the script in English; translators adapted it into Hindustani under Ray’s supervision. Such was the purist in Ray!

In the section ‘The Outlook for Bengali Films’ Ray was fairly real-world: “It is generally conceded that the film industry in Bengali is facing a big crisis. Some have gone so far as to predict a total annihilation of the Bengali film as such, and the sprouting up in its place of a product not dissimilar to the well-known type created by Bombay. This may be the height of pessimism, but there is no denying some alarming symptoms. Firstly, the area of exploitation of the Bengali film has been considerably reduced by the Partition; secondly, for reasons we shall presently examine, the exhibitors in Bengal have grown increasingly distrustful of the home product preferring the unpretentious, brassy, and frankly escapist products of Bombay and more recently, Madras.”

Nemai Ghosh was Satyajit Ray’s only cinematographer who did almost all his films. Ray wrote: “We founded the Calcutta Film Society in 1947 with the help of a few friends and associates. Nemai Ghosh was one of them. Like me, he was also enamoured by the cinema; so we got along very well. I was a mere cineaste then but he was already a practitioner as a cameraman. However, he harboured the desire to direct films himself at the back of his mind. The chance came his way during the late forties when he made Chhinnamul (The Uprooted, 1952) on the theme of Partition. It was the first instance of realism in Bengali cinema. But thereafter he was compelled to head for Madras for want of work in Calcutta and had to spend the rest of his life there. Being a leftist to the core, he did a lot for the cinema workers in Madras. We exchanged correspondence only occasionally. But whenever we met, the old warmth of friendship was revived. Today I am feeling his absence intensely and I am sure the cine workers of Madras are also feeling likewise.”

Satyajit Ray Miscellany, the second book in the Penguin Ray Library series, brings to light some of the rarest essays and illustrations by Ray that opens a window to the myriad thought-process of this creative genius. With more than seventy gripping write-ups and rare photographs and manuscripts, this 275-page book is undoubtedly a collector’s item. 

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Excerpt

Tarnath Tantrik by Bibhutibhushan

Title: Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural

Author: Bibhutibhushan

Translator: Devalina Mookerjee

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Since I was deep in meditation, it took a few seconds for the smell of musk to register on my consciousness.

It was with a smile that my mind turned towards the smell. What a wonderful fragrance, I thought, nature is truly magnificent in her bounty! Immediately after this my senses sharpened because it felt as if someone was standing behind me, on the other side of the trunk of the tree. It is true that I could not see the person, but that made me no less sure of her presence. Sometimes instinct serves better than eyes. My entire being was suddenly, completely awake and alert. The air went still. Then, I felt as if my body was on fire, burning embers scorching my insides and exploding outward. The excruciating pain was growing. Was I about to faint again? Just at that moment, the pain disappeared, and there was a woman standing in front of me. I was absolutely certain that she had not been anywhere near that spot even a heartbeat ago. The suddenness echoed exactly that night when I occupied the tantrik’s seat. But this time I knew that she had come for me. This time, I would not slide into unconsciousness. I looked at her. She seemed to be frowning in disapproval—’

***

‘Are you sure you saw this woman yourself, with your own eyes?’ The question slipped out of my mouth before I could stop it. Taranath heard my disbelief, and his tone became agitated and defensive—‘Did I see her with my own eyes? Of course I saw her with my own eyes!

There she was, large as life, standing in front of me! Look, you can believe me or not, that’s up to you. But you can’t say that I’m lying to you, because I’m not.’

‘What did she look like?’ I asked, hoping to appease him somewhat.

‘If I said she was beautiful, that would be less than a proper description. She was exactly as the incantation to call her says, a loveliness beyond words, beyond compare, beyond this world. I realised that the incantations of power I had been pronouncing for months were not simply words made up to call this being, they were descriptions of her power and beauty.’

‘Did you talk to her?’ I was hanging on to his words.

‘Talk to her?’ he scoffed. ‘I was just barely hanging onto consciousness, and you want to know if I talked to her! This was not a normal woman, you understand?

Not from any point of view was she ordinary. Her power radiated from her like the sun. And those eyes!

The incantation to call her mentions her eyes, I had thought those were just words to propitiate the goddess and compel her to respond to the call. My god, you should have seen those eyes—worlds could be conquered and burn in the fiery steel of those exquisite eyes.’

I became impatient. ‘Never mind the long descriptions! What happened? What did you talk with her about?’

He became circumspect. ‘What we talked about is private, between her and me. Such things are not for others to know.’

***

‘What happened is that Madhusundari Devi started to visit me every night. In that desolate place by the river, I had called her as a lover. But you must have guessed that already. After all, who could possibly be dull enough to listen to overcautious warnings from an old tantrik?

It was a mild winter. The waters of the Barakar river were gentle, and low in the bed. The lilies in the shallow water near the banks had become dry and yellow, revealing rock-minerals in the sand that sparkled in the light of the moon. The forests on both sides of the river were shedding leaves into the breeze. The skies were clear and blue in the day, and the moon shone in a cloudless sky at night. From that time on, for three months, she visited me every night. I felt completely alive in those three months, never before, or since, have I felt like that. It’s painful to talk about feeling like that now.

You cannot imagine the pain of it, the grief of loss over a self capable of that kind of joy. I reached a pinnacle of happiness and stayed there for three whole months. She was a goddess indeed. No ordinary human woman would be able to grant such experiences of love, such deep, perfect friendship. Being with her was heavenly, not of this earth. I can’t explain it to you. What words would I use? And you would disbelieve me anyway. You’d call me a liar, or say I’m mad. Perhaps you’re thinking those things right now, as I gabble on.

It’s not just you, even my wife does not believe me. She says the tantrik had used his black magic skills to shut my brains down.

That kind of happiness is intoxicating, like being drunk on very strong wine. But being drunk on strong wine also creates an ennui of its own. I would be listless all day, nothing in this real world held my interest. The daylight hours would go in longing for the evening.

When would dusk darken to twilight under the trees, in the forest by the river? When would she appear, my beautiful actress, perfect heroine to my new-found role as hero? The nights would pass like a dream, time slipping through my fingers like dry sand, each night deeply intoxicated and glittering with joy. My consciousness would expand outwards, grow unfettered, till the sky, the planets, the gods and goddesses were all part of my being, each night, under the stars by the river.

Then, something happened.

A young woman who lived in the nearby village used to come to the river to get water. Since she came every day, I saw her quite regularly.

Excerpted from Taranath Tantrik: And Other Tales from the Supernatural by Bibhutibhushan, translated by Devalina Mookerjee. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2022.

ABOUT THE BOOK

Ghosts are everywhere. Most are ghosts of ideas, feelings, memories. These are our personal ghosts, and they follow us alone. But there are other ghosts, in which we share a common fear. Thickening shadows pooling at the corner of the room, unexplained breathing in the dark, the child who steps out of an old photo—the shiver of supernatural frisson, a thin crooked finger of ice tracing its way down your spine. This fear, and thrill, is rightfully the domain of the kind of ghost you will meet in this book.

In Taranath Tantrik, Devalina Mookerjee translates nine stories of the uncanny and occult by legendary Bengali storyteller, Bibhutibhushan. Seven are short stories of séance, curses, return for revenge, and the desire for things that have no place in human lives. Two are about tantra, of necromancy, spiritual power, goddesses, and ghosts.

The borders of reality are porous in this world.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (1894–1950) is regarded as one of the greatest Bengali writers. His best known works are the autobiographical novel, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), which was made into a film by Satyajit Ray, Chander Pahar, and Aranyak.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Devalina Mookerjee is a translator and publisher. She is also a researcher in health and education. Her interest in ghosts is based on two decades of social science research. She learned to play bass over the lockdown, mostly jazz, blues and folk, and finds that the sound of the bass goes beautifully with stories of ghosts. She lives in New Delhi with her partner and five dogs.

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Click here to read the review of the book

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A Wonderful World

Where “Divides of Class, Religion & Ethnicities Collapse”

Painting of Durga Puja. Courtesy: Creative Commons
Wherever I look, a golden light 
Suffuses a vision of holidays,
The festive sun rises in the woods
Of puja* blossoms drenched in gold rays. 
             -- Tagore, Eshechhe Sarat

This has been a favourite poem of many who grew up reading Tagore, lines that capture the joy and abandon of the spirit that embodies the celebration of Durga Puja, a festival that many Bengalis deem as important as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Diwali or Eid. It is a major celebration in Bengal and large parts of the sub-continent, though not in all parts.

The reason that reviving the lore associated with this fiesta has become very important is that it centres around women. Given the situation in Iran, where the battle over how to wear headscarves has turned bloody, murderous and violent, celebrating an empowered woman, even if mythical, takes precedence over all else. Mythology has it that Durga was empowered by weapons given to her by various deities, all of who were men, and then, she did what all the male Gods failed to do — destroyed a demon called Mahisasur. Rama too prayed to Durga for victory around this time. And on Bijoya Doushami, the last day of the Durga Puja, some celebrate Rama’s victory over Ravana and call it Dusshera or Dashain.

Taking up this theme of the narratives around Durga Puja and how it has been made into an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO is Meenakshi Malhotra’s essay on the festival. Part of the citation reads: “During the event [Durga Puja], the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse….” 

To bring to you a flavour of the Puja, we have translations of poetry by Tagore describing the season and of a poet who was writing before Rabindranath, Michael Madhusdan Dutt, by Ratnottama Sengupta, verses exploring the grief of parting Durga’s mother expresses as her daughter returns to her husband’s home. This is also a festival of homecoming for, like Durga, those living far from their homes return to the heart of their families. Rituparna Mukherjee has woven a story specially around this aspect of the festival. Journals in Bengal, traditionally, brought out special editions with writings of eminent persons, like Satyajit Ray. We have an interview with a writer who wrote a book on Satyajit Ray, an actor called Barun Chanda, to bring a flavour of that tradition along with the translation of a celebrated contemporary Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, by Aruna Chakravarti. We hope you enjoy savouring our Durga Puja Special.

Poetry

Eshechhe Sarat (Autumn) , describing the season of Durga Puja, by Tagore has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read. 

Bijoya Doushumi, a poem on the last day of Durga Puja, by the famous poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, has been translated from Bengali by Ratnottama Sengupta. Click here to read.

Prose

A Mother, a Daughter & a Demon Slayer?, an essay by Meenakshi Malhotra, checks out the festival of Durga Puja against the concept of women empowerment. Click here to read.

Homecoming by Rituparna Mukherjee is a poignant story about homecoming during Durga Puja. Click here to read.

Nagmati by Prafulla Roy has been translated from Bengali as Snake Maiden by Aruna Chakravarti. Click here to read. 

Interview

Meet Barun Chanda, an actor who started his career as the lead 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 in conversation Click here to read.

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Editorial

When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall…

                     “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
                      Think not of them, thou hast thy music too…”

                                 — John Keats (1795-1851), To Autumn
Art by Sybil Pretious

For long writers have associated autumn with “mellow wistfulness”. That loss of spring, or loss of youth is not bleak or regretful has been captured not just by Keats but also been borne out by historical facts. Anthropocene existence only get better as the human race evolves … If we view our world as moving towards an autumn, we perhaps, as Keats suggests, need to find the new “music” for it. A music that is ripe and matures with the passage of time to the point that it moves more towards perfection. Though sometimes lives fade away after autumn gives way to winter as did those of  Queen Elizabeth II (April 21st 1926 – September 8th 2022) after a reign of seventy historic years and Mikhail Gorbachev (2nd March 1931 – 30thAugust 2022) with his admirable efforts to bridge divides. Both of them have left footprints that could be eternalised if voices echo in harmony. Thoughts which create bonds never die – they live on in your hearts and mine.

Imagine… ten thousand years ago, were we better off? Recorded history shows that the first war had already been fought 13,000 years ago. And they have continued to rage – but, at least, unlike the indomitable Gauls in Asterix[1] comics – not all jumped into the fray. They did during the last World Wars — which also led to attempts towards institutionalising humanitarian concerns and non-alignment. Yes, we have not had a perfect world as yet but as we age, the earth matures and we will, hopefully, move towards better times as we evolve. Climate change had happened earlier too. At a point, Sahara was green. Continental shifts split Pangaea  into seven continents – that was even earlier. That might have driven the dinosaurs to extinction. But I am sure mankind will find a way out of the terror of climate change and wars over a period of time, as long as we believe in deciphering the sounds of autumn as did Keats in his poem.

Tagore had also sung of the joys of autumn which happens to be a time for festivities. Professor Fakrul Alam has translated three such songs, reflecting the  joie de vivre of the season, The translation of a small poem, Eshecche Sarat[2], brings the beauty of the season in Bengal to the fore. We have a celebration of youth and romance in a Balochi folksong, an anti-thesis to autumn and aging, translated for us by Fazal Baloch and also, poetic prose in quest of God and justice by Haneef Sharif, translated from Balochi by Mashreen Hameed. Lost romance recapitulated makes interesting poetry is borne out by Ihlwha Choi’s translation of his own poem from Korean. But the topping in our translation section is a story called ‘Nagmati[3]’ by eminent Bengali writer, Prafulla Roy, translated by no less than a Sahitya Akademi winning translator – Aruna Chakravarti. This story illustrates how terrifying youthful follies can lead to the end of many young lives, a powerful narrative about the snake worshipping community of Bedeynis that highlights destruction due to youthful lusts and an inability to accept diverse cultures.  

When this cultural acceptance becomes a part of our being, it creates bonds which transcend manmade borders as did the films of Satyajit Ray. His mingling was so effective that his work made it to the zenith of an international cinematic scenario so much so that Audrey Hepburn, while receiving the Oscar on his behalf, said: “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.”

This and more has been revealed to us in a book, Satyajit Ray: The Man Who Knew Too Much, authored by a protagonist from Ray’s film, Barun Chanda. This book brought out by Om Books International reflects not just Ray as a person but also how he knitted the world together with his films and took the Indian film industry to an international level. Barun Chanda has been interviewed with a focus on Satyajit Ray. Keith Lyons has also interviewed a man who has defied all norms and, in the autumn of his life, continues his journey while weaving together cultures across, China, India and Thailand by his ethnographic studies on tribes, Jim Goodman. Goodman says he left America when speaking for a war-free world became a cause for censorship. This makes one wonder if war is a game played for supporting a small minority of people who rule the roost?  Or are these ramblings of a Coleridge writing ‘Kubla Khan’ under the influence of narcotics?

Poetry also brings the season into our pages with an autumnal interpretation of life from Michael Burch. More poetry from Sunil Sharma, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Gayatri Majumdar, George Freek, Ron Pickett, Sutputra Radheye, Marianne Tefft brings a wide range of concerns to our pages – from climate to the vagaries of human nature. Poetry by an Albanian writer, Irma Kurti, and photographs by her Italian spouse, Biagio Fortini, blend together the colours of humanity. Rhys Hughes as usual, makes it to the realm of absurd – perhaps voicing much in his poetry, especially about the environment and human nature, though he talks of woodpeckers on Noah’s ark (were there any?) and of cows, yetis, monkeys and cakes… He has also given us a hilarious cat narrative for his column. Can that be called magic realism too? Or are the edges too abstract?

A book excerpt from Hughes’ Comfy Rascals Short Fiction and a review of it by Rakhi Dalal makes us wonder with the reviewer if he is a fan of Kafka or Baudelaire and is his creation a tongue-in-cheek comment on conventions? A book review by Hema Ravi of Mrutyunjay Sarangi’s A Train to Kolkata and Other Stories and another by Bhaskar Parichha of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Life, Struggle and Politics, authored by Netaji’s nephew’s wife, Krishna Bose, translated and edited by her son, Sumantra Bose, unveils the narratives around his life and death.

A leader who quested for freedom and roamed the world after being passed over by the Congress in favour of Nehru, Netaji raised an army of women who were trained in Singapore – not a small feat in the first half of the twentieth century anywhere in the world. His death in an air crash remained an unsolved mystery — another one of those controversies which raged through the century like the Bhawal case. In his review, Parichha spells out: “Aiming to bring an end to the controversies and conspiracy theories surrounding the freedom fighter, the over 300-page book gives a detailed and evidence-based account of his death in one of its chapters.”

Our book excerpts in this edition both feature writers of humour with the other being the inimitable Ruskin Bond. We have an excerpt of Bond’s nostalgia from Between Heaven and Earth: Writings on the Indian Hillsedited by Ruskin Bond and Bulbul Sharma.

Our non-fiction also hosts humour from Devraj Singh Kalsi about his interactions with birds and, on the other hand, a very poignant poetic-prose by Mike Smith reflecting on the vagaries of autumn. From Japan, Suzanne Kamata takes us to the Rabbit Island – and murmurings of war and weapons. We have the strangest story about a set of people who are happy to be ruled by foreign settlers – we would term them colonials – from Meredith Stephens. G Venkatesh delights with a story of love and discovery in Korea, where he had gone in pre-pandemic times. Paul Mirabile travels to Turkey to rediscover a writer, Sait Faik Abasiyanik (1906-1954). And Ravi Shankar gives us an emotional story about his trek in the Himalayas in Nepal with a friend who has passed on. Candice Louisa Daquin has written of the possibilities towards integrating those who are seen as minorities and marginalised into the mainstream.

The edition this time is like Autumn – multi-coloured. Though I am not able to do justice to all our contributors by mentioning them here, my heartfelt thanks to each as every piece only enriches our journal. I urge you to take a look at the September edition.

I would like to give huge thanks to our readers and our team too, especially Sohana Manzoor and Sybil Pretious for their artwork. We could not have come this far without support from all of you.

Thank you.

Happy Reading!

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com


[1] The men in the indomitable Gaulish village (which the Romans failed to conquer) in times of Julius Caesar loved to jump into a fight for no reason…Asterix was the protagonist of the comics along with his fat friend Obelix

[2] Arrival of Autumn

[3] Snake Maiden

Categories
Interview Review

Satyajit Ray – Was he really ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’?

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[1](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 Deshe[2]and Shatranj ke Khilari[3], 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[4]’ (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[5], 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.

Barun Chanda

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 [6]  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[7] 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[8], 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[9]. 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[10]. 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[11] and he had to supply stories to Desh[12] — one per year, for the puja [13]special. 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[14].

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


[1] Translates to ‘bound by limits’

[2] 1980 film by Ray, translates from Bengali as ‘In Hirak Raja’s Kingdom’

[3]1977 film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘The Chess Players’

[4] Translates from Bengali to ‘Oh dear look around’

[5] 1981 television film by Ray, translates from Hindi as ‘Deliverance’

[6] A film by Rituporno Ghosh, translates as ‘Diamond Ring’

[7] Satyajit Ray – he was often referred to as such by his friends

[8] Marie Seton: Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray, 2003

[9] Ray film released in 1962

[10] Lockdown due to the Pandemic

[11] A magazine started by Ray’s grandfather, Upendrakishore Ray in 1913

[12] A Bengali magazine that was started in 1933

[13] Durga Puja, the main festival of Bengalis, where the Goddess is said to return to her parent’s home for five days

[14] The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) by Henry Fielding

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(This review and telephonic interview has been conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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