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A different angle

Director Suman Mukhopadhyay is on a high these days. His much-awaited second film, Chaturanga, has just released. He’s hoping that the film’s leading lady Rituparna Sengupta’s star value will help bring in the audiences.

The film, which also features Subrata Dutta, Joy Sengupta and Dhritiman Chatterjee, has already won critical acclaim on the festival circuit. It’s doing the rounds of the Sao Paulo International Film Festival and Montreal World Film Festival. It’s also the only Bengali film to be selected for the Indian National Panorama, and was the closing film at the recent 14th Kolkata International Film Festival 2008.

Meanwhile, Mukhopadhyay is eager to move on to his next project — he wants to film Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Hungry Tide. He has also scaled up his ambitions and wants it to be a Rs 20-crore international project with singer Norah Jones possibly in the lead.

Although Ghosh was reluctant initially, he agreed to part with the novel’s filming rights after he saw Mukhopadhyay’s first film, Herbert. Now, Mukhopadhyay has the uphill task of raising funds for it.

Then, he’s planning to make a film on Rabindranath Tagore’s Shesher Kabita. For now, though, the attention is on Chaturanga, based on another Tagore novel. “Chaturanga is a story of many journeys. I’m very happy with how my actors have performed. Rituparna has exceeded my expectation,” says the 42-year-old director.

Chaturanga is the story of Sachish, a young man full of abstract ideals. He can’t reconcile these ideals with the reality of the two women in his life. There’s the widow Damini, played by Rituparna, who Sachish only sees as an enticement in the way of his spiritual salvation. The other woman, Nanibala, played by Trina Nileena Banerjee, is his brother’s abandoned mistress and he regards her as a fallen woman who must be ‘saved’.

A poster of the award-winning play, Teesta Paarer Brittanto

Rituparna believes that Mukhopadhyay is a very sensitive and systematic director. She says, “Chaturanga is a very difficult film to make. The amount of research Sumanda put into it was amazing. Damini is one of the most intriguing and complex characters I’ve played.”

Mukhopadhyay is no stranger to acclaim, having achieved it on stage and in film. His celebrated 2000 play, Teesta Paarer Brittanto, won the West Bengal State Theatre Academy Award for best direction although it was criticised by the Left government, which felt it was critical of its policies. The play highlighted the plight of the dispossessed of North Bengal.

Mukhopadhyay’s first film, Herbert, too won the National Award for the Best Bengali Feature Film in 2005, besides being a box office success. It was about a marginalised character, Herbert Sarkar, a 40-year-old who believes that he can talk to the dead but is driven to suicide after he is ridiculed as a fraud by society.

Mukhopadhyay’s creative journey began early — he’s the son of theatre stalwart Arun Mukhopadhyay. So he grew up watching rehearsals and reading The Drama Review from New York. Alongside, he nourished his passion for Hindi films.

“Cinema is my first love. I grew up watching Amitabh and Mithun,” admits Mukhopadhyay, who is impressed by recent films like A Wednesday and Mumbai Meri Jaan.

His first foray was as an actor. He worked with his father’s theatre group Chetana and for stalwarts like Bivas Chakroborty, with whom he did the hugely successful play, Madhab Malanchi Kainya, in 1988.

Then, deciding that a systematic study would enrich his skills, he enrolled for a course in theatre at the Asian Cultural Council in New York in 1991.

“That was a huge exposure. I had some great teachers and we watched everything from Broadway performances to Harlem to a Radio City dance drama,” recalls Mukhopadhyay, who was already oscillating between acting and direction by then.

When he returned to Calcutta a year later, his mind was set — he wanted to be a director. Over the next decade, he took on many theatrical challenges, directing plays like Klaus Mann’s Mephisto and Girish Karnad’s Nagamandala. Later, he formed his own theatre group, Tritiyo Sutra.

A still from Chaturanga; (Below) Mukhopadhyay in action behind the camera

Yet, films were never far from his mind. So he began making documentaries and ad films alongside theatre. He even made a crime series for television, Tarkash, with Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapoor in 1997.

Again, he wanted to perfect his filmmaking skills so he joined the New York Film Academy in 2001. “It’s through films that I can share my passion for the idiom I understand with the maximum number of people,” he says.

On his return, he embarked on his journey to make meaningful cinema. The result was Herbert.

Be it theatre or film, there are some recurrent themes in Mukhopadhyay’s work. “Political and historical consciousness were a strong part of my growing years and my works reflect this,” says the director.

He’s also concerned with marginalised characters, be it Bagharu in Teesta Paarer Brittanto or Herbert or now Damini in Chaturanga. He chooses to see the world through these characters who don’t fit into established social codes.

“Since Damini can’t be defined, she’s an unsettling agent. If we see (the world) through the eyes of a marginalised character like Damini, we get a totally different image of the times. I wanted to catch this strange mindscape,” he says.

Mukhopadhyay has a rather unusual working style. He writes scenes randomly — he may be provoked by images of a novel sometimes — and then fits them together later like a jigsaw puzzle.

When he’s directing his actors too, “I hate to demonstrate emotions to them — they must be triggered from within. So I often use poems or even music to help them hit the note,” says the director ,who’s influenced by world cinema, especially directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Fatih Akin.

“I like simple and engaging films which may lack technological gloss but are very human,” says Mukhopadhyay. That’s certainly evident in his own cinematic journey.  

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