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Director Ranjan Ghosh shares his experience as a filmmaker at Pondicherry University

'You devote yourself to cinema, you may not reap immediate conventional benefits but cinema will love you back in ways you can never imagine are possible'

Ranjan Ghosh   |   Published 10.03.23, 12:37 PM

It was December 21 of last year. I was on my way back from Burdwan after attending a screening of Mahishasur Marddini. A research scholar from JNU called me up to ask if I could share a Vimeo link of MM with her friend at Pondicherry University. She had loved the film at the JNU screening and wanted to share it with her Pondy friend. I did as she said. Two days later she again called me to say, “Ranjan, they have seen the film and want to screen it at Pondy!” I was taken aback, given the struggle Mahishasur Marddini was facing in her hometown.

A few emails were exchanged, and I was invited to Pondicherry University to screen MM. It was the first week of January 2023, and I had just started developing a new story. Going to Pondicherry would mean a break in that schedule. I shared my predicament and proposed that they could screen the film and we could do a postscreening virtual interaction from Calcutta. The Mass Communication department came up with this instead — “Why don’t you develop your new screenplay here, on campus, as a filmmaker in residence?” It was a proposal too good to decline.


And so, three weeks later, I was aboard the weekly Howrah – Puducherry Express along with Aryuun (Ghosh, actor), the scripting assistant of my new story. The journey was full of discussions on how to utilise our time at the university which was going to be our home for the next one month.

We reached Pondicherry on the morning of January 31. It was 7.30am. The weather was rather sultry. A car was waiting for us at the station. The drive to the university was a pleasant ride along the scenic East Coast Road. There I had the first sight of my eternal love — the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal!

We checked into a sprawling campus facing the Bay. The university guest house was adjacent to the main gate. After having a quick shower and an idli-sambar-appam breakfast, we went to the department of Mass Communication, our official host. The HoD accorded us a warm welcome and took us on a familiarisation trip. I was shown a cosy little room next to the HoD’s, where I would read, write, and watch films on the laptop for the next one month. Next, I met the students, mostly from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Surprisingly, some of them were aware of my debut film Hrid Majharey. They said they were looking forward to interacting with me during my stay. Before I got busy with the ever-curious bunch, the HoD advised us to return to the guest house and take rest.

The campus is so huge and the departments, hostels, administration buildings so far from one another that it is the norm in the university to have your own transport. Commuting otherwise would be a nightmare. We were hence provided with a scooty. We went to the department around 5pm. Classes had gotten over. The students were dispersing — some headed for the hostel, some hung around in the department, while a few PhD scholars took us to their ‘Anna’s Café’. I figured that that was the go-to place to have your refreshments. The ambience was lively. We chatted for some time, and then left.

We went around the campus. It was a dense jungle spread over 800 acres with the admin block, departments, students’ hostels, faculty and staff quarters, two large stadiums, and the huge convention centre gently tucked inside that greenery. We parked our scooty outside the main stadium and went inside. It was evening already. A football match was going on. A few athletes were running along the edge of the huge ground. In the gallery, a few others were practising dance steps to chartbusters from Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films for the upcoming Pongal celebrations.

I wanted to witness the sunrise, and so, the next morning we woke up at five, had a cup of tea at an adjacent roadside tea stall, and went to the beach, a mere two-minute walk from the main gate. The beach was raw and pristine, with only the local fishing population living there. We waited for an eternity before the ball of molten gold peeked from the horizon. As it slowly rose, as if from the sea, I was filled with awe and a soothing sense of humility. I still get goosebumps all over whenever I see the sunrise in the mountains or in the ocean.

The next few days went into acclimatising ourselves with the campus, the various departments, the libraries, and the central reading room. The days would start with working on the story. Evenings would be spent on the playground, running. And our nights would end with long strolls on the beach after dinner.

The university had planned to launch their film club, Drishti, with Mahishasur Marddini. I was terribly excited. As I usually do during my screenings, I stepped out of the auditorium after introducing the film. A couple of hours later when I returned, the film had ended, and the faculty and students were clapping. I was happy, sad even, Calcutta in my mind…. As I took a bow, they stood up to give a standing ovation to the film. I didn’t expect that. An hourlong Q&A session followed, and a few Malayali students said they’d want to watch my other films as well, a proposal that quickly got everyone excited and the screenings of Ahaa Re and Hrid Majharey were cemented then and there!

The development of my new story, The Other World, continued. Aryuun and my discussions would happen anywhere — in the guest house, at the cafeteria, in the department room, in hushed tones in the library, even on the beach! Everyone was curious about what kind of story the ‘filmmaker-in-residence’ was developing. Some PhD scholars would try to find out, and even some faculty members made subtle attempts, but we were tight-lipped!

Word had gotten out about the successful Mahishasur Marddini screening, and on one of our regular visits to Auroville, a friend suggested we should screen MM there. However, the prestigious Auroville festival was getting underway, and they wanted to watch the film and then take a call. They found MM disturbing and yet very powerful and cathartic, and decided that it should open the Auroville Festival. Imagine our ecstasy.

Ahaa Re and Hrid Majharey were screened thereafter. Ahaa Re won hearts since the students found it to be a ‘mouth-watering romance’, while Hrid Majharey left them gasping. They said Hrid... felt more like a third or fourth film, and not a debut. How could I even complain?!

Our weeks would be spent writing and interacting with the students, engaging in some sporting activities, but our weekends were strictly kept for outings. Saturday and Sunday evenings meant scooty rides to Pondicherry town and hitting the Rock beach or the Marina beach with barbecue fish, each day a different kind, accompanied by some drink or the other. The waves lashing on the shore, the sea spray drenching your face, it was all magical.

Mahishasur Marddini was screened at Cinema Paradiso, Auroville, on February 20. The film reminded a French viewer of the 1920 German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary. She praised the performances, cinematography, editing and the act-wise narrative. I hugged her for the longest time. Three weeks had gone by, and Aryuun had left for Kerala to join a shoot. One day, the HoD gently enquired about the status of my new story. I shared it with her. She read it along with another colleague. I asked her what she thought of it. “Good, good…” she said nonchalantly. I thought, “Never mind!”

A couple of days were left for my stay to end. The HoD called me up on Monday morning and requested me to be present at the Dean’s office on Tuesday, for a final photo session. Well, friends, I got the biggest surprise there! The university had prepared a Certificate of Achievement to be handed over to me for the story I had developed! Looking at my shocked face, the HoD laughed and said that she and her colleague liked what I wrote so much that they thought it should be celebrated. I was overjoyed. I really didn’t expect this.

From my train window, I looked back till the word ‘Pondicherry’ on the platform signboard faded. Sitting alone in an almost empty compartment, I reminisced about my life in the past month. The screening of my films, the respect Mahishasur Marddini received, the development of The Other World, the honour bestowed upon me as a filmmaker in residence by a prominent central university, all of it seemed unreal. You devote yourself to cinema, you may not reap immediate conventional benefits but cinema will love you back in ways you can never imagine are possible.

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