The 94-minute film Cat Sticks — written and directed by 32-year-old Calcutta boy Ronny Sen — had its world premiere in the competition section at Slamdance Film Festival this January where it won the award of Honourable Mention. It premiered at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) on April 12 and is all set to do a few more festival rounds in May, like the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) and Mammoth Lakes Film Festival (MLFF) in California. Set in 1990s Calcutta, the film is about one night where a gang of young people seek lust and life in their relentless pursuit of brown sugar and its unsustainable high. The Telegraph chats with Ronny.
What was the genesis of the story?
More than a particular piece of story, I was trying to create that space we all lived through in late 1990s and early 2000s in Salt Lake in Calcutta, where I was growing up. This collective experience was more important than a story per se. It was more about the atmosphere and what many of us went through, some of us survived and some of us didn’t survive. These experiences were real and I never thought I’d make a film but when the opportunity came, the first idea was to make a film about brown sugar addiction in Calcutta during those days.
Why did you make the film in black-and-white?
The kind of film I wanted to make, it had a certain element of atmosphere and a certain mood that I had to create. You need a canvas to paint, so the black-and-white, the rain were all a layer for me to start the story. Otherwise, how the film sort of unfolds... it wouldn’t have been possible in broad daylight, in colour. It would’ve been a different film, but the moment you strip the layers of colour, it allows you to say a lot more which can be believed by the viewer. It happens in the night and while it is raining throughout. Then it becomes easier for me to tell these stories and people also start getting into that atmosphere which is more important than an individual story.
What is Cat Sticks about?
Cat Sticks is primarily about an ensemble cast and not all of them are together. There are these different characters in different corners of the city who are doing their own thing like any other brown sugar addict would do. Somewhere there are two guys, somewhere else there are three different guys… somewhere they meet in the story but they’re not connected apart from the fact that all of them are hardcore addicts who just use to live and live to use. That’s the only thing that they do. It’s about their experiences and how all of them have to survive that night. On many occasions, there are instances in the film where they go out of realism.
Where do you draw the line so that this doesn’t seem like a glorification of drug abuse?
I have no desire to glorify addiction... that was never a question, to be honest. It’s not done from a humanitarian or realistic approach, I don’t want people to feel pity for them. My whole idea was that people should know that they exist. Drug addicts in any household from any class or background of the society have their lives connected because they are all suffering. The suffering of a street addict is not very different from an addict who belongs to a privileged family. The violence is the same.
For a father and mother whose son or daughter is a junkie, they’d see that their child is on the way to hit rock-bottom, but they don’t know what, how and why the person is doing what they are doing. They see the effect visually and what is happening on the outside but they don’t know what is happening with that person. Society as a whole looks at a drug addict from the prism of either morality or some kind of deficiency. There is a huge gap in understanding addiction.
Cat Sticks was the only Indian film shown in The Slamdance Film Festival 2019. Was that a validation as a debut filmmaker?
The response was pretty amazing. Slamdance is one festival that is entirely run by filmmakers for filmmakers and there is no nepotism or favouritism. You cannot push your film in the festival, there are about 200 programmers and 10,000 films are submitted and then the makers shortlist them. All these 200 programmers see the final 50 films and they decide. Getting into Slamdance was interesting because we knew that it was legit. The jury at Slamdance, to our surprise, was very excited and they gave us an award of honourable mention. The jury mentioned that it was one of the most beautiful films ever seen, they said that it finds a vein in American culture.
Did you struggle with funding?
Everything came to me in a weird sort of way. I’ve never really had to struggle or hunt for work. I found Shreya (Dev Dube) who shot the film beautifully because I was looking for a cinematographer who knows black-and-white. Then we somehow found Oliver Weeks who’s based out of UK and he made the music for us. The poster has been made by a legendary Polish artist Lech Majewski. We had a solid support system and had a young cast… things have been exciting. Moushumidi (Bhowmik) wrote and sang a song that’s there in the end credits.
How was the journey like from being a photographer to a filmmaker?
I had no intention of making a film. I was experimenting with videos and stuff. I had made a video for one of Moushumidi’s songs. I had a little career in fine arts and photography. I never looked at myself as a filmmaker even in 2016. Some of my friends got in touch and asked if I’d want to make a film. I said I can try, so I wrote a treatment of a few pages and they liked it and asked me if I want to develop a script. So it basically fell into my lap.