It was the morning of March 8, International Women’s Day. As I stepped into Orion Mall and went up to the PVR Cinemas on the topmost floor, I had a strange feeling. What if the audience was thin, given a mid-morning show on a weekday? What if people didn’t like the film? What if… A million doubts hovered over my head. People had just started arriving in small numbers. Even fewer were headed towards the film festival venue. Once I reached there, I brushed all my fears aside (or so I thought) and went to Screen 9 where Mahishasur Marddini would begin at 10.15am.
I got a call from Ritudi (Rituparna Sengupta). She was leaving the Sheraton Grand Hotel next door and would be there in 10 minutes. I looked up at the rows of seats that loomed large over me, almost staring down at me. And they were all empty. I called the volunteer assigned to me. “There’s zero audience!” I screamed over the phone. The roly-poly fellow came running. It was almost 10 am and not a single person inside! The fellow seemed all chilled out, “Don’t worry, Saar. There have been a lot of enquiries about your film. They like your title.”
At 10am sharp, as the entry door opened, I sat myself in one corner of the first row. A few people walked in. I dared not look at them. A few of my friends and relatives got comfortable in their seats. I squirmed in embarrassment as I looked up to find only them in the audience — total nine in number — as I went out to receive Ritudi who had arrived. I again scoffed at the poor volunteer. He was his usual calm self. “No problem, Saar. It’s just 10.05…” was his heavily accented reassurance.
I met a beaming Rituparna Sengupta and headed directly for the ‘Meet the Press’ event. She asked me about the turnout, I feigned to be occupied in some other thought. The press meet went fine — we thanked our good luck that the screening coincided with Women’s Day, we spoke about the film and its themes, we reminisced about our shoot and the hurdles posed by the three Covid waves, and we gushed over how excited we were to find a berth in the prestigious ‘Asian Cinema Competition’ section, when all we wanted was a selection in the ‘Chitrabharati — Indian Cinema Competition’!
Meanwhile, the volunteer whispered into my ears that the screening will begin only after we had introduced the film (I had made an earlier request to this effect). We needed to rush to the theatre, since it was already 10.20. I looked at him tentatively, and he blessed me with his characteristic Buddha-esque smile.
On our way to Screen 9, I noticed Rituparna walk with a spring in her step and immediately contrasted it with my slow laborious walk with heavy steps that perfectly defined my mood.
We were a good 10 minutes behind schedule by the time we entered Screen 9. The biggest of surprises was awaiting me there — I had left nine of my friends barely half an hour back, but I returned to an audience fourteen times that number! As I looked amazed, almost disbelieving, and Ritudi beamed her million-watt smile, the roly-poly volunteer whispered into my ears, “I had told you, Saar, didn’t I?” He wore a sincere smile — did he notice my eyes glistening? If at all he did, he didn’t show it…
‘A film should do all the talking, and not its makers’ being the norm, we kept our introduction to bare minimum and dedicated our film to all the women we knew and to womankind in general. The lights went out as we took our seats. After the National Anthem and BIFFES promo had played, the film began.
Emotions of the widest of spectrums engulfed me. My mind went back to one summer night in 2019 when I had narrated the story to my closest friend on my terrace. It was the first time I had shared it with anyone. And the stunned response I got assured me that Mahishasur Marddini was ready to be made. The idea was growing in my head since 2012, and gradually developed over the years into a strong narrative, but I had never shared it with anyone up until then. A treatment note was already in place. I shared it with Ritudi in August 2019 in Melbourne, we had gone to screen Ahaa Re at the Indian Film Festival there.
Given the subject and the treatment I had in mind, she took a couple of weeks to give her nod. AVA Films Pvt. Ltd. came in as the producer. We had planned to shoot in June 2020 but suddenly life got turned on its head. The year passed by uneventful, lots of things changed, and we shot the first schedule in February 2021, this time with Vinayak Pictures joining in as a co-producer. The second schedule got delayed till August, and the post-production was somewhat affected during the third Covid wave.
The film finally got ready this year in end-February, just in time to participate in BIFFES 2022! A little delay in our post-production would have quashed our chances at this prestigious film festival which is among the 46 film festivals in the world and five in India approved by the FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers’ Association).
So, then, there I was, sitting in the dark theatre, my mind numb, as images floated across the giant screen in front of me. They all seemed alien, distant, as if from another life I was unaware of. As I stared at the images with unseeing eyes, I heard gasps among the audience. I surreptitiously turned and looked around. A hall full of people seemed engrossed! No cellphone screens lit up, no popcorn munching or soft-drink slurping was heard. I looked at my actor Rituparna Sengupta sitting a seat apart. She had an inexplicable expression on her face, something I hadn’t seen before. I didn’t disturb her.
Moments rolled on, frames passed by as I recalled my core team — Subhadeep Dey, Amit Pal, Avijit Kundu, Ashis Adhikary, Payel Dutta, Rajat Subhra Chakraborty, PV Manikumar, Debasree Datta and Anindya Sengupta. They were all there with me, ever more present in their absence. My team of assistants, the production team, and the junior technicians — each of them crossed my mind as I witnessed firsthand how Ritudi-Saswata Chatterjee-Parambrata Chattopadhyay-Koushik Kar, Aryuun-Abhyuday-Sritama-Arunima, and all the 75 actors set the screen ablaze.
As the end credits rolled, I was brought out of my reverie by the sound of applause surrounding me. It went on for, I can’t recall how long… As we stood before the audience and took a bow, the applause became stronger. The audience got up and stood on their feet. Were they preparing to leave? Or was it…? They were like that for the longest time, and the only sound playing in my ears was that of their hands clapping in the otherwise silent auditorium.
We took another bow, and sensing that we needed to quickly get into the Q&A session because of time constraints, I had to break the purity of that heavenly moment and bring all of us back into the routine churning of practical chores. I was expecting piercing questions. Deep observations. Loaded comments. Discussions on form and style. I got none of those. Instead, some held my hands. Some hugged me. Some revealed their goosebumps. A 70-year-old Kannadiga doctor kissed my forehead, while her professor husband shook my hands. Two Malayali girls, University students, were stooping to touch my feet — I held them in an embrace. Their gesture was my reward. I saw tears glistening in a pair of young kohl-lined eyes… I saw an old Punjabi woman restraining her sniffles under her kerchief. A few, I saw, just stared at me. Their silent gaze seemed like a blessing. Among those 100-odd guests, only nine were Bengalis. Rest was from all across India. Their faces were clear to me in the beginning, but gradually they blurred. Something was choking inside…
That night, I went to sleep warm, contented. Perhaps in months. Maybe even in years. After having subjected a few good men and women to so much torment and pain, guilt and shame — as many of them had admitted to me afterwards, it almost felt sinister-like to experience something akin to happiness. But did I feel guilty about it? Ummm… I don’t think so!
The author is a Bengali filmmaker based out of Kolkata