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Isheeta Ganguly to direct Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

‘I took it to her because I felt she is the kind of international actor that I wanted in the film’

Priyanka Roy  | Published 21.12.21, 02:14 AM
Isheeta Ganguly, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Isheeta Ganguly, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Isheeta Ganguly adapts her hugely appreciated musical Three Women into her debut feature film, with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the lead. The Telegraph caught up with the extremely articulate Isheeta on the journey of Three Women from stage to screen (the film goes on the floors in July), why Aishwarya was her first choice and the importance of telling women’s stories.

What made you want to adapt your play, Three Women, into your debut feature film?

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Three Women essentially revolves around a modern telling of the story of the ghost of Kadambari Devi. She was the sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore who died tragically four months after he got married. She committed suicide and there is so much conjecture and pontification over why she committed suicide and what the nature of their relationship was.

My intrigue with Kadambari Devi started at 15 when I came from the US to India to learn Rabindrasangeet from Suchitra Mitra. She would sing a lot of songs that Tagore would sing for Kadambari, and it was quite obvious that those songs were romantic in nature. Over the years, the curiosity of what it was that inspired him so deeply about her grew within me.

I was also fascinated by Charulata. I was an undergraduate student at Brown University and there, an independent study had been designed called ‘The women of Tagore and Ray’. In that course, we looked at Charu (of Nastanirh/Charulata) and Bimala (of Ghare Baire), and we particularly looked at Ray’s adaptation of Tagore’s novels and what Ray’s interpretation of Tagore and Kadambari’s relationship was, in the way he depicted Madhabi (Mukherjee) and Soumitra (Chattopadhyay) in Charulata.

I was lucky enough to have a serendipitous meeting with (Satyajit) Ray before he died. I then wanted to do a modern-day telling of Charu’s story and Bimala’s story and bring in Kadambari’s ghost, where she guides both Bimala and Charu to better outcomes. That is what Three Women is about. It’s a dramatic telling, it’s funny and yet poignant in terms of the themes the three women discuss and conclude about relationships and the larger purpose of their lives, that in their time in the 19th century, they weren’t able to fulfil. What has inspired me about Kadambari the woman so deeply is this struggle to realise her potency during her life. So much of her was not expressed. So this is about women who are so talented, across centuries, but are not allowed to realise her potential.

Three Women became this extraordinarily successful national musical theatre. It was a sensation of sorts in Mumbai with several of the literati and the film fraternity coming to see it. Among those who came to see it was director Pradeep Sarkar (who has directed films like Parineeta and Mardaani). He loved the production, particularly the play’s inspiration from Charulata and Ghare Baire and the recreation of ‘Charu’ and ‘Bimala’ in a dram-com context.

Pradeepda was deeply passionate about the play’s potential to evolve into a film and took it to Aditya Chopra (the head honcho of Yash Raj Films). I then began working with Adi closely to develop the play into a screenplay. Adi has essentially taught me the craft of screenwriting from A to Z. He’s a remarkable mentor with a sharp eye for talent and for honing it. He’s incredibly patient, invests deeply in people and projects and is always in your corner to succeed.

After working on it with him for a while, we both felt it would be stronger as a Hollywood indie project, given that the script takes place almost entirely in the US. It truly is a global story. So he gave me the incredible opportunity to develop this into a Hollywood project which was always my dream. He remains an adviser to the project and I continue to work with him on developing other projects, with YRF very much remaining my anchor and ‘soul-home’ as a creator.

What made you sign on Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for the film?

I took it to her because I felt she is the kind of international actor that I wanted in the film. I needed someone like her who understands the Indian sensibility, as well as the larger global sensibility. What sets her apart is her navigation and her sensitivity to both worlds as well as her deep appreciation for Bengal, particularly for the work she has done with Rituda (Rituparno Ghosh) on Chokher Bali and Raincoat. She has a deep interest in Tagore and her father-in-law’s (Amitabh Bachchan) passion for Tagore has undeniably driven that as well. She really has an affinity for all things Bengali, and that’s very special about her.

She resonated with the script right away and the first thing she told me was, ‘This has to be in English’. She was very keen that this film be made for a global audience, and that kind of cemented  it for me.

Was she always your first choice?

She was the one, especially because I wanted to take it to an international audience. There has been tremendous interest in this project. I have been approached by many actors who wanted to be cast. This is a classic being given a contemporary context, and ultimately, Kadambari is this time-travelling ghost. The big theme of the film is that so much has changed, and yet so little has changed for women.

Have you zeroed in on the rest of the cast?

It’s largely a mother-daughter story and Aishwarya plays the mother, roughly her real age or a little younger. For the part of the daughter, we are looking at an Indian-American actor named Shoba Narayan, who is currently on Broadway... she is in Aladdin. She’s fabulous! For the part opposite Shoba Narayan, which is of a slightly older man, I am in conversation with John Abraham.

What were the biggest challenges of adapting a play into a screenplay for a film?

It is challenging, very challenging! What flies on stage as a musical theatre, it’s tough to figure out how to bring that to the right kind of 120-minute screen adaptation. The challenge and the opportunity lies in taking themes that have worked very powerfully on stage and making them visual in the film. It’s a dramatic comedy. It’s about three women going on a road trip. If I had to find a Bollywood equivalent of it, I would say it’s a female version of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. We go on the floors in July next year and it will largely be shot around the New York area.

Your stories focus on women. How important is it to for you to tell stories of women?

It is the central theme of the work that I do. All my three musical theatres are women-based stories. My new musical theatre Shakuntala awaits its debut. For a woman film-maker, I feel, there has not been a more exciting time than now to tell women’s stories. I spend a lot of time talking to women who are millennials as well as those in their 70s. What we are finding globally, and in the Indian context too, is that women are unabashedly asserting their own voices in a variety of ways. I see that happening across the board, across different socio-economic groups. I think women are seeing their stories in each other in an unprecedented way... there is a collective empathy for our journey as women. That is something that resonates with me very deeply. The constant evolution of women gives film-makers like me the courage to tell stories that we may not have otherwise. Also, as far as women are concerned, it’s no longer an India story or a US story... it’s a global story. There is so much less otherisation in today’s women’s stories.

What took so long to direct a film?

(Laughs) I think I just stumbled from one thing to another. I grew up as a second-generation Indian in the US. I started singing professionally since I was 15. I started releasing albums at that age. That exposure to entertainment so early on defined me, but I truly had no plans of becoming a film-maker. I was always driven by a love of cinema by my father who liked all kinds of international cinema.

I think things just happen... I didn’t really think I would move into the arts full-time from management consulting nor did I write and direct Three Women the musical theatre thinking it would become a film. But it was Pradeep Sarkar’s vision that opened up this world to me. Adapting a musical theatre into a screenplay can be challenging but that’s where Adi’s mentorship and guidance has been a guiding light.

Last updated on 21.12.21, 12:14 PM
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