In favour of the parallel line

Renowned Bengali film-makers Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Goutam Ghose talk to GOWRI RAMNARAYAN about present trends in cinema, changing tastes, rising production costs and, of course, the genuine urge of a creator.

THE ROARING success of "Lagaan" has underscored the importance of mega budgets in film-making. It has also proved that the masala has to be fresh. More modest successes of films like "Dil Chahta Hai" show that you need something beyond tired formulae.

It does seem indeed, that after the claustrophobic age of video and television, audiences are returning to watch films with a difference.

But what about films which genuinely try to be different? The kind we call "Art", "Parallel" and "Other" cinema? Made not to bust the box office, but to satisfy the creative urge in the auteur? Where small budgets are matched with idealistic, often harsh dreams? When cinema is not entertainment, but a ruthless probe into the human mind, or the socio-political fabric?

Talking to Bengali film-makers Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Goutam Ghose is to get an insight into the tougher times following Ritwick Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. Unlike Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh, who stay within the cosier ambience of the bhadralok they know, Ghose ("Padma Nadir Majhi", "Paar") and Dasgupta ("Neem Annapurna", "Bagh Bahadur") have tried to break new frontiers in cinema. Both have been acclaimed internationally. If "Uttara" won the Best Direction award for Dasgupta in Venice (2000), "Dekha" won the national award this year. In addition, the film has done well at the box office, drawing both laypersons and the literati. Surprising, if you consider the partly non-narrative, non-linear structure, for the literal and metaphoric theme of failing vision.

"Thanks to film-makers like Steven Spielberg, people started returning to the cinema halls to see what they cannot see on the small screen", Ghose begins. Bollywood had long cashed in on violence and vulgarity which kept middle class families at home with television. But now even commercial film-makers know they can't flog dead horses anymore.

Ghose recalls that up until the 1960s, Bengali mainstream fare was decent, based on literary works. Boi dekhte jaabo (going to see a book) was the expression for film going! The screen was peopled by middle class characters, "Bengal did not understand, as Raj Kapoor and MGR did, that larger than life pictures of labourers and peasants, vagabonds and waifs, could have fantastic appeal across the country."

Ghose chose to focus on peasants, fisherfolk and gypsies. ("Dekha" has his first middle class setting). "As a documentary and feature film-maker it is my mission to rediscover my country and my culture in the changing situations in which I find myself," he declares. "I am a poet and novelist, I could have remained a lecturer in economics," smiles Dasgupta. "But I chose to become a film-maker. The day I find myself making dead images, the moment I have nothing to say, I shall stop making films."

Both film-makers are clear about their scenario. "Audiences vary", says Ghose. "The majority goes to the theatre to have a good time. Some want to understand the language of cinema, genuinely or pretentiously. A handful brings its own experience of life to respond sensitively. I try to communicate some new experience to all three." He knows he cannot be subjective to the point of self indulgence. But he is equally clear that he has to be introspective in his work.

"Not that viewers have not increased for my kind of films, but this is merely addition compared to the multiplication of audiences for commercial cinema," says Dasgupta. "They can't give me all the financial support I need." Moreover, this growth has not kept pace with the astronomical hike in production costs.

"You can't gamble with someone else's money," he adds. Because, when the film is canned and ready for distribution, it becomes a consumer product. "Luckily I have a market all over the world." This means that he doesn't have to do ad films or TV serials for survival.

Today's viewer has seen it all on HBO and AXN. The technical excellence he expects does not come cheap. "That's why 50 per cent of the budget goes into the technical aspects. Global quality determines a global market," he explains.

Dasgupta doesn't believe in casting stars as product boosters. "Many stars want to work with me. True, what I could pay Mithun Chakraborty ("Tahader Katha") was peanuts, but he told me that his remuneration was not the money, but acting in my film. However, I don't want to ask a star to act in my film unless the script justifies his presence in it. Viewers don't come to my films for that sort of glamour."

Both Dasgupta and Ghose do not see commercial movies as a threat to their work. What bothers Ghose is the fact that the TV-Ad- Video addiction has reduced people's attention span. Reflective films set their own pace, often too slow for the intolerant channel surfers. "Slickness depends on the subject. You may see Picasso's cubism as a slick version of the African mask, but the mask itself has its own identity and space. Take a folk art form like the burra katha of Andhra Pradesh. Is it less exciting because it is not slick?" He adds that the earnest film-maker no less than the masala purveyor, has to update himself on technology, so that, along with his style, commitment and expression, he can offer something that his audience can enjoy as cinema - an audio-visual experience of time and space. Not thoughtlessly though. "Dekha" used Dolby stereo because the theme of blindness made multi-directional sounds important to the characters.

"I think my viewers don't want me to manipulate my images. If you have something genuine to say, they'll give you a hearing. But if you try to be clever, or do something without commitment, say, make a film simply because you have a producer, they will reject it. In the name of art cinema we have produced some awful stuff!" Dasgupta shudders.

"The industry has become extremely indisciplined. Fly-by-night producers add to the chaos. Don't blame audiences if they reject shoddy stuff", Ghose shrugs.

Back to the key question of funding and both tell you they can find the money for what they want to do. "The recent phenomenon is corporate funding," says Ghose. "A major Bangla TV company financed my film." But since all the money is white, distributors and exhibitors face problems. "But after initial hurdles, I'm sure better cinema will emerge from corporate funding. Corporate people understand that you can market these products both within the country and abroad. Private entrepreneurs are bound to come in. Perhaps TV will produce better features in the future."

"I'm not so sure about corporate funding," says Dasgupta. "I have mostly had private financiers. No, I don't accept anything with strings attached. I refused an offer from a Mumbai star who was willing to finance a film provided she was cast in it." Foreign co-productions can be a boon, (even at times, with pre-sell clauses) if the deal is honest and supportive.

So, if you are an auteur with confidence and creativity, willing to work within a small budget, you can survive as a full time film-maker in India today. If your product is technically sound and genuine in content, you can release it at festivals and other niche markets.

Unresolved problems? If your project demands a panoramic production, dream on. After all, it needed an Attenborough to make a "Gandhi". Here, even the cataclysmic event of the Partition could only get microscale attention in a "Garm Hawa", a "Komal Gandhar" or a "Tamas".

Fifty years of freedom has not brought a better distribution system for the "Other" cinema in this country, though it is assured of metro and district audiences all over the nation in a chain of small theatres. Kolkata's Nandan theatre accentuates the dearth elsewhere.

Changes in the near future? Ghose remarks, "Bengali is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world, but we don't have the NRI market that some other language groups have developed. Untapped possibilities..." Discloses Dasgupta, "The internet market is opening up. I think it will soon begin to dictate funding and production costs, though on a smaller scale."

Meanwhile, the doughty film-maker ploughs his lonely furrow...