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- An Interview with Suman Mukhopadhyay by Shawan Sarkar

Hailing from a family with a solid background in films and theater, Suman Mukhopadhyay has carved a niche for himself as a much acclaimed theater artist and a director of thought-provoking films. His motto is to elevate Bengali cinema to its past glory through his craft Ė as we get to know from his candid chat with Shawan Sarkar.

Both your films, if I am not wrong, touch upon subjects revolving around human tendencies towards rationalism and spiritualism. Is this a general observation or something based on your own experiences? 

It all depends on the subject. Iíve always been moved by subjects that are different and that provoke me to make a film out of them. Whenever I read these novels, I got a feel that they could be translated into the cinematic medium and Iíd start to write it down in parts, gradually developing it into a script and that is how the whole process takes shape. For example, when I read ĎHerbertí, I got a cinematic feel out of it and it conjured up images in my mind about the look and feel a movie based on the story should get. That is the rudimentary concern behind making a film Ė the story needs to provoke my imagination, be it periodic, contemporary, political, Indian, Chinese or American; it does not matter.

Is it more challenging to make a film out of a novel as opposed to using an existing script?

It is all very contextual. As I mentioned before, it is always the subject that would challenge me to make a film, be it from a novel, folklore or even a newspaper article. The challenge itself lies in the cinematic medium and how you present your interpretation of the characters, the philosophy and the overall essence of the story. The story, I reiterate, needs to contain something that would move me enough to use the medium of cinema to share it with the audience.

As a director, how do you work with your actors? How much freedom would you give in letting them add their own inputs/interpretations?†

There in no general law in dealing with your actors. Every actor, as an individual, has his/her way of interpreting and responding to a story and its characters. Acting is a very difficult profession because, depending on the demands of the story, they (the actors) need to present themselves accordingly. Being an actor myself, Iíve a good understanding of the issues another actor would have. So there cannot be a general rule of thumb; every actor has a different chemistry with the director. When I discuss a character sketch with an actor, I try to ask questions and delve into the latterís understanding of what is required. Some actors need their own space while others prefer that I show them how to do a particular shot.

What gives you greater happiness? Winning an award for a film or its commercial success?

Well truthfully, both things make me happy. Iíd definitely like my film to be appreciated by the critics and the masses alike. However, it is very important to me that my film is seen in my own country. It can happen that my film is sent to different film festivals across the world and wins accolades everywhere but doesnít get a screening in my own country; that cannot make me happy.

Your movie "Herbert" is slated for screenings in MoMA. Are you excited?

Iím very excited about it because that was my first film. Also, it was in MoMA where ĎPather Panchalií was screened a long time back for the very first time in the USA. I feel highly honored and happy because New York happens to be one of my favorite cities. I went to school in New York where I did a year of film/theater studies and always dreamt to some day have my film screened in New York; so Iím filled with anticipation about the upcoming trip. 

How has your experience in the US been? Do you feel that people's pre-conceived notion of Bollywood movies proves a hindrance in reaching out to them? 

Well, Indian cinema has begun to reach out to global audiences on a bigger scale. Also, bollywood movies are being promoted largely and there is a misconception amongst people across the world that Indian cinema is all about bollywood movies. There is a lot of money invested in bollywood movies unlike other regional films. That is why these films fail to grab public attention due to lack of budget. Iíd not totally negate bollywood movies because they are a part of our Indian culture. However, there are other aspects of Indian cinema, which are still hidden from the global audience. Again, no other Indian filmmakerís work has managed to generate an interest since the times of Satyajit Ray. I mean Ray was a huge international star and known for his excellent work in Indian cinema; we need to rekindle that interest and change peopleís perception about our cinema.

Are you inspired by any of our great Indian filmmakers? If so, who do you admire and what specific traits about their style of film making do you try/wish to inculcate? 

Iím inspired by many filmmakers and their work starting with Manmohan Desai to Satyajit Ray. Iíve grown up watching a lot of Bollywood and Hollywood movies. I cannot specifically say that Iíve honed my creative instincts by watching works of Ray or Goddard or Fellini. Iíve learned a lot from Manmohan Desai, Subhash Ghai and even Raj Kapoor. I feel inspired by all of them and try to learn from their body of work. However, Ray is a huge favorite and Iíve always watched his films since my childhood and admired his style of filmmaking.

You have an extensive repertoire as far as theatre is concerned. When and how did this journey begin? 

I was born into a family where the culture of theater, music and films is highly cherished. My father is a well-known figure in the world of theater. So I was brought up in a milieu where theater and films had a stronghold on my daily existence. I did my first stage performance at the age of 2 in a chorus line. My early childhood was spent in Shibpur and then I moved to Kolkata and continued to do some theater work there until I traveled to Europe and USA to gain more exposure and experience into the line of theater. I always try to keep myself updated on the technicalities, meet people and share ideas; itís an ongoing process. 

Your father, Mr. Arun Mukhopadhyay, is a well-known theater/film personality. Did having an illustrious father ever impact your professional standing? If so, how? 

Well, yes and no. Being from a family of good cultural milieu, I didnít have to persuade my family when I decided to take up this profession. I always had my parentsí guidance when I started. As a youngster, I would often feel irritated when there would be obvious comparisons drawn between my father and me but that wasnít for long. As an artist I realized that people would gradually judge me for my work and not because of my father. Iíve learned a lot from my father who was my first mentor, in terms of timing and precision and that has shaped my technical skills in films as well as theater.

Being in the creative field is unlike a typical 9-to-5 job. How do you balance your personal life when focusing on work?

Yes, being in the creative field, there are odd hours of work. Itís not a typical job but as a human being, I try to balance my personal life. I always try to give time to my family even though there is a very vast public life. My family also understands my need to devote those extra hours to my work and creativity and that helps me in striking the balance that is needed.

Are you currently working on any new film projects? If so, can you give our readers some inkling as to what they can look forward to?

Iím not likely to announce everything right now. Presently, Iím doing some work on Amitava Ghoshís novel ĎThe Hungry Tideí. There is still the question of funding for the movie, as itís a big-budget film. There are some other projects in the pipeline too but Iím not ready to divulge the details as yet.

Is there a message you'd like to give to our readers and the members of Sreeshti who are publishing this magazine? 

There is a revival of good Bengali cinema. Ever since the works of Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, there has been a void. Right now, any middle class Bengali family would not opt to go for a Bengali movie for the same reason. I think one should be aware that there is a small movement to revive Bengali cinema. Me, and some of our contemporary filmmakers like Rituparno Ghosh are trying to bring about a change in peopleís perception of Bengali cinema and communicate it to the masses. As a community Iíd say that you should give the necessary support to Bengali cinema and make this revival possible.

Thank you for your time and wishing you all the best for your forthcoming projects.

Herbert. 2006. India. Directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay. Screenplay by Mukhopadhyay.
Based on the novel by Nabarun Bhattacharya. With Subhashish Mukherjee, Bratya Basu, Sabyasachi Chakravarthy, Lily Chakravarty.
Herbert tells the kaleidoscopic saga of Herbert Sarkar, an idiot savant in Calcutta who incites the wrath of the International Rationalist Society with his successful business enterprise, "Dialogues with the Dead."
Rife with allusions to classic Hollywood and to directors from Satyajit Ray to Jean-Luc Godard, Mukhopadhyay's debut feature is an astounding, encyclopedic parable: part magical-realist fable, part allegory of cultural imperialism. Shot in flashy reds and twilight blues that recall the Technicolor of MGM musicals, this wittily self-reflexive film features a remarkable lead performance by Mukherjee as the film's visionary madman.
142 min.

Thursday, December 11, 2008, 8:00 p.m.(Introduced by Mukhopadhyay)
Friday, December 12, 2008, 6:30 p.m. (Introduced by Mukhopadhyay)
Saturday, December 13, 2008, 2:00 p.m.
Sunday, December 14, 2008, 5:00 p.m.
Monday, December 15, 2008, 4:30 p.m.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008, 8:45 p.m.

Suman Mukhopadhyay

Chaturanga, based on the book by Rabindranath Tagore, is Suman Mukhopadhyay's second feature film. In 2005, Suman completed his first feature film, Herbert, based on a novel by Nabarun Bhattacharya. The film got the National award for Best Regional Film. He is also conferred with awards like the Most Promising Director (BFJA), Best Debut Director (Lankesh Award) and Audience Award in Dhaka International Film Festival. The film has been screened in number of national and international film festivals including Cannes; Florence; Bangkok; Osian Cinefan; Zanzibar; Mumbai, Pune and Kerala. Suman has done his film training from New York Film Academy, USA. He has also done theatre productions ranging from European drama to major adaptations of Bengali masterpieces. Among which are Teesta Paarer Brittanto and Samay Asamayer Brittanto, adapted from the novels by Debesh Roy and Mephisto, based on Klaus Mann's German novel. Teesta has become one of the most celebrated productions of the Bengali stage. He has also staged Rabindranath's Raktakarabi; Falguni-Prelude, Shakespeare/Brecht's Coriolanus and Sudraka's The Little Clay Cart. He directed The Man of the Heart (Life and times of Lalon Fokir) at the University of California, Berkeley and Girish Karnad's Nagamandala at the Department of Theatre, Kalamazoo College, Michigan. This year he directed Fireface, a play by Marius Von Mayenburg with Goethe Institut.