- Punam Bakshi Mohandas
- 10 January 2022
"Writing is a Science as well as an Art."
SWA Exclusive interview with writer director actor Parambrata Chatterjee
He is God’s gifted child, quite exceptional as a writer, director as well as actor and has established himself successfully in all three fields at a relatively young age. Hailing from an impeccable lineage, he does justice to all the stalwarts in his family. In conversation with the erudite, articulate and pulling-no-punches Parambrata Chatterjee (also known as Parambrata Chattopadhyay):
I start by asking Parambrata to elucidate on the marvelously delicate and sensitively written ‘Shonar Pahar’; is it true that the germ for the idea is based loosely on his mother’s own book of short stories as told from a child’s perspective? What inspired him to pen a script based on it?
“Yes, it is in a sense”, Parambrata readily agrees. “I wouldn’t be able to pick on any one story but it's basically based on the atmosphere her book creates. Then I collaborated with this lovely writer called Pavel and I gave him a two-three pager story which he developed to a certain extent. It’s definitely a joint collaboration; I just changed the space because obviously he didn’t know my mom, so I wanted the woman to come from a certain strata of society which is unique to Bengal and even Maharashtra – they’re not lower middleclass, but somewhat elite. Simple living, high thinking breed of people is very rare in cultures; this is a unique feature among Bengalis who grew up in the 50s and 60s.
“How it all came about is… I lost my mother in 2014 and we had a tremendous relationship since I had lost my father when I had just turned 20. So ever since, my mom and I had a lovely relationship… not always flowery or milk-and-honey but, by and large, very exciting, a tremendous camaraderie. In 2015, I decided to collate all her writings. I spoke to a publisher and he agreed. He sent me her collected works to proofread and I was just reading through them one afternoon… it just brought back so much. I felt I could understand my mom much better and that got me to do something through which I could commemorate her”.
Should movies convey some kind of moral message to society at large? Apparently, ‘Shonar Pahar’ was an attempt to highlight the gap between the elderly and the young that is endemic of Indian society today?
“I don’t think it should or has to”, he says very definitely. “I’m also not talking about society at large because that’s too big a word to shoulder. I think an artiste should work without the burden of a message to give, but every film should have a kind of pay-off or take-home for the audience; no amount of cinematic liberty should meddle with that take-away. It does not mean that it has to be something very uplifting or change the person’s life from tomorrow – that’s too much responsibility again, but there has to be a central tonality that should stay with the audience, it shouldn’t muddle the idea that lies behind the apparent layer of plot points. What lies beneath should be driven home to the audience, which is what I call the take-away”.
The renowned writer Mahashweta Devi is Parambrata’s aunt and so I ask him the obvious question - how influenced has he been by her writings; what contribution has it had on his own writing style?
“Not much; she belongs to a very different society. Her writing has not directly influenced me, but it is the consolidated atmosphere that I have grown up in. I have always grown up with challenging perceptions about culture, history, rich and poor, right and wrong, what women should do or shouldn’t do. I’ve seen these notions challenged by men and women around me”.
Equally, how intimidated is he by her image and writing prowess? Does he fear the inevitable comparisons?
Parambrata is somewhat flummoxed by this question. “No, not really. Sometimes I write my own films, but that does not pronounce me in the same league as Mahashweta Devi - I think you’re the first one who is actually bringing these two names in the same context. Yes, being a grandchild to Ritwik Ghatak has sometimes led to the comparisons”, he says.
What can prompt an actor to turn a writer? What are the inherent challenges in both spheres?
“Very honestly, although it might seem so, my journey is not from an actor to a writer; I’ve always considered myself as a writer-director then actor, although the world knows me as an actor first. I wanted to go to film school but couldn’t because my father passed away and I had to start working; I had already begun acting by then, so that extra money coming into the house helped. I went to film school in the UK eventually with a scholarship after six-seven years of acting. I became curious about acting only through my curiosity in cinema itself. In my head, I’m a movie maker first. So I wouldn’t be able to comment really on why actors turn to writing”.
Does being an actor ever overpower his writing, or does it (the acting experience) tend to enhance it, I muse aloud?
“I think it enhances”, he answers ruminatively. “Sometimes, it also overpowers in the sense that most writers who are not actors can leave a certain moment by describing it in one line and then leave the actor and director to interpret it. With me, who dons all hats, while writing I tend to break it down into every single shot or twitching of the muscle. That makes the script a big fat document which is not always good – my AD’s are like: ‘okay we have to shoot this fat document in these many days’? he chuckles self-deprecatingly. “I even write the psychoanalysis that goes on in a character’s head, which is not always good, because it should be left for the actor and director to interpret”.
How challenging is it, juggling the hats of writer, actor, director – and now production as well?
“Yes, it is a challenge in the sense that it takes a toll on my time sometimes”, Parambrata sighs. “I feel I’m doing too many things, especially since the pandemic, because first there was nothing happening and that was a very unnerving time for most of us in the business. As soon as the restrictions were relaxed, a lot of us went headlong into too many things. In the last one and a half years, I’ve had a tremendously busy time, so mid 2022 onwards I’m trying to streamline myself”.
There are a growing number of new writers today, including Parambrata himself, who are exploring uncharted territory with novel storylines. Has the Indian audience really matured, or is this the effect of OTT platforms especially during the COVID-19 period, which meant enforced home isolation/working that led to people seeking newer forms of entertainment?
“I think it’s everything together”, he says contemplatively. “I think the advent of the OTT platforms, especially the long format ones, has gotten the audience accustomed in bad as well as good ways to a whole wide world of possibilities. It’s not limited to the pandemic alone…I think I became a Netflix member in 2016… I’d take 2015-2016 as a watershed time as Netflix and Prime started taking currency in the subcontinent. The onset of the pandemic from 2020 has catapulted that to a different level. So both have happened simultaneously - maturing audiences and OTT boom”, he sums up.
The Hindi mainstream cinema is also becoming bolder with more LGBTQ-themed stories hitting the screens, either as shorts or feature films. What is his opinion on this?
“It’s a valid discipline; I would say it is something that the world has felt a need to turn their heads towards. The rights of LGBTQ individuals and same-sex love, however you want to call it… it’s important to acknowledge that love is love. It’s one of the most important thought trends which has emerged in the last decade or so and you can understand the importance when you see it is percolating mainstream paradigms as well. I love Bollywood mainstream and it has been experimenting with stuff but, by and large, it likes to play safe and remain with the populist flow. We should just keep telling stories, not just about LGBTQ, but people from political and social margins too. We are becoming a very, very consumerist society. Those realities need to be explored and told as well”, he says strongly.
Are we becoming too modernized, especially when we compare ourselves to our neighbour Pakistan, where the writing still strongly reflects the culture and societal mores?
“I like Pakistani content, I think they make tremendously good stuff”, Parambrata says immediately. “But I don’t think less of flesh show makes it better or worse. They are catering to a certain section of society and practising their own standards of sanitizing, but I’ve also seen Pakistani content that is way more daring than what we show, more mature in content than Indian content – I’m speaking of content”, Parambrata emphasizes carefully. “Same goes for Bangladeshi content. I don’t like to subscribe to overt terms like ‘modernise’, I want to add that the only meaning of modernise - and I don’t like to use this word – is maybe we are at times focusing a bit too much on the sense of urbanity. And we are sometimes losing touch… there are realities not too far from us and those realities are not being recognized. In our subcontinent, we are very much rooted in grounded storytelling - folklore, legends - which are parameters for social evolution. We are trying to become hyper urban and that can make us run the risk of losing out on great content from spaces closer to the soil”, he says passionately.
What, according to him, is the most notable difference between Bengali cinema and Hindi cinema in terms of screenwriting?
“There are good and bad things, both. Bengali cinema is very small compared to Hindi or even down south. The difference lies in a sort of quality check. When Hindi films or series are being made, there are studios involved, script doctors involved and they’re all trying to ideate a certain concept and make it more palatable to the audience. The good thing is that it brings fresh challenges to the writer and makes him look at it objectively… so many heads coming together to analyse something and telling the creator to steer clear of clichés or telling the writer about current trends …such counter thoughts help to remain objective. This practice happens lesser in Bengali cinema. There is no script defense that happens. The good thing about Bengali cinema is that the artist has more liberty; too much of script doctoring or objectivity can take away the spontaneity, take away the art from the creativity. There has to be a perfect balance of both”.
He has also worked in a couple of short films. What does he think of shorts as a genre; is it more challenging to relate a complete story in a briefer span of time?
“I’m not too well versed on this because it is not a genre I’m conversant with. I like to tell a story in all its grandeur and I find this genre far too short for my appetite”, he says candidly.
Parambrata was recently seen in the series 'Aranyak' on Netflix. Any particular take-away from this web series?
“Lots, actually”, he exclaims. “It is very, very difficult to make an atmospheric thriller; it is the local atmosphere that makes it so special. How to create this has been the biggest take-away because, in a thriller, you have to keep the pace alive, you have to keep the people on tenterhooks. That is a fantastic challenge and I think the makers have succeeded wonderfully well. That is something to be learnt. I have to give it to Rohan and Charudutt and also Vinay, the director – he’d go for ample takes and we’d be a little tired at times, but when I watch it now, I see he knew what he was doing; there are added layers that come from that push”.
Which scriptwriter has greatly impressed him in recent times and why?
“The people I’ve worked with recently. Some of them, such as Anvita Dutt when she’s left to do her own stuff, cook up her own worlds - she’s brilliant with that, a mix of folklore and fantasy, it’s a very unique space. Charudutt Acharya, with his gritty thriller writing, very template driven using classical tropes yet making it contemporary - this is something I’ll always find exciting. I would also like to mention people like Ritesh Shah, who’s absolutely brilliant and Niranjan Iyer who’s a great dialogue writer. Someone I haven’t worked with yet but would love to, is Juhi Chaturvedi; whatever she’s written is a slice of life; very few people can present life like that. In Bengali, directors usually write their own scripts, so I will rate Srijit Mukherjee and Kaushik Ganguly in their own ways. Kaushik can edge out exceptional stories from the mundane - he can conjure up a brilliant story from just a chair and a man, whereas Srijit is proficient in epic storytelling, big scale subjects, although in some recent films I’ve found him becoming a little complacent. He’s good with the big catharsis at the end”.
Are copyright laws in India too lax in protecting writers?
“I think so. I think only recently have writers started getting their due. It is great to see it has started in Hindi cinema but not yet in Bengali. In fact, I want to get an SWA membership! In order to protect copyright for writers and others, first and foremost it is important to acknowledge their importance; by that, I mean writers need to exist as writers only, rather than anything else, as in: ‘I’m a writer only and I will write for you. I do not harbour intentions of directing’! Their writing also needs to be more professional, especially in smaller industries like ours. This is one case where I am in support of division or segregation of labour – it is a separate discipline. Mere paas time hota toh main bhi likh leta is not how it should be – writing is a science as well as an art”, Parambrata concludes somewhat indignantly.
Punam Bakshi Mohandas is a film buff, a journalist, an author, an accomplished travel writer and an expert on South Asia. She also writes columns on film personalities. She has lived and worked in India, Dubai and Bangkok.