'It angers me that Hollywood is seen as a template for cinema'
Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah speaks on working with the late Soumitra Chatterjee
Two thespians — Soumitra Chatterjee and Naseeruddin Shah — came together on celluloid for the first and the last time in Saibal Mitra’s Debotaar Grash, or A Holy Conspiracy, a bi-lingual courtroom drama, in Bengali and English, and an adaptation of the play, Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
Made into a film, which was directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Spencer Tracy, in 1960, Inherit the Wind is a parable that fictionalises the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial as a means to discuss McCarthyism in the United States. It was written in response to the chilling effect of the McCarthy era investigations on intellectual discourse. And the echoes of the Monkey trial are evocatively captured in A Holy Conspiracy, which reflects the harsh ground realities and home truths of contemporary West Bengal, the most populous state in eastern India.
Khaleej Times was invited to an exclusive pre-screening preview of the film, which was held at the residence of co-producer Suvra Sarathi Chakraborty in Dubai. Chakraborty, a global citizen, who has lived in the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Ukraine since 1985 and relocated to Dubai in 2012, explains the inspiration of co-producing the film.
“Though I have been in international trade for over 30 years, I’ve neither exported nor imported anything from my native Kolkata. However, I’ve been constantly in search of the opportunity,” he says.
That opportunity arose a couple of years ago. “Suddenly during a visit to UNESCO in Paris, I came across a proposal of co-producing a film in Kolkata. I could envision that history was being made in front of my eyes since it starred Soumitra Chatterjee and Naseeruddin Shah — doyens of Indian cinema — and I immediately felt that this is a product I can take to the world with pride. And, of course, the film’s message has a contemporary universal appeal,” he adds.
Saibal Mitra, a cerebral filmmaker, who had assisted Roland Joffé in City of Joy (1992), managed a casting coup by getting Shah to share the screen space with Chatterjee for the first and the last time. Chatterjee died in Kolkata on November 15, 2020, of post-Covid-19 complications. He was 85. His co-star in the film, Naseeruddin Shah talks about his experience of working with Chatterjee.
Earlier, you had acted in a Bengali film called Khasi Katha – A Goat Saga in 2013 and years prior to that in Prabhat Roy’s Pratidan in 1983. Can you narrate how Tollywood has evolved through the years?
It angers me that the only template to categorise cinema seems to be Hollywood but since you cite the example of Pratidan, which was a box-office success, is probably responsible for the Bollywoodisation of commercial Bengali cinema, which is hardly a desirable change.
How do you find contemporary Bengali cinema?
After the masters (Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak), there hasn’t really been a second generation of committed filmmakers following in their footsteps, though the occasional brilliant film is still being made.
What are the primary differences between Tollywood and Bollywood?
The primary difference between the cinema of Kolkata and that of Mumbai is that the latter is rolling in money and the former isn’t.
Tolerance is at the heart of the film. Do you feel the film’s central theme may get the goat of the right-wingers?
It most certainly will consider that even the words ‘tolerance’ ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ have become pejoratives to run down anyone who is not vociferously a faithful. But I believe it is the responsibility of serious cinema to act as a record of its times.
Are you considering any other Bengali film in the near future?
I most certainly will, provided I don’t have to speak perfect Bangla. But there’s nothing on the anvil at the moment.
Is parallel cinema, as a genre, dead in India? If so, why?
Parallel cinema is certainly not dead, there’s interesting work being done by several filmmakers who don’t conform to the Mumbai film formula, it’s just that the distinctions between ‘commercial’ and ‘experimental’ cinema have blurred and it’s a good thing films are not so easy to categorise any longer.
I always hated these classifications anyway — there are only good films and bad films.
Recount your experience of working with the late thespian Soumitra Chatterjee. Any anecdote you’d like to share with our readers.
Ever since I saw Ray’s Apur Sansar decades ago, I envied Soumitrada for being able to act in such exquisite films. I was very keen to meet him and work with him, preferably in a Ray film which to my everlasting regret never happened. Obviously Mr Ray had no use for the kind of actor I’m.