Amitabha Neil Ray – Exclusive Interview
Amitabha Neil Ray is the director of the upcoming film “Charu Unspoken” based on the period novel, “Nosto Neer”, penned in 1901 by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and inspired by the classic Bengali film “Charulata“, made in 1964 by the world-renowned director Satyajit Ray. Amitabha has also served as the artistic adviser of “Piyalir Password“, the first Bengali film made in the United States, directed by Raj Basu. Amitabha has taken part in the Film Society Movement in Kolkata with the eminent film-director Gautam Ghosh and the multitalented poet, artist, and filmmaker Purnendu Potri, whom Amitabha had assisted in a couple of films, such as “GuhaChitra”. Amitabha is also a poet and painter by his own right, and has been a disciple of Poritosh Sen, one of the genius painters of India. Recently, Soumitra Chattopadhyay, the renowned actor of Bengali cinema, recited and recorded a few of Amitabha’s poems in his golden voice. In an intimate conversation with CalcuttaTube, Amitabha talked about his passion for art and artistic minds, the practicalities and challenges involved in making crossover films in the United States, his memories, thoughts and inspirations for all his creations.
Listen to the Interview with Amitabha Neil Ray
Calcutta Tube: Amitabha Da, you are a poet and a painter. So, how did you think of directing a film?
Amitabha Neil Ray: It did not come to me all of a sudden. I have been studying about films for a long time and was associated with the Film Society Movement. As a matter of fact, I made two documentary films when I was in Kolkata. The Film Society Movement started at my very own study table in Salt Lake. Its president was the famous filmmaker and writer-poet Purnendu Potri, and film director Goutam Ghosh was the vice president. We were the founders of the film society. It was how things started. I began my research on cinema and watched a lot of foreign films with the dream of making films some day. The documentaries I made were on Kolkata and Bokkhali. In the US, when my friend, director Raj Basu was making the film “Piyalir Password“, I was there with him in that journey and when the film was shot in Maryland / Washington DC. Then I thought of making the film “Charu: Unspoken“, since Charulata has always been a favorite film of mine.
Calcutta Tube: The script for “Charu: Unspoken” has been written by Sudipto Bhowmick and Smithaa Mukherji.
Amitabha Neil Ray: Sudipto Bhowmick wrote the script for “Charu: Unspoken” and Smithaa Mukherjee translated that into Hindi.
Calcutta Tube: When Satyajit Ray was asked which of his films he would like to remake, he answered that he would like to remake all his films except for “Charulata”. So why did you think of remaking “Charulata”?
Amitabha Neil Ray: This is an inevitable question that I know I have to face. There are several reasons for remaking the film. The original story of “Charulata“, written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1901, is a very complex story and transcends over time and culture. It does not matter whether you are in Calcutta, Delhi, New York, or London. The story always appealed to me because it is a relationship-based story. The film “Charulata” by Satyajit Ray in 1964 is one of my favorite films, too. These are some of the reasons for choosing this story. This will also be a good opportunity to bring Rabindranath Tagore’s works to a larger audience. I think that the works of Tagore transform and travel in time, they do not become stagnant. The film we are going to make is a modern adaptation of the Tagore’s story. The theme and spirit of the film will be the same as of the original story, but the backdrop will be 2009, New York City. This film is NOT a remake of “Charulata”, but definitely inspired by Tagore’s and Ray’s Charulata . The five characters of “Charu Unspoken” – Anupam, Chandana Ray, Aakash, Madhu and Nikhil are all modern people of our time.
Calcutta Tube: How much does the film “Charu Unspoken” resemble Satyajit Ray’s Charulata or Rabindranath Tagore’s “Nosto Neer”?
Amitabha Neil Ray: Satyajit Ray modified and modernized Tagore’s story a bit when making “Charulata”. The basic conflicts of “Charu Unspoken ” is the same as the original story. We did not dilute its original theme. In my film all the characters will be present with their inner conflicts, goodness and betrayal as it appeared in the original story. I would just bring them in a modern perspective to reach a wider audience. We want the younger generation, non-Bengali, and the non-Indian audience too, to enjoy the film.
Calcutta Tube: What will be the language of the film?
Amitabha Neil Ray: The film will be in English with a few Bengali and Hindi dialects. Chandana Ray is a character who is married to a second generation Indian Anupam and has just come to the US. Anupam is a very successful MBA and works in a financial company in Wall Street. Since these characters mostly communicate in English in their daily lives, the film will be made in English. In a few personal moments they may express themselves in Bengali or in Hindi, with English subtitles of course.
Calcutta Tube: Who is your target audience?
Amitabha Neil Ray: I would like to reach everyone who enjoys a good crossover film. My target audience will not necessarily be just the Bengalis or the Indians. I would like to reach out to the non-Indian audience, in spite of the fact that the Bengali audience communicates with Rabindranath’s story more than anyone else. In addition to the Bengali audience I hope any sensible mind that has an appreciation for a good story, a parallel film or fine arts would enjoy the film.
Calcutta Tube: Do you think the audience from Kolkata can identify themselves with the film? Or perhaps the recent films being made in Kolkata are difficult to identify with for the Bengalis living here in the United States, and “Charu: Unspoken” will serve that purpose?
Amitabha Neil Ray: I think it may be a bit difficult for the audience from Kolkata to identify with the film. I am also prepared to face a lot of criticism for trying to make this film in the first place. It is always a big challenge to make a film based on Rabindranath Tagore’s story, specially when the legendary film-director Satyajit Ray had already made an awesome film on the story, and the film is a classic for all times. You cannot replace memories. The story of Charu: Unspoken takes place in New York and the situations are somewhat different. I want to keep my expectations very practical about the film. I guess there will be all possible sorts of reactions among the audience. Some may like the movie, others may not. But we are trying to make the film with subtlety and grace and there is not going to be anything in the movie that might hurt or show disrespect to anyone. We want to keep our audience very straight and simple.
Calcutta Tube: As an NRI, have you ever faced the problem of not identifying with the films now made in Kolkata? If so, has that inspired you to make a film like “Charu: Unspoken”?
Amitabha Neil Ray: I have not watched a whole lot of the contemporary Bengali films. But I have definitely watched some. We have a lot of talented directors and there are undoubtedly good Bengali movies made in Kolkata, and any good film always becomes an inspiration for one to make better films.
Calcutta Tube: How difficult is it to get a producer and a working team in a foreign land?
Amitabha Neil Ray: Getting a producer is the biggest challenge. My film is produced mainly by a Canadian production company. They are trying to raise the money, and we are helping them with the cast. Besides, we also have a few Bengali co-producers. However, building up a team for making a film is not a problem as such. There are many NRIs living in the United States and Canada who have passion for films. They have always been with us with all their support and inspiration and helped us form a team.
Calcutta Tube: Would you please tell us something more about the film and your team? All I know is Rituparna Sen Gupta and Aryeman Ramsey are acting in the film, and Bickram Ghosh is the music director.
Amitabha Neil Ray: There had to be a few alterations made to the team. I always prefer Rituparna Sen Gupta to play the central character of the film. She has the depth and the sensitivity. I had worked with her closely during the making of “Piyali’r Password”. She is not only an outstanding actress, but I was amazed to perceive her integrity in this craft, and her appetite for good meaningful films. I had talked to her about my film then. But we have not signed up for anything yet. Since this is a crossover film, the crew has to be built up differently, so that we can reach a larger audience. Our Canadian producer will formally announce everything once we get the formalities completed.
Calcutta Tube: When will the shooting start?
Amitabha Neil Ray: We will start shooting the film some time in September this year (2009). We will shoot the film 18 days in Toronto, three days in New York City and a week in India, mostly in Calcutta and a few days in Bombay.
Calcutta Tube: When the film will be released?
Amitabha Neil Ray: If we can finish shooting the film by 2010, we would like to pitch the film at the film festivals before we release it in the movie theatres. I would like the film to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival and New York Film Festival and get the audience reaction, and then accordingly think about its theatrical release. If the film comes out just the way we are visualizing it, then it will be a better option to get a critical acclaim before anything else. We are not totally confirmed about the exact timings yet, but this is the basic strategy of the producers.
Calcutta Tube: Is Bickram Ghosh still the music director of “Charu Unspoken”?
Amitabha Neil Ray: Bickram Ghosh is a great music persona. He is a genius and a good friend of mine. He has already composed a few awesome musical pieces for this film. He has taken the responsibility to compose music just the way he thinks would the best for the film. He has composed some fusion and contemporary music that would be need in the film. The character of Chandana Ray that resembles with Charulata has come to the United States after her negotiated marriage with Anupam, a busy Wall Street executive. So there will be a lot of Indians who would identify with her solitude and desperation. Chandana Ray has a profound love for art, but cannot find way to give vent to her deep-rooted appreciation for creativity. Anupam is much engrossed in his work and a part of the corporate rat-race. He loses other things in life as a cost of his success. He is evidently identifiable with the second generation Indians born and brought up in the US. Nikhil is an IT professional who betrays Anupam in course of time. He, too, is an identifiable character. My innovation in this film is going to be the character of Madhu, Nikhil’s wife, which will be portrayed differently from both the original story of “Nosto Neer”, and the character of Prachina in Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata”. Madhu is a very modern lady, full of life and has a very positive attitude towards life. Unlike Chandana, who is more introvert and and traditional, Madhu is more materialistic, who likes to shop in the huge 5th Street mansions and clad in the best fashionable attire. The presence of these two characters will bring a contrast in the film. With Aakash entering the scenario, there comes in a jealousy factor between them. Aakash is an aspirant actor in the Broadway, and comes to stay with his brother’s family. The story will also depict the relationship between the two brothers. It is not a triangular love story, not at all. It is much complex than that. The film will be filled with a lot of fine components, so that it becomes a believable story that will span around the five characters.
Calcutta Tube: We would like to know something more about the music you are going to use in the film since the music director is an eminent musician like Bickram Ghosh.
Amitabha Neil Ray: Bickram is a genius. I would like to give him a free hand for making music for this film. I am sure he is going to compose some fusion music along with some contemporary music. He will use some classical pieces, too. He has already composed a Sufi song for the film, which will be sung by Kailash Kher. We are going to use these songs even though the movie will be in English. I would also like to use a few poems in the film. The film will have some more Indian components that are purely Calcuttan – like the tram, the streets and the lanes, a cat crossing the street. What I would like to do in the film is to have the human mind and memory traverse from the New York Times Square to the banks of the Ganges, from a Baul song in a film that will give way to some Rock music the next moment. The Rock music is more realistic to a character full of life like Aakash, who is born in the US and has never been to India.
Calcutta Tube: Please tell us about some of favorite directors in Kolkata who you think are making good films
Amitabha Neil Ray: Rituparno Ghosh is a very talented director. Some of his films have are very touching. I think we have some world standard actors and actresses in Kolkata, and the best thing is that the art of acting has gone though a lot of transformation where an artist need not overact in a scene anymore. The actors in Kolkata have rediscovered themselves, and are capable of making world class films. We are trying to make good films here in the US. We have started treading along the path with “Piyalir Password” (Director: Raj Basu, Cast: Koushik Sen, Rituparna Sen Gupta, Roopa Ganguly, Sabyasachi Chakraborty), the first ever Bengali film entirely made in the US. We are eagerly waiting for the audience response for the film. If we get a good response and acclaim for our work, we would like to present the world with quality movies every year or two. It is hard to find a producer who would invest in crossover films, but I am optimistic about getting producers in future if we can set an instance of making meaningful films. We are here in the US for quite some time now, but our cravings for meaningful films are all the same. Making films that are just mindless-entertaining is not our goal, however. We aim to make films that will appeal to any sensible mind.
Calcutta Tube: You were the artistic director of “Piyalir Password“. How much was your contribution to the film?
Amitabha Neil Ray: I was honored to be an active member of the “Piyalir Password” team, director Raj Basu being a very close friend of mine. I was there almost throughout the journey, right from the development of the script to shooting, except post-production. The film definitely looks through the vision of Raj Basu, and we all supported his vision. I am getting the same support from all of my friends for making “Charu: Unspoken“. It is not a single person’s job. Making a film is the most difficult endeavor, requires a collaborative effort, and support from your friends and teammates brings a big difference.
Calcutta Tube: How did the trend of making Bengali films in the USA start? We had films made by directors like Gurinder Chaddha, Meera Nair based on the Indian community and their lives in foreign lands, but we have never had anything particularly from any Bengali director before Raj Basu.
Amitabha Neil Ray: When we first moved to the United States, we did not have films like “Namesake” or “Monsoon Wedding”. We first noticed a change in the audience when “Monsoon Wedding” was released. And it was not just the Indian audience, but a larger audience were developing for those films. I remember that some time back when my wife and I went to see the film “Namesake”, 90 percent of the audience in a mainstream IMAGINE theatre were foreigners. A Caucasian couple sitting next to me had tears in their eyes- they were so immensely touched by the film. I could not believe my eyes when they stood up and clapped. I was thrilled at their response to a path breaking film like “Namesake”. It is definitely inspiring to experience the majority of the audience of a crossover film in a mainstream movie hall in America to be non-Indians. They were totally enjoying the film and from their comments and excitement at the scenes of Kolkata, I can say they were totally into the film. The reason for them to enjoy the film may be that they are more exposed to Indian people now than they were a few decades back. But the important thing is that we have developed a new audience for our crossover films like “Monsoon Wedding” (Director: Mira Nair; 2001), “Namesake” (Director: Mira Nair; 2006), “SlumDog Millioniare” (Director: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan; 2009), “Water” (Director: Deepa Mehta; 2005).
Calcutta Tube: “Bend It Like Beckham” (Director: Gurinder Chadha; 2002) was another great film. It is a very favorite film of mine
Amitabha Neil Ray: It was an awesome story and a bold effort to make a film out of such a simple story. Our main goal should be to develop a class of audience for the films we want to make. If we always target our films to be pure entertainment and target the mass, then probably we are not being very honest to “cinema” itself. Cinema, like any other form of art, has a language of its own. A good film is one that makes the audience ponder over it for quite some time. If the audience does not think over a film or forgets all about it once they leave the movie theatre, the film has probably not fulfilled its goal to make an association with the audience. A film’s commitment to us should be much bigger. And that is exactly where the achievement of a great director and his/her creation lies. We still watch films like “Anubhab” (Director: Basu Bhattacharya; 1971), “Aviskhar” (Director: Basu Bhattacharya; 1973), “Mili” (Drector: Hrishikesh Mukherjee; 1975), “Anand” (Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee; 1971) that were made a long time back, and may be with a limited budget, but their appeal to us is still the same. We are trying to follow the same path, and let time tell if we are successful. As I already said, raising money to make a Indian film in the United States is the toughest part. Sometimes the funds also bring with them the situation to compromise and yield to certain requests. So there is always an additional struggle to be dedicated to our artistic integrity. Let us see how things turn out in future. But it is both a challenge and a journey at the same time and we are enjoying every bit of it.
Calcutta Tube: Every form of art has its own language and you being a poet, painter and filmmaker have worked with quite a few types of media. Please tell us how strongly one needs to maintain the distinction between each medium. Also if one form of art can overlap with another.
Amitabha Neil Ray: It is an interesting question. I think all forms of art, whether it is poetry, prose, painting, or film making, have their overlapping regions. An expert in one medium with intact artistic senses can very likely be comfortable in another medium. There may be some challenges, however. Film is a totally different and a very multidimensional medium. The art of story telling is very important in a film. In a film character development, mood of the characters, the backdrop, conflict, reason and conclusion, are all very important. Painting, in contrast, is a one-dimensional and single-vision medium. Story telling is not that important in painting. Cinematic language is very unique and has its own way of telling a story. And depending on the category of the film, you need to modify this cinematic language to communicate with your audience. This is another challenge which I am ready to accept.
Calcutta Tube: I raised the topic because sometimes a film can present the audience with something much greater. For example, I find films like “Uttora” (Director: Buddhadeb Das Gupta), WheelChair (Director: Tapan Sinha), to be very poetical. Again when I watched “Sanjh Batir Rupkotha Ra” (Director: Anjan Das, Cast: Indrani Haldar, Soumitra Chatterjee, Ratna Sarkar Mondal), the film somewhere overlapped with the paintings. I was not just confined within the movies. They made me feel something more vast and broad.
Amitabha Neil Ray: That is what exactly our aim is. I prefer not to use the term “art film”. I would like to make is a meaningful, decent, crossover film, a film rich in artistic tastes that can uplift our souls. There is no use of making a film that people forget about as soon as it ends. I will try my best to present the world with better films. Let time be my judge. And we if we can make meaningful Indian films here in the United States, then probably our next generation will try to carry on this legacy. We now have a huge international audience who come to see films like “NameSake”, “SlumDog Millionaire”. I have a lot of American friends who meticulously watch these crossover films. They amaze me with their research in India and their knowledge of Indian culture. We owe a lot to directors like Meera Nair, Deepa Mehta, who have made this possible. We are stepping through a very important time, indeed. A mutual respect for our art and culture is being nurtured among people from different culture. Fifty years down the road if we look back, we can evaluate this time more properly. I am very optimistic about it.
Calcutta Tube: You have made documentary films before. And now you are going to make a feature film. How different is making a documentary from a feature film?
Amitabha Neil Ray: Documentary films and feature film have their own different worlds, though both of them are the same medium. Acting is not involved in a documentary film . It portrays some kind of facts. Feature film is a much bigger undertaking that involves huge investment, distribution, theatrical releases, dvd releases, music and story telling that demand enormous creativity. It is a total responsibility of the director how to tell a story in a feature film. In that sense, a film is a director’s media as a whole. So there is a lot more flexibility and latitude. A director can totally ruin a film or make it a classic with his/her magical touch. Let me give you an example. “Dahan” by Rituparno Ghosh is a wonderful film, for which actress Rituparna Sen Gupta won the national award. The film touches me right into my heart. That is the magic of a good director. A feature film gives you a bigger horizon. Making a documentary requires a different kind of involvement. “Charu: Unspoken” is going to be my first film as a director. I have had the opportunity to be with the director Purnendu Potri in a couple of films, “Guha Chitro”, being one of them. His son Punyobroto Potri and I were there all the time the film was being made. Purnendu Potri designed the cover of one of my poetry books “Ai Sikorhin Chole Jaawa“. A new cd will be soon released in Kolkata with some my poems recited by Soumitra Chottopadhyay, Partho Ghosh, Gouri Ghosh and the writer Kona Basu Mishra .
Calcutta Tube: You have come across so many creative personalities, Poritish Sen, Purnendu Potri, Goutam Ghosh being some of them. How do they enrich you both as a person and a creator?
Amitabha Neil Ray: I possess deep respects for two kinds of people: artists and entrepreneurs. I like any art and creations in any form. Creators have very unique minds. And entrepreneurs bring new things to our lives; they are responsible for other people. I am getting in touch with a lot creative people these days. Being close to a creative mind brings me a wonderful feeling. A creative mind has its own way of thinking. I have my deepest regards for all of them. I consider myself to be very fortunate that I have known some of the greatest creative personalities.
Calcutta Tube: What is your inspiration behind all your creativities?
Amitabha Neil Ray: When it comes to film making, my inspiration is definitely Satyajit Ray. I especially love to see the films he made in his early career. I never outgrow his films. He was the filmmaker of such a stature and imagination that we can only dream of. There are other inspirations too, but when it comes to cinema it is undoubtedly Satyajit Ray. And that is another reason that “Charu: Unspoken ” is going to be a big challenge for me. It is like showing my respect to this genius. I know that the people are not going to accept this film very easily, no matter how good we make it. “Human memory is irreplaceable”. And that is what I am going to do with “Charu: Unspoken” – walking in the opposite direction. So it is a very difficult task. I will try to give it my best shot. I am, at the same time, ready for all the criticism I may have to face. But I am very confident about the quality of my film. I am sure there will be a big of part of the audience who will enjoy and appreciate this film.
Calcutta Tube: We are eagerly waiting for the film.
Amitabha Neil Ray: Making a film requires so much hard work. I have been constantly working on this film for two and half years now……
Calcutta Tube: The film was supposed to be shot in 2008 and released in this year (2009)……..
Amitabha Neil Ray: That was how everything was initially set up. We had a different producer at that time. But he turned things down without giving us many reasons. Then we had had a lot of hard time finding a producer before we got the Canadian producer we are working with right now. We are still looking for a few more co-producers and investors so that we can even improve the quality of the film. But it makes me sad when we do not get assistance and appreciation from the Bengali producers. I am getting better responses from non-Bengali producers. But making a film needs a huge amount of funding. As long as you do not have enough funding, you cannot move forward with just creativities. And if we do get enough response from the producers, the future film makers will not get enough inspiration to make these kinds of films. It is a huge effort to raise funds, and especially when you are not a full time film maker. We make films out of passion, it is not our profession. It is very unfortunate that people shy away from investing in creative activities and are non-appreciative.
Calcutta Tube: What are your future plans?
Amitabha Neil Ray: I have decided on making films. Making “Charu: Unspoken” is my first priority. Then I will work on making films every three to four years, as possible. I have a team in of about forty people both from the United States and Canada, who are supporting me in every possible way for this venture. I am sure that we will keep on doing films because this is our compelling passion and we cannot live without making films. When I am talking to different famous actors for my project they are so excited to work in the film. I prefer not to disclose any names till we sign a contract. But we will have a different kind of a cast for this film. We are not looking for glamorous actors for this film; what we are seeking is extreme talent and a sensible mind that can understand Rabindranath and the philosophy. The actors are responding very generously. They have accepted to work for one-fourth of their remuneration due to our limited budgets and have managed time out of their busy schedules. This is what I would call the wonder of an artistic mind and its appreciation for a good films. You see, there are good things and things that are not so good. And that is the way life is.
Calcutta Tube: Have you ever thought of acting?
Amitabha Neil Ray: Not at all. I feel more comfortable behind the camera.
Calcutta Tube: Please recite a poem of yours for us.
Amitabha Neil Ray: Prithibir sob dor bondho hole / Shey ek dor khola rakhe / Prithibir sob dor bondho hole / Shey ek dor khola rakhe / Buker bhetor kori buk / Snayur bhetor kori snayu / Othocho bodher bhetor nirontor shey ek nari / Niruchchar ostitte shmoshan bondhur moto pashey thake / Prithibir sob nodi shesh hole ohonkar niye / Sob nari sore jaay / Tokhon ochena bikele / Ortho nei, Josh nei / Snayu nei, buk nei / Shudhu bodher nirontor shey ek nari / Prithibir jabotiyo opomaan sheshe / Jaar kachhe hu-hu kore kanda jaay / Prithibor sob dor bondho hole / Shey ek dor khola rakhe.
Soumitra Chatterjee recites a few poems by Amitabha Neil Ray