August 18 (Calcutta Tube): His size is deceptive. Raja Sen’s soft, soothing voice and gentle manner go against his girth and height. His modest persona runs counter to the brash Bengali Tollygunje breed spilling over with pseudo-intellectual attitude. Nor does he strut about like a king, though his parents christened him Raja. In Desh, he managed to pair Jaya and Abhishek Bachchan in the same film as mother and son – a celluloid duplication of their real-life roles. He then did Krishnakanter Will based on a famous Bankim Chandra novel giving masala hero Jeet a complete image make-over. Beginning with biographical documentaries that bagged National Awards, Raja went on to make some quality serials for the small screen the most notable one being Subarnalata based on a novel by Jnanpeeth Awardwinning novelist Ashapoorna Devi. He is too shy to point out that two of his feature films, Damu and Atmiya Swajan bagged National Awards in two separate sections – children and family welfare. He took up the last script of Tapan Sinha and made a film on it. Called Trimurti, it was a laugh-riot with a powerful message woven into it. It urged senior citizens to open a fresh page on life instead of feeling depressed, lost, defeated and ignored. He has now done what he has been dreaming of for a long time – filming a Tagore piece of work.
LABORATORY will be released in the US simultaneously with the Indian release possibly in the second half of September this year in three cities. DATABAZAAR MEDIA VENTURES has acquired the exclusive rights for the film’s US release. The first stop will be the Tagore Society in Houston.
Why did you shelve the making of Char Adhyay to begin Laboratory – both based on very controversial works by Rabindranath Tagore?
It is not correct to say that I have shelved it. I still cherish dreams of making a film on this novel exploring relationships between and among four characters Char Adhyay revolves around. The subject is very sensitive in today’s turbulent times. It has been made earlier by Kumar Shahani several years ago. The title is already registered. I felt making Laboratory, which has never been filmed before, would be the right thing to do now.
Tell us something more about Sohini, the protagonist in Laboratory who is said to be one of the most radical among Tagore’s women characters.
Laboratory is a short story, not a novel. The heroine Sohini, represents Tagore’s desire to break free of the clichéd stereotype of woman as victim and woman as martyr. Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta, Dean, Humanities, Calcutta University, has researched three subversive women in Tagore’s literary works. The first one is Mrinal of Streer Patra, the second one is Kalyani of the story Aparachita and the third one is Sohini of Laboratory.
Does the title stand for the actual laboratory that exists in the story or is it a metaphor?
It reaches beyond the literal meaning of the word but remains rooted to the physical existence of the laboratory in Sohini’s house. It is the epicenter of the story from which the characters emerge and the story revolves around. It is also a metaphor for the laboratory called “Life” where the chemistry between and among people are created, sustained, destroyed and change as if like magic. There is a third layer too. It is the ‘laboratory’ that is inside Sohini’s mind where she explores the chemistry among the characters that would realise her dream of keeping the laboratory alive. It is a tribute to her husband’s memory. But in course of time, it becomes an obsession with her.
How is Sohini different from the other women characters in Tagore’s works?
She is so subversive of the stereotype of the good Bengali woman that even Tagore had to construct a distance by making Sohini a Punjabi woman, imagined to be more independent-minded and strong-willed, the ideal warrior woman. Perhaps Tagore shied away from making her a Bengali woman because he felt Bengali readers might not feel that this kind of assertion and attitude towards morals atypical of a Bengali woman and therefore, incredible. Binodini of Chokher Bali is not ashamed about her sexual attraction towards Mahendra. Charu of Nastaneer did not care to hide her attraction for a distant brother-in-law nor did she feel guilty about it. But Laboratory is unique in its portrayal of the female protagonist in completely different ways.
Don’t you think she has some definite negative traits in her character?
No, I don’t. . She appears negative because we use the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ within the accepted social rules of moral conduct for women in patriarchy. She does not fit into our scheme of a ‘good’ woman. Therefore, readers by default, categorize her within the ‘bad’ woman. This is not correct. She is aggressive, powerful, strong and bold. Aren’t these positive features of any human being’s character? I feel every human being must have a positive goal in life that serves some social purpose. In attaining such goals, values like sexual sanctity are not important. Sohini’s singular dream was to fulfill her husband Nandakishore’s dream of an ideal laboratory. She is prepared to pay any price for it, some willingly, some without realizing the consequences of her action.
Did you choose Raveena Tandon to portray Sohini because she is Punjabi?
Partly, yes. But the choice was also determined by her performances I had seen in serious films like Shool, Satta etc. Thirdly, I feel there is a lot of untapped talent hidden within her that remains unexplored. Sohini would give her that platform to draw out her talent. Fourthly, she is very beautiful and has the aggressive and bold look Sohini has. Last but not the least, I discovered in her the commitment and the sincerity to give of her best to this role. She took pains to imbibe the dialogues through recorded cassettes I had sent her to Mumbai. She tried to get the feel of the character and was extremely cooperative right through the film. I wanted to avoid a very familiar Bengali star whose popular starry image would have impinged on the character.
What about the other actors?
Arpita Chatterjee as Neela is the perfect foil for Raveena as her mother. They complement one another in looks, in personality and in characterization. There is freshness about Arpita because she is making a comeback after seven years. Sabyasachi as Nandakishore is ideal and the flashback shows him in real form. Ranjit Mullick plays Sohini’s friend and companion and Shaheb Chatterjee plays Rebati, the young scientist who Sohini feels, will be able to carry on with Nanda Kishore’s research in the laboratory. All of them have done their best to live up to the trust we placed in them. Ranjit Mullick is a veteran while Shaheb is relatively new. We have an ideal blend of actors in our team.
Let us hear the story in brief.
Laboratory is mainly about Sohini, a Sikh girl from a village in Punjab, who came to Bengal when a noted Bengali scientist, Nanda Kishore, fell in love with her at first sight and married her. The couple had a daughter, Neela. The scientist set up a sophisticated laboratory equipped with the latest instruments and infra-structure. When he died during one of his experiments, Sohini’s ambition was to see that the laboratory fulfilled her husband’s dream. She is willing to pay any price for this, even if this means a relationship with another man or trying to get her daughter hitched on to a young scientist in the hope that he will continue to do research in the laboratory. But is he the right person? Can he make Neela happy? What happens to Sohini’s dream for the laboratory? These questions will be explored through the film. I was specially fascinated by the period flavour the story demanded in terms of costume, recreation of a particular period in history and to crown it all, the timelessness of Tagore’s story that is as topical as it was when it was written.
by Shoma A. Chatterji
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