Raj Basu-creating history in Bengali Cinema
Raj Basu – an engineer by profession and a film maker by passion has created a milestone in the history of the Bengali Cinema with his thriller film “Piyalir Password“, the first Bengali Film entirely shot in USA. Raj Basu, also a Hollywood Film School graduate, is determined to reach the global Bengali audience with more films that will definitely add a newer dimension to the Bengali Cinema. Raj, in an intimate and exclusive interview with CalcuttaTube, talks in quite some detail about his previous works and future plans. Please check out the exclusive interview with Raj Basu at CalcuttaTube and reveal more about the film maker, his works and thoughts, as never before.
Calcutta Tube: Raj Da, you are an IT professional and also a graduate from the Hollywood Film School. How did you start thinking of making films?
Raj Basu: It came to my life very surprisingly. I developed a keen interest in films since 1998; prior to that, I had not given it much attention. There was a television channel in the Fairfax area called Channel 10 at that time, which offered classes in videography and programming. I took some classes in videography and editing, and did a few television shows with them. It is a public access TV station serving the Washington Metro area. Working with them gave me some basic ideas about how to do things. Later on, I got more and more interested in how to make independent films in this country, and started taking courses from the Hollywood Film Institute. They offered courses in the American University in the summer, where I earned my diploma as a producer and an independent filmmaker. It was then I felt the urge to write and direct films. I have not always wanted to become a full-time filmmaker; I got into making films about 12 – 13 years back.
Calcutta Tube: What was the language of “Wings Of Hope”? Please tell us something more about the film.
Raj Basu: “Wings Of Hope” was made in English. It was an Indian American film made in early 2000. It was about the second generation conflicts in this country and the immigrants coming to the USA. It was similar to some of the other films being made at that time like “ABCD”, “American Desi” or “The Journey”. When I wrote the story for “Wings Of Hope”, I was trying to tackle issues on the taboo subjects of the Indian community through a story of love, hope and redemption that was dealing with issues of drug-related problems, premarital sex, etc. The film was acclaimed and appreciated by the audience and critics alike, and won a number of awards. “Wings Of Hope” was premiered and shown in several film festivals, including the 6th Calcutta Film Festival in 2000, and was released theatrically in 2002.
Calcutta Tube: “Wings Of Hope” was released in 2003 followed by your next film “Piyalir Password” in 2009. What is the reason for the time gap between these two?
Raj Basu: That is a good question. Actually I was soul searching this whole time. I was trying to think on the kind of films I would make next. I spent two years just writing scripts. I was thinking about making supernatural thrillers and wrote a few scripts on them. Supernatural stories are very popular in the USA. I wrote a couple of English scripts on Supernatural thrillers. I even thought of making Hindi suspense thrillers. But very surprisingly, again I wrote a Bengali script and made a Bengali film. It was in early 2006 when I started writing the script for “Piyalir Password“.
Calcutta Tube: “Piyalir Password” is the first Bengali film entirely shot in the US. It is also very different from your previous film “Wings Of Hope”. How did think of taking on this venture?
Raj Basu: This time I wanted to make an independent film that will have a commercial value. I have always loved suspense thrillers. I watch a lot of suspense thrillers, especially the ones made in Hollywood, and I am influenced by them. So I thought of making a fast paced Bengali suspense thriller based on a murder mystery in the United States. I realized that I can make good suspense thrillers. So when I started writing my script and my co-writer Soumitra Neogi joined me, we were happy with the quality of work. But I did not realize for some time it was a momentous occasion that I was writing the first Bengali script for the first Bengali film ever made in the US.
Calcutta Tube: You are making videos and films for quite some time now in the US. Please tell us something more about the audience for all your works.
Raj Basu: This is something I have always thought about. A film maker always has to select a target audience, whom he/she wants to reach. There was a time when I thought of making films for the Indian American audience. “Wings Of Hope” was made keeping them in mind. When I wrote scripts for the television videos, I wanted to reach out to the Indian audience. The videos had subtitles in them, too, so that they could reach the mainstream American audience. Around 2003-04, I thought of making mainstream American films just for the American audience. There was also a time, when I thought of reaching the younger generation, aged from 13 to 25 years, through supernatural thrillers. I kept on changing my thoughts about the audience of my upcoming pieces of work. Then when I thought of making “Piyalir Password” I tried to reach out to the entire Bengali community of the United States, Canada, UK, Australia, and also the audience of Kolkata. I have constantly been thinking about my target audience for all my work, and this time with “Piyalir Password“, I have tried to reach a much larger audience.
Calcutta Tube: You have worked with the busiest stars of Kolkata and with the American actors in “Piyalir Password”. How did you synchronize everything together?
Raj Basu: This was the toughest thing of the whole project. You see, I have my degree in Engineering and work as an IT professional. That was why I came to this country. I have not always been a filmmaker. So it was very tough to work as an IT professional and make a film at the same time. I had to work elsewhere all week and then make the film on the weekends. That is the reason why it took us almost two and half years to complete the entire project. But once I got started, I wanted the best stars of Bengal to work with me in my Bengali film. And I was very lucky to convince actors like Roopa Ganguly, Rituparna Sengupta, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, and Koushik Sen through my script again this time. There is always an artistic challenge among the good actors; they do not always look at the money. I wanted to get these actors to work through a good effort. The next thing was to raise the funds for making an independent Bengali film in the United States. Once I had arranged the funds, I thought about the coordination. I had to take a few weeks off from work. I had to complete everything in no more than 21 days. And the entire film was shot in 19 days. It was just incredible! The film was shot in the Howard County in northern Maryland. But coordinating with actors in Kolkata and scheduling all the dates for the entire project was a very difficult thing to do. We had slept only three to four hours a day, when the film was being made. The whole team was pressurized and was under stress because all the teammates had to finish up everything by a deadline and had to be back at their workplaces. In the beginning we were not sure if all the scenes we wanted to shoot were going to be complete by that time or we would have to compromise with our quality of work. We did not want to compromise with the quality of work and wanted to make “Piyalir Password” the best it possibly could be. But, it was taking a toll on us. We had a fantastic team, no doubt. But I think the general health of the actors and other team members matter, too. You need to get enough sleep and be relaxed to bring out your best. I am sure when I make a film in future; I will try to give it some more time to work in a more relaxed manner. I told the same thing to Dev from the Bengali Podcast. It was too much on the team. Since we were working with quite some big name actors of Kolkata and the US, the coordination between the actors was very difficult. But we are very happy that everything has come out so well. We are getting a very positive response from the audience. We have been promoting this film in the US now, and Rituparna Sengupta has been with us for almost 10 days in this mission. This is indeed a big reward for all our efforts in making the film. But given a second chance, I would not do it the same way that I have done this time. It was very tough. There have been a lot of learning situations for us from this film.
Calcutta Tube: You put Koushik Sen in a totally different role in “Piyalir Password” from what he usually plays in most of the telefilms, or TV serials. When you cast an actor in a totally different role than what the audience is used to, can it be a big challenge?
Raj Basu: We wanted to make the characters believeable and Koushik is a smart actor. We wanted to take challenges in this story. It is the first one made in America entirely. Let me tell you a little bit about the background of “Piyalir Password”. Out of the four main characters in the film, Rituparna played the central character and the other three were near central characters. She is the younger sister of an Indian researcher in the US, named Piyali Roy (Roopa Ganguly), who got killed in an accident and her father could not come to perform the official formalities and sent his younger daughter, Roopa Shome, on behalf of him. Roopa Shome, the sister of Dr. Piyali Roy, was also the executor of Piyali’s will. Piyali was divorced and had a daughter. While looking into the cause of her sister’s death, Roopa was finding that there is more mystery to her death and she may not have died in an accident. Things were happening very fast. And after some time as more things get revealed, she realizes that her life is also at risk. The roles played by Roopa Ganguly, Koushik Sen and Sabyasachi Chakrobarty are the characters of the US. I handled that part of the script differently and more carefully. I wanted to be very specific about their actions, behaviors, dialogues, especially of Koushik Sen, and Roopa Ganguly. And Koushik was entirely changed. I gave both Koushik and Roopa totally new looks. I intentionally brought these changes to the characters. It is a reality that when we live outside our homeland for several years or decades, we change even without our knowledge. We do not talk or act or dress like our own folks in our motherland. I have tried to portray this very fact in the characters played by Koushik and Roopa. I gave them new looks and personalities to reflect the fact that the NRIs carry themselves differently after living in a foreign country for a long time. It is bound to happen and is undeniable. But I did not change anything about Sabyasachi. He was cast in a role of an NRI scientist who is more engrossed in his work. He has his own set of problems, and his mother is ailing in India. He is a resident of the United States for almost a decade, but unlike his co-characters time has not much transformed his personality. This is the way I tried to bring a balance between my characters. But the audience is the ultimate judge. The character development and the character transformation were in my mind. I will let the audience decide how successful I have been in bringing this transformation in the characters. If it has worked, then we have established the reality in the characters.
Calcutta Tube: Please tell us something about the music in the film. Since “Piyalir Password” is a different kind of film, how different is the music used in the film from any usual movie? Being the director of “Piyalir Password”, how much did you decide on the music to be used and how much was the contribution of music director Bickram Ghosh?
Raj Basu: I have worked on a lot of things with my friend and co-screenplay writer Soumitra Neogi. We did a thorough study on Bickram Ghosh and his music, before we took any decisions. We had to give a serious thinking to what kind of music we should use. Since, the film was a suspense thriller; music played a key-role in minute details. The soft music, percussion, other sounds and even the silence – all had very important roles. And we had to choose very carefully what other kinds of sounds we could use. We wanted percussion-based music along with some fusion between the eastern and the western, and Bickram Ghosh was just the right person for that. We have also used some Band songs from Kolkata, some contemporary music, and Rabindra Sangeet in the film. We explained the whole scenario of the film to Bickram and the kind of music we wanted. But at the same time we totally relied on Bickram and his music arrangements. Making music for “Piyalir Password” was very challenging to him, as the film was based on the story happening in the US and we did not want the usual kind of music used in films. Bickram is very innovative and his music is unique too. Bickram had the total liberty of creating his own music. He used as many and any instruments he wanted. Making music was another challenge and it brought us all close together. Bickram also put in a good cast of singers like SwagataLakshmi Dasgupta, Jojo, Rupankar, the newcomer Keka Ghoshal. Keka has already made her name, and she is extremely talented. We used her songs in the film more than a couple of times. We are eagerly waiting to know the audience’s reaction to the music. We are releasing independent audio CDs of the film, since we wanted the audience to have something more than just a film. If the music is good then it can live for many years. Listeners can just enjoy that as a standalone piece just like listening it in the car.
Calcutta Tube: The concept of releasing audio CDs is very unique.
Raj Basu: We have tried to think independently and in our own ways for the film. And I was not very biased about making a Bengali film, too. I watch Bengali films, but not as much as English films. So when making “Piyalir Password“, I was not influenced by the Bengali films being made in Kolkata. I have always treaded on a path of my own. And as a result we are introducing newer concepts. After a few shows of my film, I feel confident about the Bengali audience. They are extremely excited about this unique venture. Let me tell you what happened at the movie show last night in Edison. Almost 160 spectators gathered in the theatre with the maximum capacity of 140, and stood by the alleys to watch the film. They loved the suspense. The suspense in ‘Piyalir Password‘ will captivate you; it will be like a roller coaster ride; you cannot get out of it. The film tells a story about the lives of the Bengalees in the US, their research and work and stress, ambiance at their workplaces, etc. There is also the character, played by Rituparna Sengupta, of a Bengali girl who comes to the US from India, tries to understand the system here, and find out about her sister’s death. The story has certain components that are identifiable by the Bengali audience from both India and America, and in a sense, bridges the two Bengals.
Calcutta Tube: What are your future plans?
Raj Basu: I wish I could have given you a better answer. For the time being, I want to launch this film theatrically in USA, Canada, UK and then in Kolkata. This early positive response is good for the film. We hoped for it always during the making. We are also going into a staggered release of the film in USA, means city after city, week after week. So good ‘word of mouth’ will be the key to success. Then we hope that we will be able to release in Kolkata in our selected theaters. For this we are dependent on our theatrical distributor. We hope to open our film up in Priya, Nandan and some other theatres, which attract the sort of audience for this film. But I am thinking of writing again. It is going to be a few months before I can actually start writing, but I am going to continue with my work. You can again expect a thriller from me, a global one, in which the Bengalees will be involved. If I get a good response from the audience, I hope to get more investments from this country to make good Bengali films in future. “Piyalir Password” has been taken as a challenge. The way the results are coming out, many other Bengalees living in this country will be very happy, and interested, too, in the films. The door is going to open up. I would also like to mention it here that I am going to make films in this country, even if I make Bengali films. I am here in the US for 28 years and am more comfortable with the infrastructure, the union in the US, and have more contacts here. I am going to exploit all of my resources here to make good films. I can work more efficiently here than in Kolkata or West Bengal.
Calcutta Tube: What is your expectation from this new trend that you have started?
Raj Basu: I really do not know if I have started a new trend at all. It is for the others to say. The only thing I can say is that “Piyalir Password” will definitely serve as an inspiration for many other filmmakers to make a Bengali film in a foreign country. However, it is not an easy job for us because we are not fulltime film makers. We did not come to this country as film makers, though we are transforming into one. We all have our own professional fields, too. Taking out some time from our busy work schedules to make a film is always difficult, but probably not impossible. And, there are many more challenges and risks that we have to take when making a film. That is how “Piyalir Password” can inspire others. And if we can start a new trend then it will definitely add a newer dimension to the Bengali cinema. I think it is time now that Bengali cinema should come out of its traditional format and have improved scripts. The Bengalees of our times are more global than ever before and are widely scattered all around the world. If we can make global Bengali films, then the Bengalees all around the world will be able to identify with them. I hope this becomes a trend.
Calcutta Tube: When making a film, whether mainstream or parallel, a filmmaker has to think about its box office performance, since there is a large amount of investment in it. How much did you have to compromise to make a film a box-office hit and to what extent would you compromise as a film maker?
Raj Basu: We have tried very hard to give “Piyalir Password” a commercial value. We had good principal cast in the team like Rituparna, Roopa, Koushik, Sabyasachi and a composer like Bickram Ghosh. We all worked hard for it. All this is done to give it a best commercial value in the gross box office. We have tried and we will continue to try. We are also thinking of giving the film a good commercial release. Every filmmaker, even an independent filmmaker, has to think of recouping at least the cost of the film. Otherwise, it becomes very hard to come back to the industry for making another film. I am planning on releasing the films in the movie theatres and showing it in different cities in the USA, UK, and in Kolakata. With ‘Piyalir Password’, I would like to reach out to Bangladeshi audience and non-Bengalees too. The film is already subtitled for the non-Bengalees. We had a talented child actor Wadia Mahzabeen working in the film. She has done an excellent job. Wadia is from the Bangladeshi community. We would like to release the film in Bangladesh too.
Calcutta Tube: What are your other creativities and hobbies?
Raj Basu: I do not know how to answer this question. I can only say that my family has missed me quite a lot during this last two and half years. My wife, Mita supports me a lot and that is the reason I never give up. i missed my kids during this time but we were determined to complete the film. It would have been much easier with one job of film-making but the reality is different. My time was mostly in the weekends and we worked in the film for many hours. I have missed social life. I live close to the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia and yet I have not had time to go out to the mountains for some time.
Calcutta Tube: In India or in West Bengal, film-making is not quite accepted as a profession in the mass level. How different is it in the USA?
Raj Basu: You have asked me such a great question. My family was no different as far as taking up film-making as a profession was concerned. If I took film-making as profession in my early career back in Kolkata, my parents would freak out. But the feeling is so very different in the United States. I know many young Indians here attending the school of threatre in the Tisch School of the New York University, and they are doing such a great job. Samrat is one of the aspiring actors who is the product of the American education system. He has attended the film school here. In “Piyalir Password“, I have worked with Samrat, and he is gradually emerging to the Bengali film industry in Kolkata, too. He is such a good Bengali actor. In the US, the upcoming generation gets more freedom to choose what they want to do. And their parents are very supportive about it and rely more on their decisions because there is more scope here. In India, it is probably more difficult to make a film; there are so many things that one has to know, have proper contacts in the film business or have resources like money. If you are extremely talented, then it is a different story. The United States is a place where dreams do come true for all of us, and there is always more freedom to take new ventures.
Calcutta Tube: You have attended the Hollywood Film School. How important is it to go to a film school to become a filmmaker?
Raj Basu: Personally for me, I needed schooling to become a filmmaker. I wanted to know every element with which you make an entire film. There are many different phases of film-making. Not only the making but the selling and the marketing of the film are important, too. I wanted to know the methods and the processes by which you make a film. A diploma from the Hollywood Film Institute as an Independent Filmmaker and Producer was just the starting point, but it gave me a lot of confidence. It just prepared me to talk to people to form a good off-camera and on-camera team. I had to know all the definitions of the roles and responsibilities. In a film-making project, during the time of principal photography, so much of coordination in needed. Time is money. You have to plan everything well. Personally I preferred schooling to become a director. It helped me communicate with my crew, build concepts and technical knowledge – how to use lights, camera, sounds, and develop my artistic senses – what kind of acting I need, etc. Once you shoot all the scenes, starts the editing process. There again is education behind every single step you perform. Finally it is teamwork and you have to be a good leader and take risks.
Calcutta Tube: How can we mature ourselves as audience?
Raj Basu: The first thing is to watch good films, and a larger variety of films. We should not confine ourselves in any particular kind. An audience needs to know and think about a film’s commercial and cerebral side, too. The more we see films, the better we can distinguish between a good film and one that is not so good. Another important thing is to promote good films by arranging film festivals and showing films to a larger population. It is time now for the distributors to take the good Bengali films outside the geographical boundary. It will certainly bring in a lot of opportunities to know good films, understand good films and be a part of it. I do not know how long we have to wait for things like that to happen. But it is a good time now for coming up with proper initiatives. The audience needs to get prepared for the good films, too.
Interviewed by: CT Journalist- Shrabanti Basu
Listen to the Exclusive Interview with Raj Basu Online