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|March 10, 2000||
What made Bariwali a success in Berlin?
Shoma A Chatterji
Bonolata (Kiron Kher), a middle-aged woman, single, once beautiful, lives in a spacious ancestral house on the outskirts of Calcutta. She is, by twist of circumstances, coerced into letting out a part of her premises to a film unit to shoot Chokher Bali, a film based on a Tagore classic of the same name.
Used to living alone with her retinue of family servants, Bonolata unwittingly gets involved in the shooting of the film, her excited, glamour-struck servants forming her source of information. Dipankar, the young director (Chiranjeet), who reports to her every now and then, persuades her to step into a small role fitting her character and her persona. With some reluctance, she agrees.
The unit leaves after the shoot is over. The landlady keeps waiting for the film's release. She tries to keep in touch through letters to the director, in vain. Then, one fine morning, the expected letter arrives, informing her that the film has been released to much adulation.
However, the director adds with a sympathetic note, due to constraints in footage and editing, her role had to be left out. Bonolata, who found herself emotionally drawn to this man, is shocked by the utter betrayal.
This, in short, is the moving story of the Bengali film, Bariwali (The Landlady) directed by Rituparno Ghosh and produced by Anupam Kher, which bagged the Netpac Jury award for the Best Asian film at the recently concluded Berlin Film Festival.
The story, penned by Ghosh himself, appeared in one of the short-fiction specials in Sananda, the woman's magazine edited by Aparna Sen. "I had scripted the story for my film much before Anupam Kher came in," says Ghosh. "At that time, I had slated Raakhee for the role of the landlady. Then, for some reason or other, the film was shelved and I got into the making of Asookh.
"In the meantime, Jaya Bachchan, who had read the story, narrated it to Kiron. When Anupam approached me to direct a film he wanted to produce, we mutually agreed that Bariwali would be the ideal choice and Kiron could play the lead," he goes on. The director is on a high these days, what with Asookh bagging the National Award followed immediately by the Berlin award.
One is intrigued by the fact that Kiron Kher, who does not know a word of Bengali, played the lead in a film that is Bengali in every sense -- and not just in terms of its language. How did Ghosh tackle the problem?
"It wasn't very difficult, really. Kiron is a talented and dedicated actress. Her earlier films, from Pestonjee to Sardari Begum to Darmiyaan have underscored her versatility as an actress and her ability to master challenging and unusual roles. Besides, she has a solid background in theatre. She takes on one assignment at a time," Ghosh explains.
According to him, Kiron managed the language problem quite simply. "It was painstaking, though," he adds. "She memorised every single word phonetically in Bengali, without understanding what she memorised. Then, one of my assistants, Sumanto Mukherjee, helped her with the meanings, the nuances, the subtle intricacies of the language till she got totally absorbed in the minutest details of a Bengali culture within the home."
Kiron herself explains how she went about it. "It was a film in a language that wasn't mine. I had to learn the language first. For eight months I did nothing but study the script, and then learnt the language. I was in touch with Rituparno all the time through email and telephone. I also went to Calcutta quite often. Rituparno was extremely cooperative. He had the script ready beforehand, so it was easy to know the character," says the actress.
She is full of praise for her director. "Rituparno is an actor's director. His involvement in a film is total, he helped me a lot with the character. He speaks English fluently and initially, we would communicate in that language. By the time we finished doing the film, I was speaking Bengali fluently. The rapport on the sets was very good and he made me feel absolutely comfortable."
Ghosh gives an example of how Kiron got under the skin of the role. "Bengali women like Bonolata chop vegetables on what is called the bonti. They don't use knives, graters or peelers. It is a blade placed on a wooden block which is used as a foot-rest while the woman chops on the blade, sitting on the floor. Kiron took it upon herself to learn how to chop vegetables on the bonti. She went on practising till she perfected the art, the Bengali way. The rest was easy," he states.
According to him, "the underlying theme that unfolds in the drama is the exploitation of the human being by the artist for his own creative ends. The artist can become absolutely ruthless at times in search of artistic fulfillment. Bonolata is a microcosmic example of this exploitation. There are subtle layers of interpersonal relationships throughout the film.
"There is a maid-servant (played brilliantly by Sudipta Chakravarty), her relationship with Bonolata has been explored. Some members of the film crew, including Rupa Ganguli, also have their emotional highs and lows as the shooting for the film progresses. I have paid very close attention to the sound design of this film, specially because it was not shot in the studios. I had to get my ambience right. I have also conceived and executed four dream sequences in the film" adds Ghosh.
Bariwali was shot at a single stretch of 32 days in two ancestral houses, one at Dashghara in Tararekeshwar, a holy town near Calcutta, and another at Baruipur, in North 24 Parganas. "It is my most economical film till date, I guess, because the shot-to-take ratio was the minimum possible. I roped in art director, Surya Chatterjee, to play the role of an effeminate retainer in this film. He has done the role wonderfully," Ghosh informs us.
Bariwali has a straightforward narrative scripted by Ghosh himself who has also written the dialogue, something he excels in. Indraneel Ghosh is the art director, Arghya Kamal Mitra has edited the film while the cinematography is by Vivek Shah who assisted the cameraman in Dahan, Ghosh's earlier film.
"I approached Rituparno Ghosh because I thought he was brilliant. I saw Dahan and was rather impressed by the film. So I asked him to make a film for me," says Anupam Kher, the producer. "I first wanted to make a Hindi film, but he told me that he didnít have a script for that. He narrated this particular one for me and we toyed with the idea of making it in Hindi as well as Bengali. But then it had such a strong Bengali flavour that it wouldn't have been fair to make it in Hindi. This could not have been set in Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh."
There were other constraints too. "This was a small budget film. I didnít have the resources to make it in Hindi at that time," adds Anupam. "Also, I come from NSD. Though professionally I do a lot of commercial cinema, my sensibilities are such that I want to make good cinema. I might do commercial films, but once a year I plan to do good cinema too."
He says he knew Ghosh had made a good film when he saw the film. "Rituparno completely translated the film to me and I understood what a brilliant film we had made. So winning the award at the Berlin festival was wonderful. We had no issues to deal with here. Like the films of Ingmar Bergman or Kurosawa or for that matter, Satyajit Ray. Their films might fight issues, but we watch them for the pure joy of watching a good cinema. My film doesn't deal with issues, but is pure cinema. You enjoy the content in it," Anupam explains.
Wife Kiron shares his sentiments. "When we were asked to show the film in Forum section of the festival and then got the Netpack award, we were jubilant. There are three categories in which the films are shown -- the Critics category, the Forum and the Panorama. There are no awards in the Forum section. One of the directors there told us that just being asked to show the film in Forum is an award in itself. And when we got the award, it was a wonderful feeling," she reveals.
Kiron is also basking in the media attention she received. "The German media saw the film and it was they who wrote that Kiron Kher must get the Golden Bear award for her role," she adds. "Usually, the Golden Bear is reserved only for the best film in the festival. The actors receive the Silver Award for their performances. So it was wonderful that they felt I deserved the Golden Bear."
As for the future, Kiron says, "I am not sure whether I would be doing more such films. It is not easy making these films. But whenever there is one made, I definitely want to be a part of it."
Anupam elaborates on how difficult things were initially. "It wasn't easy trying to get finances for the film. There was a financier and he backed out two hours before the shooting began. We had to start all over again. I did shows, films and collected as much money as I could to complete the film. We were just short of selling chairs and tables in the office. Fortunately that didnít happen. I was determined to make this film because of its brilliant script. And I am glad that it has been appreciated so much," he concludes.
As each reel of Bariwali unrolls on the large screen, one is once again reminded that Rituparno Ghosh's basic tendency to search and present the loneliness of the individual continues through each of his films -- from Unishe April through Dahan to Asookh right till Bariwali.
(Additional inputs by Sharmila Taliculam)
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