Power-packed performer, Chandan Roy Sanyal, talks about directing his first short film Hiroshima, what led him to the city of Benaras and his aspirations as an artist.
Why a film on Hiroshima? What was it that struck you?
It came accidentally to me. In fact It is far from what I intended to make at the start. The idea came to me around last year when I was in Poland shooting for a feature film. We were in a small town called Krakow, which has the haunting past of World War II quite visible in its architecture, its colors and dark spaces. I could see and feel the pieces of the past all around, when I would travel from the hotel to the set or walk around the city. One evening I was eating at a small Japanese restaurant, though I don’t particularly enjoy sushi but there was nothing else that I could eat, and the sauce offered with it was so good. I felt that there was a bomb on my tongue; I was so enraptured by its taste. I came back to my room thinking of how to pay homage to this taste and wrote something with all this in mind. When I came back to Mumbai I reworked the whole idea again. After several readings and rewriting, I reached the final draft of the script.
There are no actors in your film barring one, the character of the chef, instead you’ve used mannequins as actors and played with sounds. Why?
Yes that was an experiment that I did. I wanted the film to look like abstract art. I thought it would be more haunting to have mannequins, whose hands, legs, faces could be removed and put anywhere. That portrayed a more shocking and powerful image than showing actors enacting the scenes. The images and sounds were part of the design I had in my mind. I was clear of dividing the film into these two bifurcations. I shot the images first and mixed the sounds on edit. I used one actor as a symbolism of a living being in that devastated, dead space. Something like Jallianwala Bagh, where people say you can still hear the hues and cries of the dead.
Also there is no use of dialogues in your film. How important do you think are words in the realm of cinema?
They are important if used strategically and in a right balance with the right amount of texture. Because being a medium that already has visuals, sounds and effects to support it, it doesn’t require too much information to be blurted out with words. Why make it so obvious? Cinema isn’t theatre. Theatre has to be vocal, as it requires a certain amount of talent, effort to transform and take people to a different space altogether. Theatre’s science has boundaries so you can’t have a scene change in seconds. Whereas, in films you can change things in post (in edit). Theatre requires time and effort to transfer the audience to different spaces. So it has to be more vocal and word oriented. Characters in cinema should only speak when asked for, when needed, when required. So ten words can be said with one look or one visual. It works on such design. I feel one should just do away with words mostly.
The set-up is done beside a sea-shore and you’ve mostly used non living things to show ‘human’ emotions. Please comment.
I took it up as a challenge. I wanted to create a space where things speak to you in different ways. The artist inside me loved that isolated space where you have one actor surrounded with animated objects. It would be more arresting, I thought. There is a scene where a pregnant mannequin is floating in the water. Connected with other images and sounds, it made a disturbing visual. I had my female friends, and their mothers, talk particularly about that sight. I chose this path for the film. I had to experiment.
You are primarily an actor. Were you always interested in making films?
This is my first film. I have just finished shooting another film which is longer i.e. of 16 minutes. I hope to finish it in time for Sundance. I didn’t decide any of this. I just went with the flow. I don’t believe in plans. Even acting happened by chance. I am enjoying it, improving day by day. I am here to express myself as artistically as possible, with whatever medium comes my way. I have spent five years working in films. I have made friends in the industry, who are cinematographers, directors, designers, editors and learnt about this medium through them. I have discovered what a powerful medium cinema is. There is so much impact on the audience that one can’t even imagine. I have no ambitions as such. I want to work, go with the flow, invest all I have earned in making more art. Earlier I used to invest in theatre productions, now it’s films. I am not making films to show off. It’s more like an experiment; a gradual progression for the artist in me.
As you said, you recently finished your next film. Tell us about it.
The film is called 35mm. I am happy the way we have shot it, it turned out to be quite interesting. Currently in the editing stage, it’s a love story between a director and an actress. It’s about a famous director, Guru, who leaves everything he earned at the peak of his career, and goes to settle in Benaras. He is woken up from his meditation by a lady called Geeta, an actress with whom he previously made films. And how the incidence makes him return to his previous life, house, love. The film also deals with how films were and are shot in different formats ranging from 35mm,16mm, 8mm to now, when digital is used. It’s primarily about nostalgia.The film stars Neeraj Kabi and Priyanka Bose and is half color and half black & white.
What is that draws filmmakers to the city of Benaras?
I didn’t realise the mysticism of Benaras till I went there. I had heard that Dadasaheb Phalke went to Benaras to do theatre after he thought cinema is dead. I had read a book on how Benaras, the oldest city in the world, is collapsing. Various western artists, writers, thinkers, painters, poets in the past have been to the city. I had no fascination as such about the city till I went there and ‘discovered’ the city myself. I had actually written a script for a short film competition organised by Kevin Spacey and Adrien Brody six months ago. Artists from all over the world participated in it. It proposed that if the script is selected, the film will be produced by Adrien and he will also act in it. So I wrote the character keeping him in mind, a story which a Western actor of his caliber, would like to be part of.
I built the script around Benaras – a city still holding it’s past in modern times. However it didn’t make it to the top of the scripts. But I had the complete draft of the script. A friend of mine liked it and was interested in producing it. So it went on floors due to that friend’s graceful and expensive support. The production has gone into lakhs; for a short film that’s a big amount. And to do that when it’s almost not refundable, not a remuneration generating spoof, not a YouTube thing whose growing viewership will get you capital, is commendable. It’s pure love for cinema. So while shooting 35mm, Benaras did have it’s mystical effect on me. It’s a fascinating city where you meet people from all over the world and it’s actually funny how you get to eat the best of different cuisines Japanese, pizzas and Indian food, of course. It’s mind blowing!
How did you build your team? Please talk about the process of writing this film, it’s production and post.
Most of the people who worked on Hiroshima have also worked in my next film. Building the team was easy because they are all friends from the industry – assistant directors, camera and editing people. And they agreed to do it as they have certain respect for me as an actor. They believe that if I’m talking about something, the work will have some substance. They all came and helped me. I’d say that they gave me the charity of their talent. I got expensive talent for free. The only places I put money in were equipments, basic food, travel, stay and then post production.
What inspires you to make films? What kind of cinema do you like?
I like all kind of cinema. The journey of watching films started with popular cinema then came old Hindi classics, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand films and more. I watched all popular films while growing up in Delhi till my mother took me to watch Mrinal Sen’s films during durga puja. That is when I was exposed to another style of films and world cinema followed. Films by Godard and Fellini, talking about Impressionism, painters and their paintings, literature and how all of it affected Cinema. I watch all kinds of films now – Woody Allen, Iranian films, Polish films, Japanese, Korean films and keep myself updated on what’s happening the world over. I want to achieve a kind of neutrality, a pan-world audience through my films. Indian films shouldn’t necessarily be language or region specific. I want to overcome that hindrance. It should just be a story that connects to anybody in the world.
Also my films should reflect India in a positive light and talk more about Nationalism, Swaraj, history and the likes. My friends from Germany, Poland and other places who saw Hiroshima couldn’t figure that it’s made by an Indian. I could overcome that boundary and it’s a big compliment. The quality of the film was such. I aspire to make films that people from any part of the world can watch, relate to and be interested in. I love Woody Allen and Satyajit Ray films. I definitely love my Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor films as well. Their lives and the films they made inspire me.
What are the key points that an actor has to consider / remember before directing his own film?
I really don’t know. I am a budding director who has just made a six minute short film. I don’t think I am in a position to answer that. But I would definitely say that as a director also I should be able to tell stories like I do as an actor. I have got the best editor, camera person, sound people and so on, but if my films don’t work because my actors don’t work, then I will be stressed. I am an actor and I should be able to bring out those nuances from my actors, the little details. I should be able to extract the best performances from them.