"Satyajit Ray is my film institution" -- Soumik Sen

June 14, 2015

The director talks about Gulab Gang, his experience of working with the two Bollywood divas, women empowerment and his passion for music

In his directorial debut Gulaab Gang, Soumik Sen has neither pictured his female characters as objects of desire for men nor as stereotypically passive South Asian women. In fact, draped in pink sarees, the female characters in his film, are tough activists fighting for issues like dowry, domestic abuse, rape and female education in a village of Madhya Pradesh, India.

Though the film received mixed reviews, Juhi Chawla’s performance was immensely lauded.

Being a self-proclaimed feminist and having watched the movie twice after its release in Lahore in 2014, I reached out to Soumik Sen during my stay in Mumbai. Generously agreeing for an email interview, he talked to me about Gulaab Gang, his experience of working with the two Bollywood divas, women empowerment and his passion for music.

The News on Sunday (TNS): How did you get into the film industry?

Soumik Sen (SS): I was a journalist in Delhi, but bred on a diet of classical music, theatre and Satyajit Ray films, the ability to tell stories was always there. Cinema is essentially the widest story telling medium and something which encompassed all these. The getting in took seed in Delhi, and I sought a transfer with Business Standard to Mumbai to start off as a screenwriter.

TNS: How did you switch to direction from screenplay writing?

SS: When you write scripts, the responsibility of putting the project together rests with the producer and the director films the script. So when I thought I might as well try and get these things done, it was a conscious effort to also tell the stories the way I saw them. And Gulaab Gang being a difficult film to put together had its advantages.

TNS: How was it working with the leading Bollywood actresses Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla?

SS: A pleasure and a delight. They are icons in their own right and to try and contextualise their talent in a new age story was a challenge, but their commitment to the craft is spectacular. Given that Juhi has never played negative and Madhuri has given her heart and soul and limbs and tears to etch out a truly memorable character.

TNS: What challenges did you face while making this movie?

SS: Making the film was tough because as much as I would’ve liked, the resources were limited, the days were short and one had to try and make it also to cater to the larger mass audience. But more than that, seeing the film take off the ground was tough because an all women’s violent actioner hasn’t been tried before. So songs n dance had to be brought in still keeping in mind that it had to be a film for universal audiences to enable its satellite friendliness.

TNS: What do you think needs to be done to fight the gender disparities and violence against women?

SS: Enough has been said about sensitising men and making them understand about equality (though I think women are superior to men) and I think a generation will pass before the informed society passes down wisdom. But as far as immediate actions are concerned, women need to be physically trained, capable to resist any kind of violence intended towards them. Women need to band together in numbers to be able to physically be a deterrent against any kind of violence. Disparities will only be eroded with greater legislation and proper redressal.

TNS: What do you think about women empowerment in South Asian countries? Does it give any positive vibes for a less biased future?

SS: As I said, it will take a generation and various role models like Malala. The media must highlight such stories of inspiring courage that can lead to women finding equal footing and get into positions of power.

TNS: What do you think about the objectification of women in the media and film industry?

SS: It has been around and continues to make monies. So while we may accuse the industry of pandering to the baser instincts the truth is -- such objectification sells. Of course, there is a saturation point for such things and while sex will continue to sell, I hope a greater degree of sensitisation with some makers will ensure that such instances are fewer in future.

TNS: How difficult is it to make female-centric films in Bollywood?

SS: It is actually quite tough particularly perhaps for a first time filmmaker. But with examples like Queen, Kahani, and the kind of response I have received for Gulaab Gang it is heartening to see the tide change.

TNS: Which Hollywood and Bollywood writer/directors are you most inspired by?

SS: As of today? World cinema - Jean Pierre Jeunet, Zhang Ji Mou, the Korean masters, Peter Jackson, the Coen Brothers, Ron Howard, Bollywood -- Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar, Shoojit, Raju Hirani.

TNS: What is your opinion about Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Bimal Roy?

SS: Ray is my film institution. Bengalis don’t need to go to film school because we are grained in story-telling by someone as huge as him. The greatest filmmaker this country will ever produce. Mrinal Sen’s cinema has taught us pontification but while growing up most of his films have tended to be less fun. They are rather more stoic, more socialistic but devoid of entertainment to me. Bimal Roy again has been a humanist like Ray whose stories and narratives of human conflict and humanity by and large spoke volumes through minimalism.

TNS: What do you think about Ritwik Ghatak?

SS: Absolute stunner of a filmmaker. His starkness, his ability to encase the plight of partition and bring out the human condition’s haplessness in an environment that was changing way too fast and out of control is a marvel. Wish he made more films.

TNS: Do you think Devdas by Bimal Roy is the greatest film ever produced by India?

SS: No. In fact it wouldn’t be in my Top 10 either. My favourite Bimal Roy film is Do Bigha Zameen. The greatest Indian film ever is the Apu Trilogy. My favourite film ever though is Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.

TNS: The film history of India for the last one hundred years is mostly influenced by Bengali school of filmmaking including big names like Nitin Bose, Amiya Chakravorty, Bimal Roy, Ray, Sen, Benegal, Tapan Sinha, etc. Do you agree?

SS: Well if you go by the progress of story-telling largely yes, though you can’t ignore the splendid work of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Balu Mahendru and Bala amongst other South Indian makers. And right now one is seeing some tremendous story telling in Marathi cinema too.

TNS: Are you satisfied with the response to your first directorial debut?

SS: Yes I am. From getting appreciation from educationalists like Mrs Satvasheela Chavan to sociologists seeing what I was trying to do to a film about rural education within the masala framework, to fans of Madhuri and the general public who have loved what they’ve seen, it has been humbling the kind of praise that has been wide and diverse.

TNS: Some critics have argued that Gulaab Gang is too far from being real. How’d you respond to that?

SS: When I was making the film, the idea was to be entertaining for a Friday weekend crowd. A grittier real take was also possible, but this was a route specifically chosen to make sure the audience is entertained first. And that Madhuri Dixit fans come to see a ‘film’ not a docu drama.

TNS: You have also composed the music for the film. Are you a trained Indian classical musician?

SS: Yes. I play the sarod.

TNS: How important is music in Bollywood films?

SS: Music’s importance is defined by the script and the film one is trying to make. It was important in my film.

TNS: The music is a mix of traditional folk songs and classical which is an unusual combination as we don’t get to hear it very often these days. How did you think of experimenting with classical music?

SS: Well I did think it was an opportunity to showcase the folk and classical story telling forms of singing and give it a contemporary sound. This hasn’t been done much but we thought we’d experiment.

TNS: Writing, music or film: what do you identify with the most?

SS: It all depends. The process of making music is the most invigorating, but story telling has its own spark. And direction is definitely the most energetic, involved, high energy process.

TNS: What are your future projects?

SS: I’m writing a period film based in 1911, about football, which Shoojit Sircar is directing, starring John Abraham. Also am directing the biopic of magician P C Sorcar jr. and working on a human drama, a thriller romance and a comedy.

"Satyajit Ray is my film institution" -- Soumik Sen