Lord of the Orphans  Ranjan Palit's New cinema 



Tumi jano na re priyo...the song from Ranjan Palit's film is buzzing mii head since yesterday. He calls it an Autobiopic. I thought I wasn't interested in one. Anyhow I was proved wrong and gloriously so. Ironical I saw it at a documentary film festival. Thanks are due to the festival director Amudhan for bringing it in. About time we forgot all about the docu fiction binaries and called a film a film.

The last film I remember seeing of Ranjan was called In Camera. I was taken in by the idea of a camera revisiting its past life or is it- lives? So many film journeys packed in there, as the filmmaker sets out in search of the characters of the past films shot by him. What stands out in memory are- images haunted by absent voices, strung together by the author's voice & an un-adress-able pang in the heart.  Could  Lord of the orphans have began somewhere within this journey?


The refrain keeps returning through the film, in Kanai baul's voice - Tumi jano na re priyo, tumi more jeeboner sadhana / 'You do not know dearest, you are the light of mii life.' And then, Buker byatha mukhe bola chole na/ 'The pain in the heart unsettled on the tongue!'


The film reminds mii of so many things! First I remember Ashok Sekseria telling mii to make films that remind of many things; then Nirmal Verma in his last days, watching Ozu's Tokyo story wearing an oxygen mask flash upon the inward eye; like the unending night of Hiroshima mon amour; the split light as colours in Double life of Veronique; an unafraid gut account of Chris Wait's Complete history of my sexual frustrations ; of Nick Ray dying in Wender's camera; of Virginia Woolf's memoir vision as if 'looking through a grape'.


All these remembrances seem to have- an un-afraid-ness of the looking glass; imbued with a sense of 'moments recollected in tranquility'; an ode to immortality along with impermanence?


Not an easy song to make, this auto-biopic. More an experiment with self than on audience, its daring in what it attempts. Breaking  away from the existing traditions of the template driven-trendy-money guzzler as also the feel good-neat-mentored indie. It is the looking, the light, the perception, the lensing, an image-making very special to the film that leaves a powerful impression of having been to and back from a brave new world, heterotopic, and storied; with an interiority as-if close enough to touch.


Story of Ranjan's life is the story of people he loves and remembers- a universe that grows and lives with him. It is a personal history chronicle as seen and heard through a child's clear-eyed vision of an otherwise complex and storied landscape. The filmmaker offers to take us on a walk through the many rooms of a house accursed for generations. Sometimes the author disappears from the frame to become the vision itself; sometimes a documentary camera takes over the telling of a coming-of-age story, sometimes just a silent child's looking. Part of the story is told by just the light moving in a house. In a shaft of light falling in a pattern over the wall are coded memories of key moments standing out. I move through the levels as if led by the child's hand, from one spacetime to another through his entire treasure trove- which to you may only be a collection of pebbles, sea shells, broken butterfly wings, pieces of coloured glass, bird feathers, empty matchboxes, to him its his entire universe.


For an experimental fiction of this kind, it is an intense and immersive experience. Imbued with an uncanny beauty; at times even heart-breaking, but one you live by. A familiar story; of our impossible loves. The author's voice continues to speak through the child Ranjan and young Ranjan alike. 'Tumi bondhu, amaar mon, mano na...tumi jano na/ mii friend, mii soul unaware, don't know.' goes on blind Kanai, his consistent friend. You don't know who is singing the song for whom in the film. Perhaps it is the baul singing on our behalves, or is it Ranjan singing for every one? May be its everyone singing for everyone else. Jai hok. At the end it is just Rumi, his first love, coming full circle in his camera. And Ranjan signing the hospital papers with one hand and holding camera with another.


In the post screening discussion with the filmmaker, a member of the audience gets up, mic in hand to applaud the film exclaiming: "you have written the film so well, the dialogues, you know. Did you write the line Rumi says in response to the query from her own

younger self: "Why did we leave Ranjan?" 

And she says: "Ranjan became so suffocating."


"Oh no" says Ranjan "that was Rumi's own line".

Even I heard it for the first time, when she spoke on camera." I was shocked!"

"But then," he adds - "Elsewhere in the film Rumi also says - "Love is a communion of souls."


Our man in the audience has heard that one before. He says- "Ya, but the other line is so much more powerful, you know! You don't often hear people speaking of love like that- suffocating. No?!"


I remember Ranjan declaring a couple of years back that he was making a film about "the women in mii life". I had heard that one before too and to be honest I wasn't interested in that tale. The film, even if it began there, has eventually become so much more than that; coming together beautifully in the vision of a life simultaneously lived and denied, playful, yet serious, loving yet unattached. It manages to hold in its hands- a world fragile & personal, yet not private, facts not unalloyed by the fictive, joy not untouched by sorrow; a story as real as our memory of it. For a thousand million dollar love stories, churned everyday by film factories, this one is rather love-able, made with a humble crew (lone warrior often) & budget.

Adil Hussain brings to life a near perfect, unforgettable character of Baba. Ranjan's grown up voice made to speak for a child is used to uncanny effect; Vasudha as Ma is a remarkable presence. The home universe, complete with the two elder sisters, aunts and family doctor is palpably real and memorable. The family curse from which the film derives its name, somehow remains a weak link. Someone in the audience calls it a flawed masterpiece.

There are many ways in which the film registers as a digital Indian cinema coming of age - original, free, unaffected by trends, falling out of the categories of documentary, fiction et al, unburdened by the producer's guilt, unapologetic of the transcendental nature of things. There are here some memorable moments of the art-ist letting the light shine on his inner landscape, poised poignantly at the border of the personal, yet not submitting to a gaze what-so-ever. Not for a moment does it let you forget the camera eye nor yourself as viewer. And yet you walk with the child, from one room to another, jumping time-zones, freezing moments, freeing some others; rendering some others immortal.


Without the loving camera that looks at everything with equanimity, there is no tale for the storyteller to write home about. Besides, did not the storyteller decide to let the Light do most of the talking?

Perhaps not an easy choice for anyone other than the cinematograph-ist. Tough love.

Viginia Woolf talks about the nature of memory with respect to the memoir writer's difficulty in articulating the intensity of first impression: "The feeling as I describe it sometimes to miiself, of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi transparent yellow."

Could it be Virginia talking of the future Cinema, back in 1939, not yet come?


The filmmaker tells us at the close of the film that the three years spent making the film were part of a healing process, the definitive part of the healing that helped him restore balance. It must take superhuman effort to throw oneself fully into such an exercise; take fragments of past and start to build something entirely new with familiar old pieces; even surprising yourself by a story you thought you knew; healing others along with yourself.


Virginia talks about the shock receiving capacity as the most necessary precondition for being artist:


"It is only by putting it into words (into, images in the context of the film) that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me power perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain; a great delight to put the severed parts together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern that we- I mean all human beings- are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art."


I can go on. But Thanks Ranjan for making the film -is all I wish to say in so many words; especially a story of love seeking to restore a healing whole to fragments, parts that tend to pull us apart. Thanks for a film that speaks to us and our times in the way only art-poetry-cinema all those things thrown to the margin are capable of. I hereby forgive you all commercials hitherto shot by your sublime camera!


I first heard of Ranjan's film in making from Arghya, with whom Ranjan wanted to edit, then. Ranjan had come home, and showed us clips from a sequence- "lit only by the moon!" It was amazing to have a camera artist we have admire, share his daring experiments findings with such open abandon.


I made tea for us all with the Darjeeling tea leaves Ranjan pulled out from his bag! When I came back with the tea, Ranjan also pulled out a cup from his bag. It was disorienting, to pour the tea made from his tea leaves into his cup, sitting in our house. It was curious and endearing. I wondered what the bag held! This was the third bag to intrigue mii after mii grandma's & Kabuliwallah's from the Tagore story!


Mystery of Ranjan's bag remained; till I found miiself in a cafe in Jodhpur park on Bob Dylan's birthday. There was Ranjan with his guitar paying tribute. (A few months later we will hear of Dylan getting the Noble.) Arghya had also invited Bula da with his marine flute.


There were things in the cafe I had not seen before. Ones that caught mii eye seemed to have come out of Ranjan's bag.       

Bula da's flute was restless to come out of his bag...  

Mii camera wanted to come out of its cover too. Some proposition to shoot a cinematographer, who I just discovered was also an incredible production designer. I started shooting that evening and could not stop. Arghya sitting in the far corner table of the cafe requested a Cohen number. That Bob Dylan Evening is mii parting memory of Kolkata, a city that evokes past life memories in mii.

photos: Rajula. Film screened on Feb 24, 2020 @ Chennai international documentary & short film festival