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  • Writer's pictureRAJULA SHAH

Ranjan Palit's New Cinema


Tumi jano na re priyo...the song from Ranjan Palit's film is buzzing mii head ever since. He calls it Autobiopic and I thought I wasn't interested in one. I was proved wrong and gloriously so. Ironical I saw it first at a documentary film festival in Chennai. Thanks are due to the festival director Amudhan for bringing it in. Isn't it time we forgot the binaries and called a Film a Film? Apparently there are people who need the categories.

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 set out in search of the characters from films shot by him earlier. What stands out in memory are- images haunted by absent voices, strung together by the author's voice & somewhere there- an un-adress-able pang in the heart. Could Lord of the orphans have began somewhere within that journey?

The song refrain keeps returning through the film, in Kanai Baul's voice - Tumi jano na re priyo, tumi mor 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!' How do you say it any other way, any way other than a song, this song?

The film reminds mii of so much more! Of our friend late Ashok Sekseria telling mii to make films that may remind him of many things, as I joined the film institute; of Nirmal Verma in his last days, watching Ozu's Tokyo story wearing an oxygen mask; the unending night of Hiroshima mon amour; a light splitting into the colours of a Double life of Veronique; the unafraid gut account of Chris Wait's Complete history of my sexual frustrations; Nick Ray dying in Wender's camera; Virginia Woolf's vision of 'looking through a grape'.

All of mii remembrances seem to share in an un-afraid-ness of the looking glass. Moments 'recollected in tranquility'. An ode to Immortality together with Impermanence?

Not an easy song to make, this auto-biopic. Daring in how and what it attempts. More of an experiment with self than the audience. Breaking away from the existing Indian traditions of the template driven, trendy, money guzzler or the feel good, correct, mentored indie or even art house. It is a different kind of looking at one's life, with the Light playing as much a character as the others in that ancestral house. An image-making, very special to the film, leaves a strong impression of having been to and back from a brave new world; with an interiority close enough to touch.

A Heterotopia - a world within worlds, mirroring as well as upsetting what is outside

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 it retreats into the silent looking of a child.

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 the key moments. I move through the various levels of the narrative as if led by the child's hand, from one spacetime to another. It is to the child, a treasure trove, his universe- which to you may only be a collection of pebbles, sea shells, broken butterfly wings, pieces of coloured glass, bird feathers, empty matchboxes.

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

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 when Rumi is asked a question by her own younger self: Why did we leave Ranjan?

And she says: Ranjan became so suffocating. Did you write the line ?

Oh no says Ranjan that was Rumi's own line. I was shocked!

Even I heard it for the first time, when she spoke on camera.

But then, adds the filmmaker - Elsewhere, 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?! Thank you so much for the film.

I remember Ranjan declaring a couple of years back that he was making this film about "the women in mii life". And it did not interest mii. Same when I heard the grand sounding name Lord of the Orphans. But the film, as it happens, surpasses it's intent, even the synopsis, eventually coming together 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, a joy not untouched by sorrow; a story as real as our memory of living it.

For a thousand million dollar love stories churned everyday by film factories, this one is rather love-able, unique, made with a humble crew (often Ranjan alone) & on a tight budget.

Adil Hussain brings to life a near perfect, unforgettable character of Baba in a touching performance. Ranjan's grown up voice made to speak for a child is used to uncanny effect. Vasudha as Ma is remarkable presence. The home universe, complete with the two elder sisters, aunts and family doctor is palpably real; memorable. Kudos to the cast for playing along, for breathing life into the script. The family curse from which the film derives its name, somehow remains a weaker link in the narrative. However the context is important to the autobiographer and so it is also of value to us. But there is a sense that it carries references way too personal and local to resonate the narrative.

There is enough evidence in which the film registers itself as digital Indian cinema coming of age - original, free, unaffected by trends, falling outside categories, unburdened by the producer's guilt, unapologetic of the politics of image making, mingling with the felt and pointing to the transcendent. There are here some memorable moments of the art-ist poised poignantly at the border of the personal, yet not submitting to a gaze, letting the light shine on his inner-scape. Not for a moment does it let you forget the camera eye, nor yourself as viewer. And you walk with the child, from one room to another, jumping time-zones, freezing some moments, freeing some others; rendering few others immortal.

Without the 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 & Sound 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 myself, of lying in a grape and seeing through a film of semi transparent yellow."

Virginia back in 1939, tracing Stream of consciousness, talking Cinema.

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 lost balance. It must take superhuman effort to throw oneself fully into such an exercise; take fragments of past and start to re-build something entirely new with familiar old pieces; even surprising oneself by a story one thought one knew; in the process, healing along many other bruises of many others.

Virginia in her memoir, talks about the shock receiving capacity as the most necessary precondition for being an artist:

"It is only by putting it into words 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 -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 for making this film, Ranjan -is all I wish to say in so many words; especially a story of love seeking to restore a healing whole to its fragments; the parts that often tend to pull us apart. The film speaks to us and our times in the way only art-poetry-cinema are capable of speaking; all things thrown increasingly to the margins. It's inspiring to say the least and I hope it is seen by all those tired of trendy templates or longing for newer ways of looking.

I hereby forgive you filmmaker, the 250 commercials hitherto shot by your sublime camera!


I first heard of Ranjan's film-in-making from mii friend and Editor-Filmmaker Arghya, with whom Ranjan wanted to edit it then. Ranjan had come home; showed us clips from a sequence- "lit only by the Moon!" he said. It was wondrous to share in his daring experiments and its findings.

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. All the same it was curious and endearing. I wondered what all the bag held? This was the third bag to intrigue mii after grandma's mystery bag that seemed to contain all and everything & Kabuliwallah's magic bag from the iconic Tagore story!

Mystery of Ranjan's bag remained; till I found miiself in a cafe in Jodhpur park on Bob Dylan's birthday, 2016. There was Ranjan with his guitar paying tribute. (months before Dylan got the Noble.)

Bula da talking to Ranjan as Arghya looks on

Arghya had invited Bula da (Pradip Chattopadhyay) to the concert with his marine flute. Ranjan was singing. Arghya was requesting a Cohen number on a Dylan evening. And Ranjan was going to honour it, despite the evening. Bula da's flute wanted to come out of its bag.

The Marine flute

Mii camera wanted to come out of its cover. Some proposition it was, to shoot a cinematographer, who I discovered was also a curious production designer. There were so many mysterious things never seen before in the cafe. They sure came out of Ranjan's bag!

Ranjan to Dylan in cafe Abar Boithak, Kolkata

I started shooting that evening and couldn't stop. There were many in-camera moments, standing out.

Ranjan singing in the cafe owned by the young boy playing the young protagonist in Ranjan's Autobiopic- is mii parting memory of Kolkata, a city I loved, lived in; a city that evokes past life memories in mii...

Photos: Rajula. Film: screened @ Chennai international documentary & short film festival Feb 2020

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