By Devapriya Sanyal.
Wherever [you get] to see your product being received by such disparate audiences is a very interesting process.”-Ghosh on festival programming
Suman Ghosh is a National Award-winning Indian filmmaker who has made six feature films and one documentary film. His first feature film was Footsteps, starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Nandita Das, which won 2 National Awards in 2008. It was showcased at numerous film festivals, including Vancouver, Karlovy Vary and IAAC New York. His second feature film Dwando, also starring veteran film actor and Dadasaheb Phalke Awardee Soumitra Chatterjee, was a part of the Indian Panorama at IFFI Goa in 2009. His next feature film Nobel Thief, starring the Indian megastar Mithun Chakraborty, was world premiered at the Busan IFF and was an official selection at the BFI, London Film festival although it did not do well commercially. The film received the “Best Indian Film” award at the Bengaluru International Film Festival in 2012. His latest feature film Shyamal Uncle Turns off the Lights has had a warm reception from critics and audiences all over the world. It was world premiered at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea and had its North American Premiere at the MoMA, NY. It has been shown at a number of international film festivals, including BUSAN IFF, Mumbai FF, Santa Barbara IFF, ReelWorld Film Festival (Toronto), Delhi 010 Digital Film Festival, Freiburger Film Forum (Germany), Indian Film Festival in Stuttgart, Germany and 10th Green Film Festival (Seoul). It won the “Outstanding International Feature Award” at the ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto. The film, based on a true incident, traces the journey of Shyamal Uncle, an eighty-year-old retiree, as he wades through an apathetic system with a seemingly trivial goal – turn off the street lights near his home which are left on even during the day.
Ghosh, who is also a professor of economics at Florida Atlantic University, U.S.A., recently had the world premiere of his new film The Scavenger of Dreams at the 28th Busan International Film Festival. The Scavenger of Dreams traces the lives a young man who collects waste for a living and his dreams. Juxtaposing his dreams and aspirations against a modernized India, the film highlights the widening gap between the poor and the rich. Ghosh’s intention was to highlight the plight of those left behind in the “so called modern and globalised world” through a garbage collector and his family from Bihar who make a living by collecting trash from posh localities of Kolkata. In this interview he chose to talk about some of the issues concerning his film.
Your title is especially poetic. Please comment on the choice.
We thought that the title aptly represents the scavenging aspect but is also about the dreams of a certain class of society, the dream for the children of the protagonist. Though I should give credit to the famous Indian director Aditya Vikram Sengupta, who suggested the title after her saw an early cut!
What were the key challenges in making this film?
Well, the film was very exploratory in nature for me in the sense that I did not know about this world at all when I dove into this project. First of all, one must know the people, the waste collectors, and their habits, their aspirations, their work. This was my first step.
With using mostly non-professional actors except for the two main protagonists, I had to encourage them to engage with the content. Bringing out what I wanted through the non-professional actors was a challenge, and also for my actors and entire crew.
You film seems to lack intimacy and romance, but not sex scenes.
Well, you know, I don’t agree with the question that there is no romance in the film. First of all, it depends on how one describes romance. I thought that there was a great romantic relationship apart from sex in this film. If you remember the scene where Birju brought the spray which doesn’t have anything, the deodorant, there is a lovely scene which explains a lot of the romance that exists between them.
Of course, they are not going to kiss and hug every time they meet each other; they don’t have the luxury to go for romantic adventures. It’s in the small things.
The ending is pretty enigmatic. Would you please throw some light on it?
If you see the mountains of trash on which that crane or tractor is operating I think that is the macro view which I wanted to project in the sense that we saw a micro story of Birju, Shona and Munni-the family of three and how they are left asunder when the electric cart is introduced to their profession. And I just wanted to give a bird’s eye view picture of how they get lost-this class to which we turn a blind eye-lost on this garbage-the mountain of trash. So it was a metaphorical statement which I wanted to make.
Do you see digital technology a threat or an opportunity?
I would say it is an opportunity because you have larger avenues in which to show your film. But of course that brings into question the theatre going habit of the audience and which is slowly going away. Atleast in India it has come back with a bang and it is a win-win situation. Films of Sharukh Khan, Gadar 2 have done great business. Some films should go digital some should go theatrical and one should take it that way.
How important are film festivals like Busan’s to your work?
I cannot give a comment on the larger role of film festivals but for me a great satisfaction is first of all getting selected to an established film festival which is some confirmation of the quality of your work. But more so when I visit any film festival, say in Europe, or Latin America, India, or Asia, wherever to see your product being received by such disparate audiences is a very interesting process. And I look forward to their Q&A sessions, their reactions and you also get to meet a lot of people: filmmakers, cast and crew from other countries. It’s a wonderful experience.
Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s Listand Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).