15 years into the Bengali entertainment business, Rudranil Ghosh is a powerhouse collection of stories – the ones that created his audience and also the ones that changed him as a person. Having ruled over both television and cinema, in roles that range from serious to comic and violent to intense, the actor has picked up many awards and accolades. But more than that, he has been blessed with experiences and learning.
He spoke to #TellMeYourStory about his understanding of storytelling, cinema as his mode of communication, his relationship with the audience and sets, and the most hard-hitting moments of his life.
More than a hero, today a character is prioritised. Gone are the days when scripts were written for a star. These days you need to make your story really compelling for the audience, else a film will tank. Given this condition, the depth and journey of the protagonist is very important. Whatever is happening around him, whatever is contributing to his journey, needs to be communicated perfectly.
Earlier the star-hero would stay hidden behind some mystic layers which would make it difficult for the common man to approach. He had to look great and he had to carry a distinct swag. Times changed, and so did some practices. Now entertainment industry professionals can’t alienate themselves even if they want to. To sell a product, you have to be visible. And you have to do a damn good job balancing out your work and the visibility factor. So naturally, the star system has decomposed; “actor system” is born. As a professional, if you can fit yourself in any role, portray any character convincingly, only then you will survive.
But then, this isn’t as simple as it sounds.
A potter feels proud to say he is a potter; when people are happy with the potter that’s when a tea-seller also abandons his tea-stall and claims to be a potter. You have to constantly prove to yourself and others, that you are the original potter and not the tea-seller.
However, for example, Saswata (Chatterjee) is a great actor. The world was reminded of that all over again when Kahaani released. He had been equally good for so many years! But when Bob Biswas clicked, he became a household name across the country and the industry, kind of rediscovered him.
Hence I feel, in a film these days, whichever actor stands out with his craft and tells his part of the story most convincingly, becomes the hero.
We don’t start with the character. We first need to firm up our confidence on the story. There are two kinds of stories – facts and fiction. There is nothing real practically, unless you are making a documentary where actors like us aren’t required.
The difference between lie and acting justifies the equation. In a lie, everything related to space, time or people is misinformed or mislead. In acting, the same components are fictionally presented and yet the audience can’t call it fake. They know that no one really exists with this name, this character or this background, but they are still willing to walk with the character and sheds tears for him.
As actors we look at the story first and try to infuse reality in fiction. Say, I am doing The Mahabharata. If I am playing a celestial character and I am supposed to walk over the clouds, which is absurd in real life, I first try to understand how to interpret the kind of society where walking over the clouds is the norm. I need to assemble the elements of my own truth around whatever is given to or written for me. This assembling is done differently by different actors and that creates the difference.
This is perhaps equivalent to an author’s imagination. An author presents a fictional world and the readers start comprehending the author’s metaphors in their own way as they proceed through the written words.
Fact is that Leonardo da Vinci painted Monalisa. An author can create a fiction that Monalisa was standing on the balcony and Leonardo saw her for the first time when he was returning after a good bargain in the fish market of north Kolkata!
This is just about identifying a connection as per the practices of a culture or a society. That’s how you set up a backdrop, a context, which brings the audience closer to the story through elements they are aware of and accustomed to.
We, the actors too focus on the setting of that identifiable backdrop because we will fail if the audience feels alien to the story. If the environment isn’t perfectly set, the character won’t be believable.
Say, you are sitting at your house. I remove the bookrack behind you and replace it with of a busy, dirty, crowded restaurant. Your character is bound to change with the change in setting.
It’s important hence, to set the ambiance first. Then comes the understanding of the character in that ambiance. The colours and clothes and other such defining things are factored in as per the understanding of what a character from that social space is expected to do. Nature of the character, as I must portray, is largely controlled by all these components.
We actors are renting out our bodies and minds constantly. Today I am police, tomorrow a dacoit, third day a simple middle-class working man, something else on the day next. I have to fall in love with all the characters and justify them, since they are me!
Barring the 6 or 8 hours of sleep, most of the time I am either shooting or discussing a shoot. The little time I get to stream around being myself, I am busy talking to friends, handling EMIs, figuring out some career calls, planning the next course of action, being nice or nasty, sorting out any domestic crisis, internalising the fake smiles that come my way, and everything else that is a survival chore.
The moment they apply some make-up and put me in front of the camera, I have to come out of that shell restricted by one person called Rudranil Ghosh. For the character I am portraying, I have to perhaps let go of many ideological or other kind of benchmarks I had set for myself personally. That is an interesting conflict.
In personal life, today, after giving my face and body to myriad characters, I can understand what happens inside another person’s brain if I study him or her for a short while. I find it easier to converse or connect with people across status or discipline. There could be a person who beats up the wife at night and waters flowerpots in the morning. The dark side and the beautiful side co-exist, and I often get to see those dichotomies quite transparently even in a stranger.
Also, I don’t get excited or anxious or overjoyed with anything anymore, unless we are discussing a calamity or something inhuman. Emotionally I feel more settled.
Once upon a time there was a difference between art film and commercial film. Art films were for intellectuals, commercial films were for the masses. Commercial films were often made with the rural audience in mind. But now times have changed. The tastes of the audience across sections have grown to the extent that today those art films have become regular mass-market films. Even the rural audience wants to travel through the modern complications of relationships and life through the films they watch, rather than sticking to running around the trees. The urban-rural distinction is on the decline and that is reflecting in our viewership.
Naturally, the demand-supply equation has changed.
Having said that, films run because people love voyeurism. They love to know what is happening in another person’s life. That’s why more real the content, better response a film receives.
I had a very small character in Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife. It was a very simple, somewhat shabby and rustic in nature. We were all playing the role of villagers and we were actually shooting in a village.
The people who stand as crowd in a film get a last minute call when they have to come immediately and spend a day or more in exchange of some money.
For The Japanese wife, the people who came to stand as crowd had the body language of that place and they were sitting on the ground in a particular way. To grab that posture, I was sitting with them on the ground. Shooting was yet to start. Preparations for the main shot was on. Some 25 or 30 of them were sitting and talking among themselves. I was trying to observe and learn their style of walking or sitting or talking.
Just then I heard someone telling his neighbour – Hey, did you recognise him?
The other one asked – Who?
—Sitting beside you, that man. Ruddunil, Ruddunil!!
—Which Ruddunil? Can’t place…
—Come on, that villain from that film. That fight scene. Great villain.
—Oh yes, of course. He is the man. The same man. But what is he doing here?
—This is the truth of this film line – He sighed – Today you are on top, but once you fall you have to sit in the same place as I. That’s why I am telling you, don’t run after this film world. Take care of your brother’s shop instead. You can see what happens to these big people, right before your eyes.
The fun is, they didn’t come to disturb me after my sad fall; they were sitting around and discussing my tragic situation. Fun apart, this is the fondest memory of my life as it was an important lesson for me.
Awards, respect, honour, etc. are secondary and sometimes manipulative.
Reach of a film depends upon which region has been able to popularise their language and culture to make them saleable to audience beyond their community. Today everyone can relate to the balle balle of a Punjabi. Bengali’s are spread across the world, their language is equally well received.
Investment in a film depends upon the expected returns. That’s pure business mathematics. Whoever understands or is interested in Bengal as a community or culture, is the target audience for a film. Out of that target audience, 40% will actually come to watch it. I have to maximise my distribution and invest marketing efforts in regions where this 40% is located. Else, even if I am willing to give, there wouldn’t be takers and the demand-supply balance breaks down.
A lot of processes, from production to distribution, has taken the digital path now. That’s the ultimate future which will eventually take care of all existing gaps.
I have nothing against remake because you can never do a remake. You can hear about a film being inspired by Polanski’s film. But that doesn’t mean the film-maker is becoming Polanski. That can never happen. For each film there is a budget, a team of actors and technicians are jointly working on it. Times change and so does the treatment or presentation. But you can’t recreate lamb biryani when your budget allows you to only put vegetables as ingredients.
Many Bengali films have been adapted nationally earlier. But searching out genuine beautiful stories have come down as a practise because no one has time. Educated people are taking a backseat. Those coming forward understands the calculations but not necessarily the storytelling process.
Audience isn’t interested in all these details though. Most of them haven’t seen the original. They are tied up in their own hectic schedule in office, complains of the spouse, son’s tuitions and daughter returning home late. As long as they are happy with whatever is being dished out, I am happy too.
This happened last year. My father was a painter. People called him whimsical because he wasn’t following the kind of life that a regular office-going person did. He was known to be unmindful and lost, happy in his own world. With age, that increased. My father always had the habit of stepping out without informing anyone, whenever he felt like.
On one Panchami day he stepped out from our Howrah house and didn’t return. We kept searching for him. Finally we got to know that miles away from Howrah, at Panskura station, someone has died after being hit by the passing train. The documents recovered from him had some information about my father. His body was kept in the morgue. For three hours I had to look at a completely destroyed body and identify him as my father! This is the deadliest pressure one can ever take. One mistake would have been inhumane because if he wasn’t my father and if I would have wrongly identified, some other family could have been affected.
And outside the morgue, there was a team of journo friends waiting eagerly to ask, what is your reaction!
I am not a conventional reader. If I love the writing of a little magazine, I would keep turning the pages to read it till the end. I love stories that are simple but different. I need to know the society and people around me in the most frank and detailed ways, from different perspectives. That’s how I look forward to be serviced as a reader. Whoever explains that complicated picture for me becomes my favourite writer. Often I don’t relate with the best of authors, and I don’t feel guilty about my choices.