Filmmaker Anurag Basu talks about adapting Rabindranath Tagore’s stories and the genre-defying format of his next film, Jagga Jasoos.
Every Bengali grows up on Rabindranath Tagore’s work. What are your early recollections?
When I was young, Rabindra sangeet used to be so commonplace that I started hating it without understanding it. I discovered Tagore as I grew up. Since we used to live in Bhilai (Chhattisgarh), not West Bengal, my mother would do these small things to get me closer to Bengali culture; one of which was to make me read Bengali literature. Eventually, I started reading Tagore’s plays. However, I read all his stories about 10 years ago, when I was making shows for television, such as Thriller at 10 and Love Story, that’s when I thought of adapting his work.
Several filmmakers, including Satyajit Ray and Rituparno Ghosh, have adapted Tagore’s work. How does his writing lend itself to screen adaptations?
Working on Epic Channel’s series based on Rabindranath Tagore’s stories has made me a better screenwriter. His characters are so well-defined. For instance, Binodini in Chokher Bali, how do you describe her? Is she white, grey or black? We don’t know. She is a sexually repressed widow, she wants to take revenge and is deeply in love with someone at the same time.
How relevant are these themes today?
In one of his short stories, Samapti, the protagonist falls in love with a tomboyish woman. The rights and wrongs of his female protagonists are far more progressive than the rights and wrongs of the protagonists in today’s TV soaps. The stories have a strange sense of gender equality. It comes across without saying it loud. I don’t want to generalise, but whatever I catch on television, I often end up questioning the characters’ actions: why is she not raising her voice, why does she lock herself inside the door and cry?
Unlike Tagore’s Chokher Bali, your story is set in a hill station.
When we shoot classic Bengali stories we tend to have similar kind of locations, usually sprawling zamindar houses. I thought that is not necessary. So I’ve set some stories in North Bengal, near the Dooars — we see wooden houses, toy trains and horse-drawn carriages. It has a sepia-tinted look. I really wanted to capture Bengal in all its expansiveness, as Tagore described it. However, I couldn’t achieve that; TV has its own constraints of time and budget.
What’s the status of your next film Jagga Jasoos? There are rumours that it follows a sing-song musical format.
The shooting is on. But it’s not exactly a sing-song musical format. People have all sorts of ideas when you call a film a musical. It’s difficult to name the genre we are attempting, maybe it’s a little Indian.
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