Tale of a Storyteller

Soumitra Ranade on his penchant for reimagining classics, the importance of children’s films and the state of Indian animation.

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Published: October 6, 2015 12:00 am

SOUMITRA Ranade has a way with remakes. Or, rather “reimaginations”. All his works, till date, have been a spin on an old tale. His first film Sapatnekar’s Child (1997), that had a limited release, was an adaptation of a play by celebrated Marathi playwright Makarand Sathe. His breakthrough film Jajantaram Mamantaram (2003) was a meeting ground for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Bakasur, the mythical creature from the Mahabharata. His unreleased animation film Ali Baba aur 41 Chor (2010) — with the addition of an extra thief and a contemporary context — was a take on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

In his screenplay of Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya, Satyajit Ray’s iconic children’s film based on the novel by Bengali author Upendrakishore Roychowdhury, the kingdoms of Shundi and Halla, ruled by two rival brothers, become India and Pakistan. Currently, the filmmaker is raising money on the crowdfunding platform Wishberry for Albert Pinto, a twisted, surreal and contemporary version of the Saeed Mirza-directed classic Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai (1981), featuring Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil in the lead. “For the generation growing up in the 80s, Albert Pinto became a symbol for the common man’s anger. And unhappiness and anger is all I can see when I look around today,” says Mumbai-based Ranade, adding, “There’s no point in re-telling an old story or trying to better it. I’m interested in contextualising, telling the same tale with a twist.”

Albert Pinto, the idea of which has got a nod from Mirza himself, breaks away from the linear narrative of the original. “The film works in five realities. You not only see what is happening in his life but also what is going on in his head and his hallucinations,” says Ranade, who was named after the famous Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee by his mother Pratibha Ranade, an award-winning Marathi novelist. The film was born out of Ranade’s own frustration, when Ali Baba aur 41 Chor failed to get a theatrical release. Made with a limited budget, this project was made possible by the generosity of his actors, Manav Kaul, Nandita Das and Saurabh Shukla and technicians — most of them haven’t taken any money and instead have been made partners in the project, with a profit-sharing arrangement.

However, Ranade’s list of remakes doesn’t end with Albert Pinto. His next is an animation film, Kabuliwala — based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short story of an unlikely friendship between a little girl from a Bengali middle-class family, and an Afghan dry-fruit seller — work on which has already begun. Ranade explains why the film is relevant in today’s times, where childlike innocence has been replaced by cynicism brought about by violence, religious divide and war. “The first impression that a five-year-old has today, when he spots a turban-clad, bearded man, is that he is a terrorist. It is a Western construct and not really true,” says the FTII graduate, who spent four years in Kabul owing to his father’s job as an architect with the central government (CPWD). He returned to Kabul in 2007 to make a documentary, Khoob Asti Afghanistan? (Are you Alright Afghanistan?).

“Children make for an amazing audience because they are very sharp. If you make a small mistake, they will catch you. However, if you create an atmosphere and logically build up a story of illusion or magic, they will believe anything,” says the 52-year-old, who often tried his storytelling skills on his two sons. When his elder son was six, Ranade told the child that he was slowly metamorphosing into a snake, as a result of being bitten by one when he was a baby. He believed Ranade until a few years back. The director even convinced his nephew that he had a tail. Such zany imagination becomes the primary tool for Ranade while reinterpreting children’s stories through animation.

A gold medalist from JJ School of Art, Mumbai, Ranade is an old hand at animation and design. He heads Paperboat Design Studios and has worked closely with wife Shilpa, an animation filmmaker. They represent a school of animation that draws influences from indigenous folk art styles. “The problem with Indian animation is that we haven’t evolved a language of our own. The most popular show for children is Chhota Bheem, which depicts Indians as pink-coloured people. When the Films Division started their animation cell, they got two artists from Disney to train Indians. Since then, generations have been trained in the Disney style of animation. It is just not our aesthetics. As animators, we must draw from various painting traditions, folk art, dance forms, tapestry and textiles of India,” he says.

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