Introducing 'Jeevan Smriti' - Rituparno Ghosh's exceptional homage to Rabindranath Tagore - on the closing night of the London Film Festival was a deeply moving experience.
The film was commissioned by India's Ministry of Culture in 2011 to mark the 150th anniversary of the famous Bengali poet.
Completed in 2012, the film was first telecast on national TV in India on 09 August, Tagore's death anniversary.
A product of the late Bengal Renaissance and undoubtedly one of the most influential architects of cultural modernity in India, Tagore was a fascinating polymath.
Besides his extensive collection of poems, novels, essays, short stories and letters, Tagore also composed about 2800 songs/operas and dance dramas and produced an astonishing array of paintings late in his life.
Tagore is a cultural icon to Indians, and Bengalis in particular. He lived a long and eventful life of 80 years.
For Rituparno Ghosh, Tagore remained a lifelong influence and inspiration. He had already adapted Tagore for film - in 'Chokher Bali' and 'Naukadubi', whilst Tagore’s dance drama 'Chitrangada' was the inspiration for his startling self narrative of the same name in which he dealt with alternate sexuality and the body, with choice and desire.
When director Shyam Benegal called him from Delhi to commission the film, Rituparno was naturally excited but also nervous.
The definitive documentary on Tagore had been made by Satyajit Ray in 1961 to mark Tagore’s centenary, also commissioned by the Government of India.
The biggest challenge for Ritu and for us (as we started research and work on the script) was how to make a film which would not seem derivative or rehashed; how could something new be said in the film?
The call for the documentary made Ritu feel terribly accountable and he got down to serious research.
When he was in London in 2011 we bought lots of books, had long discussions, took a walk to the Vale of Health in Hampstead where Tagore lived and where he read the famous Gitanjali poems for Yeats, Rothenstein and a large number of artists.
Finally, through Tagore’s own words, using archival material and enacting key memories though a dramatic collage, what emerged was a search by the filmmaker for another lonely artist who faced tragedy and created in grand isolation but almost always emerged to celebrate life and love.
“For Ray, Rabindranath was memory, for us he is history", Ritu remarked one day, and that suddenly freed his thought processes.
Peeling away the much lauded, celebrated, iconised, global figure of Tagore, we looked at the psyche of a man, a creative artist, who lead a tremendously influential public life but inside was a solitary wayfarer.
We looked at the vulnerable, human face of Tagore – a man who faced a series of personal tragedies, struggled with depression and yet celebrated life so assertively.
Rituparno Ghosh was himself in a very dark place at the time.
He had lost his parents within a span of a few years and was struggling with living alone in his large family house in south Kolkata.
His last trilogy on non-conformative sexuality had been controversial and he believed he had lost a large part of his trusted middle class audience. He was also struggling with ill health. But what pulled him out was the hugely inspirational life of Tagore and his writings, his celebratory songs and poetry.
The making of Jeevan Smriti was not easy.
Several drafts of the film were written and revised. After the first schedule, Ritu fell very ill and was hospitalised for six weeks, after which, the editing and music work actually took place in his home. In fact, plans for a schedule in London had to be abandoned even though we had started to prep for it.
As a long term associate of Ghosh (I had previously worked on six films with him) it was a very emotional moment to stand there without him beside me. More than any other film, I know, he would have liked to be here to face the audience for this film.
It is a huge travesty of fate and he would have laughed about it.
Rituparno made 19 films in 20 years, won 14 national awards, his films travelled to all major international film festivals. When he started, the middle class audience was actually moving away from Bengali cinema, the industry was in deep crisis. Ritu delivered his first film in 1992, and thereafter one every year, and thereby singlehandedly brought a middle class audience back to the big screen.
Ritu inherited his Tagore, his Ray and later became the most influential cultural producer in Bengal.
As a writer, director, lyricist and visual artist with a keen sense of aesthetics, he drew and built on the framework offered by the peerless Satyajit Ray. And the legacy will pass on as we see a young director who has written a play on Rituparno Ghosh and which I am producing in January.
There is also a surprising amount of new scholarship on Ghosh’s work, which is currently being edited into a book.
Jeevan Smriti travels from Tagore’s birthplace in Jorasanko, North Kolkata to the family estates in Shilaidaha district and later to Shantiniketan where Tagore built his school and university. The amazing homes and buildings which are now heritage properties were opened up specially for this film.
As the London Film Festival drew to a close it was fitting that we paid tribute to Tagore, remembered Ray and extended a fond to a great storyteller, fine filmmaker, and a dear friend who will be greatly missed.
In Tagore’s words:
“Sweet life, there is no end to you...
As the hours come to an end...
The weary world is embraced in a veil of joy…”