Scroll interview

‘I know how exactly this story is to be told’: Ronny Sen on taking on drug abuse with ‘Cat Sticks’

The movie, examining the lives of Kolkata’s brown sugar addicts, marks the photographer’s directorial debut.

On a rainy night, three men make their way through an industrial wasteland and take shelter in an abandoned aircraft. They are looking for their next fix of brown sugar, or smack, an adulterated form of heroin. Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks begins with these three characters – Pablo, Ronnie and Deshik – but soon brings together disparate people from various parts of Kolkata, all linked by their addiction.

“It is a story of a few hours on one particularly night”, Sen said. “One could say it’s almost a real-time movie, though there are certain departures into surreal areas at some points.”

The ensemble cast of Cat Sticks includes Joyraj Bhattacharya, Kalpan Mitra, Rahul Dutta, Sreejita Mitra and Tanmay Dhanania. Scored by British composer Oliver Weeks, the film is currently in the last stages of post-production.

A photographer from Kolkata, 31-year-old Sen has won international acclaim for his haunting images, many of them in stark and grainy black-and-white. This aesthetic he also brings to his directorial debut Cat Sticks, shot entirely in monochrome. He has also released a photo book featuring the film’s stills and photographs.

Sen chose drug addiction as the subject for his first film as it was something he saw all around him when growing up in Kolkata’s Salt Lake in the 1990s and 2000s. Many of his friends and acquaintances were brown sugar addicts, some of whom lost their lives to the drug. “I know these people first-hand, I grew up with them, I knew how exactly this story needs to be told, and no one would do it better than I can,” he said.

Most films on drug addiction miss the mark, Sen said. “This film came from a place of concern inside me,” he added. “Most Indian films involving drug addiction may be well made but they are often nonsensical when it comes to their understanding of addiction, the effects of certain drugs, and the kind of life an addict lives. I guarantee that my film will at least be 100% honest about its subject. There are no lies in it. These are the stories of people I knew, people who existed.”

A still from 'Cat Sticks'. Image credit: Craigmore Films.
A still from 'Cat Sticks'. Image credit: Craigmore Films.

This proximity to brown sugar addicts, called “patakhor” in Bengali, gave Sen an insider’s perspective of their life experiences, which he said are rather unique. With that came a vast repository of stories. Urged by his friends, Sen wrote a 17-page treatment for the film, which he later developed into a screenplay in three months along with Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas, an actor who was last seen in Q’s 2012 Bengali film Tasher Desh.

“The name Cat Sticks comes from the brand of wax matchsticks that the addicts use to smoke smack,” Sen said. “When you smoke smack, you need a uniform flame that can only come from a wax matchstick.”

A poster for the film has been designed by Polish artist Lech Majewski, with the film’s name in a custom-made typeface and text that resembles silhouettes of buildings and high-rises on a dark night.

'Cat Sticks' poster. Image credit: Craigmore Films.
'Cat Sticks' poster. Image credit: Craigmore Films.

Cat Sticks was shot in lesser known parts of Kolkata, its outskirts, industrial areas in Howrah, and an abandoned film city in Midnapore, where they found the aircraft that was used in the opening scene.

“The script’s first line starts with the junkies inside the aircraft so we needed that at any cost,” Sen said. “We stripped down the interiors, got rid of the seats, the furniture, and redid it all with rocks, grass and other paraphernalia related to clandestine living.”

Shooting took place over 18 days in February and March last year and the movie was filmed entirely in the dark. “We had a lot of problems with locations,” Sen said. “Once, a murder happened at one spot, so we had to figure out another location instantly.”

A still from 'Cat Sticks'. Image credit: Craigmore Films.
A still from 'Cat Sticks'. Image credit: Craigmore Films.

Sen has frequently turned his lens to drug addiction and wants to capture users as as everyday people with families, friends, dreams and ambitions. Every year, he works on one photography project to commemorate International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (June 26). For instance, a 2012 photo-feature for the BBC tells the stories of recovering addicts.

How do these people open up time and again to Sen? “With my work, I have always tried to bridge the world of addicts with regular people,” Sen said.

People usually think of addicts as recluses who get high all day, or who overdose and die, but there’s more to their lives, Sen said. “That [overdosing] is the end result. How did they reach there? They had stories too. A life has ended. You need to know how that happened.”

Drug addiction is not a choice, but “a disease like cancer or diabetes” that can happen to anyone. “Brahmin, Dalit, no one is spared. And no one feels the need to document their stories because a junkie’s life is expendable.”

For Sen, Cat Sticks is not just an artistic exercise but also an angry letter to the city in which he grew up. “Around 2005-’06, a new drug called Halogen entered Kolkata,” Sen recalled. “It was a heavily spiked, synthetic form of brown sugar. Countless, up to lakhs, smoked it over the next few years and died. In the early to mid-2000s, during the construction boom in Kolkata, you would find several rag-pickers on the streets. They disappeared within the next eight years. Where did they go? No one is investigating.”

But Sen said he is not out to blame the narcotics department, the government, or the law enforcement for being unable to control the proliferation of drugs in Kolkata. “I am not being an activist,” Sen said. “Let’s just say I am invested in ensuring that these stories don’t get lost in time because no one is telling them.”

Ronny Sen.
Ronny Sen.
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.