Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s acclaimed directorial debut, Asha Jaoar Majhe, used the absence of dialogue to underline the potency of cinema. The 2014 film follows a husband and wife who work on different shifts and snatch a few moments together during the day. Everyday sounds, old songs and background music provide the soundscape for a film that proves that dialogue is easily dispensible.
Sengupta’s second movie Jonaki, which will be premiered in the competitive India Gold section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1), does have dialogue, but it also contains many sequences of silence that allow viewers to luxuriate in the sumptuous visuals. Shot by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty, the Bengali-language production is a collection of gorgeously lit and composed frames, each one capable of being plucked out of the narrative and projected onto the wall of an art gallery. The imagery is as abstract as it precise, and creates a dream world filled with tender and painful memories of love, heartbreak, loss and death.
Fire and water are key motifs in the richly atmospheric film, which stars Lolita Chatterjee, Jim Sarbh, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, Sumanto Chattopadhyay and Burjor Patel. “I wanted the viewer to feel the air and get the smell of the place – I wanted them to get the dampness of the locations,” the 35-year-old filmmaker said in an interview from Kolkata.
As the images wash over viewers, they create a feeling of heaviness, similar to being underwater. “This is a very sleepy film – that was a quality I wanted to create,” Sengupta said. “We come alive when we are asleep.”
Jonaki was premiered at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in January. The oneiric narrative plays out in Kolkata and in a zone inside its octogenarian heroine’s head. Bengali actress Lolita Chatterjee portrays the woman who relives memories of a childhood trauma, a lost Christian lover, and a husband she didn’t want. Jim Sarbh plays the man who tenderly feeds Jonaki oranges; Ratnabali Bhattacharjee is the mother who hovers over her daughter; Sumanto Chattopadhyay is the botanist father who wants to move to England; Burjor Patel is the elderly gent who visits Jonaki in her twilight years.
The stately pace of the sequences, the artfully distressed backdrops and carefully arranged tableaux, and the proliferation of objects now considered antiques – fixed-line telephone, record players – all point to a world that has vanished, but the filmmaker begs to differ. “The story is taking place now, in 2018,” Sengupta said. “The rest is happening in Jonaki’s mind.”
Sengupta dreamt up the film as a tribute both to his maternal grandmother and to what he termed as the disappearing world of the Brahmo community from Bengal – the “Anglicised, educated and snooty community who were never fully accepted by the British”. Some of Jonaki’s experiences in the film mirror his grandmother’s formative years. “I was very close to her, and she used to tell me about her childhood in an affluent family,” Sengupta said. “Everything fell apart when her father suddenly passed away, and then she got married to my grandfather. She was very romantic and looked for the love that she wanted.”
As Sengupta started turning his grandmother’s death over in his head, he started getting “graphic and painful dreams” about her. “I would wake up with a fragmented memory of that dream, but also a strong feeling, a feeling of heaviness,” he said. “I wanted to define this feeling. The film became a conversation about her stories, her dreams and her death.”
There are several approaches to a film that revolves around dreams. Some directors resort to surreal imagery, for instance, In Jonaki, surrealism is bypassed for rigorous abstraction. The assembly of images works in conjunction with the sound design and the art direction to create an immersive world in which Jonaki’s reality merges with her memories.
“Nothing is explained – it’s like a production being put together by your brain,” said Sengupta, whose talents include filmmaking, animation and painting. “There are actors and locations and some music, and all this comes together but none of it goes together. What this does is bring out a feeling inside you that nothing else can bring out – an undefined feeling.”
Sengupta, who also works in advertising, has written and edited Jonaki. The film was shot in 2015 and 2017 in Kolkata and Kurseong. “When you go to a space, you get a sense of time and the past and what could have been there,” he said. “Different locations have a different atmosphere.”
He spent a year over the edit. “It was a pain to get the rhythm right,” Sengupta said. “There was a lot of trial and error in terms of what element needed to be combined with what. When you are working with fewer shots, you have to live through every shot to get the sense of time over and over again.”
The casting had to be as precise as the folds of the cloth that covers the bed and the peeling paint on the walls. Jonaki is the final film of Bengali actress Lolita Chatterjee, who died in Kolkata on May 9 at the age of 81. “Lolita Chatterjee reminded me of my grandmother,” Sengupta said. “Her life and her lifestyle and the kind of situations she had been in her and her memories of her own childhood – she was the character. She was Jonaki.”
Chatterjee’s lengthy experience in cinema and on the stage were useful in approaching her character, who communicates through her facial expressions and body language. “She told me, there are lots of things I haven’t understood, but the film is special and I want to do it,” Sengupta recalled. “She was fantastic and had no hang-ups whatsoever. In a sense, she was the youngest person on the set.”
Each scene was treated like an art installation, and many sequences had a theatrical quality in the way the scenes were blocked and the characters moved, Sengupta added. Jim Sarbh’s theatre experience also came handy, as did his appearance. “I wanted an actor who would look Christian and match Burjor Patel,” Sengupta said. “It was a great combination.”
Ratnabali Bhattacharjee was cast for her estimable acting skills, while Sumanto Chattopadhyay embodied the fading world of Jonaki’s family because of his own elite background. “Plus, he also had an uncanny resemblance with Lolita,” Sengupta said.
The film evokes a strong sense of nostalgia, but Sengupta clarified that he wasn’t fetishing a way of life and a value system that are fading. “The film does not mourn the past, but marks its passage,” he said. “We have not been judgemental.” Sengupta’s next film, whose working title is Memories and My Mother, is set firmly in the Kolkata of the present.
Jonaki is perfectly suited for the arthouse circuit, and Sengupta won’t have it any other way. “Jonaki has not been made for popularity, but is a very personal form of expression,” he said. “I connected with my producer, Samir Sarkar, on a spiritual level. The film is clearly not a commercial proposition. It is an artistic expression, and I am glad I found a producer like Samir to do the film.”