Sumantra Roy is an independent filmmaker based in Kolkata, India. His debut feature film Ghasjomi (Grassland, 2022), in Bengali, narrates the tale of two women from different rungs of society, Ipsita and Barna, who navigate their lives through their own moral map. The narrative explores how sexual desire between women and men is a bargain and ties them together within a relationship. Ghasjomi feels like a melody of loneliness in an urban setting, where the characters constantly battle to regain the notion of individuality. The film had its world premiere at the Indian Film Festival of Stuttgart in July 2022. I recently spoke with Roy about his creative journey while making Ghasjomi.
Dipankar Sarkar: You did your masters in Film Studies and then went to film school to study the technical aspect of filmmaking. So, did the knowledge of film theories help you understand the craft in a better way?
Sumantra Roy: Film Studies did help me in certain ways that I think stayed with me ever since. Before I joined Film Studies, I only had exposure to Bengali and Hindi films, and of course to lots of Hollywood. Film Studies released me into the world of cinema in the true sense, so to speak, from Iranian to Japanese to Russian to Italian. I was completely unaware of so many ways of storytelling or filmmaking. Back then, 20 odd years ago, accessing these films on your own was not as easy as it is today. We used to have this VHS player in Film Studies, and after lunch, there used to be one film screening every day. I looked forward to that the most. Secondly, Film Studies also made me aware of the history of filmmaking, and how it evolved and changed over the years. It made me aware of different film movements and the thoughts and ideas associated with them. Film Studies changed my ways of looking at cinema forever. In short, it made me less naive. And that helped.
DS: You have been involved with making shorts and documentaries over the last two decades. How did such creative endeavors prepare you to become a full-length feature filmmaker?
SR: I love short films. I am also very fond of short poems. I enjoy things that are not unnecessarily long. The point is, why make a film 30 minutes long if you can do it, say, in 10 minutes? I appreciate films that are short, precise, effective and compact. Say you have an idea or a story and you want to make a film on that — I think it is very necessary to figure out what length that film will be. Can it be told within 30 minutes (which is more or less the maximum length of a short film in most international film festivals)? If you can do that effectively enough within a short film length, then there is no point in trying to make a feature out of it. The same is true for the other way round also. If you believe your film needs time to develop or to unfold then you have to give it that time. But whether it’s a short film or a feature, it has to be precise, and the length of it has to be exactly what it should be. And you have to figure that out. Yes, I have been making short films for almost two decades now. I believe it has helped me in this respect. For example, the film we are going to talk about is my first feature film, Grassland (Ghasjomi). The length of the film is one hour and 52 minutes. I don’t think this film could have been made in an hour or even in an hour and 30 minutes. Ghasjomi doesn’t have a lot of plot twists and turns. It is more about developing characters and providing them with enough exposure needed for certain desired results to come out. It’s more of a character-based film than a plot-based one. And it required time to develop. Precision means being able to figure out how much exposure you need to develop your characters or your story to make it most effective. I would like to believe that my experience of making short films for the last two decades has helped me in that regard.
Documentaries are altogether a different ball game. They are not fully planned. A lot of times documentaries are shot over a period of four, five years or even more than that. Many things change over that time span. The documentary filmmaker himself or herself might change as a person — his or her thoughts and ideas might change. When it finally comes to the edit table and you see the footage that you have shot over those years, you see that change quite clearly. You had a plan, an idea when you started the venture, and now the footage you shot is telling you something else. You have to listen to that too. You cannot fully plan a documentary — and honestly, you should not. A lot of things will change, will evolve and eventually they might even change you as a person; your thoughts, ideas and ways of looking might change. You have to be open enough to incorporate, you have to give it that space. That’s why editing a documentary can be much more challenging and enthralling. But from my own experience, fiction films are much more planned and organized. You have a written script with you from beforehand. Still, there had been moments when things did go out of my control and I had to make a decision on the spot. I am a very planned and organized person, and I plan as much as I can before I go to a shoot, but I always try to remain open to changes that I might have to make at the very last minute because some pre-planning didn’t go according to plan or circumstances have made it impossible to execute. The funny thing is, most of the time these uncalled-for scenarios — this unplanned stuff, these last-minute decision changes — they turn out to be the most effective ones and take your film to another level. They often turn out to be great decisions. And honestly, it is this unplanned that keeps me interested in the making of a film. Planning out everything to the smallest possible details, and then going out and shooting just to see whether you could execute every detail exactly the way you thought and planned before, is not a very exciting prospect for me. Making and editing documentaries over the years have taught me that no matter how much you have planned before the shooting, there will always be things going out of your control. You have to stay open. It has also given me the confidence that it will be alright, that I will, eventually, find a way.
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DS: Share your collaboration with your producer Priyanka More. How did she come on board Ghasjomi?
SR: The person with whom I first shared the story 12 years ago was Naveen Pun. Naveen was my classmate in my film school (Roopkala Kendro). We were in our final year then, I think — Naveen also happens to be the associate director of this film. We only had that Ipsita (Sanjita) story with us then, and though we both were very excited about it, we knew there had to be another story of the younger girl, Barna (Suvosmita Mukherjee), as well. But we didn’t have that story with us then. It was much later when I finally figured out what the Barna story would be — I think about 7-8 years later. I called Naveen to share the Barna story and how the entire film would shape up. By that time, Naveen had moved to Mumbai and they (Naveen and Priyanka) had started a production house there. Naveen told me to write a synopsis. He wanted to show it to Priyanka. Priyanka liked it and that’s how she came on board. You know, sometimes the producers decide who the casts [will] be or where you need to change your story or what the final length of your film would be and so on and so forth. Most of the time, these decisions are not even open for discussion — they are mandatory, a must. With Priyanka, I didn’t face such issues. Of course, we had our differences here and there. But we could always share our views and find a solution to move forward.
DS: For Ghasjomi, how did the idea of making a feature film on a women-centric subject come to your mind?
SR: I had a few feature-length scripts with me. I went for Ghasjomi because this was the most complete of the lot and thus I was more confident. If I felt I needed more time with this one, then I would have waited longer [to be] persuaded with some other script instead. I had no plan or intention of making my debut feature film on a “women-centric subject” in particular.
DS: Barna had a great influence on Ipsita’s life that challenges the latter’s sexual equation with her husband. Moreover, Ipsita begins exploring certain avenues of her life that were left uncharted. But Barna’s course of life remains unchanged and unchallenged until the end of Ghasjomi. The relationship between the two women is not symbiotic. Why is it so?
SR: Well, I don’t agree with that view. I would say Barna’s influence on Ipsita was more prominent and easier to notice. But Ipsita also did have her influence on Barna as well. But I don’t really want to mention exactly how and at which points of the film that happens. [I] would like to see what the audience thinks about it.
DS: Ipsita’s husband Sushovan is a dominating individual, whereas Barna’s live-in partner, Joy, is an emotionally vulnerable and meek guy. What was the purpose of having such contrasting male characters in Ghasjomi?
SR: Interesting that you found such contrast in the male characters. For me, the two women characters in the film are no less contrasting and also equally contrasting in the relationship they have with their partners. Barna and Joy (Sawon Chakroborty) are friends — they both work, they share the household chores and they give space to each other. Barna can complain or shout at Joy for not cleaning the basin. Ipsita [and] Shushovan’s scenario is very different from that. Ipsita can’t go to her husband and complain about the same [things]. The economy plays a huge part in this. Yes, Sushovan is a dominating individual, but that does not necessarily make Joy a meek guy. At least I didn’t see Joy that way.
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DS: The camera relentlessly probes the inner weaves of the characters in their interplay with the confined space of the interiors. What was your thought process when you were designing the shots of Ghasjomi?
SR: The very subject of the film was like that. There had to be a lot of indoors. The film starts with these interview sessions. Barna is doing her research in social anthropology; the subject of her research is Bengali Urban Middle-Class Housewife. That’s how she meets Ipsita. Ipsita is 20 odd years older than her, very different in nature and also comes from a very dissimilar background. The film starts the day Barna goes to Ipsita’s place to take her interview. They don’t know each other. We have that first interview session where we see both of them and there is no cut. Usually, that’s how we shoot documentaries. We keep the camera in one place and we talk to the interviewee. The second scene is also like that — it’s another day, and they are in a different room. I think it is probably the fifth scene when we have the first reaction shot. In the scene after that, we have the first over the shoulder. By that time, they are no longer strangers. They have developed some connections with each other and have started sharing things outside the interview topics. The magnification of the shots also changes accordingly. Slowly, Ipsita’s house also gets revealed in the same process — a house that was probably her strongest association until she met Barna. On the first day of the interview, they are sitting in the dining room. On the second day, we see them talking in the living room. The next day, on the verandah, they first enter the bedroom. In the next scene, we see them in another bedroom. Next, they are lying down and talking on that bed and so on.
Shot design-wise, there are also two major shifts in the film. One is spatial and another [is] temporal. Along with these interview sessions, the film also gets into their personal spaces — Ipsita with her husband Sushovan and Barna with her partner Joy. We have treated these two spaces very differently. The first half of the film mostly is about developing, exploring and establishing these characters. In the second half, these two women enter a period of crisis in their personal lives, and the overall design of the film changes after that.
DS: You wrote and edited Ghasjomi. How did it help you to shape the narrative?
SR: Scripts [are] important for any film. For us, it was the most important aspect. The whole thing has been there with me for more than a decade. I didn’t write anything down but kept on working on it inside my head. Finally, [I] wrote the script in 2019. We took a lot of care in the writing part of the film.
We shot the film in January-February 2020. Right after we finished shooting, the lockdown started. During those severe lockdown months, I went back to the rushes whenever I could. Since I went through those rushes over and over again, finally when I started the edit I had a very good idea of what shots I needed, how much I needed them and what the general structure of the film would be. In any case, we had very good planning before we went to shoot. We didn’t shoot like, you know, let’s take this from this and that angle and then we finally decide in the edit table. We shot the entire film with one camera, and we knew what we wanted.
DS: The aural scape of Ghasjomi is constructed with ambient sound design. But at the climax of the film, you used music for a brief period of time. What was the reason?
SR: You know, the first part of the film mostly comprises of these interview sessions, almost like documentation going on. Then slowly these two women get emotionally attached to each other and become friends. They start sharing things that have no connection with the interview. I found no reason to use music in the first half of the film. In any case, there is very limited use of music in the film in general. It’s almost a two-hour film, and I think the total length of music in the film would not be more than two minutes. We only used music when things in the second half started getting intense or reached a crescendo or during very dramatic junctures of the film. By that time, the interview sessions were over and there was crisis building in both of these women’s personal lives. In any case, I am not very fond of using music unnecessarily. I see a lot of films where music or songs are used to cover the loopholes of the script or acting, to hide the inability to create moments or scenes. The script, acting and development of characters were some of the most important factors for us — they were the strength of the film. We took a straight approach and gave what was our strength, time to prosper. Whether we were successful or failed is up there to be judged, but we had no intention of using a background score, like a carpet track here and there. They would not have helped us, and the subject matter, we felt, didn’t have that need either.
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DS: How do you perceive the current state of filmmaking in the Bengali film industry?
SR: I am not the right person to comment on that, honestly. I have not seen a lot of Bengali films made of late. Based on what I have seen, I would love to see more bold and relevant subjects being dealt with and would like to see more experiments taking place, both in terms of form as well as the content. I have seen a few films from the major Bengali filmmakers around and [they] kind of seem very similar to me. Like, I could not identify any particular style of storytelling or filmmaking or shot-taking that I could distinctly adhere to anyone in particular.
DS: What are your current plans for the distribution and release of Ghasjomi?
SR: Currently, we are searching for distributors. We have applied in a few places and are awaiting their feedback. As far as the theatrical release of the film is concerned, we have decided to wait until our festival round finishes. As you know, most festivals only consider your film if it has not been released in theatres. We will try to release our film after April-May next year.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.