Shesh Pata (The Last Page), the latest production from noted Indian filmmaker Atanu Ghosh, follows three individuals — Balmiki (Prasenjit Chatterjee), Medha (Gargee Roy Chowdury) and Sounak (Vikram Chatterjee) — who try to survive a world that is constantly in flux. The sympathetic yet unforgiving film presents an emotionally acute and devastating deconstruction of the interpersonal travails of middle-class Bengali people.
Steeped in Ghosh’s trademark minimalism, the movie’s hope and despair abound in equal measures in a clinical exercise about characters in search of life fulfillment. Shesh Pata will have its world premiere at the 2022 Kerala International Film Festival. I recently spoke with Ghosh about the various layers of subtext within the narrative of his recent outing.
Dipankar Sarkar: Shesh Pata relies on dialogue and conversations to reveal the miscommunication struggles of various characters. What made you attracted to such a complex tale of existential entanglements?
Atanu Ghosh: I’ve seen quite a few existentialists in my life. Typically, the image is of a middle-aged angsty man sitting in a seedy bar, wearing old, soiled clothes and smoking cigarettes — someone who laments the meaninglessness of life and laments his birth into a strange society. But in reality, their psyche is much more complex. Many of these people I saw then were involved in art or artistic expression, like writers, artists or filmmakers. They were attempting to comprehend their perception or experience and looking at what it means to be human in an incomprehensible world. Feeling empty and lost in that world, they either look for a reason to live or create their spheres and settle down in them comfortably, shutting themselves out of the world outside. Quite often, they are responsible for the consequences of their modes of life, behavioral patterns and attitudes. Balmiki is a curious blend of both. So, I had room for some unconventional character studies and intricate narrative design. Balmiki’s dialogues and conversation with Medha not only offer an outlet for the exploration of a wide range of emotions churning inside him, but also the opportunity for some engaging interaction between a contrasting set of characters.
DS: Balmiki is an erratic and non-committal person. At the same time, he also possesses a touchingness that many other characters in Shesh Pata are unable to understand. So, is it Balmiki’s loneliness that has made him an unapproachable character?
AG: I think there’s more to it than that. Even if Balmiki had someone mature and intelligent in his life, he might have messed around with his weird ways and ruined the relationship. Deep down, these people think their ability to choose what to do makes them different from everyone else. Their way of life is generally motivated by a vehement rejection of the conventions they grew up with. Society expects people to have faith in marriage or relationships, acquire property and wealth, have children and obey traditional gender roles. Instead, these people usually live by their philosophy of bohemianism. Bohemia does not imply decadence, promiscuity or alcoholism, but the occurrence of complex, atypical relationships is often prevalent, as in Balmiki’s tryst with the masseuse girl.
DS: Medha is a strong-willed, independent woman doing her best to negotiate with the present while battling the ghosts of her painful past. Under such circumstances, how does her association with Balmiki prove helpful in Shesh Pata?
AG: Psychiatrists often advise patients suffering from depression to stick to a goal and work towards achieving it. It is also a way to get a person out of a rut. Holding onto the hope that things will change can be one of the most painful aspects of an unhappy marriage. But Medha has already reached a state of emotional withdrawal or detachment from her husband. Yet she cannot escape the effects of irritation and anger. By connecting with Balmiki and completing the writing assignment, she can focus on things that make her happy, such as literature or singing, and pursue areas of her life that she may have neglected otherwise.
DS: On the other hand, Sounak works as a debt recovery agent, and yet he owes money to a shopkeeper. He is an honest, straightforward and compassionate individual. At the same time, he also believes in chance and destiny. He has a habit of tossing a coin-shaped structure with a king and a queen on either side to predict a situation. What were the traits you were looking for while shaping this Shesh Pata character?
AG: Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic shift in the psyche of the educated middle-class Bengali, at least in the material realm. Their neighborhoods and homes are undergoing tremendous changes. Currently, most residents live in flats and apartment buildings. The psyches of young people born or raised in these apartments have been greatly altered. Dilapidated old houses like those where Sounak lives are few and far between. The inhabitants of these houses live between the past and the present, surrounded by contradictions and conflicts. There is an ongoing change in the social scale and the paraphernalia of gentility. This makes it increasingly difficult for different strata of the Bengali middle class to keep up with that change, particularly in the city. Despite being born into a middle-class Bengali family with financial constraints, Sounak’s father instilled in him moral values, honesty and humanism. By trusting people and relaxing loan repayment deadlines, Sounak strives to follow his father’s principles, for which he sometimes suffers miserably. Tossing the King-Queen coin reflects his tendency to take life as it comes, but it is also a symbol of a strong connection with Deepa, who painted it for him. Sounak’s vulnerability in coping with pressing situations contrasts sharply with Deepa’s strong sense of confidence, commitment and honesty.
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DS: Like in your previous films, Shesh Pata also displays your fondness for weaving songs written by Rabindranath Tagore into the story by allowing Balmiki and Medha to sing during key scenes. Do such creative devices help you to explain the psychological state of the characters in a better way?
AS: A large segment of the Bengali intelligentsia of the generation of Balmiki and Medha is still deeply influenced by Tagore songs. They evoke a mood of solitary contemplation and universal pathos. Also, they poetically reflect on the issue of alienation by moving from sound to silence, from loneliness to harmony, and from restlessness to peace. In Shesh Pata, it is precisely this sense of primal and essential solitude that forms the central motif of the first Tagore song. Besides, Tagore’s songs have multiple and complex levels of meaning, from literal to metaphorical, philosophical and ultimately metaphysical. As a result, these songs do not only reflect the emotional quotient of the scenes or add nuance to the characters. They also lend alternate layers of insight to the narrative design.
DS: Death also plays an important role in your last two films. Is there a philosophical purpose behind it?
AS: No. This is just a coincidence. Only two of my 10 films end with death. By chance, they are two consecutive films.
DS. I also had an interesting observation in one of the scenes of Shesh Pata when Sounak pays a visit after Balmiki has been discharged from the hospital. Balmiki is reading the Bengali translation of the book The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Benjamin Dock Jr. What was the reason behind opting for this particular book?
AS: First and foremost, the choice of the book indicates what kind of books Balmiki likes to read. It gives us a sense of who he is. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse refers to the end of time in the New Testament. Thus, they describe conquest, war, hunger and death. It is interesting to note that Balmiki is reading a book that was originally published and translated decades ago. It may be that he revisits this book to touch on old times or to keep his intellectual faculties alive. He may also like to read about things that indicate the end of time. Other reasons may also be involved.
DS: The screenplay for Shesh Pata does not adhere to a conventional mode. Scenes such as Sounak and his girlfriend Deepa (Rayati Bhattacharya) visiting a South Indian restaurant, Deepa losing her cell phone while on a short business trip to Phulia, and Sounak informing his father about a visitor who praised his father’s flawlessness in grading low-lit scenes in films, among others, add a sense of verisimilitude to the film. So, how do these scenes help in the progression of the story?
AS: Essentially, the genre of drama, to which Shesh Pata belongs, is about interruptions in life. As such, the drama’s premise is that life is fragile, while its meaning is to remind us that, no matter what happens, life moves on. The drama explores the characters’ various reactions to unexpected events. The scenes you mention reveal hidden sides of the characters, whom I treat as if they were real people. I study their thoughts, feelings, motivations and behaviors in a similar way to how psychologists study us. There is, however, a tricky angle here. In reality, all personality dimensions have a normally distributed score range. We tend to meet people who are moderately extroverted, moderately agreeable, moderately conscientious, moderately neurotic and moderately open to new experiences. Because they’re rather average, they won’t make an impression. People are more likely to stand out from the crowd if they score at least at the extremes of one or two dimensions. These people are more likely to be remembered because they’re different. In Shesh Pata, each of the four principal characters possesses compelling qualities related to their introversion, conscientiousness and psychological fragility. Furthermore, their deep interiority is intriguing, and together with their strength of character and emotional vulnerability, it’s fascinating to watch their unpredictable behavior. All the deviations that you mention are offshoots of these qualities.
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DS: In Shesh Pata, the characters are designed with intricacies, and the actors playing these roles bring an entrancing spontaneity. Whether it is Prosenjit Chatterjee as Asimabha in Robibaar (2019) and Balmiki in Shesh Pata, Ritwick Chakraborty as Kajal, or Jaya Ahsan as Sraboni in Binisutoy: Without Strings (2020), they have displayed subtlety and ease in portraying the complex characters. What is the process you follow to achieve such considerable finesse from your actors?
AS: I believe film acting is indeed a tryst with the actor’s deepest psyche. It is also a reflection of your perception of life. I never conduct any workshop or rehearsal before the shooting starts. But I have long chats with the principal actors where we do discuss the emotional relationships of the characters and the arc of the plot. Quite often, we digress from actual discussions regarding the film and go on to share personal experiences concerning the plot of the film! On the set just before the shot, I do practice blocking and camera movement, but I never want the actual shot rehearsed with full emotional impact. It’s quite like a cold rehearsal. The real performance happens when dialogue, emotions and reactions are unrehearsed and the actors face each other in front of the camera. Some actors tend to overanalyze a character and pre-plan every move before a film shoot. This often leads to cold acting in front of the camera. It is always wise not to anticipate or plan how you will react. Predetermined emotions can make you look forced and dishonest. Predetermined emotions inhibit your ability to relate to your fellow actors. The character you play is yourself. Good film actors reveal their true feelings and personalities. They react as their selves, not alienating themselves from the character they are playing.
DS: Most of the scenes in Shesh Pata are shot in the interiors, where the characters are framed in a manner that adds to the sense of claustrophobia of being locked in their constant search to bring balance to their lives. At the same time, when the characters are outside, such as Balmiki walking on the turf of “Maidan” or Sounak and Deepa strolling through the city’s streets and alleys, their gestures are mobile. Can you discuss the visual design of the film?
AS: The visual design of Shesh Pata was challenging. To understand the inner musings of the characters, we had to strike a balance between observation and subjectivity. We aimed to evoke a sense of foreboding and longing for the times that Balmiki left behind. It had to be quiet — not too loud but quite deep. It is a bit more realistic and bright at the beginning of the film. After Medha and Balmiki meet, we move into grey and darker zones. Frames are also tighter and moodier, opening up only during the Sounak-Deepa sequences. Gradually, as tension and anxiety mount in the story, we try to create occasional empty spaces through lighting and composition. Additionally, the cinematography attempts to depict Balmiki and Medha’s togetherness in a warmer, more intimate manner. The warmth of the film disappears when the tides turn and the relationships undergo quite a few twists and turns. In scenes where there is emotional brooding and a sense of helplessness, we have used darker shadows. This is the scene when Balmiki returns home, soaked and drunk. We have tried to use visual tropes to explore the layers of complexity in the human psyche as well as destiny.
DS: Sujay Datta Ray has been your constant collaborator in all your projects. Tell me how his contribution as an editor has helped you enhance the stories you wanted to narrate as a filmmaker.
AS: Sujay is more than just an editor for my films. He is the first person to read the first draft of my scripts! Also, he provides valuable insight into sound design, grading and music during post-production. It is difficult for audiences to consciously recognize editing in a film. People know that there is a change between images. There is a great deal of difference between including and excluding small things, including frames. Editors are unsung heroes, and their work can teach us a lot. It’s not just about cutting out the unnecessary and keeping only what helps you tell your story. Editing involves all aspects of rhythm, from the transition from one image to the next to the subtle musical rhythm within a small sequence of edits. This harmony is then applied to the general symmetry between pace and rhythm throughout the entire film. It is in the ambivalence, in the collision between the general strategy and the pleasant distractions along the way, that editing is art. It is the true spirit of a film.
DS: How important is the role of sound design in heightening the mood and dramatic quotient of Shesh Pata?
AS: There is no doubt that sound design is a powerful element. Using it can transport the audience into a different world, add layers to the story and engagingly advance the plot. Sound can also be used to create emotion and set the tone of a film. With the advent of the digital era of cinematic sound, spatial manifestations of sound have been elaborately incorporated into the cinematic experience. Modern Indian films are increasingly relying on digital surround sound to authentically recreate location-specific sync sounds instead of full film dubbing, stock sound effects and foley. I recently shot a feature film in London titled Aaro Ek Prithibi (Yet Another World). It involved actors of multiple ethnicities, including Arabs, Koreans, Chinese and Africans. The sync sound method was the only way to preserve the different kinds of English accents these actors spoke. The result is outstanding. Cinema takes on a whole new dimension in this way. Using sound in this manner is both inventive and creative. A layer of authentic sound adds depth and perspective. The use of sound in contemporary Indian cinema has evolved to create spatially believable environments.
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DS: You have been approaching the stories of your films with a restrained approach. They have an authorial voice that flouts the traditional and hyperbolic scheme of storytelling. So far, how has your journey as a filmmaker been in terms of finding a producer to back your projects?
AS: When I began making feature films, I focused on meaningful ideas, exploring original and unconventional topics, and examining the nature, variety and complexity of the human mind. The narrative style I prefer is simple and minimalistic. No matter what, a filmmaker should stick to his convictions. The only concern I have before making a new film is whether I will be able to improve as a filmmaker. This is in terms of the maturity of the thought process and understanding of the medium. Because my narrative design is not conventional and there is no formulaic pattern to follow, it hasn’t been easy to get producers for my films. I have worked with a single producer (Friends Communication) on four of my 10 films. But there have been challenges and hurdles. However, I’ve always made films I wanted to make, so hopefully I’ll continue to do so.
DS: Three of your films are available on the OTT platform ZEE5. Has it helped in increasing the viewership of your films? What are your thoughts on such platforms?
AS: Except for the first film Angshumaner Chhobi (2009), all of my films are available on OTT platforms. Certainly, it helps increase viewership and reaches out to different parts of the world. If a movie is no longer playing in theatres, it can still be viewed on demand. However, there is a flip side to that. There is a section of the local audience that never comes to the theatres, waiting for [releases] on OTT platforms. Nonetheless, the most pertinent aspect is that the audience can see what other parts of the country are doing with cinema, let alone around the world. People now have a much wider range of options and choices.
DS: Are film festivals important to you?
AS: There is no doubt that film festivals are an extremely valuable platform for any committed filmmaker. Almost all my films have been screened at many renowned festivals, like Karlovy Vary, Busan, Shanghai and the London Film Festival, among many others. However, quite a few things need to be said in our context. First, we tend to shy away from radical experiments in terms of form or treatment. This is because we are still dependent on the audience coming to the theatres or on the sale of satellite and digital rights to cover production costs. Our participation in the festival circuit can also be enhanced through collaboration with foreign production agencies. But whatever the cost, that is not included in our budget. Without such tie-ups, I often find that our screeners are not even viewed by the selection committee or jury at A-list festivals. We can see this clearly by looking at the entire viewing statistics on screener platforms. We have to remember that there has been a radical change in the festival scene in recent decades. We should abandon our ambition to get high returns from local theatres and satellite distribution if we are to make our films fit for these festivals. It is too taxing for a director to be under constant pressure to make a film that will make money from multiple sources.
DS: Under the current scenario of filmmaking in India, what is your advice to budding individuals who want to pursue a career in film direction?
AS: He should have an open mind and a wide vision. Having an open mind means being calm, tolerant and receptive. Wide vision means thinking unconventionally and always striving for something distinctive. A filmmaker should also have clarity of thought and purpose. It is a matter of critical importance now. You can’t afford to vacillate or dilly-dally because the testing phase for the survival of a filmmaker is rapidly shrinking. Also, the director must be fearless in facing adversities and hurdles because they will come in abundance! Finally, he should have enough patience to wait and wait to get what he wants.
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.