A Films Division festival ‘A Daughter’s Tribute’, screened three documentaries made by daughters as tribute to their celebrated parent. Nargis by Priya Dutt, And They Made Classics…. by Ratnottama Sengupta and The Last Adieu by Shabnam Sukhdev, were screened at Nandan in Kolkata. Ratnottama Sengupta, the curator of the festival writes about the concept and the experience of the festival.
A Daughter pays her tribute to her father/mother for the legacy she has inherited from them, through the medium of cinema: This was the concept behind the festival of three documentaries by three daughters with which Films Division celebrated the International women’s Day at Nandan in Kolkata. The films were Nargis (1993), The Last Adieu (2016) and And They Made Classics… (2018) – respectfully directed by Priya Dutt, Shabnam Sukhdev, and yours faithfully.
When did the thought to curate such a festival occur to me? Was it when Baba passed away? Or earlier, when Baba asked me to make a film based on his story, Fatimar Ukti? Or perhaps later, when I saw a poster of ‘Selfie With Daughter’? Let me follow my thoughts backward.
On March 2, as I was shopping in Dakshinapan, Sumay Mukherjee of Films Division called me up to say, “Didi, we will host ‘A Daughter’s Tribute’ as our tribute to Women but we will do it on Friday, March 5. Are you okay with the plan?” Without a second thought I said, “Sure we will – tell me what I can do.” Sumay and I had talked about it months ago, during the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival in November 2019. I had proposed the concept that I had nurtured since I saw this poster of the campaign urging fathers to click themselves with daughters in order to raise people’s pride in their girl child. Aimed at raising awareness against female foeticide, the campaign was initiated in Haryana – a state known for topping in the crime – was endorsed by former President Pranab Mukherjee, prompting many to go against the preference for boys and adopt a girl child. Perhaps it had touched a chord in me as the year was 2017 – when I was celebrating the birth centenary of my father Nabendu Ghosh.
For the records, this campaign had been preceded by the Kanyashri Prakalpa, initiated in West Bengal in 2013. In this project the backward families are helped with a cash fund to discourage early marriage of the girl child who is generally considered a ‘burden’. But five years before that, when I had screened Remembering Bimal Roy in a tribute to the legend that I’d organized in January 2008, I sat in the auditorium howling away at the end of a screening of Bandini. Was I reacting uncontrollably to the sequence where the father reads out from Vaishnav Padavali to his daughter, just as Baba used to? Or that unforgettable scene where a stupefied Nutan returns after seeing her dead father, climbs the stairs benumbed, is humiliated by her hysterical charge, leading to her poisoning the patient who turned out to be the wife of her ex-lover, Ashok Kumar?
This perhaps was the moment when I finally mourned my father, for whom I had not shed a tear when he’d passed away a month before, on December 15, 2007. Or it could be because I felt I had failed to keep my father’s words to me one evening as we sat discussing his writings. “This Fatima’r Ukti,” he pointed to the story he had just finished writing, “you make into a film.” I had no inkling then that I would be translating it into English and publishing it as a part of That Bird Called Happiness. Being a student of literature, I had always been close to the literary side of Baba’s personality although I have inherited cinema too from the screen writer, as a film analyst, a member of NFDC’s script committee and a member of CBFC.
But filmmaking is a different cup of tea from writing, translating or editing. So, filming Fatima’s Story remained a dream while I started translating Meenakshi, the ‘father-daughter’ story about a girl growing up in a hostel who is needled by her classmates about her non-existing father. Baba had penned the Bengali story in September of 1950, which Bimal Roy had directed for producer S H Munshi. The film, Baap Beti (1952) had Baby Tabassum, Baby Naaz and Baby Asha Parekh in the cast along with Ranjan, then a swashbuckling star from the south.
Besides this, Baba had also scripted Sharafat (1970) for director Asit Sen. It tracked the story of a feisty tawaif, a courtesan whose search for her father leads her to a corrupt politician, unveiling society’s hypocritical moral standards.
Years later Baba had also inspired my brother Subhankar Ghosh to direct Woh Chhokri (1993) – again, about a wayward daughter whose search for her missing father ends in the corrupt politician getting her murdered. Based on a story by Bengal’s Bonophul, this film had won National awards for all three major players – Pallavi Joshi as the daughter, Neena Gupta as the abandoned mother, and Paresh Rawail as the ambition driven, self-seeking father.
At different points I have been stalked by the thought of highlighting the father-daughter bond. The easiest way to do that would have been to curate a festival of films exploring this bonding. These three films mentioned above would certainly have been part of the festival as would Samir Chanda’s Ek Nadir Galpo (2008/ Bengali) wherein Mithun Chakraborty, a grief stricken father, embarks on a crusade to rename a river to honour his dead daughter, and Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (2015), pivoting on an architect who has a running feud with her widower father since he traces every problem in his life to his bowel movement.
However, not only the making of a film, the curating of a festival with feature films too takes more doing. Meanwhile Baba’s Birth Centenary was approaching, I was writing My Father and I, the editor’s note for Me and I, translated by my son Devottam Sengupta for Hachette Book Mine. And suddenly I remembered the two-hour interview that my friend Joy Bimal Roy, son of the cine maestro, had so graciously gifted me at the end of the screening of Remembering Bimal Roy. He had started filming his Centenary tribute to his deathless father with a leisurely interview with ‘Nabendu Kaku’. Since only a small bit had got used, he’d said, “I’ll be happy if you can use the rest.”
And They Made Classics… was the result. The hour-long documentary talks of the unique bonding shared between the screenwriter with his ‘filmguru’ – and takes us behind the screen into the making of the evergreen classics he was associated in the making of: Maa (1952), Baap Beti (1952), Parineeta (1953), Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Biraj Bahu (1954), Naukri (1954), Devdas (1955), Yahudi (1957), Madhumati (1958), Sujata (1959), Bandini (1964). It is an unparalleled bonding in the history of cinema – perhaps anywhere in the world, and certainly in India. And how did it happen? My insight: it was founded on 1. Shared history. 2. Shared creative quality 3. Meditative humanism.
Once I had made this documentary, I started looking closely at documentaries by other daughters – of illustrious parents. I remembered watching The Last Adieu (2014) in the Indian Panorama section of the IFFI in Goa. I was in the jury for the Feature Films that year, but I was most absorbed by Shabnam Sukhdev’s struggle to construct a portrait of her father Sukhdev Singh Sandhu. Boisterous, jovial, temperamental, contrary – Sukhdev, when he suddenly died at age 46, had left behind a huge body of work – and an unresolved relationship with his daughter who, as a child, felt distanced from him as much by his alcoholism as by his workaholism.
The 93-minute-long documentary is a daughter’s personal quest to unravel the past and make a connection with her fabled father who I most remember for Khilonewala (1971), a plea for communal harmony featuring mime artist Irshad Panjatan. Sukhdev, of course, can be dubbed a historian: his Nine Months to Freedom: The Story of Bangladesh (1972) remains a powerful visual documentation of East Pakistan’s war with its Western wing, and the emergence of the independent state. And it does so through the deplorable plight of the refugees – and treasured interviews with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ayub Khan, among others.
This 93-minute documentary is “a daughter’s journey from denial to indifference, from apathy to empathy, from hate to love,” as she discovers her father was a sensitive and compulsive filmmaker who sacrificed his personal life to painstakingly conveying social and political truths on celluloid.
The Last Adieu (2016) Directed by Shabnam Sukhdev
I also remembered watching Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait (2017) at the iconic photographer’s 75th birthday on a visit to Delhi, courtesy my artist friend Jatin Das. Raghu’s daughter Avani had “casually started” making the documentary on the famed photo artist – with the instrument that has been her family heritage, what with her brother Nitin, her uncle S Paul, her cousin Neeraj Paul all sharing her father’s passion for documenting life around him as a photo journalist – nay, a photo historian. Avani had started shooting memorable experiences with her parents. Before long she had “considerable footage” – read, an awful lot! – and felt she ought to do something more meaningful. Like, “tell the story of the country” through the lens of the man who had documented some of the lost moments and personalities in the life of the nation: Bangladesh Liberation War, the searing Bhopal gas tragedy, Mother Teresa, Mrs Gandhi …
Avani was in a dual role, holding the camera as well as talking to her father. Shabnam Sukhdev, likewise, used the dramatic device of a conversation between the daughter and her father. In fact, the documentary helped her to resolve her ‘identity crisis’: her father, all his friends and colleagues big and small vouched, was not only a very creative and warm albeit temperamental person; but her childhood memories were of a man who would not hesitate to slap her out of the blue to get that one shot of her shock, for a documentary against violence!
It was not possible to obtain The Unframed Portrait at such a short notice. But I was happy to get Nargis – another Films Division production, like The Last Adieu. This biographical not only strings together scenes from her major films, beginning with her roles as child artiste Fatima Rashid and going up to her epic Mother India (1957). It simply could not be overlooked because it portrays the other side of the actress who brought home recognition from an international festival for her histrionic prowess. Mrs Nargis Dutt would go to the border areas with Ajanta Arts troupe to entertain the jawans. She was the first patron of the Spastics Society. And, she went on to represent filmdom in Rajya Sabha. For me of course, another important reason was that it was directed by Priya Dutt – a daughter who had NOT entered the glamorous arena of films but, instead, had chosen public life as a social worker and in Parliament.
All these wholesome documentaries by daughters have a common underpinning. They show that the subjects were not pursuing their art as mere careers: Theirs was a love, an all-encompassing madness, a spiritual quest of sorts. Though the celebrated personalities are all from diverse fields of filmmaking, their work, their art was their life, and that has not gone away with their life-breath. That stays on with the next generation, a legacy to cherish and be inspired by.
Nargis (1991) Directed by Priya Dutt
On the occasion Ratnottama Sengupta said: “Many summers ago, when a girl child was born, parents were worried: Who will carry forward our name?!
“Even the other day, the teaser for a serial showed a magician telling his daughter, ‘You dream of becoming a magician? Never! My son alone will carry forward the tradition of the name.’”
“Today? The First Family of Magic in India is known by its Daughter’s name. And I remember my father, after our (my parents and I) first tour of European Alps snow-covered in winter, praising his daughter to his son and others: ‘Theek chheler mato samliyechhe puro raasta! All the way she has cared for us just like a son!’”
“Today, we find more and more daughters taking up the mantle of the legendary/ celebrated/ creative parents. Be it a Mamata Shankar carrying forward the legacy of Uday Shankar; Saoli Mitra, daughter of Shambhu Mitra and Tripti Mitra, the giants of Indian theatre; a Poulami Chatterjee picking up Soumitra Chatterjee’s awesome mantle on stage, or a Swastika Mukherjee following in the footsteps of actor Santu Mukherjee. Or be it National Award winner Sudipta Chakraborty, and international dancer Sohini Roychowdhury.”
The screenings had commenced with the felicitation of these two women achievers from Bengal. “’You are more than a son!!’ I’ve often heard people say to me,” recounted Sohini Roychowdhury, a professor of Natyashastra. “But I never knew the difference growing up as the only child of Subrata Roychowdhury and Uma Roychowdhury. Being Baba’s daughter taught me to place empathy and kindness above all. And it gave me tough love when it came to my dance. Even at the age of four it could not be a hobby or mere fun: one needed to give it one’s all or nothing…
“These mantras sustain me, they define my core. They make me Baba’s legacy bearer, I can say with honour, pride and the greatest sense of fulfillment. And my mother, sculptor Uma Roychowdhury gave me the thunder to think outside the box and come up with my own craft: ‘Sohinimoksha – World Dance Opera’. Braving all the storms of criticism I have deviated from the pure classical form. She instilled the courage in me with her words that said, ‘Dance is your own art, not just what you’ve learnt. So own your stage and your own style.’”
“Honesty and simplicity are the traits I’ve inherited from my father, theatreperson Biplab Ketan Chakraborty. Baba was completely out of circulation for ten years. In any case he never boasted of his accomplishment. Consequently he never got his due in his lifetime. But he had seen me receive my National Award. When dementia was setting in, he had watched my Bikele Bhorer Sorshe Phool and praised me saying, ‘There’s only one actor who could have played this role!’
“I am equally proud of my mother Dipali Chakraborty, an erstwhile member of Calcutta Choir. At 70, she is still dancing on stage. Few know that I can dance as well and can take it up seriously. If I direct a film, dance will be my first subject. This is the least I can do for my mother.”
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