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Never Have I Made the Same Kind of Film: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-I)

October 2, 2014

On the occasion of legendary filmmaker Tapan Sinha’s 90th Birth Anniversary, we pay a humble tribute to the maestro with the reproduction of an exclusive interview, which was first published in Desh Magazine in 1991. The interview was done by Robi Basu and translated into English by Suchandra Roy Chowdhury.

This is the 1st part of the interview, one of the lengthiest interviews of Tapan Sinha and will be followed by reproduction of the subsequent parts.

Interview of film director Tapan Sinha by Robi Basu
Translated into English by Suchandra Roy Chowdhury
(Part – I)

(The Tapan Sinha interview text and all pictures of film stills and memorabilia used in this article are courtesy art presenter and independent curator Sounak Chacraverti. In 2008, Sounak had curated Sensorium’s debut exhibition – a unique and first-of-its-kind exhibition on photographs, films stills and memorabilia on the film maestro ‘The World of Tapan Sinha’, in Kolkata’s Indian Council for Cultural Relations ICCR.)

Read the second part of this interview I’d Never Allow My Mind To Gather The Moss Of Stagnation: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-II)

Tapan Sinha belongs to the genre of those film directors who had single-handedly altered the course of Bengali cinema. Breaking through the fetters of the clichéd romantic films, Tapan Sinha ushered in a new wave in the Bengali film industry by creating films as exquisite as the very best of lyric poetry, at a time when the audience was gradually growing tired of the oft repeated story lines.

His innate artistic vision propelled his films into hitherto unexplored dimensions of cinematographic excellence. His films display a keen awareness of the human situation, embracing and influencing both the ordinary and the discerning viewers. The repertoire of Tapan Sinha’s films present a unique cohesion of the mainstream cinema with thought provoking art films and thereby stands witness to his creative genius.

Tapan Sinha and Satyajit Ray

Tapan Sinha and Satyajit Ray – the two stalwarts of Indian cinema.

In the year 1991, Tapan Sinha completed forty-six fruitful years of working in the film industry. Today, at the age of sixty-seven he is as active as ever in his filmmaking career, with an acutely receptive mind attuned to ideas modern and new. Indeed, Tapan Sinha belongs to that rare breed of film directors who do not believe in repeating themselves thematically. Interwoven flawlessly into every film of his is a keen poetic sensibility irrespective of the subject matter…be it a family drama, a love-hate saga or contemporary social issues.

Till date, all of his thirty-seven films deal with the human question…his films focus on man; his stories narrate the travails of man set against the backdrop of social questions. This is what gives Tapan Sinha’s films their universal appeal. He has always kept the windows of his mind wide-wide open, appreciating the multifarious hues of life. To him films represent “Technology Oriented Media”, yet he himself never displayed any kind of predilection for the technique-oriented film. Rather, his films try to decipher the inner meaning of life and seek to analyse the diverse mysteries of creation.

Tapan Sinha behind the camera

Tapan Sinha’s films focus on man; his stories narrate the travails of man set against the backdrop of social questions. This is what gives Tapan Sinha’s films their universal appeal.

To get to know such a man, to even begin to fathom the immense storehouse of talent, one needs a long period of time. I, however, had the advantage of being acquainted with Tapan Sinha from the day of his directorial debut in 1953. Through the years, I’ve watched him in action in various situations whether in the studio or out of it, and gradually tried to understand the mind at work behind the camera. For the compilation of this particular interview I had to talk with Tapan Sinha for quite a few hours over a span of some five or six days. In the course of our conversation we analysed almost anything under the sun ranging from sociology, cinematography and music, to poems, literature and human psychology. Snippets of his own life have also crept in at regular intervals adding a personal dimension to the discussion.

Since I didn’t consider it appropriate to introduce a machine in the exchange of words between two minds…this conversation was not recorded on a tape recorder. Such mechanization only serves to hamper the free flow of ideas. Thus most of the interview exists in indelible ink in the pages of my memory, whereas some parts were actually written down in pen and paper. This feature could well have been presented in any other form, however, since it was entitled as an interview, the entire discussion has been framed according to the question-answer format. 

Tapan Sinha with Ashok Kumar & Ali Akbar Khan

Tapan Sinha with actor Ashok Kumar and famed sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

Robi Basu: How did you come to the world of filmmaking? Did you have any kind of formal preparation for this? 

Tapan Sinha: No, I didn’t have any kind of preparation in that sense. I just liked to watch films right from the days of my childhood. Probably I watched a lot more movies than my friends. All of them were foreign films. I’m talking about the days when I was enrolled in the school at Bhagalpur. 

Robi Basu: Was your family from Bhagalpur? 

Tapan Sinha: No. We had a house at Bhagalpur. We were actually inhabitants of Birbhum; a place called Hilora near Murarai station. My father Tridibchandra Sinha was a zamindar of sorts. Most of that zamindari, however, was in the Santhal Parganas. 

Robi Basu: Were you born in your native district, in your country house? 

Tapan Sinha: No, I was born in our house in Calcutta. My mother, Pramila Sinha, was related to Lord Sinha. I’ve heard from her that he had come to see me after I was born. 

Robi Basu: In which year did this happen? 

Tapan Sinha: 2nd October 1924. 

Robi Basu: You share the date of your birth with Gandhiji. Does this make you feel very proud? 

Tapan Sinha: No. Not particularly. And that’s because I know I’m millions of miles behind Gandhiji. To compare myself with him is sheer foolhardiness. And, to be hasn’t, he hasn’t quite influenced me in my personal life. My father, though, was an ardent admirer of Gandhiji. He even followed the sacred rite of “asouch” after the death of the leader. 

Robi Basu: So, no one has really influenced you in your life? 

Tapan Sinha: That’s humanely not possible. I’ve met so many people at so many points of my life; some of them have surely left their impression. My father was the most prominent person in the first ten years of my life. He was an amazing man. On the one hand he was the traditional moody zamindar, a man of exquisite poetic sensibility on the other. I realized this when I accompanied him in his travels across the hills and jungles of the Santhal Parganas. My father taught me to appreciate nature.

After nightfall, lying in a makeshift bed he would recite Kalidasa’s “Kumarasambhava”(In Expectation of the Son) and “Meghdoot” (The Messenger Cloud). Then he would summarise it for me in simple Bengali words. It was from my father that I learned the delicate nuances of rhyme and rhythm; it was he who trained my ears to be receptive to the mildest strain of lyricism. 

Aparna Sen & Swaroop Dutta

Aparna Sen & Swaroop Dutta in Ekhoni [Now]
Photographer: Sukumar Roy.
Copyright Protected

Robi Basu: Were you his only son? 

Tapan Sinha: No. We were two brothers and four sisters. I was the third child. After Arundhati Devi [She was one of Bengal’s finest actresses; married Tapan Sinha after being separated from her first husband, film director Prabhat Mukhopadhyay] passed away my two sisters, the eldest and the youngest, with heads full of gray hair, take turns in looking after me. 

Robi Basu: What about your mother, what was her influence on your life? 

Tapan Sinha: She influenced me greatly. She used to sing the songs of Rabindranath, and that is how I learnt to love music. Her rendition of Rabindranath’s songs were sweetness personified, and many a night in the days of my childhood, I heard her sing songs such as “jotobar alo jwalte chai” (so many times have I tried to kindle a light) and “keno chokher jole bhijiye dilem na” (why didn’t I moisten with tears). In fact, I’ve used some verses of “keno chokher jole” in one of my films…Ekhoni.

After the death of my father, my mother was my constant companion, in times of happiness, in times of woe. The second floor of my house in Alipur was built for her. And that is where she stayed till her last day. Now there is nothing but emptiness. My mother is no more, Arundhati Devi is no more, and this wretchedly big mansion now seems to devour me with its emptiness. 

Tapan Sinha and Arundhati Devi

Filmmaker Tapan Sinha and his wife, the famed actress Arundhati Devi

Robi Basu: Tell me something about your student life in Bhagalpur. 

Tapan Sinha: Yes, I have to talk on that. My empathy for films began from this point. I was admitted in the Durgacharan M. E. School of Bhagalpur in the fifth standard. Later it went on to become a secondary school. Our Principal was Surendranath Gangopadhyay. 

Robi Basu: Wasn’t he Saratchandra’s maternal uncle? 

Tapan Sinha: Yes, he was Saratchandra’s maternal uncle. It was he who introduced me to Rabindranath, whom I regard to be the polestar of my life. 

Robi Basu: How did that happen? 

Tapan Sinha: One day our geometry teacher couldn’t come to school due to illness. The Principal took up his class. He entered the classroom with a volume of Rabindranath’s “Sanchaita” in his hands. Instead of teaching us geometry, he read out  “puratan bhritya” (the old servant), “ dui bigha jami” (Two yards of land), and nearly all the stories from “Katha o Kahini” (Words and Tales). He explained them to us a language that was simple, yet full of life. Seven days before our exams, he assured us that we were good students and could easily learn the theorems from one to sixteen. Incidentally, all of us were really capable of doing that. 

Robi Basu: That’s very strange! 

Tapan Sinha: Strange, indeed. Yet, this very strange incident laid the foundation stone to my future life. By the time I reached the seventh standard, I knew “Urvashi” (The divine dancer) and “Nirjhorer Swapnabhanga” (The stream awakens), almost by rote; Rabindranath had become the ideal and idol of my life. It was he who guided my life right from the days of my youth…I’ve forever remained his faithful disciple. 

Robi Basu: But how were you introduced to the world of cinema? 

Tapan Sinha: Didn’t I tell you that I began to watch films from a very young age? There was a cinema hall at Bhagalpur that used to screen foreign movies. Here it was that I saw Tarzan, King Kong and numerous other adventure films. A ticket used to cost three anas. I never neglected my studies though. When I reached the seventh standard I began to watch classic films. 

Robi Basu: Didn’t you have any problem in understanding the classics at such a tender age? 

Tapan Sinha: Not really. Actually, there is a story as to why I took up watching classics. Our history teacher was an extremely knowledgeable person. While lecturing on the topic of the French Revolution, he gave a vivid narration of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”, and requested us to see the film, which was being shown in the local movie hall. I saw the film. Not only did I see the film, I was absolutely carried away by its tremendous impact. After this, watching classic English movies joined the list of absolute essentials in my life. 

Robi Basu: What, in particular, did you like about the film? 

Tapan Sinha: The acting, of course. Gary Cooper, Clarke Gable, Betty Davis – the histrionics of such remarkable artists held me spellbound. Nowadays those who claim that in a film acting is secondary, that actors are but puppets in the hands of the director, I simply cannot agree with them. In my films I always try to emphasize the actor’s potential for acting. I make them rehearse days on end whether they are junior artists or seasoned actors. And in this respect they have always cooperated with me. 

Robi Basu: Being such an avid viewer of films right from your early years, did you never cherish the idea of becoming an actor yourself? 

Tapan Sinha: Initially, such indeed was my desire. It felt good to imagine myself as a film actor. But that particular phase did not last for long… hardly a few years. After that what made me curious was the technique behind making a film. Those were the days when I used to read innumerable English magazines, which used to feature the interviews of such great directors as John Ford, William Wyler, Carol Reed, Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder. Reading about them made me think that the entire process of filmmaking was a great adventure. And I always did foster an unquenchable thirst for adventure. 

Robi Basu: How exactly did you come by this affinity for adventure?

Tapan Sinha: It was Rabindranath, yet again. As a child, the housebound Rabindranath left alone with his imagination conjured tales of fearless deeds; these stories were enough to inspire the spirit of adventure in any young boy.

Besides this, while staying in Bhagalpur I used to climb hills, I used to ride horses and was also the local pole vault champion. Often I went camping in the dense forests of Bihar, where in the evenings I sang Rabindra Sangeet in the flickering light of the campfire. I did have a gun, but that not meant for hunting animals, rather, it was simply a means of self-protection. What days we had!

Read Cinematic Adaptations Of Rabindranath

Robi Basu: Is that spirit of adventure still there?

Tapan Sinha: Very much so. In fact, it’s increasing by the day. My films bear evidence to that. It is because of this thirst for adventure that I’ve never made the same kind of film. Repeatedly, I’ve changed the themes, locales and the background. If I shot one film within the four walls of a room, I made sure that the next one would be shot entirely outdoors…sometimes on the mountains, sometimes in the jungles, on the banks of rivers or shores of the seas. I had to pay dearly for my adventure bug though…I had to sacrifice a limb!

Robi Basu: How so?

Aaj Ka Robinhood

During the shooting of Aaj Ka Robinhood, an elephant trod on my left hand, and I lost the use of that hand forever. I came back from the clutches of certain death.

Tapan Sinha: During the shooting of Aaj Ka Robinhood, an elephant trod on my left hand, and I lost the use of that hand forever. I came back from the clutches of certain death.

Robi Basu: Yes, I’ve heard about that incident. I’ve read it in the newspapers. What were your feelings exactly, at the moment when you were face to face with death?

Tapan Sinha: That, I really can’t remember. I lost consciousness when the elephant picked me up and flung me down. Later, I heard that it had also raised one of its legs to trample over my inert body. It was only a last minute attempt by the trainer to restrain the enraged animal that saved my life. The sheer terror that marked the faces of my colleagues while narrating the incident made me aware of the horror of that spine chilling near death experience.

Robi Basu: In which year did you complete your studies in Bhagalpur?

Tapan Sinha: I passed my matriculation examinations in 1940 and took up science for my intermediate. It was my fervent desire to study arts, but my father did not allow it.

Robi Basu: Were you afraid of your father?

Tapan Sinha: I was afraid of him, yet at the same time I also loved and respected him. My father was an eminently serious man. We lived in a joint family of some thirty or forty members; the majority of whom were relatives, while a few were outsiders. None of them ever had the courage to question the dictates of my father. I also, never could voice my own opinions.

Robi Basu: When did you come to Calcutta?

Tapan Sinha: In 1943. I was enrolled in Jadavpur Engineering College.

Robi Basu: My goodness, wasn’t that was a terrible time for Calcutta?

Tapan Sinha: Exactly. The city was still simmering post the political upheaval of 1942. The fear of the Japanese bombs and a pestilential famine were taking its toll. The most fearsome aspect was the deadly malaria. Today you can’t even begin to imagine the havoc wrecked by malaria in Bangladesh.

Though these events left their mark on me, they were never enough to kindle my spirit. For my spirit had already been kindled by the luminous world of the cinema. While studying in Jadavpur University, I used to watch films almost everyday. I developed an addiction for cinema- an addiction that I couldn’t get rid of in the next ten years. I still watch films, but now I’ve become very selective. During those days there was no question of selection. But most of the films I saw were foreign films; rarely did I see Indian movies.

Tapan Sinha at BBC

Tapan Sinha at BBC

Robi Basu: In which year did you complete your engineering degree?

Tapan Sinha: I didn’t complete it. I abandoned my engineering course in the first year itself. I took up B Sc [Bachelor of Science], passed out in 1945 and went on to study applied physics for my M Sc [Master of Science]. However, after one year I quit my studies altogether.

Robi Basu: Why?

Tapan Sinha: The world of cinema was beckoning me. I didn’t have power enough to ignore its lure. I joined New Theatres as associate sound technician and was paid seventy rupees as salary.

Robi Basu: Wasn’t there any objection from your home front?

Tapan Sinha: I didn’t inform my father…my mother knew about it, though.

Robi Basu: So, New Theatres employed you; but did you know anyone there?

Tapan Sinha: Not a soul. When I realized that I simply couldn’t survive without films, the first name, which came to my mind, was New Theatres. At that time New Theatres was at the zenith of its fame. I directly approached Mr. B.N. Sarkar and stated my intentions. Mr. Sarkar questioned me minutely on my family and my education. He tried his best to dissuade me, but seeing just how stubborn I was regarding my decision, offered me a job. I think it was my unconditional love for cinema that melted his heart.

Robi Basu: But your heartfelt desire was to become a filmmaker? What made you choose the sound department? Didn’t you think that it was rather too far away from the floors?

Tapan Sinha: That’s right. But then I just needed an entry to the films. I did not want to act. The techniques of the camera were not too well known to me. I was a student of science…where else to go but to the sound department!

Robi Basu: You could have thought of entering films as an associate director!

Tapan Sinha: Oh, no. The directors of that time were denizens of rarified strata. They had little inclination to converse with mere mortals. Besides they demanded long years of apprenticeship. I had taken the decision of joining films without letting my father know about it…I was unsure as to where it would eventually lead me. I needed money, and the sound department seemed a safe enough place. I also came to realise that my judgment regarding the directors were not entirely correct. The film industry also had directors like Bimal Roy who helped me during those early days and was rather affectionate towards me.

Robi Basu: What kind of help did you get from him?

Tapan Sinha: I used to work under the famous sound technician Bani Dutt. Often I went to the floors to watch Bimal’da [the famous director Bimal Roy] at work. At that time he was shooting the film Humrahi (Fellow Travellers)…the Hindi version for his hit Bengali movie Udayer Pathe. I used to watch attentively as to how he lit his sets, how he directed the action. Lending the script from him I used to read it up as many as three or four times. Sometimes I had the temerity to make suggestions too. That he had given me the right to put forward my ideas was a great thing in itself. One couldn’t even think of such opportunities during those days.

Tapan Sinha in a thoughtful mood

Tapan Sinha in a thoughtful mood

Robi Basu: Should I infer that you did not derive any kind of creative satisfaction from your job in the sound department? It was only a means to an end, serving as a passport to your entry in the film industry?

Tapan Sinha: That’s an entirely wrong notion. Sound has an immensely important role to play in the making of a movie. Foreign films made me realise just how effectively sound can be used to capture the most dramatic moments. Their experiments in the fine nuances of sound have always amazed me.

The thought of replicating the magic of sound was constantly there in my mind. That is why I tried to learn my job in the sound department with all my heart. I was Bani Dutt’s assistant; I learnt the mysteries of sound not only from him but also from Mukul Basu, Loken Basu and Atul Chatterjee, who were the greatest sound technicians of the day. I learnt quite a lot from them.

Robi Basu: Speaking of experiments, have you ever yourself experimented with sound?

Tapan Sinha: As an assistant I did not have enough opportunity. However, when I used to work independently in he sound department of Calcutta Movietone Studios, I’ve tried my hand at experimentation. Satyen Basu’s Paribartan (Change) was my first independent venture, followed by Barjatri.

During this time Ajay Kar was shooting Jighansha, I incorporated a variety of sound related experiments for this film…particularly with that of an echo. An echo created from a sound, an echo of that echo, and so on…the effect was fabulous!

Robi Basu: Yes, yes, I remember. I remember getting goose bumps at that point of the film. Apart from this, you have, I believe, also used sound innovations in your film Jatugriha (House of Wax)…the scene where Bikash Roy and Binota Roy have come to a lawyer for their divorce and exit quarrelling bitterly. The camera was placed at the top of the stairs. The sound of their heated exchange is perfectly clear in the first few moments, after which it begins to fade away gradually until it recedes into the realm of unintelligible sounds. It seemed as if the distance was slowly muffling two furious dogs, barking their lungs out.

Tapan Sinha: That’s good! That is an ancient incident, and you seem to remember it quite well! Yes, I did try to create that kind of an effect in Jatugriha. And I’ve tried such experimentation in nearly all of my films.

Hemant Kumar, Dr Bali, Vyjayantimala, Tapan Sinha & Ashit Chowdhury

(L to R) Singer-composer Hemant Kumar, Dr Bali, actress Vyjayantimala, film director Tapan Sinha and Ashit Chowdhury

Robi Basu: I heard that you had worked in the sound department of Jean Renoir’s The River?

Tapan Sinha: Yes, I was supposed to work in the film, but I couldn’t. The reason was my father’s death. I wanted to know more about their technique of magnetic tape recording. I had even worked with them for a month…but that month was spent simply in installing the machine. I had to leave the unit when I received the news of my father’s sudden death. Mr. Poulton, the sound recordist, had developed a liking for me; he asked me to meet him if I ever went to England, he’ll be there to help me.

Robi Basu: Did you go to England?

Tapan Sinha: I went to England in 1950. The next year and a half I worked with Pinewood studios. Yet, that one and half year was basically a wasted for me. I did not learn anything new to add to range of experiences. The benefit accrued was from a totally unexpected quarter. While staying there I had the opportunity to watch a lot of European movies. It was as if an entirely new horizon in the world of cinema opened up before my eyes. Staying there was not a very pleasant experience…I used to stay in a youth hostel – cohabiting with students of different nationalities from all the corners of the world. We were told to look at still pictures from films and asked to learn about composition.

The most precious thing that I learnt was discipline…discipline of thought. And that has helped me tremendously in my future life. While composing the script, never have I entertained complications of thought, which might be too problematic to be captured by the camera. It would be an unnecessary waste of film. In a country like ours, where we have to make films on a limited budget, such discipline is absolutely essential.

Continue reading the second part of this interview I’d Never Allow My Mind To Gather The Moss Of Stagnation: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-II)

More to read

An interview with Tapan Sinha published in 4 parts
Never Have I Made the Same Kind of Film: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-I)
I’d Never Allow My Mind To Gather The Moss Of Stagnation: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-II)
I Cherish A Thrill For Adventure: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-III)
I Am A Worshipper Of All Things Beautiful: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-IV)



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