Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sumantra Ghoshal: Learnings From the Fringe

Sumantra Ghoshal
It was as I was reading Pawan Kumar’s blog “Making Enemies” that I came across this heart-stopping sentence: “The old will be scared and insecure and they will die soon.” And, I realised, with that shock of recognition that strikes most true when you are most unprepared: “Hang on. That’s me he’s talking about.”
And so, I decided that before I realize the full intensity of that prophesy by actually popping it, I should share some learnings from my scared and insecure career.
But, to start at the beginning, it wasn’t always like this. I remember being young once—very long ago—and being motivated by the same enthusiasm and hope that this audience has now . . . and should never lose.
I came from a film background—not just any, garden variety film background, but perhaps the best that a young kid could hope to flower in. My grand uncle was the film director Satyajit Ray. And growing up in the presence of that extraordinary man and in an environment that threw up a panoply of film gods I knew immediately that I was a devotee and that my religion flickered at 24 frames per second.
I have since met too many interns, too many assistants, too many colleagues who have neither gods, nor a religion. For them film is a job. Of course, it’s a job but that’s not all it is; today, I am disturbed to see success calculated in shifts and in the number of shooting days accumulated this month. And I can in no way associate that feeling with the one that I grew up with. So, I say to you—and this is the first learning I acquired as I began my fascination for film—if you wish to worship in the temple of cinema, go seek out your gods.
What does that mean? “Seek out your gods.” It means realizing T. S. Eliot’s idea that we may know more than the past, but the past is what we know. It means realizing that you stand on the shoulders of giants. It implies the act of not just watching, but of “darshan”—looking deeply at how a great artist interprets the world he/she inhabits.
In my own genuflection to Ray I discovered a tenet that has remained a cornerstone of my very limited, humble offerings in that temple— humanism. He taught by shining example the ability to engage with the inner life of a character rather than the impersonation of one.
And that is something I would recommend to any filmmaker. It goes beyond the crafting of clever dialogue or intricate camera movement or expert cutting, which is not to deride any of those; but, it comes instead from observation and from empathy—not just of and with the person but, equally importantly, observation of and empathy with context.
And, so I urge you—because I myself have slipped too often into the valley—that when you next sit down to script, or when you direct actors, do not be entrapped by how cleverly the dialogue speaks, or how the camera swoops from the establishing shot to the detail, or how magically the green matte will be replaced, but consider how true you are to the inner life of your character and to his or her particular context.
And if you want a quick lesson in what this means simply revisit the opening scene of Charulata and you will know immediately how empathetic observation of character in context can resonate beyond the particular to become universal. Or go to something quite at the other extreme—Apocalypse Now. And see how the arrogance of America is distilled into the strut of Robert Duvall on a Vietnamese beach and how much criticism of US foreign policy is contracted into that memorable line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Which brings me to my second—seemingly contradictory—learning: Having found your gods run away from them.
Why do I say this? Precisely because Ray was a brilliant man: he could draw, write, score music, design sets and costumes; and he also operated camera and directed. At the impressionable age of 12, I thought it was all great fun. And—hey!—it was easy. I have spent a lifetime discovering that it is not.
By the time I graduated I was beginning to see the truth of my situation and it was this: I was drawn to telling stories and I believed that film was my medium; but if I stayed in the shelter of the great banyan tree that was Satyajit Ray, I would be stunted forever. I needed my own piece of sun and, at 21, I ran away from all that had nurtured me to Bombay and to advertising.
So: having found your gods, run away from them.
When you are starting out you need to have role models, you need to be part of a tradition that is bigger than you but one that essentially informs your own development as an artist; you need to test different voices before settling on your own. But, then, as you begin to discover your own sur, you must break away. This step is perhaps the most difficult—too early and you could remain unformed, unprepared; too late and you could be doomed to repeating by rote.
You can see the dangers most clearly in our classical musicians and singers. I refer, of course, to those who grew up in the guru-shishya parampara. It is a way of life that is moving towards extinction; and yet, I believe the benefits of that model to be immense. I believed in that idea enough to introduce it into the running of my company and today in Bombay, there are at least a dozen successful filmmakers or producers who have profited by that grooming. And each one of them has found his own voice and intention.
But I have gone ahead of myself.
I started a company to make commercials when I was in my early 20s. And, I think, owing to the fact that in those years there were perhaps a dozen of us who were in any serious competition, I made a place for myself pretty quickly in the big, not-so-bad world of advertising. But, when I think about why I managed to make a rather protracted career out of advertising, I believe I did three things that you might find useful:
  1. I practiced my craft and learnt from my mistakes. 
  2. I had people around me that I respected.
  3. I was not frightened to lose business.

What does this mean to young filmmakers such as yourselves?
  1. Practicing craft. Or, to go back to my musical analogy, riyaaz. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. I was lucky to be able to do that because for about 5 intense years I was making two or three films a month. In those days that was a big thing. Everything about film before digital was expensive—both the shooting and the post— and some of it was arcane knowledge and the preserve of the few who “knew”like 35mm cinematography. But today, with the accessibility of digital cameras and cheap editing systems, you can practice your craft more readily. And you should grab every opportunity to do so, regardless of the stage you are given to tell your stories. Make virals, make wedding videos, do advertising promos, music videos, short films. Some of these will be execrable (as so many of my ad films were) but you will gain something that is invaluable at this stage of your career—you will get to hone your craft. But, remember, you still won’t find that true voice unless you are brilliantly self-critical and unless you embrace my second point. Which is this:
  2. Surround yourself with talent you respect. And when I say talent I don’t mean just writers and technicians. I mean production talent as well. Young filmmakers don’t realize how critical a good producer is to the making of films. Very often she is the difference between success and the dream that became a nightmare. We have an excellent representative on the panel today—Ruchi Bhimani. I don’t think it is a coincidence that she shepherded both Kai Po Che and that astonishing work, Ship of TheseusMore than any other medium, it is the talent you associate with that helps you grow. These are the people who will criticize and contribute. It is an axiom that film is a collaborative medium and yet I see too few well-knit teams. Why is this? Because trust is earned over time and too many players in the team suffer from self-deception about their individual worth. One-upmanship rings the death knell of both creative work and the human spirit. So, cherish the creativity of your compatriots. But a word of caution: shy away from the mediocre. I haven’t always succeeded myself—for it is a tightrope that we walk in film between arrogance and humility. What do you stand by? What do you give up? Each of you will have to find your own answer; but none can duck the question. It will define your work. And, by extension, your life. 
  3. I was not frightened to lose business. In a world of commerce and, sometimes, easy morality, this was a difficult principle to uphold. The world of advertising today, and indeed of films, is so competitive, so demanding, that abiding by one’s convictions (not arrogance, convictions—there is a difference) is very difficult. And yet, as filmmakers, our convictions are what define how we play our very own game of thrones. In my book, persistence of vision is not just the basis of cinema; it is the bedrock of a filmmaker’s life. And yet, ironically, it is often the very first thing we compromise in the need to make work. 
Before I speak of my third learning from the fringes (where I have lived), let me digress and mention two regrets:
(i) The lack of deep roots. Even though I came from a very culturally aware family, I grew up without any deep roots in the literature and mythology of my country. My upbringing was very Western. For example, I learnt Western classical piano (badly!) and had no grounding in an Indian musical tradition or, for that matter, in what should have been the most natural music of all given my background—Rabindrasangeet.
Besides, we were Brahmos and not at all religious. My association with Hinduism was restricted to what I gleaned from the annual Pujas at my neighbours; but these were events that were more convivial than educational or spiritual.
Later, I made a conscious effort to be more connected to my own culture. I have spent a lifetime listening to Hindustani classical music; I have brushed up on my mythological texts; I even learnt to read and write Urdu. But it was too little too late. I realized my lack with particular sharpness while making my recent documentary on Bharatanatyam. There was so much that was superficially familiar and yet not an essential part of my life. I had information but I was not informed.
You must cherish and celebrate and constantly renew your roots and that includes an essential engagement with Indian language. Most of the talented Indian filmmakers I have met (or whose work I respect) have this in common: they have very deep roots and are habitually bilingual. You cannot do without English in today’s world; but the sap of your creativity will be in your own soil. Nurture it. Speak the language.
(ii) The second regret is something physiological and I don’t know how to circumvent it. It is that I forget easily. Memory, as much as imagination, is what allows us to make better films. I am now regarding the idea of memory as separate from the idea of roots. Memory is the smell of earth after a kaal baisakhi; memory is the taste of tea from a bharh at a railway station, memory is the peremptory ting-ting of a tram bell; memory is roadside pehlwans slapping their haunches. Memory is not just not forgetting; it is feeling made all the richer in recollection.
So, if like me, you tend to forget easily, do something about it. Make notes, keep video diaries or written ones, caption your Instagrams and store them for remembering; not just Facebook them for forgetting.
And one more thing: memory is the basis of structure. You can tell complex stories when you remember and, then, connect. You can have deep structure only when you remember well.
I have, of course, referred to a certain kind of film in this talk—one where the director has something to say about the world in which he lives. This is film as argument or as investigation or, sometimes, as essay. There are, of course, many other kinds of films and, I dare say, I have spent many hours of—to use a good Bombay phrase—“time pass” in the cinema. But I have no idea how to go about the job. And no interest in telling you how to do it—if I knew.
So, after such knowledge, what happened? Why, in a career spent mainly in and around the craft of film, have I only two documentaries to show for it?
That leads me to my third learning: Get out of your comfort zone.
As I mentioned, I became successful fairly early on in the game. Bu, a career in advertising films is a very consuming process for you are judged every fortnight. And I discovered quite quickly that with clients, the evil you do lives after you; the good is oft interred with your bones. But I got lucky. I was well rewarded both in terms of money and the respect of my peers. And, so, I found comfort in what I knew I did well. And that, I discovered too late, is hugely dangerous.
When you start getting comfortable you should begin to worry. The greatest comfort in filmmaking is the sequel. Imagine a world made up of Krishes and Dhooms stretching to an infinity of numbers. In a sense that is what became of my advertising film career.
I was no longer young; there were some very good, very motivated filmmakers—people like you—snapping at my heels; and I had nourished a ravenous company that needed constant feeding. So what started as a challenge and became a joy, turned into a grind. I could see the wave coming and I thought I would ride it. Instead, I drowned.
So, learn from my mistake. Get out of your comfort zone before you are trapped in it. Challenge yourself in what you do and how you do it. Dare to fail; just don’t make a habit of it.
I have taken my own advice. I retired from the company I started. I have no employees. I operate from a small room. I recently made a film on a subject—Bharatanatyam—about which I knew nothing. I researched the film; I wrote it; I narrated it; I edited it; I produced and directed it.
In a way it was my escape from the comfort zone of advertising. Today, I am, once again, alive. I am young. I am you.

Thank you.

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