24 FRAMES PER SECOND......an interview with Dr Bhabendranath Saikia

Where the filmmaker, writer, physicist and dramatist of the tragic and the comic sat, comfortable and composed, as if he were the centre of it all. Pranab Bora, editor, Newsfile, spoke with Dr Bhabendranath Saikia in June, 2002, in his home in Beltola, Guwahati. Excerpts:

Newsfile: Any icons?
Dr Bhabendranath Saikia: Not really. During my stay abroad I watched many beautiful movies such as Kanal (Polish), and The Roof. These have inspired me a lot.

Q: In films such as Anirban you have pushed human tragedy to limits. Some are of the opinion that you seem predisposed for the grotesque.
A: Anirban is just one of the eight films I have made. I had written the story much earlier. Human tragedy can surpass our imagination ...

Q: In Agnisnaan, for example, Menoka, the wife of the zamindar has an illegitimate child with a village youth, perhaps partly as revenge, after her husband remarries. The story could have ended there, with the purpose of revenge served ...
A: Agnisnaan has been misinterpreted by people. Some consider it a story of revenge while others compare it to the test Sita underwent to prove her purity. Agnisnaan was actually more a story of a woman cleansing herself with fire. In the movie, when Menoka’s husband marries a much younger girl (and sleeps with her in the room next to Menoka’s), her tolerance is pushed to the limits. She gives in to Indra but not so much for revenge as her physical needs. Even a goddess can be pushed to a similar situation. So her act is justified. She, however, realises the wrong that she has committed

Q: According to Antarip, your book on which Agnisnaan was based, the illegitimate child is Mohikanta’s only support in his old age. Why this need to finish him off?
A: In the movie, this part has not been included. The story in the movie is a chapter by itself. The movie itself defines a character.

Q: You have made most of your films from your own stories. Do you unconsciously write scripts?
A: I write stories, which is purely literary work, not scripts. However, the visualisation during my writing helps me make movies.

Q: You have used striking erotic symbols in you films. In Anirban, for example, there there is this sparkle of sexual symbolism ... Yet you have also said vulgarity does not need to be portrayed in the name of commercialisation. Where according to you does art end and vulgarity begin? Isn’t that line too thin and the words too relative to be straitjacketed?
A: The things I depict in my movies may be erotic but not vulgar.These days we see the heroine dancing with 30-40 dancers in revealing clothes. This I find vulgar. Even if the scene were to be deleted from the movie it would not make a difference.

Q: There’s a new voice in the world that says art is art. Good or bad are relative terms and you cannot draw thick lines in between. Frontal nudes have their beauty as well.
A: The environment that I have grown up in and my mental make-up leads me to believe that I feel that certain things can be expressed from behind the scenes. Many artists have drawn nudes. However, nudity has to be justified to be considered artistic. Whennternational films are screened in film festivals in India, the first thing that people ask is “Is it hot?”.

Q: Is the scenario similar in foreign countries?
A: Absolutely not. In foreign countries nudity is not of much concern for the audience. If the film script demands a sex act, than they may show the complete sex act, otherwise they don’t.

Q: You’ve always made low-budget films. What kind of a film would you have made if you had the budget of a present day Assamese film, say about Rs 30 lakh to Rs 35 lakh.
A: My budgets have never gone beyond Rs 15 lakh. If I have a budget of Rs 35 lakh I can make a beautiful Assamese movie.

Q: Any regrets for having always made low-budget movies ?
A: None. A person making a movie should always start out intending to make a low budget film. There is no limit for a big budget movie.

Q: Why has Assamese parallel cinema suddenly disappeared?
A: Actually there aren’t enough people in Assam who like to watch parallel cinema. You have only one or one and a half lakh people people who like parallel cinema; and getting awards is not always enough. Also, people don’t seem to realise the fact that only about two out of every ten commercial films actually end up making profits.

Q: Has the revenue from your films helped you financially?
A: No, not at all. When Agnisnaan was released twice, once as a premier show, I got paid about Rs 9 lakh. That helped me make up all the deficits that I had run into because of films. Which means that I also did not suffer financially because of my films.

Q: Where do you see Assamese cinema 50 years from now?
A: This trend of commercialization will not last long. People may demand entertainment but there will come a stage when they will want films with real life stories, as it has happened in poetry or literature. Entertainment and serious portrayal will co-exist.

Q: Assamese cinema is growing as an industry. Do you think it will now become possible for a filmmaker to exist on his craft alone?
A: If this trend in films continues, and with TV and cable, a person can certainly sustain himself by making films.

Q: Your humourous plays such as ‘Xanta Xista Rista Pusta Maha Dusta’ have gone down as some of the best in that genre. In your chronicling of human struggle, do you think you have missed out on the humorous side of Bhaben Saikia?
A: I am quite compartmentalised. Whenever I feel I walk through one door and enter a different chamber.

Q: You have personally been a victim of social ostracism. The piece of land you grew up on in Nagaon’s Fauzdaripatti was sold to your family by ‘upper caste’ people who said they could not live with “scheduled caste people” ...
A: The locality where I was born had people from mostly the lower strata of society. There were people from the higher economic strata as well ... But these things never affected me because I was internally very strong and I was intelligent. The teachers also liked me ...

Q: What if you weren’t so brilliant in school?
A: Then maybe I would have just stayed where I was.

Q: How would you define Bhaben Saikia the man?
A: I’m not a bad man, really. I don’t remember harming anyone intentionally. I enjoy the world with all its beauty. I have varied interests.

Q: Any vices?
A: None. I have developed, over the years, the capacity to differentiate between what is good and what is not. If I develop a bad habit I try to rectify it.

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