Interview: Soumitra Ranade, author, Bhrigu and the Palace of Mirrors – books author interview
In the book, she has mentioned her experiences knitting stories for her children. Is there a story you have heard from your parents / grandparents that stuck with you?
I don’t know if this is a generational thing, but my parents always told us real stories. They both came from highly educated and yet extremely poor families, and survival itself was a great struggle for them. His childhood stories were fascinating to us. They were both political beings and they told us stories of the independence movement, the Partition, the assassination of Gandhi, etc. During the summer holidays we stayed with my grandparents in Kolhapur. My grandmother was a devotee of Sant Dnyaneshwar, the Marathi poet-saint, who was the forerunner of the Bhakti movement in Maharashtra. She recited verses from her book and interpreted them for us. Listening to it, late into the night, in the dim yellow light of an oil lamp in this very old house in Kolhapur was absolutely fascinating.
Do you think the current generation of children is less likely to fall for the “illogical” fantasy? Have adults created an atmosphere in which children are unlikely to willingly suspend disbelief?
In fact, it’s the other way around, right? Our parents told us to read the newspapers every day; to be aware of what is happening in the world and also to improve our language. Today, I can’t even tell my children to read the newspapers. They carry only depressing news and the language is terrible! The “real” being what it is, and almost never inspiring, children have no choice but to move toward the “unreal.” But regardless of the time, I think children have always lived in their own little worlds, full of fantasy, adventure and mystery. It is easier for today’s children to articulate their fantasies in tangible terms, as they are exposed to such great animated films and visual effects.
Lucknow is in the center of Bhrigu … You mentioned how the city’s Bhool Bhulaiya has always fascinated you. What attracts you?
The very reason for its creation is fascinating. In 1785, when a devastating famine struck Awadh, Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula began its construction and the aim was to provide employment to the people of the region for almost a decade while the famine lasted. What a noble thought it was and while taking care of people, they ended up creating a masterpiece! Architecturally, the labyrinths are extraordinary. There are more than 1000 passages and around 500 identical doors. One can get lost in seconds. And they’ve done wonderful things with acoustics too.
You have used black and white illustrations in Bhrigu … Was this to keep it in line with the “old” historical aesthetic of the story?
The reason is more economical than aesthetic. Color books are expensive to publish and therefore become unaffordable. We want more people to read books and keeping them cheaper helps that cause. Personally, this was not a compromise. Much of my work since my art school days has been in black and white.
In Bhrigu… it’s Lucknow; also illustrated a picture book for children, Varanasi of Varsha, in 2018. Is it more consciously related to cities or incidental?
Cities fascinate me. Each city, town or even village has its own spirit, its own culture. And in India we are fortunate to have such enormous diversity. That is what makes us so unique. Imagine Ajmer and Madurai or Nashik and Itanagar! Even Mumbai and Pune are very different. Within Mumbai, Mulund is also very different from Malad. This amazes me. I continue with the adventures of Bhrigu, and this time I am considering Jantar Mantar in Delhi as a backdrop.
Whether it is animation or graphic novels or anything that remotely uses illustration as a medium for storytelling, in India it is still considered to be aimed at a younger audience. How have you engaged with these preconceived notions over the years?
For a nation that has such enormous visual traditions, surprisingly, today we are quite visually illiterate. Our great stories such as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, or the Jatakas were made accessible to people through enormously varied means such as sculpture, wall paintings, illustrated manuscripts, miniature painting, and a wide variety of tribal art. All of these were pictorial representations of events, thoughts, and philosophies. So people could actually “read” an image and there was not even a need for the written word. Over time, the written word has completely taken over our being, relegating the image to the background. And as always happens, everything that is secondary in stature passes to secondary citizens; we push the image towards the children.
Most of his projects have been in the genres of satire and fantasy: Jajantaram Mamantaram, Ali Baba aur 41 Chor, for example. He also collaborated with his wife, Shilpa Ranade, on Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya. What attracts you to this type of cinema in particular?
But this is only one side of me. I have also done Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai? and a documentary about Afghanistan and I am currently making a long documentary based on Arunachal that explores man’s relationship with nature. I have also written many screenplays that I know will never be made into movies. So I have this split personality where, on the one hand, I love being in a dark, depressing and edgy space, while on the other hand, I also love being in a space of fantasy, adventure and fun. I usually alternate between the two. I have lived Albert Pinto for a few years and it was important for me to write this book. Basically, to keep my own sanity, I keep going back to writing and children’s movies. I feel more hopeful in that space.
Movies like Jajantaram… Y Goopi gawaiya… They are political films in their own right. Can you explore similar projects now, at a time when many believe artistic freedom is being restricted?
I want the government to ban the 50mm lens, for example. Outdoor shootings are not allowed. No surround sound. There are no actors of a certain religion … no crew members of a certain caste … I want this to go on and on and on … until one is left with only a room and a chair, and maybe a window for the light to enter. Will we do as artists? Will we still have the courage to tell our stories? Some will definitely find a way. I certainly will.
Artistic freedom is a myth. No filmmaker has ever had freedom. If it is not political, it has been financial. And financial is also political in a sense. Today every shot I take on my film costs me thousands of rupees. What freedom can you expect from the director?
While Goopi gawaiya… it is an overtly political film, I am pleasantly surprised that you call it Jajantaram Mamantaram one. Of course it was one! It was made during the time when we had a binary king controlled by an evil commander who had later unleashed a demon named Jhamumda, who now controls our lives. But very few people made it.
You are working on an animated feature film about the story of Rabindranath Tagore, Kabuliwala. He spent some time in Kabul. What memories do you have of the place and will the adaptation have elements of your personal experiences?
We were in Kabul from when I was 13 until I was 16, critical years in everyone’s life. Being in a place like Afghanistan during these formative years left a very profound impact on my life and the work that I do and the worldview that I have.
I remember Afghanistan as a beautiful country and Afghans as perhaps the most loving people in the world. Despite extreme poverty and hardships, they had an extraordinary spirit. While we were there, we witnessed some of the most defining moments in modern history: the then USSR-backed military coup, the Soviet army entering, and then after we returned, we followed the events in horror and despair: the Americans, Taliban, and soon, an entire country was completely destroyed and its people wiped out.
There are many lessons to be learned from what happened to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, no one is in the mood for introspection. The genius of Tagore lies in the fact that although the story was written in 1893, it is still relevant today, in fact even more so. As the world grapples with issues like insiders versus outsiders, us versus them, etc. Kabuliwala it’s a human story, about the two most unlikely friends: a big man from Kabul and a girl from Calcutta. Making this movie is very important to me. Like I said before, to maintain my own sanity, if nothing else!
Asad Ali is a freelance journalist. Lives in New Delhi.