Interview | Director GOUTAM GHOSH: Many Were Surprised When Prosenjit Was Selected As Lalan Fakir in Moner Manush

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[Image: Tollywood Hero PROSENJIT CHATTERJEE as LALON FAKIR in MONER MANUSH (Bengali, 2010)]CALCUTTA, Dec 13, 2010 (Washington Bangla Radio) Gautam Ghosh, the world-famous film-maker from India, directed yet another masterpiece on film in MONER MANUSH (Bengali, 2010) - a film about the Bengali poet, singer, song-writer and folk-song icon Lalan Fakir. Tollywood movie super-star Prosenjit Chatterjee has delivered the role of Lalon in a way that critics are saying from now on, whenever they think of Lalon, Prosenjit's image will flash across their mind.

Subhomoy Mukherjee caught up with Goutam Ghosh in Kolkata and had a little informal chat about Moner Manush just after Ghosh returned from the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa,  where an international jury presented the revered Golden Peacock award to the film. The master film-maker talks about Lalon, Rabindranath Tagore, Prosenjit and Moner Manush in this exclusive audio broadcast.

Moner Manush: Theatrical Trailer

Transcribed and Translated excerpts from the audio interview:

Washington Bangla Radio: When did you start considering a film on Lalon Fakir ?

Goutam Ghosh: I have been thinking about making a film about a mystic poet like Lalon, Dadu Dayal, Kabir or Guru Nanak for quite a while. I first started thinking about such a film when the Babri Masjid was destroyed (in 1992) and communal friction was on the rise. The fallout of that event on both India and Bangladesh hurt me deeply, especially because just before the Babri Masjid incident, I had completed a film on shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan ("Meeting a Milestone"); I have seldom met such an extraordinary musician, spiritualist and secular person. "I was really perturbed", says Ghosh when the ugly events around Babri Masjid unfolded right after his work with Ustad Bismillah Khan. Ghosh subsequently considered making a film on communal riots, but realizing that such a venture would mean having to dramatize gory violence, he then started thinking of a film about a symbol of the composite culture of south Asia. Lalan Fakir naturally came to my mind as one of such iconic personalities. I read up on Lalon, thanks to a large extent to my friend Munir who sent me a few books on Lalon from Bangladesh. A script began to take form, but for various reasons I did not proceed with the film at that time. I got busy making Padma Nadir Majhi - also a Indo-Bangladeshi co-production like Moner Manush.

Sunil Gangopadhyay and I have had many discussions about Lalon Fakir, as well as poet-mystics, Buddhist monks, Sufi saints, Bauls, Folk singers of Bengal and such subjects in general and thier lifestyles and philosophies. Sunil-da wrote a great piece in 2008 titled "Moner Manush" which charged me up - the literary work by Sunil Ganguly provided the source for a plot, and I ressurected my research in Lalon Fakir, travelling to Bangladesh and Kushtiya - the birthplace of Lalan. There I tried to get an deeper understanding of the fakir philosophy and lifestyle by associating with fakirs. Eventually, I came up with my screen-play for Moner Manush.

I believe Moner Manush the film is greatly relevant now - the world has seen an increase in intolerance, both religious and political partisanship is ubiquitous. Conflicts and divisions between people based on race, religion and politics pervade.

I am saddened by the contrast of technological progress we have made - you can see the world by pressing a button - and the parallel increase in divisions in people.

These thoughts form the basis of my making of Moner Manush. The film is not a biopic - my goal is to showcase the mindset and philosophy of Lalon and his fellow fakirs who have long transended such petty partisanship among humans.

Washington Bangla Radio: Lalan Fakir is a name that is perhaps not very well-known among non-Bengalis, and even among contemporary Bengalis. Why did you choose Lalan ?

Gautam Ghosh: I chose Lalon as the subject of the film because the film will be shown in India and Bangladesh, and then internationally, including the UK and the United States. Drawing an example from Rumi (the 13th century persian poet and sufi mystic), Rumi is a widely known poet across the world now. Rumi has gained much popularity after 9-11, as people started to try to understand what Islam really is. Like Rumi, Lalon is also a philosopher and spiritualist who will touch the hearts of a global audience.

When we completed the film and had the first print, I showed the film to Mrinal Sen. Mrinal Sen was ecstatic, and he said the film is an extrordinary work and would get to the hearts of people. I was a bit skeptical on the ability of Moner Manush to appeal to an western audience. But I was pleasantly surprised at the reaction of the almost completely western jury at the Goa International Film Festival - a jury composed of world-class film-makers and critiques who could easily and comprehensively communicate with the film. In a way that is not surprising - divisive forces are active world-wide but people want peace, love and compassion. It is great to see a global appeal of Moner Manush, and hopefully it will entice further studies of Lalon. Some great work has already begun, and people like Carol Salomon (a specialist in Bengali language and culture and faculty member of University Of Washington at Seattle, Carol Salomon passed away in March 2009) are bringing researchers into the Bauls and Fakirs of Bengal and of course, Lalon. Great work is being done in Germany and France, too.

One of the most striking aspects of Lalon and his fellow fakirs is that in spite of being in rural areas and not being part of any urban renaissance, they could make an impact of such a scale simply by their songs. Lalon Fakir did not go around delivering speeches in the fashion on political leaders. He has instead attended poetic debates and expressed his feelings through his songs. Though the educated class of that time did not really understand Lalon then, Rabindranath Tagore was greatly impressed and influenced by Lalon.

Though my film revolves around Lalon and the Tagore family, I could not find any evidence that Lalon and Rabindranath Tagore themselves came into contact. Rabindranath was very much influenced by Lalon's "Manobtotto", although never met him. Of course, Jyoti Thakur had met Lalon and subsequently painted a portrait of Lalon in 1889 - and my screenplay starts with that background.

Washington Bangla Radio: Some say that once in a bad year of crops, Lalan and farmers went to meet the Tagore family who were the Zamindars (landlords) to see if taxes can be waived, and during this time Rabindranath Tagore was present ...

Goutam Ghosh: It is extremely likely that Rabindranath Tagore and Lalan ever met in person - when Rabindranath visited their zamindary the first time, he was just a child, and Lalan had passed away before Rabindranath's second visit as a young man. I could find no evidence of Rabindranath and Lalon having met. But Rabindranath did meet disciples of Lalon, and learnt a lot about Lalon via his students. Also, there is a remarkable difference in Rabindranath's own thoughts that can be clearly seen in his work after his exposure to Lalan's philosophy.

Also, Lalan did get some exposure to the urban world via the Tagore family. Many people think Lalan only wrote songs - but Lalan is much greater than just some songs - he is a philosopher and the progenitor of a way of life. The genteel class of that time had pretty low opinion of fakirs and bauls, equating free sex and such things with them, totally missing out on the deeper philosophical implications and liberal thoughts behind their way of life.

Renowned writer Annadasankar Ray said that the contribution of Lalon Fakir towards propagation of the composite culture of rural Bengal is in no way any less than Rammohan Roy. This is a striking observation, given Lalon was from a background far removed from the royal elite social background of Rammohan Roy. Lalon's liberal values upholding Hindu-Muslim composite culture and rooted to ordinary physical existance in a very superstitous 19th century Bengal environment is indeed mindblowing.

Washington Bangla Radio: You based your screen-play on Sunil Gangopadhyay's Moner Manush. Given that some people believe Lalan's story as we hear today may partly be colored by the addition of myth over the decades, and the possibility of people writing their own songs and attributing them to Lalon, tell us about your perception of who and what Lalan was that you portray in your film.

Goutam Ghosh: I had the same questions and I did extensive research on this, and went and met many people, some of the authorities on Lalon. It turns out some Lalon scholars have identified and compiled a list of authentic Lalon songs - actually, it is pretty easy to identify non-Lalon songs if you know Lalon and his unique ways of writing lyrics and composing songs.

Another aspect of Lalon's songs is that, being propagated by hearing only in oral tradition for many decades, the tunes have changed. I met with Abdul Karim Shah, a senior fakir who is over 90 years old now, and listened carefully to the style of singing from Lalon's gharana. After listening to them singing the songs, I actually recomposed some of the songs in the film, having realized that the songs were originally based on some of the ragas like Bhairavi, Puravi, Khambaj, Bilawal and Desh.

Unfortunately, Lalan's songs have not been formally documented yet in any comprehensive way, though some sporadic attempts have been made, by people like Sudhin Das. It is very important that the songs be documented now by listening to the dissapearing senior folk and baul singers.

One of my goals in Moner Manush is to stay as true as possible to Lalon's original compositions, and only songs performed in the style of Lalan's gharana would do justice to his songs in my film. These are not song numbers, but part of their speech, their dialog, part of their way of life.

Washington Bangla Radio: We have watched Tollywood's only superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee perform brilliantly as Lalon. Tell us about your reasons for selecting Prosenjit for the role.

Goutam Ghosh: A lost of people were very surprised when I selected Prosenjit for the role of Lalan Fakir in Moner Manush. Many people said, "What is Goutam-da doing, selecting Bumba for this role!" Some came to me and asked, "It is possible to cast Prosenjit as Lalon ? What are you doing ?" After all, Prosenjit has an image as a superstar in commercial Bangla cinema.

But I had seen some aspects of Prosenjit - I had actually sketched Prosenjit as Lalon - that told me Prosenjit would be the perfect Lalon. His eyes would come in very useful, particularly if he could produce a certain look of calm in them, for example. So I selected Prosenjit, but on one condition - he would not be able to do any other work for a few months - and give all his time to Moner Manush.

Prosenjit followed my condition to the letter, as well as my instructions when I was preparing him. The audience is pretty surprised on Prosenjit's delivery of Lalon Fakir. Actually I never do casting of actors because they are stars - I always cast actors based on their acting abilities in acting - as I have done in my previous Hindi and Bengali films. I felt the role of Lalon Fakir will suit Prosenjit, and I can leverage his present age to actually portray Lalon in a variety of ages (given correct make-up).

In the end, Prosenjit Chatterjee has been accepted as Lalon Fakir in Lalon's home of current Bangladesh. Critiques have told Prosenjit that from now on, whenever they think of Lalan, they will visualize Prosenjit. I think, and I told Prosenjit, therein lies your award which is bigger even than an Academy Award.

Bumba is a great artist, very disciplined and wanted to work with me for an extensive period in time. He is a complete director's actor, listening to everything the director has to say. He did everything I told him to do to prepare himself - no questions asked.

Washington Bangla Radio: Moner Manush portrays certain stages of Lalon's life - why did you not cover the rest of Lalon's life ?

Goutam Ghosh: That is because I never set out to make a biographical feature film on Lalon Fakir. The film is about Jyotindranath Tagore and his conversation with a "man of native wisdom" - and Lalon's life coming into their conversation. I wanted to portray the contemorary social environment, and why Lalan became Lalan, transcending his Hindu or Muslim identity and starting his own sect in a forest with outcasts, forming an "anandabazar" (a word invented by Lalan). The structure is not unlike a ballad - events unfolding but not linearly, fundementalists going against Lalan and such things.