San Banarje grew up in a Calcutta neighborhood near the home of Satyajit Ray, arguably the all-time greatest of all Indian filmmakers.
So it seems somehow appropriate that when he returned home to direct a movie of his own after nearly two decades of living overseas — first two years in London, then almost 14 years here in Houston — Banarje set his sights on signing a veteran of several Ray-directed masterworks, the great Indian actor Soumitra Chatterjee (The World of Apu), to play the title role in Bodhisattva, a Bengali-language, English-subtitled drama having its world premiere tonight at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival.
A sentimental gesture? Yes and no.
As boundlessly self-confident as he might be, Banarje — a largely self-taught auteur — freely admits that he needed the cachet of a Soumitra Chatterjee to give himself and his small-budget indie feature some degree of credibility. And even with Chatterjee on board, he still had to pinch pennies and stretch dollars, filming Bodhisattva with a rented camera on a minimum of locations, often employing crew members as actors during a ridiculously compressed seven-day shooting schedule.
“I ended up having to cast myself in a supporting part,” Banarje says, quickly adding, lest he be accused of egomania, that he instructed his cinematographer “to shoot me from the back as often as possible."
The end result of his efforts likely will surprise those Houston festivalgoers who expect Bollywood razzmatazz in all Indian-produced movies. Bodhisattva — which will be shown at 7 p.m. at the AMC 30 — is a dark, stark psychological drama about pride and passion, focused on Maya (Trisha Ray), a young woman who blames her father, Bodhisattva (Chatterjee), for the suicide of her mother years earlier.
When she returns to India after an extended journey to the United States, Maya refuses to live with Bodhisattva. Instead, she accepts the hospitality of an old classmate (Miska Halim) and her husband (Banarje). Nothing good comes of this.
CultureMap caught up with San Banarje a few days ago to talk about working with a living legend, growing up in Calcutta — and gaining the equivalent of a film school education without actually paying tuition.
CultureMap: Are you worried that some people may go to see Bodhisattva and complain: “Wait a minute! This is an Indian movie — but where’s all the singing and dancing?”
San Banarje: Actually, the funny thing is, when I went [to India] and approached a couple of producers to back the film, the first thing they told me was, “You know, you’ve got to put five songs in this for your movie to get sold to the cable television.” And I told them, “Well, my movie doesn’t have any place for a song.” And then they told me, “Then you have a poison on your hand.”
That’s exactly the word they used — poison. I was hell-bent on making it, so I went ahead and made it as an independent production. But in India, I guess, it’s almost impossible to do a commercial film unless you put songs and dance in it.
CM: Of course, you grew up near an Indian filmmaker whose movies weren’t exactly Bollywood extravaganzas.
SB: That’s correct. I lived about four or five blocks away from Satyajit Ray, the legendary director. My mom used to take me to school every day when I was seven, eight years old, and point out his house to me.
He would almost never come out, but we’d see him every once in a while at the local movie theater. Sometimes he would watch a Bollywood movie. But during the songs, he would come out. And if anybody asked him why, he would say, “It’s just too long.”
CM: Did you watch many movies while you were growing up?
SB: In my household, my mom and dad could only understand Bengali. So they would watch, like, two movies a year. It was always an event when I would go to the movies with them. And most of the time, it was to see a Satyajit Ray movie.
CM: So where did you study filmmaking? India? London?
SB: Actually, I never went to film school. I trained myself just by watching movies. When I was in London, I was an assistant to a documentary filmmaker. And when I moved to Houston, I observed a lot of the movies that were made around here.
And I read all the books that were available. Especially Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew. That inspired me, the way he made that movie El Mariachi with practically no money. And also Sidney Lumet’s book, Making Movies.
And I really learned a lot from listening to director’s commentaries on many DVDs. Especially Steven Soderbergh and Francis Coppola. Those helped me the most. I would hear Soderbergh talking about making an independent movie like Full Frontal — and I really wanted to do something like that.
CM: Did this self-education program come in handy during the making of Bodhisattva?
SB: Tremendously. Because I had to shoot this film in seven days. That’s what the camera rental guy told me: “You have to shoot your movie in seven days — because this is a very busy camera.”
So I decided to do it Woody Allen style — I wouldn’t do any coverage. A lot of the shots, I just took a master and then went on to the next shot.
CM: Did it help that you that a revered actor like Soumityla Chatterjee came on board early?
SB: It was a huge help. Unbelievable. Because we wrote the script with him in mind. And this is a very dark character. His health wasn’t that good when I went to see him. And in the movie, he has to drink and he has to smoke.
But when I went to speak with him — well, generally in India, when you approach a star about playing a role, the first thing they ask is, “What’s the budget?” They never talk about the script, they talk about the budget, because they want to see that the film is getting a big release.
But with Chatterjee, the first thing he said was, “Tell me the story. And tell me about my role. And what kind of clothes do you see me in?”
So I told him the story, and he listened, not talking at all. And I was really scared, because I was waiting for him to say something like, “You really need to work on the script. Come back six months from now, or a year from now.”
But finally, he just said, “OK, let’s do it.”
CM: Some Indian movies are moving out of the specialty cinemas and into the megaplexes in this country. In recent years, Bollywood films like Singh Is Kinng and 3 Idiots have had long runs here in Houston at AMC theatres like the Studio 30 and First Colony.
Do you take that as a sign that Indian cinema is getting mainstream American acceptance?
SB: Not yet. Actually, I don’t think mainstream America really is watching these movies. It’s just that the number of Indians in this country has increased so much in the last 20 years, and I think they are the ones watching these movies.
I think it’s only a fraction of the mainstream American audience that’s watching these movies. But that could change. Certainly, general audiences responded to Slumdog Millionaire.
I know that’s not, strictly speaking, an Indian film. But that could be a start.
CM: You’re continuing to live here in Houston. Would you like to make a movie about Indians living in the United States?
SB: I’ve actually written a script called “Curry on an American Plate.” It’s kind of a funny comedy about Indians here, about three couples and how they get involved in each other’s lives.
But I haven’t been able to find backers for it. Yet.