Planet Bollywood Correspondent Supriya Davda speaks with London-based writer-director Sangeeta Datta who manages to fly back and forth from London to India. Currently promoting her debut film "Life Goes On" staring Sharmila Tagore, Om Puri, Girish Karnad, Soha Ali Khan and UK bred actor Rez Kemptom. The film is a slice of life, an English language family drama, where the film centres on the experiences of the Indian diaspora in Britain. The talented director managed to bring the real life mother-daughter chemistry alive between Sharmila Tagore and Soha Ali Khan. This is the first time the two will be seen playing mother-daughter on the silver screen.
Not really. Its based on many stories I found in the diaspora community in London. Many stories people shared with me. I also workshopped with younger people for parts of my script and stories brimmed over.
Why did you give it this title?
Life Goes On is inspired by a popular song sung by various pop artists- " Life goes on and this whole world will keep on turning..." Actually its a philosophical view - life has its turns and twists, loss and conflicts, but tomorrow is always another day.
What made you decide to make the film in English?
The story is about an Indian family in London, where the second generation naturally speak in English, the language of the public world is English. Making this in Hindi would turn it into a Bollywood film which it isn't really.
What motivated you to write the story? Are there any elements of fact in the movie? Or is a fiction?
I was trying to do a freewheeling adaptation of King Lear in modern times- in a Brit-Asian context. The story of the father and his three daughters and the final questioning of identity - intrigued me. I was also disturbed about increasing Islamophobia in the West after 9/11 and 7/7 - and perceived it even in a multicultural city like London. Often there are historical reasons, past trauma- which colour our present perceptions of a people or community. So I used that in the Father who holds strong prejudice but is ultimately able to see reason.
How would you describe yourself as a director? Do you follow a particular method?
As a director I believe in the integrity of the script. The more perfect your script is the better your work will be. I believe in theatre methods- workshopping, rehearsing brings an organic quality to the script. I believe in prep and in allowing space to my actors.
Could you tell us a little about your choice of actors? How did you confirm them?
When I wrote Manju's character, I had Sharmila Tagore in mind. I have grown up on her films and my first exposure to Hindi films as a child was through films like Amar Prem and Aradhana. I have also seen her wonderful work in Satyajit Ray's films. I showed her my first draft and she liked the story and was on board from the start. Soha I had worked with before and I liked her discipline and dedication. I had always wanted to work with her again. And here was a perfect opportunity to cast mother and daughter. They believed in the script. Om Puri is an old friend and I had him in mind when I wrote the character of Alok, based on Shakespeare's fool. But he also provides a twist in the tale. I waited for almost four moths to get his dates.
You have worked with Soha Ali Khan twice now, once as associate director in 2005 for Antar Mahal and now for Life Goes On, how has the experience been?
Soha is a very intelligent actor. I discussed the character of Dia with her. Left her with little notes, on how she talks, what she wears, Soha had all her prep done when she came on set. She is also more relaxed and funny and very sociable with the unit. Everyone loved her. Although she was terrified about acting with her Mother, whois an icon and a hard task master, I think Soha gave her career- best performance. She is clearly poised for more international work.
You have worked closely with Ritupurno Ghosh, what were his thoughts when you decided to direct your own film?
Rituparno knew about my plans to make a feature and had very generously asked me to work with him to get more familiar with the Bengal industry, His strengths are his writing and his process of working with actors. He also has a great visual sense and of art direction. He knew I was working on this script but didn't really get time to comment on the script or anything- he is always working back to back on his own projects.
Having seen the film you have very much includd the Hindu-Muslim conflict into your story. What provoked this idea?
As I said, I was enquiring into the growing Islamophobia in London and found that for many Indians, who were victims of partition, this was an old wound which had never healed, this sense of betrayal and loss. My family history is similar- my Grandfather left everything back in Easyt Bengal and moved to Calcutta with his family. Although there was never any prejudice there. Sometimes conflict with the younger generation forces introspection and Sanjay banerjee does that, he faces his past demons and then is able to share the future with his daughters with hope., So it is a forward looking story.
As an Indian living in the UK do you feel you identify with the clash of values and lifestyles between two generations of an Indian family as you have depicted in the film?
When I came to live In London ten years ago- I had a birds eye perspective about the Indian diaspora there. But gradually you settle in, your children grow up in that world, and the complexity behind that surface gloss, begins to intrigue you. These stories are very true- as are the cases of honour killings in todays England- its almost incredible but it is actually such a paradoxical world. In fact there were at least three young girls whoworked on the film who had similar stories to share as Dia's. They wanted to be part of the project because they believed in the reality of the script.
As a director which films and directors have inspired you to direct?
I think exposure to world cinema from very young days was very valuable, my Father took me to film society screenings when Iwas very young. As a Bengali I grew up on Satyajit Ray;s films. Later the wonderful middle cinema in Bombay- the stories and treatment of directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, Babsu Bhattacharya- yes I have always believed that cinema is a social document and it is about a story told well. The gloss and veneer of Bollywood entertainers don't impress me- although the great classics do. I also find a lot of hope in new work like Anusha Rizvi, Kiran Rao, Dibakar Banerjee and films like Udaan, Dev D. I absoltely believe in the work of realist filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.
Any plans for your next venture?
I have a script ready which I wrote at the famous Binger Film Institute in Amsterdam. Its about a woman musician who lives in Europe and then makes her journey back to India. More ambitious and expensive than this film. I am writing a stage piece on Tagore's Gitanjali now and am very inclined to work on a script on Tagore- Provided we get the actors I want to cast in the film! I have my own production company now in London and Calcutta. And I want to keep this nexus alive.
Who do you have a desire to work with next?
Oh the amazing stage actors of England, Judy Dench, Maggi Smith, Vanessa Redgrave. In India I would love to work with Vidya Balan and -- Irrfan Khan. They are just so good!
"Life Goes On" is currently showing in cinemas across the UK. Releases in India on 25th March.
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