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Grounded in feminism

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Dr Sangeeta Datta speaks to Ronita Torcato about women’s voices, films and her new documentary on Rituparno Ghosh

Dr Sangeeta Datta is a writer, teacher, musician and filmmaker working between the UK and India. She has also authored a book on Shyam Benegal and co-edited with Kaustav Bakshi and Rohit K. Dasgupta, a book on the renowned Bengali film-maker Rituparno Ghosh, the subject of her new documentary,  Bird Of Dusk, which was screened at the 20th MAMI Film Festival in Mumbai, the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, Bay Area South Asian Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, the British Film Institute and the Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival.

Datta's filmography includes a documentary on Indian women directors titled The Way I See It, which premiered at Creteil Film Festival (France) and travelled widely in the festival circuit, an award-winning  debut feature, Life Goes On starring Om Puri, Sharmila Tagore and her daughter Soha Ali Khan and a short film on Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble) for the Nivedita Museum. She also runs  Stormglass Productions which is "dedicated to making meaningful cinema and theatre"  and Baithak UK, a non-profit arts company, which promotes new work in the performing arts, literature and film. This year, Baithak presented a highly acclaimed panel on Indian Cinema at BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) featuring Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi and Farhan Akhtar. 

Trained  in (and inspired by Rabindra Sangeet aka Tagore Songs), Datta co-produced a stage production of Gitanjali 100 (to mark Tagore's 1913 Nobel Literature Prize centenary) The Wife's Letter, a dance and film project which was commissioned by Dance UK  in 2008 and a short film ‘Letter from an Ordinary Girl’ (Sadharan Meye). 

Rabindranath Tagore composed more than 2,000 songs which have been an integral part of Bengali culture for over a century. Even Swami Vivekananda composed music in the Rabindra Sangeet style. Ramananda Chatterjee's monnthly journal, The Modern Review, observed: "There is in Bengal no cultured home where Rabindranath's songs are not sung or at least attempted to be sung ... Even illiterate villagers sing his songs." And Roman Catholics too, in churches across India!

Datta performs Rabindra Sangeet regularly and recently sang at the Independence Gala at Royal Festival Hall, London, Tagore’s Travelling Trunk at Cadogan Hall and the very popular concert series ANANT, in collaboration with Javed Akhtar and Soumik Datta.

A Ph D in English Literature, Sangeeta has many years of teaching experience behind her, both in India and in London. She  curates film seasons at British Film Institute and is a cultural commentator on radio and TV. 

Datta is currently working on Anant: Endless, an album of Tagore translations with the outspoken and fiercely independent Urdu poet and Bollywood screenwriter  Javed Akhtar.

Rituparno Ghosh impressed with his realistic depictions of interpersonal relationship and middle class angst. His films addressed subjects like homosexuality and gender identity. Datta had a long association with Ghosh and worked with him as an associate director in Chokher Bali, Raincoat, Antarmahal, The Last Lear and Jibansmriti.

Her 90-minute film, made five years after his untimely death, celebrates the creative friendship and collaboration she enjoyed with the LGBT icon who was also an award-winning director, actor, and writer who had made 20 films in as many years, bagged a dozen National Film Awards and enjoyed critical acclaim at  international film festivals.

On feminism and women's issues.

I am grounded in feminism in both my political thinking and academic work. Women’s narratives and voices interest me and I engage instinctively with women’s issues. My first documentary The Way I See It is about the female gaze and women filmmakers in India. My short films The Wife’s Letter and Ordinary Girl are based on famous protofeminist texts by Tagore. My feature Life Goes On is women-centric with three female protagonists addressing identity issues within a family drama.

On the raison d'etre for selecting Rituparno Ghosh as the subject of her new film.

The subject of gendered identity has come up in my work many times (notably) in my award- winning feature and the musical, The Dying Song about a transgender thumri singer. With the documentary on Rituparno, it was a personal nod to my friend and collaborator, an exploration of his hugely impressive filmography, a discovery of an artist’s intimate relation to his city and tribute to a person who argued boldly against gender categories and inspired the next generation. He was an exceptional thinker who left a huge legacy. This needed a summing up.

On the film-making process

It was a challenge making a film about a person who was not there anymore. Ritu was a supremely gifted writer. I turned to his personal memoirs (columns in the Sunday weekly he edited) called First Person when I wrote the script. Then many people spoke generously giving  time—his cast and core crew members. We shot over a year and changing seasons in Kolkata.

On future projects

I am looking at an autobiographical work by a pioneering female personality.  It's too early to talk further about this. But recently I creative-produced a series Tuning2You on folk musicians and dying traditions which was telecast on Channel 4 in the UK and BBC in South Asia. Through my arts company Baithak we are now running a series of master classes with practioners. Recently, a talk with the director Nandita Das and London School of Economics students about the Indo-Pak writer Saadat Hasan Manto and freedom of speech was hugely popular and inspiring.

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