The sixth annual Winter Film Awards will start on Friday, February 23rd in New York City. The volunteer-led festival will showcase 88 films from around the world competing for 16 awards. I spoke with one of its participants, filmmaker Amit Ranjan Biswas, competing in the feature film category, for this interview. Biswas, from Calcutta, has worked in a number of different art forms including dance, poetry, and theater. He is also a neuropsychiatrist, working with children, who moved to London, England. The film, Bridge, his debut feature film and a passion project, tells the story of two people, an elderly man (played by Soumitra Chatterjee, a veteran of Indian cinema who has worked in over 200 films including 14 with legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray) and a young woman (played by Sandhya Mridul), who head to the top of a bridge over the Ganges river to kill themselves. Instead, the two find new life as a bond slowly forms between them.
Walter Howard: Where did the film start? What was the first idea that led to the movie Bridge?
Amit Biswas: Okay. Well, as you probably know from my background, I worked with children with mental health difficulties. I worked with a similar kind of difficulty with people with hopelessness and helplessness every day. So, in fact, in that way, I have no shortage of stories, but I have a filmic vision that I wanted to say a few things that kind of… in a way that leads to a story, the mythology of man’s or hopeless people’s journey that starts and ends with hope. People finding meaning in their life. That was kind of my filmic vision. To do not just medical input or psychological input, but how human kindness and compassion and bonds between two people is everything and all about really. So, I was planning to make this movie for about the last seven years. This was the story I wanted to write. It kind of matches with the vision I wanted to create. I started the film in 2015. It was shot in 2015, but in 2014, started writing about it. Initial format was about the interactions between two people and how things change. That’s kind of the germination of the idea, but one thing I wanted to establish is, I’m very rooted in my culture in Bengal and in Calcutta and in India, in fact. So, the story has to be deeply rooted in my culture, but at the same time, it has to have the power to break boundaries.
WH: You brought up having a filmic vision. I saw that you’ve worked in a number of artistic mediums. How long have you been interested in exploring filmmaking, and expressing yourself through film?
AB: Sure. I had been trained since childhood, as you probably saw, as a classical dancer. After coming to the west, one of my ideas is to make bridges between the east and the west, and through dance it was possible. I kind of had collaborated with, you know, people with ballet, contemporary dance for art forms. But it has been very difficult, because another one of my professional journeys has been in medicine, and it has been very hard to continue dancing. Then I had to find another form, and another bigger canvas where I can actually put all the colors in, my psychological insight about life. My understanding of arts through dance and acting and medium. And I had been writing for a long time. Some of my plays had been quite successful in India. So, film was a bigger canvas where you can put all these things together. It’s about seven years back, I had started learning about film and filmmaking from the Raindance Independent Film School in London. Since then it’s almost a film a day for me to watch. I started making short films and documentaries based especially on mental health. But obviously, you don’t become a proper filmmaker unless you make a feature film. So, I had been making myself acquainted with art and science of filmmaking for a while, but the journey I think started while I was kind of making the bridge between science and art through putting things together about seven years back.
WH: In that time, what have you found rewarding about filmmaking?
I believe it is probably one of the most important art forms that can not only move people, that can actually change society. One of my life visions is to bring awareness to the humane kind of things: compassion, kindness, as well as bring awareness to mental health difficulties. To create change in the self and society. So, I believe cinema is an extremely powerful medium. I feel that this is the modern mythology; modern storytelling. Cinematic storytelling is recreating myths that happened millions of years ago, with people sitting around a fire, and we are doing the same things in theaters sitting around strangers with larger than life figures talking to us; transporting us somewhere beyond our reality. In this way Joseph Campbell has been quite influential in my cinematic vision. His Hero’s Journey, heroes having a call. Kind of going through a circle, going deep down in the whale’s belly of difficulties, but coming out with the elixir of life. He’s dying. He’s resurrecting. That kind of Joseph Campbellian vision has influenced many filmmakers including me. That’s why film is a very powerful medium for me to work with. To say things I want to say and to move people. Transform people. It’s a transformative medium, I believe.
WH: Many people such as myself as an American, are familiar with Indian cinema mainly through Bollywood film. I have seen the Apu trilogy, but what’s something that you see that distinguishes East Indian cinema, or what’s something that you treasure?
AB: Bollywood has its own place. It’s not that I don’t see Bollywood films. I do see, but at the same time, I feel there is a very strong passion for arthouse cinema in India. And it started quite a while ago. You know Ray and Ghatak. And I kind of keep myself in that parallel space. Bollywood recreations and the films, the larger-than song and dance movies has its place, because in India, this is recreation. People go into movie theaters and feel transported by larger than life heroes, but perhaps I have to come to a place where it is realistic. It is down to earth. Not just we need to be happy and recreated about. Some Hollywood films are like that. It has its place and value. At the same time, I want to have a cinema, want to see a cinema that tells something about life and we transport ourselves. That is cinema for me.
WH: What was your visual approach for the film? You use a lot of straight-on shots and static camera. How did you go about visually expressing your story?
AB: Yeah, one of the things that was myself and Zoran Veljkovic (DP), we started the journey talking about the film before the script even finished. We knew that this is a process of healing. The base has to be right. We want to move through the film and the place that is right for these people to create healing in themselves and create a similar feeling within the audience. We planned the shots while we were shooting the film, but it has to be with the pain, and the pace, and the vision of the film itself. The Ganges is flowing and flowing and I kind of had to hold that in a way, because that’s the flowing of the life. You might have seen that I had a, the parson’s doing a puja in the Ganges with a lighted candle. That’s what the film demanded from me. That was kind of predetermined.
WH: The recurring motif with the candle, how did that materialize?
AB: The first shot was actually impromptu. What I did in the beginning of the film, the budget was tied and the time was tied, I took half of a day creating a space. A kind of scaffolding of connection within the cast and crew where this journey can take place. We did a very big meeting, talking about not only just the film. We put a candle in between. We had a full circle there together, and we talked about why we’re here. We talked about what is cinema. We talked about spirituality. Zoran said why not start with a shot focusing on the candle. The candle in the beginning and the candle in the middle is very much of a symbolic kind of thing. A symbolic archetypal presence I would say.
WH: Did you write with your actors in mind? You worked with Soumitra Chatterjee in theater.
AB: Yes. Absolutely. He is definitely the one I wanted to do my first film with. We collaborated on various levels. We connect very deeply. He’s kind of been my mentor. The inspiration for my film. I knew what I wanted to create. I saw him throughout my film. Not all of them were in my mind, but Mr. Chatterjee was.
WH: When we finally see Tanima break out of her shell, she covers herself in mud and then wades in the water. Where did this idea come from?
AB: Yes. We toyed with three possible endings. We thought about ending with the kid, because she lost a kid. Then I thought it has to be something more iconic. We toyed with this idea and everybody liked this. I had to go to this point where almost these two people died, and there really almost kind of first dead, but death is not the end. As I said, the Joseph Campbellian journey. There is a resurrection. And resurrection is a very important thing to me. I think for Jesus Christ’s life, his resurrection is more important than his death and crucifixion. So, he has to be resurrected. And the mud of life has to be washed away. And that’s hope. I wanted to have an archetypal scene in the end. There is the image of goddess Khali that comes a number of times, and Khali that represents darkness, that dark energy, but it represents both destruction and creation. Right hand has a sword, and left hand is kind of a blessing. I like this goddess and this darkness is not the end, and when the mud washes off we regain hope and blessings and fulfillment in life.
WH: The sun in the distance hanging over the Bridge is a striking image. Did you write the script with that image in mind or did it come afterwards?
AB: Yes, and that is important. The bridge was in my mind. The house this was shot in is my wife’s ancestral house. This is basically my in-laws’ house. I’ve kind of been there, walked around a number of times to conceptualize the rooms before even I started writing, partly because of the money and the budget. We had to use one location. This house is very near to the Ganges. It’s about 5 minutes. The bridge is a very iconic bridge, before Indian independence. It’s been there since British times. So, the bridge and the house were there from the beginning.
WH: You’ve said on your website that Bridge was made on a shoe string budget. Yet you’ve made a feature length film, canvasing past and present. What was that process like?
AB: The last seven years, I have been looking for money everywhere really. Both the East and the West. Independent cinema has a very limited kind of, people don’t want to finance and produce this kind of cinema. So, it has been a very difficult journey. In India, I couldn’t find money. In the west, it was difficult. So, end of the day, I tell myself, I have an inner calling. I have to make this, and I can’t just go into a deathbed saying what if. I had to break my pension fund. I had to self-finance. It was my retirement money, that I put in. But it was still not enough. I had to work and put money in. Bridge has come in stages. After the shooting had been done, for 28 days I had to wait until I got the money for editing. Post production like DI which was done in India. A lot of people came up and helped. I have been quite blessed.
You can find more information on Biswas’ website http://bridgethefilm.com/