Italian director Italo Spinelli speaks with Utpal Borpujari on how he chose Mahasweta Devi’s story “Choli Ke Peeche” for his debut feature Gangor.
[W]riter-activist Mahasweta Devi’s story “Choli Ke Peeche/Behind the Bodice” is a stinging indictment of exploitation of tribals as well as the media’s insensitive, if not sensational, handling of delicate issues. It is this story that Italian director Italo Spinelli has chosen to make his debut feature film with. Spinelli, who has earlier directed several documentaries and has been a long-time India lover, shot the film on location in West Bengal’s Purulia area, of late in news for Maoist activities, with a cast that includes Love,Sex Aur Dhoka fame Priyanka Bose, Adil Hussain and NRI actor Samrat Chakraborty. After having its world premiere at the Rome Film Festival and a screening at the 41st International Film Festival of India, Spinelli is hoping to soon get the film released in India. The director who also organises the Asiatica Film Mediale Incontri Con Il Cinema Asiatico, a festival of Asian films in Rome, speaks with Utpal Borpujari on how he chose the sensitive story for his debut feature Gangor…
When and where did you first learn about this story by Mahasweta Devi?
I have known and admired Mahasweta Devi’s work. In 2000, a friend of mine presented me with a copy of a book called “Breast Stories” in which I read this particular story. I met Mahasweta Devi in Rome where I had invited her to attend my festival, Asiatica, in 2004. It was there that we first talked about the possibility of making this film.
What was the ‘something special’ in this story that you chose it to make your directorial debut with?
It was the strength and power of her writing, which seemed to me very cinematic. I was also intrigued by the fact that the main character was a photographer coming from the urban middle class, who discovers the conditions of the tribal communities, and also by the cultural and linguistic gap between the two main characters, Upin (played by Hussain) and Gangor (Bose). The destruction of beauty is another theme that I was fascinated by – the destructive relationship between global development and nature, agriculture, culture, diversity and well being of humanity.
You have been, as a film critic and festival organizer, aware about Indian cinema. But was it an easy decision as an ‘outsider’ to make a film with a complex subject set in India?
It is something that I wanted to do for a long time. I do not know why but from the very first time I came to India I felt that I belong here. And I thought that on that specific theme there was a space to be filled.
Did you consult anyone to get the tone of the setting right in the film or did you go by your own instincts and research while developing the script? How much was Mahashweta Devi involved with the film?
I did not consult anyone. I set the tone on the basis of my 25-years-long knowledge of India. I met Mahashweta Devi before the shooting and one more time in Kolkata when I was filming. She gave me some explanations and suggestions. But she was not actively involved in the script, where I added some scenes, such as the final one or the new character of Medha (Seema Rahmani), Upin’s wife.
Purulia, where the story is set, is also an area where there is Maoist presence. Did you feel tempted to incorporate the Maoist angle in the story, particularly since it deals with exploitation of the poor and the marginalised?
I followed the story and was not tempted to deal with the presence of the Naxalites in the area. My focus was on the resistance of the marginalised tribal communities to exploitation and abuse.
How would you describe your film – as a very personal story about a woman exploited or as a story of the larger issue of exploitation of the poor and the marginalized?
Definitely as a larger issue of exploitation together with the relationship between attraction and destruction, and how the initial good individual intentions are overcome by a larger context and result in destruction, becoming part of the oppressive system, through the manipulation of the media.
As a filmmaker, how important do you feel is the need to take up subjects like this, set in another world?
Films are very personal, just like books. The other worlds could be a few meters away from where you live. And you can recognize something that belongs to you thousands of miles away from your home. Having said that, I have a great admiration of films such as “The Battle of Algiers” of Gillo Pontecorvo and Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” or “China” by Michelangelo Antonioni.
What kind of marketing possibilities do you see for this film?
In Italy it will be distributed starting from March 8, the International Women’s Day. I really hope to find a distributor in India too.
The film has a raw feeling in its treatment, with certain scenes almost having a documentary-like vibe. Was it a deliberate decision to keep it that way?
Yes, clearly my past experience in documentary making must have had an influence, but there was mainly a decision to film it the way I did, considering the subject matter.
The film’s emotional level is quite subdued given the strong subject, especially in the climax. Was it done keeping the European market in mind, particularly since you yourself come from the continent?
No, there were no market considerations at all. I simply do not like over stating or over acting.
What was your experience of shooting a film in India, more so in an area, which has not seen development and is disturbed to some extent? What was the experience of working with an Indian co-producer?
I was fortunate to have excellent collaborators and the fact that this was a story of Mahasweta Devi opened all doors for us.
As someone who has been following Indian cinema, which are the Indian filmmakers whose work interest you?
It is a long list, but as far as the past goes Ritwik Ghatak or John Abraham, and of course Satyajit Ray, while from the present I like Girish Kasaravalli. I also like the works of Goutam Ghose, Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra and for completely different reasons Ram Gopal Varma.