If all goes according to script, Raincoat will consummate Rituparno's attempt to be the crossover man—a journey he initiated with his 2003 Aishwarya-starrer Chokher Bali. The one-time ad filmmaker had started his career in features with small-budget—if critically appreciated, widely discussed and massively popular—Bengali films. It was in a long time that blood had actually stirred in the arteries of an anaemic Tollygunge. For years, this decay-struck hub of Bengali film studios had been living on a string of tacky Bangladeshi co-productions—on the dismal Beder Mey Jyotsana (Snake-charmer's Daughter) prototype. Rituparno's arrival in such a scenario brought back a whiff of the old times. With a new-age yen for 'cultural rootedness' in terms of sets, costumes, gestures and dialogues—and intimate, psychologised storylines—he produced a sort of 'chamber' cinema that sat well with the soap-operatic imagination. The young auteur with a foppish flourish to his attire had the kultur-starved Bengali asking for more.
Chokher Bali, based on an eponymous Tagore novel, gave him exposure to a national audience with its star cast. The next step was logical. It had to be a big-budget mainstream break. So, Raincoat—with Devgan and, again, Aishwarya.
The shoot begins at 1 pm, in the dark, cool Technicians Studio in south Calcutta. The setting: a drawing room in a sprawling single-storey structure that has seen better days. It has been a hectic morning for the director, actors and the crew. They've been working non-stop since 10 am, oblivious to the hordes of onlookers outside, hoping for a glimpse of Devgan and Aishwarya.
The cavernous set is incredibly cluttered. Equipment, set elements and props are strewn everywhere. Most of it appears to be plain junk, some of it actually is. But among all that there are expensive constant-intensity hmi arclights and cameras.
Someone shouts instructions to the crew: "Lower the height on that light, Indra-da, I don't get the angle.... Hurry up with the chair, Bablu!" Men with names like Mahadeb and Madan scurry about like ants; people sip tea out of small plastic cups and wolf down snacks hurriedly in corners. And yes, there's someone carrying away a raincoat, clearly an important prop in this film.
It's a drawing-room shot; there are three old almirahs, two fitted with mirrors, a round marble-top table where a moment ago Devgan was sitting, in shirt and trousers, reading his lines, a large clock whose hands have stopped at 10.35 and some antique furniture. It looks like the home of a once-wealthy family; there is an aura of decline. The wrought-iron railings are rusting slightly, the lawn is going to seed, creepers climb the walls. Amid all this, the man in bush shirt and slacks, quietly conferring with associates, looks very much the master of all he surveys.
Rituparno suddenly tells the press to clear off and bolts the door. They've been given a few shots of the set and they've asked Devgan about his work ("It is nice to be here again, I like shooting here. Last time I had worked with Mani Ratnam; now I'm lucky to be working with Ghosh in his first Hindi film.").
"I have written the entire script, in Bengali," Rituparno tells Outlook. "Then I invited four friends to translate it into Hindi. The idea has been taken from a foreign story. It's an urban story in an urban setting.Which is why most of the shooting can take place in Calcutta; after all, urban demography is similar all over." Producer Srikanta Mohta (who also did Chokher Bali) is scarcely more forthcoming with the details on Raincoat.
Outlook did learn, though, that the story involves a romance between two people who encounter each other years after they last met. The man is an entrepreneur now, the woman is married and in service. The second time they get to know each other better and rediscover themselves against the passage of time.
Is he doing anything different because he's now working for a Hindi audience? "I really haven't thought about it. But yes, audiences do differ. One reason I want to do a Hindi film is I want to try out something new. And why not? After all, artists are constantly enlarging their repertoire, outstation actors are trying their hand in Bengali films. My Hindi is not worse than their kind of Bengali. Let us see how it works out."
Then comes a rush of rationalisations: "Take it from another angle. When I made Chokher Bali, I could see that many people could not or did not see it because of the language. Hindi means a wider audience. But yes, I will make Raincoat my kind of film." And "No, I don't always choose high-profile actors. I don't think of profiles. Everybody has seen what Ash is capable of in Chokher Bali, and Ajay is a very versatile actor, with his understated style."
Mohta ventures forth with his own bit of understated pride. "This is the first major Hindi film being shot and produced entirely in Calcutta after many years and it's lucky for us that Rituparno is directing it," he says. "There was a time when Calcutta was the birthplace of Indian cinema. The shooting will end in March, almost all of it indoors. The release is scheduled in June. Except for six people, most of the crew is local."
With Rituparno, arduous preparation precedes every venture and this should be no exception. If he manages to bring to Raincoat his core strength—sensitive, mature portrayal of strong and complex female characters—the results should be rewarding not just for the audience, but for his stars as well. After all, Indrani Halder, Rituparna Sengupta and Kiron Kher have all picked up national awards for performances in Rituparno films (Dahan, Bariwali). In a few months we shall see how the reigning queen of Bollywood fares.
Rituparno is certainly not the first big-name Bengali director to make a serious foray into Hindi cinema. Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome (1969) preceded Ray's Shatranj... by eight years and he came out with a string of films besides. Gautam Ghose's Paar (1983) was another arthouse entry. Can Rituparno match them? Since '91, he has only made 10 films, including national award winners like Unishe April (best film) and Utsav (best director). This insistence on quality over quantity certainly raises the bar of expectation from audiences. But it also suggests that Rituparno's Raincoat is in with a realistic chance of success.