National Award-winning filmmakers Sarmistha Maiti & Rajdeep Paul on their next film, Mon Potongo

The film set for an early 2024 release, recently received Golden Royal Bengal Tiger Award for the Best Film in the Bengali Panorama Competition section of KIFF
Rajdeep Paul and Sarmistha Maiti
Rajdeep Paul and Sarmistha Maiti

The journey of filmmakers Rajdeep Paul and Sarmistha Maiti has been a tough one. But had it not been tough, it wouldn’t have been an adventure, they believe. It took them almost 10 years to get their first feature film, Kalkokkho, made, which received National Award for best Bengali feature film this year, bringing the spotlight firmly on the director due. But that hasn’t stopped the uncertainty that they face on a daily basis when it comes to filmmaking.

“The only thing we have learnt in all these years is that you have to be resilient. Even if you fall down a hundred times, you have to learn to get up with a smile and not be to bitter about it,” tell Rajdeep and Sarmistha, who are gearing up for the release of their second feature, Mon Potongo (Mind Flies) in early 2024. We speak with them about the same and more.

Receiving a National Award for your debut feature must be resounding. How did you feel?

Sarmistha: It was quite surreal like the film itself. I have been saying this for quite some time now that Kalkokkho happened with its own destiny and has decided its own journey in a similar way. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not affected the entire human race, Kalkokkho wouldn't have been made and hence no such rewards would have come our way.

<em>Rajdeep Paul and Sarmistha Maiti</em>
Rajdeep Paul and Sarmistha Maiti

You already won National Award for your shorts. Was the shift from shorts to full length features and easy transition?

Rajdeep: If you mean how the transition was as a creator, I would say it was challenging as well as enriching. As an ardent student of epics and novels, I am quite natural in writing or conceiving things on a bigger and wider scale. So, I would say making short films, constraining an idea within a smaller time, was a more challenging job for me. Writing feature films come more naturally. Making Kalkokkho was relatively easier because the film was on a small scale, the cast and crew were minimal and everything was in a controlled environment. When it came to Mon Potongo, our second film, execution was rather tough as it was on a much bigger scale and we faced every hurdle conceivable from harsh weather to financial issues to production issues to health issues but we managed to pull it off and that’s what counts.

Sarmistha: As film school graduates, we had thought we would crack it right after stepping out of the film school. But it didn't happen that way. We did many things related to cinema in different domains of fiction and non-fiction which brought us accolades too. In this process, our paths crossed with Anjan Bose (of Aurora Film Corporation) who gave us short films and documentaries as trial matches and when we accomplished those with distinction, we were given our first feature film, Kalkokkho. This journey from film school till Kalkokkho is no less than a decade and the struggle still continues.

<em>A still from Mon Potongo</em>
A still from Mon Potongo

Early 2024 will see the release of your second feature, Mon Potongo that already got awarded at Kolkata International Film Festival…

Sarmistha: The audience reaction has been overwhelming at KIFF to say the least and this is making us very hopeful about the film. The “Golden Royal Bengal Tiger Award” for the Best Film in the Bengali Panorama Competition is really another overwhelming thing that happened to us this year almost as consecutive events after the National Award. Every reward brings in more responsibilities. And as creators, we owe that responsibility even more. 

How did the idea of the film develop, what inspired it?

Rajdeep:  Sarmistha wanted to make a romantic film while I was not interested in ordinary mushy romance -- it had to be dark enough for contemporary times. Anjan Bose wanted us to make a film on the pavement dwellers. We were also fascinated by a grand arm-chair that adorned a furniture showroom adjacent to office. So, all of this along with our experiences of working on themes of gender and sexuality, and our documentary film experience of working with street people, culminated in Mon Potongo (Mind Flies) – a story of unflinching desire, maddening love and silent revolution. For us, it is a fairy tale weaved with threads of social realism.  

<em>A still from Mon Potongo</em>
A still from Mon Potongo

How did you mount the movie?

Sarmistha: Mon Potongo is a film which shifts from genre to genre – starting as social realist slice of life film moving into film noir, the erotic, human drama, surreal, macabre and political. So, in setting the milieu, the tone, the performances – there had to be both contrast and unison, which was difficult to achieve. We were also very particular to not portray our protagonists who happen to be from the lower strata of the society from a Western gaze which sees them as nothing beyond impoverished victims. We wanted to portray the as just human beings with aspirations and depressions and courage who celebrate life more vigorously perhaps than we do. And we believe we have been able to create something which is both intellectually and emotionally moving. At least that’s what feels like from the initial audience reaction at KIFF.

How did you decide upon the cast of the film?

Rajdeep:   As the main protagonists of the film were street dwellers, we were sure we could not cast big names in those roles. For the leading pair of Hasan and Lokkhi we chose two newcomers -- Subhankar Mohanta and Baisakhi Roy. Only for two characters of Jyotsna/ Jochhna and Amitava we cast bigger names like Seema Biswas and Joy Sengupta, as these roles have an aura about them.

How was the experience of working with Seema Biswas?

Sarmistha: When we were conceiving the character of Jochhna, we had Seema Biswas as a reference but we did not imagine at that time that we would cast her. We were amazed by her simplicity and humility despite her status as one of the finest actors in the country. She is like a child who submits whole heartedly to the director’s vision.

<em>A still from Mon Potongo</em>
A still from Mon Potongo

How was it working with Joy?

Rajdeep:   We’re fans of Joy ever since we had seen Patal Ghar. Even today we feel he is one of the most under-utilized actors. When we were narrating the script to him, he grasped nuanced concepts and layers so naturally that we hit off immediately. He gives almost perfect takes every time and yet gives you different options. He is a thinking actor and yet exceptionally instinctive who can improvise even after a thorough preparation.

Even after accolades and awards how difficult is it to find finance for projects?

Sarmistha:  Very difficult! Because cinema is associated with recovering the finance. And awards and accolades do not translate into profits. So, finding finance is always a tough task.

Are you planning to explore the OTT platforms?

Rajdeep: Yes, we are. We have several concepts ready, both films and series, and approaching producers and channels.

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