Anirban Guha is a critically acclaimed film maker, his wife Sinjini Sengupta is also a best selling author and screenwriter. Here is my conversation with Mr. Anirban Guha and Mrs. Sinjini Sengupta.
Q. (To both) How was your journey to “Elixir”? Your lives must have changed so much in the last two years after participating in the 69th Cannes Film Festival and many other international festivals? Do you have any reflections on fame?
Anirban: Frankly, it’s been simply unbelievable. To give you some background, around the time that it happened we were going through a personal crisis for almost 3-4 years. Sinjini was on the verge of quadri-paralysis. She had to quit her actuarial career from very high position of a Multinational Consulting firm. She was suffering from Major Depressive Disorder. With a 3 years old daughter we were trying hard to figure out the what-next. Elixir happened almost at this juncture of our life. I was awestruck after reading the story of Elixir. I felt this story needed to reach to larger audience. Many people will be able resonate with it. Then after a year I decided to make a film from this concept. I thought of making a short film given the time and money constraints. To fund this film many of my friends and relatives had pitched in. I had to dissolve some of my fixed deposits as well. Many of my friends helped me during production of this film. Cannes selection was like a dream come true. Thanks to Cannes, the film reached a variety of audience across the globe – US, UK, Lithuania, Egypt, Poland to name a few. I am not sure whether it’s because of selection at Cannes or any other international festival, not sure whether it is to do with any fame or success, but for sure with Elixir we’ve been able to bounce back in life.
Sinjini: I agree with Anirban. It won’t be an exaggeration at all to say that Elixir gave us a new ground beneath our feet that we didn’t think possible. Not just on the personal front but also on the creative side of our lives, both for Anirban as a filmmaker and for me in my trysts with the pen, our journey of Elixir so far has been exhilarating. In fact it is also humbling to see how something that you create at the tiny corner of your own room can go out to the world and do this for you!
On the outside, Elixir did involve some lime light and a semi-stardom kind of a status funnily – – the television screen-times, press conferences, newspaper headlines, going on air, media interviews. But of course these are fleeting moments, short-lived; they’ll go with time. However what impacted me more is what Elixir entailed on the inside of me. As its writer, I have had to work from within and reach inside myself in a way of deep introspection, to be able to write its story. It has been a learning experience, first, because first the story presented itself to me and then, once it hooked me up, it demanded from me a certain service that I didn’t even know I am capable of! I signed its book contract when I didn’t even know I was even capable of writing a 75000 words long novel, and a literary fiction in that! The story held in itself a treasure hunt, and it was capable of reaching in and digging deeply into the human psyche. I had to learn more, reflect more, understand better – “self-hunting” as I have come to call it now – and then I had to be able to capture and process all of it together into a prolonged creative expression.
Elixir has been an inward journey as much as it has been outward – it happened, it is happening still, and it feels like a giant-feel ride, stomach knots and all.
Q. (To both) Do you want to be more involved together in any other film project? Where next for you?
Anirban: Currently there is no plan as such, but in the future – yes, definitely. Sinjini is a very powerful writer. Many of her writings both fiction, non-fiction, poetry has already been published and awarded both nationally and internationally. Her writing is very pure and very honest in nature. She writes on very different topics and in different forms. In particular I did love one story by Sinjini, which I believe has good potential of a film. But, that’s for a feature length production so it has to wait.
Of course it’d be a great privilege to be able to adapt stories into the silver screen and more so with someone whose artistic sensibility I trust and respect so much. It is a great learning experience to see Anirban through the process of filmmaking, as an idea slowly forms shapes and forms, assumes colours, finds its wings and then becomes a complete creative expression in itself. The crafts differ as well as overlap, and I personally takeaway a lot from this duality. And in a way it also makes you feel how art forms are just alternative vessels to hold artistic ideas.
However back in our own work-desks, I cannot write keeping that in mind, and he cannot design projects keeping me in mind. How things turn out have a mind of their own. So if it falls in place organically, it will, and else it won’t. No pressure!
Q. Anirban, How you have become a filmmaker from a busy bank employee? What motivated you to make a film on this story?
Anirban: I’m a filmmaker by chance, really. I used to do theater. I have staged my production in Kolkata, Bangalore and in Delhi over the years between 2002 and 2009, which is all the cities I’ve lived in so far. It was becoming more and more difficult to carry on with my theater group as people were getting busy in their personal and professional life. At one point I realised that I wasn’t been doing anything significant for almost 4 years in between. Then I thought of trying to make films. Made a film “Boomerang” pooling in some of my friends. Around this time, I also attended a filmmaking workshop in Gurgaon by renowned short and documentary filmmaker Mr Parvez Imam. Then I decided to make “Elixir” as a serious venture with professionals.
My schedule as a banker usually occupies around 12-13 hours on weekdays. When I work on my films, I usually work in the night after 11pm or over weekends. I have a great team in Kolkata, who help me immensely for my films.
Q. Anirban, What is the one mistake most filmmakers make, regardless of experience?
Anirban: It is difficult to answer for other filmmakers. For me, frankly after each of my work I could find there are so many things that could’ve been done better. Maybe, this is something that’ll always be. But one thing I can say, sometimes in my mind production feasibility/ design take charge over the story or content of the film. What’s possible and what not ‘given the constraints’ plays a very crucial role while working on the script. I had to introduce a character and change the entire narrative style for Elixir because it was short film. If someday I get an opportunity to make feature film out of this concept, I’ll tell the story of Elixir in completely different way.
Q. Anirban, How you first met her. How your marriage happened?
Anirban: We were friends since our college days. After 7 years we decided to tie the knot.
Q. Anirban, Did you know about her writing pursuit when you were first met?
Anirban: Not at all. Sinjini spent several years of her working life as an Actuary before she took a career break in 2015 and began writing. Frankly, I had no idea she could write.
Q. Sinjini, How would you introduce “Elixir” to your readers, why this name and what do you hope they will find within it?
Sinjini: That’s an interesting question! Elixir, well, is that celestial nectar that the Gods and Demons fought over in mythology. Elixir is the magic potion that can fix your life and give you immortality.
The story of Elixir is based within the known periphery of our everyday lives. A woman just like any of us, one day on her way back home from work, enters a coffee shop and asks for coffee, and water. The water she is served, however, is not water; it is elixir! That night as she falls asleep, she is back in the shop. Thus begins a life in her dream, which resumes every night in her sleep thereafter. So now she lives two lives every day, and slowly the distinction between the two of them blurs. This dual journey takes her onward into an enlightened, transcendental existence.
The story of Elixir is essentially a journey of the soul. It is not Indian, it is not Woman. It is unbound. It goes through its own share of vulnerabilities, self-doubts and emotional mazes, and then it redeems itself into a higher, bigger, more meaningful existential plane. Elixir raises a few pertinent questions about the judgments we form in our heads, our perspectives that is bred by the society and the world at large. And then it wades its way through them into a higher order of truth. So while it is a reflection on the world around us, Elixir essentially is a journey through yourself as well.
Q. Sinjini, How much research has gone into Elixir while creating the story? How did the story start to form in your imagination?
Sinjini: First, it’d be audacious of me to say that Elixir is fully borne out of me and thus I hold its control and its destiny; and I’ll tell you why. It was a one day that day, almost midnight by the clock, and at the end of my work hours I was waiting in my company cab waiting to be driven back home. This germ of an idea that later went on to become a story, a film and now a book, really presented itself to me at that oddest of hours and just as suddenly. Unprepared as I was, I could have let it pass. I’d have, on any other occasion, I guess. That day, I do not know why it so happened, but the idea compelled me to take out my phone and write it out into a story. I was typing into my office Blackberry furiously and by the time I reached home, the story went up on my newborn blog-site. That is how it happened, really!
Contrary to that however, writing the novel Elixir took all of myself. Talking of research, I actively studied some few bits of many things. I took some courses in Psychology online, did a couple of workshops on Craft of Writing, read a few books which helped me immensely in forming some understanding of the human mind. While on it, I also happened to have gone for meditation retreats which made me adopt complete silence for ten days at a stretch, and much of the introspection and deep dives come from that time. I spent conscious times out in nature to be able to absorb and then express my ideas. It was both academic and introspective, the whole process, and I enjoyed every single bit of it. As I often say – I wrote it with all my heart and then, all my head.
Q. Sinjini, You have turned your screenplay to your debut fiction. What’s your writing process like? Does your fiction writing process differ from your screenwriting process?
Sinjini: I haven’t exactly turned the screenplay into a novel. In fact now that you ask, to think of it, I didn’t even for once open the screenplay document or even watch the movie in any conscious way during the process of my writing the book. I really did begin from a blank page. I’d also like to credit this to my publisher in a way. Since he signed me on the spot after one of the screenings of Elixir, I can imagine he’d clearly be impressed with the movie and therefore would expect me to re-produce it in a way in form of the book; but no! He told me over and over again – forget the movie, write your book. He didn’t even want to check the progress or the changes until I was ready to show it to him, and even then he encouraged me to exercise my own free-will and discretion with what I want to do with the book. Frankly this being my first book, I could have been influenced (read restricted) by the movie adaptation in case the publisher pressed on it, and it’d also have possibly been an easy route for him given that the movie was already successful and therefore the book couldn’t have gone wrong. Only, he didn’t. At all. The process of writing the novel was therefore cent percent organic and in a way, I must say this now, better than what I’d have been if I followed the footsteps of the movie alone.
In one word, my writing process is ‘chaotic’. In a good way you can say it is instinctive and inspired, and to talk of its negatives, it is extremely erratic and whimsical too. I write in several forms – soft, romantic poetry to angry social columns to abstract short stories to critical movie reviews to now, a literary fiction. With my pen, I either flow or I stand still; there is no middle path, no taking measured steps. I cannot predict myself in this space of written words. In fact why just written words, even your reading time or for that matter your standing in the balcony watching the rain – in my opinion – count as creative blocks in the whole business of writing. In fact I believe far more in many other things than word counts, when it comes to talking about writing process, and I don’t even want to use the phrase “writing goals” as I hear some people say. If I try to control too much, I’ll only end up spoiling the game. I only wish that when the creative genius strikes, I am up for it. The rest will do its own work in its own way.
Q. Sinjini, your Protagonist Manisha struggles to keep her dreams and her reality distinct. Do you relate to Manisha? How do you feel when you(or if you) relate to any character?
Sinjini: I do not ‘identify’ with her as I have not experience the journey that I have taken her through but yes, I can empathise with her. I can relate to her for I have lent her my own emotions to be able to capture and pen her journey, you see!
While the story idea is essentially surreal as Manisha steps in and out of one world to go into another, at its core it is only another name for our own reality and our own dreams. We live a dichotomy at every moment of our lives, don’t we? Our fears versus our hopes, our loneliness versus our desire for companionship. Our voids versus our own fulfillments. I borrow from my own reservoir of emotions as I paint her story, her journey and her shifting worlds. And as the writer of her character, I feel elated and blessed when the readers report back to me that they found themselves in Manisha too. “How did you know my story,” someone told me after reading it. “The moment at which she talks to herself in the mirror, I know that I know her; she is me.’ Another reader wrote back. It makes me wonder if, beyond the surface of situations and reasons, our essential emotional core, our fears and our desires, are not as different from each other after all!
Q. Who are your target audiences for Elixir? Are you targeting mostly woman readers? Which is the most powerful fantasy for women readers?
Sinjini: Every time I tried to define my target audience for Elixir, I have been counter challenged. I remember this one moment at the Delhi NCR launch of Elixir where the panel began to talk about feminine vulnerabilities across socio-economic-cultural divides, the common anxiety and constant pressure of I-am-not-good-enough, when a very learned male friend from the audience raised his hand and said how he, in his own life and his exposure to men who are at their peak of success, have had this commonality. Loneliness, which is another foundation stone in Elixir, is a no-brainer epidemic in this modern world. And from there, from this tenet of lives being half-lived, the need of self-actualisation too is common. The journey to redemption, to fulfillment, the soul searching way back to oneself… you cannot define a subsection of the population to go with it, can you? In fact of all the kind and generous accolades, awards and recognitions that Elixir fetched us this is the one dearest to me, the fact that it is everyone’s story! I’ve been assured and reassured of that over and over again by readers and audience from not just people within my circle of reach but much beyond, from strangers from countries all across the world.
Q. Sinjini, do you have plans to write more books right now?
Sinjini: Yes of course! I have many plans actually, which is a rather dangerous thing. You see, I studied science and then economics, and then I studied to be an actuary and I’ve been in the financial industry for almost all of my working years. Literature has always been a luxury, a stolen pleasure; I’d hide the storybooks inside the fold of the school textbooks to be able to read. And now, suddenly, I am tis full time writer! It’s almost as if I was starved for decades and suddenly I’ve been let into a seven star multi cuisine buffet… I cannot afford to let go of anything, I’m filling my plate way more than I can ever eat. I have to tell myself – calm down, girl!
However having said that, I must also say that I don’t want to rush. I want to do important work, not just raise the count of my publications. I want to be proud of the work I do, and given the efforts involved in writing a book, it better be worth all that time and energy. I have begun to flesh out one idea more committedly over the others for now, and hopefully it should be forming itself into a foetus of a book soon.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Sinjini: I am not qualified to give advice in any way. My only learning that I have gained through my writing journey so far and that I feel is transferable to others is that – trust your creative instincts. I try to remain true to my purpose, and often I end up writing in a way of “flow”. When I look back at those pieces of work later on, I am proud of them and I know instinctively that readers will connect with them, because I do too. If, on the other hand, I write something in a way of a mandate, I often lose my steam and even when I’ve done my bot of homework, I do not end up with something that is important enough in my own eyes. I have therefore come down to honing and exercising my creative instincts and by Truth, it works for me.
Q. Do you want to share influence of Roopkatha, yours six-year-old grandmother-cum-daughter cum-spiritual mentor? How she influence both of you?
Sinjini: Roopkatha influences me in more ways than I could ever imagine a six years old can do, if I had not experienced it myself. In particular I must say that she has been extremely patient with me through my trysts with health and then when I gave myself up so obsessively to this writing journey. Also between the two of us, we often have the most fantastic and intellectual discussions that you may think is ever possible, and it is funny in a way. Since early on, I had taken care to work consciously on her emotional upbringing. Now she is this calm and level headed soul, undoubtedly the eldest in our family. She meditates regularly, for example, and considers squinting your eyes to see what’s going on meanwhile is an essential part of the meditation process. It is an all-encompassing thing, this journey called Parenting. And spiritual too, I guess; it challenges and changes who you thought you are at all!