Dubai Film Fest: Sandeep Ray and storytelling economy

Ray didn’t face government censors. There was no studio threatening to take the final cut away. There were a few arguments with the subject, Sarthak Roychowdhury, but if anything he wanted his life’s story to be longer. So what drives this artist to such economy?

The English title of the documentary, The Sound of Old Rooms, loses something in translation. The Bengali phrase “Kokkho-poth” actually means “the orbit of the room.” As Ray explains: “It is the journey that goes out and comes back to this room.” Sarthak grew up in a small room in his family home in Kolkata. When we meet him, he is a stubborn college student who would rather fix a pigeon’s broken wing than study economics. At the end of the film, he is reading one of his poems to an audience, his seven-year-old son watching on television back at the family home.

“He grew up in that room, got married in that room,” Ray tells me. “He teaches in that room. For 42 years, that’s been his universe.”

Sarthak’s poetry books sell out. He is an economics professor; his wife, Ritu, also teaches. He has had the opportunity to sell the house to developers. So what drives this artist to such economy?

Ray started filming Kokkho-Poth as a college assignment. Video was the new format back then, and his professor wanted him to shoot as much as possible to learn the language of cinema. Ray headed over to Sarthak’s house and started pointing his 8mm camera at his friend.

“I wasn’t roaming around that much,” Ray says. “I started with the classic shot, reverse shot and kind of picked things up. I learned that if he’s going to see his publisher 10 times, I didn’t need to go every time.”

When he was 17, John Marshall started filming a tribe in the Kalahari desert. He followed the lives of the Ju/’hoansi for over 45 years. The resulting 500,000 feet of footage makes up one of the largest archives in the Smithsonian Museum. Marshall’s documentary, A Kalahari Family, became a five-part, six-hour series. What drives this artist to such economy?

Ray worked as an editor for Marshall, who gave him this advice: “When someone sees your film, you want the audience to say: ‘I’ve met your character.’ ”

This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of the Bengali poet Tagore, who in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. To celebrate the occasion, Visva Burati University published an 80-volume set of Tagore’s works called Kalanukromik Rabindra Rachanabali. The compilation is long, not just because Tagore was prolific (in addition to his poetry, he wrote eight novels, four novellas, over 2,000 songs, plays and travelogues) but because it includes different versions of his works. One such example is Dukkho Ahaban, which began as a 109-line poem. Tagore later reduced it to 54 lines. What drove this artist to such economy?

“My film celebrates not so much nostalgia for Tagore, but the society where it flourishes,” Ray says. “It’s an homage to Tagore in the sense that the new poets are keeping the flame going.”

Kokkho-Poth begins with a birthday party for Sarthak’s son in that same house. The son now attends the same school his father did. Ray wanted to hold out until the boy was old enough to understand this history before he finished his film.

“After 10 or 12 years of filming, I thought I’ve hung in there so long I might as well hang on until I have something,” Ray says. “It’s nice to see children who understand things about their parents.”

Sarthak’s house is decrepit and will be torn down soon. The journey in that the room will finally be over. As for Ray, well, we’ve met his character. So what drives the artist to such economy?

“This project kept me going as an artist,” he says. “I kept thinking: ‘It’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be good.’ ”

Bits from the Emirates … Ray’s nephew Sion Dey composed the soundtrack for Kokkho-Poth. One of the instruments he used is the hang, an instrument that is less than 10 years old. “It looks like a small UFO,” Ray says. “You hit it, and it makes this reverberating, melodic sound. It’s hard to assign a cultural feeling to it, but it doesn’t feel out of place in an Indian film” … It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…Even though the UAE is an Islamic country, they have really taken to the birthday of Jesus Christ. At the wharf next to DIFF’s festival headquarters stands a whopper of a tree, while the Ritz-Carlton on the Jumeirah Beach Walk has a toy train running through it’s lobby. Of course, this is nothing compared to Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, which last year boasted “the most expensive Christmas tree,” a gold-trimmed beauty worth US$11-million … Werner Herzog was in town to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. “We should not be the fly on the wall,” the acclaimed director of Grizzly Man said at a forum. “We should be the hornets that go out and sting."

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Kokkho-Poth (The Sound of Old Rooms) is the rare documentary in which the director’s cut is shorter than expected. Sandeep Ray spent 20 years accumulating close to 70 hours of footage, yet the film’s running time is only 72 minutes. “I was merciless,” Ray told the audience at a screening at the Dubai International Film Festival. “I didn’t want to lose focus.”