Watching Ranjan Palit’s Lord of the Orphans in Dhaka

Translated from Bangla by Satyabrata Ghosh

Ranjan Palit is from Kolkata. We are Facebook friends. My friends’ list in the Facebook has so many from different countries. Ranjan could just be one of them. But he isn’t – not because we are students from the same film school. In the pre-Facebook age, when I hadn’t even heard his name, we met accidentally. I stayed for a few days at 189 Sarat Bose Road. After few years I went to his house and stayed there few days once again. We haven’t talked much. I found him quite a silent guy then. In the meantime however, I watched his documentary film. His camerawork and the style of narration impressed me. He has the ability of unobtrusively getting into the lives of the persons he filmed. I love the way he personifies himself. So, this is what I know about Ranjan Palit – almost nothing. Neither we met, nor did we have any conversation since 2001. Then, there was Facebook. This time I found Ranjan quite vociferous. And he is quite a frequent user too. He uses Roman alphabets to express his thoughts in half-done Bangla and English. Accompanying them, there are selfies. Long hair, uncombed, tied in a knot. The calm, quiet, poised Ranjan I met during March 1995 and 2001 has changed a little it seems.

The selfies that Ranjan posts are replete with lights. Often the sun glares his lens. Such abundance of light makes me wonder. The way he frames, the lights he use, the objects he chose – none seems to be the diktats a trained cameraperson would follow. There we learnt how to cut the glares from the scenes. However, let me say here, the images that Ranjan post differ from the random clicks of a sloppy user of mobile camera. I find it tricky to come in terms to this vivacious Ranjan of the Facebook with the quiet man I met twice before.

I follow his posts regularly. And learnt he was making a film named Lord of the Orphans. He claims it to be autobiographical. I found fragments of the 189 I visited in his posts. To me, Ranjan stands out as documentary filmmaker. So, I was under the impression that Lord of the Orphans must be his latest documentary film. In his earlier films that I have watched, about whatever subject they may be, Ranjan has infused his maker’s persona inconspicuously. ‘Infusing inconspicuously’ doesn’t sound right because it seems to suggest Ranjan enters his camera frame shamelessly. No, Ranjan never does this. Rather, the subjects of his films and the people penetrate Ranjan’s personal internal world. And then they find expression in his impersonal time, in his social, historical, inter-personal and political domains. Ranjan does this at a very personal level. Personal, yet not so personal; subjective, yet not actually subjective. Densely woven with impersonification, the personal voice comes out as one – along the characters and the subjects of his films. We termed the films he has made so long as documentary films.

So, going by his posts I assumed Lord of the Orphans to be another such in the making.

“Lord of the Orphans” will be shown this January in 17th Dhaka International Film Festival organized by Rainbow Film Society. I decided to watch the film once the news came to me through Facebook. I myself am a documentary filmmaker. My latest one is at the post-production stage. I switched off my edit console on16th January, and went out to reach Shah bag. Strange, there were no traffic jams. So, I reached the venue earlier than expected. And met Ranjan!

And then the next two and half hours I was duped in Lord of the Orphans at Milanayatan in National Museum. It was transcendental. A state in which you are exposed to a completely new genre of film. I don’t think to have ever seen such an open personal film before that which let me feel so obsessed.

Before the screening took place Ranjan came on stage to announce, it was his biopic. Ranjan himself is the main character of the Lord of the Orphans.

In presenting the contemporary reality and recalling the past through his film, Ranjan is all along there. Along with his family and near ones. Along with many women whom Ranjan knew outside the realm of his family. But none except his first wife Rumi appears on the screen.

Lord of the Orphans is personal – too personal as a film. However, Ranjan is nowhere in the screen. We hear Ranjan’s voice, but never see him. Ranjan speaks in his film and we see people with whom he was close. Actors are present in the garbs of his father, mother, daughter, sisters, first wife, present partner and other companions. These are the people with whom Ranjan has spent his life. As audience, we gradually immerse ourselves into the curvature that Ranjan, the person is. We begin to think, but failing to pin at our thoughts we enter its world of feelings. There, hidden behind the windows of society and familial world, Ranjan keeps turning the pages unflinchingly of his personal being. While unfolding his self to scan his life thus, the chapters overwhelm the maker Ranjan who enjoys the process, but leave his audience baffled.

The persons through whom we come into being, the ones who come to our lives – all of us come to know each other in this world of lights, sounds and touch. We became closer to them, loved them, and then hearing the call, set ourselves to another journey in search of something else. Like the thirsty chatak bird we keep moving on, floating on, weeping on and singing the song of life. Such drifting from one person to another, from an acquaintance to relationship is what life is all about. Ranjan makes this drifting life his subject In Lord of the Orphans. Neither Ranjan’s personal life nor his relations are primary here. He has concentrated on the drifting nature of life and how the life connects with another and the trajectories of relations.

Just the way life continues to drift towards the death, the camerawork of Lord of the Orphans glides on. Did Ranjan retain such floating style consistently to narrate the drifting character of life? Why he never let his camera to remain standstill?

Now in this 21st century the cell phone has assimilated most devices and thus becoming our indispensible company for 24 hours. It has camera and gives the advantage of sound recording. It’s next to impossible to find someone without the phone. I have learnt from the Facebook that Ranjan has shot Lord of the Orphans in his I-phone. He admits at Dhaka this time that about 20% of the film is shot in 7+ and 8 models of I-phones. Rest was done in Sony Alpha 7S2 camera. Both are light-weight. So called professional camerapersons would not perhaps even dream to use them. Ranjan is professional nonetheless. He kept his profession aside for a while. This actually was the illness he was suffering from. He planned Lord of the Orphans while recuperating. After the conception and the planning s were over he didn’t wait to raise the necessary funds. He began his film with whatever resources he had. As a one-person crew. His friends contributed later and some funds were raised too. Probably for this reason he shot with the frail I-phone and Sony. And due to this the film with such a unique language appears before its audience. The simple philosophy of ‘drifting life’ has gelled quite well to portray the truth expressed in Lord of the Orphans. Being well trained at film school Ranjan deftly and with profound love let his audience travel from one corridor to another. The moving camera in his hand spills the light through its lenses. It is the light that let us hover with our lives under the scorching sun and pouring rain and through the breeze in the similar manner. Some parts of the events happening in the present time under such abundance of light drifts into the hollow of oblivion. And so much remain unseen in the dark nights or even under the full moon. In reality, our lives drift through such light and darkness. Lord of the Orphans too. The sound design of Lord of the Orphans matches the mood. We constantly hear the ambient sound around us all the time. And we become used to some unnecessary sounds. In the throng of such sounds many a words we speak get lost. Similarly, while watching the lives unfolding at 189 Sarat Bose Road, our ears get accustomed to the din of loud traffic. Some words uttered by the residents there also drowned by such din.

Ranjan shot his film in available lights – be it a day scene or night. Other than a big glowing candle in one scene, I cannot recall any extra arrangements of lights. The sun, the moon and the halogen lamps along the roads – these remain the sources of Ranjan’s lights. It’s true, without arranging for elaborate lightings, Ranjan had saved his production cost. Equally true is the fact he remained real all along. This also enabled him to keep his camera in movement all the time. And because of this he could present Lord of the Orphans in such a unique language with which no film can match according to me.

Ranjan’s Lord of the Orphans becomes unique because of its matchless technique of fictionalizing the narrative with deft use of documentary footages. He could merge the fiction elements with the factual parts seamlessly. Whatever has happened to Ranjan’s life – of which we know some are shown in the film exactly where they had once happened. The characters however are actors this time. Except his first wife Rumi, who appears in person in her respective sequences as herself. Thus, in its entirety, the audience gets acquainted with a new film language.

As far I can recall, French filmmaker Agnés Verda’s “Beaches of Agnés Verda” has close to such treatment. In that film Verda appears as herself, and talks as like one of the film characters. Verda never let her audience to get confused about whether her film is a fiction or a documentary. If Ranjan had said before the film began that Lord of the Orphans is his biopic, then it could be a film of any third person where the maker has adapted the technique of ‘first person narration’ to use documentary elements for making a fiction.

Lord of the Orphans tells the story of a family. In Ranjan’s family and in Ranjan’s life his father plays a crucial role. In the film too he stands as the pivot. Ranjan showed his “Baba” by using an actor. After his father, his first wife Rumi gets more prominence than others. While narrating Rumi’s story Ranjan synthesizes the fiction-documentary modes to evolve a new film language, which baffles the audience. Through the way of old photographs the young Rumi appears in form of an actor. Then we meet the real Rumi – at the penultimate days of her life. She encounters the Rumi f yesteryears. The young one is an actor, while the present Rumi is real. Both of them converse with the words the maker has penned for them. At that point the present Rumi also becomes an actor who enact with her younger counterpart in a scene of Ranjan’s film. We see the real Rumi conversing with an actor playing young Rumi. I have never seen the technique of such encounter being adapted in any other film!

I have seen a different self of the same actor enacted by another actor in some plays on stage at Dhaka. In Salim-al-Din’s staged plays such method is often used. My exposure is limited. Nonetheless, by using this narrative technique in Lord of the Orphans, Ranjan compels his audience to stand face-to-face with themselves and realize the inevitable. In this particular scene, Rumi looks back to the days bygone, and evaluate the relations she once been, the people she came across. Looking back after travelling long, one gathers a philosophic wisdom to see the life she has lived. This scene floats along to the deathbed where Rumi utters the wise words. Maybe, this is what she has learnt from the life. But then, this is more the wisdom of the filmmaker has gathered in the meantime. Not only Rumi – in the dialogues and monologues of every character in his film. The filmmaker has lent all his share of wisdom for his audience. Before passing away old Rumi tells the young one, “You are my past. I am your future.” The childhood merges with youth, the youth is lost in old age – and then the life merges with death. Death is the inevitable finality – this is the essence of drifting that life is. Yet, it is the life that we celebrate – under the scorching sun, under the calm halo of full moon when we live and love. The old and young Rumis speak with each other in Ranjan’s Lord of the Orphans. We all are in the whirlpool of life and death. And yet we live, we love, we leave the loved ones, we cry, or don’t cry and then we love again. Those of us who are alive now and those who will be – they would love the same before they merge with the death. This philosophical wisdom come out poignantly through the two Rumis we see on the same screen. And so, the Rumi who left Ranjan in their first marriage no longer remains a woman named Rumi. She becomes a symbol to realize the essence of the life.

Like this, the persons portrayed in Lord of the Orphans are not merely portrayed as Ranjan’s family and close ones. They expand their roles to bring out the collective experiences of living as universal individuals. In this expansion Ranjan’s camera turns out to be the major tool to compose an inevitable film technique in this film.

Holding these heady memories and feelings of touching, experiencing, and experiencing the life here and elsewhere is what Lord of the Orphans offers to us with its light and shadow zones. As we traverse through its lanes and bye-lanes we keep wondering, what a unique style Ranjan adapted to tell his story!

It takes two and half hours to immerse into the poetic language Ranjan used to chart the journey of his life. Once the film is over, the audience carry the experience with them while meandering in their own lanes thinking about this extraordinary style of filmmaking. And this wandering continues …

Thus, in this adroitly planned film, the skill of actors, their costumes, coherent editing, ethereal beauty captured through non-professional camera, the lights and shadows created without using additional lights and the conjuring images Lord of the Orphans creates, leave no room to make any critical observations.

Starting single-handedly and entirely on personal initiative and evolving into such sensitive and poetic film, Lord of the Orphans will prominently remain in the history of world cinema, as a torch-bearer for every independent filmmaker – even in this digital age.

Fauzia Khan is a post-graduate diploma holder from FTII, Pune specializing in Film Editing. Before that, she had done her post-graduation in Bengali Language & Literature. Presently she is engaged in documentary film making and editing. Besides, she teaches and writes about film. She is the Editor of the Film Section in the biannual Bengali magazine ‘Shilpi o Shilpo’ (Art & Artist) published by Bengal Foundation. She is based in Dhaka

Satyabrata Ghosh, a graduate in English Literature, writes and translates articles on films. He still aspires to be known as a filmmaker. He is based in Kolkata


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