The film opens with a woman sailing on a boat. The moonlight is bouncing off the water’s calm surface, distorting slightly as the boat sends ripples down the stream. She is singing. The scene is set on the river Saraswati, and the boat is sailing into the Sunderbans, West Bengal, c. 1850.
The woman in the frame is Debi Chaudhurani, a river pirate and an Indian Independence revolutionary from Bengal; an unusual one at that, because she was a woman. Her story of anti-British activism inspired novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay to write an eponymous novel on her life in 1884. Courtesy the nationalist theme, the book was banned by the British Raj in India.
“Debi Chaudharani opens my film because she was a close friend of my forefathers. She used to dock her boats on my ancestor’s property, in Bajra, near Chandannagar, West Bengal. The docks were named Palit Ghat, after my family,” says cinematographer Ranjan Palit (60), who is making a film on his family’s history, panning 150 years.
Called Orphan, the film features five generations of Palit’s family, and the unique characters who share the bloodline with him — a World War (I and II) soldier, and a Yogini, who was a member of the secret cult of a Chaunsath Yogini Temple, Bhubaneswar.
Orphan is Palit’s directorial debut. After having worked on over a hundred documentaries on subjects ranging from the Bhopal gas tragedy to Kashmir’s struggle for autonomy, and mainstream Bollywood projects such as Vishal Bhardwaj’s 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), Palit, by his own admission, “decided to make a self-indulgent film”.
“I’ve been a part of this industry for 35 years, telling stories either written by others or making documentaries on events I did not trigger. When I turned 50, I figured it was time to tell my story,” says Palit. So, he dug into his past, his ancestry, only to discover that he came from a family that lent itself to an interesting, character-driven film.
In addition to Debi Chaudharani, Palit also discovered that his grandfather, Anathnath, fought in both the World Wars, and was awarded the title of the Officer of the British Empire (OBE). Moreover, he married an Anglo-Indian woman, Marie, causing quite a scandal with the Indian revolutionaries in Kolkata.
Anathnath was eventually banished from his village by the local priests for the services he provided to the British Empire. His mother (Palit’s great grandmother), too, went into exile and became a yogini (a member of goddess Durga’s devotee cult), in Bhubaneswar.
The Palit family property was taken over by the villagers of Bajra, and is currently a subjudice legal dispute. “It’s a hundred-year-old court case,” shares Palit.
For Palit, Anathnath is the anchor of the film: he is the closet ancestor whose legacy was entirely documented. So much so that Palit has named the film after Anathnath, which translates to protector of orphans.
Life on celluloid
The film also dwells into Palit’s personal life — his marriage, divorce, the passing of his first wife, and his daughter, Maya. Yet, he hasn’t acted in the film. In fact, he hired a Bengali actor — Shomo Banerjee — to play himself. “I am objectively looking at my part in the story. I am a character, and I was looking for an actor to play that character,” says Palit.
Additionally, Palit didn’t have the time to act in the film — he is a one-man crew for the project. He has scripted, shot, edited, and directed the film single-handedly, and is now looking for a producer. He has also launched a crowd funding campaign on Wishberry.
But why should anyone care about a mainstream Bollywood cinematographer’s family history? “Name one Bollywood film where you see a religious cult member, a war soldier and a filmmaker share a roof. I will then rest my case,” argues Palit.
Log in: Watch the trailer of Ranjan Palit’s Orphan and to fund the film, here