Suman Ghosh manages to toggle between two disparate professions. When he isn't in Kolkata making a certain kind of intellectual, socio-politically aware Bengali film, he teaches economics in the US (at Florida Atlantic University).
"I make a film every two years. I'm not a full-time filmmaker, so I manage to avoid the compromises I'd otherwise have to make. But when I'm making films, I forget economics. Living abroad (for most of the year) also gives me an objective view of things here," says Ghosh. And, by his own admission, the teaching job in the US pays better, as "making regional language films in India doesn't pay".
But that's not to say that cinema is just an expensive hobby for Ghosh. He studied filmmaking at Cornell University. His first film, Podokkhep (Footsteps), in 2006, was about an old man caught in the drift of a generation and a city in flux. Everyone took notice when the film earned its veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee a National Award.
His new film, Shyamal Uncle Turns Off the Lights, showing at the Mumbai Film Festival, also has an old man at its heart. The subject is mundane - a man trying to figure out who to approach to switch off the street lights during the day. Ghosh uses "turning off the lights as a metaphor for disillusionment - corruption, bureaucracy still exist in 'shining' India." The film premiered at the Busan International Film Festival, and has already been picked up by Global Film Initiative for distribution in North America.
But though he makes niche, indie films, that's not the kind of cinema he grew up on. Ghosh says, "I grew up watching Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty (who also acted in his film, Nobel Thief, 2011) and Uttam Kumar. I appreciated Satyajit Ray only much later. The first time I saw Pather Panchali (Ray's 1955 classic) as a kid, I hated it." Even now, apart from realist Belgian and Iranian films, and Quentin Tarantino's movies, he mentions Rajkumar Hirani and Vishal Bhardwaj among his favourites. "I also enjoyed Dabangg (2010), but I don't think I can make that kind of a film."
The closest he comes might be next year, when he makes a mainstream film with popular Bengali actor Prosenjit Chatterjee.
Catch a screening of Shyamal Uncle Turns Off the Lights today at 3.30 pm at Cinemax, Sion, as part of MFF