Features / Photography

Ronny Sen’s debut film navigates through the light and darkness of Calcutta’s drug dens

Photographer-turned-director Ronny Sen talks to us about channeling past experiences for his debut feature Cat Sticks, releasing a photo book and collaborating with the iconic Polish artist Lech Majewski.

By Ritupriya Basu on 29 May

  • Cat Sticks Film Still 02

Located in Calcutta in the penumbra of a long communist regime, Cat Sticks follows the lives of brown sugar addicts across the city

Kolkata-based photographer Ronny Sen’s first leap into the world of celluloid was long in the making. It was a sense of limitation that came with the still image that drove Ronny’s new adventure with Cat Sticks. The film digs in to the gut of a sleeping Calcutta, and presents the nocturnal lives of brown sugar addicts living on the margins of a dying city. It follows three addicts as they walk through torrential rain, desperately hunting for their next score. When they find shelter in an abandoned aircraft, the story takes off and meanders through the narrative of an ensemble of characters.

What intrigues us about the project is the photo book that comes along with it. Featuring moments from the film captured by Shreya Dev Dube, the Director of Photography, the book binds together hard-hitting images that stay with you long after you’ve turned the page. Director Ronny Sen reflects on the surprise that led to the publication and working with legendary Polish artist Lech Majewski to create the poster for the film.

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Cloaked in torrential rain, the film tells the story of an ensemble of characters

What made you take to the director’s seat with Cat Sticks? What catalysed this shift from photography to film?

There were so many stories that I have lived with for years, and I was desperate to tell them for a very long time. They were a part of who I was and I could never imagine sharing those narratives through a photographic body of work. I realised that the reasons to make a photograph and the reasons to make a film were different. To me, photography is more about being in the here and now, while a film lets you reflect on the past. When I ventured into the realm of films, I got hooked to the medium all of a sudden, exactly how I was hooked to photography many years ago. It was amazing to feel that strong pull in my gut again.

I was experimenting with videos in Calcutta when my friends encouraged me to make a film. Theodore Shivdasani, Soumyak Kanti De Biswas and Tanaji Dasgupta approached me and expressed an interest in producing Cat Sticks. The shift from photography to film was not easy. Film is a collective art and I have worked alone all my life as a photographer. I had to learn how to work with others, which was difficult. I am indebted to everyone involved in this journey because they embraced my idiosyncrasies and limitations.

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Cat Sticks represents a culmination of Ronny's relationship with images

You look at the underbelly of Calcutta through an insider’s gaze, pulling apart the stories of brown sugar addicts across the city. How did you arrive at the story and how did it develop?

David Levi Strauss wrote a piece A Threnody for Street Kids for Jim Goldberg’s photographic installation, which later became the famous book Raised by Wolves, 1995. In the essay, the first few lines of a paragraph reads, ‘Like the angel of forgetfulness who touches us at birth to make us forget so that we can be born (becoming is a secret process), there is another angel, I suspect, who touches us when we become adults, causing us to forget the abyss of adolescence.

For us, perhaps this angel was brown sugar, which made us forget the dark abyss of adolescence. Cat Sticks is the story of our lives. It's the collective experience of an entire generation who grew up with drugs on the streets of Calcutta in the late 90s and early 2000s. Innocence, the unadulterated, unconditional love for drugs, and its eventual predictable ends and consequences inspired the story. Moinak Biswas, who teaches film studies at Jadavpur University, was extremely generous and helped me develop the story, and then I wrote the screenplay along with Soumyak Kanti De Biswas.

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The film is ready to go for a festival run in 2018/19

The film moves through overlapping narratives of your protagonists like Pablo, Deshik and Biplab. How did you flesh out the characters?

The characters are inspired by people I have known for years. I am familiar with their quirks, the way they speak and behave, their obsessions and vulnerabilities. I have been a part of their struggles and individual tales of survival. But in totality, all of them represent a collective consciousness. I am telling the story of not an individual, but an entire generation while presenting it through the lens of these intriguing and peculiar characters.

A relentless downpour stays a constant companion as the plot shifts, turns and deepens. What was the reason behind this?

The continuous rain at night almost becomes like a canvas or the foundation on which the story is to be built. Black and white helps me to strip the layers of reality and it creates a certain atmosphere which I felt comfortable with. The animals only come out in the dark, you see. It makes it easier for me to flow in and out and move between the real and the unreal. Cat Sticks couldn’t have happened in broad daylight in colour. Do you ever see these people in the day? One needs to look for them in the dark, where it’s wet and cold.

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A glimpse of Cat Sticks, the photo book featuring images by Shreya Dev Dube

I’m fascinated by the photo book that accompanies the film. How did you choose which moments and snippets of dialogue from the film to include in the book?

I was immensely fortunate to have found someone like Shreya Dev Dube, who is a phenomenal artist in her own right, and she became my eyes for Cat Sticks. I was desperately looking for a Director of Photography who understood the language of black and white images very well. But what she managed to pull off during the shoot was something that took all of us by surprise. We decided to make a photo book featuring stills from the film and the publication was treated as an independent entity. It is a limited print run but we hope to republish it in the future. The intermittent dialogues that appear in some of the pages give no concrete information about what’s being said in what context. The images are free from the burden of a narrative.

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The Cat Sticks poster created by Lech Majewski

The poster for the film created by legendary Polish artist Lech Majewski features a custom typeface and hovers somewhere between the symbolic and the absurd. How did you rope him into the project?

I was in Poland working on an artist residency in 2013 when I met Edyta Majewski, a very fine artist and an amazing human being. She introduced me to the works of her father Lech Majewski and I was simply blown away. I was aware of the Polish school of posters that emerged in the 1950s but I had never seen the volume of work that I encountered at her place. Lech Majewski is indeed a living legend of sorts. He teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and is the president of the International Poster Biennale in Poland.

After we finished shooting Cat Sticks, I sent the screenplay - which was translated in English - to Mr. Majewski along with some film stills so that he could get a taste of the film’s visual vocabulary. In a few months, he came up with the poster and all of us fell in love with it instantly. The typeface he created for the poster, which is also used in the title design for the film, is extremely refreshing. It’s raw, simple and hard-hitting. The Polish school of posters has a unique multi-form style with a very delicate, often masterful, usage of metaphors and allegories. The poster he created for Cat Sticks is probably a portrait of the hopeless addict. The text looks like buildings at night. The two faces within one never meet; they confront each other in direct opposition but are somehow connected together as well. It draws on the eternal conflict faced by an addict. There is a dialogue; they do speak to each other, and suffer in their own miseries. But that is just my interpretation. It could as easily reflect the face of society staring at the addict.

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Snippets of dialogue from the film accompanies the series of images in the photo book

What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

My biggest learning from this experience is that I want to make more films. It’s an amazing and engaging medium and I can’t wait to see what else I can do with it. I sincerely hope that after watching the film, people realise that no addict seeking recovery need ever die.

Cat Sticks is ready to go for a festival run in 2018/19. You can follow the film here. Watch this space for updates on the film and the publication.
All images courtesy of Craigmore Films, Calcutta, 2018.

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