In 1993, Bernardo Bertolucci did it with ‘Little Buddha’ starring Keanu Reeves and Bridget Fonda. Martin Scorsese touched upon the subject when he made ‘Kundun’ in 1997. Earlier, of course, there was Conrad Rooks’ 1972-film ‘Siddhartha’ with Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in the lead. Now comes the news that critically acclaimed Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara is making an international film on the Buddha. Parts of the film will be shot in Kolkata.
Vimukthi, whose debut feature film ‘The Forsaken Land’ had won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was in Kolkata recently for the research of his film. Talking to TOI now from Sri Lanka, Vimukthi says, “I was recently in Kolkata and Bodhgaya for the research of my movie. Shooting should begin by the end of this year.”
Though a French production, the film will be shot in various Asian countries. “That includes India, Sri Lanka and even Japan,” reveals the director.
Why choose Kolkata for a film on the Buddha? “The film has references to the colonial times. The Mahabodhi Society in Colombo was founded in 1891 but its offices were moved to Kolkata the following year. So, there is a connection,” says Vimukthi, who was in the city week for a day.
The title of the film hasn’t been decided as yet. In the interest of the movie, the plot is being kept strictly under wraps. “It is a fictional film. Not a direct biographical work,” says the director, who was in Kolkata for a day last week.
Films on or about Buddha and Buddhism have been a favourite with directors since the time of Dadasaheb Phalke — who made a silent movie titled ‘Buddhadev’ in 1923. Actor Himanshu Rai had played the Buddha in German filmmaker Franz Osten’s ‘Life of Asia’.
Buddhist monks have turned protagonists in Kim Ki-Duk’s ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring’, Pan Nalin’s ‘Samsara’ and Nabyendu Ghosh’s National Award-winning ‘Trishagni’. The Buddha has also been a subject of many important documentaries. ‘Gotoma the Buddha’, a black-and-white documentary director by Rajbans Khanna and produced by Bimal Roy, had won a Special Mention for Best Director at Cannes. More recently, Richard Gere was involved in narrating a documentary titled ‘The Buddha’.
Curiously enough, films on the Buddha have fanned controversies and faced bans too. Nude scenes from the critically acclaimed ‘Siddhartha’ — where Simi as a courtesan introduces Sashi in the title role to sexual and material pleasures of life — had a tough time with the Censors. Rajesh Nair Touchriver’s British film ‘In The Name of Buddha’ was banned in Sri Lanka. Reports abound of how many in Sri Lanka have strong reservations about casting an actor in the role of the Buddha. Don’t fear of bans and such reservations scare Vimukthi? “No, I am not scared. I am a Buddhist with deep understanding of the tenants,” he insists.
Vimukthi though isn’t new to controversy. In 2011, Vimukthi had run into one when he had come to India to shoot for his first Bengali film titled ‘Chatrak’. The film was screened at Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight. But problem arose when clips from the film starring Paoli got leaked. Vimukthi left India and got making a short film for Korea.
It took five years for Vimukthi to return to the city post the controversy. Isn’t he skeptical about shooting in Kolkata again? “No, not at all. I really have no bad feelings. Now things have changed so much. The city is modern and friendly. Even the airport has changed,” he says.
From controversy-ridden ‘Chatrak’ to Buddha’s ahimsa — isn’t that a long journey? Vumukthi smiles and says, “I don’t want to go on the ‘Chatrak’ trip. I want to see Kolkata in a different angle.”
Since the film will be shot in Kolkata, will Vimukthi want to cast local actors too? Any plans of repeating Paoli? Vimukthi prefers to keep people guessing. All he says instead is, “I spoke with Paoli over the phone when I was in the city. I won’t talk about casting now. Who knows, even a Hollywood actor might be there!” (Courtesy Times of India)