Hometowns: A Biopic on Suresh Biswas

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021

Hometowns: A Biopic Screenplay on Suresh Biswas

Indranil Chakravarty: Writer, Researcher
Screenplay: Hometowns: A Biopic on Suresh Biswas
Year: 2020

RESEARCH STATEMENT

The Screenplay’s Research Background

This is an original biopic screenplay titled Hometowns, written by Indranil Chakravarty (Indian), submitted in March 2020 as part of a Creative Practice PhD thesis in Film (Screenplay) at Victoria University of Wellington (NZ). The thesis is titled: “Constructing a Biopic Screenplay: Fictional Invention in the Biopic with Scant Historical Evidence”. The degree was awarded in August 2020.

The Screenplay’s Research Contribution & Significance

This is a screenplay about Suresh Biswas (1861-1905), a little-known adventurer from a remote part of India, who was a wild-life trainer and circus-performer in Europe and later became a Captain in the Brazilian army. His early biographies, based only on six letters, are unreliable and pose a challenge to the screenwriter in terms of narrative reconstruction of his life. I examine the creative and critical issues associated with researching such a historical figure based on scant evidence and seek ways to overcome the problem. Using the notion of ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ (Bhabha), I interpret Biswas as a non-Western, non-elite 19th century cosmopolitan, thereby constructing a counter-narrative to the dominant Eurocentric discourse of cosmopolitanism which is portrayed as a matter of exclusive Western, elite privilege. This is highlighted by contrasting Biswas’ homebred cosmopolitanism with the jingoistic nationalism in contemporary India.

In writing Biswas’ biopic, I draw upon testimonies of biopic script-drafting processes and use the microhistorical research method to broaden contextual knowledge about the subject so that my fictional inventions are firmly rooted in evidence. I create a frame-story narrative with a screenwriter in the contemporary Mumbai film industry as the protagonist (whose arc runs in tandem with that of Biswas) whereby I address conceptual issues and the process of my own research and writing. The technique brings a meta-fictional frame of reference, highlighting the relationship between fiction and reality, using intertextuality as a technique of source-tagging.

In the absence of Biswas’s life-traces, the microhistorical research method has allowed me to find evidence in analogous lives, i.e. people who went through similar experiences. I undertake a vast amount of historical research across three continents where different peoples’ experiences are compressed to create composite characters, drawing from and contributing to, a rich emotional archive. Similarly, diverse events across time and place are condensed as part of a larger human experience which are ‘authentic’ nevertheless, experienced through one life. Constructing a life thus involves gathering diverse snippets of existence and assembling them into something that is coherent and new. I use ‘tethering’ (my term), connecting the poorly-documented colonised subaltern with well-documented colonial characters but read Eurocentric testimonies ‘against the grain’, a technique used by Subaltern historians. I self-consciously recast Biswas’ cosmopolitanism in terms of his movement across countries, cultures and languages with multiple allegiances or ‘hometowns’. The screenplay thus contributes to postcolonial theory through a fictional embodiment of the ‘vernacular cosmopolitan’ caught in the polyglot frenzy of a multilingual world. In fact, the screenplay unfolds in seven languages that Biswas spoke without hampering its readability or flattening diversity to a common linguistic register.

Hometowns thus marks the culmination of all the research exploration, performing research through the act of screenwriting itself, leaving behind a set of critical/creative reflections about research and writing. Here, screenwriting initiates in practice but soon moves to biopic history and criticism. It reverts to practice with knowledge about research and writing that not only enables me to overcome my screenwriting problem but also leaves behind a set of insights and techniques for other screenwriters working with scant biographical evidence.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

The submission’s subject matter is interesting, and the script is a well-structured and nuanced read. The complexity of narrative structure and character development is well realised on the page. The methods as outlined in the research background document are evident in the workings on the script. The most interesting and relevant aspect of the submission is the use of diverse language and language structures within a traditional story frame narrative. This made the read engaging and the readability of the submission (artefact) is a strength of the submission.

Does the submission live up to its potential?

The submission is realised on the page in relation to the significant issues outlined in the research contribution and significance statement. However, its potential is not fully realised as the research document lacks theoretical focus and an identification of a gap in knowledge. The submission might be improved to better match its potential by including a comprehensive citation list and bibliography especially in the fields of writing practice, micro-historical research methods, critical history methods and diaspora and colonial studies. These disparate fields of study need to be synergised in an overarching theoretical position which the current submission lacks. The potential to do this is all suggested in the artist’s own statement.

How does the submission expose practice as research?

The submission presents screenwriting practices as research by evidence of innovation in narrative structure and character design. The use of multiple voices and languages through character design and narrative structure is a strength. In this, the work presents new knowledge and insights into the potential of the screenplay to traverse multiple cultural and linguistic zones. This makes the manuscript powerful in its manifestation.

The traditional frame story narrative and meta-fictional account of narrative structure is underpinned by a strong sense of place and diverse voices. The concept of ‘tethering’ to connect colonial characterisations with Eurocentric testimonies is terrific but needs more explanation and contextualisation both in regard to Indian storytelling and European theoretical approaches to story.

In this, there is a particular lack of evidence in the articulation of a focused research problem. This is underpinned by the lack of a specific theoretical approach that accounts for the cross-cultural references the researcher has suggested.

The strength of the artefact is predominantly in its creative approach to narrative structure, character design and language to excite but its culturally theoretical underpinnings as manifest in the artefact need focus, clarity and meaningful citation.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Indranil Chakravarty’s Hometowns is a feature-length biopic screenplay that explores the life of 19th-century Indian adventurer Suresh Biswas. The screenplay uses a frame narrative, or a story within a story, to embed Biswas’ life story within a framing story that follows modern-day screenwriter, Shravani Banerjee, as she researches Biswas’ life to create a marketable screenplay for the Mumbai film industry.

Chakravarty set out to examine the creative and critical issues associated with researching a historical figure with limited factual evidence. Against this context, the creative project is an admirable attempt to bridge fiction and reality. Hometowns does not set out to render a full portrait of life in colonial-era India, Victorian London, or any other featured location. It selects factual fragments and combines them with plausible fictional elements, forged through considered research, to create impressions of specific moments lost to history. Chakravarty successfully blends factual and fictional characters and provides each with a unique voice. The scenes set in Bengali are especially entertaining and serve to set up Biswas and his legend. The sequence that begins with young Biswas saving the English hunter (15) and ends with him being thrashed (29) for his conversion to Christianity is a vivid and underrepresented perspective of the colonial era. The central story reads as a well-researched representation of Biswas’ life. The fictional and factual events blend seamlessly and should encourage any potential reader or audience to discover more about this pioneering figure.

The element that stops Hometowns from achieving its full creative potential is the framing story that follows Shravani Banerjee as she researches Biswas to write a screenplay based on his adventures. The biopic genre relies on moments that show the protagonist’s struggles, endeavours, and triumphs. As Mr Mehra asks: ‘Why should we be interested in Suresh Biswas?’ (33). Unfortunately, the answer becomes lost in a framing story that dominates too much narrative space and directs attention away from Biswas’ story, which would benefit from more significant development. I also found the apparent meta-references too jarring during a close read. Banerjee’s fictional research mirrors Chakravarty’s own and can be interpreted as an attempt to highlight the relationship between fiction and reality. Moments within the dialogue are far too ‘on the nose’ when they allude to the difficulties faced by screenwriters and feel too much like the manifestation of Chakravarty’s irritations as a screenwriter.

Regarding the research statement itself, the use of ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ to provide ‘a counter-narrative to the dominant Eurocentric discourse of cosmopolitanism’ is a complex aim for a practice-based project. The research statement may have benefited from unpacking these critical terms to provide working definitions for the reader. If we are encouraged to interpret Biswas as ‘a non-Western, non-elite 19th century cosmopolitan,’ it would be constructive to know more about why it is vital to do so. It is difficult to interpret Biswas as a boundary-crossing migrant who evolves the open toleration, cultural competence and utopian worldview claimed by globe-trotting elite travellers. Referring back to an earlier point, more narrative space for character development may have helped to provide the intended counter-narrative to the notion that cosmopolitanism is a matter of Western, elite privilege, thus achieving the outlined research aim.

This was a research project worthy of exploration. Although using artistic license to blend fact and fiction has existed since the dawn of storytelling and is, therefore, more habitual than innovative, the concepts of representation and authenticity are essential screenwriting considerations. Through practice-based research, Chakravarty provides an insight into a creative process that adds to the area of screenwriting research. Hometowns is the culmination of extensive socio-historical research. The screenplay artefact has value as a research tool for future academic screenwriters as it illuminates how specific human experiences can be selected, amended, and blended to create a rich screenplay story that reads as natural while being rooted in fiction.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

Thanks for the valuable comments. A brief research statement about evidence, sources, references and the overarching theoretical framework certainly calls for elaboration. The nature of the ‘gap in knowledge’ (which I call ‘scant evidence’) with regard to the biographical subject and the six letters on which the biopic is primarily based have been identified within the screenplay itself and discussed between the characters in the framestory, thus problematising the ‘gap.’ For anyone who is keen enough to pursue the details, all academic and non-academic sources, as well as the references for creative practice, are available online in the bibliography: http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/9046. It seems odd that a creative work should be accompanied by a bibliography unless such practices eventually become normative.

The ‘overarching theoretical position’ grows out of the desire to reject a straitjacketed position such as postcolonialism into which Western academia is too happy to pigeonhole non-Western academics/writers. Though I embrace the postcolonial framework, I do so with a critical distance, rejecting some of its problematic aspects. My intention is to question the eurocentrism inherent to the idea of cosmopolitanism (as experienced in the 19th century and articulated by Kant) as the sole privilege of the Western elite. A broader enquiry into our ‘global past’ (Davis and Ghosh) indicates other realities: the earliest cosmopolitans (i.e. the ability to live harmoniously alongside people who are not like us) were neither Western nor elite but the outliers of non-Western societies (sailors, indentured labourers, trafficked women, slaves) who were forced to live with people in places unlike their own. They were under greater compulsion to conform – ‘to reach across the aisle’ (Appiah) – than the privileged classes obsessed with hierarchy and subordination. It is important to remind ourselves that the cultural preparedness for cosmopolitanism neither owes itself to colonial history nor involves stepping out of one’s home, far less the globetrotting travel usually associated with it. There is abundant evidence in pre-colonial texts (i.e. autochthonous, ‘vernacular’ knowledge) that insist on a cosmopolitan approach to life and within my screenplay, the embodiment of that awareness is Biswas’ Uncle who is rooted to the Sanskritic tradition and prepares him, in a way, for the world. Through the life of Biswas, I thus offer a counter-narrative whereby personal history becomes a small inlet to public history, emphasising the need for a more inclusive understanding of our collective past.

In other words, the oxymoronic term vernacular cosmopolitanism (Bhabha) is the overarching theoretical position which is elaborated here as a presentist (i.e. where the past is used as a commentary on the present) interpretative framework in relation to my telling of Suresh Biswas’ life-story since I imagine him as a non-Western, non-elite proto-cosmopolitan of the 19th century, and in that way making him relevant to us. In remembering Biswas from the present moment in Indian history, I situate his trans-national journeys in counterpoint to the contemporary context of a jingoistic nationalism rooted in political Hinduism (represented by the Producer). So, while the answer to the producer’s question as to ‘why anybody should be interested in Biswas now’, remains unanswered by Shravani (the screenwriter), its answer can be found within the plot and mise-en-scène. At the end of Hometowns, a saffron cloud (symbol of Hinduism) envelops the screenwriter who refuses to conform to a nationalist version of Suresh Biswas’ life even at the cost of seeing the biopic project fall apart. The pessimistic tone is intended as a commentary about the present: the only way one can tell Biswas’ life-story in contemporary India from a liberal (cosmopolitan) viewpoint, is, as a deconstructed one.

The cosmopolitanism of Biswas’ world is seen through his seamless drift across the multi-ethnicity of the circus companies, countries, languages, sea-journeys and also implicit in the colonial project of sourcing wild animals from distant parts of the world in order to bring them within the fold of European ‘civilisation’ by taming them. Within this backdrop, the fact that Biswas thrived wherever he travelled across the globe, found companionship across linguistic and cultural barriers and never returned to India with the reassurance of a home, are important aspects of his cosmopolitanism.

However, I have tried not to create a hagiographic biopic of Biswas in the attempt to reclaim him from an obscure past. Biography-making in India tends to be blindly adulatory. So, I chose not to suppress some of the disturbing aspects of his character. It may be observed that Biswas was a misogynist. ‘I have rejected women out of disgust,’ he wrote in a letter while also bragging about his sexual exploits with several women in another. If I have portrayed him as sexually aggressive and cruel (Sc 57), it is intended to highlight this aspect of his character. While his 19th century biographers admired him for his epic heroism, my motivation for recalling him is entirely different and does not rely on a panegyric treatment.

The ‘research problem’ is thus focused in finding historically-grounded methods of constructing a life through the fictional mode when biographical evidence is sparse (‘tethering’ being just one among them). The microhistorical approach to biography has allowed me significantly to overcome this problem. If there is any value in this endeavour, it could indicate possible pathways to reconstructing innumerable significant but silenced, subaltern lives that are lost forever due to the lack of biographical evidence but may be relevant to us now.

 

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

The Screenplay’s Research Contribution & Significance

This is a screenplay about Suresh Biswas (1861-1905), a little-known adventurer from a remote part of India, who was a wild-life trainer and circus-performer in Europe and later became a Captain in the Brazilian army. His early biographies, based only on six letters, are unreliable and pose a challenge to the screenwriter in terms of narrative reconstruction of his life. I examine the creative and critical issues associated with researching such a historical figure based on scant evidence and seek ways to overcome the problem. Using the notion of ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ (Bhabha), I interpret Biswas as a non-Western, non-elite 19th century cosmopolitan, thereby constructing a counter-narrative to the dominant eurocentric discourse of cosmopolitanism which is portrayed as a matter of exclusive Western, elite privilege. This is highlighted by contrasting Biswas’ homebred cosmopolitanism with the jingoistic nationalism in contemporary India.

In writing Biswas’ biopic, I draw upon testimonies of biopic script-drafting processes and use the microhistorical research method to broaden contextual knowledge about the subject so that my fictional inventions are firmly rooted in evidence. I create a frame-story narrative with a screenwriter in the contemporary Mumbai film industry as the protagonist (whose arc runs in tandem with that of Biswas) whereby I address conceptual issues and the process of my own research and writing. The technique brings a meta-fictional frame of reference, highlighting the relationship between fiction and reality, using intertextuality as a technique of source-tagging.

In the absence of Biswas’ life-traces, the microhistorical research method (particularly the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Jean-Claude Carrière in The Return of Martin Guerre) has allowed me to find evidence in analogous lives, i.e. people who went through similar experiences. I undertake a vast amount of historical research across three continents where different peoples’ experiences are compressed to create composite characters, drawing from and contributing to, a rich emotional archive. Similarly, diverse events across time and place are condensed as part of a larger human experience which are ‘authentic’ nevertheless, experienced through one life. Constructing a life thus involves gathering diverse snippets of existence and assembling them into something that is coherent and new. I use ‘tethering’ (my term), connecting the poorly-documented colonised subaltern with well-documented colonial characters but read eurocentric testimonies ‘against the grain’, a technique used by Subaltern historians. I self-consciously recast Biswas’ cosmopolitanism in terms of his movement across countries, cultures and languages with multiple allegiances or ‘hometowns’. The screenplay thus contributes to postcolonial theory through a fictional embodiment of the ‘vernacular cosmopolitan’ caught in the polyglot frenzy of a multilingual world. In fact, the screenplay unfolds in seven languages that Biswas spoke without hampering its readability or flattening diversity to a common linguistic register.

Hometowns thus marks the culmination of all the research exploration, performing research through the act of screenwriting itself, leaving behind a set of critical/creative reflections about research and writing. Here, screenwriting initiates in practice but soon moves to biopic history and criticism. It reverts to practice with knowledge about research and writing that not only enables me to overcome my screenwriting problem but also leaves behind a set of insights and techniques for other screenwriters working with scant biographical evidence.

 

References

Appiah, Kwaime Anthony. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Allen Lane.

Bhabha, Homi. 1996. ‘Unsatisfied: Notes on Vernacular Cosmopolitanism.’ In Text and Nation, edited by Laura Garcia-Morena and Peter C. Pfeifer, 191-207. Camden House.

Chakravarty, Indranil. 2020. ‘Constructing a biopic-screenplay: Fictional Invention in the Biopic with Scant Historical Evidence.’ PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.

Davis, Natalie Zemon and Ghosh, Amitav. 2013. ‘Storytelling and the Global Past.’ CRASSH: Cambridge.

Dutt, Hem Chunder. Lieut. 2018. Suresh Biswas: His Life and Adventures. P.C. Dass Reprint: Jadavpur UP, India.

Kant, Immanuel. 2006. Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History. Yale UP.

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