x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dreaming bigger, Bengali director left astrophysics for filmmaking

The differences between the fields of science and filmmaking may seem vast, but having left a post at NASA, Bedabrata Pain says the two aren't as dissimilar as one might think.

Indian director Bedabrata Pain. Courtesy Bedabrata Pain
Indian director Bedabrata Pain. Courtesy Bedabrata Pain

For most well-rounded people with a decent college education, the prospect of simply having "NASA" on their CV would be more than enough to satisfy their ambitions. Add to this the prestigious title of "senior research scientist", 67 patents and an induction into the Space Technology Hall of Fame thanks to an invention that had helped change the face of modern technology, and many out there wouldn't be criticised for suggesting they were rather pleased with how their career had gone.

Not so Bedabrata Pain who, in 2008, left his job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and decided to turn to his real passion, drama and filmmaking.

"My PhD advisor told me that by the time you are 45, you should be absolutely settled in what you are doing, you have your roots planted so deep that you just build upon that, you concentrate on making the leaves of your tree rather than the trunk," says the Bengal-born Pain from his home in Los Angeles. "And as it turns out, that was exactly the age where I said 'screw the tree'."

Four years on, however, and Pain's dramatic leap from the microscope to the clapperboard is beginning to bear some sizeable fruit. Having already received a standing ovation during its world premiere in LA earlier this month, his debut feature Chittagong is now set to open the New York Indian Film Festival on Wednesday.

The film, set in the 1930s in British-occupied India (in an area now part of Bangladesh), tells the story of a real-life incident in which a group of teenage boys and girls, led by their revolutionary schoolteacher Surjiya Sen, inflicted a defeat on the British forces, capturing the two armouries and the European Clubs headquarters in Chittagong. While the incident would eventually lead to the capture and hanging of Surjiya Sen, Pain says that the spirit of the uprising lived on and was a "landmark event in the freedom struggle that has gone by completely unnoticed".

Rather than focus on Sen, who Pain claims "was already a revered, iconic character, especially in Bengal", he, together with his co-writer and wife Shonali Bose (who directed 2005's acclaimed Amu), decided to base the story around the emotional journey of the 14-year-old fighter Jhunku Roy.

"He was the last surviving participant of the Chittagong incident in India," says Pain, adding that he spoke to the man shortly before he passed away in 2007 at the age of 92.

Story aside, Pain's work in his previous profession has - inadvertently - helped him in his new vocation. While working on his PhD at Columbia University (although he claims he was doing "anything but his PhD", including being involved in a theatre group), Pain was invited to work at NASA where, together with four friends, he helped invent something now called active pixel sensor technology.

"Purely out of good or bad luck, which I haven't yet been able to figure out, we came upon this invention, which went on to become digital CMOS imaging technology, which is in the backbone of all digital cameras today."

As it turned out, Pain's CMOS would revolutionise the industry he would eventually be turning to.

"My wife was in UCLA film school in '93/94, exactly when we were coming up with this invention and not really knowing where it was headed," he claims. "At the time, I made a wager with the professors there that everything would become digital, that nobody would be using film. Nobody wanted to hear it, it was completely blasphemous."

Twenty years on, and almost every element of filmmaking - from shooting, to post-production to the actual screenings - is digital.

"I can't even call my film a film anymore, because it's not," says Pain.

Despite his background in digital imagery, Pain didn't find it any easier when he finally began filmmaking. Working on Chittagong in India was, he claims, the first time he had been on a film set, and he says he was "very intimidated" by his experienced crew, which included an Oscar-winner from Slumdog Millionaire.

"I needed them to be right so I didn't screw up everything."

There were slip-ups, one involving filmmaking jargon where he says he would regularly mix "sticks" (meaning a tripod) with "stick" (meaning the viewer mounted on a rod) until his director of photography pointed it out on the third day.

"I could feel my ear going hot and red," laughs Pain. "There were many such things that I did, but about a third of the way through I think people began to see I wasn't that bad."

Pain and his wife (who served as a co-producer), also overcame immense family heartbreak to make Chittagong. Mid-way through shooting, their teenage son died in an accident at home in LA.

"He was one of the biggest supporters of the film, one of the guys who was telling me that I must switch career because that's what I wanted to do," says Pain. "It was very, very tough losing him. Our lives have been turned upside down."

Despite the ordeal, Pain and Bose carried on, and the finished film is testament to their dedication.

In making it, Pain even found similarities between his two seemingly diverse career choices.

"Filmmaking has tremendous amounts of constraints, involving money and equipment and so on," he says. "It requires imagination, but in a very structured fashion, which is exactly the same as in science, which requires creativity, but within the constraints of existing theories and your experiment," he says.

One notable difference, however, is the attention.

"In NASA, I was a Hall of Famer, but nobody knew about me. But now I've made this small film and a lot more people know about me," he acknowledges. "The entertainment industry brings you that attention way more than science and technology, which is sad, but a reality."

Pain is hoping to release Chittagong across India, rather fittingly, on August 15 - Independence Day.

Following the reception it's had so far in the US, the film is likely to lead to a lot more attention coming Pain's way, and he is already looking forward to directing his second. NASA's loss, it seems, could well be cinema's gain.

Chittagong opens the 12th New York Indian Film Festival at the Paris Theatre in New York on Wednesday. The festival runs until Sunday. For more information go to www.iaac.us; www.chittagongthefilm.com.