Blessed with an infectious smile, Bijaya nee Dolly Jena has climbed rapidly as a veteran actress, producer, director, script writer and juror at many national and international fests. She served on the Governing Council of FTII from 1992 to 1995.
Bijaya Jena in a tete-a-tete with A.Radhakrishnan.
Tell me about your journey as actress, director, film juror,etc.
I was born in Cuttack, Odisha, in a family of aristocrats and academicians, the youngest of three children. After school, I joined FTII, Pune for a two-year acting course, despite parental opposition.
My debut film, Jagga Balia in Oriya language won me the state award for best actress. Another Oriya film, Hakim Babu also got the National Award for Best Film.
I later met the legendary film maker Kamal Amrohi who liked my voice and face and wanted to sign me for the lead role for his script Kumayun Tees Mile, but I did not agree to an exclusive contract. So he created a fictitious role, especially for me in his historical magnum opus Razia Sultan, which was already on the floors and casting had been done. Though the film flopped, many noticed my character, Laila, but as I was in Odisha, a few interested directors could not contact me.
I also did Hindi television serials like Ek Kahani, Vikram Betaal, Param Veer Chakra and TV plays like Gogol’s Inspector General, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Aks Aur Aina and Hindi films include K.A. Abbas’s The Naxalites, and Ketan Mehta’s Holi. I also appeared in Ismail Merchant’s British film The Deceivers, directed by Nicholas Meyer.
I faced the scourge of the casting couch in Bollywood, and most art film makers like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalaniand few others had their own muses, so I just could not break into their coterie. I therefore yearned to produce a low budget film with myself in the lead role.
I then signed one of the best script writers of India, Bimal Dutt (National award winner for his film Kasturi). I assisted him on the script and translated his dialogues into Odia which helped me immensely understand the script writing process. I was also exposed to his private library which had all the works of Tagore, Tolstoy, Camus, Sartre, Kafka, Brecht, Zola, Chekov, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Flaubert, et al.
As a young producer with very little resources, by the time I got the Odia state fund, Bimalda was ailing and did not want to do a low budget film outdoors. He suggested that I myself direct the film, as I had understood his script very well and was exposed to international cinema.
So, I debuted as a director and made my first Odia film Tara in 1992, a sensitive study of a woman’s betrayal and disillusionment, which went on to receive a national award for best director. I was also nominated for the best actress in India and also at The Women’s Film Festival in France.
My second directorial venture was Abhaas (Prologue) in Hindi, in 1997, a poetic parable and a realist drama in rural India, where I had the honour of having Hungarian maestro Istval Gaan as my script advisor. Earlier, I was to produce a film titled Konark in 1984, and had approached Feroz Khan’s assistant Wasi Khan to direct it, but the film was eventually shelved.
I then took a sabbatical, first to raise my daughter and write few scripts, and then another to look after my ailing mother who passed away in 2007.
Why the change in name from Dolly to Bijaya?
My pet name is Dolly and passport name is Bijaya. Kamal Amrohi thought Dolly Jena sounded like Gina Lollobrigida and suggested that name for Razia Sultan. But when I directed Tara, I thought people would take me more seriously as Bijaya Jena, as Dolly sounded too dumb. Mira Nair in fact saw a video of my TV play Aks Aur Aina and thought I was too glamorous to play the role of a poor prostitute in Salaam Bombay.
What makes a good film?
Film is a synthesis of many art forms. It has to have all the aspects properly like storytelling, visuals, sound and performances. In our Natya Shastra, we learn all about the elements.
What makes a good actor?
When you act and people believe that you are that character and forget your real identity.
What makes a good director?
A director is like the captain of a ship who hasto oversee all the aspects of film making, and understand the social context of the story and its history to connect with the audience.
What are the benefits of film festivals?
I had gone to Cannes in 2006 to pitch my English film and gave the DVD of my film Abhaas to Farabi Foundation, Iran for sale. They saw the film, loved it but could not buy it because its content included seduction and abortion. Instead, they invited me as juror for the international competition in their main film festival, along with noted Majid Majid.
What do you feel about being a juror?
This country has 3/4 good film critics while the rest have merely a command over the language, but not cinema. The older critics understand cinema technique of the 50s. That’s why we can never make films for Cannes or Oscar. My passion is to orient people to artistic cinema. I get to do this by being on the jury and evaluating films. I do take up a juror assignment only if the festival is of some international standard. I recommend and analyse films to cinephiles. As a juror, I can contribute to artistic cinema by recognising them.
The films we picked up in Kolkata are brilliant films. The best film award we gave to a Guatemala film The Weeping Woman, has legend combined with magic realism and current politics. The best director award went to a Czech film The Painted Bird, adapted from a famous novel. The violence used here is in an artistic manner depicting the violence of the war and its effects on people.
Which are the film festivals you have been a juror at?
I have done jury duty at the Fajr Film Festival, Iran in 2007, Kish International Film Festival, Iran in 2011, Roshd International Film Festival, 2012, Golden Apricot Film Festival in 2015, Indian Panorama, Goa in 2015, Aswan International Women’s Film Festival, Egypt, 2018, the Dhaka International Film Festival in 2018 and the 25th Kolkata International Film Festival.
What qualities should a juror possess?
I feel an ideal juror should be one who understands all the aspects of film making such as dramaturgy, performance, painting, sound which surrounds us and the silence, and can evaluate a film. Exposure to international cinema is very important as cinema as an art form evolved in Europe.
What is it like to serve on a film festival jury? Is there emotional build up and perceptual exhaustion? Do you have to see all the movies entered? How do you then enjoy the festival?
It’s good if one has experience as a juror. Polanski said ‘your award is as good as the jury.’ You can’t have a maker who makes only gangster films, evaluating a film like the Marathi film Court. Yes, it is an onerous task and hard work to watch a minimum of 3 to 4 films or even more a day, stretching into 6 or 7 hours. The festivals shortlist 15/20 films from the submission of 50/100 films they receive.
When you are on the jury, it’s difficult to find personal time, but then if you love cinema and want to interact with the makers from different parts of the world in the evening, then you will enjoy it.
Are jurors buddies? Do they acknowledge and respect diversity. What about ego hassles?
It depends, but then most members take their job seriously and work towards a common goal to award the best film. There may be one or two members who may have different views but then democracy works. The Chairperson convinces you sometimes with his experienced view and you may rethink. Ego hassles can come up, but then voting helps. A good jury or evaluator is important for the growth of any art form.
As a jury member, do you become a mentor, a friend or even a collaborator on a future project?
Yes, sometimes, one discovers a talent and recommends them to other film festivals. I met Hungarian maestro Istvan Gaal at the Delhi film festival and discussed cinema. Many years later when he visited FTII as a guest professor, he enquired about me and advised me on the script of my film Abhaas. Right now my film Abhaas is restored and people abroad are loving it.
What is the basic difference between film festival jury in India and abroad?
Comparatively, we have to be little liberal while judging Indian films. Indians are influenced by escapist films with Bollywood parameters and it’s difficult for them to make anything different. Now with the internet, the makers and audience are oriented to appreciate good content without songs.
Do only good films make it to the festivals? Do films of unknown makers make it too?
Yes, there are many festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Taliinn who have a section dedicated to first films. If your film gets an award, then you get it distributed like it did for Mira Nair, Murali Nair, and Ritesh Batra at Cannes.
Which film festivals have earned the most reputation? Why?
Cannes, Berlin, Venice have got their reputation by getting high quality films and expert jury, besides a good market place and attendance by a good press. The Kolkata Film Festival has an award money of 51 lakhs, the highest in the world for the international competition section, but did not have the foreign press presence at all this year.
How good a forum is the film festival for the film, filmmaker and distributor?
Some festivals help in recognising the work of a good filmmaker. For instance, the career of an artiste like Satyajit Ray was appreciated in Cannes and Venice or else we would never have had his works. Appreciation encourages an artiste.
What are your future plans?
I am working on a low budget film with Neeraj Kabi and myself in Odisa about roots, culture, migration, and also a very big budget English film set in the backdrop of Goa liberation with Oscar winners.