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For most part of his career, Anurag Basu has made films about the darker desires of the human heart: forbidden love (Kites), complex modern relationships (Life in a Metro), adultery (Murder, Gangster). He seemed like a brand new director in Barfi!, toying with his favourite things: dreamy north Bengal and Kolkata settings, a cartoon-ish hero, quaint objects, inventive physical comedy and a love of old music and films. In his new film, Jagga Jasoos, he has unleashed his inner child.
Produced by Disney, Jagga Jasoos is about the journey of a boy—an orphan—in search of his missing adopted father, told through comic book tales by bumbling journalist Shruti, who has accompanied him on some of his adventures to places as disparate as Manipur, West Bengal and Africa. Not only is Jagga that rare children’s film in Hindi cinema, it is also a musical in the true sense—where characters converse in songs, and in which a Bihu number segues into a boarding school anthem. The film released on 14 July. In a phone interview, Basu spoke about his attempt to make a film a child can watch with the same involvement as an adult, the influence of Satyajit Ray, the musicality of the Bengali language, and why the film owes more to indigenous theatre forms than musical films.
‘Barfi!’ onwards, there seems to be a different Anurag Basu. You’ve said earlier that your daughters are the reason you made ‘Jagga Jasoos’.
I think I am a different man now because of my two daughters. I can’t make films that don’t give anything back to children. Jagga digs into the childhood of every Bengali. My audience for Jagga, in a nutshell, was my own family.
What were your influences for ‘Jagga’? The film has turned out to be full of Easter eggs for people who have seen Satyajit Ray’s children’s films.
When I first approached Pritam for the film, I gave him the reference of Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980)—the sequel to Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). It was a one-of-its kind musical which is conversational, tongue-in-cheek and unlike anything done in Indian cinema. That was the only real reference.
Tintin and Indiana Jones is something that will always be in the back of your mind when you are making a children’s adventure. Whether it is the Fire Moth or taking the hero to Africa, these are the images that naturally come to your head. We didn’t intend the tuft of hair to be a tribute to Tintin. We wanted a peculiar hairstyle and we tried various options, including a pony-tail. We went ahead with the tuft because it looked best on Ranbir.
There was a shot where you get a glimpse of Jagga’s library, with Feluda books, in the hostel. It is almost a replica of my childhood library. There was also the Ravanhatta from the Feluda movie Sonar Kella in the corner. It pained me to remove those shots.
There is also Subhas Chandra Bose, to go with the film’s search-for-the-missing-hero narrative. In one shot, Ranbir is almost made to look like Netaji.
We deliberately gave Ranbir, Netaji’s signature flat topi. All Bengalis have grown up hearing fascinating stories of his life. But Netaji never got the attention from mainstream entertainment and literature that he deserved. I’m glad people such as Vishal Bhardwaj and Tigmanshu Dhulia have made films that touch upon his life. I want to make a film on him some day.
The movie is also about a father passing on the influences of books, movies and music to his child. How has your father influenced you?
I lost my father seven years back. A lot of things Badal Bagchi tells Jagga, I’ve learnt from him. He made me politically aware, never imposed any ideology, taught me to read between the news and question everything.
I grew up in Bhilai, a small town in Chhattisgarh. My father used to work in a steel plant and my mother was a teacher. Theatre was like oxygen for them. Jagga is influenced by the various theatre forms in India more than any musical movie: Majma from UP, Pandavani from Chhattisgarh, Bhavai from Gujarat. The idea was, if these theatre forms can narrate difficult epics like Mahabharata through song, why can’t we narrate a simple story?
What were the challenges in making a musical?
Most western musicals such as Mary Poppins or Singin’ in the Rain are like Hindi films—where the songs and dialogue are separate. There are very few musicals such as Chicago, where they sing the dialogue. The challenge was to make a musical within the Hindi film format of the musical. You see, our audience isn’t used to paying attention to the lyrics while watching a film. It was risky. For instance, we had to keep the case of Jagga’s first mystery uncomplicated because people will not be able to follow too many twists and turns through a song.
On the other hand, we couldn’t have made the songs sound too much like theatre, where they’re more wordy. There are devices such as bibek (conscience) in jatra, which comes and goes—a lot of the time, I would give Pritam a brief in that sort of raw musical theatre format. He really decorated them with melody, arrangement and gave them musical ups and downs.
What seems to be the response?
Some people are having problems with the songs. Some are loving it. It has gotten extreme reactions.
You seem to be very invested in the music of your films.
As a child, I have made attempts at playing multiple instruments: Hawaiian guitar, Spanish guitar, tabla, a little bit of everything. Maybe that has given me a ear for music. The first thing I do before starting to write a script is create my playlist. During Jagga, I was hearing a lot of strange, uncommon Kishore Kumar songs such as Tera Mera Chacha Zindabad, Ae Mere Topi Palat Ke Aa. I made Pritam hear the latter because we needed a similar change in tempo for a song, from western to Indian to western. I found these songs while I was researching for the Kishore Kumar biopic. I was also listening to a lot of Western classical, waltzes by Chopin, Tchaikovsky...
Jagga is weird, nerdy. Shruti is clumsy. These aren’t qualities we generally attribute to Hindi film leads.
Jagga’s character is, in fact, influenced by Pritam. We were neighbours in Kolkata when we were young. I remember he used to stammer a lot but would sing just fine— he does that even now. When he gets stuck while giving interviews or judging a reality show, he hums a little tune which helps him speak.
Shruti’s clumsiness is modelled on my wife, Tani (also one of the co-producers), who is a calamity generator. If there is one cup with a broken handle among many cups on a table, she would pick that very cup.
The film has an anachronistic world where CCTV cameras co-exist with 8-bit video games and big dial phones. How did you decide on the look?
Even though the movie is set in present day, I didn’t want to show mobile phones, emails; it confused our production designer. These gadgets take away from the old world charm. (Cinematographer) Ravi Varman and I were very clear in our heads about selecting the colour palette. We played a lot with green, which is a very old-school colour.
It’s interesting how the language in the film is dominated by Bengali words and phrases.
Hindi has a lot of limitations, it is a young language. It wouldn’t have yielded the madness we were looking for. We could really play around with Bangla. Also, if you have many Bengalis in the writing team of a Hindi film, this is bound to happen. (Lyricist) Amitabh Bhattacharya and I are both non-resident Bengalis, but we write and think in Bangla, especially when Amitabh is writing gibberish. There was also Samrat Chakraborty and Debatma Mandal, who wrote the rap and beatboxing portions. Pritam also makes songs like that — there are several Bengali versions of songs of Barfi! and Jagga. We would crack the songs over sessions of adda. When we couldn’t translate the Bengali stuff into Hindi, we let it be. A Bengali might see Tiktiki, Shundi, or Agapastola differently, but to the Hindi audience they work fine, as they sound like African names.
Do you expect children today to enjoy the same things your generation had enjoyed back in the day?
You wouldn’t know until and unless you give it to them. Either you cater to the taste of the audience, or you try and change the taste. Without Ranbir’s backing, this sort of experimentation wouldn’t have been possible.
Before the movie begins, we make an announcement that the movie is for children eight years and older, and for the child alive in the adults. If you are cynical you won’t like this film. In my mind, I made a film I thought everyone will enjoy. But somewhere it hasn’t satisfied everybody. Somewhere we’ve missed. But I’ll be glad even if 10 % of the audience goes back and wants to know more. After watching the film, one of my daughter’s friends came over and she wanted to read Feluda.
What are you working on next?
Since both Barfi! and Jagga had similar worlds, I want to take a u-turn and do something completely different. The sequel to Life in a Metro is happening, and Irrfan has already signed on. The Kishore Kumar biopic is still on. The thing with making a biopic in India is that you have to deal with a lot of people who are attached to the person’s story. His son Amit Kumar is with me, but there are some who don’t want to be named in it. We are sorting that out. Ranbir is eager to do it and we’ll take a call soon.