In the seven years since he began directing, Srijit Mukherji has made films that have featured a serial killer poet, a 19th century minstrel and a crippled, retired government official on a mission to decipher hieroglyphic symbols in Egypt.
His first movie, Autograph (2010), was about a rookie film-maker and a fading superstar collaborating on a remake of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak; his last, Zulfiqar (2016), was a Shakespearean gangster saga set in the dockyard area of Kolkata. Some of his films are examples of contemporary Bengali commercial cinema at its best; in others, one could argue that the ideas are better than the movies. One way or another, Mukherji has changed the urban Bengali film, and can be considered one of the most influential film-makers today in Kolkata. His movies have won seven National Awards; Chotushkone alone wrested three in 2015.
Mukherji, keen to go beyond the geographic and linguistic restrictions that have defined his oeuvre so far, moved to Mumbai a year ago. His Hindi film debut, Begum Jaan, a remake of his own Rajkahini (2015), is scheduled to release on 14 April. Produced by Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt’s Vishesh Films, it is a Partition-era drama about a group of prostitutes fighting to save a brothel when the line dividing India and Pakistan is drawn through it.
Over a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Khar, Mumbai, Mukherji spoke about getting the rare chance to improve one’s own film, why he left Kolkata, and his sci-fi dream project. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How are ‘Rajkahini’ and ‘Begum Jaan’ different, other than the fact that the action shifts from undivided Bengal to pre-Partition Punjab?
The narrative is the same, but the backdrop and perspective have changed. The images of the western partition are very different from those of the eastern one. In the latter, the exodus happened in trickles and spurts. In the former, things happened in one go. You had long lines crossing over—cattle, people carrying people.
The brothel in Begum Jaan is a north Indian haveli and the women are from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Kashmir. The historical elements have been condensed into a voice-over by Amitabh Bachchan. There is more focus on men and women than historical characters like (Cyril) Radcliffe and (Louis) Mountbatten, as there was in Rajkahini.
Rajkahini was mounted well with respect to its budget but it had a lot of cinematic fat. I’m getting a chance to improve on this. I see it like the second show of a theatre performance. You take out the weaknesses and make it tighter. Many people have asked me why I haven’t worked with anyone from Bengal for Begum Jaan. I wanted to make a new start.
I believe the shoot was plagued with problems in the beginning?
Ravi (K. Chandran, cinematographer) opted out for health reasons, and costume (Payal Saluja) and art design (Amit Ray, Subrata Chakrabarty) because of the budget. The film was on the verge of being called off. The set was destroyed by a thunderstorm. Every day we would go to the sets with three or four scenes so that we could adjust according to the schizophrenic weather.
The producers gave us 37 days to shoot and we did it in 32 days. Saving five days is saving close to Rs1 crore.
There were rumours of a Hindi remake of ‘Autograph’ in 2011. Was making films in Mumbai always on the cards?
Yes. If you look through the apparent Bengaliness of my films, there is always a universal story at their heart. The idea of Autograph being remade with Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor was floated at a whispery level. The first real offer for a remake came after Hemlock Society (2012). After a few meetings, the script changes that were suggested went against the soul of the film. I’m all for reinventing a narrative for a bigger audience, but only if it is organic. When it becomes dukaandari (business), it’s a problem.
I decided I will go to Mumbai on my own terms. The offer to make Begum Jaan gave me that opportunity. With the kind of understanding I have with my team in Kolkata, I can make Bengali films sitting in Mumbai. The reverse, however, is not possible.
Most of your nine films have made money. You have the biggest Bengali stars and producers at your disposal. Why did you feel the need to make Hindi films?
I was getting comfortable. In Kolkata, if a story came to me, I would call up Shrikant Mohta of Shree Venkatesh Films or Bumbada (Prosenjit Chatterjee). Within one month, I would be on the shooting floor.
It felt so liberating when a website called me a “young, talented debutant director” for Begum Jaan. The struggle is exhilarating. You are chasing people, they are replying after three weeks. It is like coming from a river to swim in the ocean.
I’m also a huge Hindi film romantic; I have grown up reading about Navketan Films, Ashok Kumar, P.C. Barua, Guru Dutt. When I go for interactions in Filmalaya and Rajkamal studios, I get goosebumps. Begum Jaan, in a way, is like fan fiction for me. I mean, Naseeruddin Shah has acted in my movie, it begins with the baritone of Mr Bachchan, and I have Asha Bhosle opening the album.
It seems surprising that you got Anu Malik to compose the music, considering some of your best soundtracks have come from working with singer-songwriters.
For Begum Jaan’s period setting, I felt I needed to go back to melody. And Anu Malik is a tremendous melody-maker. Unfortunately, his work in the 1990s that makes him notorious has overshadowed his good work. But if you listen to Moh Moh Ke Dhaage, you know the fire still burns.
I told him clearly that the Anu Malik I am looking for is the composer of Refugee and Aśoka, not of Judwaa and Duplicate. When I didn’t like a tune, I would tell him, Anuji, give me songs that I keep on humming.
You like playing with the public personas of actors. You have brought back ageing heroes (Prosenjit in ‘Autograph’, Chiranjit in ‘Chotushkone’) and frequently cast against type (Jisshu Sengupta in ‘Rajkahini’). And in ‘Begum Jaan’, you have cast Chunky Pandey as a contract killer.
I wanted to anti-cast Chunky Pandey in terms of genre, to take someone comic and make him totally dark. As for playing with personas, there is a meta-ness in most of my films. Chotushkone was like a reference within a reference within a reference; the actors had professional and personal histories with each other. Autograph couldn’t have been made with anyone but Prosenjit. He didn’t need to explain the excesses of a matinee idol.
No matter how big an actor Soumitra Chatterjee is, only Uttam Kumar could have been Ray’s Nayak. There is a scene in the film where he runs out of ink while giving an autograph to a fan, but quickly dips the nib in water and carries on. Kumar just did it out of habit. Ray was going to say “cut” when it happened.
What are you looking to direct next?
I’m starting the shooting of Paharchuray Atonko (Terror In The Mountains) from May in Nepal, Switzerland and Madhya Pradesh. It is the second in the planned trilogy based on the Bengali detective series Kakababu. The first one, Mishawr Rawhoshyo (Mystery In Egypt), was shot in the middle of the Sahara desert. We were chased by Bedouins with light machine guns because we hadn’t paid them their hafta (cut). It was an unforgettable experience.
I was in talks with cricketer Sourav Ganguly for a biopic, and I have two sci-fi scripts in mind, both stories in Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku series. They have to be mounted on a huge scale and would need stars such as Amitabh Bachchan or Aamir Khan to play the lead. Ray’s son, Sandeep, has refused to give the rights but I still go to him every year. However, he is willing to give rights for Ray’s children’s detective series, Feluda, in Hindi.
Given that you normally make films in Bengali, how was it making a film in which the characters speak Punjabi and Urdu?
I love writing in Bengali but I also write in Hindi. I have a love for languages which goes back to my days in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The first song I wrote, Maula from Madly Bangalee (2009), was in Hindi. The first script I wrote was called Kirdaar. The film came to me in Hindi and later became Autograph.
I can’t go to the local level of Hindi. For that you need someone like Kausar Munir, who, besides the lyrics, has written additional dialogues and the screenplay (of Begum Jaan). But I have been turning my scripts into Hindi for a while. I have five Hindi scripts ready right now. I am prepared to shoot from tomorrow. Since Mumbai is more star-driven, you might as well keep things ready. If it’s not in Hindi, I will be making something in Bengali, for which I have two scripts.
You sound like someone in a great hurry.
I am fast, hungry and manic. I am 39 now, and if you look at the average life expectancy of the Indian male, I have already crossed the intermission of my life. Things need to start happening fast in the second half. I have a lot of stories to tell and there is little time in hand.