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I have an Ulyssian spirit like Kakababu, says National Award winning director Srijit Mukherji
National Award winning director Srijit Mukherji is ready for his puja release 'Yeti Obhijaan' under the banner of Shree Venkatesh Films. The film is based on Sunil Gangopadhyay's 'Paharchuray Atonko'. He also has slated his next release under the same banner in 2018. Here is an exclusive interview of 'Begum Jaan' director Srijit Mukherji.

Atanu Roy: 'Yeti Obhijaan' is your 11th film. When you came to the arena after leaving a secure career, had you ever thought that within 7 years there will be 11 films under your filmography with a film in Hindi too?

Srijit Mukherji: Of my 10 films earlier, 8 films were commercially successful, won 7 National Awards, 160 total awards, and above all, featured in 30 national and international film festivals. It is not only a list of achievements but actually by-products. It is true that I had never thought that this would happen. Simultaneously, I did not aim for it too. I was then keen to tell my story in a proper and honest way and thought that friends and family will watch 'Autograph' and after two weeks the film would get lost and forgotten but what happened is something that I had never dreamt of.

All thoughts and preconceptions got stuck somewhere and 'Autograph' continued its marathon run for over 15 weeks. It suddenly commenced as a new chapter in Bengali films, some careers also kick-started. Somehow the film pulled the audience back to the theatres. As a whole, Bengali films saw a new dawn through 'Autograph'. I hadn't imagined it ever, and neither did I want to take such a huge responsibility; but it just happened.

Now, if I try to assess the scenario then lots of things may come to mind but I'm not eager to do so. I just want to tell my story as I wish and if anything comes out as by-product, let it be. On the other hand, an anti-lobby has also been created against me on social media but I'm not in the mood to encourage or discourage thee. If I get involved with those, my work would get hampered. Actually, I honestly have realised that I can't live without telling my story and spending quality time of my life while shooting or editing.

Srijit Mukherji

Roy: 'Yeti Obhijaan' is releasing adjacent to your birthday. Is this bringing any special feeling?

Mukherji: First time it happened at the time of 'Chotushkone'. That was also a puja release. On the flipside, 'Baishe Srabon' released on Bumba Da's birthday. It depends on the puja dates. But it's a pure coincidence with a good feel.

Roy: 'Yeti Obhijaan' missed the chance marginally of becoming the first three dimensional (3D) film in Bengali language. Will a rough patch continue living inside your mind afterwards?

Mukherji: Yeah! I second the term 'marginally'. Obviously, an ill feeling is there but we are bound by infrastructure. We had a positive conversation with a 3D company. But infrastructural statistics led us to a conclusion that to watch a 3D Bengali film, the Bengali audience will have to wait for some more time. We have just a few 3D screen here and the ratio of 3D and 2D screens is like hell and heaven. So, at the end of the day, the box office collections might have got hampered. In Kolkata there are very few 3D screens and a houseful board there means a person will not lead himself to watch it on a 2D screen. So, we will have to wait a bit more.

Roy: But it is not necessary that it will also be a Srijit Mukherji film?

Mukherji: For me, it is not necessary that the first 3D Bengali film should be mine. I want that Bengali audience should enjoy Bengali films in 3D. Whosoever the director or producer, if they ever come to me, I shall be obliged to assist them by as much as possible with regards to 3D.

Roy: There are so many detectives in Bengali films. Feluda, Byomkesh, Kiriti, Shabor and Kakababu…

Mukherji: No...No...No! Here is a huge misconception. Kakababu is not a detective. In my previous Kakababu film 'Mishawr Rawhoshyo' there was a dialogue, "Tiktiki aar dinosaur er modhye tawfat aachhe". Kakababu is not a tiktiki (lizard, in Bengali colloquial way detectives are also called as tiktiki) but a dinosaur. He gets angry if someone refers tohim as tiktiki. He never gets involved with theft or murder cases. He is actually an explorer, an adventurer. He has dealt with some huge matters like searching for a mummy under the pyramid or looking for Yeti on Everest. His scale is larger and range is broader than others.

Roy: Suppose, nobody had made any film on Byomkesh or Shabor so far, would Srijit Mukherji still opt for Kakababu?

Mukherji: Absolutely and of course. There is also a reason behind it. I also have that type of spirit in me that Kakababu had. I also have the Ulyssian spirit to pass through inaccessible places throughout the world. So, Kakababu is more relatable to me and that's why any day I will opt for Kakababu.

Roy: You made 'Mishawr Rawhoshyo' earlier and now 'Yeti Obhijaan' under the same banner. They are probably the only production house that remains quality conscious on so many projects that will not give them any profit. 'Mishawr Rawhoshyo' was a blockbuster but it was the scenario after its release, but initially it might have been risky to some extent for ambitious large-scale project like "Yeti…

Mukherji: No. It's not right. Definitely they are the most supportive producers but in my project, I always keep in mind and want to know about the satellite rights, online streaming rights, overseas distribution, in-film branding, etc. When I personally feel satisfied only then I start my production. I am completely aware about the market size and how much a film could collect from there too. So, for my films they don't have to think a lot because I think continuously about the returns.

Roy: Standing in 2017, have you ever repented after making a film? I mean to say, if you had a rewind button in your life, would you like to press it and erase the film from your timeline like you had never made that film?

Mukherji: Never, albeit I have thought many times that if I had the chance to remake a film, then I would add something or perhaps make it in some other way or maybe take a particular shot differently. But I have never repented over making a film. I will never make a film which is not close to my heart or lacks honesty. I will only make a film which tells my story. There will be no other criteria. Fortunately, I need so little for a living. I don't run for material luxury. So, I will never make films for money. It will always be to fulfill my mental appetite.

Roy: Have you ever felt that if you got a chance to remake this film, you would replace the casting panel?

Mukherji: Yeah, I have felt that if I had cast him or her in this role, may be it would have been better. There also have been scenarios when I have met an actor and thought that had I known this actor before, maybe I would have cast him or her. The same thought comes in my mind for art directors or production designers as well. These types of if-then situations always knock my mind as I am a little bit scurrilous with my creations.

Roy: 'Begum Jaan' was your Bollywood debut. Your first film 'Autograph' had created such a positive buzz all over. Somehow, do you think that your B-Town debut failed to create a proper platform for you? Will you second the term 'misfire'?

Mukherji: Nope! I will not say that was a misfire but definitely it failed to reach my expectation level. I obviously expected a little bit of critical acclamation. I was pretty sure that 'Begum Jaan' will not challenge 'Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya' at the box-office, because the storyline of the film was too dark and disturbing and somehow it portrayed some cruel reality. 'Begum Jaan' was not an entertainer by any means and I'm happy that my first Hindi film succeeded to break-even at least. I actually had aimed three thingswith 'Begum Jaan'.

First, my producer should not face loss and it was very important for me.

Secondly, 'Begum Jaan' introduced me to Bollywood and now people in Mumbai can recognise me by name. This recognition was very much needed for me. I needed it badly because I faced a lot of obstacles throughout out my journey, beginning from my cinematographer leaving the film to my set getting destroyed in storm to my costume designer quitting. Nobody helped me. Finally, I fought the battle alone. That's why I'm proud of 'Begum Jaan'; the whole team is proud of 'Begum Jaan'. I realised that releasing a film in a normal way in Mumbai itself is an achievement. How good or bad you made the film will come after that.

And lastly, I wanted to achieve some more critical success but somehow I failed to do so and for this, I'm a little bit upset.

Roy: 'Begum Jaan' also did not achieve the desired success in your base, means Kolkata, is 'Rajkahini' supposedly the cause?

Mukherji: Definitely, I was mentally prepared for this scenario and had also told my producer not to expect too much returns from the Bengali speaking circuit. I believe that technically 'Rajkahini' is my most successful film. People gave 'Rajkahini' a supreme place in their minds.The film featured in 21 film festivals, got selected for Indian Panorama and collected around Rs 5 crore. So, it fulfilled all the aspects.

When 'Begum Jaan' was seen by Bengali audience, at first there came a comparison between Vidya Balan and Rituparna Sengupta and a point was proved that character artists of Bengali films were no-doubt stronger than the cast of 'Begum Jaan'. I wanted to start at any cost. I'm not that kind of person who will think that I have earned a secure position in Bengali film industry, so my job is all done. Mumbai was a challenge to me and I whole heartedly tried to face the challenges and risks. I'm satisfied that I managed to overcome those huge obstacles.

Vidya Balan and Sriji

Roy: Obstacle are everywhere. As your first film was 'Autograph', you didn't face obstacles in Kolkata, but so many new directors and aspiring storytellers are facing hurdles after hurdles. Is it not true that after completion of almost 80 per cent work, their films get shelved?

Mukherji: I agree but I want to say that when someone is eyeing success of Mumbai which is ten times more than in the Bengali film industry, then even the obstacles would ten folds. Where the success goes national there the negativities also, which target you.

Roy: Do you mean to say that like there is a difference between Ranji and World Cup matches?

Mukherji: Absolutely. Maybe I'm a top order batsman of a Ranji team and consistently scoring runs but I wanted to play a World Cup match. At least and I'm happy that I have already played one after playing some Ranji matches. (Smiles)

Roy: How would you define the terms 'hit' and 'flop'? Is it about satisfying the target audiences or just box office success?

Mukherji: I have a very clear conception about hit and flop. For me, a film must achieve something. Now, if I think commercially, then it's clear that if a film faces loss then it is a flop and if a film achieves some profit then it is a hit. But besides hit and flop there is also a term that is break-even or you may call it average. Now if I assess my own films then out of my ten films, I have seven hits including super-hits and blockbusters; two flops namely 'Jaatishwar' and 'Nirbaak' and one average film that is 'Begum Jaan'.

Roy: Is this the assessment of economist Srijit Mukherji?

Mukherji: Yes, but if I put my cinematic view or perception to it then may be 'Jaatishwar' wasn't a flop. In fact, many people think that 'Jaatishwar' is my best film. It won four National Awards and was a critically acclaimed film. So, from these points of view 'Jaatishwar' was not flop. Then the ratio stands like 8:1:1.

Roy: You are the captain of your film. Once there was a story highly floated about cricketer Imran Khan that he used to attend meetings with selectors often with two pieces of paper in his pocket, one having the names of players he wanted in the side, and the other having his resignation letter. What stance Srijit Mukherji as the captain follows, two paper theory or prefers to stay in good books of selectors?

Mukherji: (Smiles) Nope! I don't carry a resignation. I actually carry my team list. I believe that by hook or crook, I will get my team. I have no other conditions except my team. I always want to play with my team. I will never compromise my storytelling; I want the camera and location, I want to shoot. That's it. But I also keep in mind that I should not do anything that would pressurise my producer. Captain Srijit Mukherji always tries to balance the situation so that he can win the match and selectors also remain happy.

Roy: But when we look at the casting of 'Zulfiqar', it raises a question, "Is Srijit compromising"? Somehow, the casting went non-Srijit way, people think!

Mukherji: Actually the problem is that we are putting various names in various small boxes. 'This is not Srijit's genre', 'Srijit like' or these types of phrases are really very suffocative for a creative person like me. I don't have any genre. I have grown up with a buffet of films irrespective of genre. There was niche world cinema in my bucket list, sometimes Bengali cinema of Uttam-Suchitra while at times hardcore commercial Amitabh Bachchan films. It is not that in my list there were only the likes Roman Polanski or Kieslowski or Christopher Nolan but also of David Dhawan and Milan Luthria too. On the other hand, I also loved watching films of Tapan Sinha with Anurag Kashyap. However, during the time of making a film, I tried keeping myself away from other genres.

I have a commercial side also but people consciously keep my name away from mainstream Bengali cinema. I don't remember any mainstream film except 'Baishe Srabon' where whistles blew for the dialogues. But I wanted to explore my commercial side in 'Zulfiqar'. I wanted to work with Dev and I did. I felt the same for Ankush and Nusrat too. I will firmly state that nobody ever imposed any cast panel on me including for 'Zulfiqar'.

Roy: But I haven't mentioned any name and you have mentioned three names. Did these names reach you through social media, since you are very much active online?

A: Actually, these three names are somehow represent the mainstream Bengali cinema and I said earlier that people consciously keep me away from that. But if you turn the coin, you will see that Dev played his career best role of Markaz Ali in 'Zulfiqar'. Before acting in 'Autograph', Bumba Da (Prosenjit Chatterjee) did a film named 'Refugee'. I made 'Autograph' with Bumba Da of 'Refugee'; I made 'Chotushkone' with Chiranjit Chakraborty of 'Kecho Khurte Keute' and I made 'Rajkahini' with Rituparna Sengupta of 'Sujan Sakhi'. I also used Chiranjit Chakraborty's voice in 'Chotushkone' while Rituparno Ghosh himself used his physique and used Sabyasachi Chakraborty's voice for Chiranjit Chakraborty in 'Bariwali'. So, I took too much challenges and I'm happy that I have proved that a star is an actor first. It's always a challenge for a director to pull out the best from an actor and I always enjoyed facing those challenges. Not only this time, but I used Koel Mallick in a completely different way earlier in 'Hemlock Society'. So, I love challenges. 'Zulfiqar' was my conscious effort to explore my commercial side and many people went to theatres to watch a Srijit Mukherji film for the very first time. And I was overwhelmed by their complements.

Roy: You talked about world cinema being on your watch list. Very consciously we have excluded Indian cinema from world cinema. Although India is part of the world, why Indian cinema remains excluded from world cinema? Has this been the scenario since inception or it happened later? If later, then what are the chances of Indian cinema getting included in the elite list?

Mukherji: World cinema has some aesthetic threads or parameters. Some part of Indian cinema is considered as world cinema and the rest is called Indian cinema. The situation is same everywhere. In America, Hollywood is huge name, but not all Hollywood cinema is not classified as world cinema. However, some Hollywood cinema that complying with those aesthetic parameters definitely becomes part of world cinema. This is true in every country.

Roy: Which directors have inspired your work?

Mukherji: A marathon list. I want to quote Utpal Dutt from 'Agantuk' that: "Ami Sawrbobhuk". There are Spielberg, Nolan, Coen Brothers, Polanski, Kieslowski, Kurosawa, Wong-Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and many more. I like the vision of James Cameron. And from Indian directors, Tapan Sinha inspired me the most. He is really a giant of Indian filmmaking.

Roy: You assisted Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt and directed them too. Whom do you select, the director Aparna Sen or the actor Aparna Sen?

Mukherji: Obviously director Rina Di (Aparna Sen). Actor Rina Di is underrated. If someone uses her properly, she can be fantastic but overall, my vote is for director Rina Di.

Roy: And for Anjan Dutt?

Mukherji: Definitely actor Anjan Da. He is just incomparable. He has a remarkable range and level of dedication. He is just beyond my words.

Roy: What's your take on independent filmmaking?

Mukherji: A filmmaker who is not dependent; better to say who is free from studio or market related influences or interferences is called an independent filmmaker. Like we know, some producers pressurise filmmakers to include an item number or to cast anyone. An independent filmmaker will not entertain this kind of interference. Production house is not a parameter of independent filmmaking.

Roy: Short film is the in-thing today. Do you plan to foray into short filmmaking in the near future?

Mukherji: No, I will go for web-series next and I'malready having some fruitful discussions over a couple of web-series'. I will start my web-series' in Hindi. Actually, I have some stories to tell and I want to tell them through series. After that I will go for short films. A complete reverse line-up, I would like to follow.

Roy: Do you think Bengali film journalism today is competent enough to cater to quality content and do you think Bengali film review system has any viability?

Mukherji: Definitely Bengali entertainment media should have improved a lot. In Bengal, we can see that wrong names, wrong spellings, incomprehensible data without any study, reaching somewhere to interview someone, talking more about private gossip, interacting least about work-related matters, etc do not really present a good side of Kolkata's media. It's a symptom of an extremely callous mentality. First preference should be always a person's work. There should be more interaction about the work. If it comes out as criticism, then it's OK. There should be some proper questions that I could answer as you asked me about the casting of 'Zulfiqar'. If you don't ask me proper questions then what should I answer you! You asked me about Zulfiqar's casting and I clarified my point. Then it's on you that would you agree with me or not. But I should have the scope to speak my heart out. Proper questions are very rare here, it's true.

Roy: Do you think the readers are willing to go through gossip and their tastes are forcing the media to cater to them?

Mukherji: If that's the case, how was a film like 'Autograph' made? You have to create your audience or readers. It's up to you.

Roy: Do you believe that many meritorious Bengali films got trapped by media trial?

Mukherji: Definitely, I will say it is not only media trial, but also a social-media trial. Now a days if someone has an internet connection and a social media account he or she knows everything. They are aware of how to play cricket, how to cook some delicacies and how to make a film but technically they don't have any qualification to do any of those works. This is dangerous.

Roy: You have worked with good actors as well as big stars. Now Srijit Mukherji himself is a star. So, when will you gift us a film where no other crowd puller will be present except for Srijit Mukherji?

Mukherji: If you see through the past few years this trend has started. Now a huge percentage of audience goes to a theatre to watch a filmmaker's film. May it be Koushik Da, Shibaprasad Mukherjee, Kamal Da or Arindam Da. But the point is that the resurrection has started showing its face, I think.

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