In this Idea Exchange moderated by Indian Express film critic Shubhra Gupta, filmmaker Shoojit Sircar says he had expected people to find his film on a constipated father ‘unhygienic’, talks about Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘child-like’ reaction to scripts, and confesses that he has never watched a Salman Khan film.
Shoojit Sircar is among the contemporary crop of filmmakers who are redefining Indian cinema. Known to push the envelope, his recent movie Piku, which showed an unconventional relationship between a father and a daughter while dealing with a subject such as constipation, has done well commercially and won critical acclaim too.
His last two movies — Madras Cafe, based on the civil war in Sri Lanka and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, and Vicky Donor, which talked about the taboo subject of sperm donation — were equally off-beat, bold and commercially successful.
Shubhra Gupta: Piku and Vicky Donor both revolved around bodily fluids. What makes you so fascinated with something people would not talk about in their drawing rooms?
I don’t know how an idea strikes. I’ve done a lot of ad films where an idea can be translated in 30 or 40 seconds. But in a movie, an idea needs to be stretched for two hours, and requires you to draw a bit from your experiences in life.
I’m not fascinated by bodily fluids, no. The idea of a relationship between a daughter and her constipated father just came to me. I thought it will give insight into something we face every day in our families. I felt that if I don’t play to the gallery and be realistic, I will be able to sell it. But, I didn’t expect the love, the response the film has got. I thought a lot of people may not like it or even find it unhygienic. Because the word constipation is taboo, like sperm donation.
Shubhra Gupta: Our certification process makes it difficult to make movies on recent history. In your movie Madras Café, which is about recent history, you could not name Rajiv Gandhi or the town in Sri Lanka. How did you manage to make it?
If I had used real names, I don’t think Madras Cafe would have ever seen the light of day because it was a political film, an adaptation of a true incident. I was also sceptical about whether the film will be taken well by people. During our research in South Mumbai, nobody, especially the youngsters, could recognise Rajiv Gandhi. Somebody said he was Rahul Gandhi’s father. Delhi and Indore were more politically aware. So my studio was puzzled as to where to push this film.
It’s a relief I could make Madras Cafe and get away with everything — whatever I wanted to say, whatever sides I wanted to take. I was sitting on the script for 8-9 years and never thought I could pull it off.
Shubhra Gupta: Was it because John Abraham came on board that you could make Madras Cafe? He also produced Vicky Donor. How important is having a star on board for such unconventional films?
My film Yahaan, which was on Kashmir, didn’t work. Then there was a seven-year gap before I did Shoebite with Mr Amitabh Bachchan but that got entangled in legal issues and has not been released. I was disheartened and depressed, but then Vicky Donor did very well at the box office. So the studios were confident about my next movie, Madras Café. Yes, with John, you draw some fans. People look up to what John is doing and I think he did one of his best performances in the film. So yes, it gives a little bit of a push to the film but beyond the Friday first show, nothing works apart from the content, unless it’s a Salman Khan movie.
Shubhra Gupta: Do you like watching Salman’s movies?
I’ve never watched his movies.
Coomi Kapoor: Was it difficult working with Amitabh Bachchan?
Despite the legend that he is, it is very easy to work with him. As soon as he gets a script in his hand, he is absolutely childlike. You can mould him the way you want. Obviously, he has got his own views because of his 45 years of experience in the industry, but it is really easy to convince him. If he sees the director’s vision, he will work the way you want. He just wants a good script. It is a lollypop that you have to give him.
Shailaja Bajpai: Madras Café and Yahaan were related to insurgency; Vicky Donor and Piku are about bodily functions. How do you work with different genres?
I am myself not too sure where I will settle and which genre I am comfortable with. I won’t be able to do song-and-dance obviously. My theatre background in Delhi helps me to relate with what is happening around me. Yahaan, for example, was based on a 1996 Indian Express article. Theatre has groomed me to pick up insightful, profound subjects. I won’t go for a box office-driven subject just to entertain. Piku had constipation and we all laughed, but its other side, the layers — the roots of Piku’s and Bhaskar’s thoughts — are very important for me.
Vandita Mishra: When you cast Amitabh Bachchan, isn’t it your biggest challenge to make him less of Amitabh Bachchan — to de-stylise him, de-mannerise him?
I was really apprehensive that a legend, a superstar may not agree to say lines such as mango pulp, mucus, constipated. But he agreed. He worked on his look and we worked as much as we could on his diction. And we felt that at some point, he became more Bhaskar Banerjee than Amitabh Bachchan.
Monojit Majumdar: But Amitabh Bachchan did not get his Bengali accent as right as Deepika Padukone. Also, you had Irrfan Khan and Amitabh together in the film. Do you think you missed some sort of interaction or moments which could have lifted the film up a bit more?
I’m satisfied with the film. I never thought here is Irrfan and here is Mr Amitabh Bachchan and I have to play with both of them. It was definitely an Al Pacino-Robert De Niro situation for me, but I did not play to the gallery and said, let’s mash it up with both. I just wanted to tell the story of Piku. Mr Bachchan mostly got the Bengali accent, though at a few places, it sounds a bit Bhojpuri. But I let it go because of a Hindi audience. I didn’t want to become rigid about the accent. I shot the movie like a theatre performance. I gave them the script, the lines, the space and said now you guys perform and let me just sit in the corner, see and correct you here and there and hold the camera. So what was happening was when we were concentrating on the Bengali words, the performances were becoming more mechanical. So I let it go.
Shubhra Gupta: Were you intimidated by Amitabh Bachchan’s superstar status, in not correcting him at times?
Never. We shot a few scenes twice or thrice and he would call me sometimes at around 1.30 am — I go to bed quite early — and say, ‘Can we do this scene again tomorrow… I should be standing up in it’. So, I would call my production guy to reshoot, and they would say, ‘Why are we losing time’?’ And I would tell them not to worry.
Shubhra Gupta: Did you ever refuse his request to shoot again?
This film is actor-driven. I had to win their trust completely. They had to be themselves, even Deepika and Irrfan. If they wanted to re-shoot a scene, I’d let them. On my editing table, I’d see what I could do. You have to give Mr Bachchan space for his 45-year experience.
Ambreen Khan: Women are getting better roles in our movies now, for example Kangana Ranaut in Tanu Weds Manu. What does this say about our cinema?
Kangana has been commendable of late. The leading ladies are exploring themselves beyond just song-and-dance. In the last 8-10 years, cinema has gone through a roller coaster ride. I never thought Vicky Donor would work this way. The film had a very small release — just 500 prints. But when it worked in the first few days, more prints were released. If a family can watch a sperm donor film together, it is an eye-opener for me, the writer, producer, etc.
Shubhra Gupta: Many struggling writers say they have these brilliant stories, but filmmakers complain of lack of good writers. How come no bridges are being built between writers and filmmakers?
I read a script a day. See, you can write very good words, very good sentences, very good concepts. But the art of screenplay is different from writing just a story. Very few get the hang of the screenplay. What they write is pure television, an extended version of a telefilm. It is not cinematic. I tell everybody to watch (Satyajit) Ray films, and you will know where cinema comes from. There is no depth in our writing. Otherwise, our cinema would have been on the global platform. We see Iranian cinema in our homes, but not Bengali or Tamil or Malayalam cinema, where there are so many subjects and so many writers. But we will all still watch a small Marathi film, like Court.
Seema Chishti: Hindi cinema was meant to appeal to the maximum number of people and maybe the thin spread of the market needed it to be the lightest cinema. But what has made it change, as you said, in the last 8-10 years? What has allowed Hindi cinema to make movies like Vicky Donor and Tanu Weds Manu?
I have a different take on this. I feel this kind of cinema always existed. I have grown up watching films of Tapan Sinha, Sai Paranjpye, Satyajit Ray. Paranjpye made films exactly like Vicky Donor. But at that time, jo gareeb film thi woh art film thi and it would release in one small Shakuntalam theatre and the big film would release in 200 theatres. So they were never promoted. Now because of multiplexes and people wanting to watch more content-driven films, we have got a place. But Bombay is also driven by box office. For my films too, people said gaana nahi hai, lip-sync hona chahiye, and all that — there is pressure. I still believe that if it works, it works. If they like it, they will ask someone else to watch it.
What film the director is going to ultimately make, nobody has a clue. Studios put in huge amounts of money and the big Oxford-educated management people sitting there come up with jargon — plot point, climax, characterisation. They understand nothing and confuse the director because of which he sometimes takes a bad decision. But it all depends on the director, his basic honest thought, and the story he wants to tell in two hours.
Shalini langer: The best moment in Piku was when Irrfan asks Amitabh why he was using emotional blackmail against Deepika. That was a rare acknowledgement of emotional blackmail in our films.
This is the layering Juhi Chaturvedi, the writer, and I wanted to cut across, about when our parents grow old. Like Bhaskar says, ‘When you were a child, I did not leave you, now I am your child, you take care of me’. In every family, there is a moment when parents try to get the family together. That detachment does not happen, that is why the dialogue of one being a selfish kid. When Irrfan asks Deepika why her father follows her everywhere, she says, ‘parents ek time ke baad zinda nahin reh paate, unko zinda rakhna padta hai (Parents can’t stay alive on their own after a point. You’ve to keep them alive)’.
Sushant Singh: Have any of your movies got into trouble with the Censor Board?
I have never faced a problem with the Censors. I think some really intelligent people are sitting in the board and watching the films. When I went to them with Vicky Donor, I thought I would get an ‘A’ certificate because it talks about a taboo subject. Believe me, when they watched the film, they got the essence of the film and gave me a ‘U/A’. When I went to them with Madras Café, I was mentally prepared that it will go to the Censor Board in Delhi because all political parties will want to watch it. Again, without a single cut, they gave me a ‘U/A’. With Piku too, I thought they will take out the line, ‘my daughter is not a virgin’, but they had no problem. Some films have created problems (with the Censor Board). They had genuine problems, they were done for that purpose. They were highlighted to play to the gallery. There are sensible people sitting in the Censor Board…
Muzamil Jaleel: Are you okay with the Censor Board in its present form? While social commentaries are acceptable, a political commentary may run into problems. Can we portray a political leader the way a Hollywood film shows an American president? Also, how would you compare acting in Bollywood with that in the West?
Making political films is a big issue in India. We are not as democratic as we say we are. In Hollywood, they can make JFK, my all-time favourite. They can make films about the CIA. But yes, there is trouble here. We are a diverse country and that is a risk. So in terms of Censor Board, I do not know how it will go on. But things are opening up. Because of social media, things are getting closer to people and they can react.
In terms of acting, we have Nawazuddin Siddiqui and in my film there is Irrfan, Deepika and Mr Bachchan. So I think natural performance is getting more space. But we have monetary problems. In Hollywood, a person spends two years on one film, and just rehearses and rehearses his scenes. It takes me a year and a half to write a script, but because of our small budgets, we hurry to make a film and don’t have time to nurture an actor. However, I think people have started slowly accepting the need to do one film at a time. Earlier they would be running from one set to another set, from one character to another.
Chhaya Dabas: For a filmmaker in India, there are way too many taboos. How do you get around these?
I used to be apprehensive about which of my films will work where. But now things are changing. If my film releases alongside a Salman Khan film, then I will have to struggle for sure at the box office, but in terms of the content of my films, you will see I have done them my way. Now there are takers for films such as Queen, Badlapur or Piku. Even Paan Singh Tomar had no takers initially. The studios kept that film for three years and then released it. And it created magic.
Shubhra Gupta: Do you think Piku would have done as well if it had newcomers, and not Deepika or Amitabh Bachchan?
It would not have had that box office pull because obviously a lot of people went to see Deepika. It was an unusual casting of three people. So definitely, we want stars because a lot of money is spent on that film and we want that to be recovered. As a director, my job is not to worry about the box office; my job is to see that the money spent on me is recovered.
Ambreen Khan: You are a footballer. Can we expect a film on the sport?
Yes, I will make a film on football. If I hadn’t been a filmmaker, I would have definitely been a footballer. I am more faithful towards football than filmmaking. I am absolutely an incidental filmmaker. I was working in Le Meridien hotel in Delhi, a job I got because of my football. One day, I was loitering around and I walked over towards the National School of Drama in Mandi House, where I saw some people shouting. They were part of a theatre group. I later saw a play at Kamani theatre that had Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Amrish Puri. I was transported into that world. Since then, something happened and I started watching more films. I had seen all the Ray films before that but when I started watching Ray films after that play, everything changed. Then I started a theatre group called Act One. In the middle of practice, I would say, ‘Come, let’s play football’. I have not studied films, so whatever I know it’s from reading about films and from watching Ray’s films.
Transcribed by Debesh Banerjee & Chhaya Dabas