At first glance,Dibakar Banerjee appears slight,spare and barricaded behind thick glasses,just like one of those serious bookish people who use their books like shields to keep intruders at bay.
At first glance,Dibakar Banerjee appears slight,spare and barricaded behind thick glasses,just like one of those serious bookish people who use their books like shields to keep intruders at bay. Sure enough,there is a fat volume on the table. He looks up and smiles,and the reserve recedes.
We are in a large airy room overlooking the sea along Marine Drive,a view available only in Mumbai. Its 10 am,and the coffee-shop has emptied out its business breakfasters,leaving us with tinned music inside. From outside,the sound of the surf comes through the glass windows. Then he starts talking,choosing his words easily,sketching images swiftly,and you think,yes,he can make you listen.
But Banerjee,42, is not just a good talker,swooping upon anecdotes,looping outward, in large circles,and coming back to the point,as I discover through the course of the day spent in his company. What makes him one of contemporary Hindi cinemas most exciting voices is his ability to unpeel the layers,to deliver his punches with well-aimed,near-brutal intent,to strip away pretences. And to do that in a mainstream format,never losing sight of his mandate to deliver a film that entertains and engages as much as it provokes and shocks. In the way he chooses his subjects,or lets the subject choose him,and in the way he turns that into a world view,Banerjee is a true outlier.
A one-time advertising colleague remembers him as a fun guy but into himself. A fellow student from his truncated college days calls him a sweet mast-maula. A newly-minted author tells me admiringly about how he responded in Hindi to his email in the same langauge: Banerjee is one of those trilinguals who can read,write and think in English,Hindi and Bangla. But his films are bound by his eye,that is quite unlike any other.
And thats why I am here,on a day trip to Mumbai,getting him to tell me what he sees,how he sees,and how he translates those things on to a screen telling,filled with full-bodied,rooted characters,razor sharp insight and a dark,unsettling edge.
Even as we speak,Banerjee is in the throes of the pre-release circus of Shanghai,his fourth film (it releases on June 8),and the first in which he has moved away,in many ways,from the city of his imaginings. New Delhi. Nai Dilli. Dehli. Its been seven years since I came here,and Ive made three films while I still lived there in my head. Now Ive moved on, he says. He may have left his Delhi behind,but has it left him? Fashioned like a political thriller,Shanghai is a real leap,because it takes Banerjee into an imaginary small town in India,a microcosm of a notional chota-shehar. Because of the tag political thriller,it is tempting to look at Shanghai as Banerjees first foray into politics. But that would be a simplistic reading,because Banerjees previous work has been nothing if not political.
His slow burn of a debut in 2006,Khosla ka Ghosla,may have germinated from a two-word brief of generation gap (tossed out during sessions with his producer Savita Raj and writer Jaideep Sahni) in which an elderly Dilliwalas savings are nearly swallowed by a land shark. But it struck a chord with swathes of the middle class and their obsession with owning a roof over the head. Oye Lucky Lucky Oye was about a thief who is also a quintessential Dilli da munda. In which other city would you have a jaagran as the centre of all excitement of a mohalla,and a Pomeranian that is the prized doggie of households aspiring to poshness? But it was really with his standout third film Love Sex aur Dhoka that Banerjee showed just how hard-edged he could be. There have been other films on the same subjects,but not quite in the visceral,there-will-be-blood way that LSD did: from the moment it came out,it was clear that LSD was going to be a seminal,definitive Hindi film.
Like most directors,Banerjee doesnt like watching his films. But with LSD,he associates feelings of fear. I dont know where it came from. I really dont like it, he says. Could it be because hed betrayed the middle-class poster boy image he was anointed with,after Khosla… Its all about familial guilt, he says. Khosla… was like an expiation of that guilt for both Jaideep and me,the guilt associated with abandoning the IIT dream our parents had for us. Can you imagine a more irresponsible job than a filmmakers,who uses up peoples lives and other peoples money to live out his own dreams? he says,not quite rhetorically,sounding just like the self-obsessed filmmaker he describes himself as. At some level,that guilt will always be there, he says.
That middle-class guilt is something Banerjee knows intimately. His father,whom he calls a product of the Nehruvian socialist machine,came to Delhi with his grandfather in the 50s and settled in Shakur Basti,one of the citys earliest refugee colonies,where rafts had to be fashioned with dalda tins when the Yamuna flooded. Then started the Banerjee familys odyssey to a series of houses in Punjabi-dominated west Delhi,till they finally found their own flat in Maya Enclave,where his parents still live.
The picture he draws is of typical mid-70s Delhi middle-class three-room living. One for the grandparents and their pooja corner,the middle room with a multi-purpose divan,where his father read his papers,his mother took music classes (she taught music in government girls schools for as long as he remembers),his sister did her riyaz,and where he practiced his tabla; this room also had the dining table and the TV. The third room was used for sleeping. It was a childhood not of privation,but of caution: he remembers fetching mitti ka tel from the neighbourhood ration shop; expense was always curtailed because need was always greater.
He has an equally vivid recall of the landlord coming and telling his father,baithna kya hai Banerjee sahib,ghar khaali karna hai. He remembers his father growing grimmer with the double burden of monthly instalments of the coveted flat which took three years to build,and the much higher outgo for the rented apartment,only possible because his mother sold her jewellery. Those memories have been at the core of him,as he grew from the topper who suddenly started doing badly in class X because he didnt like mechanical drawing,to knowing he wanted to make films in class XI,to the college student who left the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID),Ahmedabad,because he had too many incompletes (where he also,he says,discovered the joys of a sexual revolution,because it was a place where male and female students lived and worked together),to an advertising professional,who finally stumbled upon his own log cabin in the shape of filmmaking.
The best part of what I do is the ability to become different people. In Khosla… I was the good son. In Oye Lucky…,I was the enfant terrible. In LSD,I was the voyeur,In Shanghai,I am the political commentator. And in my next film I will change again,and become a childrens storyteller,though its not what youd call a childrens film, he says. So are you like a chameleon,I ask him,with no fixed colours you call your own? No, he says,my political convictions,which are of the mundane slightly left-of-centre garden variety,remain the same,only my point of view changes.
It could also be a subliminal response to his being in a school (Bal Bharti,Pusa Road) where what he calls the rightist,centrist idealogy was at the fore and where he remembers children coming to school with a kamal ka badge (the Janata Party symbol) around the 1977 general elections,and being taunted as abbey Congressi. It could also be the discomfiture he felt during a train ride home from Ahmedabad to Delhi,where he shared a very nice mans food who turned out to be a kar sevak: The whole bogey was at one with those who demolished the Babri Masjid,and I remember feeling isolated and afraid, he says.
That isolation is something he carried over when he came to Mumbai in search of the films he wanted to make after Khosla ka Ghosla became a success. That feeling of an outsider has helped Banerjee hold on to a steady locus thats kept him from being in the heart of the Andheri-Juhu-Bandra Bollywood nexus. Thats why,he says,he cannot be likened to Anurag Kaspyap when I tell him about the comparisons that are made constantly,and ask him for a response. Anurag is in the endocrinal and the vascular system of Bollywood,he had come to live his Bollywood dream of becoming an actor,and has had to scratch his way up. But my first film was a gift given to me by two other people,and I remain,even now when I have learnt how to make a film that will make my producers money,an outsider. Sometimes I wonder if a god-fearing studio will give me money when they discover my agenda. Which is? To maintain dissent. Different keh lo,subversive keh lo,alternative keh lo,thats what my films are. I survive like a hard-to-kill cockroach. You could call it survival by subversion.
Given his steady visibility as a director who has something to say,he may be less of an outsider today,but he is very clear about having choices when it comes to stars. Of course,Id love to work with stars,I can work with someone like Ranbir (Kapoor) who is a star and can act,and because he has a great connect with people,as opposed to those who spend their lives moving from one SUV to another SUV with a bungalow in between,who have no idea of how other people live their lives. For the kind of movies I make,that ability to transmit that idea or at least be willing to be work-shopped into being able to do it,is very important, he says. This goes hand-in-hand with his own wry assessment of his professional place: I am a prostitute now,I could put in a song (in my film) because there is a financial imperative,as long as the central narrative is not diluted beyond a point, he says. (Shanghai has an item song: hes finally succumbed).
He lives and works in central Mumbais Parel,where he can feel the beating heart of the city that used to be Bombay. From his flat on the twentieth floor of his building,Dosti Flamingos,he can hear the music and the dance and the daily revelry of the chawl residents,bracketed by the offices of the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS),and his neighbours are traders and stockbrokers,so integral to the fabric of that part of the city.
As we leave the main road and take the curving drive to his office,the Mumbai weve been in all day falls away,and we enter a world that is more than a 100-years-old,with animal hospitals,dilapidated kaar-khanas,and abandoned factories with battered signages. His office,housed in an old building,is a place of high ceilings and glass partitions,and DVD-lined walls,and quietly humming computers. You can spread your arms and breathe.
His home is a plush (his slightly apologetic word,and Im reminded of the guilt he speaks about) bursting-with-books apartment just seven minutes from office. And theres a corner in a room he shares with his wife,where he works,undisturbed by the bustle from the kitchen,and his about-to-be-three-year-old daughter playing with her cousin,and the sounds wafting up from the ground. Right now,in that corner,prepping for a new film is on. I learnt how to work in chaos in my homes in Delhi,where the TV would be on,and life was happening around me at full tilt; I cannot work in silence.
The wheel has come full circle,in the house for Mr Banerjee.