Set in the politically volatile era of 1943 Calcutta (now Kolkata), complete with its thriving Chinatown and old world charm of vintage cars and trams, amidst Japanese bombers, director Dibakar Banerjee is all set to take you on mysterious journey into the world of ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’.
In an interview with Indian Express, Dibakar Banerjee talks about how making this film was a childhood dream come true, the joy that went into creating the 1940s colonial city and bringing life to Bengali writer, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s fictional character, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi, played by actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Starting at the very beginning, Dibakar Banerjee shared what it was that drew him to the character of Byomkesh Bakshi. “It was a childhood fantasy,” he says.
Having made films that delved into contemporary social issues in the past with ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’ and ‘Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye’ among others, the director says ‘Detective Byomkesh Baskhy!’ is pure entertainment. “I know that probably a lot of the core die-hard film watchers, who would love to put me in a slot, would resent me foraying into something which is purely a yarn, purely a story, purely to entertain, purely to become innocent again and enjoy a whodunit. So that’s the challenge I wanted to take.”
Though ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy’ is Dibakar’s first film to release in co-production with Yash Raj Films, not many are aware that this is in fact their second collaboration, the first being ‘Titli’, which is yet to release.
On working with media honcho Aditya Chopra, Dibakar Banerjee says, “If there was a man who was backing me up on every front of the film, it was Adi. My choice of subjects and what I’m excited by has also in someway slotted me, because I’m supposed to be this darling of the socially aware, elite movie-going audience. But to Yash Raj Films, I was an oddity. And this is why when Aditya met me, he said, ‘I’m very excited by this experiment that we’re trying to do together because you and us are very different, at the same time very similar. Let’s see if we can do something, which will surprise everybody, and will also be fun.”
Dibakar says his joining hands with YRF, is a bit like what happened when he worked on ‘Love Sex aur Dhoka’. “Everybody said ‘what are you doing with Balaji?’ I said I’m making a film and I don’t think I have a better champion of ‘Love Sex aur Dhoka’ than Ekta Kapoor. Similarly, I don’t think I have better champion of ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ than Aditya Chopra because he’s been working behind the scenes tirelessly for the last one and half year.”
Stressing on the fact that he is going all out on a sole entertainer this time, Dibakar says, “It’s the first time that I’m doing something like this, where I am completely going out for entertainment. The social political context is all there, but, if it’s not a yarn that you can enjoy, then it’s nothing. I think very interestingly, my core commentators in the digital space are uncannily silent because they’re waiting and watching. On the other hand, the big bad Bollywood audience are in shock to see an upcoming star like Sushant Singh Rajput in a 1943 film, wearing dhoti with thrash metal in the background.” No doubt ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakhy!’ surely stands by their tagline, ‘Expect the Unexpected!’
Interestingly, ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ was the second film that Dibakar Banerjee wanted to make after his first release, ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’, but it never came to be until now. However, he says it was a blessing in disguise.
“I don’t think I had the wisdom and complete tricks of the trade to pull something as big as Byomkesh Bakshi, as a period film, a whodunit, and yet at the same time have my own take on it. Today I have the experience to make ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ for 30 per cent lesser than any other producer in Bollywood. The experience of planning, research, getting the maximum bang out of your buck, these are the things I’ve really worked hard at. I have always been an independent producer and the cheaper I am, the better it gets in terms of getting my films to be seen. We threw the same methodology at Byomkesh Bakshy.”
Hailing from a design background, Dibakar shared the joy that went into recreating Old Calcutta (Kolkata) with its nostalgic charm amidst the terror and chaos. “It was the biggest Lego set given to any grown up. On Byomkesh, my cinematographer, production designer, my team and me created Kolkata from 1943. We shot for 28 days there and another 40 days in Mumbai. And the research that went into it took almost a year and half. But it was simply amazing to bring back a time that doesn’t exist, probably the biggest kick that you can have.”
Talking about the City of Joy back-in-the-day, Dibakar says, “In 1943, Kolkata was a far more cosmopolitan and international city than it is today. There were American G.I’s, British soldiers, and Canadian soldiers. There was a huge Chinatown right at the centre of the city, with Hakka and Cantonese people. Apart from this, there were Japanese bombing the city and an underworld, which was thriving because of the Second World War and black-marketing. There were also the dock gangs as Kolkata was a deep river port where ships used to come directly from the sea and unload their cargo of arms and grains due to the war. It was a very exciting time.”
Choosing to start at Byomkesh’s very first case in the film, Dibakar’s portrayal of the detective is somewhat inexperienced than the suave know-it-all. “This is his first case. This is when he is going out into the big bad world for the first time. So, this has never been done. Sharadindu has given hints of it in his books, but there’s never been any explicit mention of what Byomkesh was like when he just started. He was just out of college and people did not believe that he was a detective. He himself denies it because he doesn’t want to be a detective. It’s a conflict that he is extremely drawn and hypnotized by a mystery that unfolds before his eyes in this film. And from a very small mystery, it becomes huge with big consequences and so he meets many characters which are essential in his transformation from a rookie to a full-fledged detective.”
Dibakar warns fans of the Byomkesh Bakshi series that if they are expecting a word-to-word translation of the books, then they are in for a shock. “When you adapt from a book to film, the material is revitalised and has to be reinvented. So, I am not telling you the book, I am giving you the essence of what I think is Byomkesh, plus I am giving you an original story, which has only been hinted at in the literary cannon, but I have made it much more visible in the film.”
On the topic of his lead actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, Dibakar took us through the grueling process that the young actor underwent in order to get into the skin of the character and transform himself from the strapping biceped hunk to the dhoti-wearing young man of 1943. “Sushant is a bigger obsessive than I am. When he came onto the sets of the film, he graduated into full-fledged insomnia. He wouldn’t sleep at night, instead he would rehearse and there were workshops as well. He’d write notes and work with me. He lost 12 kgs, changed his physicality, his face. We accentuated his broken nose, gave a darker look and he was literally abused throughout this film – getting shot at, pulped, beaten up, picked up by the cops, going through the roughest time that any young detective can. He’s even being suspected as a criminal in the film. So all these things together made Sushant a complete obsessive. I don’t think that he has worked harder on any other film than this. And from the trial audience, we got the response that, ‘This is our Byomkesh! We cannot imagine any other.”
Talking about Bengali actress, Swastika Mukerjee’s role as the fame fatale, alluring yet dangerous, Dibakar says, “She is one of the characters that defines Byomkesh. She is an essential phase that he goes through to learn more about life. There are people who show you what life is and Swastika’s character is one of those. She shows him the choices of life, the poignancy, the adventure, sensuality and tragedy.”
Having deviated from the typical Bollywood numbers for ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’, Dibakar has handpicked music by independent artists to complement his film including groups like Joint Family, Blek and Peter Cat Recording Co.
“It was an organic process. I was looking at my film and I was looking at music, which was composed without the knowledge of my film. So that, it would have a complete identity of its own. When you compose music to the film, often you miss out on adding a new dimension to the film. But, when you take music, which has been made out of context of the film, if they somehow match, a new context is formed. I wanted the audience to be in a twilight zone, between 1943 and now. Therefore the music is completely today, while the film is set in old Kolkata. It will actually make the audience in a strange way believe that 1943 is today.”
Talking about the risks involved in this kind of experimental cinema, Banerjee says, “Beyond a point you don’t know what to do because it has no item number, no great Hindi Bollywood music, yet it is an out and out entertainer. I cannot go and say it is some intellectual film and if you don’t get it, that’s your problem. At one hand, I risk my core audience saying ‘Oh what is this?’ On the other hand, I risk the purists saying, ‘oh this is not Byomkesh Bakshi’. So this is literally walking the minefield carrying my baby.”
On being asked about plans for a sequel, the filmmaker seems to be in no rush. “The first one has to do well. This is where all that talk of ‘can we do something different and yet have the audience support it’, comes in.”
Dibakar Banerjee admitted to being extremely jittery about the film’s release, which takes place this week – Friday (April 3). “I don’t think any team could have worked harder than this team. My company DBP, the people who made the film, Aditya Chopra, the marketing team – the sleepless nights and the number of days where you go on obsessing about how to make the film reach out to a larger audience, it has been an exemplary factor of this film’s making. And I know that a lot of Aditya Chopra’s aspirations are attached to this film. He really wants a new way to open up with films like ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ and ‘Titli’. And we are literally at the edge of collapse – physical, emotional and desperate for audiences to like the film because it would mean a lot beyond the film. If ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ works, we would have opened up a new door in Bollywood entertainment. If it doesn’t happen, it would be heartbreaking.”
And finally, tackling the reports of a story leak, the director, unfazed replied, “I heard that something about the script has come out. I also heard rumours about the identity of the villain being revealed. But, I don’t know.”