Remember the taxi driver jostling his way at the airport in the initial scenes of Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012) to offer Vidya Balan a ride to the police station? It was actor and director Anindya Pulak Banerjee, who showed his second directorial venture, Watchmaker, at the recently concluded Habitat Film Festival in Delhi.
Banerjee, 48, has acted in several Bengali TV serials and films, including Baishe Srabon, Nirbaak and Arshinagar, since 2004. Kahaani and Kahaani 2 (2016) and Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) gave him fraction-seconds worth of limelight in the Hindi film industry. Kahaani fetched him more taxi-driver roles in Bengali films such as Rupkatha Noy (2013), and the TV series Care Kori Na (2012-13), among others. He plays a farmer (Lalu) in Arijit Singh’s next film and his film Shobdo Kolpo Droom released last week.
Last year, Banerjee donned the director’s hat with the experimental Smug, and German Expressionist Watchmaker. He’s written the one-hour-46-minute film and is also its protagonist. The film opens and closes with a woman and a young girl climbing stairs and deliberating on civilization. They climb up but emerge from the stairs below cyclically. A customer who started from her Delhi home at 2.30 am arrives at the watchmaker’s Kolkata home at 2.30 am. Concepts of time and space collapse. The watchmaker, who has been making watches for 20 years, types a letter to the country’s President penning his existential angst — all the hands of the watches he’s ever made have started rotating anti-clockwise. Two other ideologies/characters, besides the watchmaker’s, enter: time that’s stuck (the customer who’s come to buy a watch) and time that doesn’t exist (a sculptor who sculpts time, which is motionless, like a stone). A blindfolded game ensues in which only one of the three kinds will survive. “Of the three, people will most relate to the idea of time rolling backwards, civilization regressing,” says Banerjee.
“Cinema, for me, is a movement; it is anti-logic,” he says. “In the age of Donald Trump, ISIS, Aids — three realities shaking the world, I was looking for a medium to move away from the blue (straight depiction of pain/misery as in realist cinema) to black (disharmony, dystopia).” “I learned by watching the best of Expressionist cinema, including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis at Kolkata’s Max Mueller Bhavan,” he says. The association with Max Mueller Bhavan was instrumental. German Grips theatre, which was spearheaded by Mohan Agashe in India in the ’80s, had grown-ups performing German plays from children’s point of view. “At 23, I played a six-year-old,” he says.
“If Impressionism in art showed sunlight dappling through leaves, Expressionism showed those leaves as suspended, decapitated skulls. Nobody had imagined it before. It was a direct challenge to Hollywood. In the same period, Charlie Chaplin’s films employed mockery and satire, but the (gothic) shadows in German Expressionism spoke,” he says. In Watchmaker, Banerjee talks of “disrupting the square frame ratio”. An added plot device is a shadow character, who speaks others’ minds but is only seen by the audience. Abnormal angle shots, beams of harsh light puncturing darkness, and unreal sounds heighten the emotional quandary. “When I light a matchstick, the sound is that of a blast,” he says. “The scene with a clock, with eyes but no hands, is inspired from (Ingmar) Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. His jugglery of time and space changed people’s perception,” Banerjee says, adding, “In the final scene of (Andrei) Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, the lit candle carried by the Russian poet while remembering the dead Russian composer, blows out. He lights it and walks again but it goes off. He goes on until he’s successful.” Banerjee is trying to establish such anti-pace with camera movements. “A filmmaker must go through an internal crisis to create cinema,” he says.
The Sound of Music and Tarkovsky’s Stalker are his go-to films. “I’m more influenced by Tarkovsky’s style of storytelling. In Russian art and literature, the social crisis was far more internalised.” He weaves in Watchmaker, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin-Kirillov sequence. The ’20s German Expressionism had its effects in different countries. Bollywood wasn’t untouched either. The atmospheric movies of Himanshu Rai’s Bombay Talkies (he studied sound technology in Germany), the distinctive camerawork and shadow play in Ashok Kumar-starrers such as Achhut Kanya and Mahal, and the Meena Kumari-starrer Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai. In Madhumati, where Dilip Kumar explores the mansion with a candle in hand, blends film noir and German Expressionism.
Banerjee’s first film is equally absurd. Debolina Dutta-starrer Smug is about a zone where six friends suffer memory loss and with that “traditional values and habits are lost and internal fascism surfaces”. Friends don’t recognise each other, a girl puts lipstick all over her face but the lips, philosophies of Einstein, Vivekananda and Oppenheimer enter through a window sketched on a wall. His next film, Photographer, is about a photographer and a terrorist dream-walking through a dark tunnel, debating the pros and cons of terrorism. Whoever convinces the other, before reaching the light at the end, shoots the other and wins. Banerjee is also making a straight-narrative children’s film titled Bluebells and Midnight Blues about two girls exploring Kolkata’s colonial architectures at night and analysing their history through imagination, for instance, comparing the Writers’ Building with Kafka’s novel The Castle.
Watchmaker will travel to Italy’s Oniros festival in July. Netflix, too, seems interested. “I’m focusing on festivals. Film societies are dead now and the kind of commercial film-hungry crowds thronging Nandan is discouraging,” he says, adding, “European markets will appreciate these films more. We are still to come of age and move beyond linear narratives.”