Srijit Mukherji, who won the National Award for Best Director recently for his film ‘Chatushkone’, talks about how Rituparno Ghosh’s untimely demise was a blow for the film and why the Bengali film industry remains an exciting place.
If there is a formula to script a success story, Srijit Mukherji has got it down pat. The winner of this year’s National Award for best director (Chatushkone) has a career that is only half-a-decade-old but includes six box-office hits. The Bengali film Chatushkone, which stars Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen and Kaushik Ganguly, uses the film-within-a-film format to narrate a tale of love, betrayal and revenge. In this interview, Mukherji takes stock of his future plan. Excerpts:
Ques: Did the National Award come as a surprise or were you hoping to win? After all, your previous film Jaatishwar won four awards last year and was such a favourite with the jury.
Srijit Mukherji: Yes, Jaatishwar did create a buzz last year. People started noticing me after that film. But Chatushkone won me the best director award simply because it was such a layered film. The screenplay, which has won another award, is something I am very proud of. It is a portmanteau film at one level, and then the stories are intricately woven together to reveal a linear narrative. I think that was appreciated. I also feel that Chatushkone gave me the freedom to tell stories differently; in a way, it was four films packed into one.
Ques: Chatushkone had a long gestation period. How did it come about?
Srijit Mukherji: The film was supposed to be made four years ago, after my debut film Autograph (2010). It faced several roadblocks along the way. (Director) Rituparno Ghosh was supposed to play the role that (actor) Parambrata Chatterjee plays. After Rituda’s untimely demise, I decided to dedicate the film to him, as he had given a lot of inputs during the scripting stage. Then Anjan Dutt, another-actor-director from Bengal, backed out. Even I was not keeping well in between.
Ques: Parambrata Chatterjee’s character is a bit of an oddball. He is deliciously effeminate too. Was it because it was written for Rituparno Ghosh?
Srijit Mukherji: The character that Parambrata played is easily the most complex one in the film. When I wrote it for Rituda, I wanted it to be sinister. Rituda himself felt that the character had to be layered in a specific way. I am glad that Parambrata could project the complexities of the character with such subtlety.
Ques: After Rituparno Ghosh’s demise, an important link between what we call sensible cinema and commercial cinema in the Bengali film industry is lost. Do you think that Tollywood is a little lost without him?
Srijit Mukherji: I want to make it clear that I don’t believe in the term “commercial” cinema. I would rather use the word “populist” to describe that genre of cinema, and I don’t use the word populist in a derogatory manner. Yes, we all miss Rituda and feel a little lost without him. He was not only a prolific filmmaker, he was also someone who took a keen interest in the work of his contemporaries. Yet, I believe that exciting things are happening in the industry. We are making films on subjects that haven’t been touched upon in the country. Look at Kaushik Ganguly’s Chotoder Chobi, it is a love story of little people.
Ques: But the general consensus is that the execution of these films with hard-hitting subjects is rather juvenile. That Tollywood celebrates mediocrity and much more exciting stuff is happening in the South.
Srijit Mukherji: There might be faults in its execution, but you have to understand that we work on a fraction of the budget of a Telugu or a Tamil film. Many ideas are nipped at the conceiving stage because of lack of funds. We have filmmakers like Q and Kaushik Ganguly who have dealt with a plethora of subjects and are constantly willing to innovate.
Ques: Talking about innovation, are you thinking of shifting genres, like many of your contemporaries, including Q, are planning to do?
Srijit Mukherji: But I have always dealt with varied subjects. Jaatishwar was about a long-forgotten tradition of kabigaan (musical duel among poets). Baishe Shraban was about a police officer suffering from mental illness. Hemlock Society was about a suicide club. My next two films, Nirbaak and Rajkahini, are as different from each other as chalk and cheese.
Ques: The trailer of Nirbaak, which stars Sushmita Sen, is out and is getting varied responses. Some people are even a little repulsed by the sexual content in the trailer.
Srijit Mukherji: Nirbaak is my most esoteric film. I would be surprised if it gets any commercial success. It is a film that was inspired
by my visit to the Dali museum in Orlando, Florida. I was bowled over by the anthropomorphic nature of his works. Nirbaak expresses the nature of love through silence.
Ques: Rajkahini, which is about a whorehouse in Partition-era Bengal, sounds a lot like Shyam Benegal’s Mandi.
Srijit Mukherji: Rajkahini is my magnum opus. I read a lot of Partition literature before writing the script. The history of violence that created the three nations — India, Bangladesh and Pakistan — is slowly disappearing from our consciousness. Even today, children in Germany flinch when the word ‘Nazi’ is enunciated. On the other hand, our children don’t know anything about Partition. In Rajkahini, I have shown the violence used against women during the time, and I have shown it unflinchingly.
Ques: Finally, do you think that this National Award will give you a foothold in Bollywood? Today, even Yashraj is producing films like Dum Laga ke Haisha and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
Srijit Mukherji: I hope so. But I will only make films the way I want to make them. I don’t believe in compromising when it comes to artistic expression.