Srijit Mukherji: A Filmmaker at a Crossroadby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri July 14 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 26 mins, 6 secs
Three releases in a month, a fourth lined up. Is Srijit Mukherji spreading himself too thin? Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at his recent releases and catches up with him for a conversation as he pads up for Shabaash Mithu.
In the course of my first conversation with Srijit Mukherji, back in 2018, the filmmaker told me that he had started out wanting to make one film for each letter of the alphabet. He had just done U, with Uma, and in the impish way, he has of putting things, he said he had cracked the difficult alphabets: Z (Zulfiqar), Y (Yeti Obhijaan) and X (X-Ray - a web series on stories by Satyajit Ray that was in the works then). Ever since, with every film he makes I have a game that I play: ticking off the alphabets.
If the last month is any indication, Srijit is in a hurry to get there. Between the 3rd and 24th June, the filmmaker had a staggering three releases, averaging one a week: X=Prem (he ticked off X with this as X-Ray went on to become just Ray), the web series Feludar Goendagiri and his second Hindi film, Sherdil. With Shabaash Mithu hitting the theatres on 15 July, it almost appears that he will run short of alphabets soon.
But is he stretching himself too thin with the pace he has set himself? Is it possible to maintain quality at this rate? As importantly, is the box office, not always a good barometer for judging a film (hell, if Aparajito can be a blockbuster), but important for a filmmaker of his stature, deserting the man who turned around the market for Bengali cinema with Autograph? Two of these films, X=Prem and Sherdil, have had extremely lackluster runs in theatres. And the press too, rather hostile to him even in the best of times, has been pretty poor.
For someone like me, who has admired his films and his chutzpah for a long time, it was particularly painful to see the critical response to Sherdil. And coming in the wake of the critical and commercial failure of his first Hindi outing, Begum Jaan, it felt like a personal hurt. One longs for the excitement and frisson one felt watching Chotushkone and Jaatishwar.
The disturbing part of Srijit’s overexposure is that even a well-crafted film with an interesting premise, like X=Prem, is losing out in the perceptions game. Here is probably his most atypical film to date (barring of course the quirky Nirbaak), an out-and-out love story with a twist of sci-fi that tackles issues of what memory is, in particular what it entails when we talk of romantic memory. Is it possible to supplant a person’s specific memories with another’s? How important is it to have a memory of a relationship when we embark on another? Srijit does a good job of addressing this, eschewing most of the ‘playing to the gallery’ that he is often guilty of. There’s a certain tentativeness about the narrative that I wasn’t sure Srijit’s films are capable of but which works well given the fragile nature of the subject.
Khilat (Anindya Sengupta) is a software engineer in love with Joyee (Shruti Das). Their courtship is quite delightful and sets off the impending tragedy well. A freak accident robs Khilat of his memory, specifically that of the last ten years (he remembers his life till the time he is eighteen). This means he has no memory of Joyee and their love.
Determined to make things work, Joyee approaches Dr. Kaufman, a neuro-specialist working on the possibility of memory transplants. This leads the couple towards Arnab (Arjun Chakraborty), who has a history with Joyee (which she is unaware of). Thus begins an intriguing tale on the nature of love and memories. Skewing the narrative is the fact that Arnab is now married and his wife (played by Madhurima Basak) has a mind of her own.
The basic premise is of course a takeoff from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Srijit acknowledges and refers to this in the conversation that Dr. Kaufman (a hat-tip to Charlie Kaufman who wrote Eternal Sunshine) has with Joyee and Khilat. There’s also the true story of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, whose book, The Vow, inspired the 2012 film by the same name. But Srijit imbues the film with his own vision, in fact doing away with the divine-intervention angle of The Vow altogether and giving it the sci-fi twist.
He also takes a few bold decisions. Casting three newcomers in the lead, with Arjun Chakraborty the only ‘star’ face. Entrusting the music, always a big component of his films, to a newcomer, Sanai. Shooting the film in black-and-white (which I have reservations about) and having almost all the dialogues in English (which works given the milieu in which the film is set). I am not sure how much these decisions, and the far-fetched sci-fi take, which assumes a willing suspension of disbelief (we as an audience can take to Rohit Shetty’s car-bangs more easily than to something like this), are responsible for the film’s underwhelming run at the box office, but it is unfortunate that this intriguing and engaging experiment failed to strike a chord.
It is obviously one from the heart as far as the filmmaker is concerned, boasts of effective all-round performances, and has one of his best soundtracks (after a string of rather listless songs in the previous few films and OTT outings). Then there’s the very welcome agency that the script gives to both the female leads, who are taking the major decisions most of the time and are no pushovers, and the very evocative poetry (Srijit’s own) he uses as voice overs that give the narrative a certain resonance. Yes, it’s possible to argue that the complexity of the subject is probably undermined by the reliance on the sci-fi aspect, that the ethical underpinnings of a ‘memory transplant’ could have done with a more in-depth exposition, but that does not take away from the fact that X=Prem is one equation all those dealing with various facets of love would love to crack.
Now, this is a different kettle of fish. Although it is impossible to not like Feluda, I think that the recent spate of films and series is not doing the franchise any good. Srijit’s latest venture, for all his protestations of Feluda being comfort home food, a palate we grew up on, and the lack of objective distance he alludes to, is rather lackluster. The best that can be said about it is that it is just about competent. I enjoyed it after a fashion, but only because, as I say, Feluda is impossible not to like.
Which is sad for a filmmaker who went out on a limb with his adaptations of two Satyajit Ray stories, ‘Forget Me Not’ and ‘Bahrupiya’, in Ray, the Netflix series. I loved the adaptations, particularly for what the filmmaker brought to his telling that had veered from the originals substantially. That’s how Satyajit Ray also adapted the two Feluda stories, Sonar Kella and Joi Baba Felunath, making them more how-done-its than whodunits. That creative interpretation has gone missing in all subsequent adaptations, starting with Sandip Ray’s Bombaiyer Bombete (2003) and once the excitement of who the next Feluda would be wore off, the films had nothing to offer.
It’s even more baffling because Mukherji also wrote what is talked of as the first, and probably only, non-canonical work on Feluda. During his student days at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Srijit flirted with the idea of doing his dissertation on Feluda’s social significance. Nothing came of that, but Feluda continued to fester in his mind and it led to the idea for a play, Feluda Pherot, featuring a 55-year-old Feluda, who has retired and spends his time tending flowers in his garden, writing articles on old Kolkata, and calling himself an armchair detective.
Given how much of a ‘holy cow’ the sleuth is in Bengal, which has resulted in staid straightforward screen and stage adaptations of his exploits, getting the nod for a project like this was difficult. Sandip Ray, the author’s son and filmmaker, was very skeptical about it. But Srijit was adamant and Sandip Ray relented, albeit with the condition that Srijit could put up the play only in Bangalore, where he lived at the time. Calcutta was not negotiable. The play, performed by his own troupe, Pandora’s Act, was a runaway success. I have not watched the play, but watching Feludar Goyendagiri and the spate of other adaptations of the detective, I long for that imagination.
And I am sure there are takers for such reinterpretations. If only we can move away from what blights Bengali cinema at present - an obsession with nostalgia. Which either results in a monstrosity like Aparajito or something like Feludar Goyendagiri that evokes nothing beyond what’s there on the page, what we have seen repeatedly and which does a great disservice to all three. To what Feluda stands for in our collective memories and consciousness, to his creator Satyajit Ray, and to the filmmaker, Srijit Mukherji, who seems to be taking the easy way out and playing safe when he could have broken new ground, like he did with his 2008 play.
You have had 3 releases - X=Prem, Feludar Goyendagiri and Sherdil – in June with Shabaash Mithu lined up. How do you manage?
To be fair, a lot of it had already been done, because there was no work for the last two years. During the pandemic, I was writing, doing both pre and post-production for my films. A major part of those two years involved waiting for the theatres to open. Which is why I have a spate of releases in the same month. I am not really talking up more work than I usually do, but the pandemic has resulted in a backlog.
There is a lack of standard Srijit Mukherji edginess in X=Prem. Do you see the film as a change of pace for you, in that you haven’t made a pure love story as such?
I have always emphasized on rediscovering, reinventing and restructuring myself when it comes to storytelling. There are different kinds of stories I want to tell. Each story has a particular telling, which comes organically with it. This particular story came with its unhurriedness, with its newness in terms of the characters, actors, sound (I introduced a new music composer) and the lyrics. This is possibly one of my most lyrical films, not only in terms of the song lyrics but also in terms of the poetry, which is used in the film and which I have written. It is a very lyrical unhurried love letter more than a film.
It had been brewing inside me like a thriller or a period drama does. The brewing process is a function of memories I seek to put out in a script. Different memories give shape to different kinds of genres and storytelling. This banked majorly on my college and university days - memories of my past relationships, memories of past and current relationships of my friends and their friends. It draws heavily and unapologetically from life. Most of the incidents in the film are from actual experiences - it is only the science fiction part that’s imagination.
Were you ever daunted by the science fiction part? We seldom manage to get that right in our films.
No, I was not, for the simple reason that in the film, science fiction is just a device to set up a premise of love. That device becomes redundant after a point. What remains, the spine or core of the film, are the relationships, love and separation, the memories and the sacrifice - matters of the heart and not the mind. So, if X=Prem was a technical film like, say, Inception where technology is the spine of the film, it would have been a problem. I wouldn’t have attempted the film in this language because of obvious budgetary consequences.
Showing complicated VFX, working of the internal trappings of the mind, the brain, the cerebellum, the way memories are mapped was not required.
A fair bit of it is definitely dealt with in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but even in that the VFX is not major, it is just a peg. As it is in X=Prem, as a kind of preconditioning, which sets up the relationships, various dynamics and the matters of the heart.
The character, Khilat, has no memory of his relationship with Joyee. He is getting a memory transplant from somebody else whose relationship with Joyee is an entirely different sort of a memory.
As Dr Kaufman explains, when we operate on memories there are certain memories, which are generic and others specific. After his accident, Khilat meets a new person every day, and makes a memory with the person for the first time. There are various factors around him that inform us about the position of the person in his life. There are aids all around him, including dry information, helping him to place this particular person in his mind. From these, he understands that this woman is his fiancée; he had a lovely relationship with her, he was very happy because he was in love, and they were about to get married. All this information is given to him, he acknowledges and understands it, but what he doesn’t have is the specific memory of the happiness, which comes out of falling in love with a person.
Now, the other guy, Arnab, enters the equation. His memory of love is not very happy. He tells Khilat, ‘Would you really find my memory useful?’ Joyee also has the same question for Dr Kaufman. The doctor points out that reciprocation is not necessary because Joyee reciprocates Khilat’s emotions.
What Khilat needs is that seed emotion of love, that sinking feeling in the stomach, Wow, this is the person! This memory has to be specific to you but it can be one-sided, because the other side has already reciprocated.
Why did you decide to make the film in black and white?
Honestly, I don’t have any intellectual justification for that. It is an aesthetic call because I feel that when you put images in monochrome or gray scale, they assume a mysterious romanticism. Today, when we watch Pyaasa or Pather Panchali or even intensely emotional films in black and white, you will notice that there is something about the frames, about the light and shades, which elevate the visuals or images.
A very debatable question is, do we dream in black and white or do we think in black and white or are our memories in color. Rather than getting into the scientific cycle, my plain and simple thing was image quality. I thought that the image quality assumes a level of romanticism the moment you put it in black and white and I needed oodles of that.
Also the language of the film, it is almost an English film…
I think this is possibly why the film didn’t work in the theatres. It has been a persistent problem since 2010 that I don’t think of the demographics when I make a film. Sometimes it works brilliantly and sometimes it doesn’t. At the end of the day, I need to be honest with my way of storytelling.
I didn’t imagine that the language I used in Baishey Srabon would find such an iconic status. Demographically, when I was making Baishey Srabon, the risk was even higher. I was basically hurting the gentle sensibilities of the bhodrolok. In fact, a lot of legendary filmmakers I look up to had severe reservations about the kind of language used in Baishey Srabon. But, at the other end of the spectrum there were 70 to 75-year-olds who were calling me up and saying, ‘Baba, khub bhalo hoyechhe, ar jara ei bhasha niye bolchhe, tader kotha shuno na karon, police ki panchali shonabe?’ (The film is great. Don’t listen to people who are complaining about the language. You can’t have the police mouthing the scriptures.)
The kind of cuss words used in lockups by the police, that realism is something a lot of people appreciated. For youngsters, it was a liberating experience because they were hearing onscreen what they heard on the streets.
So, when it comes to the language of the film, I have always been very honest. The milieu in which I grew up and drew upon my experiences for X=Prem dictated the screenplay - that milieu speaks in English. I hoped that what would emanate out of this language is the universal language of love and relationships, which it did.
So, when I say it didn’t work, I am talking about the immediate box office. But the amount of love, respect and response I got from people for X=Prem gladdens my heart after a long time. I was overwhelmed. People said, ‘Finally he is back’, and, ‘After a long time he has made something which made us his fans in the first place, something which hit us, something which is not safe.’ I always make what I want to make. Some of course belongs to the populist genre, like Kakababu, Feluda, which come out of my own nostalgia.
X=Prem is fresh, it is original, it is authentic, it is a piece of my heart. I hold it very close to me. It will, I dare say, follow the graph of Nirbaak, which didn’t fare well on its release, but is now considered a cult classic and one of my best films. X=Prem is going in the same direction, in terms of immediate box office response and slow word of mouth leading to an iconic status.
Since you mention Feulda - one of the problems I have had with Feluda since its reincarnation in the last twenty years is you never can break out of the mold, there is certain sterility about it. Does that bother you? You are a filmmaker, even when it is not possibly necessary, you go out of line, but in Feluda, I discern a certain restraint.
It is an absolutely personal take on Feluda. As you have seen with Ray, I like radical reinterpretations of stories and I would venture into territory where angels fear to tread, very few people will dream of going to. With Feluda, it is different. A lot of my childhood is attached to Feluda, a lot of my memories and nostalgia are attached to Feluda, which is quite sacrosanct for me.
I don’t really mind maintaining a template or a mold when it comes to certain characters like Feluda, Tintin and James Bond. Adventure after adventure you will find Feluda saying, ‘Gondogol, bishtor gondogol, Topshey, Saabash topshe’ or you have the exchanges between Lalmohan and Feluda. There is a kind of comfort in the template. It is a comfort of home. However much you go to various parts of the world, different dimensions, different architecture, different milieu, different food, when you come back home and you sit with your ‘aloo sheddho dim bhaat’ (boiled egg and potato with rice), in the exact configuration of the furniture, which you have seen since childhood, there is a comfort in it.
As a filmmaker I like that comfort. I often resort to that comfort when I make Feluda. It would have been a problem if I only made Feluda and not any other film. Then, as a maker I would have got bored, or it would have become claustrophobic for me. Since, I am also doing Ray, X=Prem, Sherdil, Shabaash Mithu, Kakababur Protyabartan, which are such varied genres, homecoming with Feluda is actually comfortable.
Do you think it is possible to give Feluda the kind of treatment that Guy Ritchie gave Sherlock Holmes?
It is. If someone does that I would love to watch it. But, I do not have the objective distance with Feluda to do that. I have that with Kakababu, which is why I have experimented much more with the Kakababu films, added characters and twisted things, reinvented characters. I could do that because I have the distance with Kakababu. With so many personal memories associated with Feluda, it is very difficult for me to look at it from a Guy Ritchie perspective.
Coming to Sherdil, what is the fundamental difference you come across in the shift to Hindi? One of your strengths is that your dialogues are very different. Was not writing the dialogues a problem? The one-liners that work well in Bengali tend to get lost in translation.
As a maker, the first and obvious difference is the language, the screenplay and the script. I wrote the screenplay of Sherdil myself. I revised it after I had several sessions with Pankaj Tripathi. After that, I wanted dialogue writers who can translate dialogues keeping the meaning intact but in the local milieu. I found Sudeep Nigam and Atul Rai, the two dialogue writers I have collaborated with for Sherdil. They have trans-created my dialogues. First, we decided to do it in a very localized dialect of Pilibhit but when we decided to set this story in a fictional village, we took out the localized nature of the language and made it generic so that we have a local flavor and at the same time we are not committing to the district or the village level.
Sherdil originated from a true story.
In 2017, I read an article in the Times of India. The moment I finished reading, I reached out to my laptop. I realized that this story has to be told in a different kind of way; by giving it a heroic and satirical twist, making it not as morbid as the actual incidents are. So, I immediately wrote a story and registered it. Then my struggle started to find a producer. I didn’t want a ‘hero’ to play Gangaram. I wanted an actor who is one of us, who would look like one of us, who would look very ordinary, rural, who gives you the vibe of being close to the earth, hence Pankaj Tripathi. I had problems convincing a lot of people. Luckily, the OTT revolution happened, after which people started showing interest in Pankaj Tripathi’s name. Reliance loved the revised script, so they came on board. Also, T-Series came on board and that’s how the film got made. Miraj Kabir, Sayani Gupta, Shantanu Moitra, Gulzar saab came on board.
Pankaj Tripathi is a performance to watch out for. He is a wonder. He can start a sentence on an emotional note, in the middle of the sentence he can switch to a comic strain and turn it into satire and end it on a tragic note. He can do that with small vocal modulations and facial expressions. When he delivered the same during the shoot, I just stood up and clapped and said, ‘Boss, it is incredible.’ He is just outstanding.
In the last 4-5 years we have had actors like Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkumar Rao, who are not the regular hero we are used to. Do you think that is happening in Bengal too? It is a very liberating thing to be happening in Hindi cinema.
The moment the narratives are not star driven, it happens. The content needs relatable flesh-and-blood characters, more than stars with their larger-than-life charisma. Now, stars are tailoring their charisma into that kind of thing. It is happening both in Bombay and Kolkata. If you look at the films, which have done well in the last 4-5 years, it explains why films with strong character artists are appealing to the audience. Look at what Jeetu Kamal has done to the audience in Aparajito. It is the content that is working and the content is obviously supported by actors. In Bombay, actors like Kay Kay Menon, Shefali Shah, Rasika Duggal, Kirti Kulkarni, Radhika Apte have really turned the game and mainly because of OTT. I genuinely feel that they are getting due credit and recognition.
What was it like working with Gulzar saab? What was your brief to him?
I told Shantanu Moitra that I want this song to be written by Gulzar Saab. I asked him if he would write it for me because he is very picky and choosy. Shantanu said, ‘Look, the only thing, which will matter is your film. I am sending him your film; let him watch it, if he remotely likes the film he will tell you. If he really likes the film, he will write.’ After sending the film we kept our fingers crossed. Then we received his message saying, ‘Please come and meet.’
I was totally blown away and overwhelmed after listening to the things that he had to say about the film. He said, ‘Thank you for thinking of me to write in such a film.’ I said, ‘Please don’t say this, sir.’ He loved and appreciated the film and said that it was a great honor to write for it. After listening to this, I kind of blanked out, I was not hearing what he was saying, I was almost in a daze. Then, he blessed me. It was a very touching moment. He told me to keep on telling these stories.
Also, I started asking him about stories I had heard about him from childhood. What did you think of that song? What about the three four versions of ‘Shaam se aakhon mein naami si hai’? He very kindly answered them. I have had fascinating conversations with him. He spoke about Pluto, the planet and his take on Pluto - the discarded child. He spoke about his poetry, on nature, on conservation etc. Whenever I went to meet him, I was always beaming. I couldn’t stop grinning because it was ‘Gulzar Saab’ at the end of the day. He is a legend.
My brief of the song was the film I had sent him. He saw the film and wrote the song. The film talks about a crisis. The song also does that. The way of approaching it is different but it is the same crisis. There were a couple of points I had my doubts about and he clarified. I loved the song but there were two places I thought went against the metaphors used in the film. He explained that it didn’t and why it was in sync with the film. I was extremely happy with the song. He even asked me not to hesitate to ask anything if I have any problem.
Coming to Shabaash Mithu, what really scares me is how poor we are at biopics and sports biopics more so. Even the ones that have been applauded at the National Film Awards, like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom, were a major disappointment on a number of levels. How are you addressing the film so that one is getting the cricket right?
Getting the cricket right was an obsession with me. I am a cricket buff myself and I used to play cricket till university level. To be honest, Taapsee gave her best. I have never seen a lead actor working so hard. It helped that she has a thing for sports. I remember we used to go to the cricket practice at 5 in the morning. To inspire everyone, I used to pad up and practice with them. Getting the cricket part right required a lot of care and attention.
One had to be mindful of what cricket telecast today entails, and how it has evolved over the years. Certain angles that work for a TV telecast don’t look good on camera. There are certain angles, which will feel uncomfortable. The same shot from a different angle would be much more comfortable. I had to keep all that in mind.
Also, the actual speed of delivering a ball and the power behind a batswoman’s strokes are very different from the men’s versions, as also, the area in which the boundaries are mostly hit in women’s cricket. So, all these things were taken care of. Mithali being a cover-drive specialist, driving is something, which takes a lot of precedence. As far as the biopic part is concerned, what attracted me is that it is not a typical story. I don’t want to give away the climax. It is not a typical biopic climax, which was something that attracted me. Apart from that, a lot of elements, which are usually not there in a sports biopic, a lot of issues, human elements, certain gender politics are addressed, which are usually not done in a sports biopic. There are elements, which are new to the biopic structure.
Speaking of creative liberties, when you are making a film with a certain amount at stake, certain amount of budget, scale, there are commercial elements, there are liberties studios want to take to make it more appealing to the audience. To be honest, nobody knows the magic formula; these are all safeguards, which one takes. Films have failed even after these safeguards, and films have worked without them. These are certain storytelling pegs which one likes to incorporate since you are putting a lot of money.
You took over from Rahul Dholakia on this. What were the challenges of making the film?
Some of the scenes I shot afresh, some footage I used. Filming at Lord’s was incredible - in my filmmaking journey that was at the top of my bucket list and once-in-a-lifetime experience. We got access to the long room and the famous balcony. I could stand up on the balcony, take a deep breath and then start shooting. There were a lot of problems due to COVID. It was a tough journey.
So, what is the next on the bucket list?
There is Padatik, a series on Mrinal Sen. I am planning a historical, focusing on a particular chapter in the history of Bengal. Then there is a double biopic of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Noti Binodini. There are certain shooting conditions I need so I pushed it back to next year. Also there is a Hindi web series and a Hindi film. Miles to go…
This piece is by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri with inputs from Soujannya Das