The flavour of Kolkata

The flavour of Kolkata
The city is known for its old alleys. One such is shot by Atanu Pal.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Conversations with Srijit Mukherji

“Dhur, ora abar audience naki, audience toh amra….Dekhechho tomaay je tweet-gulo korechhe taate kirawm banan bhool!” (You call them your audience! Have you noticed their tweets? They can’t even spell right in English! Mind you, it’s us who are THE audience you can call your own.)

His core audience is this possessive about his work! And he probably realized it in this fashion only after his last release Zulfiqar (October 2016) – a double adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser and Anthony and Cleopatra into an unabashed mainstream movie – his first full-fledged attempt to mainstream cinema by his own admission. 

The above is a glimpse of the candour with which the director spoke in this recent chat show.

Right from the day Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, a well-known performing artist, conceptualiser and director of refined and innovative cultural productions, posted on his Facebook profile that the last edition of his live talk show ‘Conversations’ in 2016 would feature director Srijit Mukherjee as the guest, requests kept on pouring on his timeline for blocking seats. I know Sujoy for a long time as I’ve organized shows directed, anchored and performed by him, and I was aware of his live talk show for a long time. So, I wasted no time to confirm my presence.

Conversations, as Sujoy says, is the only live talk show in Kolkata.

I walked in at The Palms, the multicuisine restaurant on Southern Avenue, the venue, well in time around mid-December. Someone in a black shirt walked in alone just ahead of me. I noticed that it was Srijit.

The medium-sized banquet kept filling steadily and as Sujoy took the mike just past 7.30, not only the seats were full, but many were standing at the rear.

Conversations started on the most speculated topic about Srijit at this point of time – his Mumbai stint – Has he shifted base to Mumbai for greener pastures? Will he not come back?

Srijit clarified that he has not shifted base at all and has no intention of doing so now. He shared that the first time he went to Mumbai was when he was offered to do a Hindi remake of his niche film Hemlock Society – a black comedy. It did not work out as the actor who would play the protagonist suggested a few changes in the script. Since then it has been a wait for the most successful director of Bangla cinema of the present times to make the first Hindi film on own creative terms. And Rajkahini, which made Mahesh Bhatt ecstatic, gave him the right opportunity. As it is well known, its remake is under production in Hindi as Begum Jaan with Vidya Balan in the titular role under the banner of Mukesh Bhatt and Mahesh Bhatt. Srijit added, the character of Begum Jaan was originally written for Vidya, which explains the abundance of Hindi lines said by the character played by Rituparna Sengupta in Rajkahini.

I was aware that this was not the first time Srijit’s film was being remade in another language. The one before Rajkahini, and the first, was Hemlock Society in Marathi. The director informed that it was named Welcome Zindagi.

The director revealed that he had to shoot Begum Jaan on a shoestring budget compared to Hindi cinema. He, in fact, has always had to work within a tight budget in his seven-year-long directorial career (Rajkahini is known as a prime example) and has learnt to live with it. To be more precise, he added, except for the cost of cast, the Hindi version wasn’t much ahead of the Bangla original in terms of budget. Then the film suffered huge adversities in the making (again, a fate of some of Srijit’s films). The director of photography quit the unit days before the first schedule and the set of the haveli where most of the film happens, erected in Jharkhand, was devastated by strom. To put it in perspective the director quipped, “It was resemblant of what we see of the puja pandal of Mudiali during its making in the month of August”. The shoot for a day had a plan A and a plan B depending on real time condition of the shooting zone. The cast and crew went through immense hardship through the shooting and the director saluted the spirit of Vidya in pulling it off.

Srijit informed that talks are on to remake Hemlock Society and Chotushkone (his immensely successful thriller) in Hindi. He is also researching on Noti Bonodini for a film on this legendary theatre actress from Kolkata.

Around this time, Sujoy, who was steering the conversation deftly, turned to the audience and invited questions. Someone asked Srijit whether he would be casting directors as some of the central characters in the Chotushkone remake, to which Srijit informed that things were different in Mumbai. Here in Bengali cinema, also in Marathi and Malayalam cinema, directors are revered like star actors, while in Mumbai it is a star-driven system. So it won’t generate as much of curiosity as it did when the famous directors Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghosh played the protagonists in Chotushkone. He was quick to add that Sanjay Leela Bhansali was a bright exception.

He talked of his experience of waching Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of the friends he had made in Mumbai, on the sets. The whole cast and crew is scared of him and his obsession with details is the stuff legend is made of. It can so happen that he spotted one of the many group dancers in the rear of the floor not doing his/ her step right and as a result he will halt the take and do a re-take even if it is the fourteenth one. Srijit named an A-list actress who appears completely different when Sanjay is on the sets. Sanjay even shows dance steps his heroine if he is not satisfied with the take. Many don’t know that Sanjay is good at choreography and he directed the song sequences of 1942 : A Love Story.

Sujoy asked Srijit about the most hotly debated topic about him of the times – what prompted him to make a hardcore mainstream flick like Zulfiqar (released in October 2016). At the outset, Srijit admitted that Zulfiqar was unlike his other films and it didn’t work at a critical acclaim level and it evoked extremely polarized reactions. Many people from his core audience had problems accepting that he had made a mainstream movie. But the director set the record straight saying that he really wanted to have a shot at mainstream cinema.

Elaborating on the audience reactions to Zulfiqar, the director disclosed that there was a sharp divide between his core audience and the new audience he got with the film (like those in small centres like Baruipur and Seoraphuli). In the age of social media, everything is open to public. So the tweets and Facebook posts praising the film were noticed by his core audience members many of who were unhappy that the film was attracting such quality of audience. Srijit quoted a representative remark to show how strongly dismissive a section of his core audience was of this new audience –“Dhur, ora abar audience naki, audience toh amra….Dekhechho tomaay je tweet-gulo korechhe taate kirawm banan bhool!” (You call them your audience! Have you noticed their tweets? They can’t even spell right in English! It’s us who are the audience for you.). The director, however, made it a point to acknowledge in the show that he owned his new audience just as he owned his core audience.

The director urged the audience in the show to let him make his kind of cinema. “Please don’t box me, let me be”, said he.  

Since he now has a body of work built since 2010, Sujoy asked him to pick his favourites. Srijit stated that it was like picking his favourite children, however, if it had to be done, it would be Jaatishwar, Hemlock Society, Baishe Shrabon, Chotushkone and  Rajkahini.

The conversation was at the last lap. Sujoy invited questions from the audience and many pitched in. Noted film critic and journalist Shoma A Chatterjee attended the show and she shared her honest view on Srijit that he could do much better. She added that directors shouldn’t act as protagonist in their own films as that runs the risk of narcissism. Srijit gracefully accepted this and revealed a piece of information for the first time – When he was making Autograph (his debut film), Shoma wrote a wrong email to him with a word of encouragement. She narrated her story of struggle in it. Srijit acknowledged that it was inspirational to him.

Post event, the director was surrounded for photographs, selfies and more questions which seemed endless and showed the stardom he enjoys in his city.

There was some refreshment for the audience post-show from The Palms. I liked the succulent and done-to-perfection chicken kebabs and the fried vegetable wontons.

Finally, one line for the host - It was such a delightful and insightful conversation with a sprinkle of wit and humour (by both the host and the guest) because of the excellent conversationist Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee. I am looking forward to the next season of Conversations. 

#TollyDiaries #livetalkshow #conversation #SrijitMukherjee #Cinema #BengaliCinema

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