If there are two professions that have been portrayed poorly in Indian cinema, they are journalism and films. Barring the odd New Delhi Times or Peepli Live, or a Luck By Chance, very few films got things right in terms of how these worlds operate. Interestingly enough, Pratim D. Gupta, whose new film Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo hit the theatres yesterday, has been an integral part of both.
As a journalist, he freelanced with The Times of India and then had a decade-long stint with The Telegraph as a film journalist and critic. He then branched out, as many good film critics do, as a film-maker, and it is not surprising therefore that in Shantilal, he gets both the worlds spot-on. He knows and provides a ringside view of what actually goes on inside a newsroom, although the newsroom is just a backdrop in Shantilal with the plot taking the film out of the newspaper office. As far as the world of cinema goes, the film explores the friction between the private and the public worlds of a movie star rather than the film industry as a whole.
The success of detective films in Bengal in the recent past shows that audiences like the genre. What makes Shantilal a different proposition, though, is the fact that, unlike the Byomkesh-es, Shabor-s and the Feluda-s, Gupta's is an original story and so audiences have no references to latch on to.
Ritwick Chakraborty, who plays the detective, points out, "Among the many things that attracted me to the character, one was a likeness to Tintin … in the sense of the reporter as sleuth, going on an adventure, though of course the material here is much darker than the adventures of Tintin." At the same time, the story is more of an evolution of a struggling, salaried journalist into a sharp, independent detective. He is an ordinary man who embarks on an extraordinary adventure to dig out the truth.
For Paoli Dam, the mysterious 'butterfly' to Shantilal's detective, it's the "out of the box" character of "a glamorous heroine". "I have never essayed glamour of this kind. At the same time, Nandita is very human … she has not forgotten her disturbed childhood, her shady past, and yet she has not given up on the hope of changing things. I like the way she refers to it as bringing about a climate change. During the narration, I realized that it's a character driven by its unstated backstory and that's what pulled me in. We are judgemental as a society … and here you have a woman, a glamorous actor, entering politics, suddenly confronted with her past. It's also important to remember that Nandita is too powerful for Shantilal … it won't take much for a woman in her position to put him out for good … and that's where the character scores. And like all the characters Pratim has given me, here too what's lacking in screen time is more than made up for in its impact.'
With two of Bengal's top actresses entering politics only recently, and the reactions to their glamour quotient doing the buzz in media, did playing Nandita feel too close to the bone? "No, absolutely not. For one, Pratim had written the script way back in 2013, and it had the politician angle even then. We started shooting about a year back. So, the real-life parallels are entirely coincidental … but yes, I thoroughly enjoyed that interview where Nandita takes on a journalist about our society's inherent discomfort with women in positions of power."
the real-life parallels are entirely coincidental … but yes, I thoroughly enjoyed that interview where Nandita takes on a journalist about our society's inherent discomfort with women in positions of power."
Any particular sequence or aspects of the characters that made them special or challenged you as actors?
"As a character, Shantilal is devoid of anything dramatic … the drama emerges from the situation he finds himself in," says Chakraborty. "As an actor, one is always tempted to add that extra bit of colour to a character. The challenge here was to restrain oneself from doing that because the screenplay has all the drama well integrated … in the middle of all the darkness there's an element of humour too, and that comes out better when you are aware of the character's curve, the need to keep it rooted."
About her character, Dam says "She carries her burden on her shoulder. You can see it etched on her face. I loved the last ten minutes … that sequence brings out so many contrasting aspects to her character, her vulnerability, strength. She is on the verge of losing it, yet she gets it back, not through her power, which she could have used to get Shantilal out of the way, but through an innate goodness in her nature that triumphs at a time when the easy way would have been to misuse her power to protect herself."
As Gupta mentioned at the film's premiere, Dam and Chakraborty are a sine qua non for his cinema. Given that they have now been part of four of the director's films, it's no wonder that this is a mutual admiration society. Dam says of Gupta, "He is cool as cucumber on the sets – working with him is like homecoming for me. He is flexible as a director and that's a great thing for the captain of the ship to be.' Chakraborty agrees. "Even when he was making only his second film, it didn't feel like this was a newcomer to cinema, he was always calm and composed. Of course, he had studied film, had been a critic for the longest time, so he understands the medium. I admire his scripting sense, love what he brings to his characters, that he keeps experimenting with genres," he says.
In an era of franchises, particularly when it comes to detective films, does Gupta see Shantilal growing into one?
"When I first wrote it, I didn't think of it as a detective film and hence the idea of turning it into a franchise never crossed my mind. For me, it was always an investigate thriller about the coming of age of a journalist. While making the film, I realized that the way he solves the case is no different from a detective and labelling him as one might help in reaching out to the audiences. Only if the audience accepts it can we think of a franchise," he says.
Pratim D Gupta, the director of Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshya, is a writer with Film Companion