In the 15 odd years he has been around, Dibakar Banerjee has made films as different as Khosla Ka Ghosla, a story of a middle class Delhi family trying to save a plot of property from a shrewd land shark, and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, a stylised origin story of a pre-independence Bengali detective. A brutal found footage film called Love Sex aur Dhokha and a zombie apocalypse short film set somewhere in Maharashtra—in which a super ape walks with the confidence of a demagogue. Banerjee's filmography isn't easy to define and yet, what's unmistakably him is his critical engagement with contemporary India, his incisive study of class, his casting choices, with its mix of big names, lesser known actors and off kilter picks (Emraan Hashmi! Sanjay Kapoor! Manisha Koirala).
Some of these can be seen in his new film, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, that released in theatres last week, featuring Parineeti Chopra, Arjun Kapoor, Jaideep Ahlawat, Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta among others. It has been so long since the film was made, completed and ready for release in 2018, Banerjee tells me over the phone, that the cast and crew had almost no memory of certain scenes from the film and responded to them with surprise in a special screening recently. The filmmaker himself has been busy finishing his next feature film, a Netflix original we know nothing about, even as he has signed a sequel for LSD with Ekta Kapoor. This left him with no time to watch movies and TV shows last year during the lockdown, unlike most of his colleagues, except watching some "obscure documentaries on YouTube", such as one on Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion from forty years ago, and one on the political killings of black youth leaders that led to the birth of gangsta. When he goes on leave next month, he plans to watch Scam: 1992 and Paatal Lok.
When you speak to Banerjee you sense a filmmaker deeply aware of the system he's making films as a part of. Always politically vocal—he was one of the few mainstream filmmakers who returned their National awards in support of the Film and Television Institue of India protests in 2015—a conversation with him turns political by default. An answer on his casting choices segues into the changing nature of censorship in India, that flows into the misleading marketing of films, which he then likens to the chumming of sharks by troll hunters. He also talks about working with Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra, dealing with unfortunate release dates and why he might have been a bass player if he wasn't a filmmaker.
I'll start with the title itself. There is the obvious gender reversal in the names of the two characters. Less obvious is that it sounds like a lovers on the run story but it's not quite that either.
One of the things that I've never been able to program myself into is a received genre. It's a narrative which is decided in collusion with the audience that, 'Look you come and I'll tell you this.' Just the way I tell my six year old that tonight, if you finish your dinner in time I will tell you a fairy story. Now, of course, I tell stories to my six year old. But when I make films I make films largely for adults. And I do believe that adults have the right to come and be surprised by the story. Otherwise narrative will not go forward. So all my stories, Khosla ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye, LSD, Shanghai, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, the short films, I really haven't done something which conforms to a genre's relationship that the industry and the audience share.
There was no genre for Khosla, except for the fact that it was called comedy. There was no genre for Oye Lucky, except that it was called a caper film. Similarly, yes, it's a subversion of a genre to some extent. But that is also connected to the name and the stars and producers who are presenting it, which is a social convention. It's got nothing to do with cinema… The story and the genre defying I would say it will continue in all my films. I genuinely don't see films as thrillers or this or that or whatever. In the same way I don't make them like that.
Secondly, I have come to an age, crowding 50, where I can't identify with the trope of love as put forward by Bollywood, because most of it has to do with sexual repression. Last 20-30 years, most of it has to do with teen and young people's isolation and sexual depression and giving them stories that sublimate that sexual repression into something called love. It's basically a conservative and deeply anxious society which is trying to tell itself stories, which are again, stories constructed by the elite. It's basically a way of monetising sexual repression. But as you realise over the last 10 years as India has kind of, I won't say that India has gone through a sexual revolution, but India's sexual repression has started lifting a bit in a very confused, fractious way. The typical love stories have disappeared. The thing is that the thing called love is a very complicated thing: it's sublimation of many things which are not love. Which are a part of growing up, which are apart of sexuality, class, whatever.
I can't make that traditional love story because first of all, there is no story there for me. Secondly, it bores me to death. Like my film might bore somebody to death… So for me I choose not to understand in the cinema context what is this love. Because I don't know what love is. I can understand lust, I can understand trust, I can understand betrayal, I can understand class, I can understand fear. I can understand sympathy, empathy. And I can understand attraction and repulsion. Woh luv shuv ka mereko nahi pata. Because love is something… I mean the way I love my children, my family, my partner, my wife. The people that I love, those were different circumstances. Those circumstances were the story and the love developed over the next 20 years, or 12 years or 6 years.
For me the more interesting stories are of class, equality-inequality and the two Indians that we see through Sandeep and Pinky, through the Gurgaon world and that little town in Uttarakhand. Sandeep's office colleagues, and Neena Gupta and Raghubir Yadav's character in a small town. The bridge between two Indias that we see through the character that Jaideep Ahlawat plays. And all such characters. For me it was a story of two people who in real life India have no business to be together. And what if they are thrown together and the story takes off from there.
What was the genesis of Sandeep aur Pinky?
The genesis was that after Byomkesh didn't do very well in theatres, and after my plans for working on some things didn't materialise, I was looking for something that would completely take me away from what I had done before. That's how it started. The genesis of the idea was that shootout scene, and then Varun (Grover, co-writer) and I got together and we started developing.
It's a great sequence: the opening stretch.
What happens is that the same event is visited twice. Once in the credit sequence. Once within the lives of the protagonists. I like that.
When you say you wanted to turn away from what you'd done before, what do you mean?
I wanted to turn away from, how should I put it, from the high jinks of Byomkesh to something only focussed on two characters and let the film go where it goes while touching upon concerns that we were touching upon.
What about casting Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra? I understand working with a big studio like Yash Raj Films comes with a package.
See, when I started working with YRF, there was this unspoken agreement that we work with the actors in the YRF stable. I looked forward to that challenge, because the kind of films I make and the kind of scene craft and acting that's needed in my film—the unsaid and the said, the silences and the lines, that needs a different kind of training and workshopping and rehearsing. Because generally in Bollywood, everything is said, whatever is not said, is shown, and whatever is not said or shown is explained through music or voiceover.
The fact is that as the actors converse with themselves as the characters, there is always an eye out for the audience, which is star-based acting. Star ki adayen hai, star ka apna style hota hai. Star ki adayen ke upar peshkash hoti hai audience ko. It was there in Dilip Kumar, it was there in Rajesh Khanna, it's there today also, right? I can't work like that, because my main struggle is to make the audience forget the star and embrace the character if possible—on which I have, I can say, an okay success rate…
I was very conscious that I have to work with Arjun and Parineeti who haven't worked in a system like mine. And start from there and see what I can do. Because the intention is to reach out to a larger body of audience. Much of my audience comes because of my name. Now my name is not much. It only attracts a certain kind of niche audience. So every film director tries to get stars—whatever their stature is, market is, that's a matter of debate—but stars who kind of.. makes it more noticeable. And amongst that you have to choose the ones who are appropriate for the role. Then you sit down with the studio, who is in the studio, who is available (not everyone is dying to work in a film by me). One has to look at people who are looking for some new challenges, who are trying to do something new, something interesting. And from there Arjun and Parineeti came and frankly I never had any choice outside of Parineeti. I never looked at anyone else.
What about her made you think so?
See, I've always seen in Parineeti – in whatever I've seen of her work – met her and spoke to her… I can't explain it. I looked at Parineeti and said yaar, this is Sandeep. Because there is a mixture of small town-big town in her, and as I was discussing the other day, there is some unrest in her, which I thought will be good for SAPF.
What about Arjun Kapoor?
I could see in Arjun this interest to go through the process. He just wanted to go through the process and nothing else. He sort of you knew what the film would be, what it is. He didn't have any major illusions about some huge box office appeal of the film.
The film was ready by end of 2018. What took it so long to release, apart from it being pushed to 2021 from 2020 because of the pandemic?
End of 2018 we were not finding a release date because YRF wanted to wait for Arjun's films like Namaste England and Panipat to do well and to release SAPF in the wake of that. But those films didn't do well unfortunately. Ours was a small film and YRF sort of from the beginning was clear that they wouldn't release the film through the usual hooplas of being a YRF release, that it would be an independent film, and Parineeti and Arjun's name will be there. That's how they decided to release and distribute it and then Covid struck. So it looks like one long delay but was two three delays.
The casting in your films have often been ahead of its time. SAPF also has Jaideep Ahlawat, Neena Gupta and Raghubir Yadav—all of whom, incidentally, featured in two of the most successful web series last year.
My films always have these stable of character actors who I have taken purely on testing them. Because if you go around in the casting environment in Bombay, it's full of talent. I had seen Jaideep briefly in Gangs of Wasseypur, and I can't tell you how much I had to fight the producers to cast him in Lust Stories. Because Jaideep was supposed to be a tough guy, he looked like a villain, and all that. But in my film you look at him, he is a cardio surgeon. And I think it's a brilliant understated performance. It always keeps happening. Richa Chaddha, Rajkummar Rao. Manjot (Singh). Boman (Irani) — though that credit must go to Jaideep (Sahni).
In SAPF there is Sukant Goel, who is phenomenal. You see the other actors like Archana, who plays the HR lady, and the actors who play Munna and Munna's father. I just wanted to surround Arjun and Parineeti with a very strong supporting cast so that if one saw the film, and if one wasn't misled by the promotion and thinking that it was a thriller, then one would just get drawn into the story.
Casting directors have played an important role in the rise of such actors.
I have been relying on casting directors for the last decade and it's very, very important. And there are many, many directors I know who have always been doing that. Over the last 3-4 years, the platforms have picked up and a lot of unorthodox talent which was languishing on the sidelines is now on the forefront. But that may change very soon. It will not be like this. I think we are already at the end of the free period of platform content. Within a year or two we may see the onslaught of fair-skinned, six packed sort of heroes and fair skinned elegant heroines, sort of approved by the elite intelligentsia, which sort of becomes a star system of its own. Post Covid a lot of Bollywood stars will lean their full might on the platform content selectors to be included on to the platform bandwagon. And this will come with full, cultural, political and financial pressure on the platform executives and the selectors and you will see a change.
I think we are already at the end of the free period of platform content. Within a year or two we may see the onslaught of fair-skinned, six packed sort of heroes and fair skinned elegant heroines…Post Covid a lot of Bollywood stars will lean their full might on the platform content selectors to be included on to the platform bandwagon. And this will come with full, cultural, political and financial pressure on the platform executives
You will see a kind of thing that happened in theatrical in Hindi cinema around 2009-10 when the 100 crore club became suddenly the red line for everyone to cross. Because when we were coming up in 2006-2009, those 4-5 years, there was this talk of independent cinema, change and all that. I never believed in change. I believe that it remains the same and it keeps changing.
How much of that has to do with the current political climate in the country?
What happens is when the political climate becomes constrained, free narratives, which question, provoke, make you think, which challenge you, which confront you, which show you a mirror, which move you—content and narrative that is not constructed by fiat with the audience or with the state, that 'Look I'll tell this, this and this, You're okay no?' And then somebody says 'Ok go ahead'—when it goes through a series of constrictions, where the true psychological depth of the narrative, which comes from our subconscious, which comes from things we can't say, which comes from unmentionables, which comes from the dark corners of our lives, those narratives get vanished from the mainstream. Then narrative becomes shallower and shallower. Characters becomes stereotype. You speak from within a power system—whether it's patriarchy, whether its nationalism, whether its cozying up to the powerful. You speak from within that system and do what you can. And it kind of hobbles the narrative in a way that we all know, right?
There has been proscription and censoring ever since India became independent and decided that it will copy its colonial masters. But now because of social media, because of right wing conservatism, because of India's political landscape is changing, the nature of censorship is changing. There are two ways of censoring that have appeared over the last decade. One is censoring by law. Another censoring is by mob power, where it burns down theatres and stops screenings of your films and all. The third is censorship through digital, or social media, where trolling and opinion making through trolling and flooding the digital space with narratives about the content before content even hits the screen.
The digital environment is such that what you can say is immediately visible to and audible to millions of people. That has completely short circuited the time from when you speak and any thought happens and it reaching the audience: unarmed thoughts, your utterances, your immediate outburst are out there for everyone to see. The distance between utterance and thought and millions of people hearing it is so little that it's used in a different way.
For example, when we were discussing SAPF, I was of the opinion that it should not be promoted as a thriller. It was promoted as some kind of a thriller with shots of Parineeti's strangulation and dark ways or whatever, giving the feel of a thriller and I was like see this is not the film. The film has some thrills but the film is much more than that. So you need to be careful. That's when the marketing department revealed to me that they have to give immediately accessible, definable and categorisable elements in the promo, a genre which shows violence, speed and thrill. And because it is connected to me, I'm apparently supposed to be a dark guy. Apparently. Dark dark bohut sunne mein aata hai mere liye. But apart from the lighting I have no understanding of darkness (starts laughing).
The question I asked is that is it fine to, then, show something in the trailer and the film reveals itself as something different in the theatre? The answer to that was that we immediately needed hits in the digital media. That's what I was saying: that the digital media, the digital filmmaker, the digital troller, has to be spoken to simultaneously and almost before anybody else. Therefore, the marketing part, the promotional part has to deeply cow-tow to the digital media. When you go out shark hunting, there's a period in shark hunting called chumming. For about 2 or 3 hours you throw bloody pieces of flesh into the water. I think the continuous throwing of bloody pieces of flesh into the digital media has also become a part and parcel of marketing. In India currently we are going through a stage where I feel and I see it that there is a dumbing down and a lot of directors and creators who were known for their incisive sort of voices are being forced to dumb down as well. That's a little… concerning.
How is this going to affect storytelling in film and web series?
Two things will happen. First of all film industry itself is a soft target. I'll explain this why: because it's the easiest to show your patriotism by banning a film, or getting a writer jailed, or a stand up comedian jailed, or getting an actor abused on the digital media. And it is getting difficult to counteract because of the disorganised nature of the film industry, which is too weak to stand up for its own professional ethics and because the film industry is basically chasing profits, as every business should, but in a very haphazard way. It's not really an industry. It's a conglomeration of egos who want to make money and be famous, including me. Now it's up to us if we can unite and kind of pushback and do the right thing.
This happened in '75, in the Emergency. If you read the tales of the Emergency, they are horrific. This has happened many times. I have seen that happen to me during LSD, not because of the sex, but because of caste. I have spoken about it. This happens when you live in a country where the social system has considered to take on the aspects of its colonial masters and pin its subjects as property that it controls and exploits rather than a polity that is served. That's the fundamental difference. Yeh sab chhapoge na?
Your films are political, but not overly so. Do you think this will affect your style of storytelling?
I think what you're saying is that my films are not partisan. I think my films are not partisan. Because in terms of community and all that i am a complete atheist. I believe all religions to be a figment of human imagination. So I will be equally at odds with a Muslim, Hindu and a Sikh believer, but that doesn't mean I'll be at odds with them. These are things that we can let be. Religious minority-majority, these are all aspects of social power. And people align with various groups to sort of attain power, so my concerns are power, gender, which is there in Sandeep aur Pinky. My concerns are basically power and gender, at its core.
Talking of the film, we are not going to be very spoilery because most people would've not seen it in theatres. The digital release will be, in a sense, going to be the bigger release.
In some ways it's quite crazy because last year, when we were fixing up the date of SAPF I had mentioned to the executives I can see Covid coming over all over us, what do you want to do? But it was too late because the promos had started. Now that we have released it, the second wave is upon us, apparently….and in some sense the films released right now are like the recruits being sent up the hill first in a war, so that the other side finishes its ammo, and then you send in the generals. Covid will go away, vaccination will happen but a lot of the small films, like SAPF will be released earlier to test the market. So in some ways, we will act as appetisers or canon fodder to draw the audience towards the theatre so that the later, bigger summer blockbusters and big star releases come at a moment when a suitable momentum of theatre going has been built up…This theatrical release for SAPF will almost be a kind of promotional event in a very weird way that will lead up to the platform release.
You're no stranger to unfortunate timings of your theatrical release. Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye released on 26/11.
Not only not a stranger I'm a veteran. Khosla was in the cans for 2.5 years. Oye Lucky happened during 26/11. Byomkesh was preponed by 7 days to release it in parallel with Fast & Furious 7 after the actor's death…. I'm frequently find being told, Sir aapka toh picture bolegi, use marketing nahi chahiye…. The miracle is that I'm still making films.
Let's talk about you composing the background score for SAPF. You have contributed in your other albums too, co-composed songs, written lyrics, but this is a first.
I co-composed in all of my films. In Khosla, I think I had co-credit on some of the songs. I composed the Oye Lucky title track, though Sneha (Khanwalkar) did the overall music. In LSD, I composed the track "Tu Gandi acchi lagti hai". In Shanghai also, there was something I worked on, and in Bombay Talkies I composed the finale track with Nawaz. In Byomkesh I got a lot of indie bands for the album…Music is one of my deeply abiding interests. I mean if I wasn't a filmmaker, I would have been a bass player — that doesn't mean I can play the bass. The best part about being a bass player is that I can be a part of the band and enjoy the music and don't have to work too hard. This time on SAPF I actively composed the music and in my next feature, I have completely done the music.
That's interesting. What is the process like when you are composing?
There's a music producer who takes my musical ideas and puts them in the computer and programs them and then we go ahead and record. I have a very fantastic musical collaborator, Agnello (Aggie), who's been working with me all the way from Byomkesh, where I did few tracks of the background score. We get along very well. He has a fantastic head for melody and all that.
What happens is that I come from a space that forms while the film is being written and then start working on the music of that. On SAPF I knew there were a lot gritty, hardboiled things that was happening to them. They had to behave in tandem with those gritty, hardboiled things. However, in my head the way the story was going I knew there will be a layer that would be going on which would be over and above the dialogue of the scene craft. That is where the music came and I wanted it to be wistful and romantic.
Just yesterday somebody, who isn't an opinion maker when it comes to films, called up and said that he liked that there was so much stress and tension in the frame and the narrative and events but the music was deliberately opposed to that and yet it didn't take away any of that stress.
The songs are diegetic.
Yes they are. They are part of the background score or they are part of what is happening within the scene. So it's absolutely diegetic. But if you write it in Film Companion, toh phir tum kaise samjhaoge.
But it's okay, it's you.
But you are talking to your readers and I'm interested in reaching your readers, so don't say things like diegetic.
The songs in SAPF include two bhajans and a song from an imaginary Salman Khan film. But they are in themselves not ironic.
Yes, the treatment is ironic but the songs themselves are not. It's a good point. Sometimes using music which has been thought out of context of the narrative is a very interesting way to give the narrative a special dimension which it didn't have before.