As a student of literature at St. Xavier's College in Mumbai, director Deb Medhekar says he devoured books by Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass and Haruki Murakami, but it was Rabindranath Tagore he considered a huge influence. Which makes his choice of debut film – an adaptation of one of Tagore's most enduring works – quite serendipitous.
Bioscopewala, starring Danny Denzongpa as the titular character and Geetanjali Thapa as a grown-up version of Tagore's Mini, premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year. It is set to release in India this week.
An adman for eight years, Medhekar said films was not the goal. "I didn't think I would get to make the kind of films I wanted to. I thought the commerce of the industry would not let me make a Bioscopewala. I loved advertising and had carved a niche for myself. Then this opportunity came by and I realised I would not have to make any compromises – I could choose my own cast, I could get the locations I wanted, I got to work with Gulzar on lyrics. I jumped at it."
This new world came with its share of familiar faces. "Danny Denzongpa was my senior at FTII (the Film and Television Institute of India) so we would joke about it all the time. Our cinematographer Rafey Mehmood was an FTII passout. Dipika Kalra, who edited the film, was in my batch. Resul Pookutty – who did the sound design – also from FTII!"
He also spoke about why the film is a homage to cinema and what he hopes audiences will take away from it:
How did the film come about? The trailers indicate that it's quite unlike the Kabuliwala of our childhood.
I was approached by producer Sunil Doshi, who said he wanted to adapt Tagore's short story. He had a basic outline of what he wanted to do – the kabuliwala would be a bioscopewala who ran a cinema in Afghanistan, he would travel to India and develop a relationship with the little girl. It was a beautiful idea, but I felt that if we had to tell the story right, we had to contemporize the context and the conflicts while keeping the heart and the innocence of the original intact. There's a sequence at the end of Balraj Sahni's Kabuliwala (1961) – when he's released from prison, he brings Mini bangles thinking she's still a small girl. As he raises the bangles, the scene is shot through them and he sees that the little girl has become a 15-year-old who is now getting married. I wanted to change what the lens saw – from the kabuliwala looking at Mini, Bioscopewala now deals with how she sees him. She tries to discover who he was and what he meant to her, piecing together the mystery of where he came from and how he got here.
It's a well-known story, a lot of schools had it as a text. Imagine all that weight on your shoulders
So having watched the earlier adaptations, were there things you wanted to retain and conversely were there things where you went, we're just going to do this differently?
I'd studied both adaptations, but once you change the focus of your film, everything changes. In the 1961 film, it's the father who narrates the story. In Bioscopewala, we're dealing with a 30-year-old woman in 2016 looking back at her life.
We haven't retained a lot of things from the earlier films. When you're telling the story that's been told twice, it's important for it to have novelty. People want to see something new. But at the same time, you have to retain a certain honesty, which we've kept constant. We've tried to build on the story and elevate it. I've pushed myself to figure out how to make these characters relevant to today.
Is it daunting to take on an iconic work and put your own spin on it? What do you hope the audience takes away from your film?
It was hugely daunting because you're not just dealing with the fact that it's a cinematic retelling and that there have been two great films, two great performances – by Chhabi Biswas and Balraj Sahni. There's also fact that it's a well-known story, a lot of schools had it as a text. Imagine all that weight on your shoulders. You're not dealing with a fresh audience, everyone who reads Kabuliwala takes something different away from it. It's a very emotional story. I knew right from the start that if I had to adapt this, I had to be honest to the original story and yet add enough novelty to make sure that this was something people would want to come back to. All our marketing, all our promotional material is hinting towards an incomplete story. A storyteller taught Mini how to tell stories and now she will tell his by piecing together parts of his narrative. As she discovers the man, she finds out more about herself. It's a departure from the story.
I hope the film gives the audience a sense of nostalgia. Cinema has the ability to recreate the past and allow you to indulge in that sensation. It has the power to help you relive moments that have become hazy in your memories. I hope it takes the audience back to a time when things were purer and then brings them back to the present, where they see how dark things have become. I hope they make a comparison and see what has been lost.
You've made more than 150 commercials. Did you find that the craft helped you while directing a full-length feature film?
The best thing about being an ad maker is the discipline that you get. You have one day to shoot, to make things look good, to make the product look right. You're dealing with multiple emotions. In 30 seconds, you have to get the character established, make the audience feel for the character, reach a pitch and then have an emotional release at the end. It's great training. I learnt to storyboard everything. I have to thank the ad industry for training me to make Bioscopewala, which is so large in its scope.
Despite its fresh take, the film also has a lot of references to old-school cinema – the bioscope is a callback to the one carried by Mumtaz in Dushman (1971) and you've said you cast Geetanjali Thapa because she reminded you of Meena Kumari.
This is a meta-film. That's part of my attempt to pay tribute to not just the literature of another period, but its cinema as well. We've dealt with memory and the multiplicity of it. So Mini's own memories come back to her because of certain stimuli in her environment, but we also have people filling in parts of the story for her. We've paid homage to old cinema in that way. Our memories are coloured by the kind of cinema we watch. Cinema is so deeply ingrained into our thinking, we think in cuts and fade-outs. Especially in India, where we have a cinematically-educated audience. So, the memories have been treated cinematically as a tribute and then the modern era looks very different – we've shot with a handheld camera and a telephoto lens.
I love Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) and Pyaasa (1957) and all the movies of that era. When we were casting the role of Mini, I wanted someone who didn't give off an air of strength and who could portray the character's fragility, because it's only later that you realise how strong she is. That's when I thought of casting someone who was like Meena Kumari. Geetanjali is just beautiful in the film.
Cinema is so deeply ingrained into our thinking, we think in cuts and fade-outs
What was it like working with a veteran actor like Danny Denzongpa?
He's larger than life in so many ways, he's a dude. He does his own action sequences. He stays fit, he comes prepared and he challenges you constantly. He knows so much about cinema. Danny didn't come with the baggage that I would've imagined someone of his stature to come with. He sat patiently and went through all my research. I think he was gauging how serious I was about the project. He would try scenes differently, ask for extra takes. He just submitted completely to the character.
There are a few adaptations this year – Raazi based on Calling Sehmat, the upcoming The Accidental Prime Minister based on a memoir of the same name, there's also Sacred Games coming out on Netflix – do you think there's this untapped cinematic potential in our country's literature or are we doing it justice?
We have so many languages, and so much quality literature. We're so rich in written content. There's no dearth of original content if we just go out and look for it. But adaptation should mean adaptation and not translation. The director should bring something to the table that is indispensable to the storytelling. Otherwise, everyone would've just picked up a book and adapted it. You not only have to adapt across mediums, but across time. Your character should be relevant to today's times and should be faced with a conflict that the audience can identify with. I hope more adaptations are made – there's a lot of potential there – but on the other hand, I hope there are a lot of original ideas too. Producers know that if a book has been successful, a film based on it will be successful too. I hope my second film is an original story. If the industry is kind enough to grant me a third film, I'd like to go back to adaptations.