Director Prasun Chatterjee’s Dostojee has had something of a dream run since its world premiere at the 65th BFI London Film Festival in 2021. The film charts the relationship between two boys in rural Bengal, whose friendship is tested by both fate as well as the politics of Nineties’ India. As praise for the film has come flooding in, Chatterjee has decided that until he’s made at least three good films, Dostojee is to be filed under ‘fluke’. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation with Chatterjee.
How was Dostojee conceived?
Isse one line main bolna bahot mushkil hai (I can’t narrow it down to a sentence.) It’s a multitude of so many emotions, and it wasn’t planned. There’s personal loss involved. The film opens with three names — Pavel Dutta, Samrat Ganguly and Anindya Chaki. Anindya was a senior journalist and was like a teacher…I lost him. I also lost Samrat, my elder brother, in a car accident nearly five years ago. While writing the script, I lost my best friend, Pavel, who had been battling cancer. Pavel and I knew each other through Sohag Sen’s Ensemble theatre group, which we both were a part of. I wanted to be a director and him, an actor. I was able to read out my second draft to him while he was on a ventilator. Now that I look back, I realise that it played on my subconscious and it reflects in the script. … I’m from a refugee family, I’m a first-generation Indian. My parents fled Bangladesh to escape the communal tension and bloodbath. I was born in Kolkata but as a child, I heard many stories from my grandmother. That has had a great impact too, it’s very complex to explain how this story was conceived.
What were the challenges you encountered while directing the children?
Casting the boys, Arif Shaikh and Asik Shaikh, was a tough process. I had been looking for them for more than eight months. We searched for them in every primary school and eventually found them in the village itself. It was not that easy to direct them, but I was lucky because the boys are intelligent. They were blank canvases, there was no pretension, no baggage. But the toughest thing was the continuity of emotion. When I would take a master shot, absolutely fine. But then, when I’d go in for a closeup, somehow they’d miss the emotion. They’re not professional actors, so it was challenging to replicate the same thing for another shot. But they coped with everything within seven to 10 days. The most important thing that I learnt from Sohag Sen is to understand the psychology of the actor and to brief them accordingly. … It was a beautiful mutual learning process. But I must say Arif is an intuitive actor. He would change his mood in the blink of an eye…usme hai (he has what it takes).
How did you recreate the Nineties for the film?
Amitabh Bachchan helped define the time the film is set in. Even now in the village, people style their hair like he used to. In Dostojee, the cycle repair shop is called Bachchan Cycle Repairing Shop. It’s written in Bengali. Even the photo studio in the film is advertising the ‘Bombay style photograph’. We had to create the entire Nineties. It took six months to make the set, and then the next six months to season it… to make it look inhabited. We shot the film very close to the India-Bangladesh border but it is a porous border. So, we built two mud houses suitable for people to live in and gave the houses to two refugee families. Woh waha pe apna sansaar basa liye… yaha pe dewaar main keela thok diye, hook laga diye, waha pe ek taar laga di (They built a home in those houses. They had hammered nails and hooks in the walls, and strung wires.) This is how the houses were seasoned. And when we were shooting, we would request the family to adjust. Aur bhi mazze ki baat (What’s amusing is that)... our props were actually their household items! So it all looked and felt very real. The film was shot in 2018. When I went back to the village in 2021, I saw that they were still living there. Yeh kitna satisfying hai, yeh cinema se bahot badhkar hai mere liye…do families ko ghar mil gaya, jo humara set hua karta tha (This is very satisfying, this matters to me more than cinema…two families found their homes in what used to be our set.)
Why have you set the film in 1993, after Babri Masjid was demolished and the 1993 Bombay bombings?
This is my observation and understanding, that these two incidents — the demolition and its counter, the bombings — broke the balance in society. Now, the situation is worse…the polarisation. I’m not saying there was perfect harmony between these two communities but there was balance. In villages too, harmony is being affected.
Yet after Palash’s death in Dostojee, the film’s politics fades away. Why?
In the entire film, I mostly tried to see society through the eyes of two little boys. When Palash dies, Safikul’s world becomes very claustrophobic. He stops going out much. Uska world bahot chotta ho gya (His world became very small.) But the themes are there, they are underlying and not as prominent as they were in the first act, but they’re there.