“I started out wanting to make only twenty-six films – one for each letter of the alphabet … So, you have Autograph (A), Baishe Srabon (B), Chotushkone (C) … In fact, I have cracked the difficult letters – Y (Yeti Obhijan), Z (Zulfiqar) and X (X-Ray, a web series based on stories by Satyajit Ray that I am directing). The rest should be easy…”
We are sitting at the SVF office on the eighteenth floor of Kolkata’s Acropolis Mall on the eve of Srijit’s birthday and we decide right at the outset that we will keep the conversation to his cinema, their origins and inspirations, the tropes and themes he consciously or subconsciously returns to. As he says, “As a film-maker, a birthday is probably just the right occasion to look back on how I have grown, if I have.”
There’s no doubt that his films have grown in scale – from the more intimate ones like Autograph (2010) and Baishe Srabon (2011) to the big-budget multi-starrer extravaganzas Rajkahini (2015) and Zulfiqar (2016). But with that has grown the criticism – from his becoming over-prolific to his selling out to “commercial” cinema with big stars.
“But you must remember I started out with the biggest star of them all in my debut – Bumba-da (Prosenjit Chatterjee),” he counters. “I took him not because of the star he is but because if one has to make Nayak today, one could not have done it without a marquee name like him. In fact, there have been only two scripts I have written with a specific actor/star in mind – Autograph, with Bumba-da, and Uma (2018) with Sara. If either of them had said no, I would not have made those films. Also, my very second film was a multi-starrer with Bumba-da, Goutam-da, Parambrata, Abir, Raima … In any case, this commercial-mainstream-offbeat debate is now passé. Some of our best film-makers across languages are working with stars increasingly willing to break out of the straitjacket of stardom.”
The Confident Debutante
In Bengal, there are icons – Rabindranath Tagore, Uttam Kumar, Satyajit Ray, Netaji Subhas Bose – you tinker with at your own peril. Srijit was doing it with Ray, Uttam and Nayak – all in his debut. And to top it all, he had as its protagonist a rookie making his first film. How much of Shubho (Indraneil Sengupta) was Srijit Mukherji? “Well, the first half of the film was largely autobiographical – that first meeting between Arun (Prosenjit) and Shubho actually played out exactly the way it did between Bumba-da and me. But you must remember, Nayak is more about the image of a star, the ultimate deconstruction of a star. Autograph is essentially a love triangle in the backdrop of Nayak. There are three layers in it – the film within a film, the film outside the film and then the real life of its characters – and how these three merge.” And Shubho making the choice he does for the film’s promotion? “Well, it’s true what he says – a good film in itself is not enough unless it is promoted well. In his world-view everything is fair when it comes to his film. But that does not necessarily reflect my views.”
What about the scene where Shubho tells a moneybag that Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberry is the kind of film he aspires to make, to which comes the classic response, ‘Kaar strawberry?’ (Whose strawberry?) ‘No … that was me having fun,’ Srijit clarifies.
The Recurring Tropes
That kind of repartee, in-film and literature referencing – often with a sly twist – have been recurring themes with Srijit. The climactic scene in Chotushkone (2014), for example, where one of the characters very aptly utters the memorable one-liner from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: “When you want to shoot, shoot, don’t talk”. In the same film, he uses T.S. Eliot’s classic line from The Hollow Man, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”, except that Srijit, in keeping with the Russian Roulette sequence unfolding, cheekily turns it around to: “Not with a whimper but with a bang.”
Or take the name of the character Prosenjit plays in Jaatishwar (2014), Kushal Hazra – any Ray film buff would immediately make the connection to Sonar Kella. Then there is the reference to Sanjay ‘Leela’ Bhansali in Hemlock Society (2012), in the context of Meghna (Koel Mallick) using her mother’s maiden name instead of her father’s. Srijit goes on to use her father’s name, ‘Chitta’, to sarcastically call out his fear, ‘Chitta tahole bhoy shunyo noi (The heart is after all not without fear)’, in a reference to Tagore’s poem ‘Where the Mind Is Without Fear’. Or the macabre sequence where the psychotic Kabir (Jisshu Sengupta) in Rajkahini hums Lalon Fakir’s baul song ‘Khanchar Bhetore Ochin Pakhi’ – surely the most inappropriate song for a professional rioter out to rape and kill.
With Jisshu as Kabir the conversation veers towards Srijit’s penchant for not only casting against type but also unexpected casting choices. It began with his second film Baishe Srabon, where he cast Prosenjit as a disgraced, pot-bellied ex-cop, mouthing profanities at the drop of a hat. Also, in an inspired bit of casting he had award-winning film-maker Goutam Ghose play a down-and-out poet Nibaran who has never been published and who keeps speaking to and denouncing Rabindranath on the phone. In a characteristic Srijit twist, Nibaran’s potential publisher is also called Rabindranath, so one is never sure if Nibaran is ranting against the poet or the publisher, and Srijit isn’t giving anything away!
I grew up in Bhowanipur with the stories of the stone man smashing heads of pavement dwellers. Then as an adult, I became fascinated with the legend of Jack the Ripper.
The Intelligent Viewer’s Serial Killer Flick
For me, Baishe Srabon is, along with Jaatishwar and to an extent Nirbaak (2015), probably Srijit’s most interesting and important film. For one, this is probably Bengali cinema’s first serial killer movie. “I grew up in Bhowanipur with the stories of the stone man smashing heads of pavement dwellers. Then as an adult, I became fascinated with the legend of Jack the Ripper. There was also the detective fiction of Agatha Christie, Roger Ackroyd and Curtains, obviously in the denouement.”
It is also probably the first police procedural in Bengali cinema, with a young police officer being thrown in the deep end with a world-weary veteran, a la Seven. In a delightful tongue-in-cheek introductory sequence, Prosenjit’s bad-ass ex-cop offers the wet-behind-the-ears Parambrata, “Whisky?” When the latter demurs, being on duty, Prosenjit is at his sarcastic best, ridiculing the rookie: ‘Bournvita cholbe (Will Bournvita do)?”
What, however, sets Baishe Srabon apart from the run-of-the-mill serial killer movie is invoking what can only be termed a “dead poets’ society” of Bengali poets. “The thing about serial killers,” says Srijit, “is that their minds are off-centre … that’s where the poetry comes in.” The killer’s modus operandi here is as unique as any I have seen in any film of the genre: he chooses the death anniversaries of leading Bengali poets – Jibanananda Das, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Benoy Majumdar, and a rare gem by Sukumar Ray – to strike, leaving behind fragments of their poetry as his calling card.
The last kill is, of course, reserved for the anniversary of the greatest of them all: Tagore. This is where the casting of Goutam Ghose as a poet cues into the narrative. “Goutam-da is in many ways the joker in the pack here, the outsider, and that’s what makes him interesting – and of course his real-life persona as an intellectual helps in the delineation of his character as a failed poet who raves and rants.”
It also gives Srijit the opportunity to explore a genre of poetry that was at one point reviled as obscene and whose practitioners ostracized and marginalized: the Hungry Generation Poets, who, in the words of a character in the film, practised ‘the poetry of chaos and death’. Related to this strand of poetry and to the ambience of the film are a couple of tropes that have characterized his films: the liberal use of profanities and the exploration of the city’s underbelly.
The City and Its Language
“Yes, both were conscious choices, and both came in for some criticism. Ritu-da (film-maker Rituparno Ghosh) did not take kindly to the language in Baishe. There were other dissenting voices, but I was dealing in a genre that had no place for gentility. I think there was some amount of mental block in the older generation, but the younger audience was in raptures. The characters are speaking the language of the times.”
It’s a moot point whether any Bengali film before this, even a Hindi film for that matter, used such obscene language as openly and with as much frequency. But that lends the film an authenticity, an edge, which the standard ‘haramzadas’ and ‘kuttas’ would never have managed to do. Srijit of course took this to another extreme altogether with his latter films Rajkahini and Zulfiqar, where the language is quite likely to burn the ears of even the most seasoned user of cuss words.
The other aspect here that forms an integral part of many of Srijit’s films is the use of the city spaces, particularly its slums and grimy alleyways. Baishe literally spills over with some of the filthiest locations one can imagine on-screen, including the poet’s hovel. Even Zulfiqar, which was heavily panned and which remains my most problematic Srijit film, has a breathtaking opening sequence in Kolkata’s dockyard, where he lays bare the city’s parallel underworld economy in a series of extraordinary shots. “I think we have had enough of bhadrolok Kolkata, depicting it through the Howrah bridge, trams, Victoria Memorial, the Maidan, Durga Pujo, rosogolla – those are lazy clichés. I love taking my camera to avenues you are not aware of, that are not beautiful.”
There is another facet to his cinema that intrigues me – and here I latch on to the phrase ‘off-centre’ he has used to describe the mind of a serial killer. On the evidence of Hemlock Society, Chotushkone and Nirbaak, I ask him if he would apply that term, off-centre, to the way he thinks, his approach to his characters and stories. Hemlock deals with an institution that teaches its students how to commit suicide successfully. The very structure and content of Chotushkone (four film-makers directing and acting in a film made of four short stories around the theme of death) won him a National Award for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay – and deserves an essay of its own. And Nirbaak is so way out as to defy description and analysis.
“You mention the language and the city as tropes in my films; I think death is another important theme,” Srijit says. Hemlock was triggered by a couple of intensely personal experiences. Srijit had at one point been in love with a terminally ill woman like the film’s protagonist Ananda Kar (Parambrata), one who never let Srijit in on her condition till it was too late. He had also, while researching for his Byomkesh Bakshi play Checkmate, come across a website that offered aspirants options to commit suicide “properly and successfully”. These included instructions on how to slit your wrist to ensure you do it the right way, how to put your head in the oven, what poisons and medicines in what dosages work best, and so on (thankfully, the website has since been taken off, he says).
“It was in many ways a cathartic film, I was dealing with a heart-break of my own, and you know how it is in those times. To date, I receive mails from places as far off as Japan and Europe – a girl contemplating suicide after being cheated by her boyfriend, a cancer patient who was considering euthanasia, all drawing inspiration from the film to live on. It’s also been made in Marathi as Welcome Zindagi.”
The name Ananda Kar, of course, loosely translates to ‘make merry’ (at the same time being a tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand – its two principal characters Anand and Bhaskar probably combining to make the name). At the same time, the names of the various suicide experts at the institute are vintage Srijit play of words (Prof. Jhulan for death by hanging, Prof. Shikha Dhar for death by immolation, Prof. Setu for classes on jumping off a bridge, Raktim Ganguly for shooting oneself with a gun and Miss Sella Neous for miscellaneous other methods). His dialogues brim over with witticisms like looking for a wife “who would have intellectual, emotional and conjugal compatibility, that is, who would know Feluda, Neruda and Derrida”. All of this ensures that the film’s message, even if obvious, couches itself in first-rate black humour, and its take on death is nowhere near depressing or downbeat.
Delving into Dali
It isn’t in Nirbaak either. To call Nirbaak a hyperlinked series of four love stories each of which ends in death doesn’t even begin to describe what is his most experimental and surreal film – not surprising given that it is dedicated to Salvador Dali. Picture this: A man (Anjan Dutt) so obsessively in love with himself that he kisses his reflection in the mirror full on the mouth, and smears his face with cake while singing himself a birthday song. A tree in love with a woman (Susmita Sen) who sits on a bench under it waiting for her lover, even dreaming a musical number with her. A bitch (with a spy-cam POV of her own) so insanely in love with her master (Jisshu) that not only will she not accept the woman in the second story he has brought home as his wife, she will also end up engineering her death. And a morgue attendant (Ritwick Chakraborty in a deliciously sly performance) in love with a dead woman and who enacts his filmy fantasies with her complete with Hindi film songs appropriate to the situation. ‘Tujhe dekha toh yeh jaana sanam’ when he first sets eyes on her as a gust of breeze blows the shroud off her face. ‘Aaj unse pahli mulaqat hogi’ when he is planning his first date with her. ‘Hum tum ek kamre mein bandh ho’ when he is locked inside the morgue with her in the freezing drawers, and ‘Pardesi, pardesi jaana nahin’ when her family comes to claim the body and he, having been murdered, is making his way into one of the freezers.
It is all so insane, so bizarre, that my only question to Srijit is: what were you on when you dreamed this up? “The second story started it all. I was in the Dali museum in Florida and saw a painting with an anthropomorphic tree. It set me thinking: what would it be like if it could have all the emotions related to love, like jealousy, lust and heartbreak?”
What’s fascinating about the four ‘love’ stories is that the only ‘normal’ one – between the man and the woman (by the way, the woman here has no name) – lacks the passion or eroticism that marks the others: a man lusting after himself, the tree secreting sap in the throes of its passion for the woman as it raises a gust of breeze to blow away her chunni, the bitch interrupting her master and his wife making love. “Yes, that’s true, especially in Anjan-da’s story. I wanted to take self-love to the next level where one jerks off looking at one’s own reflection. The last story came to me when I was shooting the morgue sequence in Baishe. I looked at the freezers and said to Soumya, my associate director, that it looked like a government housing complex with different residents and the attendant as the watchman. What if the watchman falls in love with a new girl who enters the colony? Soumya said, hold on – that’s a different film!”
The Musical Masterpiece
For a film-maker whose films haven’t been known for their music – though ‘Amake amaar moton thakte dao’ (Autograph), ‘Gobheere jao’ (Baishe Srabon) and ‘Basanta eshe gechhe’ (Chotushkone) have been huge hits, demonstrating his feel for fitting songs into the narrative – it’s remarkable that his best film is a musical in the true sense of the term: Jaatishwar. Unlike the standard dramas in the genre, Srijit’s is a master class given the copious amount of research that has gone into not only the subject of reincarnation, but also the story of Hensman Anthony, a Portuguese who came to be celebrated in nineteenth-century Bengal for his mastery of kobigaan or song duels.
Not only does the ambitious screenplay clear the many misconceptions and myths around Anthony but it also provides nuggets of information on the many components of what a kobigaan entailed, with the most authentic rendition of kobigaans on-screen – weaving all of it into a seamless narrative where the research never overwhelms the film.
What also helps is the story of Rohit (Jisshu Sengupta), a Gujarati boy in love with a Bengali girl (who keeps ridiculing him), hell-bent on learning Bengali and participating in a music competition. Running parallel to Anthony mastering Bengali to participate in the song duels (being similarly ridiculed), the device enables Srijit to traverse the spectrum of Bengali music from Lalon Fakir and Bhaba Pagla to the bands a hundred years later. “In Rohit, I had my alter ego, journeying like him across run-down libraries all over the state in search of material for the research.” Held together by Prosenjit in probably the performance of his career, as Anthony and as the meek, small-town librarian Kushal Hazra, who believes himself to be Anthony reborn, this is in my opinion the definitive Srijit film.
“It originated with Suman-da’s (singer-composer Kabir Suman, who received a National Award for the film’s music) legendary song “Jaatishwar”, the concept of love being timeless, and became for me a voyage of discovery of the musical traditions of my language. It’s not only my first and probably only film where love is the central theme, it is also one which led me to a better understanding of my mother tongue, a love ingrained in me by Suman-da who never tires of underlining why we need to be proud of its roots given that hundreds died for it,” he says. This is of course a reference to the language agitation in East Pakistan in February 1952 in which students protesting the imposition of Urdu as national language were fired upon and killed.
The Director at Play
That brings us to what have been his most hotly debated films critically – both films I did not quite take to on first viewing: Rajkahini and Zulfiqar. There are of course his two adaptations of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Kakababu stories, Mishawr Rahoshyo (2013) and Yeti Obhijan (2017), the only non-original screenplays in his oeuvre, discounting the Julius Caesar-meets Antony and Cleopatra-meets Godfather mishmash that is Zulfiqar. In a filmography full of “serious” material, Mishawr and Yeti are Srijit at play.
“Yes, these were films I was having fun with, going back to my childhood, reliving those fantasies. Mishawr went on to become my biggest grosser – and at that time was my most expensive film. Yeti didn’t quite work out the way I envisaged – maybe because I followed the novel to a T. In Mishawr, I took certain liberties, incorporating the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square uprisings in the narrative. Of course, these were not there in the original novel. Fortuitously for us, the Arab world was up in arms at the time we were shooting, and that gave me an opportunity to make the screenplay more contemporary.”
The Flawed Blockbusters
In an earlier conversation where I had expressed my reservations about Rajkahini and Zulfiqar, Srijit had asked me, “Can you put a finger on what didn’t work for you in Rajkahini? Zulfiqar I understand, it was my massy experiment with the Bard, worked for some, not for others.”
When I revisited Rajkahini for the purpose of this interview, I noted down a few things: the melodrama, the over-the-top nature of the narrative, the total lack of subtlety, the almost one-tone approach…
“What was subtle about the Partition, tell me,” Srijit retorts. “It was in your face. There was nothing understated about trains coming laden with dead, mutilated bodies. As far as I am concerned, the horrors could be communicated only with a scream, there is no way for it to be muted. Joya Chatterjee’s The Spoils of Partition, which was the source material for the film, drove me into depression. The only way to get that out of my system was to go all out.”
The other issue I had with the film is its coda where a voiceover narrates the story of Rani Padmini committing jauhar, even as the whorehouse burns down with the prostitutes inside. Doesn’t it undo the purpose of the film altogether, equating the factual horrors of history with what is clearly a myth? He ponders a bit over this, before responding, “But you see I am not equating the two. For these prostitutes the concept of physical chastity does not apply, unlike the mythical Padmini. Here the honour lies in Begum Jaan’s arrogance about not being captured alive. As she says, she would rather die than live like a beggar. For her, being a prostitute and saving her brothel is more honourable than caving in to the whimsy of the powers who are out to divide her home into two.”
Despite the very obvious references to Julius Caesar, Zulifqar is a shapeless mess. It is also at times high camp (blood splashing over a Tagore photograph on the wall), at the end of which you are left with only that opening sequence and two uncharacteristic performances.
However, a closer reading of the film does open up merits I had overlooked earlier. It’s a film that makes you cringe – that’s something Srijit says he set out to do. Some of the sequences are difficult to watch – it’s a no-holds-barred assault on the senses and Srijit is clearly not sugarcoating any of it. The dialogues are a case in point. One of the prostitutes equates a woman’s breasts and the vagina to any other part of her body, wondering what is it about them that make monsters of men. Kabir lists ways of dismembering a body as if reading from a restaurant menu card. And on the verge of setting fire to the brothel after unleashing the mayhem he has, mutters, a manic smile on his face, ‘Etokhon dol khela hochhilo, ebaar Holika dahan’ (Holi is done with, it’s now time to set the Holika on fire). One can see what Srijit is out to do – underlining the absurdity of a brothel where, thanks to Radcliffe, a few prostitutes would become Pakistanis, the others Indians. The sheer effrontery of naming Jisshu’s character Kabir. The farce of Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ playing on a radio in the brothel whose inmates rejoice without understanding a word of one of the world’s greatest speeches.
Needless to say, there are his trademark in-film referencing and literary insights. “Of course, Manto and Ismat Chughtai were clear inspirations. There was Shyam Benegal’s Mandi too.” So, is the simpleton Sujan a take-off on the character Naseeruddin Shah plays in Mandi? “No, no, that came from a character in a story by Satyajit Ray!’ What about the brothel’s watchman: Salim? He seems inspired by the Om Puri character in Mirch Masala. “Absolutely.”
However, no amount of reasoning can make me change my opinion of Zulfiqar. It remains a ‘messy’ experiment with the Bard, not the ‘massy’ one he calls it. It is unfortunate that he bungles as badly with a film that opens as majestically as it does. The downward slide begins immediately after, with almost all the clichés of a bad Bollywood gangster drama: a kingpin opposed to dealing in drugs, a patriotic Muslim gangster; even the food-chain metaphor that the police officer offers about the way the city’s economy operates (grasshoppers-rats-snakes-hawks) sounds like a rip-off of Amitabh Bachchan’s classic ‘Jungle Ka Kanoon’ (mendhak-saanp-nevla) monologue in Agneepath.
Despite the very obvious references to Julius Caesar, Zulifqar is a shapeless mess. It is also at times high camp (blood splashing over a Tagore photograph on the wall), at the end of which you are left with only that opening sequence and two uncharacteristic performances. Dev (in probably his best one as a mute prizefighter and bodyguard to Zulfiqar who falls in love with his mistress) and Jisshu as the oily paan-chewing fixer.
What Lies Ahead
Which is what prompts my final question. Eleven films in eight years. This year he already has had one big release (Uma), the second (Ek Je Chhilo Raja) is lined up for 12 October, Shahjahan Regency (his version of Chowringhee) is in post-production and films on Netaji Subhas Bose and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu along with another Kakababu film in the pipeline – isn’t he spreading himself too thin?
“No, I don’t think so,” is the prompt response. “The trick lies in being able to gauge one’s own capacity, the logistics. With the kind of time and resources I have at my disposal at the moment, my team, my producers, I am easily able to do up to three films a year without compromising on quality.”
As we raise a toast to that, I point out that he has covered twelve of the twenty-six of the alphabets so far, with two more releasing in the next three months. That leaves us with twelve more to look forward to. “No, I went and spoiled that with Begum Jaan,” he says with an impish smile. “That was my second film with B. Now that twenty-six has been rendered immaterial, I might as well make a few more.”