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Nd the journey starts...super excited
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A debut with India's largest production company, Yash Raj Films, and with one of the country's leading directors, Dibakar Banerjee, is a two-fold feat not achieved by many. But 26-year-old Divya Menon, who studied fashion design at NIFT and has since worked as an assistant designer and model with Sabyasachi Mukherjee, is well-versed with dual roles.
Banerjee is all praise for her performance in his latest movie Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! which releases across India tomorrow. In the movie, set in 1940s Kolkata, Menon plays a young aristocrat called Satyavati. "Divya has what very few debutantes have...an absolute presence and a completely natural performance. You can't ignore her for a moment even while she's sharing the screen with top stars. Her elegance and poise form a very attractive contrast with her innocence; exactly the Satyavati I wanted," says Banerjee.
When we met in Mumbai, in what turns out to be her first ever interview, here's what theDetective Byomkesh Bakshy! actress had to say about her shift from fashion to films.
Divya Menon plays one of the lead actresses in Dibaker Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
Tell us how you landed the role of Satyavati.
I had been working as an assistant designer for Sabyasachi for around a year, and I'd also modelled for some of his campaigns. This was around 2013, I was on a sick leave actually, when I got a call from him saying, "Are you interested in doing a movie? I have a director sitting in front of me, have you heard of Dibakar Banerjee?" Of course I had! All too soon, he was handing over the phone to Dibakar, and that was the first time I spoke with him. I remember my heart was beating so fast; I thought it was an early April fool's joke.
Was this your first time in front of the camera?
Yes, it was. I went in for the audition an hour after Sabya's call and it was my first time in front of a professional video camera. I have modelled for Sabya before but those are still images; you don't really have to express yourself, in fact you have to be less emotive. My first audition was horrible; I thought I screwed it. I went home and told my mother that I don't think I'm going to get it. A couple of days later, I got a call telling me I had been shortlisted.
Tell us a little more about your character in the movie.
Satyavati comes from an aristocratic family and her uncle is a very influential politician. She's very level headed, rational, and intelligent and knows when to speak up and when to keep quiet. She's very proud and protective of her family. She can say whatever she wants about them, but if an outsider does so, they're in trouble.
Have you been modelling for a very long time?
Only for Sabya. In fact, he spotted me. That's the thing about him, he finds people; and when he puts them in places, they always seem to work.
As Satyavati, in a still from the film.
What was it like working with Sushant Singh Rajput?
He's very intelligent. On one of the last days of the shoot, he sat with a pen and paper and started to describe how time travel would work if it could happen, the time warp and everything.
What is Dibakar Banerjee's style as a director?
Everytime I asked Dibakar what he thought about my performance, all he told me was, "Time will tell, people will decide, who am I to say anything". That's the sort of framework he works in; he doesn't judge his own work.
What sort of a relationship does Satyavati share with the film's eponymous lead, Byomkesh Bakshy (Sushant Singh Rajput)?
Satyavati is very protective of her family and what people might say about them, and Byomkesh is a cold-hearted and blunt character, who speaks his mind, so they clash. But he needs her cooperation and she needs his help, so they eventually get on the same page.
Did you go through a lot of training?
I got one month of training. For a non-actor, they crammed all the lessons in that one month. I was traumatized, I was happy, I was sad, all at the same time. It was as crazy as it could possibly get. I'm a very sentimental person. I cry for every little thing. Apparently, it works in the industry if you can cry at the snap of a finger. In fact, Dibakar is totally against the use of glycerin...so it all worked out well.
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! releases this Friday, April 3.
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In an era where the image precedes a creative person, Dibakar Banerjee's image is that he has no image. In an industry where people love to get slotted, Dibakar defies brackets without making noise about it. "Khosla Ka Ghosla", "Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye", "Love Sex Aur Dhoka", "Shanghai", except for Dibakar helming them there is no link between the themes and treatment of these films. With every film he has covered new ground with the familiarity of an insider and has made us lose our way in the intricacies of the narrative. This week as he is collaborating with Yash Raj Films to bring back Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay's fictional character detective Byomkesh Bakshi on the turnstiles, the challenge has got bigger than ever before. From the banner, to casting Sushant Singh Rajput in the lead to spelling Bakshi with a y', Dibakar is under the radar of purists and his followers alike.
As we meet for a conversation in the open-air restaurant of a New Delhi hotel, darkness has already descended. A perfect setting to discuss a noir adventure! With Dibakar asking for a cigarette, it starts to get pulpy. Before the haze could come in between us, Dibakar makes it clear that it is not targeted at any mythical Yash Raj audience. He says Y has been added to make it more adventurous than generic. "There is an exclamation mark too," he points out. "This is an adventure story, a young detective's first case. But is not in the mould of Hollywood noir. It is a story that doesn't try to say anything beyond the adventure of life. It is not about the problems of life." Dibakar grew up in Karol Bagh reading not just Byomkesh but also the likes of S.C. Bedi's Rajan Iqbal. "In Rajan Iqbal's story they never said they are out to save the world. They always said Rajan Iqbal ka ek aur sansani khez karnama. I believe in a school which speaks the language of the story. I have no image."
Dibakar says inside him there is a 14-year- old Bengali boy who is forever on a holiday. "I remember when I used to go to my aunt's place during the puja holidays I would invariably pick up a book which is either pulp or a little above pulp. There were illustrations, references of Bengali art in between murders and chases and it gripped my imagination. I have seen the subject with a slightly pulpish eye." Unlike the stylish detectives of the West, Byomkesh is very everyman like with a wife and familiar pressures. "The fact why does an average man in 1943 decides to become a detective rather than a teacher or clerk which were sought after jobs those days, hooked me. So the glimpse of Byomkesh that you get is that he is apparently ordinary but actually he is extraordinary. I wanted to explore the beginning of his career because it was here that I could come as a filmmaker and add to the myth of Byomkesh rather than just translating Sharadindu's book into cinema."
With every film he tries to simplify traditional forms of storytelling by making them more visual than verbose. "There are limits to what you can do in a traditional narrative where words mean a lot. There are two kinds of clues in a detective story. The one that detective sees and the other that the detective hears. So the spoken word has a huge role. Extremely tense dialogues and very interesting scenes have been crafted to create an atmosphere that will suck you in. I always like to make films which have layers of storytelling. Actors are saying something, the set is saying something and then the camera movement is saying something, and that will remain."
Set in late 1942 and early 1943, Dibakar, talking about the mood, reflects that one doesn't need to poke the camera into Howrah Bridge to establish Calcutta. "The darker, the more intangible you go the more fun it is. It is slightly dark, slightly out of focus." He picked 1942-43 because he was excited by incendiary times in the bustling city during World War II. "American GIs, Japanese air raids made it all the more exciting." However, Dibakar doesn't train his camera on the Bengal Famine. "It started in late 1942 but by the time it blew in the face of the country it was late 1943. That's when they realised that the disaster of this nature was happening. My story ends in early 1943. It is not part of the story but there are few hints for those who really know Calcutta," he reasons. He is not worried about keeping an important event out of the storyline. "That way Independence struggle is also not part of it. I am not making a historical."
As for the concerns raised by the purists over the language, Dibakar says, "It is a Hindi film for Hindi audience. In "Gladiator", a Latin Gladiator spoke in English. In "Dayavan", a Tamil gangster spoke in Hindi at home. So what's the harm in a Bengali detective speaking in Hindi? Had I given him an accent it would have caricaturized and would have been a disservice to the character. You cannot please everybody. I have been true to the original Sharadindu Banerjee's spirit of the material and have tried to portray it with all my honesty. It is a new vision, an alternative but it is not cheating."
Dibakar and his team have painstakingly recreated 1942-43 Calcutta. "It is not about reaching out to this generation or keeping the oldies satisfied. The film has to work for me. If I am showing 1943, do I know what it was like? No I don't. What do I know about 1943? Films of 1943. It all boils down to depiction. In 1943 a man would have still said I will kill you. A filmmaker doesn't make films from the words that he reads from the page. He has to combine it with the sights and sounds that he has seen and heard. Of course, I know a lot more about 1943 Calcutta than many Calcuttans. Even after that how do you bring a sense of reality to today's audience without it becoming a history lesson, is the challenge. So we tried to find 1943 Calcutta and then behaved as we will do in 2015. My idea was to find the space, light up the space, dress up the space...but at the core it was like going there with our eye today. That's the only credible way unless you want to make a caricature."
He has an example. "We think Mughal emperors always spoke in bombastic language. They didn't. It seems they spoke in bombastic language because the hagiographers who wrote about these emperors wrote it in bombastic language for public consumption. It is like an advertising campaign." And he says if follow it literally you get the Prithviraj Kapoor kind of depiction of Akbar. "And that's probably not correct because people speak in the same way. Times change human emotions remain more or less the same. So I have projected our people, our times on 1943."
The promos suggest that Byomkesh starts from solving a seemingly ordinary case and ultimately ends up saving the world. Some reports suggest Adolf Hitler is the villain of the piece. Isn't it market pressure or and does this ambition reflect in Sharadindu's works as well.
"The Hitler thing is a rumour but the ambition was absolutely there from the beginning. Sharadindu Banerjee has written about Byomkesh's solving a case about surplus arms selling. He has written about Byomkesh being called by Sardar Patel to solve a case of national importance, which Ajit has not told the readers in the interest of national security. There is a story which suggests that Byomkesh is trying to protect a hugely dangerous WMD which all the countries are trying to have. So anybody who has read Byomkesh would know that he was not just solving local cases. The World War II is both the backdrop and the plot. When Byomkesh starts he thinks it is an everyday case but as he goes deeper he realises it is far bigger."
Dibakar is eager to know how Bengalis will react to it. "I am thinking about it. The purists might say it is very different. But surprisingly Byomkesh dance video has got a good response. There is a whole new generation waiting for Byomkesh. He might be charged with Bollywoodising Byomkesh. Did Byomkesh have an ear for music?
"It is not a Bollywood version of Byomkesh. Which Bollywood film will use a thrash metal track for a film set in 1943? In a story Byomkesh comes back after listening to somebody and says her voice was very musical. The worst epithet that somebody might give is Dibakar has made a Dibakar's version of Byomkesh. And that is true." But going by his image that's not a bad thing!
Keywords: Byomkesh Bakshi, Dibakar Banerjee
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