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Dibakar Banerjee (right) in conversation with Pratim D. Gupta at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet
The second session of the Detective Double Header on Day One of Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, in association with Victoria Memorial Hall and The Telegraph, saw director Dibakar Banerjee in conversation with t2 journalist and filmmaker Pratim D. Gupta. Here are excerpts from the chat that started with a screening of the trailer of his upcoming film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!.
Pratim: You have said that a successful detective story is about time and place.So is Byomkesh synonymous with mid-20th century Calcutta?
Dibakar: For me, yes. You see I grew up in Delhi and I was completely a probashi Bangali but that didn't mean that I didn't read Bengali, I read voraciously and I still do. When I was 11 or 12 there was Byomkesh and Feluda. Feluda every Puja I used to get and I used to read. But if I ever tried to read Byomkesh I was told arektu boro hou tarpor Byomkesh porbe (you can read Byomkesh when you are a little older)' or Sharadindu is for after 16'. So there was a vague connection in my mind that it had something to do with puberty. And it is the surest thing to tell an 11-year-old boy don't read it, it's for grown-ups' for him to sneak and read it.
I thought I would be reading something like Nick Carter. But what happened, from the first story onwards, the first thing I got immersed into was Calcutta. In fact, the first story of Byomkesh, which got published second, because Sharadindu was trying to describe the origins of Byomkesh, was Pather Kanta and then came Satyanweshi, where he went back to the origins. The first paragraph there is about Calcutta. It is a rush of words (quotes from memory). It immediately grips you and gets you in. Then I would read names like Harrison Street, Amherst Street, Bowbazar, Byomkesh Sealdah er tram e tok korey chapiya niruddesh hoiya galo'. There were some passages which could not tell the story without referring to Calcutta. So for me Calcutta came alive... Imagine I am in Delhi and I am listening to Haryanvi bus drivers, I am listening to Punjabi, I am in the Hindi culture and I am reading about the Humber car and the headlights like eyes of a predator, Amherst Street, paharawala, laal pagri, Lalbazar, all these were mythical pieces of adventure for me. And that's why I was hugely connected to Byomkesh.
When I made Khosla ka Ghosla I was hailed as the new Hrishikesh Mukherjee-Basu Chatterjee. I got completely scared by that and I made Oye Lucky! as a response... But somehow that got the National Award for the best entertaining film providing wholesome entertainment to the family. I still haven't understood how! When we started making Shanghai, they thought because I was taking Emraan Hashmi in the film it was a mainstream film so it was marketed as a mainstream film with a song... I don't know if it (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!) is mainstream or a little rivulet
In fact, there are two kinds of Byomkesh. The first few Byomkesh stories are essentially adventure stories. Detection later, adventure first. And it's a young Byomkesh, it's a slightly frivolous Byomkesh, it's a Byomkesh who loves to joke around and it's a 23-24-year-old Byomkesh who's just come out of university and his friendship with Ajit is budding. Those were the images that caught me and that is, I think, why I cannot imagine Calcutta without the mid-century war-torn or war-affected or the ambience of the '40s.
Pratim: Seven years ago Rituda (Rituparno Ghosh) had told me that you were making Byomkesh and thereafter every time I interviewed you, you would look at me as if you'd never even heard of Byomkesh! Were you not ready then? Why did it take so long?
Dibakar: I think I was planning this forever. I was
planning this since I was 14. At about 14 or 15 I made up my mind that I
wanted to make films. Sharadindu's writing is extremely cinematic, his
characters are extremely alive. And what he does is that he describes
them in very few words.
So when Khosla ka Ghosla became a hit and the studios in Bombay started looking at me as somebody who was worth investing in, the first script that I pitched was Byomkesh. And thank God it didn't get made! Because I would not have had the experience, I still don't know whether I have it or not, to put it all together. Because the Byomkesh I wanted to do was the Byomkesh of a 12-year-old, sitting on a windowsill reading an adventure story. It was not too much of a grown-up story. It was chases, it was night in Calcutta, it was vintage cars, it was that time and place of war, it was black-marketeering, it was the drug underworld, which he hints at in the first few stories. I pitched it, they appreciated it, but then Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! came and LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha came and other things, then finally I got to make it.
Pratim: All these years how would you keep going back to the Byomkesh script?
Dibakar: Essentially the way I start developing any film is to write a very crappy script. I am a very bad writer. I can write a few scenes, which capture the essence of the film. But I am still not very good, alone, at figuring out a script. So I wrote a crappy script that was 100-120 pages. It was written in longhand and it was all about the mood and tone of the film. So when I showed it to my co-writer Urmi Juvekar, she said, It seems fantastic. Of course it's all crap structure, let's keep this mood and let us start reworking the stories'. It took about three years for us to rework the story. At first we were working with three stories, but later on, thank god, I condensed it to two stories. A lot of stuff had to be introduced and changed and morphed because this was Byomkesh for a Hindi film audience. So I had to keep the essence of Byomkesh, keep the feel, and more than that keep Sharadindu's sense of adventure in the first five or six stories, and then develop a Hindi film around it.
Pratim: A tweet from (film critic) Anupama Chopra, after the trailer was out, was this is Dibakar's entry into mainstream cinema'. Would you agree with that?
Dibakar: See, I have been accused of being mainstream at least three times in my life. When I made Khosla ka Ghosla I was hailed as the new Hrishikesh Mukherjee-Basu Chatterjee type. I got completely scared by that and I made Oye Lucky! as a response and after that everybody stopped comparing me with Basu Chatterjee because it was a very dark and a very visceral story. But somehow that got the National Award for the best entertaining film providing wholesome entertainment to the family! I still haven't understood how Oye Lucky! is wholesome and how it is all-round entertainment for the whole family because it takes on families in many, many ways. So, I tried to answer it with LSD, which of course I succeeded because nobody gave me any awards for it. On the other hand, in a farmhouse party in Delhi, one drunk gentleman who was a lover of Khosla ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky! came to me and said Sir aapki Love Sex aur Dhokha mein na love hai, na sex hai, bas dhoka hi hai'.
When we started making Shanghai, they thought because I was taking Emraan Hashmi it was a mainstream film so it was marketed as a mainstream film with a song and very few suspected it was a Dibakar Banerjee film with Emraan Hashmi and Abhay Deol in it. It was a complete game-changer in many ways. Shanghai actually did the best business out of all my films. But because it wasn't a Rs 50 crore,Rs 100 crore kind of a thing, as they would expect from a typical mainstream film, they started saying Shanghai is too intellectual.
Byomkesh is an image of a 16-17-year-old boy's sense of adventure, sense of romance, sense of crime fighting, sense of good and evil and I've tried to go back to that 16-year-old mind. So let's see what happens, I don't know if it is mainstream or a little rivulet.
Pratim: Apart from the book itself, what were the other inspirations? Say a Guy Ritchie making Sherlock Holmes or the BBC version of Sherlock or Christopher Nolan rebooting Batman...
Dibakar: Guy Ritchie and Nolan definitely didn't influence me and when I started writing, (Benedict) Cumberbatch's Sherlock wasn't around. I have a vague glimpse of what were the influences. I didn't take to Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes that much. The second one I didn't like at all. That is a personal film viewer's opinion. So, I didn't look there. Nolan's Batman, no, not really. I think the main image was that paragraph which could be interchanged from Sharadindu to Hemendra Kumar Ray to Nihar Ranjan Gupta to Adrish Bardhan " I call it the Bengal noir. This was the inspiration for what you see there.
Another influence that you see there is Sharadindu's own description of characters, of people, of understatement, of a kiss. I just love the understatement, the humour. There is a lot of darkness in Sharadindu's stories, which is about the lower depths of the human psyche. That I think formed the main image. The secondary images are of Bengali graphic novels and illustrations. I don't know if the younger people still read Deb Shahitya Kutir Puja edition, which I used to read. The illustrations were by Pratul Chandra and later by Narayan Debnath and they would have all kinds of fighting scenes and car chase scenes with vintage cars and characters pointing a gun while wearing a coat and dhoti and the fog and the gas lamps.
The images also come from the pages of the rohoshyo romancho series, books like Dakat Kalir Jongole, Chhaya Kalo Kalo. So, it's a direct derivation from those illustrations and from illustrators like Pratul Chandra and a bit of Narayan Debnath and, of course, another amazing illustrator called Mayukh Chowdhury.
I think there was something in mid-century Calcutta, right from the '30s and '40s to about the '60s where I think we saw the last flowering of the colonial experience of Calcutta, which mixed the white town and the grey town and the black town experience of Calcutta into one melting pot.
So I would say it is a direct spring from there. The visual spring is
the illustration of Bengal noir illustrators. So, we don't need to look
at Sherlock, we don't need to look at Jeremy Brett or Conan Doyle or
Cumberbatch or anyone. There is enough in our own literary culture to
Pratim: The Calcutta we see in that trailer, how difficult was it to recreate?
Dibakar: It was difficult but it was wildly fun. We
did three-four parallel bodies of research. My production designer was
here two years before we started shooting. She went from house to house
collecting photographs, collecting artefacts, shooting pictures and
recording and above all doing audio recordings of people in their
seventies and eighties and some even in their nineties. So by the time
we started shooting the film we had audio memories of a lot of senior
people of Calcutta. Some were police officers, some government officers
and some didas and mashis.
The second was the host of books in Bangla that talk about that time. One very interesting book used for the audio referencing was Radha Prasad Gupta's Kolkatar Feriwalar Dak (O Raster Awaz). I wouldn't know somebody would come at 10 o'clock in the morning and say kuor ghoti tola'. That sound you need if you are showing north Calcutta of 1943. I saw it and asked my father how they used to say it and he would say it out. So we did an audio research of that.
The secondary images are, and these are genuine images, of Bengali graphic novels and illustrations... The images also come from the pages of rohoshyo romancho series, books like Dakat Kalir Jongole, Chhaya Kalo Kalo. So, it's a direct derivation from those illustrations and from illustrators like Pratul Chandra and a bit of Narayan Debnath and, of course, another amazing illustrator called Mayukh Chowdhury
Architecture is the first thing that you research and there is a very interesting story here. I was looking for Byomkesh's mess bari, 66 Harrison Street. I don't know how many of you know 66 Harrison Street is the mess bari where Sharadindu stayed as a young student from 1919 to 1921 or something like that. We were trying to find it but couldn't. Then Prabir Chakraborty, he is the executor of all Sharadindu's works, was one day standing on College Street and said Dibakar, peye gechhi, chole esho'. I ran and there it was, Sharadindu's mess bari in front of us! We went inside. It is still there. Sharadindu's room on the third floor is still there. A family runs it very well. The young generation of the family are film enthusiasts so they knew me and it was amazing.
Another thing was we wanted to find what kind of trams ran in Calcutta at that time, in the 1940s. So, we talked to the Calcutta Tramways Corporation, and there we found that the managing director was a tram freak. He took us on a guided tour and he gave us two trams from the 1940s, which we painted in the colours of the 1940s with 1940s advertising. That we actually shot in BBD Bag. That was another goosebump experience " 5am I am shooting there and suddenly the tram comes looking exactly like that with advertising up there saying Hemkanti Taila'. It was beautiful.
We also did a lot of historical reading on Calcutta and funnily
enough the 1940s are the most pictorially well-recorded decades of
Calcutta, because a lot of American GIs were stationed here in Calcutta.
We got about a thousand black-and-white photographs of Calcutta of the
'40s. That was a huge, huge reference point for us.
Then we talked to a lot of historical experts on Calcutta. That is the joy of Byomkesh, because of it I've made so many friends in Calcutta who are Calcutta nuts. You don't find that many Bombay nuts in Bombay, but you still find Calcutta nuts in Calcutta " somebody who has got thousands of records of that era, somebody who is an expert on the streets of Calcutta, somebody who is an expert on books on the city. Then we did a lot of study on what the white Calcutta was like " that would be Park Street up to the Chowringhee area; from Chowringhee there would be the grey Calcutta, which was a melange of all kind of communities. The old Chinatown, the Bowbazar-Tiretta Bazar Chinatown, that we researched.
Another thing that we did was we took walking trips in Calcutta. There are some lovely people in Calcutta who take you on heritage walks. My dear, dear friend Ifty (Iftekhar Ehsan of Calcutta Walks) organises such walks, and our first introduction to Calcutta was walking, through all parts of Calcutta. So you can imagine how much fun it is. You can see it on my face. We've never enjoyed making a film so much.
Another very interesting source was a fantastic study done on Sharadindu by a researcher from Jadavpur University.
Pratim: How much of the film is history, how much is Sharadindu and how much is Dibakar Banerjee?
Dibakar: If you don't combine it into one and if you can tell one from the other then it would be a failed work. All of you have read Byomkesh, you'll figure out arey eta toh golpo thekey niyechhe, eta toh bodley diyechhe and that's fine. But you must remember this is a film for the Hindi audience and for an audience beyond that, for a world audience and they wouldn't have read Byomkesh. So my aim was to get my impression of Byomkesh, to base it around the stories and give them in one film a bit of a glimpse of the whole journey that Byomkesh takes in Sharadindu's hands from 1935 to 1969. It is a tall task, especially if you are showing a young Byomkesh, but some of the essence of that I was trying to portray.
So it is an impression of Byomkesh as imagined by Sharadindu, the impression of the 1940s Calcutta seen through the lens of a noir detective adventure and a buddy story. My contribution to the film was that I wanted to portray the 1943 in a way that young Hindi film audiences when they see they won't get alienated. The trick is if you want to make a film about 1943 and not treat it as exotica. Our brief was imagine me and my shooting team, my cinematographer and production designer, we time travelled to 1943 and we shot it exactly the way I would shoot it today. And that was the lens we started with.
People who are expecting something that they have seen before they are not going to see that. I don't think anyone has tried this take on Byomkesh before. It will be a bit of a surprise for both those who have read Byomkesh and those who haven't. I am gearing up to face both flak and flowers
The second lens is when they are speaking in Hindi they are speaking Bangla, just the way Russel Crowe when he speaks English in Gladiator it means he speaks Latin. That's a filter. In one dialogue Byomkesh asks Bangla samajhna bhool gaye kya?'
The third filter is the music and the use of the music. I wanted to
contrast the sense of the past by positively disorienting the sense of
the present. So if there is a chase or a mystery you will actually hear
dubstep or electro or trance or thrash metal just the way a 22-year-old
today looking at Byomkesh or a contemporary story will associate a mood
of thrill or chase with a drum and base track. That is something I
wanted to do because I am tremendously interested in contemporary music.
And I think it was a good way of making the film my own.
I had to treat it as a graphic novel, as an adventure story, as a heightened tale for an adolescent. That's where the music and the treatment come from.
Pratim: Where does it all leave the Bengali audience who will go to watch your film in April, having read Byomkesh and having watched half-a-dozen Byomkesh films in the last few years?
Dibakar: Hopefully in the pink of health (laughs) and hopefully with me having some money in my bank account! But definitely people are going to get the unexpected. People who are expecting something that they have seen before they are not going to see that. That doesn't mean that it is going to be good, or that it is going to be bad. I am just trying to describe it factually. I don't think anyone has tried this take on Byomkesh before. It will be a bit of a surprise for both those who have read Byomkesh and those who haven't. I am gearing up to face both flak and flowers. Let's see.
Only thing I can say is when you cheat you get caught. I really haven't cheated with this one.
From the audience:
FROM THE AUDIENCE:
Why does a person choose to be a private detective? It is a very perverse kind of choice... not a natural choice of a profession...
Dibakar: You are bang on, dude! If I answer that question I will give you the plot of my film! In 1943, a Bangali would go for education, teacher, clerk other than that you had no option. In a situation like that why would Byomkesh choose to be a detective? That's the thing that we are dealing with in this film. It's the origins of Byomkesh. So I can't give away the secret. But I think we have invented the private detective because we know that in the real world true justice does not exist, therefore, in our literature we invented the detective to give us parallel justice. That's why it is a restorative form of fiction. Every detective story is actually a moral story. It restores the moral order for us because around us we don't have that.
How did Sushant Singh Rajput get into the character of Byomkesh?
Dibakar: The best answer would come from Sushant but
I've heard him answer this. Sushant believes that this getting under
the skin of the character thing is not really true because you can't
really do that. What you can do is to find certain things which are
common and which you can then build on. I think Sushant mainly tried to
do that. What Sushant understood early on was that with a prep time of
less than a year there would be no way that he could become and absolute
Bangali. But we travelled around Calcutta, we went to peoples' homes,
we practised the externalities of being a Bangali. We practised running
around in the dhoti and wearing a dhoti. But what I did was I tried to
talk him through what it is to be a young Bangali in the 1940s and that
helped. For example, I told him that a young Bangali from 1943 would be
far more articulate than a young Bangali in 2015. Because in 1943 a
young Bangali would have just one main language, Bangla, and he would
get everything that he wants " newspapers, magazines, radio, gaan " in
one language. When Byomkesh speaks he speaks in one language and he can
express himself fully in one language. That's the hallmark of an
educated, middle-class Bangali in 1943. So your Hindi has to be that
faratedar as if you've always spoken Hindi.
Secondly, Bengalis in 1940s, I have a feeling because of our language, would be more expressive. North India, where Sushant comes from, they have a very low, flat way of speaking, the intonation would be completely different. So verbosity and eloquence, through the dialogues of course, is what we tried to go for.
Then we went for a certain kind of a walk. A north Indian now would walk with his six-pack showing. In 1943 they didn't have even one! (Laughs) So they would walk and they would forget. Secondly, the idea of a man to preen for a woman would not exist, because there would not be that many women on the roads. So you would not be conscious as a man. So we did all this in the workshop. It might sound crazy but this is how he adapted himself. He adapted himself to an urban man of 1940s.
After reading this do you think Dibakar is best suited to make a Hindi film on Byomkesh? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org://www.telegraphindia.com/1150129/jsp/t2/story_10421.jsp#.VMmgU1faMdk
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Innovative song launch of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
Directed by Dibakar Banerjee, the film stars Sushant Singh Rajput and releases on 3rd April 2015.
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