Monday, March 30, 2015

Detectives, mannequins: Dibakar Banerjee ke paaltu raakshas

With Dibakar Banerjee’s much-awaited Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! releasing this Friday, here is a write-up that came out of my marathon Q&A sessions with the filmmaker two years ago (some of this made it – in a slightly altered form – into this l-o-o-n-n-n-g profile I did for Caravan). This was a few months after the release of Shanghai, and Dibakar was getting ready to work on his short film for Bombay Talkies. He speaks here about the Byomkesh film, which was a gleam in his eye at the time, as well as other projects swimming about in his head.


“Just today,” Dibakar says, “I passed a typical Bombay street-fashion shop – not high fashion, just Rs 150 for a T-shirt. And they had put the clothes on mannequins that had monster faces. It triggered a thought in my head.”

Such images frequently lead to ideas for him: the genesis of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! lies in two newspaper photos of the “super chor” Bunty, one in which he is sitting on a car in a yellow jacket (an image Dibakar replicated in the film) and another of the large stash of loot he had stolen from various places – a strangely moving pictorial representation of an underprivileged man trying to pull
himself into a different world by obsessively accumulating others' things. “This glimpse today of the Frankenstein in the T-shirt hit me in the same way as when I saw those Bunty photos. To me, it was alien – if you use it intelligently, you can use it to talk about any notion of alienation, whether it’s UP-wallahs living in Mumbai, or Muslims in India, or Kashmiri refugees in Delhi.”

Ideology is never the starting point for a film, he says. “Your guiding belief is the sauce in which you cook again and again and again, or it’s a fucking frying pan that you never wash – you cook everything there.” Meaning, the distinct, underlying flavour will remain no matter what he does; the challenge now is to find new dishes, or modes of presentation. “After Shanghai I feel like I’ve said what I had to say about the things that are happening around us – the new liberalised economy and all that – and now I have to start afresh.”

Shanghai was a very personal film in its own way – in bringing us close to the inner compulsions of four or five different people – but it was also of course a Big Issue film, set in an allegorical Bharat Nagar, with a very wide canvas including depictions of chief ministers and other people at various levels on the power hierarchy. I get the impression that Dibakar wants to make his canvases a little more intimate, while still playing out the ideas and themes that interest him – including the oldest of them all, the nature of good and evil. “I’m trying to figure out what conscience is, exactly. What happens when you don’t have it? How do you begin not to have it? What does the enviro
nment do to us that we lose the ability to distinguish between taking someone’s pencil and taking someone’s life? I’m trying to get closer to the spaces between people, to figure these things out.”

And he knows well that genre fiction can provide a very effective framework to examine such ideas. His next feature-length project – still at an early stage in script development – will be about Byomkesh Bakshi, the popular Bengali detective created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay in the 1930s. Dibakar’s adaptation, “a melange – not a triptych – of two or three different Byomkesh stories”, will be a period film set in 1940s Calcutta. “I have NO ancestral Bengali component in my life, but I have a deep literary and mythical knowledge of Calcutta – this film is about that mythological space, about that space in my imagination.”

The Byomkesh world of detective thrillers and romantic noir allows him to cut to the essence of human behaviour and its implications. “Neither you nor I have a reference for what happened in 1940s Calcutta beyond surface details, so what will bind us is the core human transactions. I’m trying to move away from social subtext and come to a deeper understanding of human transactions and behaviour.” He wants to provide an experience that is more sensory than reflective. “When you hear about the Pandavas walking up the mountain at the end, you’re aware of a deep sense of pathos – it is visceral. My aim is to make a film where you’re feeling continuously, so you go back feeling purged. Most of my films so far leave you feeling reflective – Shanghai was definitely like that, it was meant to be cool and detached – but I want to try and change that.”

Meanwhile other ideas keep coalescing in his head. When he mentions that he is interested in male chauvinism and in the deep mythological bifurcation between male and female dominance in society – in the suppressed history of a shift from the mother goddess to the patriarchal sky pantheon – I’m reminded of observations he made on his LSD commentary track about how male bravado can give way to over-sentimentality in romantic relationships – and how both things, in different ways, can become pretexts for control over women. But listening to some of his other plans, it’s hard to suppress a chuckle just thinking of the reactions of the woolly-headed viewers who have him slotted as a poster boy for self-consciously “serious” cinema. “I want to do a film about personal combat – martial arts. That would be about craft, choreography, visual rhythm, about the use of the human anatomy and the space around it. Something close to installation.”

The horror genre is very close to his heart too – “that is the most moralistic tale you can tell – you can really preach when you’re doing horror!” – and he has developed an interest in T.E.D. Kline’s short story “Nadelman’s God”, about a monster that emerges out of a goth-rock song written by an advertising executive. “I want to do an Indian version of this with a guy in Bombay,” he says, adding – with a straight face – “The title will be Narayan Murthy ka Paaltu Raakshas.”

“That’s the name you came up with?”

Yes – it’s from Nadelman’s God,” he says a little impatiently, with emphasis, as if this is something very obvious; as if the comical juxtaposition of a banal word like “paaltu” and an imperial one like “raakshas” flows naturally from that English title rather than from the imp inside his own head.

[Much more about Dibakar, the way his mind works, and his future plans in the Caravan story, which is here]

1 comment:

  1. [Update: have removed the word "adolescent" from a description of the Byomkesh thrillers, since it was pointed out to me that it was out of place.]