Back in 2010, a slick, urban Bengali film, Autograph, by a debutant film-maker, left Kolkata somewhat confused. The film starred Bengali commercial cinema’s king, Prosenjit Chatterjee, but was not a regular potboiler. Neither was it heavily “aantel” (the oft-used Bengali slang for intellectual/art-house cinema). The plot was an ode to Satyajit Ray’s classic film, Nayak, and it was a fine piece of film-making — simple, poignant and projecting a new Kolkata which was not burdened by nostalgia. The music of the film, penned and composed by newcomer Anupam Roy, became an instant hit, too.
Srijit Mukherji, the film’s director, blurred the lines between popular and art-house cinema with his debut. He brought back the Bengali obsession with film music, and most importantly, he led the way to portraying Bengalis in an urban light — rich, modern and progressive — like their Mumbai and Delhi counterparts. Gone was the obsession with classicism and Tagore — Mukherji’s characters were grey, flawed and unapologetic. He led the way for a flock of young film-makers, who transformed the Bengali mainstream cinema space into an enthusiastic indie hub.
He is not, however, critical of the past. While his first film paid tribute to Ray, his second film, Baishey Srabon, celebrated the Bengali poetry of the “hungry generation”. He did a contemporary adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s well-loved sleuth, Kakababu, in Mishawr Rohoshyo. And, Jaatishwar, a period drama, celebrated the Bengali tradition of folk poetry and fable music. Soon, Mukherji became one of the favourite film-makers of mainstream production houses, and was celebrated by film festivals and single-screen theatres alike. His films release to packed multiplexes in other metros, too, with premiere parties being held in Mumbai with every release. After Rituparno Ghosh, here was another film-maker who dealt with subjects and emotions that were pan-Indian.
He’s not just a director either. Mukherji has collaborated with contemporary film-makers with lyrics, and also as an actor in their films. For Mukherji, acting happened long before he took to direction. “I have acted in plays. That’s how I started out,” he had stated in an interview in the Times of India, before the release of Aparna Sen’s Iti Mrinalini, in which he played the pivotal role of Konkona Sen Sharma’s brother. “I remember playing Maganlal Meghraj in a Feluda [the private detective created by Ray] play that I had written and directed in Bengaluru.” An economics graduate from Presidency College, Kolkata, he finished his MPhil in economics from JNU and moved to Bengaluru to work as a business analyst. But, theatre and cinema, his primary passions, made him leave his job and come back to his roots. “It will always be acting, scriptwriting and direction for me, in that order,” he adds.
Mukherji is not new to awards and accolades. While Chotushkone, a gripping thriller about four film-makers on a road trip, won the top National awards (best director, best cinematography and best original screenplay) this year, all his films have been highly appreciated worldwide. Autograph and Baishe Srabon picked up 41 awards each from international film festivals; Hemlock Society is being made in Marathi; and, Jaatishwar picked up the music and costume National Awards. None of his films are completely art house, unlike most National award-winning regional cinema. They have commercial elements, great music, mainstream actors and are backed by the industry’s leading production houses.
His next film, Nirbaak, looks like an attempt at magic realism. The film stars Sushmita Sen and is one of the most awaited films this year. In the film’s press release, Mukherji said, “Nirbaak is a hyperlink narrative comprising four love stories, connected by a single woman [played by Sen]. Every love story comprises one entity who is silent and thus, nirbaak [mute],” he explained. The film celebrates the kind of love which transcends human language, exploring the themes of love, lust, jealousy, affection and separation within the natural elements around us.