Srijit Mukherji is one of the most prolific directors in the country right now. After a string of successes in Bengali cinema, the National Award-winning film-maker ventured into the Hindi space in a big way with Netflix’s anthology, Ray, in 2021. He had two shorts, Forget Me Not and Bahrupiya in the anthology, and
both got mixed reviews. His Bollywood debut, however, was with the Vidya Balan-starrer Begum Jaan in 2017. The film was a remake of his Bengali movie, Rajkahini (2015), but had failed to get favourable reviews.
He has started 2022 with a bang with two back-to-back Hindi releases: the Pankaj Tripathi-helmed Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga and the Taapsee Pannu-starrer Shabaash Mithu. However, the film-maker is yet to strike gold at the box office. But Mukherji was never the one to be perturbed by box office collections. He has already moved on to his next project. We catch up with the director to know more about his kind of cinema and his process as a director.
You had four releases in the last two months, X=Prem, the web series Feludar Goyendagiri, Sherdil, and Shabaash Mithu. What kind of mental space are you in these days?
It has been a roller coaster ride for the last one-and-a-half months, which ended with the release of Shabaash Mithu. With all the post productions and promotions, it was insanely stressful and exhausting, to say the least. But the dust has now settled, and I have time for a breather.
Both Shabaash Mithu and Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga were important stories that needed to be told, but got lukewarm responses at the BO. Have you been able to sit back and analyse why the film didn’t work?
I’m not the kind of director who sits and analyses, I would rather move on to my next film. I have never made a film keeping an audience or a particular section of audience in mind or following any format or a template. I have always told stories that I wanted to tell and in the way I want to tell them. I don’t
see any reason to do a post-mortem or analysis after a film has been released. I don’t treat my film like a mathematical formula or business proposition. More so now. If you look around, nothing is working at the theaters. We are six months into the year, and there have been just two hits so far: The Kashmir Files and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. How do you analyse what happened with a fantastic film like 83? It was a heartfelt
film; it just didn’t work. I think it is important to give 100 per cent to every film you make and then you move on to making another.
Many had pointed out that major chunks of Mithali Raj’s life were left out of the biopic. As a film-maker, how do you decide what to include and what to leave out?
When I read the script of Shabaash Mithu, the ratio between the human drama and cricket was spot on. I don’t think many cricketing portions of Mithali’s life were left out. We covered all the important ones. Our entire climax sequence was cricket, you seldom see an entire tournament being shown in a film, and we did that. We’ve shown her formative years, her going through the grind of domestic cricket, etc. Of course, we couldn’t cover a lot of her international matches because then it would become a documentary, right? Then the same reviewers would say: ‘We would have seen it on Star Sports’. So, it’s a double-edged sword.
There was a disclaimer at the start of Shabaash Mithu that it is inspired by Mithali Raj’s life. Why was that necessary?
A fair bit of fictionalisation was necessary, because Mithali’s story is not the typical underdog story, and that is what attracted me to it. So, we had to dramatise it a bit to make it a story of a woman, who apart
from her personal achievements, also turns around the entire system, while inspiring many along the way.
Sherdil was inspired by a true story, Shabaash Mithu is a biopic, you are also developing a series on the life of late film-maker Mrinal Sen, titled Padatik. What is it about such real stories that you find tempting as a film-maker?
I believe that life is the best scriptwriter. These stories are fascinating stories and they all have happened in real life, or at least a major part of these have happened. Slice of life is something we aspire to imitate
and recreate in cinema. Since these stories come from real life, instead of someone’s figment of imagination, they are relatable by default.
What is your take on the current scenario where South cinema is trumping its Bollywood counterparts?
One only talks about successes. But a large chunk of these dubbed movies tank at the box office. I was
recently reading an article that said that apart from Pushpa, RRR, KGF, and Vikram, Tollywood has had 40 odd releases, none of which have worked. So, it is not really about language, films are not working in cinemas in general.
Do you think some films should be made for the big screen, while some films should release directly on OTT?
I think it is a fair division of medium; some films are better off as telefilms while some films need the big screen experience. There are films that are not big-screen spectacles, films that don’t have the kind of scale or technical brilliance in terms of sound or visuals, these films can be enjoyed on OTT. The rest should go to theaters. Ideally every film should be enjoyed on the big screen. But today, circumstances have pushed us to take these calls.
How are you planning to straddle the two worlds — that of Bengali cinema and that of Bollywood — especially since both are markedly different in their sensibilities?
Yes, these two industries have different sensibilities, but pre-production of any film can today be done sitting in any office. In both cases you need to travel to do the recce. You are not essentially shooting in Mumbai or Kolkata; the shoot location can be anywhere in India or even outside the country. Over the past two years, we have also realised the power of Zoom calls.