Film-maker Srijit Mukherji is a powerhouse. He’s donned many hats — as a lyricist and even an actor — his films have mostly been box office hits, and critically acclaimed. He talks adaptations, struggling with recognition in non-Bengali settings, and his ambition to become a global name 

Srijit Mukherji is one of the radiant jewels of the Bengali film industry. He’s directed numerous feature films and web shows. Out of 17 features films, 14 of them have been successes at the box office. He has also had stints as a lyricist, and as an actor, in multiple films. His films have visited over 50 film festivals, and have won over 200 awards, including the revered National Award. In 2019, he had three film releases in one year. It ranged from emotional drama (Shah Jahan Regency) to psychological thriller (Vinci Da) to an ambitious movie based on true historical events (Gumnaami, based on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s mysterious death). He debuted in Hindi cinema when he remade his own movie, Rajkahini, as Begum Jaan, starring Vidya Balan and Naseeruddin Shah. The acclaimed director is in the news for multiple reasons, including the two segments he has recently directed in the Netflix anthology titled Ray, streaming on Netflix. He has also announced his next Bengali film titled X=Prem, and he has been roped in to direct Indian cricket icon Mithali Raj’s biopic, starring Taapsee Pannu. 

A still from Ray
A still from Ray

What makes Satyajit Ray relevant even today? 

Ray’s stories are universal in nature. His short stories are fascinating. They have interesting psychological cores, and they obviously have a twist in the end. There is timelessness in every story; it still affects people, making it very relevant even today. 

What was your introduction to Satyajit Ray like? 

It started with reading Ray’s work. The first story I read was The Hungry Septopus. It was a part of a 12-story compilation. The Hungry Septopus had a profound impact on me. Unlike most children that start with Feluda or Professor Shonku (Ray’s two iconic characters), I started with short stories. His short stories always included 12-stories collections like Ek Dojon Gappo, Aro Ek Dojon, and Aro Baro.

A lot of your content stems from books. What is it about books that draws you? 

I’m an avid reader. I always feel that there cannot be a substitute for books because books actually push you toward imagining things. That is the first step in film-making.

What made you choose those two particular segments to direct? 

The mandate from Netflix and Viacom was very clear. We had to choose, reinterpret, and retell these stories in a darker space and contemporary reality. So, amongst the stories, we had the rights to adapt or get inspired by Bipin Choudhuroir Smritibhrom and Bahurupi. They were the most amenable and most compatible for these transformations. For instance, today’s scenario is replete with all its trappings, pitfalls, darker sides, edgier spaces, grim and gritty sides of life as we know it. So, we were to retain the stories in their essence, their central plot device, add elements, possibly incorporate new characters, and maybe change the ending.

You are a celebrated film-maker in Bengali cinema. When you direct in other languages, does the fame follow? 

No. It’s a struggle. It’s an absolute struggle. I struggle to make my scripts reach the actors I want to cast. A script has to reach the actor through layers and layers of talent management companies and managers. I get rebuffed by stars. They don’t revert to my WhatsApp messages. Though things have changed post the release of Begum Jaan. I worked with Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, and made a few friends and contacts in the industry. After the uprising of streaming services, things have changed slightly. Mumbai has become humble, modest, and accessible. No amount of PR, no amount of monopolistic cloud will save or protect you if you’re a bad actor. The craft is taking precedence, which is why you have the emergence of actors like Vicky Kaushal, Rajkummar Rao, and Ayushmann Khurrana. I spoke to Kay Kay Menon, and he told me his generation had Manoj Bajpayee, Irrfan Khan, and him. Still, they didn’t see the kind of mainstream commercial success like the trio of Vicky Kaushal, Rajkumar Rao, and Ayushmann Khurrana have. That is the change that has come through, and many of these streaming services were solely responsible for it. So, I wouldn’t say I’m struggling as much as I used to initially, but the struggle is definitely there. It’s understandable as well. If Begum Jaan was a huge hit, things would have been different. People would have responded to my phone calls and WhatsApp messages. Since that didn’t happen, I’m not surprised by the Hindi film stars’ behaviour. But I’m also equally thrilled with this process because it keeps me alive. 

A still from Rajkahini
A still from Rajkahini

So do you have this urge to be a pan-India director? 

Oh, no. I have an urge to be known across the world. What is important for me is the greed to tell my story to the maximum number of people. I want to retain my signature style of storytelling and not sell out to market demands. Initially, I used to do theatre. From theatre, I shifted to films because I wanted to cater to a larger audience. I wanted to tell my stories that couldn’t be told in a proscenium’s four-walled constraint. At the same time, when the audience volume grew, I became cautious about retaining my honesty and will as a storyteller. I will tell the story and make the film exactly how I want it.

I’m my first audience. I need to make something that I don’t mind paying for. I follow this, and make films. I’m absolutely undoubtedly grateful to people who like my movies. You actually cannot make a film that pleases everyone. Some people didn’t like Pather Panchali as well.

A lot of your movies are being released over streaming services now. After they were brought to a newer audience, what did it bring you? 

A lot of love, adulation, and admiration has come my way, which obviously is an excellent thing for any storyteller and film-maker. It is the elixir, and a lifesaver. I don’t have to get into lengthy introductions while approaching an artist or a technician for my project. I’m told that people are aware of my work. It saves time, and makes the process smoother. So, that is a good thing. 

Mukherji on the sets of Zulfiqar
Mukherji on the sets of Zulfiqar

You were recently roped in to direct Mithali Raj’s biopic when Rahul Dholakia stepped out of the project due to scheduling issues

My equation with Ajit Andhare of Viacom was fantastic while working on Ray. We had even discussed making a cricket biopic a couple of years back, and spoke to Sourav Ganguly. He asked me to step in to direct Mithali’s biopic because he is aware of my passion for cricket. I’ve played cricket at the university level, and had a stint with IPL commentary. We are currently in the pre-production stage.

Have you had any kind of conversation with Taapsee Pannu (playing the titular role of Mithali Raj in the film) or Mithali after the announcement? 

Taapsee and I have been interacting for many years about movies and other things. I have sent many of my scripts to her. But I haven’t yet interacted with her about Mithali’s biopic. But I will, soon.

What’s happening with your film starring Pankaj Tripathi?

Sherdill has been in the pipeline for a long time. We had plans to shoot it in November 2020, but lockdown and restrictions were extended, and schedules had to be changed. We are now looking at early next year.

A still from Autograph
A still from Autograph

What do you watch for leisure? 

I spend most of my time watching all kinds of web series in various languages because that is the storytelling paradigm that fascinates me now. Most importantly, certain stories about certain character arcs developed over eight episodes are much more justified than a two-hour film. I’m, frankly, losing interest in the film format. The simple reason is various constraints that one has to face, including a censor board, and distribution expectation of having a saleable cast. Though these malpractices have travelled to the streaming space as well, it’s at a much smaller degree, and there is much more freedom. This is why this move to streaming services for storytelling is fascinating. I did not go to any film-making institute. I’m a self-taught film-maker, and I watched many films before getting into film-making.