The Interview: Abhishek Chaubey On His Attention-To-Detail Film-Making, Ray, And More
Abhishek Chaubey discusses his adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s short story, and why he believes and hopes national cinema will soon cease to be confined to stories of the North Indian Hindi-speaking belt.
To most, he is the gutsy director of irreverent and hard-hitting films like Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya, but for me, he will always be the guy who had the guts (and an adequately quirky sense of humour) of translating words like chutiyapa to SNAFU, while coming up with some stunningly soulful transliterations of the Urdu poetry and song lyrics in the subtitles of Dedh Ishqiya. The beauty of Chaubey’s cinema has always been in these delicious details.
After making two extremely gritty, if a tad nihilistic, movies rooted in realism back to back, in his recent outing, he trades the real for the surreal, and creates a dreamlike world smelling of ittar and paan and freshly-brewed nostalgia. Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, starring Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, and Raghubir Yadav, is an adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s short story, Barin Bhowmick er Byaram (Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment), and is part of the Netflix anthology, Ray. This is not his first brush with literary adaptations; he had cut his teeth co-writing The Blue Umbrella and Omkara with the very best in the business, Vishal Bhardwaj. Being a self-confessed Ray fan, the short is a sparkling piece of homage to the cinema of the great auteur.
Be it Dedh Ishqiya, Sonchiriya or Udta Punjab, your films have always been very authentic to the setting, and are steeped in the milieu of the place. But in this short, instead of recreating the Bengali culture, you transported the story into a world very similar to Dedh Ishqiya. Why?
When you are creating a unique world for the audience, there is an effort to work out the details that populate that world. It is these details that make that world believable to the viewer. I had to make this film in Hindi, and the idea of Bengali bhadroloks speaking in Hindi was not very appealing to me as that would not sound authentic. From the beginning, I was sure that I had to adapt it to a milieu where I can justify the use of Hindi language in it. Also, I didn’t want a generic milieu, but a specific world. Since the protagonist was a singer, making him a ghazal singer was a natural choice. That’s how the world came to being, and I changed the journey into one from Bhopal to Delhi.
Ray’s movies, like that of Fellini’s, often had a tinge of surrealism. Was the treatment of the short sort of a nod to Ray, the director?
I wanted it to have an old-world charm and the mood of an evening mushaira. They are usually lit by lamps, which give a warm and slightly underlit tone. Also, I was sure that I didn’t want the film to be very realistic. Hence, you have the kind of dream sequences as you have. Even the production design was done keeping this in mind. We wanted it to have its own look — one that resembles reality but is not exactly real. So you don’t see the squalor that you have inside a train. The shop, at the end, was something I devised to plant a seed of doubt in the audience’s mind that if all that happened in the story is even real.
Train stories are a very Ray thing to do. Not only Nayak, but even in Sonar Kella, the train journey plays a very important part. Apart from taking the story from the master, I wanted to pay homage to Ray the director as well, without making it look like we are trying too hard.
You had adapted another short story by Satyajit Ray that didn’t get made. What happened to that, and why did you choose this particular story for the Netflix anthology?
Satyajit Ray was a multitalented person; you can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy. I don’t take the term genius lightly, but he was a true genius. I was introduced to his writings very early on in my life. I remember I had got a collection of his literary works as a birthday gift. His short stories, which were mainly for young adults, are very different from his movies. These are fun and entertaining stories to read, and are adaptable for screen. Written by a film-maker, these are so visually designed. I had adapted one of these into a film script long back, but didn’t get the rights to make it then. But I still hope to make it someday, and it is one of my all-time favourite short stories. Let’s keep the details of that a secret for now.
For this one, when Sayantan [creator and showrunner, Sayantan Mukherjee] came to me, they had a bank of six/seven stories from which I could choose. I have read quite a few short stories by Ray and have found that in most of these, there is an element of the sinister, a touch of the macabre, and there can be really dark retelling of those stories. I chose this one because although it checks almost all the boxes of Ray’s short stories, it has the surrealism, the psychological exploration, but it was also a fun story to tell; it had the potential for a lot of humour, it still has its tongue in its cheek. And that enabled me to have a rather unique interpretation of the story. I wanted to do something that was a bit light-hearted.
You have co-written films like The Blue Umbrella, which was an adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s novel of the same name, and also Omkara, an adaptation of Othello. What are the main challenges of adapting a story for the movies?
My primary effort, while adapting a piece, is to satisfy all the readers of the story. They should not be disappointed watching your interpretation. The attempt should be to take the story a notch higher. If you are changing something that is crucial to the story, make sure you do it deliberately and consciously so that it does not look like a mistake. When you adapt a film, the world you set it in becomes very important, more so when you change the language of the piece. Working with Bharadwaj, in fact, I was his first AD in Maqbool [the adaptation of Macbeth], one of the most important things I learnt about adapting a story is how to transpose a medieval European story into an Indian context. In Omkara, right from the word go, he knew he would set the story in western UP amid people he had come across in his own youth, and it just flowed beautifully from there. I think it is crucial to find the right context for the story in your own country, society. And it is challenging. The core of the story should still hold true because that is what motivated you to adapt it in the first place.
Your movies have another curious detailing as far as the writing is concerned — the subtitles — something that is almost always entirely overlooked in Indian movies. What makes you put so much effort into it?
All my films, except for my first, have been released with subtitles even though they were all released commercially. And that is mainly because maybe I had written a dialect into it that I thought was integral to the world I had set the film in. Except Udta Punjab, which was graciously subtitled by Neeraj Ghaywan, all my films are mostly subtitled by me.
In today’s day and age, when movies are becoming truer to the settings, even our completely mainstream commercial films have a clear context of where they are from, and so, subtitles are becoming important. On the other hand, we have to accept that the major chunk of our audience does not watch world cinema, and needs to be trained to watch movies with subtitles. In fact, we need them to warm up to the idea of subtitles. So, you have to write the subtitles in a way that is easily understood and accepted by the regular cinema-going audience, and doesn’t come across as a lot of extra work that they have to do.
So do you think if subtitles are able to break the language barrier, something that The Family Man S2 did, stories beyond the North Hindi belt can now be told in a more authentic way, and finally be part of mainstream narratives?
Absolutely. In fact, I have been thinking of doing something set in Bengal for very long now. I have lived very close to Bengal, and in Jharkhand, and I am very, very intimate with the culture. Like I did in Udta, I couldn’t have cops talking among themselves in Hindi, that dialogue needed to be in Punjabi. It will be something likewise.
I think it is about time, and I think this season of The Family Man has done a great job of using the regional language and adding subtitles to it. I think OTT platforms are doing a great service in breaking these barriers. And The Family Man is a huge hit. That gives me a lot of hope and assurance that we will be able to tell our stories as it is, and not pretend, for example, that Tamilians are speaking in Hindi.