Don’t judge a book by its cover. Even if you do, never judge a Dibakar Banerjee movie by its trailer. The film-maker, who picked up a National Award with his very first outing, Khosla ka Ghosla! and then another one with his sophomore movie Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, and went on to make films like Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), Shanghai (2012), Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015), loves to play mind games with his audience by bending genres, and turning Bollywood tropes on their head. His recent movie, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, is no exception. But the film-maker, who calls himself a low-key troublemaker thanks to his penchant for rattling the society with his non-conformist ideas, insists he is essentially just looking to make a hit movie that makes him and the producers rich.
In Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, you have a hero, a heroine, both of them on the run, beautiful locales, all the trappings of a quintessential Bollywood love story. But it is not really one, is it?
We wanted to go with two characters deeply rooted in Indian reality. Sandy Walia (Parineeti Chopra) is a banker who hails from a small town, and has followed the great Indian dream of liberalisation, while she desperately wants to be a part of the elite. And then there is Pinky (Arjun Kapoor), the lowly constable from Delhi police. Whatever they go through together, we are taught, we are conditioned to live in a way where somebody who’s our driver, somebody is a police constable, somebody who works for us, we don’t even share a bed with them. So forget about love, there is a lot of conditioning to come to terms with while even touching another person. At the core of it is the Brahminical fear and the Brahminical abomination attached to the touch of the ‘unclean’, the touch of the lower class, the touch of the lower caste. And it is in the core of Indian ethos. So if you take these two characters as real, they need to be real in the real sense. And as Varun (Grover, co-writer of the film) says, it is easier to construct a story that follows reality than to follow the conventions of storytelling, and make them do things to tick our filmy fantasies.
Is this then more of an astute commentary on the ground realities of today’s India, by two acutely socially and politically aware individuals, you and Grover?
Grover and I were very clear that we were making a film, and we wanted to make a film that entertains and that makes money. But while doing that, we wanted to show who we really are. The fundamental reason why storytelling and narrative exists in society is to provide a structure for our thoughts, and for our ideas. Sometimes it involves celebrating who we are. And sometimes, it involves looking at who we are.
You seem to challenge stereotypes and break genres with every movie. Do you think that being an outsider gives you the freedom to experiment?
When you start a film, you really don’t want to be the outsider, you want to be the biggest hit. I want to make a film that everyone watches and makes my producer very rich, and myself very rich. But, I have learned that I am not very good at pretending. Therefore, I try to make the film that I mean completely from my head. But I’m aware that probably because of my pushing against patriarchy, elitism, rampant capitalism, and all kinds of power play, I may be a bit of a low-key troublemaker who provokes and angers and shocks, rather than assuages and says all is well. And because of this, I will probably have a little less of a receptive audience than an average successful director who tells people what they want to hear.
Sandeep Aur Pinky… got a theatrical release, and then was released on OTT. Do you think if OTTs become truly the new normal, cinema needs to find a new grammar more aligned to OTT viewing?
I don’t know what the future holds. I can tell you what future I want. I want a multiplication, explosion of cinema screens — single screens and multiplex both — plus I want OTT platforms to thrive so that there is multiplicity. That is the way to ensure that all kinds of narratives find their place in the cultural zeitgeist of our society. The moment you have a monopoly, you open the gate to nepotism, elitism, and one kind of narrative browbeating all other kinds of narratives. As far as the grammar of cinema changing for OTT viewing, the only grammar change will be that we will have to show more in the smaller screen, and we will have to treat the size, format, and orientation of the screen as a rule point of how we want that image to be for our stories. If society changes, the storytelling also changes. But the stories never change. Stories remain stories.
Do you think OTT platforms are a boon to independent film-makers, especially the ones who are just starting out?
It should be, but it is not. If we want to be proud of Indian storytelling, I feel it is time the content selectors, content makers, and content gatekeepers get their heads together and instead of sticking to what they think are the real stories sitting in their echo chambers, get out and find the real storytellers, the real stories of India.
Do you see stories, or the perspectives from which they are told, getting more personal and intimate, with movies viewed mainly on the smaller screens?
Even after COVID goes, some aspects of this behaviour will become hardwired into our watching habits. But I don’t think stories need to be tailor made for OTT. I think the differences that have and will come about, are the political differences. In some places, you might find storytellers having a larger share of independence when they tell stories for the internet because there is no censor or certification board, but those politics can also change. Probably, the only difference between the big screen and the small screen is the spectacle. But, I am watching a huge spectacle on my laptop because I can’t get it anywhere else.
But how do you watch something like a Marvel movie on a small screen?
Well, I will never brave traffic and the multiplex crowd to watch a Marvel movie; who will take so much trouble to see men fly (laughs). I will rather finish watching it on my laptop if I have to.