Srijit Mukherjee has not had a single flop so far. Nine films, blockbuster hits and numerous trophies later, Mukherjee is venturing into Hindi cinema with Begum Jaan, a remake of his 2015 hit Rajkahini — a story of a brothel that sits right in the middle of the Radcliffe line during the Partition of 1947. While it will be laughable to call Mukherjee a struggling film-maker if his debut stars Vidya Balan, he knows that he does not have the same clout in Mumbai that he enjoys in Kolkata. “I can’t just pick up the phone, call up the top actors and offer them a film here. I have to keep at least 5-6 scripts ready.” So does that mean he is taking the big Bollywood plunge? “Well, like I said, I have 5-6 scripts and I have packed a few suitcases.” He smiles. I don’t know how the Bengali movie industry — and the audience — will react to that.

What was the exercise like, of remaking a film that everyone was already in love with?

See, I would like to call it an adaptation more than a remake, because I personally feel that ‘remake’ has a very mechanical ring to it and a remake seldom bears any original identity of its own. But Begum Jaan is a different film. It is different because the story of Rajkahini stops at 1947. Begum Jaan is linked to today’s contemporary reality of violence and hatred.

Is that something you realised after you went back to the scripting process?

Yes. Because I asked myself that whatever laurels and appreciation Rajkahini might have received, now that it is being told to a larger audience, would they be equally interested in this story if it does not affect their current lives? And also, even as a storyteller, I felt that it was my second performance on stage. So, I will always want to plug the loopholes and cut down on the fat to make it a better performance the second time round. Hence, I had to make it more relevant.

Begum Jaan - Vidya Balan

What were the loopholes in Rajkahini, according to you?

I think the climax was slightly drawn out, for example. On repeated viewings of the film, I realised that a bunch of stuff could go, or could be tightened. There are a few sequences that have been added to Begum Jaan that weren’t there in the original film. There are songs which have come in.

Why did you need these songs?

The need was to get back to the lives of these women. I wanted to concentrate on the equations of these women rather than the macro-narrative of the politics. That is why the festivities came in, and the Holi sequence was introduced.

So it wasn’t a commercial requirement?

No, not at all. Vishesh, to its credit, and Bhatt Saab and Mukesh Ji, did not utter a single word during the entire process of conceptualising and executing Begum Jaan. And that is something I am so thankful for. I cannot operate with interference. It was very satisfying and exciting to work with them.

You have cast Chunky Pandey in a very meaty role. Not many film-makers would think of casting someone like him in the role of Kabir, the mercenary.

It is a classic case of anticasting. And I have been doing that from my very first film. From Autograph to Chotushkone, to even Jisshu (Sengupta, the actor who played Kabir in Rajkahini) in the original film, there have been quite a few cases of anti-casting. But because Jisshu is a fantastic actor, I guess no one raised their eyebrows. But to be honest, Chunky does not have a history of stupendous histrionics (laughs) and I suspect even he was surprised. But I always think comedians make for good villains. My model for him was a Jim Carrey or Heath Ledger’s Joker. So, I was playing on those lines. At the end, when he saw his own performance, he was like, “Where did that come from?”

On the other hand, you didn’t get any flak from Rituparna Sengupta for not casting her as the lead (Sengupta played the lead, Begum Jaan, in Rajkahini). 

See, Ritu believes in something that cannot be translated into English without losing substantial portions of its meaning, which is an emotion called ‘obhimaan’. And to be honest, I understand. According to a lot of people, it was her best performance ever, and she was actually expecting the National Award. But I made her understand that this was a new journey. I am not even the same guy who made Rajkahini. When I landed up at the sets of Begum Jaan, that guy was dead.

I do have to say that it is very difficult to gauge you as a film-maker. You make films like Baishey Srabon, Nirbaak and Chotushkone on the one hand and big, massy films like Zulfikar, Jaatishwar and Rajkahini on the other. Are you just exploring different facets as an artist?

No, it is just a multiple personality disorder. I would blame my upbringing. My parents encouraged me to watch everything. I would watch a Kieslowski and a David Dhawan. I grew up watching Uttam-Suchitra (Bengali commercial cinema’s most celebrated couple) films along with Nayakan and Clockwork Orange. I would watch Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Sholay and come back and watch Seemaboddho and Agantuk. So, if you are fed such a varied diet, your films — which are an extension of your preferences, positioning, views and politics — are bound to have that varied a spectrum. You cannot run a common line between any of my films and put a pin on my tonality — because that is a death knell for an artist.

Baishey Srabon
Baishey Srabon
Chotushkhone
Chotushkhone
Jaatishwar
Jaatishwar

The Bengali film industry has improved immensely in the last decade or so and everyone looks forward to Bengali films these days. But as someone integral to the industry, what do you think are the problem areas?

It is the size of the market. It has creative repercussions. When you limit the market, you have to work with a certain budget and hence cannot deal with certain subjects, unless you are a very shrewd film-maker who can squeeze out the maximum from your resources — which is something I am often accused of.

You are honestly the only film-maker who achieves that expansive a scale in the Bengali industry budget.

That is true. When I present that scale in a market like Mumbai, a Sanjay Leela Bhansali falls off his chair. He said that I must send an EP to follow you around. When he saw Chotushkone and Rajkahini, he said that you are managing this large a canvas at possibly five per cent of Mumbai budgets. And yes, not everyone can do that. So, when you set a limit for the market of an industry, you are gagging its creativity. Having said that, within this gag, great stuff is still happening.