Dibakar Banerjee’s office is in Lalbaug, in Mumbai. While most production houses, studios and directors prefer to reside in the film suburb of Andheri, Banerjee does not mind the gruelling drive to the studios twice a day, through Mumbai’s snail-paced traffic. Is he really trying that hard to stay away from mainstream cinema? He laughs, “I moved into my wife’s company flat when I came to the city, and we have fallen in love with south Mumbai. So, it was not a conscious decision. But, yes, all the shop talk, gossip and needless socialising that goes on in Andheri is a major distraction. So, I guess, this is a blessing in disguise.”
Banerjee is a well-spoken, vastly-read, intelligent man. His eyes shine when he talks to you, and even after a 12-hour dubbing shift, he is animated. He is assertive and justifies his opinions with examples, sounding like someone who has mastered the art of making journalists take a shine to him. The man is never unsure — during our 45-minute conversation, not once does he use an ‘um’ or an ‘er’, and he never buys time to answer a question.
What were you like growing up, I ask him. Looking at him today, you’d think he was the well-mannered and obedient bhodro chhele (good boy). “Well, I acted like one,” he laughs. “I had a contrary point of view, a lower threshold for bullshit and was pained by bullying. I always wanted to assert myself in ways that weren’t physical.” Evidently, the stress has always been on the cerebral. Maybe, too cerebral? “I don’t know what about Oye Lucky Lucky Oye or Khosla [ka Ghosla] or LSD [Love Sex aur Dhokha] is too intelligent. I don’t think that is the case. But, yes, I do not make massy films. The average Indian filmgoer leads a shitty life. The average Indian Joe is more fucked than average Joes in any other country. They want a form of escape and that is what Hindi cinema provides them with. Some song, some drama, some romance and fantasy -— they don’t want to see the fears and problems of everyday reality onscreen, too. So, yes, I have a niche audience.” And, he is happy with that? “Yes. I know that I have to work within a certain budget, and I have to be happy with less money if I want to stay true to the kind of storytelling or subject I choose.”
With Khosla ka Ghosla (KKG), in 2006, Banerjee was soon recognised as an edgy indie film-maker, with a dark sense of humour. Starring Anupam Kher and Boman Irani, KKG had a brutally honest but satirical take on corruption, a crackling script and a fine balance between realism and Bollywood kitsch. Like all small films, it did not have a successful opening, but the audience soon warmed up to his kind of storytelling. He followed it up with a Dilli romcom with a Robin Hood-like figure — Oye Lucky Lucky Oye(2008). The film had intelligent writing and slick dialogue, and it introduced us to the comic timing of Abhay Deol and the soon-to-be-famous Richa Chadda.
A Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) was the most shocking of his films. “I was excited about doing something on murder, greed and darkness,” Banerjee says. “I tinkered with form and timeline so that the story would have a powerful impact. I saw the Monica Bellucci-starring Irréversible later and realised that it was on similar lines of non-linear narration.” Narrated through the POV of closed-circuit and web cameras, LSD is a coke-hit joyride of lust, greed, jealousy and gore. While the film was panned by many, it remains one of the most experimental and daring films of the last decade. I tell him that LSD is one of my all-time favourites. Bengali boy from Delhi, Banerjee astutely captured the flavour of Delhi suburbs — middle-class Punjabi banter, precocious schoolboys, flamboyant flirts, raucous Pammi aunties and trigger-happy Sardarjis. Before Maneesh Sharma and Habib Faisal, Banerjee introduced the realities of the Hindi heartland to mainstream Bollywood. And, unlike other film-makers, who unnecessarily drummed up chest-thumping and testosterone to meet masala cinema parameters, Banerjee was able to capture the real nerve.
“My favourite is Bombay Talkies [a bouquet of four short films by four film-makers to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema]. In such a short duration, I had to integrate all the functions of a film. That was challenging, and it did turn out to be a good one, I think.” Banerjee’s short was based on a story by Satyajit Ray and starred Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sadashiv Amrapurkar. “I think the other reason is because of Nawaz and Sadashiv Amrapurkar. They were wonderful to work with.” Which other actors has he enjoyed working with? “Richa Chadda, definitely Abhay Deol and Emraan Hashmi in Shanghai. Emraan was a revelation for everybody, I guess.” Based on Z by Vassilis Vassilikos, Shanghai was an intense political thriller about corruption and illegal construction. The film did moderately well and was highly acclaimed by critics. “See, my films manage to recover money and have a shelf life. And, I have realised that I can achieve that even by sticking to my guns and making the kind of films I want to make. I have carved an audience out for myself, which always comes back to watch my films, and it is growing. I am glad that my films are being able to do that.” And, awards? Do they matter? “Of course, they do. But, in India, awards are TV shows, which depend on star turnouts. People won’t watch the show if stars don’t land up. And, if people don’t watch it, advertising revenue won’t come in. So, if you want viewership, you need stars,” he states matter-of-factly.
Banerjee’s next is Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, releasing in April, based on the character of a private detective created by novelist Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Bakshy resided in pre-Independence Calcutta, using his powers of deduction and observation to solve crimes along with his sidekick, Ajit. Sushant Singh Rajput has been cast in the titular role, along with Anand Tiwari as Ajit. “I have always wanted to do Byomkesh, ever since I read the novels as a kid. So, this is a 30-year-old dream finally being fulfilled today. And, I saw immense cinematic potential in the novels. Sharadindu was a screenplay writer himself, and, therefore, his narrative style is naturally film-like.” Which detective films inspired him? “Hard-boiled noir films such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and the Robert Mitchum-starring Farewell, My Lovely. I love Ray’s Feluda films. I loved reading them, too, along with all the Byomkesh novels, of course.”
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! has the look and feel of vernacular pulp fiction, especially the poster art and the trailer. Banerjee agrees. “See, classic detective novels are pulp formats written to excellence. Much before Sherlock Holmes happened, similar characters were being consumed by the English middle-class. The same was happening in America and India. Deft writers took the pulp format of squalor-filth-femme fatale-brooding-detective-elusive-gang-lord and turned it into classic murder mysteries. The problems with pulp fiction are several. They are sentimental, badly written, hackneyed plots with half-baked characters, but they are visually more exciting. Look at the illustrations and the book covers. So, these visual elements had to be pumped into Byomkesh.” The trailer of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! has a heady narrative, tripping on a crime-sex-glamour cocktail. It promises a lot and knowing Banerjee, you know he’ll deliver.