Dibakar Banerjee’s new film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! can be construed as many things, a souped up period drama, a franchise-ready interpretation of a literary classic, or a coming-of-age story personating a noir thriller. At its heart, though, it is a paean to his ‘Bangali’ roots. “As a probashi Bangali, I’ve always been interested in the question, what is Bangaliana?” To find an answer, he knew where to start. As a 12- or 13-year- old, he was reading Byomkesh and Feluda. He was reading about Calcutta Bengalis leading their Calcutta lives; he was captivated by how they talked, and what they wore, and what they ate, and how they lived their lives. The way he lived his life was entirely at variance with his mindscape. Growing up at New Rohtak Road, near Delhi's Karol Bagh, all his friends were Jat and Punjabi, and he was going through all the adventures that would lead to Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! “I realised that Bengalis are obsessed with crime and punishment. I think it’s because the physical world of Bengal and Calcutta is much smaller than the mental leap the educated Bengali mind took because it was the first recipient of the colonial force of Western ideas and education.”
Banerjee takes multiple mental leaps himself in the course of this conversation. He takes a circuitous route to answer a classic warm-up question: what was the trigger for making the film? He delves into the mindset of the Bengali educated class, takes a detour into colonialism and post-Industrial Revolution Britain, and zigzags into his own history, before he answers. “So that’s how it started, because I was already steeped into that, and when I started thinking of Byomkesh, I started thinking of a rip-roaring period adventure where the film feels like a strange time warp between the past and the present.”
One week before the release of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Banerjee is in his hometown, Delhi, to promote the film, but he hasn’t been home, stationed instead at a hotel where he has been meeting the media. He is deprived of sleep, after all those marathon post- production sessions. One epic stretch lasted for 62 hours, working, working, and taking 10-minute naps in between. He appears spent, his voice softened by exhaustion.
Before settling down for the interview, Banerjee goes up to Sushant Singh Rajput—who’s dressed in character, in eye-catching dhoti pants—to bum a cigarette off him. Banerjee has opted for a prosaic look for himself, in nondescript shirt and pants. At the end of the conversation, he expresses a worry that the piece will be over-intellectualised. “Let’s just talk about the movie,” he suggests. As one of Bollywood’s most intellectual directors, and a darling of the elite media, Banerjee is certainly in danger of being over-intellectualised. All his films have been closely analysed, which may also be because he has a way of throwing off balance his fans and audiences by reinventing himself with every successive film, and proving that he has new tricks up his sleeve just when you think you have him pegged.
The quality he best loves in Byomkesh—whom he describes as a highly moralistic and conservative man, is that he’s willing to go the distance, to stake all he has to get what he wants—may apply just as well to him. An interview:
The film has a post-modern pulpy look, yet the period details are vividly realised. How did you accomplish that?
I wanted that everything about the film should put you in a time warp. What’s happening in Byomkesh Bakshy is, you’re seeing 1943 but you’re seeing it exactly the way I would show you 2015. You’re transported into a different world, with what you’re seeing architecturally, costume wise, transport wise, but then when you see people in this world, they are really the people you know around yourselves because otherwise you can’t immerse yourself in that world. I’m not interested in presenting a distant tableau, I’m interested in sucking the audience into that time.
All your movies have been informed by politics; they can be seen as social commentaries. Does Byomkesh break that pattern?
It’s informed by the politics of India in 1942 and 43. In those years, we have an idea that everybody was protesting against British rule, but that was not the case. Most probably what happened was that people like you and me would be called ‘collaborators’, perpetuating British rule; we would be academics, scholars, journalists, and we would love to have evening dinners with our British masters. But then, because of Gandhi and everybody who followed, the nationalistic fervour had risen to such a high pitch that it was uncontrollable, and that’s where the sweaty masses and the wild-eyed kids and the woolly-headed college students differed from the smarter, more well-dressed, well-read set, who were kind of looking at it, but looking at it with faint disdain: ‘Woh toh sadak pe morcha karta hai.’ All of that finds its way in the story, but ultimately it’s a yarn, and you can’t bring too much of unnecessary contextual detail. This is something I learnt from Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.
You spent a year-and-a-half on research. How did you immerse yourself in this world, Calcutta of the 40s?
We went to Calcutta and did a lot of audio interviews where we collected oral histories of that time. We spoke with people who were 80 or 90 to get details which historical books could not give us. Outside of that, there was a huge amount of reading I did on life in Calcutta in the 40s like Tapan Raychaudhuri’s Bangalnama, Radha Prasad Gupta’s Street Cries of Calcutta. On the internet, we found photo collections of American GIs who had come to Calcutta in the 40s and taken pictures; those pictures were of invaluable help. We found addresses and names of people who lived in the city at the time; for instance, we found this scintillating name, ‘Dr A Watanabe, dentist, Park Street’, and he became a character in our film.
Cities are like characters in your films. The first two explored Delhi. More recently, you have turned your gaze to Mumbai, and now Calcutta. What is home for you?
I’ve realised I’m kind of a vagabond, first Delhi, now Bombay. I’ve been reading Bangla since I was a kid. Calcutta does fascinate me now because I like the language deeply, and because of the language and history, I can dig deeper in that city. I know Delhi and Bombay from my own life. Calcutta is the city of my imagination, my fascination, my history.
You have said in the past that every film you make is an attempt to wipe out the mistakes of your last film… why this compulsive need to keep reinventing your cinema?
That’s the only way—it’s become second nature to me. I really need to do something completely different to be able to make sense of what I did the last time, otherwise I can’t function. Byomkesh is completely different from anything, so that’s one thing I’m excited about. The other thing is, you know, I don’t want anyone to slot me, because then you’re gone, because everybody wants to put a hand on your shoulder and say, ‘I understand you, I know you.’ I don’t want anyone to own me.
Your last two works, Shanghai and Bombay Talkies, and now Byomkesh, have been adaptations. Is that something that you find works better for you now?
The more I read, the more I realise that now I think I need to step on to other people’s shoulders because writing everything myself and developing everything myself will probably make me reach only this high, because there are only so many hours in a day and only so many years in your life, and if you really want to reach somewhere, then you have to start a little higher. So I want to start with books. I’ve started that slowly, and I want to go deeper and deeper.
Does the film industry let you do the stuff you want to do?
Yes. Look at my work. I mean, who would have thought that after doing all the films I have done, I would be surviving and making a slightly high- budget film like Byomkesh Bakshy? It’s incredible. I’m living on some kind of borrowed blessing. I don’t know when it will run out, but we’ll see. I have no idea why they’re still letting me make films.
You have stubbornly maintained your status as an outsider in Bollywood, by being in the industry but keeping apart from it— not just in the content you make, but quite literally as well by choosing an office far away from the film heartland in the city
It’s getting more deeply entrenched, this need to be an outsider. People are giving up on me. I mean, earlier people had hopes that I would change; now they’re realising that I’m kind of un- changeable in certain aspects, so they’re accepting me the way I am. As long as I keep making cheap films, they’ll be okay. And some day, it will run out; some day I will be irrelevant; some day my city audience will move on to some other kind of film. We’ll see when that comes. I may take up illustration then.
Why is it so important for you to be an outsider? How long can one sustain subversion?
I think you lose perspective if you don’t have dissent in a feudal and patriarchal and deeply unjust country like India. All are systems are not about justice but exploitation. I think it’s the unique experience of India today over the last 20-30 years, where we keep looking for every new way of making ourselves a little more elite and rich and more privileged than the next man. I think we’re at war within our society. So in a situation like that, you’ve got to watch out—it’s survival. Call me paranoid, but I know it’s true. A lot of people have asked me, ‘Why are you like this?’ Anurag [Kashyap] keeps telling me, ‘Why are you so tense and tragic all the time?’ But genuinely, ours is a deeply unpleasant and exploitative society and we’re making a habit of it, so I’m not going to let my guard down.
How do you pull it off? Work with mainstream producers like Ekta Kapoor, Yash Raj Films and yet retain your indie cred?
By coming cheap. By being inexpensive. When the industry sees that the guy is ready to kill to attain a certain quality on a certain budget, and also the fact that there is a certain currency with audiences for my movies, then they give you another film to do… because all they want is a smart stakeholder.
Your films are deeply personal. How much of you is in Byomkesh Bakshy?
All of me is in it. It has to be. Shooting is not easy. It’s like war, the tedium of shooting for 14 or 16 hours a day. I wouldn’t be able to go through that… you’re separated from your family, you wake up early in the morning and work till late night. Hundreds of things go wrong, and you’re fighting every battle you can with everybody, the police, the Government, the budget… all that can only become worth it if you’re genuinely enjoying every bit of it, or genuinely following a goal. But what typical ‘Dibakarisms’—as someone once coined the term—are there in this film, that I can’t see. The moment I become aware of my isms is the day my filmmaking career will be over. I think I will be making trash then. Right now, I’m making passable stuff.
What do you plan to do with your time after the release?
I’m writing my next film. It’s not a sequel to Byomkesh. Apart from that, there’s no time left for anything else. I have to spend time with my daughters… Serious family time is going to happen.
You will also make your debut as a producer this year…
Yes, with Titli, which I think will start a new wave in Indian cinema. As a producer, I will only take up first films and it will kill me, it will finish me. But those first films have to be worth it. It’s the joy of first love.