Director Dibakar Banerjee on the politics of his films, his commitment to cinema as an art form and why he can’t bear to watch his own films
If anything, Dibakar Banerjee dislikes critical discussions on his films, and never, for strictly “emotional” reasons, revisits them once they are made. As a filmmaker, he takes up real issues and turns them into scripts sparkling with bittersweet humour (Khosla ka Ghosla) and mordant satire (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhokha), while retaining a strong middle-class flavour. His fourth film, Shanghai, an adaptation of the Greek novel Z, promises to tear into the development issue that has gripped middle-class India in the post-Liberalisation era. Here, he talks movies, politics, social issues and digresses from time to time but returns to the topic, asking with concern after every answer, “You know what I mean?”
Q For Shanghai, was the point of origin the novel Z or the film Z?
A After LSD, there was a lot of anger in me. I felt like doing a truly political film where I could express myself freely. My writer Urmi Juvekar and I were discussing films like All the President’s Men and Costa-Gavras’ Z, and suddenly she said that that is her favourite film. She suggested that I read Vassilis Vassilikos’ novel and gave me her personal copy. It’s a book that’s difficult to find here. And I found it fascinating. I thought there was so much in the book that matches the India of today. But we realised very early on that the film could not be brought forward anymore as a source material. For that, we had to go back to the novel and draw from the central incident and other peripheral events which didn’t find mention in the film. That formed 30 per cent of our story and the rest was totally rewritten and reconceived, keeping contemporary India in mind.
Q What were the difficulties you faced while Indianising the ideas of a novel originally written in Greek?
A First of all, you have to understand that people are people everywhere. The central emotions that define us as human beings, such as anger, sadness, lust, emotion, ambition and belief, are common everywhere. The best way to adapt a story that’s set in a foreign culture is to forget the trappings of that culture and go into the core of human experience. The characters of Z are as alive and universal as anyone in today’s India. Of course, we had to change the background and the overall construction because what was valid in the 1960s Greece is not valid in India of 2012. Also, the book is politically and ideologically driven, where left and right are extremely well defined. In those days, Communism, the Cold War, Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain etcetera were huge issues. In the post-modern world, after the fall of Communism and other global political developments, I don’t think there is any true ideological divide that a layman can discern in today’s politics. I cannot figure out if one Indian political party is saying anything substantially different from the other, and even if it is saying so, I cannot see if they are doing anything substantial at all. When I say doing, it is related to the ideology of that party. In modern India, there are no political ideologies; there is just political power, or the lack of it, or the ambition for it, or the misuse of it, or the abuse of it. While adapting Z, the first thing we had to do was get rid of ideology.
A And, this India is sharply divided. People who have power, people who don’t, people who have privileges, people who don’t, people who can decide and shape their destinies, and people who can’t. These are the faultlines around which Indians live out their existence. The use and abuse of power is uniformly distributed across India. If you have a good story and if your editor doesn’t back out, you have used your power correctly. But every time you wine and dine with a film star just because you enjoy the access and you write good things about his bad film, then you are misusing your power. So, the abuse of power is one of the underpinnings of Shanghai.
Q How much space does the ‘Mumbai will become Shanghai’ spiel occupy in your story?
A There is no Mumbai here. It is based in a nameless town because the dream to become Shanghai is a pan-India phenomenon. It could happen anywhere in India. All citizens live in the belief that suddenly their city/town will become beautiful; that there will be malls, high-rises, flyovers and shining roads; basically, a city that enshrines all the values of development as defined by consumerist Western society.
Q Are you taking a potshot at the issue of development then?
A Yes, because that is the most contentious issue for a majority of Indians. The idea is to question what we call development, how we achieve development, whose development it really is, who benefits from this progress and why we are choosing a certain brand of development over the other. If you take society as an amalgamation of different interests, we can say with certainty that everyone’s interests cannot be served at the same time; it’s not practical. The easier way is to say that we are doing this in ‘national interest’. We need to find out whether it is really in the interest of the nation or in the interest of a certain political class that is selling that dream. These issues were certainly on our mind when we thought of making this film.
Q In what ways does politics affect you—not only as a filmmaker but more significantly as a citizen?
A If you think you are not a part of politics in the post-World War II democracy era, you are a fool. All of us are a part of politics; which means either you are a part of the reasons or consequences, or you are the victim or beneficiary. The success of a citizen in a politically-defined society depends on how much s/he can be a part of the reasons, rather than being at the receiving end of the consequences. Every political citizen probably has this urge to be a part of the decision-making process. That’s why you hear people say frustratedly, “Arrey yaar, India mein presidential system hona chahiye thha.” (India should have had a presidential system). Since you are not able to say it, you wish it away, accepting the fact that you cannot be in power because you have been indoctrinated into believing that politics is what other people do. Personally, I am into politics—but I am at the receiving end of it. I believe what I do for politics is say it through my cinema.
Q Can cinema bring about political change?
A You know and I know that films don’t change shit. They just react to the environment and put some ideas into existence. My duty is to let my films exist in the political and social domain so that if it has to fire someone’s imagination some day, it will.
Q How important is humour to you?
A If you see a lack of humour in any art form, in the most artistic of achievements, it is the surest sign that it does not come from the heart; that it is not spontaneous, that it is manufactured, preachy and it wants to say that it is superior to you. Most messages from God or gods—basically written down by men only—don’t have any humour in them because they are written to tell other people that their God or gods is or are superior. It’s different with an artist. When he reflects on something, it can’t ever be without humour because in life the moment there is tragedy, right next to it there is comedy.
Q When you are making a film, are you totally consumed by it?
A You have to think about it all the time. Filmmaking is a piece of sound you may have heard, it’s a piece of colour in the room, a certain smile you saw on someone’s face, a certain dance step you saw a drunk man execute on the road, a certain song you sing during your shower, a certain word you think of while sitting on the pot; you subconsciously keep throwing ideas and that’s how you go on enriching your film in terms of its detailing.
Q Are you in the habit of watching your films after their release?
A No, I can’t bear to look at them even for a second. Say, if I were to see Khosla ka Ghosla today, I would be disturbed—not disturbed, maybe disconcerted—because it is impossible to think of that film without Navin Nischol; the man is no more, it would be unsettling. You could say a part of me goes away with it once I am done with a film. I get emotional and then frustrated because I know there are some moments that won’t come back. It’s disturbing—disconcerting.
Q What do you think of the films that are being made today?
A Professionally, I’m quite encouraged. What it means is a little more leg room for me to make the kind of films I want to, and at the same time earn enough to to put my daughter through college. I am a filmmaker by commitment and by profession. My commitment takes care of the fact that I make the kind of films I believe in, and profession simply means films are my bread and butter. The fact that the audience is watching different kinds of films, and the fact that they are making far more money than in the previous age because there are more cinema halls and per ticket profits, now that’s a good situation for people like me. (Laughs) It may sound selfish but it looks like I will survive another 20 years, till my daughter finishes college, and then I can call it a day.
Q What about your commitment to cinema as an art form?
A All arts are basically a handle or key for us to strive for that perfect life, that perfect society, that perfection of beauty and ideas. All our arts try to show us the ideals of life. If you take cinema as an art form, probably in the current environment—the last decade or so—there is something in our cinema that disturbs me. Sentiments pass off as true emotions, prettiness as true beauty and abstraction as depth; everything is too slick, too packaged. You have to tell the audience that ‘Now there is violence and you need to feel sad’, ‘Now drums are playing so the thrill starts’. We are giving a very McDonaldised version of what truth is and what ideal life is. This is not a complaint; it’s a slight sense of discomfort that in a country of billions where you have so many films being made, you can count on your fingers ones that are actually trying to grapple with the issues of our lives. My grouse is not against people who make films. The bigger comment is on society. We are so stressed and so caught up in that traffic jam from home to office, so engrossed in the dream of owning a four BHK flat on the 25th floor that we don’t have time to reflect on the truth. Therefore, we don’t want to confront cinema that even remotely threatens to unsettle that dream. This is endemic not only to Bollywood but Hollywood as well. I am not counting people like Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra and others in this, because so-called alternative cinema is trying hard to correct the balance. Very rarely do I come across a film that has something to say.
Q Which was the last such film?
A A very commercial, very slick film called Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. It managed to say something about friendship.
Q Do you believe your work has made a difference or contributed to cinema as an art form?
A Honestly, I don’t know. I have no idea why I make films. If I knew the answer to that, I would stop making films. I would rather have my filmmaking be a function of some unresolved conflict inside me because if I have resolved it or if I become content, there would be no need to make films anymore. What happens with me is, I have this need to react to what’s going around me and communicate that to the next bunch of people. Take me as a semi-conductor who selectively holds back certain electrical impulses and transmits certain electrical impulses because when it comes to you it’s a changed impulse. (Laughs) I was trying to answer your question as logically as possible but the bizarreness of my answer proves that I really don’t know why I am making movies. All I can tell you is that when I am making a film, I am me; it’s some kind of a Dibakarian phenomenon.