Dibakar Banerjee says he was 12 when he was introduced to the world of the Bengali detective, Byomkesh Bakshi. Ever since, he says he’s wanted to retell the story. No wonder then, sitting across us, in the HT — Fever 104 FM office, isn’t just the seasoned, acclaimed director, but an excited man all pumped up about his dream project.
In one of our most intense On-Record @ Café sessions in recent times, Dibakar took over the conversation — romanticising about Kolkata of the 1940s, talking about rebuilding it in the city of today, revealing why, for the film, he chose indie musicians over mainstream ones, and why he can’t make commercial money-spinners — even as lead actor Sushant Singh Rajput chipped in with his take on ‘method acting’, and why ‘becoming your character’ as an actor is really a myth.
Sushant, what is it like to be promoting one film while working on another?
Sushant: I haven’t started shooting for Dhoni yet. We are doing test shoots right now, and will start a few weeks after we are done promoting this film. I have been practising a lot of cricket as well as everything else [to get into character].
Dibakar, you must have grown up reading Byomkesh. At what point did you realise that you wanted to make the film?
Dibakar: When I was 12-13. I didn’t know that it was a movie that I wanted to make. Every Bong (Bengali) household has shelves full of Byomkesh books, and you would be told not to read them before you turn 16. By that time, I had graduated to Nick Carter and James Hadley Chase. I read Byomkesh thinking I’d find something salacious. But what I found was something that captivated me forever. Those who have read Byomkesh will tell you that the sense and time of Kolkata, along with theimagery and movement of the stories is unparalleled.
In terms of the language too?
Dibakar: Language was the part that I didn’t think of adapting immediately. Sharadindu’s (Bandyopadhyay; author and creator of Byomkesh) Bengali is shadhu (orthodox), and I didn’t have any issue penetrating that. When you read Sharadindu, you actually forget the writing. It’s so brilliant that the image becomes paramount — the dark alleys of Kolkata, and the characters who are so Indian, yet universal. The crime and the clues are so original and so Indian. That’s what caught me by surprise. I wanted to make something that brought out the adventurous imagery that Sharadindu had in his Byomkesh.
Which of his stories have you explored in the film?
Dibakar: I won’t tell you, as then, you will look for the villain in the film. It will take away the joy of the familiar and the joy of the shock.
Did you ever think of adapting it in a modern setting?
Dibakar: No. Setting it up in mid-century Kolkata became the feel for me. There is something about that era in which Byomkesh is a young detective. I don’t think a detective story today works as successfully as it did in the past. Today, there are no whodunits as we already know “who’s done it”. Crime scenes hardly have the secret of the criminal. The question is, how to bring the criminal to justice.
How much was Sharadindu inspired by the western concept of a detective?
Dibakar: Essentially, the concept of a detective is western. I don’t think he was inspired at all; he just absorbed it. Sharadindu reinvented it; his Byomkesh and his assistant are completely Indian and that’s the genius. That’s something that needs to be seen; the fact that how Indian Byomkesh was and how Indian he made him, without any jingoism. Yet, these are all universal characters, who are as evil, sensuous and dark as can be.
Sushant, how was it working on this project?
Sushant: It wasn’t easy. For almost 150 days, I only researched. I used to have long conversations with Dibakar, visit Kolkata often, and have conversations with random people on the road there. That’s how a week before we started shooting, we were sure of what we are not supposed to do.
Dibakar: Like Uttam Kumar’s Chiriyakhana (1967) by Satyajit Ray.
Sushant: Yes, that’s the only Byomkesh film that Dibakar showed me. And when I saw it, he particularly told me that this is something that I’m not supposed to do.
Dibakar: Not because I don’t like it. It’s quite nice actually. But when you see Uttam Kumar as Byomkesh, you see a seasoned detective in his prime. But our Byomkesh is first the character Byomkesh, and then the detective. He’s first the man with all his eccentricities, flaws, weaknesses, and he’s a rookie Byomkesh. He’s just out of college, and unsure of himself. He’s learning, making mistakes, yet he is up against his biggest nemesis.
Were you aware of Byomkesh before Dibakar introduced you to the character?
Sushant: Of course, I knew who he was. I hadn’t read anything, but I had memories of the Doordarshan show. I remember the track that used to play and the subtle mannerisms of the character. So, I had some idea, but Dibakar very particularly told me not to watch anything while I was shooting for the film.
Did you consider a Bengali actor as the lead?
Dibakar: If he could speak Hindi flawlessly and had a huge fan following, I would have. And if he was a good actor, a good looker, about 26-27 years old, and known in the Hindi film world as an upcoming movie star, then I would have taken him.
Was Sushant your first choice?
Dibakar: Out of the crop of the upcoming actors, who will hopefully become the reigning stars of tomorrow, yes. I was looking for somebody who understood the art of understatement, because I don’t think a detective is a rational creature; he’s a logical creature. There is some clinical precision to how a detective probably behaves. I found Sushant acted naturally in Pavitra Rishta. It was a TV show, but I saw him actually giving subtle takes. It’s very easy to look and sound good in a well-mounted accomplished film like Kai Po Che! (2013) or PK (2014), or it is very easy to look dishy, where you are acting to the fantasy of today’s youth. But it’s not easy to be subtle in a TV show, day after day. In every episode that I watched, whenever Sushant was doing a scene, it was more natural. We had a long chat about how he did that. And he told me his dukhra (sad story). He told me, ‘I was about to be thrown off…’
Sushant: After the first three months, the makers of the show planned to replace me as they thought I was not acting. Then TRPs started going up, so they were happy and I was safe.
Did you audition Sushant?
Dibakar: I did, but not as a means to choose him. I auditioned him after casting him. It was a way of figuring out how to get Sushant to become Byomkesh.
What’s your take on an actor ‘becoming the character’ theory of preparation?
Sushant: I don’t think it’s possible to ‘become your character’. As an individual, you have conflicts and similarities and dissimilarities with the character. And you are continuously working on those dissimilarities. It’s like a pendulum swinging, and you can only try and get close to your character. Kevin Spacey said about Al Pacino that he used to give 40 to 50 takes, and then he walked to the director and say, “Something happened in the 19th or 20th take; just check.”
Dibakar: Also, if you are shooting a film for two or three months, you can’t have a calculated formula because Byomkesh goes through a gamut of emotions. So, Sushant walked through the streets of Kolkata, anonymously, for days, to observe the city and its people, and I started talking to him about what might have changed between then and now. For example, an average Bengali has a deep love for conversation… Sushant doesn’t talk much, so we got him to start conversing. Bengalis are also obsessed with washing their hands. After they eat, they wash their hands because they don’t want their hand ‘entho’ (dirty). We concentrated on such things...
How well does Kolkata today lend itself to a period film?
Dibakar: Cinematically, some of it. We shot the film over 66 days, out of which 28 days were in Kolkata, and the rest on our sets in Mumbai. We kind of exhausted places in Kolkata, but there were logistical problems. For example, at some places you can only shoot on weekends, which would have really extended the shoot. We went to BBD Bagh, and in one night, we changed everything that was contemporary. We got two trams from the Calcutta State Transport Corporation, and painted them in the advertising of that time.
Is this film the beginning of a potential series?
Dibakar: You know, you’ll make me cry now. I desperately want this movie to work. I never wanted any of my other films to work as much as I want this one to, because the other ones were pretty safe movies. They were cheap films, so I knew that they’ll recover their money. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t attached to those films, but with this one, it’s slightly different. It has cost a lot more money than any of my other films. My deepest desire for this film is to get a genuine Indian icon out there, in its full Indian unconsciousness; which is not jingoistic. That, for me, is a way of celebrating who we are today. If this works with the audience, only then can we make part two.
Did you screen test Swastika Mukherjee?
Dibakar: Yes. We screen tested about 80 actresses from Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kolkata. Her test was quite spectacular. But her look was completely wrong. So, I decided to go for the ‘actor’ in her and then we worked on her look for many weeks.
Sushant, you’ll next start shooting for the Dhoni biopic. Is it easier to play a real-life character as compared to a fictional character?
Sushant: I don’t think it’s that simple to differentiate. The most important thing is that despite undergoing all the research, we can’t play our ‘research’ in front of the camera. When the director says ‘action’, your research is not in front of you. Research just gives us the authority to believe that we have the right to be that character. When you get that feeling, it’s only the first step. So, if I have to play someone who is still around and everyone has a visual reference of it, I have to take care of a few things. I know how he (Dhoni) talks, walks or plays cricket. So yes, it’s an imitation of sorts, but I have to convince myself that I am not playing him; I am him. This is what I am trying to do.