As “Bombay Talkies”, an omnibus to celebrate 100 years of cinema, creates ripples, director Dibakar Banerjee, one of the four collaborators, talks about his contribution, called “Star”

With Dibakar Banerjee, cinema suddenly loses its make-believe quality and you feel like you are in conversation with the guy next door who knows his job well. He lives outside the refined circles of Bollywood and retains his everyman approach to life. So as he takes his kid out to the park, he utilises the time to talk to media persons eager to know about his latest experiment, a short film that is part of the anthology film made to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema. Dibakar, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Karan Johar have come up with short films that have cinema as the connecting link.

Dibakar has adapted “Patol Babu Film Star”, the popular short story by Satyajit Ray. “When it was decided that cinema was going to be the running theme of all the films, this short story of a performer occurred to me, which I had read when I was 12-13 and it stayed with me. And the icing on the cake was that we would be able to pay tribute to Satyajit Ray. I went to Sandip Ray and he gladly agreed to give me the rights. I wanted to explore the short story format. In fact, my first film was supposed to be a short film. We have adapted the story to a Maharashtrian setting. It is in the stream of consciousness mode where a man who considers himself to be an actor in his thoughts gets one shot at stardom. At the end of the day it is about the realisation that external adulation or financial rewards do not remain that important when you start believing in yourself. The real satisfaction comes from the performance itself.”

Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the central character, Purandar. “I wanted to work with Nawaz for a long time. In fact, for the role that Manu Rishi did in ‘Oye Lucky Lucky Oye’ I had Nawaz in mind,” says Dibakar. The promos suggest that Purandar is imitating Bachchan when he gets a part where he had to say just one word to the hero and move on. “No, he tries to be many actors. At times he is Rajesh Khanna, sometimes he is Dharmendra, but at heart he is Dilip Kumar.”

Dibakar is assisted by a team of documentary filmmakers from Delhi. “Shabani and Samreen assisted me on ‘Love Sex Aur Dhoka’. They are very good at looking into the lives of people as part of their research work for documentary films. During this process they found a real-life character like Purandar. He was also somebody else in his thoughts and carried the pain with him. The similarity was so much that it became a surreal experience. It becomes hard to distinguish what is real and what is part of the script. It is also a novel way of give and take between two genres of filmmaking. Nawaz spent a lot of time with this guy. Nawaz’s initial struggle in the industry is also similar to the character. So we decided to make a documentary on this man where Nawaz will also give his inputs. I am producing it.”

Blending Chopin and Rabindra Sangeet is no mean task, and then transposing it to Marathi culture seems all the more difficult but Dibakar has tried it all for he feels the haunting effect of the melody is universal. “The Rabindra Sangeet piece is taken from ‘Tobu mone rekho’ which means ‘remember me’. Tagore sung it himself. We have removed the words and have just retained the melody.”

The film is being promoted with a music video that celebrates the phenomenon called Amitabh Bachchan. Doesn’t it amount to giving too much importance to one actor, considering we are celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema and not just Bollywood? Dibakar agrees. “It is a lazy way to promote the film but, at the same time, you should know that people know Dibakar Banerjee and Zoya Akhtar in urban centres but if you have to take it beyond the metros, where they want extravaganza, the producer has to think about such things to sell tickets.” In the same vein he points out that we should not forget that only one producer and one production house from the entire country thought of making a film celebrating the 100 years of Indian cinema.

Dibakar insists there is not much to read in the choice of filmmakers for the project. “It is just that I was incredibly lucky. I can tell you that at least three or four other names were also in contention. Rajkumar Hirani was approached and so was Imtiaz Ali. They didn’t have dates and I had a window.”

The coming together of different streams of filmmaking in a way indicates that the divide between mainstream and avant garde, which was prominent in the 1980s and 90s, is bridging rapidly. Within a few years a director who is credited for working from outside the system is co-opted by the system. Is it a compromise, something suggested by emerging independent filmmakers like Anand Gandhi and Ashim Ahluwalia?

Dibakar differs from the analysis and quotes Hitchcock to prove his point. “Hitchcock said the writer and I plan out the script down to the smallest detail, and when we’re finished all that’s left to do is to shoot the film. Actually, it’s only when one enters the studio that one enters the area of compromise. So in cinema you have to compromise at every step. After all you are making something that is deeply personal for the public with somebody else’s money. What I try to ensure is that I achieve the same kind of finesse in one rupee for which somebody will spend three rupees. Through this I am able to make a viable film without compromising on creative freedom.”

Joining hands with Karan, signing a three film deal with Yash Raj Films, the danger of dilution looks imminent! “It is just a media creation. They said it when I collaborated with Ekta Kapoor as well,” he counters. “Aditya and I share a similar passion of cinema. And if you look closely, the kind of films that he has produced recently are very different from what the banner was known for in the 90s. See, there were some good filmmakers who didn’t get the luxuries of exhibition and audience taste that we had in 2006. They earned their spurs by making a certain kind of cinema, and now they are ready to spread their canvas. And I don’t see it as compromise from either side. It is evolution.”

Looking back in time, Dibakar says he misses the political undertones that cinema used to have earlier but he doesn’t like to be indentified with any greats of the 1950s and 60s. “The telescope of history makes things look fresh and new. When Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt started making films they must have been considered brash and young. Also if the 50s and 60s had some great films made there must have been many average films doing the rounds during that period as well. We look down upon the 80s but we tend to forget that films like ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, ‘Chashme Buddoor’, ‘Ardha Satya’ and ‘Mr. India’ were made during the period.”

“Bombay Talkies” has made the cut for the Cannes Film Festival, and Dibakar says he is finally part of an exclusive club. “I will walk behind my three collaborators,” he signs off.

Playing Purandar

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is having a dream run, with three of his films (“Dabba”, “Monsoon Shootout” and “Bombay Talkies”) going to Cannes this year. “It must be a record of some sort?” he asks ingenuously. Shooting in Kolkata for Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s next Hindi film, “Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa”, Nawaz says Dibakar is a master of detailing. “Even if an actor captures 70 percent of it, he will win applause. He lives in the Lower Parel area and has keenly observed the people who inhabit Lal Baug. This is the erstwhile mill area where many people used to do theatre but could not make it after the mills closed down. Some of them became gangsters and some started doing odd jobs, but they still carry that fire for the performing arts. Dibakar observed one of those, merged it with my struggle without distorting the original Satyajit Ray story. I also started from one-scene appearances and, like Purandar, faced flak at home where nobody was ready to believe my struggle. When Purandar tells a story to his daughter she doesn’t show interest. Had I not made the cut I would have also become the guy whom Dibakar introduced me to. The film looks humorous on the surface but actually it is a tragedy.”