There Is A Kind Of Intense ‘Bangaliana’ Which Characterises My Films: Srijit Mukherji

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Srijit Mukherji
Srijit Mukherji

The ‘first boy’ of Tollywood, as he is fondly called, Srijit Mukherji, is a changed man. Changed for the better, for sure. Earlier, during his initial years of filmmaking, copious amounts of bouquets that he continued to receive, came with an equal amount of brashness. To add to this, he would flare up at the drop of a hat. Today, after 14 years in the industry, with more superhits than flops in his kitty, that brashness is surprisingly gone.

Yet, he still wears his signature ‘devil-may-care’ attitude, only now, on his sleeve, much like his favourite jeans and tee. It has been learnt from reliable sources of Srijit’s generous financial aid to a distant family member running up to multiple lakhs. This gesture was necessary to pen down as Mukherji would never reveal it even in his close circles. So much so for his earlier brashness. A very hard taskmaster on the sets, Mukherji continues to deliver novel hits through the medium he loves best: filmmaking. His latest film “Oti Uttam” bears testimony to that. Excerpts from a chat.

For me, Uttam Kumar is much more than an actor or a superstar; he is a cultural phenomenon
For me, Uttam Kumar is much more than an actor or a superstar; he is a cultural phenomenon

thespace.ink: Whenever a Srijit Mukherji film opens, the audience sits up and takes note. Because of its novelty. This time it’s Uttam Kumar.

 

Srijit: I believe in telling stories which I would myself watch. In these days of so many options and distractions, I think every story must have something which will push me, literally force me into hearing the story or watching the film. Which is why every story of mine is different from the previous one. And every story of mine has something, some USP, which pulls people towards it. I think that is one of the reasons why there is a fair amount of box-office success associated with 80 or 90 percent of my films. Because, you like it, you don’t like it, you have to watch it. That is the kind of message which all my films give out. I think that is also critical and essential to my success in terms of getting people to the theatres.

Uttam Kumar symbolizes Bangaliana like no other
Uttam Kumar symbolizes Bangaliana like no other

thespace.ink: Why Uttam Kumar this time?

Srijit: Because, I have been a Uttam Kumar buff from a very young age. I have grown up watching his films. For me, he is much more than an actor or a superstar; he is a cultural phenomenon. I have seen an entire race identifying with him. He symbolizes ‘Bangaliana’ like no other. He symbolizes the attraction of a matinee idol like no other. And he is for me, an emblem of nostalgia and the golden age of Bengali films. When I say golden age, I do not only mean Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Ser or Ritwik Ghatak. I also mean the marvellous and fantastic legacy of mainstream Bengali films like films of Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar, Aurobindo Mukhopadhyay, Agradoot, Agragami, Salil Sen, Salil Dutta, Tarun Majumdar, Jatrik… see, the legacy of mainstream storytellers of Bengal is so rich. This is a legacy which I love and grown up watching. Uttam Kumar captures all of that.

I have been a Uttam Kumar buff from a very young age
I have been a Uttam Kumar buff from a very young age

thespace.ink: A huge amount of research has gone into making the film. How did you process the entire thing?

 

Srijit: This has been my most difficult film of mine till date. It took me six years to make. I first wrote an unconditional script six years back which assumed that Uttam Kumar was alive. And that I pitched the film to him.

Then I started watching his films all over again and replaced the dialogues of that unconditional script with dialogues that already existed in Uttam Kumar’s lips.

Once the maximum match was done, I started collecting those clippings and started figuring out who the owners of those clippings were. As in, the producers, who would give me the negative, digital, and the satellite rights. That itself could have been a subject of a documentary. Scarring the length and breadth of Kolkata, going to those people whose grandfather produced at least one or two films of Uttam Kumar and then gone on to do something else in life. Digging out these people, getting the clippings was a very tedious task. After this process, I got all the clippings on a hard drive. During the shooting, I superimposed those clippings on the monitor frame and used a standee of Uttam Kumar wearing a green chroma (bursts out laughing). That determined the look-line and movement of the other characters. Finally, there was the task of fixing the audio. The audio was the last technological hurdle, because there were a lot of clippings where there was a spillover from the background score or spillover from other characters. So, for some audio, I used the original Uttam Kumar voice, and for the other audio, I used artificial intelligence to recreate Uttam Kumar’s voice, by using a base voice from the very famous theatrician Surojit Bannerjee. That’s how the audio hurdle was overcome. This entire process took six years. It’s a technology used for the first time in the history of world cinema. Never ever has this happened before.

For some audio, I used the original Uttam Kumar voice, and for the other audio, I used artificial intelligence to recreate Uttam Kumar’s voice
For some audio, I used the original Uttam Kumar voice, and for the other audio, I used artificial intelligence to recreate Uttam Kumar’s voice

thespace.ink: How did you zero in on the term ‘UK’ (for Uttam Kumar)?

 

Srijit: ‘UK’ was a term which I thought would go very well with today’s generation. They love abbreviating a lot of things, you know! ‘IYKYK’ (if you know, you know), ‘YOLO’ (you only live once), ‘TTYL’ (talk to you later)….So, I thought ‘UK’ would be an interesting abbreviation which will capture the terms of endearment of this particular generation.

thespace.ink: What are your favourite Uttam Kumar films and why?

 

Srijit: Most definitely, ‘Nayak’.

 

thespace.ink: You started your film career with that!

 

Srijit: Yes! It was a tribute to ‘Nayak’. More than an Uttam Kumar film, it is one of my favourite films in general. As a film it’s brilliant. Apart from that, of course, I love ‘Baghbandi Khela’… I think he was brilliant as an antagonist. I always loved him in the character roles which he took on in the latter half of his life. Because he put on a lot of weight because of his drinking and developed a double chin. But I think, that was a boon disguise because he could come out of the trappings of a romantic hero and experiment with character roles which did much more justice to his incredible histrionic abilities. If you look at a “Shei Chokh” or a “Donyi Meye” (for his comic timing), or a “Bicharak”, or a “Jotugriho”….But also remember he did a “Shesh Anko” at the peak of his career. I don’t know of many people who would do a downright negative role like in “Shesh Anko” at the peak of their careers. So, I think he was ahead of his time when it came to selection of his roles.

I think Uttam Kumar was ahead of his time when it came to selection of his roles
I think Uttam Kumar was ahead of his time when it came to selection of his roles

thespace.ink: Why do you think the phenomenon called ‘Uttam Kumar’ has managed to attain such a cult status and continue to be so even after so many years of his death?

 

Srijit: This is because, Uttam Kumar was much more than an actor or a superstar. He was a symbol of ‘Bangaliana’, a part and parcel of Bengal’s ethos. He was unattainable and at the same time, very accessible… someone whom everyone would consider as their husband, lover, brother, son, son-in-law. He had that kind of an access and an unattainability.

Uttam Kumar was unattainable and at the same time, very accessible
Uttam Kumar was unattainable and at the same time, very accessible

thespace.ink: Soumitra Chatterjee or Uttam Kumar?

 

Srijit: Uttam Kumar by a country mile!

 

thespace.ink: Why is it that all your films are always divided? People either love it, or hate it.

 

Srijit: (Hah!) Because I always do something new. I always innovate, I always bring out something new. I love polarizing because I think whenever you take a very strong stand, whenever you do something out of the box, there will always be opposition, there will always be a contrarian voice. Actually, I thought it was my USP, but no! In today’s day, every film is divided. You cannot name a film which is unanimously liked or hated. There’s always a contrarian view in everything, because I think, our society is always opinionated. But now, thanks to social media, those opinions have had an explosion. I think it’s rule of the day and time in which we are living.

Uttam Kumar by a country mile! (to the question Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee)
Uttam Kumar by a country mile! (to the question Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee)

thespace.ink: What exactly is your organic thought process when you conceive a film?

 

Srijit: My process is, number one, what is the new story that I can tell people. Actually, tell myself, because I am my first audience. Something that would interest me. This leads to the first answer I gave. There has to be something that would attract me to the story. It could be an old story, but told in a new way. Or it could be a new story told in a new way. Apart from an old story told in an old way, I try out permutations and combinations to tell it in a new way.

 

thespace.ink: Ritwik Ghatak once told Satyajit Ray, “Moshai, aapni amar thekeo beshi Bangali” (Man, you are more Bengali than me). You have had an English education all your life, studied in the most prestigious of universities in India, and yet chose to make films in Bengali. Why is that?

 

Srijit: (Laughs out loud) Because I think the themes which are close to my heart are quintessentially Bengali. If it’s a slice of history, let’s say, or a slice of literature… all the stories that I make… or my dialogues for example, the kind of punning, the kind of witticism or the cultural references that they have, the mood, the ambience… all these are steeped in my language, my history, my culture. That is why, apart from a few films, it’s very difficult to do a re-make of my films in other languages maintaining the linguistic sanctity of the original. That is the kind of intense ‘Bangaliana’, which kind of characterises my films. And Uttam Kumar is a very good symbol and emblem of that Bangaliana.

There is the kind of intense Bangaliana, which characterises my films. And Uttam Kumar is a very good symbol and emblem of that Bangaliana
There is the kind of intense Bangaliana, which characterises my films. And Uttam Kumar is a very good symbol and emblem of that Bangaliana

thespace.ink: Do you, at this point of time, ever think of switching careers?

 

Srijit: Absolutely not. May be when artificial intelligence comes in, the sooner it comes in, I may shift to cricket journalism (smiles). 

 

thespace.ink: You have achieved name, fame and wealth. What is left to be achieved?

 

Srijit: I think name, fame and whatever you mentioned, are the byproducts of whatever I have done in life. The main thing is to continue telling stories. There are a lot of fascinating stories that are left to be told. So, I am looking forward to narrating those stories.

All Images Courtesy: Indranil Roy

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