It is my belief that to become a good filmmaker, you have to be a good reader, you have to be a good traveller, you have to be into food, you have to be into music, you have to be into people, you have to be a good watcher, you have to be a good listener…
Turning around Bollywood on its corny head is second nature to this NID-dropout who’s a self-confessed movie junkie. No wonder then that the young boy who chanced upon Taxi Driver decades ago is today making movies that provoke, inspire and film after film, break norms and set new standards. Conferred with the National Award twice (Khosla ka Ghosla & Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!), he is counted among Indian cinema’s best and is respected and envied by his contemporaries. As part of the 100 Years of Indian Cinema commemoration, he was one of four chosen directors (along with Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar & Anurag Kashyap) to make Bombay Talkies that was screened at the Cannes Festival 2013, and his latest, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, currently playing in movie halls, has been called a cinematic achievement. A career counselling tête-à-tête with filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee.
Do you think a formal education is an absolute essential for your profession? And if so, what should it be?
Better have it than not. If I had gone to a film school and come out as a film professional, I would probably have made my first film a little earlier. So I would say that if you have a film education to go for, go for it because now there are a number of good institutes all over the country: In Delhi there’s Jamia; in Calcutta, there’s SRFTI; in Pune there is FTII; and in Madras there is the Prasad Academy.
I’d say do not underestimate the value of institutional education, but sometimes what an educational institute does is that it takes you away from reality and as you come out into the real world you get a big jolt and sometimes that jolt takes the strength of your inspiration.
So do not also underestimate the value of coming out into the world and working in the industry because that is where you learn the real skills, within the real environment where you also learn how to survive with your inspiration intact.
Having said that, I think if you are mad about films and if you have been into films since the age of five as I was, then you are already educating yourself by watching films and reading about films. I was fortunate that I went to National Institute of Design in a way because they have a very active film club, which I was a member of and so we used to see world classics on big screen. The ones nobody in India could have seen.
And my absolute informal education advice would be to travel. Young people in India do not travel much and they should. I want to say that to young people today – ‘Travel, travel, travel.’
My absolute informal education advice would be to travel. I want to say that to young people today – ‘Travel, travel, travel.’
Bollywood sells that dream of fame and glamour to everybody because it needs to, to survive. But actually the story is tougher… I would not want to paint a rosy picture for young people aspiring to be here.
What kind of internship would you recommend?
Try and join a film company, or a film director. Lots of students have joined me as a Director’s Assistant and that’s usually the first step you take. Of course, this is if you are doing a direction course. If you are writing, then you can be an assistant writer or a researcher. A lot of young people joined our team for research on Shanghai, for the research of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (DBB!) A lot of research for DBB! was in Calcutta, so a lot of students from Jadavpur University came and joined us.
Of course, one must keep in mind that a majority of the film industry is still in Bombay, so you have to find that typical PG and live in horrible circumstances, because Bombay is a very shitty city and you have to somehow grit your teeth and go through the struggle.
Once you’ve got a foothold, I also think that the main thing to do is to see a lot of films and figure out for yourself which kinds of films you would like to make and then to target those filmmakers and try and start working with them. That’s where your independence of thought matters.
If you had to draft an elevator pitch for what you do, what would it say?
‘A world of hurt awaits you baby, because I can only promise you a lot of pain!’ I would not want to paint a rosy picture for young people aspiring to be here.
See, the film industry is disproportionately visible and disproportionately hyped for the amount of people it can sustain, for the amount of capital base it has. For example, for the steel industry it could be a few lakh crores, divided into the number of people it can sustain and so there will be millions working in the steel industry. But the film industry is a very low capital base industry; it’s really not very big in terms of the money it operates with when you compare it to banking, or manufacturing, or FMCG, marketing or whatever. But the problem is that the film industry is visible disproportionately and because in India particularly the film industry is hugely star-oriented and Bollywood has figured out a way of being in the news continuously, so it becomes easy to over-estimate the financial strength of the industry. But the truth is that it is not that big and there isn’t room for a huge number of people.
Bollywood sells that dream of fame and glamour to everybody because it needs to, to survive. But actually the story is tougher.
So I would rather shatter illusions. Only if you say, ‘I want to make a film because I want to say something,’ should you attempt it. Because only then can you survive. If it’s for any other reason, you won’t.
It is my belief that to become a good filmmaker, you have to be a good reader, you have to be a good traveller, you have to be into food, you have to be into music, you have to be into people, you have to be a good watcher, you have to be a good listener… all these things are very important because that’s what you funnel down into the screen in front of you. If you haven’t heard how a Jat in Delhi talks or seen how fights break out in DTC buses, and if you haven’t carried that in your head and you have not obsessed about that, then you will not be able to make Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! For instance, I used to travel in buses all the time in Delhi, even when I had a car, just to be in touch, just to hear the language, just to hear the sound and just to see people interact.
But if you are just looking for fame and if you are looking to hobnob with the stars and get your face on page 3, then really, don’t bother.
So I think I would push you to go through a lot of introspection before making this decision.
What’s rewarding about your profession?
Well, what I have realised is that every last person on earth wants to express himself or herself, but a banker or an engineer expresses himself/herself, on an average basis, far less than a filmmaker, or a writer, or a lyricist, or a script writer does. The number of times I have had my school friends saying to me – ‘Yaar, I have this story, you make a film.’ Everybody has got a story, everybody has got things hidden in their heart, everybody has got emotions, but modern life does not allow you to unlock them really, in other professions. And I think the main reward is that there is a chance that you could be a little more unlocked, a little freer than your average successful banker… By the way, the banker who loves banking would be as free as me. But there are far more bankers, far more engineers and far more system analysts who are doing it because they are just doing it, it’s a job. Filmmaking cannot be a job, it is a true calling. All the directors, singers, writers, lyricists, music directors, production designers, cinematographers, who are known for their work and who are famous are pursuing it as a way of life first and then as a bread-winning job.
And you know, once in a while, the craft of cinema ends up as art. For me, art is supposed to communicate a feeling or an emotion that you can’t say with words and which lingers with you. And art is not reality, art is not truth, art is not social comment, art is not protest, art is art. Take any late Fellini, or a few of Ritwik Ghatak films, or a few sequences of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films. There is something in them that’s bigger or beyond the sum total of the song, the story, the music, the shot, the actor. Raging Bull for me, for instance, will always be art. And that’s worth aspiring for, though you can never consciously try and do it.
What’s also rewarding is that you are your own boss.
What about those looking to pursue acting?
It’s true for actors as well, but there’s a lot more ego and self-projection involved, because an actor uses his or her physical self – body, voice, face.
For aspiring actors, I would advise that they be clear about this – That what an actor does is provide an average human being a vision of life that he cannot himself have. And this is the way it has been for the last 10,000 years. 10,000 years ago, near a village or a cave somewhere, there would be one storyteller who would write the story, sing the story, act the story and tell the story. So he would be all rolled into one and he would make all those villagers sitting around a fireside go through the emotions of a hero flying through the sky. Because they can’t fly through the sky. And that night of imagining a hero flying through the sky makes the next day better, or more bearable. It makes existence a little less painful.
So what an actor truly does is that he makes the burden of normal, average Joes a little lighter. It’s a deep, deep job but what happens is that in a society like India, which is deeply disempowered and unjust and which is very, very poor, a lot of people start hanging their dreams and their fascinations and their obsessions onto you. And therefore the phenomenon of the star emerges. That is why a poorer country will always have a more powerful star than a richer country. So I would advise them to be mindful of that.
What are the new trends you see that are changing the complexion of filmmaking today?
To answer that, let’s place it in some context.
The cinema industry all over the world is going through a churn on what kind of films to make so that you can make money. The problem is that the more people you want to reach, the less specific you can be. One way to see it is that you can be more universal but I also think that it tends to be emptier. The more people you want to reach out to, the more you have to mean nothing. So instead of saying something to a fewer number of people, you end up saying nothing to a huge number of people. And you basically catch them by the scruff of their necks, take their money and run. And that’s the kind of film making that has happened over the last 10 years.
The young people who are reading this must know that this has got to do with the absolute rise of the new economy, the new capitalism, which all started in the mid-80s with Thatcher and Reagan, and later in India, with Narasimha Rao. The space for intimate and sensitive and penetrative things slowly began to be taken over by big bloated giants. To tell you the truth, today it is far more difficult to make Khosla ka Ghosla than it was 10 years ago, though one would assume that it would be easier now that filmmakers like us who have known to have brought in that new wave, have been working, working, working, but it’s actually becoming harder for individual voices to come through. It is still happening though, and I don’t think one needs to lose hope but be realistic and aware of where things are coming from. And where they’re headed.
The biggest thing that is changing today is the way a film is seen, I don’t know how long the phenomenon of seeing a film on the big screen will last.
I genuinely hope the Prasar Bharti bill opens up, which will lead to a lot of targeted programming, which will lead to a lot of young, fresh minds giving the young, fresh audience content for them.
How do you see it playing out over the next 10 years?
If broadband opens up and that’s a very real possibility, then this picture changes immensely, and for the better. As an example, we only need to look at the rise of television in the US, which has resulted in such an explosion of creativity – people have taken giant steps forward in cinematic storytelling, characterisation, right from Sopranos to Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad. And these shows are making money and they have a huge fan following.
In India, though there’s been a lot of talk to free up TV for DTH programming, successive governments haven’t done anything about it. Because of that, the TV industry in this country has not grown the way it has in the US and is still largely confined to afternoon soaps, which we look down upon.
I genuinely hope the Prasar Bharti bill opens up, which will lead to a lot of targeted programming, which will lead to a lot of young, fresh minds giving the young, fresh audience content for them. If broadband improves in India, there will be democratization and you’ll be able to get movies on the internet. Lots more people will be able to see movies on their computer screens and big screens connected to broadband. And that’ll be the real revolution.
If that happens, it’ll really be a nice party to be in.
And I think it should happen in India because films are the prime entertainment source here.
What would you say to someone looking to create independent cinema, such as when you started out?
I would tell them, ‘You have to be ready to fight it out. You have to be ready to be tough. And most importantly, you have to be happy with an Innova or a Volkswagen rather than an Audi or a Mercedes. It really boils down to that – you will have less money.’ The basic difference between me and a commercial director is money – that’s really it.
Now since I enjoy living on the edge and thumbing my nose and since I’m a provocative, disruptive kind of person anyway, it works for me & I enjoy it. But if you want to be accepted and want to have visible markers or indicators of success, then no, I would not advise it.
Anybody who thinks I’m going to sit in an ivory tower and make a film all by myself, it ain’t gonna happen!
Filmmaking is a profession that’s a lot about collaboration. What are your views on collaborative thinking?
Oh, I think filmmaking is one of the most truly collaborative arts – it’s not even an art, it’s a craft actually. You collaborate with the actors, cinematographers, production designers, production managers, writers. As an example, for DBB!, we actually managed to get two of the oldest trams, which were lying in the Calcutta Tram Depot, in working condition. We painted it in the colors of that time and the Calcutta Tram Corporation actually ran it on the tram lines that were diffused. And that’s how we got our credits scene. Now this needed a collaboration of some 100 people. And a smaller example would be if I hadn’t sat down with Urmi Juvekar and written the screenplay, I wouldn’t have a film. Simple.
Anybody who thinks I’m going to sit in an ivory tower and make a film all by myself, it ain’t gonna happen! When you go out on set and the meter is ticking, every last person on the set should ideally know what it is that you want to get done. Because if they don’t, you’re going to waste a lot of time and money while the meter is ticking, explaining things to people.
If you could do some time-travelling and go back to meet yourself at 17, 25, 35, what would you say?
At 17: Travel. I started travelling since I was in Class X, but that’s what I would have said, ‘Travel, travel, travel more.’ The most important thing you can do at 17 is see the physical world and there’s no other way to do that but travel.
At 25: Stop cribbing.
At 35: Get organized, you’re getting old.
Is there any specific reading or informal learning that you engage in, which helps give you that edge in your profession?
Observing, watching, listening, travelling, music, books, talking to people. Throwing myself into as many different circumstances as possible.
And I’m reading all the time. On my desk right now – Edward Said’s Orientalism, Commando Comics 3-in-1, Insider’s Guide to Creating Comics & Graphic Novels, India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha, Kohima 1944.
It’s tougher to do this as time passes, and I find myself getting complacent about people-watching or people-listening, and then I have to get out more.
How do you overcome roadblocks in your profession?
By being patient and coming cheap. Also since I have an alternate career as an ad filmmaker, it gives me the financial strength to refuse what I don’t want to do, and be patient.
Do you still have days when you think, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’
Oh no, I think I’m one of the luckiest guys on earth. I live a blessed life.