Director Srijit Mukherji and producer Vishesh Bhatt in conversation with Team Box Office India about their next film Begum Jaan
BOI: Vishesh, how did this film come to you?
Vishesh Bhatt (VB): We were privileged to be invited by Srijit Mukherji for a very private screening for his unreleased film Rajkahini. There was me, my father and Bhatt saab. At night, we were busy with various things but we were told that this was a must-watch and like anything else, we were open to watching this film. After we watched the film and came out of the theatre and met Srijit, I was overwhelmed by our personal response. From then on, there was no looking back and we wanted to take this story to the larger audience. That premise was taken and Srijit had a lot more to say on that premise. And that’s how this film happened.
BOI: Talking about the screening, how overwhelming was the response? What was your reaction when Bhatt saab and Muskesh sir came to you?
Srijit Mukherji (SM): I was stunned. I have had reactions for my films before but this one was of an altogether different stature because I could clearly see that it went beyond liking the movie. Your brain can tell you that this is a nice movie, it’s a lovely movie and a well-crafted movie. All the responses I saw were much more physical than that. It was an organic, physical, instinctive response to a film, which is the greatest reward for a filmmaker or a story teller. It’s when your story or film percolates through all the intellectual trappings and goes directly to your heart. Bhatt saab was shaky, he was crying; Mukesh had tears in his eyes; and Vishesh was very moved. Nobody spoke for an entire minute.
VB: We didn’t know which scene to talk about. We were so moved by the totality of the film. We were so humbled by the premise of the film.
SM: I too was shaken by that. After that, as Vishesh said, there was no looking back. Morally, ethically, aesthetically and spirit-wise, we were on the same page, which is the essential core of Begum Jaan as well. This is why Begum Jaan happened despite so many roadblocks. It happened because in our heart of our hearts, we knew this film had to happen. It would require blood, sweat and sacrifices and what not but it had to happen. As he said, this story needed to reach out to a larger audience. The need to tell this story propelled the film to its eventual completion and execution.
BOI: Was Vidya Balan your unanimous choice for the role?
VB: Definitely. SM: Pretty much. In fact, it was such a coincidence… I had first planned this film as a bilingual film but I had to scrap the idea because Vidya couldn’t do it then. So I made it in Bangla and called it Rajkahini. When the question of who would play Begum Jaan arose, Bhat saab, Mukeshji and Vishesh said ‘Vidya’. That was such a coincidence as I had approached her earlier. We were on the same page again. It meant that the film, the story, the premise and the way it was brought on the screen, everything was in sync, which is why it worked out so beautifully.
VB: It called out to be represented in a certain way. Other than bureaucratic roadblocks and a few other things, there were just nods and looks exchanged; we didn’t even have to communicate. We were all on the frequency that Srijit had envisioned. We knew this film belonged to the sub-continent at large, and our journey was to make it available to the sub-continent.
BOI: Was there any pressure to make the film in Hindi since the film was already a huge success and critically acclaimed?
SM: Not really. It went to 22 film festivals around the world and then it enjoyed huge box office success too despite being a non-crowd pleasing, dark and disturbing film. It was inspiring, but nevertheless dark and disturbing. There was no pressure because I think that is what distinguishes even Vishesh Films’ in their approach. I am not a fighter kind of filmmaker and Vishesh Films’ is not a fighter kind of producer. They don’t work keeping in mind ke kya hoga. Obviously, there are business and commercial concerns that are constraints which need to be adhered to. But, apart from that, whether or not it will be a critical success or a commercial success, we needed to make it in Hindi. No, it was not the driving force.
VB: Like we said, we decided on that before it released. That’s what Srijit is saying and I am very proud that soon we will be celebrating 30 years of this company. I am very proud of the spirit in which we went about Begum Jaan… the confidence and commitment to storytelling for the audience and with the same spirit for the investor.
SM: We went with our gut feeling because Rajkahini and Begum Jaan are the kind of films that are made with the gut. It’s a very guts-and-glory kind of film. It’s a very dil se kind of film. There was no pressure and we didn’t once think about the results. If you ask me when Begum Jaan was made… it was made when these gentlemen walked out of the theatre after watching Rajkahini. I completed the shoot maybe last year and the rest followed as a logical extension but the film was actually made when they stepped out of the theatre. That’s the precise moment when Begum Jaan was made.
BOI: Since the Hindi version as aimed at a larger audience, what kind of changes did the script undergo?
SM: Obviously, there were things I wanted to explore some more and which I couldn’t do in Rajkahini. I first shifted the background from the eastern to the western side, and to speak in a language which the nation understands better.
It’s a very dark, disturbing and traumatising path of discovery in our history. But I decided to go through it again because… I mean, why wait for someone else to explore our history and present it to us? Richard Samuel Attenborough made Gandhi, which is ironic, right? I think we should have made it a long time ago. We should look into our past and dig out futuristic lessons which can give us some kind of moral and ethical compass for the nation to follow. That’s why I decided to embark on a new journey.
Although it was partition, the partition of the west is the totally new journey. The change in backdrop was a huge change. I rewrote many of the characters because now the girls in the brothels mostly came from North India, some from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kashmir, Himachal, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. That was the linguistic journey of exploration and discovery that I undertook, and subsequently everything changed. The equations changed, the backstory changed, the girls became different characters. So that was one big change that happened in Begum Jaan. The last and most important change is something that is not there in Rajkahini. That story was completed in 1947. But Begum Jaan has a contemporary link. In fact, the film begins in 2016. So it is firmly rooted in contemporary reality. It is much more topical and relevant and a much more accessible film for people of today, which sets it apart from Rajkahini.
BOI: Vishesh, you are a director as well. What did you pick up from his filmmaking?
VB: He is fiercely committed to the film and whether it’s the number of days of shooting or any other obstacle to him telling the story in an effective way, he will fight it. What I appreciated is that his fight is not only to indulge, his fight is also to preserve, and there are only a few artistes and directors who believe this in show business.
You need to have a sense of responsibility towards your product and even preserving elements for say expenditure, timings and other things is because they accidently harm your film. He knows that these indulgences will harm the product.
BOI: There are many female characters in the film. How did you manage to script each one of them distinctively?
SM: Essentially, the process was the same. It was slightly more detailed in the case of Begum Jaan. Because I was dealing with languages, cultures and sub-cultures which were partially alien to me but not completely alien. I have spent enough time in Delhi and I have been in JNU and I had experienced these cultural nuances
We had a fantastic workshop a month before the shoot. We sat with each of the girls, who became like family. They used to come up with their real-life stories, and everyone talked about their miseries and disappointments. These were very private experiences but there was complete faith that these details would not leave the room.
So we were building trust. And with that trust and the catharsis of each of these actresses, not characters, the process began. Once that happened, we got into each of the characters the actresses were playing and looked at whether it was possible to build backstories with their real lives, or where we could depart or build one backstory and then validate it or question it, given that person’s experience. The contributions came from everyone.
VB: It was very hot and the weather and environment we were shooting in was very hostile but the key word that he used was ‘trust’. He built trust with us from the beginning and it is very important to build that kind of trust with the key actors and technicians, so that when you are on the sets, you are discussing more than just introductions to each other. Great stories start midway. So he built relationships between all his actors so that it seemed like they were starting a story midway, and that is staying committed not only to the narrative but also to the environment he was shooting in. I think that was brilliant.