A popular singer/songwriter who stood out for his distinct style of music during the ’90s, Anjan Dutt’s creative calling brought him to films. After making a phenomenal acting debut with Mrinal Sen’s Cholchitro in 1981, Dutt went on to explore several aspects of filmmaking, from acting, to singing, writing, directing and producing and even won a National Award along the way. His last directorial venture Byomkesh Phire Elo, which released on the same day as Aamir Khan’s PK, clocked big numbers at the box office. Today, at the age of 62, Dutt is still passionate about acting, and talks to us about his soon-to-release film Nirbaak
What was it about Nirbaak that made you decide to act in the film?
I have been associated with Srijit Mukherjee (the director of the film) for a long time. He began his career in films by assisting me. When he started making films on his own, he wanted to cast me in them and offered me many of his films like Baishe Srabon and Chatushkone but I felt the roles I was offered were not good enough. I don’t mean the size of the role; I mean the quality. I am an actor who hasn’t done too many films because I like to do quality cinema. I had a full narration with Srijit on those films. Chatushkone was narrated to me twice. However, somehow, it didn’t appeal to me enough. But when Srijit told me just the idea of Nirbaak, I was terribly impressed and I knew I had to be in it. Nirbaak is a defining film.
When I say ‘defining’ film, I don’t mean a masterpiece like Pather Panchali but it is one of those smaller landmark films which have the potential to be remembered. That is one reason I decided to be a part of it by merely listening to the idea of the film, even when Srijit didn’t have a full-fledged script ready. I haven’t heard such an idea from any filmmaker in the last 20 years, especially not from Srijit because he is known for making commercially successful films. We hope this film becomes another commercial success like his other films, but the concept of the film is very out-of-the-box.
The trailer showcases you playing a rather eccentric character. Can you reveal some more about your part?
The film is about true love and true love is abstract. It comes with conditions like the promise of being faithful. So, ultimately, true love is an idealistic fantasy. This film showcases four abstract love stories and they have been stitched together by one character. I play one of the characters in the first story. This is about a man who is in love with himself and he idealises himself. You can call him eccentric, mad, self-indulgent or whatever you will, but he is a guy who loves himself more than anyone or anything else in the world, sort of a narcissistic guy who isn’t even afraid to love himself sexually. What is interesting is Srijit didn’t feel shy to explore the sexual angle of this person’s self-love. The guy meets with an accident and is reduced to just any other normal human being and is not obsessed with anything any more. The accident brings in a sense of realism as well as a sense of tragedy. My story doesn’t have any dialogue.
There are some very explicit scenes in the trailer. Were you worried about how it would be portrayed on screen?
I felt it was quite radical that this film dared to explore male sexuality. Usually, films explore female sexuality, whether through a song or dance or even in some lovemaking scenes, but we hardly ever see people exploring male sexuality. There are quite a few bold scenes in the film, where I am shown kissing myself. I knew that Srijit would do complete justice to the scenes in the film, without making them look grotesque or tacky. When I directed scenes like this in my films, I would demand that the actor do them without a fuss, so I didn’t throw any tantrums either. Srijit was very sensitive and asked me if I wanted very few people in the room during those scenes or whether I wanted the room to be dimly lit. I told him to get on with his work and not bother about me. The only challenging thing was that I had to lose weight and get rid of the big pot belly which I sported. I was 61 when we shot the film, so exercising took quite a toll on me. It is a love story and so it had to look soothing and beautiful. Can you imagine how disgusting it would look if you walked in thinking it was a love story and they showed you a semi-naked man with a pot belly on the big screen? (Laughs)
This is being dubbed as Sushmita Sen’s debut Bengali film. What was it like working with her?
She comes in briefly towards the end of my story and then her story begins. I feel Sushmita was the correct choice for the film because the director wanted to have a Bengali actor play a role that hadn’t been explored enough. Sushmita has never done a Bengali film and even in her Hindi space, she hasn’t been explored enough. Her on-screen persona is quite similar to the kind of person she is in real life. She has always done these roles where she plays a confident, smart woman, a strong feminist, very liberal and radical, which is what she is like in real life. But here she is playing this vulnerable character who is a little confused. She is the surprise package in the film. She is a very good human being and was extremely accommodating.
Ever since Srijit began assisting you, how much has he grown?
He always had a burning desire to direct films and a certain drive within him. I don’t like to mince words, but he has always been a director who I felt was too clever, very sharp and always knew how to give the audience a dose of masala. He knew how to get the audience to cinemas. That is why he is so commercially successful. He would use certain gimmicks or tricks to lure the audience, whether making Prosenjit not do a song and dance role but show him in a serious light, or getting the audience to watch Aparna Sen act on the big screen after a hiatus. I always questioned and had my doubts about his films because in pandering to the audience, I felt that the quality of his films would suffer. I am not saying his style of making films is bad; it’s just not the way I make my films. But these are things that help filmmakers rope in the audience. That’s what a Highway did, a Queen did or even a more recent Badlapur did. So this film probably is one of his most honest films. It is like watching a diploma film; it has moved me to tears. He has been true to the story and this is why I hope he is still commercially successful with a story which is so pure.
Speaking of commercial success… Your last directorial venture of the Byomkesh Bakshy series is a super hit…
I am so happy that the audience received the film so well. In fact, I am quite sad that people are crticising Dibakar Banerjee’s version of Byomkesh. His film looks gorgeous, it is a cinematic delight and he has handled the subject so differently. Why are people slamming him? Why does he have to think like Anjan Dutt and while the same audience supports my film, why can’t they be impressed with someone who has the courage to think out-of-the-box? This is the problem with Bengalis, they slammed Satyajit Ray for showing Tagore in a different light; they are doing it still. 50 per cent of Bengalis don’t grow with the changing times. They like to shut their eyes to the way the world is changing. Since Dibakar’s audience is a non-Bengali market, it is a Hindi film, he had to take certain cinematic liberties. Thankfully, the youth have liked the film and I love the fact that they have.
You started your production house with the Byomkesh series. Is it tough to direct as well as produce such a cult franchise?
Every director should ultimately turn to production, more so as a creative producer. I started the franchise in 2009 and prior to me, there was only Satyajit Ray who had dabbled into Bengali franchise films with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and the Feluda series. When I bought the rights to the Byomkesh series, I thought I should give it a shot. If it failed, it would have been a learning experience for me. Franchise films are not a property of the sahebs. There is no rule that only Hollywood can make the Bourne or the Bond series. Today, most directors are turning producer. That has been the norm in Hollywood, where Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron turned producer. In Hindi films too , Dibakar is producing Titli, Vidhu Vinod Chopra has produced so many films, Vishal Bhardwaj, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Anurag Kashyap and so on have all produced films. So I don’t think it’s challenging; I would say it’s just another creative outlet.