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“Sadly, our country relies on approval from the West”

National Award-winning writer-actor- director Kaushik Ganguly has just dished out another success in his latest release, Apur Panchali. The film is based on the life of Subir Banerjee, the actor who played Apu in Satyajit Ray’s 1955 classic Pather Panchali, also the first film in Ray’s Apu trilogy. In conversation with Sagorika Dasgupta, the maverick director speaks about his past works and his plans to foray into Bollywood

Your film Apur Panchali released last week. What kind of response have you received?

I have got a fabulous response and am overwhelmed that it has been so fantastic. I haven’t experienced appreciation on this scale since my film Shobdo. I was very tentative about making this film because people in Kolkata are very sensitive about Satyajit Ray and I was planning to dabble in his works, especially Apu’s trilogy. I have even included about eight-minutes of footage from his films. So I was quite sceptical about the way it would be received. Thankfully, it was appreciated. I am ecstatic that people are messaging me, appreciating my work, and also the film is being praised on social networking sites like Twitter. It has not only been appreciated by the people in Kolkata but also people in the interiors.

Distributors are comparing your film’s business to that of the Hindi release Queen, which opened average but picked up by word-of-mouth and eventually notched up good collections.

Let me explain why that happened. Business has been coming in from the multiplexes because of the kind of film it is. There wasn’t much advance booking, which usually ensures a good opening for films. Like I said, I was sceptical about how the audience would react to the film, and I think the audience too wanted to wait and watch. Secondly, for a film to open well, the morning shows have to witness healthy occupancy. And, this year, Kolkata has experienced a terrible summer. Usually, every year in May, we experience light thunder showers and the weather becomes reasonably pleasant. But, this year, we are still experiencing temperatures of 44 degrees. So the matinee shows and noon shows were not house full. But collections rose during the evening and night shows.

The film is based on the life of Subir Banerjee, the actor who played Apu in Pather Panchali. Why have you made a biopic on him?

The germ of the idea actually came to me mainly because of my cinematographer Shirsho Ray. Shirsho gives tuitions to young boys and he invited me to attend the birthday parties of one of his students. En route, we spotted one of his students at an electrical appliances shop. Shirsho told me he was Apu, the child artiste of Ray’s films. I was amazed that the actor was selling laptops at an electrical store. I smiled at him and since I am recognisable, he smiled back. That was it, and I decided I had to get his number because I had to tell this story. Later, I realised he wasn’t Subir Banerjee but someone else. I somehow got hold of the real Subir Banerjee’s number and called him up. When I called him and asked him if he was the actor who had played Apu, he gruffly told me he was not interested in talking about his past works or the fact that he had worked with Satyajit Ray. I told him I wanted to meet him because I wanted to make a film, but he grumpily hung up. Eventually, I managed to convince him.

What kind of research went into the film?

Subir Banerjee, the actor, was very reluctant to be part of this film. He was really fed up of the glory that Satyajit Ray and his iconic character had brought him. So he was not at all happy that I was making a film on him. He was tired of people calling upon him with regard to his past work, so I decided to give him some time. I decided to first become his friend and he slowly began sharing his thoughts with me. In fact, he had abandoned cinema but cinema never left him and that was the agony I wanted to capture. That was one reason I thought it would be interesting to make a biopic on this man.

How did he react when he saw the film?

He was very quiet. He didn’t talk much. I mean, it’s not very common to watch the biopic of a man who is still alive and is only 68 years old. He said, ‘How did you capture all the moments so well, there were so many details I hadn’t told you?’ I had not referred to any other material for my research. It was he who had told me everything about his life. He had simply forgotten about it because the research was in the form of conversations.

What made you cast Parambrata Chatterjee in the lead role?

We needed someone with a face like that – the same sharp nose, bone structure, sharp jaw line. Parambrata has a face that is akin to the 70s. He was closest to the young Subir Banerjee. For the older role, I picked Ardendu Chatterjee, who is also my father-in-law.

Did they undergo any special preparation for their roles?

Both of them have read Apu’s trilogy, which is part of Bengali literature written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. But I told them strictly not to meet Subir Banerjee. All I told them was that they had to be characters who had deliberately kept no connection with the glory of their on-screen characters and wanted to abandon fame. I asked them to think like people who would rather be left alone than be harassed by telephone calls and bytes on Satyajit Ray. I wanted them to act as men who were short-tempered, sharp, strong and even a little rude at times. As actors, they both had their own processes to get into the roles. But I believe that when you look at a river with the naked eye, it is not as appealing as when you shoot it on film. And they transformed beautifully on screen.

You have used footage from the original Ray films. Did that present a technical challenge?

It was quite an uphill task. I had to procure three prints from three producers – Chhayabani, Aurora Films and Sandip Ray (Satyajit Ray’s son). When he heard that I was making a film on such a celebrated character, he gave me the go-ahead and helped me with the prints. But the original prints of all these films are with Martin Scorsese. His company preserves and restores classic films from all over the world. But I got my prints from these home producers and they were in very bad condition. Most of them were stained with scratches, liquid marks or pin holes. We did our best to restore them and I can assure you that the eight-minute footage in my film is the best restored work in the country. It doesn’t look like a celluloid print; it looks digitised.

After I finished the film, I wrote to the Government of India to restore more and more films just the way Hollywood is doing and not just digitise them but also make them available in the Blu-ray format.

So this film was shot on 35 mm?

Yes I requested my producers Mahendra Soni and Shrikant Mohta of Shree Venkatesh Films, to make this one film on 35mm so that the experience is amazing for the audience. And they obliged. There’s a certain vibration when the projector runs the celluloid film; it is an experience worth cherishing.

It made a difference of only Rs 5-6 lakh. The costs shot up a little mostly because of the restoration process. It’s just that the discipline of shooting on film is way more hectic. Everyone is embracing the digital wave because of the ease it presents. Anyone can shoot a film on their mobile phones these days. Then install an FCP or Apple software and you can edit your own film too.

Do you agree that the Bengali film industry has undergone a sea change over the last few years?

That is because there is a huge audience watching Bengali films nowadays. The urban audience, which had stopped watching Bengali films, has now started watching these films too. Budgets have gone up, cost of production has increased, and there are four or five directors who are responsible for this change. A director can recover his money not only from satellite rights but theatrical revenue is playing a big role, thanks to multiplexes. The overseas business of our films has grown immensely. Moreover, festivals play a huge role in boosting business. My film was ready in March last year but I waited this long to release it in the country.

Why?

We travelled to 12 festivals across the globe – New York, London, Shanghai, Cannes, IFFI and many more. These days, the audience looks at the critical appreciation a film has received at festivals and sometimes takes this into account when making up their mind to watch a film. It seems, our country relies on approval from the West. What can you say when Satyajit Ray himself was given the Bharat Ratna only after he bagged an Oscar?

Your earlier film Shobdo, for which you also received a National Award, is being remade in Hindi by Anurag Basu. How did that collaboration happen?

I will be directing the Hindi version too and Anurag and Ranbir Kapoor will be co-producing the film. Anurag is a good friend and his wife had watched my film when it was screened at IFFI last year. She told Anurag, that I had made an amazing film. And he immediately called me to tell me that he was jealous of me becasue his wife always criticises his work. So I made him watch the film and he liked it so much that he decided to produce it in Hindi.

When will the film go on the floors, and who do you plan to cast in the lead role?

Anurag is a very busy man and is making a movie with Ranbir at the moment but we should start rolling in December. I can’t tell you who I plan to cast but we would like to have either Irrfan or Nawazuddin Siddiqui for the lead role.

What other plans do you have for venturing into Hindi films?

I have another film of mine called Shunyo E Bukey. It is about a flat-chested woman and I want to remake it in Hindi. It was my second film and I feel I didn’t do justice to it because I was a novice then. I was a little reluctant to part with the rights of my films because Hindi filmmakers would often throw in songs into the film. But all that is now changing and so I have become open to it. In fact, even Shobdo has no background score but I didn’t want to make it in Hindi because producers would tell me to add some songs. Anurag is a different kind of a director and a very dear friend so I have faith in him.

Shoojit Sircar is another filmmaker who has approached me to get the rights to my films. He has liked my films Jackpot and Laptop, and we have discussed working together.

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