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Building Blocks For Begum Jaan

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.

BOI: Can you share something about your technical team?

SM: I mentioned roadblocks… Just a few days before our shoot, my cinematographer, art director and costume designer pulled out of the project. Then I went back and started looking homewards. I have a set team in Bengal, so I took a cinematographer, art director and costume designer from my team. I got Rick Roy from Mumbai as a costume designer and also Shabuni Dash from Bengal. Gopi Bhagat is my cinematographer from Bengal and I also took Mridul, Sashwat, Shibaji with these guys, one was a production designer and the rest are art directors. So I essentially went back to my team in Bengal. One of the big reasons was not only that I was fighting obstacles but also the awareness of the terrain in which we were going to shoot. They were aware of the terrain and they were also aware of my working style. In Bengal, we are perpetually under resource constraints and are therefore used to turning things around on low budgets with very high efficiency and quality. And that is exactly why we could pull this off. We were shooting in peak monsoon weather. It called for that level of preparation. After you wake up in the morning, you should look at the sky and be able to decide exactly which scene you would shoot that day. The entire unit including the actors had to be prepared at least for three to four scenes.Preparation of this kind is possible only if you are totally in sync and I banked on this with the technicians.

BOI: As you just explained, there were so many issues with the weather and also key players backed out. As a producer, how stressful was this film?

VB: Before Begum Jaan, we had never done a period drama at Vishesh Films. I think Srijit is aware of this and that is why we got him on board. He was the captain of the ship and we knew he was committed emotionally and morally. That gives you a sense of confidence. Difficulties come in when you are making a film for other reasons. I think it’s part of the business to face obstacles. It is this understanding and commitment from your key players and then giving it everything from your side that makes projects like this one happen.

We have had our share of success and failures, we have been hit by roadblocks, but in every situation, whether it was the investor or the people who are behind the film, they always got the privilege of a Friday. That is why a lot of creative people like to work with us; they know we bring in all our resources so that this film becomes available to the audience on a Friday. And that commitment takes even the creative force and the actors to another level.

BOI: From the trade perspective, what is the USP of the film?

VB: Like I said, we didn’t wait when we saw his film for the first time. We obviously had a certain understanding of our own, of certain trends that we put in. But I think from the trade perspective all the so-called franchises which are now formulae films, were disruptive when they first released, they were looked upon as underdogs, and as their release date approached, they were not even mentioned as upcoming films of the year in most trade magazines. From the trade perspective, we have been very disciplined with this film. We have managed our economics very well. I think the commitment to the trade remains intact.

 SM: If you ask me about the USP, it is phenomenally budgeted. I was talking to Mukeshji, who said often films do not, not work because of what they earn but it’s because of the way they are budgeted. There is a certain kind of market for all types of films and you need to understand what the market for your film is and budget it accordingly. If you look at it from that perspective, there is a method to the madness. If you understand the reach for your film, and if you work backwards and work out a budget that is less than that, then you are always in the green.

VB: You can budget a film correctly but what is your skill in the game? Whether financially or creatively, you have to have a set of skills to get the rewards you are looking for. There is nothing such as a completely safe project. In the last few years, we have seen the downfall of so called completely safe projects. And all the trade pundits had been wrong. This is a time when the audience is talking to you differently. And as makers of content, are you willing to put your neck on the line and talk to them directly and say… You know what? I am going to ignore this part of the trade. If you don’t make that journey, how will you take away any learnings from this new audience that is waking up to us?

 BOI: Numbers-wise, what are your expectations?

VB: To be very honest, we do not have expectations for any of our films. When you do, you start changing the marketing because of that. You start becoming dishonest to the film while chasing that number and that number is just an illusion. Any statistics or any sampling is still a small part of the audience. If you start following certain numbers on trends, then you might not get that Friday and you will be dishonest to the audience in the way you have positioned the film. There is a constant battle when there are partners on board… about not chasing that Friday, let’s chase the reward that the audience has to give us.

SM: The moment that love comes in, it will automatically translate and before you know it, you will break even.

VB: And once you are on that journey of making a film, then you have to be… you can’t start diluting why you made this film. You have to stay totally committed and be a little strong-headed because I think when you are seeing a big match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in the end it comes down to nerves. You have to keep your nerves intact. I don’t think looking at the scoreboard constantly does any good. Concentrate on the game.

BOI: Still, looking at the scoreboard of Vishesh Films, over these 30 years, where does Begum Jaanstand?

VB: We will see on April 14, since you are discussing the elements of the scoreboard.

SM: April 21, to be precise. The release is on April 14 and the first week will end on April 21. But that is in terms of numbers. There is more to cinema than just that.

VB: Where does Begum Jaan stand? After 30 years, it is the new seeding of content, the first seed that will be put into our next journey.

BOI: Does that intimidate you, Srijit?

 SM: No, it doesn’t. I am always up for challenges and I think it is a great film to seed a new journey with. The story is also about seeding a new journey. And we leave the film with that thought. I can’t reveal any more right now. The message is very clear… we will have to be the change that we want to see in the world.

 VB: In many ways, it is representing the thought… how we are feeling in various forms today, how we are interacting with the world, how we are interacting with the content. We are being very honest with our conversation in every way. That’s the seed we are planting as our next step. I think that is the only way to go about this business. The whole world is in flux and no one knows where things are moving. I think the only thing you can do is be honest to yourself and have honest interactions with your work. I believe this will be a new journey for the trade, for the industry, of building new institutions and new relationships with people and the audiences.

BOI: What’s next?

 SM: Nothing concrete right now but Vishesh Films is the kind of place that is throbbing with stories and ideas and possible projects, spinoffs… it has a life of its own. So if you are in that environment, it takes only a few hours for a project to get finanlised.

VB: When we are seeding a new journey, there are a lot of conversations, and a lot of conversations are built on certain understandings. They will be built post the release of Begum Jaan. We are not completely in the wait-and watch game. We have never been but I think Begum Jaan will be an interesting interaction at large, for us to show how we should position the next slate of content.

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