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Gumnaami: In search of the unknown with Srijit Mukherji

Bangla director Srijit Mukherji talks to Titas Chowdhury about his upcoming film Gumnaami, the controversy surrounding the film, the film industry being a soft target, working with superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee and his upcoming projects

In a promotional video with Prosenjit Chatterjee, you’ve said that Gumnaami is based on three theories that emerged from the proceedings of the Mukherjee Commission. How did you come across these lesser-known facts?

This is precisely why I thought I should make a film on this aspect of Netaji’s life. Shyam Benegal had made a detailed film on his life – about his great escape, how he gathered the Indian National Army and fought the British. There have been films in the past also that touched upon this aspect and about his controversial death in a plane crash. Ekta Kapoor’s ALTBalaji made Bose with Rajkummar (Rao) on India’s biggest cover-up. There are various theories about his disappearance but there hasn’t been any work on screen or popular culture on this; there have been a lot of books and each theory has spawned an enormous amount of literature. But there hasn’t been any film or book or other work that has collated all these theories and tried to put all the theories, questions and counter-questions in one place rather than giving a verdict. Our film attempts to do that by focusing on the historic Mukherjee Commission that worked on all three theories, challenged the existing ones, held discussions and then produced counter-theories and evidence. It is the only commission out of the three commissions – the other being the Shah Nawaz Committee and the Khosla Commission - made on Netaji’s disappearance. The Mukherjee Commission is the most extensive and the intensive one because Justice Mukherjee actually travelled to Taipei, Russia, London and Japan to collect evidence. I thought of basing Gumnaami on this so that we could have a neutral platform on which we could discuss the plane crash theory, the death in Russia theory and the Gumnaami baba theory.

Can you take us a little bit through the books that you referred to as part of your research?

Initially, I had thought that I would make a film based on the book titled Conundrum by Anuj Dhar and Chandrachur Ghose. But then I thought of basing the film on the Mukherjee Commission report and for that, I had to refer to books that deal with all the three theories. For the plane crash theory, I had to refer to the Shah Nawaz Committee reports, the Khosla Commission reports, Ashish Ray’s book and His Majesty’s Opponent by Sugata Bose. For the death in Russia theory, I mainly referred to Purabi Roy. I also read about other perspectives on this theory put forth by Dr Subramanian Swamy and General Bakshi. In the passing, I also referred to Satya Narayan Sinha’s book. For the Gumnaami baba theory, I referred to Anuj’s works. He has already written six-seven books. I did extensive research on Conundrum and India's Biggest Cover-up. I also read up Adheer Som’s Gumnami Baba. Apart from these, I’ve obviously referred to Barun Sengupta’s book and Ami Subhash Bolchi. We did an extensive literature review. But the Mukherjee Commission report is the main narrative spine in the film. I’ve quoted the Mukherjee Commission report verbatim in the climax of the film.

You’ve tried to the stick to the facts as much as you could. Despite that, you’ve received backlash from Netaji’s family. What is your take on the freedom of creative expression? Do you think the film industry is a soft target?

Yes, the film industry is a soft target. There are so many books on the Gumnaami baba theory and the death in Russia theory. There have been orders from the Allahabad and the Calcutta High Courts which connects Gumnaami baba to Netaji. Lalita Bose has talked about that connection. The Mukherjee and the Shah Nawaz Commissions explored the alternative theories on Netaji’s disappearance which includes both the death in Russia and the Gumnaami baba theory. There have been so many newspaper articles on Gumnaami baba and the link between him and Netaji and they have the incorporated the Russian angle too. There has been a web series starring a popular actor like Rajkummar who plays Netaji in it. It is based on Anuj’s India's Biggest Cover-up. These people who’ve raised concerns have suddenly jumped into action now. I wonder if they were sleeping all these years! These things were in the public domain all this while. The ridiculous part is that these people are waking up now that my film is being released. I would like to tell the juvenile voices that this connection between Gumnaami baba and Netaji is something that my film is not making for the first time. This connection was made by high courts, by government commissions, innumerable television channels, newspaper reports and magazines. None of them was banned for exploring the connection. I’m not giving judgment in the film that the connection is sacrosanct. You cannot hide your face in the sand like an ostrich and live in denial about the fact that there are alternative theories to Netaji’s disappearance. But yes, whether these theories are correct or not is not known. The Mukherjee Commission said that there is a lack of clinching evidence. That is what I’ve shown in the film. The verdict and what you are saying are important. You cannot hold me responsible for making that connection because it was made 33 years back when Lalita Bose filed a petition at the Allahabad High Court. In many cases, people have spoken in favour of these connections. I’ve only followed the proceedings of the Mukherjee Commission. If anyone has a problem with the message, they should go and talk to the two high courts or with the Mukherjee Commission. Why shoot the messenger?

Will it deter you from taking up subjects like this in the future?

Absolutely not! I enjoy challenges. I believe filmmaking goes beyond making love stories and thrillers; it is also about exploring what you consider to be very important questions which are part of your society and history. I don’t know if films can actually make a change or not but they can definitely raise questions and that’s the most important thing. I’ll make films even if they make people uncomfortable. There’s a very popular quote that I read. It says, ‘Art is supposed to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’. I intend to do that.

Gumnaami is your seventh film with Prosenjit Chatterjee. He is a big star in the Bangla film industry. Did his stardom ever come in the way of telling a story?

No. On the contrary, his stardom helped me tell a couple of stories better. I wouldn’t make Autograph if he didn’t agree to play Arun Chatterjee. When I wrote that character, I had him in my mind. I try to tap the hardworking actor in him. If you take Gumnaami, it took him two hours to put on the make-up and one-and-a-half hours to take it off. He had to wear the bald cap when the temperature was about 45 degrees. It was tough! This is the kind of commitment and dedication Bumbada brings to the table.

What’s the update on the biopic on heptathlete Swapna Barman?  

The Swapna Barman biopic is in a fix right now. Sohini Sarkar who was supposed to do the film is undergoing a ligament surgery this month. After that, we’ve to consult Subhash Sarkar, Swapna’s coach to figure out if she can go through the rigorous and intensive technique required to turn into an athlete like Swapna. Otherwise, I’ve to look for a substitute. I’m even contemplating doing the film with Swapna but I’ll have to discuss this with the coach. The film Kony was so authentic because it was shot with a national level swimmer. It didn’t have an actor who learnt swimming; it had a swimmer who learnt acting.

Is there any plan of directing a second Hindi film any time soon?

Yes, the announcement is just around the corner. We’re waiting for the right time.

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