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"I was born to be a filmmaker”

After a long stint in ad filmmaking, director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury poured his heart into his first feature film, Anuranan. His films thereafter have made it to the festival circuit, including the Cannes Film Festival and also won him several National Awards. With his recent release Buno Haansh going strong in its fifth week, the director shares his experiences in the industry

Your film Buno Haansh is in its fifth week. Are you happy with the way it has been received by the audience?

I am more than happy, I am ecstatic! Being a Bengali film, it’s obvious that our main market is in Bengal, and in Kolkata the audience is time-sensitive. So a Puja release or a December release is usually the apt time to release a Bengali film. Despite that, we opened with a business of 70 to 75 per cent and even through the second week, the business was 60 to 65 per cent. Weekday collections are also holding strong. So the film has definitely experienced a lot of appreciation from the audience – in spite of not releasing during a Bengali festival. But it did release on Independence Day and that worked wonders for our film. Due to that, we peaked from day one, even in non-Bengali-speaking markets.

But most of your previous films did not have festival/holiday releases.

Yes. My first film Anuranan ran for 100 days after it released on July 6 in 2006. The entire country experienced its worst monsoon ever that year, yet the film ran to packed houses. My second film Antaheen, for which I received four National Awards along with the Swarna Kamal from the President of India, also released during the first half of the year and it ran for 97 days. My third film Aparajita Tumi released in January and also enjoyed a glorious run for 50 days. That’s how I realised the impact of a festival release. I guess I have been quite lucky with most of my films not releasing on holidays and yet doing well because they rode on content. But a holiday just helps push business further.

The film released on the same day as Singham Returns, another Reliance Entertainment film. Did that impact your film’s business in any way?

There are two important things here. Hindi and Bengali films cater to different audiences. And secondly, Hindi films have a much wider release. A Hindi film has to featch much higer returns because their budgets are bigger. Since Hindi films have a worldwide release, even if there are 25 people in one show, that number is multiplied by the numerous screens it is releasing in worldwide, so it all adds up to much more.

But that film didn’t really eat into our business because our hero Dev has his own audience and he is a superstar in Bengal. The film received rave reviews from most critics. We managed to get four out of five or eight out of 10 stars in almost all our reviews, so that helped us get the audience initially. Then, word of mouth caught on. Those who went to watch Singham Returns also came to watch our film. The audience has a huge appetite for content. Regional and Hindi films can co-exist.

Dev is a very unusual choice for a film like this. He typically does commercial, masala films.

You are right and that’s why I thought it would be a surprise to cast him. Everyone knows him to act in films that have songs, dance and action. You see, we are neighbours and he is like a younger brother to me. So he had told me a long time ago that he wanted to work with me because he wanted to try out new roles. When we were casting, the writer of the novel, Samaresh Majumdar, on whose novel the film is based, suggested that we cast someone like Dev in the film. My writer Amul Sengupta agreed and since I knew him well, it was sone pe suhaga! In fact when we saw him in the workshops, I was certain I wouldn’t make the film without him. He brought the right resonance to the film.

The film also features Moon Moon Sen. How tough was it to convince her to make a comeback to the silver screen?

(Laughs) I have been trying to cast her in my films for a long time. I asked her to do a role in my film Anuranan and she didn’t agree. Then Antaheen released and then, 10 years after that, she agreed to work with me. So it was 12 years before she decided to work in one of my films. She is a beautiful actor and I had a character in the film, Madam, who couldn’t have been portrayed by anyone but her. It was worth the wait.

The budgets for Bengali films have started soaring and producers have started shooting overseas. But you were the first person to shoot a film in the UK.

I always thought I should give my audience something new. Besides content, there should be a huge plus to my film. So since my very first film, I decided to shoot abroad. I went to the UK, Sikkim and other parts of the country. The USP of my second film was that it featured Sharmila Tagore and Aparna Sen for the first time together. It also had music by Shantanu Moitra. It was his first Bengali stint. My third film was shot entirely in the US. So with each film, I try to give the audience a 360-degree, big-screen experience.

Shoojit Sircar made a foray into Bengali films with your film Aparijta Tumi. How did that collaboration happen?

I met Shoojit through Shantanu Moitra. He took me to meet Shoojit and since he was planning to produce a Bengali film, we agreed to make it together. Shoojit designed the climax sequence of the film. He is a very sensitive human being a great friend to work with. Filmmaking is so stressful sometimes that it is a blessing to make films with easygoing people. I believe that where there is friendship, there is prosperity. And that’s exactly what happened to our collaboration.

You films have screened at Cannes, IFFI and several festivals across the globe. In the Hindi industry, mainstream producers would shy away from signing such directors. Is it the same with Bengali films?

Absolutely not, why would a corporate house like Reliance sign me if that were the case? Festivals and awards are boxes that every filmmaker wants to check in their careers. Ultimately, I believe there are two kinds of cinema – a good film and a bad film. I have even produced films on my own because I am passionate about cinema. That is all I am meant to do. It has been my dream since I was a child. I began making ad films and then it was a natural progression to films. I think I was born to be a filmmaker.

Do you think Bengali films are experiencing a renaissance?

I have grown up watching Uttam-Suchitra films, the Ray and Ghatak films. At that time, our technicians were called to the Hindi industry to make Hindi films. Content plummeted in the ’80s but that was across Hindi cinema too. But things started looking up around 2005. These days, budgets for Bengali film have soared but they are still not at par with Hindi films. I think we have become more technically sound and our films have started generating good business.

My only gripe is that I wish Bengali films should have been distributed more widely across the overseas markets, the way Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and even Bhojpuri films are distributed. Bengali is the sixth-largest spoken language in the world and we have a huge market abroad, which we are yet to tap. Punjabi films have tapped into the overseas markets which not only have Punjabis, but also Pakistanis. And we can tap into the Bengali as well as the Bangladeshi markets.

The film business has changed entirely because our lifestyles have also transformed drastically. While about 10 years ago, it matinee shows were known to bring in the business, these days most people work between 8:30 am and 9 pm working. So it’s mostly weekends and the night shows that get business rolling.

On the whole, I feel that Bengali cinema has experienced a good journey so far but we need to take a leap now. One or two steps more towards improving distribution and exhibition and we will soon be an industry to reckon with.

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