His first film Cakewalk is creating quite a buzz. Journalist-turned-filmmaker Ram Kamal Mukherjee talks to Titas Chowdhury about what drove him to tell stories, casting Esha Deol Takhtani, the changing face of Bollywood and his upcoming projects in this exclusive conversation
You have had an illustrious career as a journalist. What attracted you to filmmaking?
I have always wanted to tell stories. Deep down, I have always been a storyteller. Even when I was a journalist, I was keener to do feature stories and would fight with my editor to give me the opportunity to write them rather than reports on frivolous subjects. I know that is how tabloids work but I always wanted to do long-format interviews. Through interviews, I liked telling the stories of people, indirectly. When I moved to Pritish Nandy Communications, I became vice-president there and worked there for four to five years. I did almost 12 films with them. The last film I did with them was Shaadi Ke Side Effects with Vidya Balan and Farhan Akhtar.
At that point, when I was working with Rangita Nandy, I started to understand the nitty-gritty of production, the art of storytelling and the magic of casting. Then I moved to Stardust magazine as editor-in-chief, where I learnt to handle manpower and different mindsets. When you are an editor, man-management and talent management come with the territory. All that indirectly helped me become captain of a ship, which is required when you become a director.
It all fell into place and then I thought I could probably tell a story. Movie-making is team work. So you need to know your team and how you can handle different mindsets and egos and eventually get your work done. Everything I learnt helped me become a director.
Why did you decide to start your filmmaking career with a short film?
Because none of the studios helped me (Laughs). None of the big guys felt that I was promising enough and did not want to invest their money. And I think that’s fair. I knocked on every door and talked to them. They had their apprehensions about me. But, then, if you believe everyone, you will never start your journey.
That’s when I decided to make this film my own. I have a production house called Assorted Motion Pictures. But I did not want to produce Cakewalk. I have three people who stood like pillars and produced this short film – Aritra Das, Shailendra Kumar and Dinesh Gupta.
How did you plan to increase the reach and market of Cakewalk and take it to a wider audience considering it is a short film?
To begin with, Cakewalk has set a benchmark in many ways, as a short film. It is the first short film whose poster launch took place in London. Hema Malini launched it. It is the first short film to travel to various parts of India in terms of promotion. It is the first short film to get outdoor hoardings and a music launch in Dubai. It is the first short film whose cast and crew visited the offices of Facebook and Twitter and whose director was invited to the BBC studio in London to be interviewed.
Esha (Deol Takhtani) won the Best Actress award for her performance. Not just that, INOX came on board and did a grand premiere of the film. The most important thing is that Cakewalk is the first short film in recent times to be aired on television. The very first short film that was aired on television was Om Puri and Smita Patilji starrer Sadgati by Satyajit Ray on Doordarshan in 1981. Sadgati was written by Munshi Premchand. After 1981, Cakewalk was the next film to have a television premiere in an individual slot. A lot of telefilms have been made but there are barely any short films that are aired on television.
The lens we use, the DI and the colour correction are different for short films when compared to telefilms. Moreover, telefilms are not censored. We had to pass Cakewalk through the censor board. Their procedure is the same as that of feature films. I am very happy that Rishtey Cineplex premiered it. It is a leading Hindi movie channel, and people who do not have smart phones and are still not part of the smart world could watch the film. Right now, it is streaming on Voot. As a result, the gen next can now watch Cakewalk. The fact that it aired on television first is a very big achievement.
That’s good because this way, it can reach all kinds of demographics.
Yes. I wanted people in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities to watch this film because it is for housewives, working women and women who are dealing with divorce. I have addressed a very important issue in the film in just 27 minutes.
What kind of feedback have you been getting?
Last night, I shared my film on Facebook. Manzilat Fatima, a descendant of Wajid Ali Shah’s family and a chef, watched the film. She could relate to Shilpa Sen’s journey and said she could understand the place the film came from. A lot of women have called me, Esha and Hemaji. Dharamji (Dharmendra) was very happy. He loved the film and called up me after watching it.
We did a lot of close-up shots. Today, we rush through stories and don’t give any time to ‘moments’ in our films. The last time we had beautiful close-ups was in Lootera and October. They were very poetic. Shoojitda (Sircar) loved Cakewalk and tweeted about it. He said to me, ‘Esha has never looked so beautiful on screen before. The kind of poise you have used to tell the story is the beauty of it.’
Speaking of Esha, how did she come to be a part of this short film?
I was interviewing her for my authorized biography on Hema Maliniji. At that point, I started talking to her about this. As a journalist, I had known Esha for many years and have seen her go from a tomboy and a brat to the Dhoom girl. When I was interviewing her, I saw a completely different Esha because she was expecting her first baby. I could see the change in her, the glow in her and that was when I was simultaneously writing Cakewalk and developing the character of Shilpa. I think I was subconsciously incorporating her style, her mannerisms, the way Esha is, into the story.
Then I asked her whether she would be a part of this short film and she inquired what a short film was, because she had never been on this side, in this world, before. She has always been a part of feature films. But she told me she wanted to hear what the short film was about before she took made p her mind.
So I narrated it to her, she understood it and she liked it. Then she had her baby, Radhya, after which we went to Kolkata and did the shoot. But the credit of me being the director of this film goes to Esha because, initially, I was supposed to produce it. I was a full-fledged producer for Cakewalk but when I went to her to tell her about the character and explained what I wanted from her, she told me she would do the film only if I directed it.
I wondered how that would be possible. She told me that since I was doing everything, like developing the characters and figuring out the look, I should direct it too. Esha should be given credit for pushing me off the cliff, making me realize that I have a pair of wings all the while as I was walking. Sometimes, you need that push.
As a filmmaker, what are the stories that really attract you?
As a filmmaker today, I feel it is very important to tell a story. The star system is undergoing a reality check and it is films like Badhaai Ho, URI: The Surgical Strike and October that are working now. Times are changing and films are becoming more content-oriented. Earlier, people would ask who the star in your film was. Now, even a studio or an individual producer asks me what my story is about. I am very happy that I am in this phase where the industry is looking for content and stories.
The stars and the cast are now secondary, which is, I think, how it used to be earlier. At the end of the day, all Indians come to the theatre or go on a digital platform to hear a story or be a part of somebody’s life. Whether it is a web series or a feature film, you need to say something. The competition has become very stiff and that is what keeps us on the edge of our seats; that helps us perform better. I need to challenge myself. Every director is doing that. Even a film like Dum Lag Ke Haisha… look at the films that YRF (Yash Raj Films) is producing these days! They are also focusing on content-driven stories.
It is very important for big banners to back films like these.
Yes. Not only big banners, but also A-list actors like Deepika Padukone. She is doing a film called Chhapaak with Meghna Gulzar that is based on an acid attack victim. I am so glad that a mainstream actor like her is doing this film. When hardcore commercial actors like Deepika Padukone or an Alia Bhatt say yes to a Meghna Gulzar, or an Ayushmann (Khurrana) does a film called Dream Girl, you know this is the best time for Bollywood.
What is next in the pipeline?
I just finished my second film called Season’s Greetings, a tribute to Rituparno Ghosh. I am working on its post-production. I am hoping I can finish it in May. It has a different kind of treatment, a different kind of storytelling. It is a 45-minute short film that stars Celina Jaitly and Lillete Dubey, and focuses on the mother-daughter relationship. I am also planning my third film, which will have a mainstream Bollywood actress in the lead. At the end of this year, I am going to start a feature film. I am also writing a biography.