Even though he made his directorial debut as recently as 2008, Raj Chakraborty is arguably one of the most commercial directors in Bengal today. Dubbed the ‘remake king’ of Bengal, he has adapted over seven popular South Indian films in Bangla. In conversation with Box Office India, he talks about his foray into films and his upcoming releases
The trailer of your latest film Yoddha- The Warrior, a remake of the Telugu hit Magadheera, was recently unveiled. What kind of response have you received?
The response to the film’s trailer is enormous! Yoddha is one of my most ambitious projects to date. We emphasised on social media sites and the Internet a great deal. The trailer received almost 1 lakh views in just four days, which is a first for Tollywood.
It’s a period drama with larger-than-life action sequences, never-seen-before special effects and an emotional story at its core. I was really nervous before the trailer launch as no filmmaker in Bengal has delved into a genre like this on such a large scale. But I was relieved to know that the audience appreciated it. My audience reacted very positively and most people felt the film is likely to take Bengali cinema to new heights. I also got a great feedback from the industry.
Many Bollywood filmmakers have been toying with remaking Magadheera in Hindi too. How tough was it to make the film?
I dared make the film only because the Bangla industry has evolved technically by leaps and bounds. The film required a lot of VFX, and after watching a film like Chander Pahar, which was a VFX wonder, open to pack houses, my faith in technology has been reinstated. This film has taught me so many things as a director. The special effects actually made the film happen and we have taken some humungous leaps with the film.
Is the audience in Bengal’s smaller cities ready for such a film?
The audience has become very tough. There are so many releases every year that they have so much to choose from. Pleasing everyone is becoming difficult. But my film caters to the family audience and hence I am not worried. The problem is that single-screens in smaller towns are quite derelict and the audience here has stopped going to cinema halls. I hope the multiplex footprint in the interiors of Bengal widens so that the audience can enjoy films and we get our revenue. We need quality cinemas, especially for a film like Yoddha, which is rich in special effects.
Your previous film Borbaad, which released recently, has done well. Did you expect it to do well?
Occupancy across all cinemas is steady and strong. But I am especially pleased that the young actors in the film received very good feedback. I was particularly surprised by the response that Mainak Banerjee, who played the anti-hero, received.
You set out to become an actor. What made you turn to direction?
Money! Don’t we all yearn to earn a good living? I was born and brought up in a moffussil town in West Bengal and I began working as a theatre artiste. Despite working extensively on plays, I earned precious little money. I thought I should start looking for work in television. This was when we only had one channel, Doordarshan, in the country. Shows were thus limited. There used to be a show called Potli Baba Ki on the channel, which was jointly directed by Gulzar and Sanjit Ghosh. I approached Sanjit da for work and got a job on the show as a puppeteer. I used to simultaneously work as a junior artiste in films too. I would often be part of crowd sequences, or whatever little roles I could get because I really needed the money.
You have worked quite a bit in TV too…
Yes. Director Arindam Dey was quite impressed with my work on TV, so he asked me to assist him on his films as an observer. He told me I would have to come to Kolkata to do the job. So I rented a room and he paid me Rs 500 a month, which took care of my rent and food. I worked religiously while learning the craft and never wasted any time. I was lucky to get such a big opportunity and decided to make the most of it.
I assisted him for five years and, at one point, he didn’t have any work so I approached a television producer and told him I wanted to direct a telefilm. He had no faith in me and said that he wouldn’t fund me. I told him to give me a chance and if he didn’t like my work, he could say ‘no’. I raised the money on my own and directed my first telefilm, Noder Chaand. Fortunately, he liked the telefilm and reimbursed me for it. I went on to making 18 telefilms and delivered popular shows like Dance Bangla Dance and Mirakkel.
How did you foray into films?
Shrikant Mohta, one of the founders of Shree Venkatesh Films, a leading production house in Bengal, approached me to direct a film for them. I told them I was happy doing TV and had no plans to direct a film. It was mainly because I was unsure of the medium. I had no idea what a film camera looked like. He was patient and suggested that I approach them whenever I planned to direct a film as they would want to produce it. I wanted to make a children’s film but it was not taking shape. Three years later, I asked Shrikant babu if his offer was still on the table. He agreed and that’s how my first film Chirodini Tumi Je Amar happened.
Your first film was a remake of the Tamil hit Kaadal. Were you all right to adapt a South film for your directorial debut?
The producers had asked me if I was game to remake Kaadal as they really liked the story. Funnily, I had just watched another Tamil film which didn’t have any subtitles and thought it was Kaadal. So I told them I didn’t like the film at all. Also, at the time, the Rizwanur case had shaken Bengal. A boy who loved a girl had committed suicide due to class differences. This story was similar to Kaadal’s plot. I told the producers I would love to make a film around this incident and they said it was the same story they were asking me to adapt! That’s when I realised I had watched another film instead!
After your first film, you remade seven to eight more films. Why the penchant for remakes?
I make a film if I like the subject, regardless of whether it is a remake. Two of my films, Proloy and Le Chakka, are not remakes. At the end of the day, it’s all about entertaining people. There are two kinds of films in Bengal, class movies and mass movies. Classy films would include films like Proloy, Jaatishwar, Apur Panchali, Baishe Srabon and so on, and massy films include Challenge, Shotru, Borbaad and my forthcoming film Yoddha. I have grown up watching massy films, which have masala, song-and-dance numbers and a healthy dose of action. So I want to make the same kind of films for my audience. It could be a pure coincidence that I have directed largely remakes but I adapt them to suit our culture. So, barring a sketchy resemblance to the plot, everything else changes.
I look up to directors like Rohit Shetty and Rajkumar Hirani as they are both massy filmmakers and also the most commercial Bollywood directors we have today. I try to give my producers a 100 per cent return on investment, if not more. That’s also why my commercial success rate is pretty good. There is an audience for all kinds of films today. There are people who would watch a Dabangg and also enjoy a Chak De!
Any plans to direct a Hindi film?
Who wouldn’t want to cater to the large, Hindi-speaking audience? But I am in no hurry. I would love to direct a Hindi film and have been approached by a few producers. I will foray into Bollywood when the time is right. Right now, I want to focus on Yoddha.