Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

EXCLUSIVE - Dibakar Banerjee on 'Bombay Talkies': "It's been personal and emotional"

In all probability, Bollywood fans in the UK won't get to see 'Bombay Talkies' at the local cinema if sources within the distribution business are to be believed.  

The film may be an anthology marking 100 years of Bollywood cinema, directed by four of the finest filmmakers in India and which has also been chosen for a screening at the Cannes Film Festival, but distributors are reportedly concerned that the film doesn't quite have the "mass appeal" to make it a commercially viable prospect in the United Kingdom.

It is comforting though, at least on one level, to think that the rather apathetic view of the distributors has been more than offset by the vision and ambition of Viacom 18 who decided to choose Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee as the four directors most capable of celebrating the Bollywood Centenary.

Despite their vastly different filmmaking styles, despite the fact that the four movies are not interconnected and despite the aforementioned distributor apathy, there is a feeling, shared by many, that 'Bombay Talkies' is going to be something special.

For those of you who have been hibernating under a duvet these past few months - understandable, given the horrific weather - 'Bombay Talkies' is a collection of four, 20-minute short films, each, a personal homage to Indian cinema and what cinema means to each of these filmmakers.

In an exclusive interview with The UKAsian, Banerjee says: "Funnily enough before all four of us embarked on the filming or even met, we knew that we had been chosen and we knew that we were going to be doing vastly different films. "

"It was a really humbling experience to be chosen and now it will be screened at Cannes.  It's an absolute honour."

The films evokes memories of the pioneering Bombay Talkies Limited movie studio, first founded in 1934 in what was then known as Bombay and explores Indian cinema through a kaleidoscope of emotions ranging from desire through pain and joy to love.

Since the films' trailer release earlier this month the buzz has been phenomenal with everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Shobha De salivating at the prospect of the four-film anthology which, apart from the directing talent, features the likes of Nawazzuddin Siddiqui, Rani Mukherjee, Katrina Kaif and the senior Bachchan himself in integral roles.

It's a prospect that even titillated the directors, not least the fact that everyone had had to step out of their comfort zones; whether it was Karan Johar sticking to a budget of a miserly Rs 1.5 Crores or Anurag Kashyap paying homage to the ultimate Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, a man with whom he had had a less than cordial relationship until just 18 months ago.

Banerjee, one of the most respected independent filmmakers in India, whose left-field films such as 'Love Sex Aur Dhoka' and 'Shanghai', have always defied convention, said some were less up to the task than others.

"We were all given the same budget of Rs 1.5 Crore because ultimately that's what the studio could afford.  But I think the limited budget was a blessing in disguise because it kind of levelled the playing field."

"I mean Karan would spend that kind of money on a single Lehnga for one of his films!  The other thing was that it really focused us.  We were not doing it for the money.  It was from our hearts."

"These films are our little explanations as to what Bollywood and cinema and filmmaking means to each of us and how lucky we are to be able to share that experience with millions of people."  

Whilst their inspiration was the same, the directors ended up creating vastly different films.

Anurag Kashyap, the godfather of independent Indian cinema, has described his film as his very first "Bollywood Masala Film".

The intensely private Zoya Akhtar has made a film that follows the familiar Bollywood narrative of rebelling against convention but in a context that is akin to her own; the daughter of a great Bollywood intellectual who has defied convention herself in more ways than one.

Karan Johar, the unabashed purveyor of expensive, sumptuous and hugely successful  Bollywood  pot-boilers was forced to dial down his natural instincts to create a 20-minute homage that has not only captivated Cannes but his fellow director Bannerjee.

"During the entire process, we were extremely competitive.  We kept looking over our shoulders, figuratively speaking of course, at each other's work.  Constantly asking ourselves, 'how can this guy go and do something with this kind of budget?'  There was a bit of espionage as well!!"

"When we first saw the rough cuts of each others' films, we were completely blown away by how different each of the films were.  Everybody had done something entirely new.  It was phenomenal to experience."

"For me, by far the most surprising film of the four is that of Karan Johar because I think he has travelled farthest from his comfort zone.   He had to do a bungee jump with his film and I can tell you he has jumped with such pure joy!  That was interesting."  

"All four films are incredibly touching and explore very personal issues which I think audiences will find fascinating.  

Anurag's film is the first one that he ever wanted to do.   Zoya's film reflects her childhood and growing up in the family that she did.  They are all deeply emotional and moving films."

New Delhi-born Banerjee, 43, took as his inspiration Satyajit Ray's short story, 'Patel Babu Film Star', a touching story about a failed actor whose dormant talents are called on for one last theatrical hurrah.

"The film is about a failed actor and a failed man.  We are all failures on one level or the other but as humans we have this inherent ability to overcome that.  The character in my film does that too when he is finally given a chance.  The film is about what he does with that opportunity."

Banerjee is arguably Bollywood's finest exponent of one of the most vital elements in story-telling; irony.

And in a wonderful example of irony, the director cast Nawazzudin Siddiqui - a true 'actor's actor' whose skill many reckon is unmatched in Indian cinema and who is currently riding a wave of success following roles in 'Gangs of Wasseypur', 'Talaash' and 'Kahaani' - as the protagonist in his film about a has-been.

Siddiqui, who incidentally also appears in Amit Kumar's 'Monsoon Shootout', the second Indian film chosen for a special screening at Cannes, reportedly spent a week in a Mumbai Chawl - crowded tenement buildings constructed in the early 1900's to house the city's migrant labourers - to prepare himself for the role.

"Casting Nawaz was a no-brainer", Banerjee says.

"I know he's garnered a lot of attention since Gangs of Wasseypur but this is a guy who's amazing work stretches back much further.  I actually first saw him in Black Friday in 2005."  

"This particular film is different from the work he has done so far.  In the first instance he had to learn Marathi, which is my mother tongue.  It's incredible to see how he immerses himself in the role."

"What makes Nawaz great is this instant connection he has with the audience.  It's a trait that he shares with all the great actors throughout history, be they Bollywood actors or Hollywood actors or actors from anywhere else."

Bannerjee has also elicited the help of another great Indian artist, Rabindranath Tagore, to help him turn first-time music composer for the film.

"Music is a hugely important part of any film and the most important piece of music is the background score.  I've experimented with an old Rabindrasangeet sung by Tagore himself called 'Tobu Mone Rekho' for this movie."

In an industry dominated by heavyweights and cliques, the inclusion of relative outsiders such as Bannerjee, Kashyap, Akhtar and even Karan Johar, shows bold ambition on the part of studio Viacom 18, itself, a relatively new outfit.

'Bombay Talkies' may not get a wide release in territories such as the UK and US but its' inclusion at Cannes and the excitement it has already created is testament not only to all the outstanding elements that make up the film but also the health of Bollywood cinema in general.  

"At the moment, a lot of wonderful things are happening in Bollywood.  As we celebrate 100 years of Bollywood cinema, we are in the midst of a great movement.  Over the past decade, Indian cinema, Indian filmmakers, Indian actors and Indian audiences have begun taking risks never before seen in its previous century but the results of those risks will only be seen in another five or ten years' time."

"That movement will completely transform the filmmaking and viewing experience for Bollywood in India and outside the subcontinent as well."

It may also involve not only bringing the latest 100-crore mega-blockbuster to a multiplex in East London but also a collection of short films about what it means to make films for 1.2 billion people.

For now, Cannes will do.

- Poonam Joshi (Edited by Viji Alles)



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