The film-maker talks about the recently released Sardar Udham, about his indulgence in the art of slow storytelling, and how he is forming his own brand of cinema, stripping off all Bollywood trappings.
Sardar Udham is not an easy film. It is a simple film, but not a simplistic one. Sircar threshes out all the excess flab from the story, making it just about a man’s singleminded pursuit to avenge the deaths of 20,000 unarmed men, women, and children at the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre; even his political affiliations seem incidental, and the greater freedom movement on the backdrop of which the incidents unfold never takes over the plot. One is often tempted to compare this story of an undercover spylike figure with his 2013 espionage thriller, Madras Café. Although the movie was hailed for breaking many Bollywood stereotypes, Sircar had later admitted that he had, in fact, indulged in a few tropes. But Sardar Udham is a movie devoid of all the usual features one would associate with a patriotic Hindi movie. Instead of loud and verbose dialogues, it is a movie that articulates itself through its pregnant silences, and achingly beautiful visuals. In fact, it seems Sardar Udham is closer to his 2018 film October than it is to his Madras Café.
What remains a constant through Sircar’s filmography and has, in fact, become his signature as a film-maker over the years, is the quest to tell an intimate and deeply personal story. His movies are always about human emotions, often even their eccentricities, creating poetic and often poignant moments out of the prosaic. These, along with his somewhat stoic, matter-offact approach towards death, make his movies rather distinct; and also very similar to the cinema of Satyajit Ray — a man Sircar swears by.
Standing at the end of the birth centenary year of the maestro, it might be interesting to note that the works of contemporary Bengali directors working in Bollywood today, such as Shoojit Sircar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Anurag Basu, still reflect the style and ethos of Ray’s film-making. “Also, he was very particular about making commercially-viable movies. Although I am not at all concerned about giving a box office hit, I make it a point that my movies at least recover the money and hence my movies are never made with exorbitant budgets,” quips Sircar, as we sit for this interview. Read on.
One hears, it was Bhagat Singh and not Udham Singh that you initially wanted to make a movie on. What made you opt for a quieter and relatively unknown character like Udham over Bhagat Singh, who is the poster boy for Indian revolutionaries?
Yes, the initial idea was to make a movie on Bhagat Singh. But, somehow my interest shifted to Udham. I thought that with Udham I can touch upon both. If you notice, how I present Bhagat Singh in the movie is also very different from how you usually see him in movies.
I am anyway a fanboy of Bhagat Singh. Udham was also somewhat like a fanboy like me. Udham didn’t have fiery speeches like Bhagat Singh, but I could connect with him and his ideologies.
Do you think the film needed to be more accessible to an international audience? You have gone on record to say that maybe that is one of the reasons why the movie was not selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars.
I just made the film the way it was in my head. In fact, this question did crop up in my mind, but I thought let me not try to educate people and make a history lesson out of it but rather tell a story that delves into the mind of a character impacted by those incidents.
But yes, I think, somewhere a foreign audience might take a bit more time to grasp the movie than us Indians, or people who are not aware of the context, the politics, and the implications of the massacre. There is a 200-year history behind it. I could not explain everything. So, I took that liberty. I hoped that people who would know the history and the political context would grasp the movie better but for the rest, the movie would be intriguing enough to go back and do their own research. And that has also happened.
You have always been a rebel of sorts as a film-maker, but now it seems you have freed yourself completely from the Bollywood tropes. Is this a brave new world?
My experience of spending about a decade in this industry has made me realise that I don’t have any other option but to do things on my terms, and my way. I can’t make a Vicky Donor again. I don’t have that in me anymore. I can make an October. But I am still thriving to be a true artiste, to reach that level of creative excellence. My upcoming projects might be a bit more self-indulgent, and I am hoping I will be brave enough to absolutely go for that pure artistic expression.
Most of your movies unfold at a languorous pace. Tell us about the theory of time in the cinematic universe of Shoojit Sircar?
It is the difference between classical music and pop music. I am into classical music, which takes time to grow on you. That is also the person I am, and that’s how my cinema is — my cinematic world is paced out. A lot of people have a problem with the pacing of my films, but I can’t help myself. In Gulabo Sitabo and October, people have left midway because they found them slow. Today, the length of movies is getting shorter. I wonder how the audience would today react to the pace of even a film like Pather Panchali. People don’t have time. But I just want to distance myself from that. I am not in a hurry, and neither are my films.
Be it Piku, October, Vicky Donor, your movies always have an intimate personal story as their core, and your latest movie is no different. Why are personal journeys so important to you?
I am a person who is not from an arts or literature background. Whatever I am as a film-maker, I have acquired those — be it the narrative style, or the technical aspects of film-making, or something artistic. These are the tools that will help you express what you want to say, but what you want to say has to come from within you. The first connection that happens in my case is always the principles, the wisdom, the ideologies of a person. All my movies are personal. I can’t distance myself from what I am working on. I need to be able to believe in it.
Your movies thrive on human quirks and on minute details of the mundane. Tell us something about the realism in your movies.
When I see Ray’s Apu Trilogy, I can relate to that world, for I have inhabited a similar one. I feel close to that kind of cinema. In Gulabo Sitabo, when you see this old man still being so greedy for small things standing almost at the fag end of his life, I can create that character because I have seen people like that. Even in Piku, we all know someone like that old man. While I was making Piku, many people were put off by the constant mention of constipation in Piku, but we have people who are that irritable and eccentric. Realism is very ordinary. It is not something heroic or out of the box.
Do you think this is the best time for filmmakers like you who are trying to break out from the shackles of Bollywood’s idea of cinema?
OTTs have given me my personal time and moment to watch a movie. With OTT, film lovers can now really invest their time in a movie. It is a great platform for more personal films. For example, a movie like October — didn’t like it when they watched it in the theatres. But now, in these 18 months of lockdown, a lot of people seem to have rediscovered the movie.
How important is the commercial success of a movie?
The commercial aspects of movies are crucial. I believe that if the producers have invested money on my film, it is completely my responsibility to recover that money. It needs to break even. It is an expensive medium. It is not like personal art. There are too many aspects to it, too many art forms come together, and along with it the respective crews, it generates job opportunities, you have to pay people, and it is not subsidised. So, I can’t possibly be too self-indulgent with it.
OTT releases have a very different algorithm. What do you think about box office numbers?
Box office numbers were never too much of a criterion for me. I always knew that since my movies are not over-expensive, they will somehow break even. I always had that confidence. We have found ways to make movies at a much lower budget. So, the fear of box office is not there. I have only one fear, and that is of the wrong kind of audience. That is more devastating for a film, according to me.
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