The middle class loves Dibakar Banerjee’s films. If only they knew that this is unrequited passion, says Trisha Gupta
The first thing Richa Puranesh, Dibakar Banerjee’s wife of eleven years, remembers about him is his introductory line: “Hi, I’m Dibakar. I’m going to make films.” They were both in advertising then, and Richa remembers saying, “Right. Television commercials…?” To which Dibakar responded, with an air both casually explanatory and utterly certain, “No, films. The kind that Satyajit Ray makes.” Sitting in his 18th floor Parel apartment some fifteen years later, Dibakar Banerjee, highly-feted director of two of the most layered, thoughtful Hindi films of the last decade, Khosla ka Ghosla (2006) and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008), laughs an embarrassed laugh. “Well, if I’d said I want to make films like David Dhawan, she wouldn’t quite have got it…”
It is tempting, especially when you know what happens in the end, to create an epic back- story. But Dibakar Banerjee is not the man to take the easy way out in any narrative, least of all an autobiographical one. He denies emphatically the self-confidence of that anecdote. “It sounds very glamorous, very determined. But nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. In a recent blog post, he has bluntly refused the romance of the struggle: “No one had it easier than me… I didn’t sleep on the platforms in Bombay, didn’t cart around my dog-eared script to various stars fresh out of make up in Juhu. I didn’t even call a producer. All I had were some silly ideas and a lot of arrogance…”
Dibakar’s story does start out quietly: a bright Bengali boy growing up in Delhi’s New Rohtak Road. It was an insular upbringing, in the way that a Bengali middle class upbringing can be, especially when your classmates are the North Indian children of West Delhi businessmen. The rest of the world is money-minded (“don’t play with them”), you’re told, while being drilled in what writer Amitav Ghosh once called “the jungle-craft of gentility”: the barely-hidden hysteria about academic success. Because “it would take just a couple of failed examinations” to end up over there, on the street. Dibakar was the model child: he topped his class, he won interschool quizzes, he learnt the tabla. But things didn’t stay smooth long. “In Class XI, his principal called me and said, Mr. Banerjee, Dibakar has failed in all subjects!” The stunned father swiftly put his son through a rigorous tuition routine, and Dibakar managed a 74% in Class XII. He also signed up for Agarwal Tuitions for the joint engineering entrance examinations and trotted off, several mornings after his Boards, to take the tests.
But secretly, he had applied to study Visual Communication at the National Institute of Design (NID), and once he made it, managed to persuade his befuddled parents to let him go. It was a few days after Dibakar had left for Ahmedabad that the engineering entrance results arrived. A friend happened to call his mother, who expressed her puzzlement that her son had gone off to this strange design thing when he’d got an A in every entrance test. “Aunty, A ka matlab hai absent,” the friend said, laughing. Dibakar hadn’t attended a single exam.
“He said nothing, but always did exactly what he wanted,” says his mother. She laughs now about finding an NID entrance form that asked: “Do you obey your parents?” and Dibakar’s response, in big bold letters: “NO”. But neither she, nor his father, were amused when, two and half years after having insisted on going there, Dibakar dropped out of NID. “My parents were pretty shocked. In achiever Bengali families, you do academically well. You don’t get chucked out and come back home,” says Dibakar wryly. His father somewhat shamefacedly admits to taunting his son as he sat around at their Ashok Vihar home, silent and bespectacled, seeming to do absolutely nothing: Since he was so clever, since he’d decided that he had nothing left to learn, what was he going to become: a Rabindranath or a Satyajit?
It took seven months before Dibakar found a job, as a trainee with a corporate film and AV maker called Sam Mathew. “Within one year, he was drawing 20,000 rupees,” says his father. Dibakar became first a copywriter, then a Creative Group Head for Contract Delhi, a subsidiary of ad major JW Thompson. It was at this time, around 1992, that he met Jaideep Sahni. Jaideep was brought in as the head of a competitor group, but Dibakar and he hit it off from day one, brainstorming on campaigns “across the partition”, physical and metaphorical. “We soon formed a firm alliance against the rest of the world,” laughs Dibakar. In 1997, both left the company, within months of each other. Dibakar started an ad film company called Watermark with two ex-NID friends, while Jaideep moved to Mumbai to work with Ram Gopal Varma on the script of Pyar Tune Kya Kiya and laterCompany. “I used to miss him a lot. I’d call and say ki tu hamare saath aake kaam kyon nahi karta yaar?,” says Dibakar.
What happened eventually was the opposite. In 2002, Jaideep, ostensibly fresh from the success of Company but in fact increasingly unsure about whether the industry would ever allow him to write the kind of films he wanted to, called Dibakar. Savita Raj of Tandav Films, “essentially a Delhi-based ad agency”, wanted to produce a film about generation gap. Would he direct? Dibakar jumped at it, but it took four years of hard work and harder waiting (the grilling, tightly-budgeted, 45-day shoot was the easy part) before Khosla ka Ghosla saw the light of day. UTV finally decided they’d take it – on a second viewing that Boman Irani might have had something to do with – and from there on, things were smooth sailing. UTV even decided to co-produce Dibakar’s next project, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye.
People who’ve watched both Dibakar’s films are often at a loss to reconcile them. Khosla’s deep identification with a middle class, with being “decent people”, seems irrevocably at odds with Oye Lucky’s merciless indictment of the hypocrisy of that very class. Dibakar himself is clear-eyed about what each film is doing. “The only thing patently false about Khosla is its climax – but that’s what also made it the darling of the middle class,” he says carefully. He describes an alternative ending, where the Khoslas, having failed to get back their plot from the swindling Khurana, join their son Cherry in the US visa queue. Jaideep remembers being “extremely attracted” to that ending, but ultimately persuaded Dibakar that no one was going to come and watch a film which didn’t give them something to hold on to.
The ‘born-again Hrishikesh Mukherjee’ tag is something Dibakar threw off withOye Lucky, where a thief is betrayed by a respectable, smooth-talking doctor. He takes savage delight in having subverted the attempt to slot him as a clean, family entertainment sort of guy. “You’re a good filmmaker, you stay in the multiplex where good audiences with good taste come. The rabble can watch the Bollywood extravaganzas,” he says in a cutting imitation of our arbiters of taste. It’s clear that Oye Lucky’s darkly comic vein runs much deeper than the gentle laughter of Khosla. “He used to write Bengali verse, chhora. It was funny, but always satirical,” says his sister Mallika, eight years older. She recalls a poem he wrote as a ten-year-old about a zamindar whom no food can satisfy. The poem ended with the chilling phrase, “Shob theke bhalo khete goriber rokto” (What’s most delicious is the blood of the poor).
It comes as no surprise to see that acerbic gaze directed at his own audience. “I know that many who like Oye Lucky actually laugh at the characters, not with them,” says Dibakar sharply. He himself may have an OSIAN’s audience in splits with his rendering of a Delhi Jat accent versus a Meerut accent, but as Richa Chadda (Dolly in Oye Lucky) puts it, “his characters never come from a space of mimicry.” Everyone has a context, a reason for being. The foul-mouthed Dolly who dances for a living but keeps a Tuesday vrat is as searingly observed as her sister Sonal, who won’t touch stolen money (or Dolly when she’s drunk), but quietly accepts her burglar boyfriend’s gifts.
Dibakar’s vivid eye and ear for worlds beyond his own owe much to the Bengali childhood mentioned earlier. It may have been insular in some ways, but it was also richly eclectic, immersed in a post-Nehruvian cultural universe. His mother, a municipal school music teacher and Hindustani vocalist, turned on Vividh Bharati’s Lok Sangeet every afternoon (planting the seed of Oye Lucky’s stunning folk music track). Daily family music sessions embraced everything from Rabindrasangeet and classical to folk and film songs. The same omnivorousness extended to films (everything on Doordarshan, from Aan Milo Sajna to Jean Cocteau) and books: devouring the Hindi Champak and Nandan alongside the Bengali Shuktara and the racy pulp his grandmother borrowed from Bangiya Sansad Library. At fourteen, he made a storyboard of Bibhutibhushan’s adventure classic Chander Pahar(Mountain of the Moon) – in English translation. Dibakar remembers the linguistic shift to English as propelled by a quest for “higher knowledge”: looking up Brahms and calculus in the school library’s Encyclopaedia Brittanica. NID opened up a world “five times as big”, introducing him to rock and blues, history and anthropology, American Cinematographer, Bladerunner and Istvan Szabo. By the time Jaideep Sahni met him, “Dibakar had seen every film ever made.”
For someone so rooted in place and time, Dibakar is surprisingly unwistful about his move to Mumbai. “Delhi is about communities, stereotypes, mentalities. Bombay is about work, money, living spaces: pure lebensraum. It has an urban politic I’m excited by. And in any case, Delhi is a depressing place for a filmmaker to be.” As always, Dibakar’s grasp of the essentials is acute, unsentimental. He is matter-of-fact even about being nostalgic. “My kind of filmmaking depends on local detail to intensify the drama. Though if you psycho-analyse me, you might find I make films to capture what is gone,” he muses. He wants to make the films he does, but he doesn’t want to lose money on them. So he plans his budgets and runs an office that makes ad films on the side. And just when you think you’ve pinned him to down to a genre or locale, he ups and moves on to something else.
The edgy, digitally shot, Love Sex aur Dhokha, to be released this March, promises a raw, unapologetic take on love in the time of the media. LSD’s three interwoven tales, involving a suicidal sting journalist, a security camera company executive and a film institute student, reveal a world where desire is no longer pure or intimate, tinged as it is with exhibitionism on the one hand and voyeurism on the other. And yet these are love stories. Like the man – and unlike so many of his cool contemporaries – his films manage to be both riotous and thoughtful. As always with Dibakar Banerjee, cynicism is layered generously with humour, the humour layered with love, and so on until the circuit closes. One wouldn’t have it any other way.