One usually expects this from actors, but Dibakar Banerjee is the rare director who has literally lived a character he is bringing to life on screens. The director of ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’, which releases on Friday, still remembers 1993 vividly, when he was routinely mistaken for the actor Rajit Kapur, who used to play the eponymous, fictional detective on the cult Doordarshan TV series directed by Basu Chatterjee. “I didn’t have the beard at the time and had a similar side-parting at the time, just like Rajit did,” he says, in an interview with HuffPost India at the Yash Raj Films office in Andheri, Mumbai. “It didn’t help that my thin, reedy, forever teenager voice sounded a lot like his.”
Banerjee is also a rarity in Bollywood in the sense that, a decade into his career, he still doesn’t know what it feels like to make a truly bad film. The 45-year-old filmmaker has made four critically acclaimed feature films and, by his own admission, the “least glamourous” portion of the 2013 anthology film ‘Bombay Talkies’.
But with his latest film, this Friday’s release ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’ — which was actually the second film he wanted to make, nearly nine years ago — he is still as nervous and unsure as ever as to how it will be received. “We don’t know what to expect,” he says, “because there is no benchmark to compare this film to in Bollywood. Nothing like this has been attempted before.”
Those who have seen trailers of the film, starring Sushant Singh Rajput and adapted from Bengali author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s famous detective series, are likely to agree. Banerjee’s interpretation of the iconic character is moody and stylish, featuring handsomely mounted production design and an anachronistic soundtrack featuring homegrown indie rock artistes such as Delhi-based nu-metal band Joint Family.
The reinterpretation can be compared to what British director Guy Ritchie did with the greatest fictional detective of all time in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009), which Banerjee insists is “a complete coincidence”, since he barely remembers anything from that film. It is also the diametric opposite of the Doordarshan show, whose lead character he was often mistaken for.
Yash Raj Films, the producers, are usually associated with less riskier, more mainstream films than this one, but director Aditya Chopra, who heads the company, is apparently head-over-heels in love with his film. Banerjee says, “When he first read the script — I think it was in September 2013 — he told me, ‘I’ve never seen a world like this in an Indian film. I can’t wait for an Indian audience to see this world on the big screen.’”
To say Byomkesh is atypical for a mainstream(ish) film would be a bit of an understatement. The first five minutes of the film are in Chinese, as it is set in Shanghai. The film is set in 1943, Calcutta, a time of great “elite poverty” in the city. “Between 1890 and the ‘40s, there was a great amount of stagnation that had taken place in Calcutta thanks to the colonial system,” he says, explaining his choice of setting. “Bengalis were still living in their past glory as ‘Macaulay’s children’, as the residents of the former capital of British India, and somehow they had failed to do something about the decay and unemployment all around them. Here was a highly educated society just…sitting around, with nothing to do.”
This environment, says Banerjee, contributed to a yearning for escape. “It is that time, that sense, that I wanted to capture. My Byomkesh is a highly literate, dirt-poor guy who is tempting fate by going out and being a detective instead of taking up a stable job.”
An interesting quirk that has been employed in this film is the casting of Rajput, a non-Bengali actor (one of several in the film), in the titular role. Banerjee says that there is a very simple reason for it: most Bengalis speak terrible Hindi. “In my film, when my characters are speaking in Hindi, it means they’re speaking in Bengali,” he says. “The medium is merely a filter. Which is why, it was imperative for me to cast someone who spoke Hindi well. Sushant even asked me if he should put on a slight Bengali accent, but I forbade him from doing so.”
Needless to say, this film isn’t for purists. “Anyone with a ‘comma-full-stop’ knowledge of the books should stay away from this film, if that's what they're expecting” he says, with a laugh. “I think the trailers should have made that clear by now.”
While it remains to be seen whether Banerjee’s latest film will be well-received by audiences and critics alike, it’s the larger purpose behind this film that makes one realise how high the stakes truly are. “When I first met Adi [Chopra] he told me that there was only one reason he and I should work together: if we could somehow help change the tastes of the mass, Hindi-film watching audience of this country. That is the only reason to have made this film.”