With Bauddhayan Mukherji, time is a luxury these days. Hopping from one film festival to another with his debut feature film in Bengali, Teenkahon, he is busy garnering applause and awards. So when Buddy, as he is popularly known agrees for a quick chat in a nondescript coffee shop in Mumbai, you rush braving morning city traffic for a few cups of tea and a lengthy conversation.
From being an acclaimed ad filmmaker to hitting one out of the park with his first feature, Buddy has many stories to tell. We settle for the one behind the making of the triptych that opens in theaters this weekend.
How long has Teenkahon been in the making?
I first read the second story (Post-Mortem), written by Syed Mustafa Siraj in 2011. I then told my wife Mona (Monalisa Mukherji) who eventually became the producer that we should make a film out of this. That is when I started writing. It took me around 4-5 months to write a screenplay.
I saw this being a 40-minute-film at best, which in India does not have a future of its own. I realized this is a film about obsession and if I dig deep into Bengali literature, I might find other similar stories. I stumbled upon the first one (Nabalok) by Bibhutibhushan Mukhopadhyay. For the longest time, I couldn’t find anything satisfactory for the third and hence, had to wield the pen myself. The story (Telephone) I wrote is based on a true story that happened in Kolkata. It is exactly the way it happened in the city in the 70s. I just wrote the screenplay.
We finished writing sometime in 2012 and started the pre production in December 2012. Principal photography began on March 1, 2013. Since rain is in the backdrop of the first story, we had to wait for the July monsoons in rural Bengal. We had decided not to use the rain machine. We needed the natural rain. For someone who was making his first feature with his own money, it meant that the unit had to wait. We very well knew we weren’t going to recover money with this project but so be it.
We went ahead. We wrapped up the shoot by September-end 2013. The post production continued till August 2014. This was because I was continuously shooting ad films while doing this. The EMIs had to be paid.
For the next one year, we started sending Teenkahon to festivals. Our count as of now is 41. While the movie has been released (in West Bengal on September 11), the festival journey has not stopped.
We know of many ad filmmakers who have moved to feature films. Why did you choose Bengali to begin this chapter?
This was always on the cards since I was 11 years old. I don’t believe in living a life of a parasite where I always take and won’t give. It doesn’t cut ice with me. Teenkahon is my way of giving back to the language, which has given me everything.
When I started my career making advertising films, I was only given Bengali films to direct because I knew the nuances of the culture. I was not given national campaigns. Somewhere down the line people realized that someone who can tell stories to the Bengali audience can do the same to a larger audience.
Even in advertising, the “Bengaliness” has played its role. Hence, it was payback time for me. There were offers for Hindi films. I asked them to wait because I first wanted to make a Bengali feature. I am happy with the way things panned out. I sleep well at night.
Three years in the making; what were the challenges you faced?
The biggest challenge is how not to become an ad filmmaker while shooting a feature. We are spoilt as ad filmmakers because monies know no bounds. Hence, experimentation. Constraint is a word you will not find in the dictionary of an ad filmmaker in this country. Once you have arrived in life, are making a lot of money doing ad films, it is very difficult to go back and start from scratch. Emotionally, not many people can handle that.
At every single point in the making of Teenkahon, we used to constantly tell ourselves that we are non-entities. We lived with the fact that we are absolutely no one and hence, we must go ahead and do the film honestly. We couldn’t really bother about not having an English breakfast on our tables during the shoot. We were shooting in rural Bengal. We couldn’t really expect a breakfast table with three kinds of coffee and four kinds of muesli.
The fact is that in advertising, we have a storyboard and then we shoot edits. If I had followed a similar process, I would not have been talking to you right now and probably would have still been shooting.
It was very important to know that there is a huge difference in the two disciplines. One was to kill the demon of an ad filmmaker on a feature film set. The second was to learn to hold on to shots. As an ad filmmaker, we are extremely tempted to say “Cut”. I had to learn how not to say the word. In advertising, we ‘overcut’.
The other challenge was to run Little Lamb Films (Buddy’s production house). It meant, we shoot a schedule of the feature and then come back to ads. Earn a little money and pump that into the next schedule. And so on. This is exactly how we have worked. It was a bit like walking a tightrope where we had to manage both ends beautifully because we want to make films honestly. There is no compromise with honesty. I cannot be telling my advertising friends that since I am doing a feature, I will quickly wrap up an ad film and leave. I can switch off and on. When I am doing ads, I can completely switch off from the feature.
Is it difficult to switch on and off like this at regular intervals? And now that you have shot a feature film, will advertisements take a backseat?
Answering the second question first – a resounding NO! We have incidentally won our second Silver Lion at Cannes this year. Advertising will continue. Very interestingly, after having done a feature, I personally feel that my command over the storytelling language has improved. It is now helping me as an ad filmmaker. It is a win-win situation for me.
To answer the first part of the question, it has not been difficult for me to switch roles. I was told by someone recently that I probably am the only filmmaker in the country who is winning at film festivals and advertising festivals at the same time with different films. The only secret is honesty.
How successfully do you think you have been able to capture ‘love and obsession’ true to the times your stories are based in?
I do not want to value judge people of different eras. I have chosen three stories, which kind of tells us that there has been a degradation of morality and values in Bengali life. What has also happened, from a puritan point of view, is that the simplicity of life, love and emotion has suffered. It has suffered to where we are right now. I wanted to capture that.
How people arrive at their inferences is completely up to them. I do not intend to spoon-feed my audience. I have only tried to tell people, “Look! Our lives from being a simple sentence turned into complex and now compound”. And that this is the journey of Bengali innocence.
Who have you been most inspired by? Particularly with Nabalok (the first story), intentional or not, there is a lot of Ray we see.
I studied Economics in college because Satyajit Ray did the same. From the age of 11, I knew I wanted to make films because of that one life-changing book written by Ray called “Ekei Bole Shooting”. I read the book and I knew that the only thing I ever wanted to do in life was to make films and nothing else.
Just the way a dancer would bend down and touch the stage before a performance, Teenkahon is my offering to that one man who single-handedly and unknowingly changed the course of my life. Hence, if people have found similarities with Ray, I’d say, it isn’t intentional but just comes in the way I tell stories.
I keep going back to Nabalok because it is perhaps the story that moved me the most . How did you find a child actor like Barshan Seal and manage to get the child to perform the way he did?
We started hunting for this actor in Kolkata and we realized that the urban Bengali face has undergone a change in the last 100 years. No face was cutting ice with me. We then started looking for a ‘little non-urban face’. We approached theater groups in Madhyamgram and Habra and started auditioning local kids. At one such audition, one of the boys who had come to try out for the role asked my co-writer Abhinandan if he could get a friend of his who had never seen a camera in his life to the set. Abhinandan agreed.
In walked 7-year-old Barshan Seal the next day. Abhinandan asked him to take the screen test. The kid freaked out. Abhinandan called me that night to tell me that we have probably found “Shailen Jr.”. He sent me pictures. I flew down the next morning, met Barshan, his parents and headmaster. I realized he only spoke the local dialect and not the Bengali I wanted him to speak. I refused to let go of him. I asked him to return in two days. Those two days were the most interesting ones in the making of Teenkahon when I changed the screenplay completely. I dropped all of his dialogues. I only kept nine lines that he had to speak.
I called him back and said, “You will NOT remember lines. You will be with me and just before a shot where you have a dialogue to deliver, I will whisper it into your ears”. Barshan watched the film for the first time at the premiere. He never knew the story.
I have been asked how I managed to get him to look at Nayantara (Ananya Sen) all mesmerized. During the shooting, I asked him what he liked. He said, he liked climbing mango trees and that he loved mangoes. I asked him how would he look at a ripe mango he wanted to eat standing under a tree. His eyes shone and I said, “this is exactly how you look at Ananyadi when I tell you to”. The mango exercise worked for only a couple of shots. We had to devise themes. We had to delve deeper into his life and dish out things he was very passionate about. We asked him to imagine a Hilsa fish just fried and he shrieked, “Zeeb diya zol portaache ze (My mouth is watering)” and those were the exact expressions I wanted. In the film, it seems as if he is looking at Nayantara when he is actually thinking of a fried fish and mangoes he wants to eat.
You didn’t take too kindly the fact that I was critical about the third story, isn’t it?
Not at all! I appreciate you that you were honest about it.
What are the kind of honors that have come your way?
The one in India, which is most interesting is the Aravindan Puraskaram for the Best Debutante Director of 2014. I never had imagined I would receive an award from the hands of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and that was a big high.
I received some interesting jury awards. For example, we won the Best Screenplay at the Bridge Film Festival in Kosovo and a Special Mention of the Jury for cinematography. At the SOHO International Film Festival, we won a nomination for being the Best World Showcase in World Cinema. At the Seattle South Asian Film Festival, we won the Audience Choice Award.
You’re working with your wife. How easy is that?
In the initial years of Little Lamb Films, I refused to work with her because then you tend to take work home. You are only discussing work at the dining table. As I got busier, Mona and I realized we were meeting less often. Finally, we decided to work together simply to be close to each other.
Today Mona is my harshest critic, my best supporter and the best bounce board I have. If she doesn’t approve of something, I really wouldn’t dare to go ahead with it. We have ugly fights but by the end of it we realize that we are each other’s best well wisher. Hence, it works.
Mona apart from being the producer of Teenkahon has done costumes, production design of the third story. She has been instrumental in production planning, location hunt and is a one-man army. I love every minute of working with her.
Bauddhayan Mukherji is a happy man?
Very. I have been pleasantly surprised with the way the Tollygunge Film Industry has stood by Teenkahon. Actors, fellow directors have urged people to watch the film saying an anthology like this has not happened in Bengali cinema in years. People who did have echoed their sentiments.
You can’t please everyone. There are those who have not liked the movie. It’s fine. I have always believed that art should create constructive dialogue. Teenkahon has initiated a lot of such dialogues. People are talking about Bengali cinema and I think it is absolutely wonderful.
Book your tickets for Teenkahon here
Read the BookMyShow Teenkahon review here