The legal drama Pink has resulted in a storm of for and against opinions, complaints about mansplaining and liberties taken with the representation of courtroom procedures, impassioned “This is my life” testimonials, and the rediscovery of an old women’s rights movement slogan: “No means no.”
All of which goes to show that the September 16 release, directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, produced by Shoojit Sircar’s company Rising Sun Company, and starring Amitabh Bachchan as the male dispenser of feminist ideas and Taapsee Pannu, Kriti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang as the women he defends, is a critical and commercial hit.
From Sircar’s point of view, Pink is a gamble that has paid off beautifully. Several studios turned down the story of a young woman, Minal, who is sexually assaulted, accused of prostitution by her attacker, and forced to defend her reputation in court. Springing to her rescue is Bachchan’s world-weary lawyer, who invokes the old trope of the lone warrior who comes out of hibernation to fight one last, decisive battle.
Sircar and his partner at Rising Sun, Ronnie Lahiri, instead decided to approach independent producers and distribute the film themselves. “Studios have to trust the vision of the makers and directors,” Sircar said. “Any kind of formula or rigid set-up will not work, and a great script can turn out to be pathetic.” If a studio were involved, they would have subjected Pink to focus group screenings, for instance. “I don’t like focus groups, I fail miserably at them,” Sircar said. He had allowed his 2013 film, the political drama Madras Cafe, to be dissected by carefully selected samples of individuals who are meant to represent the potential audience. “Sometimes, you start compromising because of these focus groups,” Sircar said. “If a film needs it, only then will I do it.”
In the case of Pink, a different kind of internal focus group seems to have operated during the film’s production. Although Chowdhury is credited as the film’s director and one of the writers, Sircar has admitted to ghost directing the movie. In an interview with CNN-IBN journalist Rajeev Masand¸ Sircar described himself as a “creative producer”, who directed the actors in many scenes and took charge of several aspects of the shoot.
In one of the early drafts of Pink, the movie opened not with the aftermath of the attack but with the actual event. In the final film, Minal’s assault by Rajvir (Angad Singh Bedi) is shown in fragments in the end credits, just like the revelry that leads to chaos in the Hollywood comedy The Hangover is seen only at the end.
The already iconic “No means no” scene was worked upon considerably by Sircar and dialogue writer Ritesh Shah. “In my initial draft, it wasn’t there, but we knew we were working around the word ‘No’,” Sircar said. “We were jamming with Mr Bachchan, whom everybody expects to come in and deliver a grand speech in the end. He said, I will simply say no, nothing else. We thought it was a big step, especially since enough had been said in the film already.” In the final scene treatment, Bachchan’s lawyer character makes a rousing case for female consent whether expressed by “an acquaintance, a friend, a girlfriend, a sex worker, and even your wife”.
The scene was challenging for the thespian too, Sircar added. “Mr Bachchan called me on many nights and rehearsed the lines over the phone,” Sircar said. “I would say, no sir, this pitch is not right. One day, he called me and said, what happens if I don’t emote at all? I said, maintain this tone and come to the shoot, and that is what we used.”
The filmmakers’ decision to fire over the shoulders of one of Indian cinema’s most enduring superstars and use his credentials to deliver sermons on social prejudices about rape and assault has had its share of criticism. Would Pink have worked just as well if, say, Shabana Azmi, had stood in the courtroom and delivered the same homilies? “It never occurred to us, and we didn’t see it that way at all,” Sircar said. “Pink is not a women’s empowerment film, it is a simple narrative of three women. This film is not for the women, who go through such experiences every single day, it’s for the men and the boys.”
The scene would not have worked “if it were not for Bachchan and his stature”, Sircar added.
During the scripting, Sircar and Shah assumed the roles of the opposing advocates, played by Bachchan and Piyush Mishra. “Ritesh and I took on these lawyer roles, we would start questioning each other to see how low we could go.”
In the process, both the men confronted their own latent assumptions about women. “I am a man and I cannot ultimately understand what women go through when they are being stared at from top to bottom, but since we have mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, we do understand these experiences somewhat,” the filmmaker said.
The casting of Bachchan as the aging knight in creaky armour has another angle for Sircar, who was born in Kolkata, moved to Delhi for higher education, and worked in advertising before directing his first film, Yahaan, in 2005. A romance between an Indian Army soldier and a Kashmiri woman, Yahaan was followed by Shoebite, a road movie starring Bachchan and Sarika. A spat between rival studios over copyright claims has grounded Shoebite since 2008. Had it been released on schedule, audiences might have seen Bachchan in the role of a husband who sets out on a road trip across India as a form of penance. Sircar has also been a part of Bachhan’s graceful aging in his dysfunctional family Piku in 2015.
Sircar’s films since Yahaan mark him as a director who is keen on being identified with cerebral entertainers. His films feature characters who fight the good fight, adhere to an old-fashioned morality, and represent liberal thought, integrity, decency and aspiration meshed with progressiveness. If it all sounds very Doordarshan and 1980s parallel cinema, that is because the 49-year-old filmmaker traces his formative influences to the years of state-directed planning and Nehruvian values.
“I don’t remember a single story I read in my childhood when the teacher or my father didn’t ask me about the moral at the end,” Sircar said. “I am from the Doordarshan era, and the best films have already been made. Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mrinal Sen, K Balachander, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Gulzar – they have already done it all. I am just at the tail end trying to do my own work.”
Sircar’s message movies do have the varnish that considerable advertising experience brings. “Advertising has given me my bread and butter, it has sharpened my skills in terms of the detailing and cinematic craft – how to introduce a character in one shot and tell you everything about his background, how to get the cast, background and production design all in one look,” he said.
The blend of realism and entertainment was perfectly realised in Vicky Donor, a comedy about a sperm donor. Written by Sircar’s frequent collaborator Juhi Chaturvedi, the 2012 production proved that unusual subjects can work wonders when backed by strong writing, intelligently sketched characters, and settings that audiences can relate to. The film unfolds in Delhi, which has had a tremendous influence on Sircar – it’s where he was exposed to theatre and made many of the friends with whom he continues to collaborate.
Sircar has lived in different neighbourhoods in Delhi – the Indian Air Force base in Tughlakabad, where his father was posted, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College in Sheikh Sarai, Khanpur and finally the genteel environs of the capital’s mini-Kolkata, Chittaranjan Park. After completing his college education, Sircar became a member of the theatre group Act One, whose members included Imtiaz Ali, Deepak Dobriyal, Piyush Mishra and Gajraj Rao. “I did backstage and lighting for the group,” Sircar said “Theatre taught me to be grounded and to have social issues in all my stories.”
Sircar is now working on two scripts, one with Ritesh Shah and the other with Juhi Chaturvedi. He prefers collaborating with people he knows intimately, and if a stranger walks into the Rising Sun Productions office with a crackerjack script, the chances of it being pounced upon are low. “It is important for me to work with friends, I cannot work with unknown people,” Sircar said. Bachchan is likely to feature in his future productions. “He is redefining himself every day, and he is a pleasure to work with,” Sircar said. “He has become an addiction.”