There are many reasons why the Nandita Roy-Shiboprosad Mukherjee combination is unassailable at the Bengali box office. One has to do with soil.
“If you see Tamil and Malayalam films, you will see that they have maati [soil] in them,” Mukherjee said. “For a really long time, Bengali films did not have maati. Do Bengalis not wear dhotis or lungis? Where are those characters? Does a Bengali film hero have to be a film director? In our film Ramdhanu, the hero owns a local medical store. People connect to that.”
The ordinary, middle-class urban themes that have featured in the duo’s productions have contributed to an extraordinary career graph: nine releases since 2011, and every single one of them a hit or a blockbuster. The movies made by Roy and Mukherjee explore the hopes and anxieties of a Bengali middle class that is far removed from the genteel types who populate the films of Anjan Dutta, Aparna Sen and Srijit Mukherji.
In their most recent release Posto (Poppy Seed), a grandfather (Soumitra Chatterjee) battles his son and daughter-in-law for the custody of his grandson. Having earned over Rs seven crore at the Bengal box office, Posto has become the highest-grossing local production of the year so far.
“Bengali commercial cinema was in the ICU for the longest time because audiences could not identify with what they were being served,” director Indranil Roychowdhury observed. Roy and Mukherjee have stepped in as healers, ensuring heavy footfalls in cinemas within and beyond Bengal, a healthy run, and guaranteed returns. Their last three films Bela Seshe, Praktan and Posto were distributed by Eros International, and they will be remade in Hindi.
Viacom18 Motion Pictures is producing the remake of Bela Seshe (At The End Of The Day), with rumours of Amitabh Bachchan stepping into the shoes of Soumitra Chatterjee as the patriarch who decides to divorce his wife after a 49-year marriage. Vishesh Films, run by the brothers Mahesh and Mukesh, will remake Praktan (Former), in which a woman meets her ex-husband during a train journey. While Roy and Mukherjee will handle the Bela Seshe remake, the Praktan remake will be helmed by another filmmaker.
“I cannot think of a time when Bengali films did so much business outside Bengal,” Eros International’s Senior Vice President (India Theatricals) Nandu Ahuja, told Scroll.in. “We released Bela Seshe all over India 50 days after it was released in Bengal. Still, we got good numbers. So, we ensured that Praktan was released everywhere on the same day as it got released in Bengal. Posto is still doing well and I expect it to do a net business of Rs 45 to 50 crore.”
It will be interesting to see whether Roy and Mukherjee are able to communicate their distinctly Bengali worldview to a national audience. Their first release in 2011, Ichche (Wish), revolved around the relationship between an obsessive mother and her son trying to live his own life. Accident and Alik Sukh (Unreal Happiness) were social issue films. Their breakthrough was 2012’s Muktodhara (Waterfall), based on dancer Alokananda Roy’s dance therapy sessions with convicts at a correctional facility. The movie was the biggest hit of 2012.
With every single film since, they have captured the contemporary Bengali middle class experience of coming to terms with the demands of modernity, a running theme that has, in Nandita Roy’s words, “bridged the urban and rural audience divide”.
Ramdhanu dealt with middle class parents who want to get their child admitted to an English medium school; Bela Seshe asserts the values of marriage and traditional relationships. Praktan and Posto explore the clash of contemporary, urban and liberal attitudes with traditional values.
“They must be given due credit for effectively tuning their films to the keys of dominant middle-class ideas and aspirations,” Jadavpur University’s film studies professor Anindya Sengupta said. “They have stuck to time-tested simple issue-based narratives addressing family audiences without trying to be fashionable or different.”
These hits have their share of detractors. Critics have pointed to the regressive and conservative strains in their films. The ex-wife in Praktan is shamed for her non-conformist, independent values, while the working mother in Posto is vilified for her commitment to a career. Perhaps this emphasis on traditional values at a time when Bengali middle class culture is in a state of flux is one of the secrets of their success.
Before Roy and Mukherjee’s golden run, Bengali commercial films could be categorised into two broad categories: remakes of Southern potboilers, and highly stylised urban slice-of-life films. These movies didn’t always speak to the experiences of the sizable middle class in Bengal – the government officials and school teachers, the life insurance agents and store owners. Roy and Mukherjee changed all that.
“They target their audience very intelligently,” National award-winning filmmaker Srijit Mukherji said. “They understand their audience and their psychology exceptionally well. Their dosage of sentimentality and Bengalihood is perfect.”
Knowing the audience first-hand is a fundamental part of filmmaking, Shiboprasad Mukherjee asserted. Roy and he visit theatres to check audience reactions every time their films are released.
“There’s nothing more interesting than facing your audience inside a theatre,” Mukherjee said, “In the beginning, you will see a number of mobile screens glowing. That means the audience still hasn’t connected to the film. Slowly, that number will come down to one or two. Then, you see someone’s hand coming from the side and putting the phone away. Now, the theatre is dark. Everyone is into the film. It’s beautiful.”
The partnership was formed in the early 2000s. Nandita Roy was heading the television channel ETV Bangla. Her husband, acclaimed art director Nitish Roy, was making a film in which he cast Mukherjee, then a part-time television actor. Mukherjee badly wanted to work in films professionally and Roy took him under her wing. Together, they began producing popular non-fiction television shows.
“We worked predominantly in non-fiction but we always wanted to do fiction,” Mukherjee said. “During our television career, we kept writing fiction scripts.”
The television programmes included Ebong Rituparno, a celebrity chat show hosted by director Rituparno Ghosh, and the popular women’s magazine programme Sreemoti. In 2007, they were working on 14 TV shows at the same time, but quit abruptly to focus on filmmaking. They kept pitching their scripts to production houses without success until actress and friend Rituparna Sengupta got them a producer for their debut film Ichche in 2011.
“Ichche got made but we couldn’t release it due to a producer-related dispute,” Mukherjee said. “Once it released, it became a super-hit and the rest is history.” The films that they had directed around the same time but that had not been released slowly made it to the theatres.
The collaboration is neatly divided down the middle. “Every film begins with Shibu giving me a one-line concept,” Roy explained. “Then I write the story and screenplay. Shibu writes the dialogue. We do the pre-production together. While I look after costumes, props and other things, Shibu does workshops with the actors. During the shoot, Shibu gives the directions while I sit behind the monitor. The entire post-production is overseen by me while Shibu handles the dubbing. Once the film is complete, Shibu takes over the marketing and publicity.”
Their upcoming projects include a production of Anindya Chattopadhyay’s Projapoti Biskut (Projapoti Biscuit), which is targeting an October release, and Rosogolla, a big-budget production that will mark 150 years since confectioner Nobin Chandra Das created the iconic dessert.
Apart from upholding a perception of fundamental Bengaliness, the directors have proved to be a sound investment. “I will never work with anybody else,” declared Atanu Roy Chowdhury, who has co-produced five of their movies. “They make films for audiences, not for awards. Why should I make a film that will fly past the audience’s head? Their films always make money.”