In his 12th film, Uma, Bengali director Srijit Mukherji puts a realistic spin to the creation myth of the goddess Durga. A young girl, Sara (Sara Sengupta), who lives in Austria, is diagnosed with a terminal disease. She has never seen a Durga Puja celebration in Kolkata. Her father, Himadri (Jisshu Sengupta), sets out to create a fake Durga Puja in Kolkata ahead of the scheduled date. “All the gods chipped in to arm Durga ahead of her fight with Mahishasura,” Mukherji said. “Similarly, different strangers in Kolkata come together to make the father’s dream come true.”
The ensemble cast of the scheduled June 1 release includes actor-filmmaker Anjan Dutt, who plays Brahmananda, a reluctant filmmaker who joins Himadri’s quest. “To take the metaphor further, I named these people who help Himadri after the gods who helped Durga,” Mukherji said. “So, Anjan Dutt, the director, is Brahmananda after Brahma, the creator. The art director helping the project is Biswarup Karmakar, named after the god Biswakarma [Hindu deity for artisans].”
Mukherji’s inspiration for Uma is Evan Leversage, a terminally ill Canadian boy who was treated to an early Christmas in October 2015. Leversage died in December.
“Leversage’s story ties to the Akaal Bodhan tradition of Durga Puja where Rama worshipped Durga at an uncustomary time to seek her blessings before fighting Ravana,” Mukherji said. “While Evan’s story was a medical emergency, Akaal Bodhan was a wartime emergency. The parallels helped me write Uma in three-four days flat.”
A surprising addition to Uma’s ensemble cast is Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Babul Supriyo in a villainous role. “Casting is like team selection in cricket and Babul is our mystery spinner,” was all Mukherji would reveal. “His hunger to act was immense and he turned out to be one of the most hardworking and committed actors I have ever worked with.”
Mukherji is reaching out to his emotional side after having rolled out the serial killer drama Baishe Shrabon (2011), the thriller Chotushkone (2014), and the gangster film Zulfiqar (2016).
“Uma is a film of outrageous hope,” Mukherji said. “I am a very optimistic person and believe in shutting down negativity. I would rather celebrate the goodness showed by the townsfolk of Evan for a few days than mourn that the world has become a nasty place to live in. Today, when you go online, you read stuff, and you feel ashamed to be a human. Uma is a film that will tell you that it’s better to be a human rather than an amoeba or a baboon.”
Mukherji has delivered multiple hits in Bengali cinema since Autograph, his 2010 debut. His films have won seven National Film Awards, including a Best Director win for Chotushkone.
Despite the acclaim, Mukherji has had to face his share of detractors. Mukherji addressed the issue in his 2017 adventure film Yeti Obhijaan, in which the hero, the sleuth Kakababu (Prosenjit Chatterjee), mocks online critics.
Was this necessary? “My films are like my blogs where I express my greatest fears, pet peeves, my worldview and politics,” Mukherji said. “Personal attacks and insensitive trolling in the name of criticism makes me angry. To keep my online profile abuse-free, I, of course, always block trolls. But I think it was necessary to express my stand on the matter in a bigger way.”
Following Uma, Mukherji has releases planned until 2020, which include Bengali films and two web series. Mukherji is currently writing Chowringhee, based on Shankar’s Bengali novel. The 1962 publication, which revolves around an upmarket hotel in Kolkata, was made into a Bengali film in 1968, starring Uttam Kumar, Supriya Devi and Utpal Dutt.
Mukherji’s adaptation will star his frequent collaborators Prosenjit Chatterjee, Jisshu Sengupta and Anjan Dutt. “My film will be set in 2018, as a lot of Kolkata has changed,” Mukherji said. “Its values, its ethos, and its demographic have changed. The hotel industry has changed. The city has become darker in many ways.” Chowringhee is scheduled for a December release.
Before Chowringhee, Mukherji’s historical drama film Ek Je Chhilo Raja will be released during Durga Puja. Starring Jisshu Sengupta, the film is about a possible impostor in the 1920s who claimed to be the prince of Bhawal estate of Bengal (now in modern-day Bangladesh). Also in the pipeline is Mukherji’s third installment in his Kakababu series and two Hindi web series: an adaptation of Arnab Ray’s novel, The Mahabharata Murders, to be shot in Kolkata with Hindi and Bengali actors, and a 12-part adaptation of short stories written by Satyajit Ray.
Then, there is Gourango Itikatha, which will revolve around the life of Bengali Hindu spiritual leader Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Mukherji also says that he is in talks to direct three Hindi films. How does he manage to juggle so many projects?
“It all comes from an inner calling,” Mukherji said. “For every 1,000 things I might do, there are 3,000 things I am refusing. I don’t know what a cine lover in Malda will prefer over one in Melbourne, or one in Delhi will like and one in Dehradun won’t. I am my first and foremost audience. If I decide that I will watch a film on a certain subject, even if it is made by someone else, I will go ahead and make it.”
Kolkata is one big reason why Mukherji is able to crank out one movie after another. “It’s simple economics – we cannot afford to do just one scene in a day or spend twenty minutes over things that will require just one meeting,” he said. “When I was shooting Begum Jaan, the Mumbai crew could not keep up with the Kolkata crew. In Kolkata, we think ahead of five possible problems with a shoot and stay ready with six solutions.”
As an example, he cited Uma, which was shot in three schedules over 23 days, three of which comprised the exterior shots depicting Durga Puja celebrations. These sequences were shot at the time of the actual festival last year so as to save time and money.
“But the process has a flip side,” Mukherji said. “Such a short duration is not enough to do computer graphics properly. So you won’t find many fantasy and science-fiction films coming from Bengal. For Rajkahini and Begum Jaan [its Hindi remake], in one scene, we put a house on fire and shot with the actors inside it because we did not have the resources to do a CGI shot of a burning house.”
Begum Jaan, his Hindi directorial debut in 2017, was panned and barely broke even, unlike the Bengali original, Rajkahini (2015). Starring Vidya Balan as the head of a brothel that lies on the border between India and the newly created Pakistan in 1947, the movie was derided for its high-pitched melodrama and histrionics.
“I think Begum Jaan is technically a better film, but it missed out the emotional rigour and raw passion of the original,” Mukherji said. “It was a polarising movie about a dark subject, so it did not find an universal audience. Begum Jaan, however, drew positive responses from the vernacular media and was a hit in North India, particularly, UP [Uttar Pradesh], Punjab and Delhi. The English-language media did not like it, but then Bombay only represents an elite subsection of the Indian audience.”
The poor response to Begum Jaan has not halted Mukherji’s Bollywood dreams. “Begum Jaan did two things – it gave the producer back its money,” he said. “And secondly, it introduced a new independent voice in Mumbai. People may have loved or hated it, but they could not ignore it. Now, they at least know that I am the one who made it. I may start shooting my next Hindi film at the end of this year or, perhaps, the next.”