In Birsa Dasgupta’s upcoming Bengali film Crisscross, the lives of five women from different socioeconomic backgrounds intersect one day in Kolkata. From an individual crisis comes introspection followed by resolution, as it happens in the source novel, the 2013 bestseller by Smaranjit Chakraborty.
The five women are Meher (Nusrat Jahan), a struggling actress supporting her family; Ira (Mimi Chakraborty), a photojournalist with an overly caring boyfriend; Rupa (Sohini Sarkar), a North Kolkata housewife stuck with an impotent husband and a lecherous brother-in-law; Suzy (Priyanka Sarkar), a single mother raising her son after her junkie husband left her; Miss Sen (Jaya Ahsan), a cutthroat snob with a troubled past who works in a corporate office.
Crisscross is the ninth film by Dasgupta, whose body of work traverses genres. There is horror (Golpo Holeo Shotti, Shob Bhooturey), action (Gangster, One), slice-of-life dramas (033, Jaani Dekha Hobe), romance (Shudhu Tomari Jonyo), and adult comedy (Obhishopto Nighty). Crisscross has been released on August 10.
Unlike Birsa Dasgupta, who does not write his films, Crisscross screenwriter Mainak Bhaumik is a writer-director known for his ensemble dramas that feature vulnerable yet assertive women grappling with life.
Bhaumik feels that his experience with making women-centric films since his directorial debut (Aamra) in 2006 made him the go-to choice for Dasgupta and the producer, SVF. The catch is that the novel Crisscross is not about five women although it does involve different disparate characters running into each other in an hyperlinked story.
“When I read the novel years ago for the first time, I instantly thought of making a film about it, just like it happens after reading any good book,” Bhaumik said. “But then when I actually got round to re-reading it to write a screenplay, I realised that there’s too much going on that just cannot make it to the film.”
Turning the novel into a women-led drama was a joint decision by Dasgupta and SVF. They consulted Chakraborty on the adaptation. “Smaranjit Chakraborty was a very open man and in fact, he suggested this new character of miss Sen,” Bhaumik said.
Bhaumik says he wrote a film based on the novel’s “essence” rather than the “narrative”. What does this mean, exactly?
Among other things, Bhaumik changed one of the male protagonists, photojournalist Archie, into a woman, Ira. In the novel, Archie is the one who is too preoccupied with his career to settle down with his girlfriend.
The story of the petrified housewife Rupa is loosely based on a subplot in the novel, in which the husband, an auto driver, is one of the protagonists. A bit of another male character has gone into Suzy.
“In a novel, a reader can just accept anything and anyone coming at them and there is no real need to complete character arcs with a start, middle, and end,” Bhaumik said. “In a film, however, characters must have an arc from start to finish.”
For example, one of the novel’s most colourful characters is a mad man who bookends the story. “How do I show [his] thoughts on screen without voiceover, a tool I am not a fan of?” Bhaumik said. “We couldn’t fit him into the movie so we had to let go of him. Novels can digress from a narrative and do many things but how do I add something to a movie which is not in service of the main plot?”
Crisscross is the first time Bhaumik is writing for another director and the second time he is adapting a novel. He has written and directed 11 films in 12 years, and finds writing original screenplays easier than adapting another writer’s work. “I am a writer first,” he said. “I am constantly writing, be it sketches or an article or anything.”
Bhaumik’s entry into the Bengali film industry happened as an editor for Anjan Dutt’s coming-of-age drama The Bong Connection (2006). “I was actually approached by Anjan da to help with the writing for Shayan Munshi’s character [a Bengali man from the United States] for I was a Bengali who grew up in New York,” Bhaumik said. While editing another film, Suman Ghosh’s Podokkhep (2006), Bhaumik told one of the film’s producers his interest of making a realistic movie on Kolkata’s young people as he knew them.
“In one scene, which I described to the producer, a guy has been single and sexless for a long time and he tells it to his friend, and the friend replies replies back, so basically lyangcha [a long cylindrical Bengali sweetmeat] has dried and become bonde [tiny sweet balls],” Bhaumik said. “I wanted to make a Bengali film where characters would speak like this.” That became Bhaumik’s first film, Aamra, an ensemble drama about the city’s young people falling in and out of love, shot digitally on a low budget.
Aamra set the tone for a lengthy part of Bhaumik’s filmography that takes a kaleidoscopic view of the city’s middle and upper class inhabitants, particularly the young, and their travails through life, love, and relationships. Bhaumik’s unwavering fascination with one city, its youth and its culture in film after film is most obviously inspired by Woody Allen. Bhaumik does not run from the comparison because it is true.
“I watched Manhattan at the age of 14-15,” Bhaumik recalled. “I was in New York at the time. And it was a huge influence on me. Manhattan gave a very specific sense of the city set in stone in a particular time in history. And how the characters spoke was very important because the way they spoke defined the way they are, which defined the story itself.”
Bhaumik’s films can appear to be repetitive because of being set in the same milieu over and over again, with verbose screenplays featuring talkative characters who are seldom from underprivileged backgrounds. “If you look at city life, people are constantly talking about their problems and being their own shrinks, without actually doing anything,” he explained. “In a cafe, say, in New York or Kolkata, you will find people talking about getting laid or wanting to get laid more often than they actually do. I find that interesting.”
At one point, Bhaumik tried to change tracks with a visually experimental women empowerment saga, Take One (2014), and then another film, Kolkata Calling (2014), about a man from a small town. Both films tanked at the box office. “I thought, okay, people want to see happy things, so I went back to doing what I do best,” Bhaumik said. His subsequent films, Bibaho Diaries (2017) and Ghare & Baire (2018), were successful.
Bhaumik’s Chawlochitro Circus (2017) was a black comedy about a passionate aspiring filmmaker’s struggle to make an honest film battling market constraints. That disappeared from the theatres pretty quickly.
“I tried to make it as a comedy but I think some people got the message hard,” Bhaumik said. “You start making your first film with an idea of winning an Oscar or something, someday, and then you realise that managing to complete just one film is a war in itself.”
While Crisscross will be releasing on August 10, Bhaumik’s last directorial venture Happy Pill hit the theatres on July 27. Happy Pill is yet another modest attempt by Bhaumik to step out of his comfort zone. It is a fantastical story about a man (Ritwick Chakraborty) who invents the titular medicine that solves people’s worries, which gets him into trouble.
Following Crisscross, Bhaumik’s Generation Ami, a film about a 16-year-old boy dealing with overbearing parents with the help of his cousin, is scheduled to be released sometime this year. Will he continue making relationship-based chamber dramas in the tradition of Rituparno Ghosh?
“All crises in Bengali middle-class life occur indoors,” Bhaumik said. “Say, Bombay keeps making film after film about the mafia. We can too, but would it be interesting enough? How do you justify a character like Sarkar here? Also, regional cinema is constricted by budgets. Money shows, and you cannot just wing an ambitious film without the budget. What we cannot do in expanse, we have to make up with our content.”
As if to fight perceptions of his work and try something new once again, Bhaumik has written a horror film, which will be directed by one of his assistants. “It is Aranyer Din Ratri meets Blair Witch,” Bhaumik explained. “Four friends go to Bolpur [near Shantiniketan, West Bengal] to shoot a documentary on Bhoot Chaturdashi, which is kind of like our Halloween, the night before Kali Puja, and then eerie things start happening.”