Shoojit Sircar: The Outlier

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Shoojit Sircar began by gatecrashing the international film festival in Delhi. He tells Lhendup G Bhutia the story of an outsider who came up the hard way

THE DIRECTOR SHOOJIT Sircar appears to be a 20-year-old trapped in the body of a 50-year- old. He rushes from one room to another in a t-shirt and jeans and a careless grey stubble of several days, holding animated conferences with his writer Juhi Chaturvedi in one, then with his producer and script supervisors in another. Meanwhile a Man Friday appears every few minutes, carrying tiny water bottles for guests or several food items for Sircar. First appear several bowls of bhelpuri, then a soup, and finally a salad.

“This could be my lunch,” Sircar says, looking up from his meal, bits of salad caught in the fishnet of his stubble, “This could also be my dinner.”

Outside the brightly-lit office, in a veranda ringed in by large buildings, the dry hot day has given way to a tumescent Mumbai night. Stranded autorickshaws and taxis glow to a standstill at the traffic signal and then scutter away. It is 9.30 pm already. But in his office, Sircar seems unaware of the time, or even of which meal he is consuming.

His office walls are lined with a number of Bengali film posters. I can identify at least one, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, a film that Sircar often likes to say is ‘the Bible of his life’. On another wall, a tiny clock in black and pink keeps time. It is inspired no doubt from the film Pink that he produced. A small pink box, in the shape of a court’s witness box, juts out from this clock, the word ‘No’ on all three sides of it. No means no means no.

Sircar and his team are working on their next project—a biopic on the life of Udham Singh, the Indian revolutionary who assassinated a former Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’ Dwyer, as revenge for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Everyone is tight-lipped about the project, except to reveal that its script and casting, even the location of the filming, has been mostly locked in. Sircar looks up from his plate, a new rim of salad crumbs around his mouth. “Yes,” he says, “we will begin shooting soon.” And then he returns to his plate and his crumbs.

Sircar is an outlier in the film industry. He lives in Kolkata but makes Hindi films in Mumbai. He moved his family (wife and two daughters) to Kolkata in 2010, so his children could have a Bengali upbringing and stay away from the beguiling world of the Hindi film industry in Mumbai. His films, usually slice-of-life dramas, feature conventional stars in unconventional roles: Amitabh Bachchan as a cantankerous old man with irregular bowels, Deepika Padukone as a middle-class working woman caring for her father, Ayushmann Khurrana as a sperm donor, and Varun Dhawan, in Sircar’s latest film, as a hotel management intern. His films are usually not marketed in a way to light up the box office on its first weekend, like most releases are. Dhawan recently described how ‘awfully underutilised’ he felt at the low-key promotions for October, Sircar’s latest. The filmmaker likes his movies to gain success steadily, on word-of-mouth appreciation, over several weeks.

By Hindi cinema standards, October is an unusual film. Set primarily in two places—a five star hotel and a hospital— it tells the story of an accident and how the coma a hotel management intern falls into impacts the lives of her family and the protagonist, an otherwise distant acquaintance from the same hotel. Despite the sombre subject, the story is told with a restraint uncommon in Hindi films, never once reaching for easy tears or neat resolutions. It is slow and ponderous. Something as seemingly insignificant as the movement of nostrils or the occasional flutter of a coma-stricken woman’s eyes has a momentous feel to it. The film has an intimate, lived-in quality. In terms of filmmaking, it is perhaps Sircar’s most ambitious project yet.

On the face of it, nothing much happens in October. There are no events that propel the narrative forward. It is unafraid of silence or stillness. His earlier films like Piku (2015) and Vicky Donor (2012) had the leverage of humour or an unusual story arc. This film’s eye is focused entirely on hope and grief, and the looming prospect—certainly an unprofitable subject—of death.

Sircar, as it turns out, has been living with the idea of such a film for a long time. He lost both his parents in 2004; his father first passed away due to cancer, and then six months later, a brain stroke led to his mother falling into a coma for nearly four months. She never recovered from it. He recounts travelling from Mumbai to Delhi to see her in hospital every few days, sitting by her bedside without a break, not knowing what to do. “I would sit beside her, interact with her, talk to her. I didn’t even know if she could hear or not,” Sircar says. He wanted to distill that experience, he says, into a film story. His long-time writing collaborator, Chaturvedi, had also undergone such an experience when she was caring for her mother. “The way we approach and develop a story is pretty simple,” says Sircar, “We have a thought or an idea, and we develop that into a story by borrowing elements from our life experiences.”

“The idea is to budget the film so tight that the film has made enough money to break even within just two or three days of release. My responsibility then is done. Anything more is a surplus” - Shoorjit Sircar, filmmaker

SIRCAR, THE SON of an Air Force officer, was raised in several places. His earliest memories are as a four-year- old at an Air Force station in the border town of Hasimara, West Bengal, watching his father paint the windowpanes of his official quarters black during the 1971 war, lest enemy bombers spot the light in the house. The bombing never happened. And Sircar grew up enjoying other aspects of the region— being close to nature and visiting various wildlife sanctuaries.

In another interview, he once disclosed how during that same stay in the camp, his mother, then pregnant with his sister, had to be airlifted in a helicopter to be taken to a hospital. The chopper returned just 15 minutes later. His mother had delivered his younger sister aboard the craft. The girl was named Akashi, after the sky where she was born, although she was lovingly nicknamed Heli.

Whenever his father was transferred, the Sircar household would follow suit, and this way the filmmaker moved to Kolkata, and later to Delhi, when he was a teenager. “Delhi was shocking,” he says. “I didn’t know Hindi much, and I had never seen so many people with turbans. In Kolkata, I had seen just one or two people with turbans in my entire life. And now in class, there were so many Sikhs.”

While he worked as an accountant at Le Meridien hotel in Delhi—a stint he made full use of for October (“even though I wasn’t a management trainee, I knew everything about hotels, you see, because I used to give everyone’s salaries”)— he joined several theatre groups. He was young and idealistic back then, he says. During the latter part of the Khalistan movement, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sircar would travel to Punjab with a theatre group that he had formed, Act One, which had as troupe members Manoj Bajpayee, Piyush Mishra and Ashish Vidyarthi, all three of whom are famous actors today.

Not sure of what to do next, he started working for the advertisement industry. Cinema might have seemed a logical next step, but it hadn’t yet occurred to Sircar. This happened when he gate-crashed the International Film Festival of India with a few friends. Back then, the festival used to be held in Delhi and not Goa, like it is now. Too broke to purchase tickets and too unconnected to acquire free passes, Sircar and his friends used to turn up at its theatres on freezing winter nights— when few visitors would show up—and bribe the gatekeepers to be let in. Here, he saw several films, but he remembers two of them especially: the documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, about letters young soldiers had written to their parents during the Vietnam War, and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, which convinced him filmmaking was what he should do next.

Entering the Hindi film industry, however, was not easy. His first film, Yahaan, released during the 2005 floods of Mumbai, was a failure. His second, Shoebite, starring Amitabh Bachchan, never got released after being caught in a dispute between two studios. “It was very difficult back then,” says Ronnie Lahiri, Sircar’s business partner and the co-founder of rising Sun Films, under which his films are made. “We were complete outsiders,” says Lahiri. “And no star was willing to work with us.” Besides, back-to-back failures had dealt a blow to Sircar’s confidence. “But my wife would say,‘You and me, we both know you know how to make films; move on and make films,’” Sircar says.

Sircar’s third venture, Vicky Donor, a romantic comedy about a sperm donor starring relatively unknown actors (at the time), became the surprise hit of that year. “Everything changed after that,” Lahiri says. “We don’t make the typical Hindi masala film or the pure art film which never makes money. We do something in between. And stars, what they are most concerned about, is that they don’t have a flop against their name. If you convince them that the film won’t flop, they are happy to try out something new.”

The way they work, Lahiri says, is to try and make the best film they can, but by preparing for the worst case scenario. Lahiri oversees the financial aspect. He looks at costs, finds locations, etcetera, before arriving at an ideal budget. Everything, he says, is finely planned and tightly budgeted. “People would say, ‘Why are you worried? Varun’s last two films have made over Rs 100 crore.’ But that’s not how we work,” Lahiri says.

Once a budget is estimated, Sircar shoots quickly and precisely. October, for example, was shot within 37 days. Piku, since it was a road film, took 50. According to Sircar, his experience as an ad-filmmaker helps him wrap up shoots within strict budgets and timelines. “To me, when I’m making a film, I’m entirely committed to it. I don’t consider any commercial factors. So the idea is to budget the film so tight, to plan it in such a way, that the film has made enough money [to break even] within just two or three days [of release]. My responsibility then is done. Anything more is a surplus,” Sircar says.

Working with stars helps Sircar attract audiences, but it has its own set of complexities, especially if it’s a role that demands extraordinary measures. For Dhawan, Sircar had a peculiar preparatory regimen. For a year before the shooting began, the actor was asked not to look at his mobile phone the first thing upon waking up, but to find a plant to stare at for 10 minutes instead. Then the music playlist on his phone was changed to chants and older songs. Then, on the set, Dhawan voluntarily stopped applying any make up for the shoot. But Sircar would look at him and tell him, “Varun, make it a little less.” Sircar says he is immensely impressed with Dhawan’s final performance, but on the set, there was one peculiar problem. The actor would shout out all his lines. Dhawan had recently completed Judwaa 2, an over-the-top boisterous film directed by his father David Dhawan (a remake of a 1997 film with Salman Khan). “There was a problem with his pitch,” Sircar says. So the director sat him down and asked him why he was shouting, and if he had a problem with anyone.

He didn’t have one.