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Salaam namaste

He had flown into Calcutta last weekend to watch a show of Kahaani with his local cast and crew. After a never-ending lunch at Kasturi, followed by mishti from Sen Mahasay and Vien, he was in a very snoozy mood in his hotel room on Sarat Bose Road. No, not Monalisa Guest House. But a rifle shot from there. Cups and cups of piping hot Nescafe Gold got him chatting. But that BlackBerry of his never stopped ringing. His replies? “Thank you”. Although we tried our best to have a chat about Kahaani without giving away the big twist at the end, you’d be best advised to watch the film before reading this post-mortem adda.

Kahaani jome gechhe but there are some who feel you have cheated them, in the film till the point of the revelation and right through the promotions…

Let me tell you, from the day the promo came out, I haven’t hidden anything. What does the poster say? Mother of a story. Should be mother of a child, no? But we never notice the obvious. Our minds are already set. There is this pregnant woman looking for her husband. Everyone naturally believes her… it shows the mental preconditioning of the males around her too.

But the film doesn’t hold up on second viewing; once you watch it knowing the twist…

It should work 100 per cent every time because the movie is not about the twist. My model was The Sixth Sense. It never confused me… the revelation at the end only enhanced the beauty. I wanted to achieve that. I want you to be on this journey with me and since you have been kind enough to give me one-and-a-half hours of your life, at the end of the movie I am giving you a note of gratitude. You feel good about it. The twist is good, but it’s not the film.

You were never worried about the audience feeling cheated?

No, I have never cheated. I kept my conscience very clean on this one. In her lonely moments, Vidya (Bagchi, played by Vidya Balan) is trying to grasp the last snatches of the life she herself destroyed. She was the one who pushed her husband to come to Calcutta. See, you interpret a story according to your experience. If you are 20-21 you don’t know anything about pregnancy — not to say they should! — so you assume things. Also, you see images of her past only when she is narrating her kahaani to someone else. All three times. When she is thinking alone at Monalisa Guest House, you don’t get to see the husband’s face.

Explain the peacock at Monalisa…

It’s a lucky thing maybe! She has called this guest house from London before coming. She found it somehow. On the Net maybe. But then a Monalisa Guest House won’t be on the Net. (Laughs and sips more coffee.) Ei shob niye katha hochhe bhalo lagchhe (It feels good that we are discussing all this)!

That’s because the film has worked… You must have had many such layers in Aladin too.

And so many in Home Delivery! Keu dekhlo naa!

Just wondering, could you have told the same story in a Hitchcockian style by starting with the twist and then taking her quest from there?

Golpota twist diye shuru kora jeto? (Thinking, thinking...) Naa, because we followed a few principles. It’s like a game of chess. You play a few basic moves first before you go for it. So my idea was to go for an “undercover” principle. You can ask me why is she coming in from London? She could have come from Bardhaman. But my thing is that when you are creating a world, it has to be detailed to the tee. And you have to start creating from the ground level. Jeta aamra cinema dekhe shikhechhi. Whether I have watched a Donnie Brasco or a Deep Cover. Ekdom neech theke shuru koro, build up your base and then attack. See, in the film, Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays Intelligence Bureau officer Khan) does a background check on Vidya. He must have found out about her… we had to establish all that. If we had started with the twist, maybe we couldn’t have progressed.

Also, couldn’t Vidya have achieved her goal without the help of the Intelligence Bureau or Calcutta Police?

Maybe, but I thought it was a great way of using the law to crack the law. Maney loha diye loha kaato… Also, why do you think she got Rana (the sub-inspector played by Parambrata Chattopadhyay) involved? Because she knew there will be many such places and situations where she would need him. The fact that you are coming with a policeman, no one will touch you. You are assured of your security at the moment…

…and there are a couple of places where she actually uses him like a police badge.

Haan… exactly! It’s like her back-up. At the end of the day she is alone in an unknown place. He is like a badge of security… almost a bodyguard. And she establishes that right at the beginning… she calls him Satyaki, “Arjun ka saarthi”.

The relationship between Vidya and Rana, a real crux of the film, is so beautifully etched…

That’s my proudest moment. See, as filmmakers, something I am sure you will also face in time to come, you have to give in to what the current culture and social milieu of an environment is. Love has crossed many barriers.… I doubt whether it exists in the kind of pristine form it used to. We have to give in to the reality of the whole thing. Even though socially and morally it maybe wrong, it is possible for a young boy to fall in love with a married, pregnant woman. It’s very easy. Even we have gone through such emotions, porer bou-er saathe preme porechhi…. We hide. But it’s time we pushed the envelope. Vidya knew that… and she exploits it.

That exploitation is so subtle… What exactly did you ask the two actors to do?

Khub halka (Play it soft)! Amar katha chhilo… she needs to suck him in. Without being the obvious seductress… meri baahon mein aaja types. But she charms him. And it’s a lot from Rana. This is what I jhaarofied from Nayak. You remember the scene when Uttam Kumar first enters the train compartment and the man is trying to open the medicine bottle for his daughter?

She is lying sick on the upper bunk and watching…

Yes and Arindam (Uttam Kumar) opens the bottle… and the daughter’s expression is like “Hero! Amader hero!” That same principle — lokera pyandabe ebaar amake (people will beat me up for this) — is used in the scene when Vidya first comes to the police station. The officers are struggling to tame the computer. Aar ‘Bidya’ phat kore thik kore dilo! So that moment onwards she is Rana’s hero. And then it’s for Vidya… ektu halka kore kheliye... Rana’s probably a guy who’s grown up in the suburbs… gone to a Bangla-medium school… more than likely doesn’t have a dad… surname is Sinha, so father probably came from Bhagalpur or Patna… He would never have seen someone like a ‘Bidya’ Bagchi… she is exquisite to him. And then she plays with him. That scene of footsie in the tram… I was very scared.

Beshi hoye jachhe kina (As in, was it too much)?

Haan. But they pulled it off beautifully. And that’s because Param never reacted with lust or love. It was innocence. So it worked.

That Nayak thing we never would have known but Joi Baba Felunath is pretty obvious… the running hot water bit. And Charulata maybe? In the way Vidya looks out and moves from window to window?

Yes, yes Charulata that! There are loads. Framing comes from Mahanagar. But then I would call most of them my schooling. Ei shob dekhei toh aamra shikhechhi. The formula I have learnt in maths… that’s what I am going to apply, tai naa? Like I remember an interview of Ray’s where he had said that in Aranyer Dinratri he wanted the audience to be inside the car with the four guys all the time. So the camera never leaves the car. It stuck in my head. The same thing I have done here. Tui dekhbi camera kokhono baire jaye naa. You are like Vidya’s fellow passenger. The moment you take the camera out, you become a third party objective. Like how Khan sees it when Vidya goes past in the car. These are the things I have imbibed from The Master.

Besides Ray, any other references?

There are many others. See, the films I grew up watching in the ’70s and ’80s, they were visually striking. I remember the scene in Deewaar when Shashi Kapoor walks in, sees Nirupa Roy and takes his cap off and she breaks her bangles. Nothing more, nothing less. Just images. I have used that here. Vidya comes down the stairs and sees Param standing there… he takes his cap off... just before the morgue scene. See, throughout I have kept the mother as a subtext. Whether Rana saying: “Ashchhi Maa!” or whether Bishnu (the boy in Monalisa Guest House) is doing something for his mother figure (Vidya).

That giving of the radio by Bishnu to Vidya in the end, what does it signify?

Bishnu, for me, represents Calcutta. If you force people from here to give you something, they will never give it to you. Bina juddhe nahi dibo suchagro medini type-er. But if you give them love, they will give you anything.

Did you ever feel that the plot’s getting too complicated?

Yes, I did. So we cut out a lot.

There was more, you mean?

There were backstories. Rana had a backstory. There was a little more detailing about the Intelligence Bureau issues. Bob Biswas (Saswata Chatterjee) had more scenes.

The IB involvement is not very clear in the film…

Yes, it is a bit fluffy. But I didn’t want you to start thinking at any point of time. So we rushed ahead.

Still, a chunk of the case in the second half, especially the Nonapukur incident, seems a bit stretched…

Maybe, but she (Vidya) had to cross those hurdles. There had to be some excavation from her. Otherwise it would have been too simple a journey.

You have often said in the run-up to the release that Kahaani could have only happened in Calcutta. Why so? Why not the Mumbai underworld?

Aamar pokhhe shombhob hoto naa. Others might have… I don’t know. When I was writing… I had never been to Venice or Bhutan or Chennai. See there’s the basic fact that I wanted to come back and shoot in Calcutta. But that’s not the issue. You have to be pragmatic at the end of the day. Love for Calcutta doesn’t mean jor-jobordosti ekta chhobi banabo. I know this city rebibhotsho bhabe chini. And I knew I could use the ambience of this city for a film like this. You take it for granted that this city is peaceful, intellectual… lokera porashuno kore… that there can be a dark side here is very interesting. Also, I needed an environment where Vidya can stick out as a sore thumb. Plus, I wanted to choose a time when 90 per cent of the people’s mental state is tuned to the same zone… Durga pujo! Chhuthi, notun jaama, bairey jabo… everybody is in the happy zone. Now there’s this woman going against the crowd… which was the first-look poster. Like Midnight Express, you are walking against the circle. And then I want you to see Calcutta through Vidya’s eyes… discovering this city of extremes… rickshaw vs Metro. That old-school charm. Also, Calcutta people are very personal… not like Mumbai.

Everyone’s trying to help her…

Correct! Ota aamar dorkaar chhilo. That empathy comes very naturally. Also, if you come from London to Mumbai, you are taking a step ahead. You are coming to a more modern city. Delhi becomes too political a thriller. Calcutta was perfect.

The Calcutta we see, how much of it is you and how much of it is Setu (the DoP)?

For the first time, barring Vishal-Shekhar, I have worked with people with whom I have never worked before. Including the cast and crew. That kept me on my toes. Somewhere I must have got complacent working with the same crew over and over again. It all becomes a back-patting exercise. In this new set-up I became very brave. Like if I have employed Namrata (Rao) to edit my film, aami aar otey dhukbo naa. If I have employed Setu to shoot my film, I will just not get into it. We worked out a brief yes, but then it’s their work. And I couldn’t have made this film like Aladin. It needed a Vidya, it needed an adhoc kind of photography, where Vidya is not following the camera, the camera is following her.

The last Amitabh Bachchan voiceover sounds forced and a bit out of place…

I don’t know, re. It worked for me because I wanted a third party view in the end. The voice of God, the voice of humanity.

Why? To give it a bigger canvas?

To give it a bigger canvas and that last portion is what I bring to the table as a director. The fact that she has found Milan Damji and has lost her husband forever. The moment her case is solved, she has to accept her fate. That whole Ma analogy was very important to me. Maybe on a personal level, on an indulgent level.

Mr Bachchan tweeted: “Kahaani simply superb! Sujoy, what the heck were you doing making films like Aladin!!?” Was it tough getting Kahaani made after Home Delivery and Aladin?

By far, apart from getting my wife to marry me, this has been the most challenging thing I have ever done. And at least when I was trying to convince Baishali, I didn’t have two flops behind me. Here I came with a resume which looked very bad. If somebody had money, they need to be assured. The script on paper was around Rs 16 crore. You can’t make a film with that kind of money with a solo heroine in the lead, even if she is Vidya Balan, especially when she has a seven-month belly. Plus a totally unknown cast. That was a downer for most. Even Vidya then wasn’t the Vidya she is today. A lot of people wanted to do the film but they got hesitant when their in-house experts thought it wasn’t feasible. And I was feeling just like I was feeling before Jhankaar Beats. I just couldn’t explain to them what I was seeing in my head. The response I was getting was like “Thik achhe, anek dekhechhi.” It was incredibly difficult but somewhere the jedi Bangali in me never gave up.


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