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Director Judhajit Sarkar on Khashi Kotha

Tired of Bengali films he finds “spineless”, docu filmmaker Judhajit Sarkar has made his debut film Khashi Kotha about a woman boxer. With Naseeruddin Shah in the lead, Sarkar tells t2 about trying to break the mould with his out-of-the-box venture.

What prompted a film on a woman boxer?

I was making a documentary on women boxers in Calcutta some years back and had thought it would be an interesting subject for a film. Boxing is a sport where you take punishment voluntarily... a body contact game where you deliberately take hits and pain all the time. That I find interesting. And when it’s a woman doing that, it becomes doubly exciting. But wherever I went, the response was very poor. Probably because I’m not a filmmaker of repute. I’ve made lots of documentaries, current affair programmes, corporate films and a few ads but never a feature. Also, there are preconceived notions in the market about which subject will work.

To cut a long story short, I got a producer from Delhi, Starfire Movies, a foundation of sorts interested in promoting films and art that grants scholarships to needy artistes. That is how I got my money and they gave me the freedom to do what I want.

How does the story go?

The film is called Khashi Kotha, which means ‘tale of the castrated goat’. The moment you castrate a goat when it is young, it gradually turns fat, fleshy and becomes tastier. This is a tale told by a goat about a brother who wants to be a boxer but fails and the sister who overcomes all odds and finally succeeds.Very simple story.

But a talking goat?!

Yes, it is a khashi before it is about to be slaughtered, narrating the story of the woman boxer to a butcher, played by Naseer. The brother and sister live in a tannery and the gloves they use are made of leather, so flesh and leather do play an important part.... There are some directors who have introduced elements of magic realism in their films but it usually hasn’t worked. Here I have used commercial elements to build up magic realism in my own way.

It’s a computer-generated goat. Something like Babe. Animation is frightfully expensive in not just India but all over the world, especially if you’re trying to attempt something realistic. Here I’m trying to go very close to a realistic goat, which calls for a lot of expenses. I had a limited budget. Ketan Mehta’s Maya Digital Media is working on it.

How did such an idea come to you?

I’m so bored by the Bangla films I see these days. It doesn’t tickle my imagination, so I’m always thinking of stories which are out of the box and make you think, even if they are ordinary stories. I’m just trying to use a form which might make it very exciting. The audience is so used to seeing a certain form of storytelling that is getting jaded, and after a point they demand something new. We should serve the audience that something.

How did Naseeruddin Shah come on board?

Naseer, I had worked with in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s first film Sazaaye Maut, where I was an assistant. So the moment I got my money in place, I contacted Naseer and told him, ‘Naseer, I have a film. Would you be interested?’ And he immediately agreed to do it just having heard about his character. He said, ‘Don’t tell me anymore. It’s very exciting. I’ve acted with so many actors but never with a goat. I have a very interesting co-star!’ And he turned out to be such a good fit! I don’t think anybody can replace Naseer, now that I see the film after completion.

Who else is a part of the cast?

Anindita Basu, who has acted in Hemlock Society and the TV series Gaaner Oparey, plays the boxer. There are others like Subhasish Mukhopadhyay, Mir, Prasun, Daminee Basu and Shilajit and others. The music director is Raja Narayan Deb. I wanted a fresh look, so I got Shurjodeep Ghosh, who was Ram Gopal Varma’s DoP in Agyaat, to do the camera. With Naseer, I shot at NT-1, and with the rest all over the city. The film was completed in February.

Did Anindita and Daminee need training to play boxers?

I have a friend in the boxing association in Kidderpore with whose help I got two of their best boxers to come and train Anindita and Daminee for a month. They’re nearly professionals now. You won’t see stupid strokes. I remember seeing a Bengali film where the hero was a professional boxer but you could make out that he had just put on the gloves and never boxed in his life. There is a certain grace in the movements. A boxer is like a dancer and the moves have to be rehearsed. Here Anindita and Daminee were really boxing. One of them even ended up with a sore jaw!

With women boxers in the news, isn’t now the right time to release the film?

Of course, that’s what people are telling me. Now with Mary Kom winning the Olympic bronze, people know there is someone called Mary Kom. I hope the release coincides with the interest in women boxing and people get to see the film. I hope to release the film after the Pujas and if there’s novelty in my story, if it’s good, it will work anytime.

Tell us a little about your background in films…

I studied direction at FTII Pune, started off in Bombay, lived in Delhi and came back to Calcutta in the mid-’90s. I became a documentary and short filmmaker. My film Thinking Aloud on Calcutta and Mother Teresa got international recognition but earned criticism too because it wasn’t a very positive picture of Mother Teresa or what she represents. From 2012, I have shifted to full-time feature filmmaking. I want to make at least five films. I also want to produce low-budget films for young directors with bright ideas but no backing.

Are you toying with more out-of-the-box ideas?

Yes, both in terms of ideas and the making. I have a very interesting story of an unsuccessful jibonmukhi singer who gets crushed by a cow that falls on his head from the second floor of a building. The wife runs from pillar to post to reality shows to try and get compensation from the government for her dead husband.... I believe in a certain madness because that is what is lacking in Bengali cinema now. Doesn’t mean that I want to make esoteric, opaque films but ones that are easy to follow. So this will be a mad, mad film about the quest of a woman. But before that, I’m planning a contemporary modern opera of sorts with 14 songs where even the dialogues will be in the form of songs. I plan to get started on it from November, once I get this monkey (Khashi Kotha) off my back!

Mohua Das