The Barfi! man

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By Anurag Basu on why he made barfi!, how he made Barfi! and why he cannot work in a democratic set-up Pratim D. Gupta Is Anurag Basu the best Bengali director in Bollywood? Tell
  • Published 17.09.12
Ranbir Kapoor and Anurag Basu on the sets of Barfi!

When you had come to shoot for Onir’s short film I Am Afia in March 2010, you had shared your next project with t2 called Silence with Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif. That Silence has now become Barfi!. How much has it changed since?

Nothing. Nothing. I keep improvising all the time but I never change the core story. I try and better each scene but the scene itself is not changed. When Ronnie (Screwvala, UTV boss) saw the film for the first time — I always show my film to my producer; after all he’s given the money — he said, it’s incredible how your first narration and your final film are very similar. That’s what his reaction was. Yes, I have tried many things in the interim... when you are deep in the process of writing, you do try different things. But at the end I always come back to the first draft.

Describe this first draft. Is it true that even your leading ladies had no clue about the storyline of Barfi!?

(Laughs out loud) No, no, nothing like that. My scripts are just 15 to 20 pages. I don’t write descriptions of the scenes. I go to the sets and improvise.

If you have no scene descriptions and that few dialogues in an entire film, how can it possibly have more than 15 pages?!

True, true! See, when I was sitting in a theatre once and watching Life in a... Metro, I closed my eyes and started only listening to the film. I realised that I could follow the entire film without having to watch it. So I thought, why was I using the medium of cinema? Why was I misusing the medium? Let’s try and attempt one film where I am using the medium rightly. When I have actors with hands and legs and face and I have a camera, why should I make radio plays? That was the starting point of Barfi!.

Since it talks about the joy of living and you yourself have fought and beaten cancer, isn’t Barfi! also about you?

When you take out references from your life, your world comes into the film. See, as Ranbir was telling someone the other day, there is a little bit of Dada (Anurag) in everybody’s character. Ota toh hoye jaye (That happens). Automatically hoye jaaye.

Coming back to the casting, did Katrina say ‘no’ to the role of Shruti?

No, she did say ‘yes’. But once Rockstar got delayed, that had a snowball effect on the schedule of my film. It got delayed by six months and I had to suffer for that right till the end of the shooting because I never got bulk dates from any of the stars. Katrina got into some other project and she couldn’t make time for Barfi!.

You came to Calcutta looking for your Shruti...

Yes, I did come to fish here for the role but then Ileana (D’Cruz) walked into my office one day and I immediately knew she was my Shruti. I went purely with gut feeling. I hadn’t seen a single work of hers from her south films. Someone called me that she wanted to meet me. So, I agreed to meet her and that’s it. She had a lot of doubts in her head. Two big stars, such a difficult role... but she finally said ‘yes’.

You also had problems with Priyanka Chopra...

I wasn’t very sure of her playing Jhilmil. Only my wife (Tani) was convinced... she was very sure. It was her idea. I had the fear that I would see Priyanka Chopra in the character and Jhilmil wouldn’t work. This has happened in many films where known faces have harmed the character. I went and told her that I know you can pull it off but this is my fear. So, we decided that we would not announce to the world and first do a workshop and see how it goes.

The first day of the workshop was not very smooth...

No, it wasn’t like that... just that she took time to open up to me. Stars come with their own thought processes and their own theories about directors. So, they try to be a certain way initially. I wanted to break that shield of Priyanka and that took a couple of days. We could have done the workshop for three more days but after the first three days, we were both sure that she should play Jhilmil.

You promoted Barfi! as a happy film not highlighting the tension in the story. Why?

See, the other day I was asked what is the genre of the film and I didn’t have an answer. There’s comedy, there’s tragedy, there’s a little bit of crime too. So I didn’t know what genre to put Barfi! in and I said it’s a feel-good genre. That’s what we had been showing in the trailers. Shob kichhu dekhiye dile toh kono laabh nei, naa (What’s the point of showing everything)?

Isn’t the plotting of the film a bit contrived?

The story is very simple. Too simple. So the narration had to be a little complicated. The storytelling is a very new form. And I am curious to know how it’s received everywhere.

Did you ask Pritam to do a Salil Chowdhury-like score for Barfi!?

No, the brief was Bengal and the brief was 1970s. When you do the music of Bengal in the 1970s, that is the sound and feel you will get. Automatically Salil Chowdhury.

Gangster, Metro, now Barfi!... Pritam keeps his best for you?

We just work well together. See, he couldn’t have set aside any tune for me because we couldn’t possibly use a tune kept for Cocktail in Barfi!. He made the songs for this film. So, I would like to believe that we work well together.

It’s been some time now, so do you agree with the bad reviews of Kites? Do you agree you made a bad film?

No. I only took positive things from the film. It was said that I had disowned the film. Absolutely not. It may not have been my best film, I may not be proud of it but I certainly do not regret Kites.

Don’t you think it is like a black spot on your shining CV of Murder, Gangster and Metro?

I think Kites is a good entry on my CV. Tui jaa... and check out the reviews. There you have the reviews of the top critics in the world and Kites is 82% there even today.

But it wasn’t received well at all here in India...

It didn’t matter, re. We were not mad that we had a Spanish girl (Barbara Mori) in the lead. We were not mad to have so many Spanish dialogues in the film. Rakesh Roshan is a hardcore commercial filmmaker and he was looking to the West for that film. The English version was supervised by a mainstream director like Brett Ratner. So it was designed like that. Maybe it was not my best film because I have never worked in a democratic set-up. I think from what was given to me, I gave my best. I don’t think I could have directed Kites better. And while I was unsure about the film, when it did make it to the US Top 10 — the first Indian film to do so — I thought it was an incredible achievement. But unfortunately nobody applauded it here.

So is Barfi! your big Calcutta film?

Not really. Here Calcutta came later, the story came first. When I will start from Calcutta and think of a story, it will be my big Calcutta film.

And what’s next?

I have four or five stories ready. Depending on how Barfi! is received I will decide my next film. If it does well, it will give me a little more confidence to walk my own path. So, I am waiting for that.