Abhik Mukherjee, FTII alumnus, is one of the best cinematographers in Indian cinema. His roster comprises several National and state awards. His portfolio features polarities like Bunty aur Babli, a Bengali sci-fi called Patalghar, Dosar in B & W and the Tagore period film Chokher Bali. It is no surprise therefore, that one day he would extend the horizons of his creativity from playing with light and shade, camera lenses, colour and Black-and-White to playing with characters, script, dialogue, mise-en-scene and actors who perform the characters. His first Bengali film Ekti Taraar Khonje (In Search of a Star) is currently shooting in a couple of ancestral homes in the northern parts of Kolkata. He is also cinematographing the film. This writer managed to draw this extremely shy person out for a brief interview.
What triggered the move to direction?
I am in no hurry to switch channels from cinematography to direction. I feel there are some subjects that can be made into a film. I felt perhaps I could do it. A close friend, Madhuja Mukherjee, who teaches film studies at Jadavpur U, narrated a one-line story. I found it interesting. She developed it into a script. It was filled with characters from different cross-sections of society staying in a sprawling old house as tenants. I am a close friend of Aniruddha Roy Choudhury. I was DOP for his Antaheen. We discussed the story and he agreed to produce it under his Screenplay Films banner.
What is the story about?
It begins with a simple boy arriving at Kolkata to realise his dreams. He wants to become an actor. He comes to live in a sprawling old house and meets different kinds of people who live here. The landlord is an eccentric person. He is caught in a time-warp. He reads Shakespeare, plays the esraaj, a nearly forgotten stringed instrument, has a framed family tree hanging on a wall, goes out at night and remains indoors the whole day. He also meets a young girl and the love angle comes in. Since this young man wants to become an actor which he does, there is this constant interplay between illusion and reality within a criss-cross narrative where one does not quite know when reality ends and illusion begins. The film, as of now, is open-ended. The audience will be led to think whether what they were watching really happened or whether it was all a dream within the film.
Is there a difference between direction and cinematography?
I do not find many. A director needs to think in terms of visuals as much as a cinematographer does. As cinematographer, I have been the second man on the team after the director. I have worked with different directors across the board. Over the years, I observed, learnt and at times, also experienced how to manage a very big team. Guiding, managing, keeping control are as important to a director as direction per se. But direction is also a natural extension of cinematography in terms of shot composition, structure, etc. I have integrated the two functions well and I do not feel the pressure of handling both at the same time.
Since you are also the cinematographer, how do you take care that your technique does not dominate the scenario, leaving the director to grapple in the backseat?
I need to balance the two roles so that my visual compositions do not dominate at any point. I am focussed on bringing out the cinematographic potential of the film through the screenplay, co-written by Madhuja and myself. I have managed to do this fine balancing act by involving myself with other facets of production such as what props to use in which room or scene, what costumes my characters will wear, what colours should be used in a given scene and so on. Madhuja and I have done the production design together.
What kind of freedom do you permit your actors?
I have a well-bound script going around as you can see. I do not allow any change in dialogue or scene. I am very rigid about my script that has evolved over time as we discussed it and we even put in a character if we felt it would add to the story and the film. I do not believe in workshops especially as this is a contemporary film that does not call for actors to be prepped for a particular period or a historical character. At the same time, I allow some space to my actors to interpret. Actors are very good at their work. Results are better if we work as collaborators and not work through hierarchical positions of director-actor.
What about the music?
Prabuddha Banerjee, a friend, is composing the five song tracks and the background score. Only one will be a lip-synched song. The others are situational and one is a Tagore song. The background score will be done after shooting winds up around the first week of November. We hope to release the film in February 2010.
How did you decide on the cast?
The cast got decided while the script was being developed. Some casting changes took place in the interim where Shayan Munshi replaced the original choice, Ankur Khanna in the male lead. Arpita Chatterjee was sort of suggested by Prosenjit who is also her husband and an old friend of mine. She is making a comeback after around seven years so there is no star aura that will impose on the character. Others are Rudraneel Ghosh, Anindyo Bandopadhyay, Tanushree Shankar and Biplab Chatterjee, all very good actors in their own right. Madhuja has done the screenplay and dialogue. Arghya Kamal Mitra will edit the film. It always helps when like-minded people work together and contribute to various areas of filmmaking.
Name some of your international favourites in terms of cinematographic excellence.
I can remember four off-hand – Godfather, Charulata, Apocalypse Now and Fight Club. My favourites among my own films are – Patalghar that allowed me to play around with fantasy and realism, Antarmahal that gave me the opportunity to interpret and Dosar, for the Black-and-White potential I had learnt at FTII.
Interview by: Shoma A. Chatterji
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