Sujoy Ghosh has emerged as one of Hindi and Indian cinema’s finest filmmakers.
He made his directorial debut in 2003 with the small-budget film Jhankaar Beats which was a tribute to R. D. Burman and went on to become a surprise hit.
Though his next few Bollywood films Home Delivery and Aladin did not work wonders at the box-office, the psychological thriller Kahaani reignited the trend of female-centric films in Indian cinema.
But his calibre is not limited to just feature movies. In fact, his short-films Ahalya and Anukul too are a testament to his cinematic prowess as a filmmaker.
What is fascinating about Sujoy is his vision for presenting and directing edge-of-the-seat whodunit ventures like Te3N and Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh.
As such, Ghosh’s latest directorial Badla starring Amitabh Bachchan, Taapsee Pannu and Amrita Singh has snowballed into a critical and commercial success.
In fact, Badla leaves us with so many questions about his choices as a director when it comes to making murder mysteries and thrillers.
So, the man himself, Sujoy Ghosh joins Filme Shilmy for an in-depth chat about what drives his filmmaking vision.
Congratulations on the success of Badla. How satisfied are you with the critical and commercial reception?
Extremely. It’s great because that’s how we quantify what we do.
It’s how the audience reacts to our film and then that reaction converts into footfalls which in turn makes my investors very happy.
It has been amazing and it always happens when the audience takes the responsibility of a film rather than just the director.
Which is great. One exciting thing about Badla is that all faculties about filmmaking have been appreciated. It’s not just the direction or acting.
Beyond that, people have been talking about cinematography, editing, sound design, etc. This really makes you feel happy.
The film is quite intense. How do you maintain and balance that consistency in such a movie?
There’s no process or science to it, one just does it.
When you have a script, you diligently follow it and do what you feel is right.
Honestly, there’s no right or wrong.
I don’t have any deep meaningful answers to this, but you just follow what you believe is right and keep your fingers crossed.
Making a thriller/murder mystery is a mission in itself. What kind of mindset does it take to make your style of movies?
It’s always the story which has attracted to me. It is always about what I as a director can bring to the story.
If you give me a narrative which is layered, complicated and risky, to say, the challenge is what makes it exciting.
It is about the greed of thinking that I can do it. Sometimes it happens and it doesn’t always work.
Like in Kahaani, for example, everybody initially rejected the script because it’s a one show film. If somebody leaked out the ending, it’s dead.
But what I was trying to tell them is that it’s never about the climax, but the journey leading to it.
The Romeo and Juliet play has been adapted a countless number of times and everyone knows that they are going to die.
Even King Kong is a doomed love story. You know that the two main characters are never going to be together, but people still watch it.
How (if at all) does writing some dark characters or narratives impact your psyche?
It does actually and that’s the scary part of writing.
Whenever you’re writing a character you have to get into their head.
Then when you do, you start thinking like that character and suddenly you become them.
Whether you’re a Bob Biswas or a Vidya Bagchi, that scares the living daylights out of you as one wonders, “how am I thinking like this?”
That’s the scary part but it is the part and parcel of writing where you have to become that other person.
Sometimes it gets rather difficult to get that role out of your head and it can get extremely disturbing.
I remember when I was writing Kahaani 2, I used to write one scene, take a break of one week and then come back.
It was one of the most disturbing times to write that film.
What was very nice for us in the Kahaani sequel is that we got to say something (on society).
As a filmmaker, you need to take a stand in life and have a view. One can’t sit on the fence.
What do you specifically look out for in narratives/actors like in Badla and Kahaani, who can perform in these roles?
First and foremost, cinema is a visual medium, it’s all about seeing.
When you’re writing a character, you in your head sometimes get an inkling of how a character should look and appear.
Then you kind of place that vision alongside people you know.
Half of your work is done when you find that person who is a visual match in your head for the character.
So when you’re thinking of a person who is extremely smart, suave and independent, you look for an actor who is sharp and has sharp features.
You’re also looking for somebody who probably works extremely hard and in quite a de-glam role, but there’s a certain strength about a role like Naina Sethi (played by Taapsee).
Whereas in Kahaani, I needed someone very vulnerable who you would want to take care of and that was Vidya.
I wanted Taapsee to portray a character who can take care of herself.
It’s amazing how you essayed the power-play between Amitabh and Taapsee through body language and levels. What encourages you to exhibit this?
It all happens on the writing stage during which a filmmaker must figure out at which point you would tip the scale.
There’s no process to this, it’s just instinct.
If you ever make a film, you would hope that something is there to guide you but there’s nothing.
Sleuth is a great example of the power-play and so is 12 Angry Men.
Simple regional films are supreme as they don’t have the crutches of mass expenses, they strongly rely on their content.
As a filmmaker can watch these films and observe how they captivate us.
So this is just a learning process and we learn from fellow, filmmakers and others, then you just do it.
Obviously, when you have someone like Mr Bachchan or Taapsee pitted against each other, that’s half of your work is done.
There are a few interlinking trends like including Mahabharata references and powerful female protagonists. What drives you to choose such traits?
I grew up in an environment of very strong independent women, be it my grandmother, mother or wife.
They have been a huge influence and I’ve seen them taking care of a lot of responsibilities without actually having any power.
Their strength comes from their mind and I find that women are mentally so strong, which amazes me every time.
That’s what I like to portray on-screen because these women like Rani (Amrita Singh’s character from Badla) is strong in the head.
Be it Vidya, Durga (Vidya Balan’s character in Kahaani sequel) or Rani, these mothers are extremely mentally strong. That’s my strong motherhood trilogy done.
With regards to the references, I live by the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
I’ve learnt a lot of things about life by these two texts and it’s a great connect for making my audience to identify with.
So you give the audience something that they know and appreciate.
If I suddenly highlight a reference of an obscure book, not many will be able to relate to it.
Mahabharata establishes the principles of life.
Even the cities almost seem like characters in your films. As a filmmaker, how do you know which location will best suit your movie?
Any story or character has to be set in a world which you believe in.
For instance, in Kahaani, I believed that this pregnant woman is alien to a city.
In Badla, I believed that this is a society where a famous lawyer walks on the street or a famous businessman makes coffee on their own.
Whereas in India, that wouldn’t happen. The famous lawyer/businessperson would come in a chauffeur-driven car and have 20 people to make them coffee.
So it depends on which society a filmmaker sets in and it is a nice challenge.
My biggest challenge in society was to show Kolkata to the people of Kolkata, but in a way that they had never seen before.
What I really enjoy doing is showing you things.
King Kong, as I said before is a beautiful, pure but doomed love story which we know the ending.
In fact, Satyaki (Parambrata Chatterjee’s character in Kahaani) is based on King Kong because he and Vidya were never going to get together.
His love was pure for Vidya Bagchi.
So basically you think the same thing and present it in a different way.
One city I would like to shoot in is New York. It has a tremendous character, but for that, I need a good script.
The murder mystery and psychological thriller genres are not explored as much in Bollywood. Why do you feel this might the case?
It’s the case of outlook and to make a film I need money.
Initially, there were not many backers for this kind of film (Badla) and when you do a dark/edgy thriller that would be classified as an adult movie because you can’t have a child or somebody below 12 watching that film alone.
The moment you get an adult certification, you cannot sell it to the television channels so immediately, one of your revenue lines become blocked.
A film like Badla is an exception to the rule but then again if one wants to take it a step forward, you don’t always get stories like this.
I can’t make an edgy thriller bearing in mind that it is television friendly or other factors because then it is not really a thriller.
Now with the digital playground, it’s slowly opening up.
In what way could your films revive the genres in Indian cinema?
What Sriram Raghavan did with Andhadhun last year or Amar Kaushik did with Stree, were great thrillers and kept me glued to the screen.
As long as you grab my attention, for me, you are a great filmmaker.
When you’re really making a film, you have no clue what the outcome is… It can easily be a Kahaani or an Aladin. So one just maintains hope.
I can’t make a film with any other objectives but to narrate that particular story.
I’m not here to revive any genres or prove a point. I’m just here to tell a story and in that process, if I end up doing something, then great.
However, if you have any intention other than making a film, then it’s wrong.
Finally, digital streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime are becoming popular forms. Do you have any plans to venture out onto these mediums?
I just did a Netflix series which should hopefully come out on the platform later this year.
It’s an incredibly huge window for a lot of people and for many of us who didn’t have that platform before to showcase our talent.
The digital mediums are great and there is an undying need for content on these platforms.
When I personally did a web-series, I took me a while to wrap my head around it because I’m accustomed to telling a story in two hours.
However, for such a medium, one has to go a little deeper.
For instance, the camera does not just showcase mostly about one character’s life.
The show is a horror-comedy which has an Enid Blyton/Goonies feel as I used to read this whilst growing up.
So I wanted to do children’s stuff.
As such, it is about four kids looking for a ghost.
Well, we keenly look forward to seeing what else Sujoy has to offer in his forthcoming ventures.
Here’s wishing him all the very best!