Over the phone from Kolkata, Srijit Mukherji discusses everything from Shabaash Mithu and a series about Ajit Wadekar’s men to a film with Irrfan Khan that didn’t happen. Excerpts from an hour-long conversation:
After crime thrillers, adventure dramas and period flicks, how exciting is it to direct a contemporary sports biopic, Shabaash Mithu?
When I was working as an economist in Bangalore, on my way to work, I’d pass the Cricinfo office and tell myself that one day I’d be a sports journalist. But then, Autograph clicked and I went on to tell more stories. Box office success and the National Awards followed, and I was trapped (Laughs). I’ve always wanted to make a sports biopic. I bought the rights to Swapna Barman’s story, the heptathlete who won gold in the 2018 Asian Games. Ajit Andhare [COO, Viacom 18 Studio] and I’ve had several discussions with Dada [cricketer Saurav Ganguly] too. These films didn’t materialise, but when Ajit offered me the Mithali Raj biopic, I jumped.
After working on the web series, Ray, for a year-and-a-half, Ajit and his team are like family. Besides cricket is my first love and I’ve been following the achievements of our women’s cricket team. During the last lockdown, I wrote an eight-part series, Wadekar’s Men, set in 1971, when under the leadership of Ajit Wadekar, a band of world beaters, which included a cricketer called Sunil Gavaskar, emerged, who went on to beat West Indies and England in their own turfs.
Would Taapsee Pannu have been your choice for Mithali if you, instead of Rahul Dholakia whom you have replaced, had conceived the film?
Absolutely! I look up to her as an actress, then, there’s the facial resemblance and the athletic build. In fact, two days before this, I was discussing another film with Taapsee but because of Covid, her dates are blocked till 2022.
Have you met Mithali?
She’s in UK playing a series. I’m waiting for her to return to meet her personally, but we’ve been in touch on script details.
How do you plan to shoot a sports film in Covid times?
I shot Ray during the pandemic and I’ll go through the same drill. PPE suits, masks, sanitisation stations, we’re learning fast.
Apart from Rajkahini, which was remade in Hindi as Begum Jaan, which of your other Bengali films have sparked interest in Bollywood?
l In 2012, an A-list star with his own production house wanted to play Ananda Kar, the founder of Hemlock Society who teaches aspirants how to commit suicide. But he wanted to change the script and I will only work in Bollywood, Hollywood or any other wood if I can tell stories the way I want to tell them. Later, Irrfan Khan was keen on a Hemlock Society remake. We had three meetings. He wanted to turn Ananda Kar into a Punjabi Happy Singh. After he passed away, I shelved the idea. But the film has been remade in Marathi as Welcome Zindagi.
Many production houses have also been pursuing Chatushkone, the challenge is finding actor-directors like Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghose in Mumbai. Now, we are looking to adapt Jaatishwar as Hai Yeh Woh Aatish Ghalib, turning Anthony Firingee into Mirza Ghalib. Vinci Da’s Tamil and Hindi rights have been sold and we are negotiating on the Malayalam and Telugu rights. The Malayalam rights of Autograph have also been sold.
Autograph would be perfect for a Hindi retelling too…
In 2011, buzz was it had reached Shah Rukh Khan and would be made with him as the matinee idol and Ranbir Kapoor as the young director. This film needs a superstar like the Khans — Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir — Ajay [Devgn] or Akshay [Kumar]. Today, it can also be made with Ranbir, Ranveer [Singh] or Hrithik [Roshan] stepping in for Bumba da [Prosenjit Chatterjee]. The problem is getting through to these superstars. You can start at 40, but by the time you connect, you could be old, even dead, talking via planchette (Laughs).
That’s not a problem you face in Bengal, right?
No, when I decided to make a film on the many theories around Subhash Chandra Bose’s death, I just called Bumba da and told him he was playing Netaji. A month-and-a-half later Gumnaami rolled and went on to bag two National Awards this year.
What’s happening with Sherdil announced in 2018 with Pankaj Tripathi?
It’s been pushed because of date problems but will be made. It revolves around true incidents which happened in the Pilibit National Park. But this year, I’ll be releasing a Bengali children’s film, Kakababur Protyaborton, an adventure in the African jungles with Prosenjit as the explorer. We shot it in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. After this third film in the trilogy, I’ll take a break from Kakababu to focus on Feluda.
The second season will be out in December, I have loyally stuck to Satyajit Ray’s text. Feluda Pherot is in Bengali with English subtitles, like Rabindranath Ekhane Kokohno Khete Aashenni, a macabre thriller based on a Bangladesh novel where the protagonist is a fan of Tagore.
There’s also Eti Bina, the biopic of freedom fighter Bina Das who at 21 shot at the governor of Bengal, Stanley Jackson. I’m waiting for Konkona’s [Sen Sharma] dates.
So, can we look forward to many more stories from Srijit Mukherji?
Actually, the plan was to make one film with each of the English alphabets, then try my hand at cricket writing, commentary and anchoring. But even after I retire, if I want to tell a story, it has to be Feluda. It’s my comfort food for the soul.