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Unscripted encounters with Dibakar Banerjee

01 January, 2013

MIDWAY THROUGH Dibakar Banerjee’s 2008 film Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, someone asks Baangali, sidekick to the film’s protagonist, “Tu sach mein Baangali hai (Are you really Bengali)?” We have heard this amiable rogue addressed thus many times already and not thought much about it, perhaps taking for granted that he is a Bengali raised in the film’s West Delhi setting. But no, he mumbles sheepishly—he got this nickname because his father was once arrested in Kolkata.

It’s a chuckle-out-loud moment—unless you miss it, which you might well do during a casual first viewing; the lines are spoken offhandedly, not lingered on, and the shot is framed in such a way that the two men are on the right edge of the screen while the rakish thief Lucky—our focus of attention—is on the left, glancing about nervously for cops. But the scene captures one of the defining features of Banerjee’s cinema: a delicacy of touch, where dialogue is allowed to be the tip of an iceberg, suggesting a whole world behind a character without thickly underlining it. In another scene in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Lucky’s future girlfriend disapproves of the short-skirted schoolgirls in a café—“Hamaare school mein salwar kameez pehente thhe (We wore salwar-kameez in school)”—and he gives her his trademark cocky grin and says, “Tabhi toh jal rahi ho (That’s why you’re jealous).” It is a small but significant moment from a filmmaker whose work is often about the nature of aspiration in a many-layered society, and about the impulse to look at other people, wondering what it might be like to live their lives—along with the fear of crossing over to the other side.

Over the course of four films in seven years, Banerjee has become widely recognised as one of our most original directors—a poster boy for the so-called Indie movement, though a better formulation for his work might be personal cinema, since he has laboured very near the mainstream. Four features is not a very large sample size, but consider the progression: from the relatively simple-minded morality tale Khosla ka Ghosla (still his most popular film among middlebrow audiences who aren’t too invested in edgy cinema) to the more nuanced Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (a colourful but savage indictment of the same middle class that was idealised in the first film) to the formal departure of Love, Sex aur Dhokha (three intersecting stories about honour killings, sexual exploitation and media voyeurism told through handheld cameras and CCTV footage) and finally to last year’s Shanghai, a dark, stifling work about a country trying to emulate the First World while pretending that its poor don’t exist.

A stylistic leap for Banerjee, Shanghai, about a country blindly emulating the First World, has been his darkest film. COURTESY DIBAKAR BANERJEE

In look and tone, these films are vastly different from each other. Love, Sex aur Dhokha is so different from anything else directed by Banerjee (or most other Indian directors) that it would be unfair to use it to make the point, so instead watch a few minutes of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and a few minutes of Shanghai back to back: both films are clear-sighted about social hierarchies, and insightful about the hegemony of the privileged over the powerless, but the former is bright, colourful and driven by an energetic music score, while the latter is full of portentous silences and may give you the impression that the entire reel of film was dipped into the river Styx. What all of his films have in common, though, is the mark of a tremendously disciplined and well-organised helmsman; this is apparent in the way every element—from script and music to set design and cinematography—comes together, each informing the whole. Watching a Banerjee film, you rarely get the sense of an erratic genius scratching all over his drawing pad (something that occasionally happens with the work of his great contemporary Anurag Kashyap, with whom his name is frequently clubbed). This is not an unequivocally good thing in principle: art can be stifled by too much control; good cinema needs breathing space and has often been a product of serendipitous little moments. But in a career with no major missteps so far, Banerjee has succeeded in maintaining the balance.

VIGNETTES FROM HIS FILMS were running through my head when I met Banerjee in his office, occupying a floor of a building in Mumbai’s Lalbagh Industrial Estate, not far from his house in Sewri. The floor is spacious and well-ventilated, with randy pigeons occasionally fluttering in through the windows and having to be shooed out because the fans are on. The sections that pass for his cubicle and conference room have glass doors and walls, which means there are no private spaces. Two shelves of books—mainly graphic novels and old Bengali publications—line a wall. “This building was a 150-year-old Portuguese prayer-house,” he said. “You’ll never get this sort of property in Andheri or Film City. In Bombay it’s like luxury.”

Banerjee at his office in Lalbagh, Mumbai. Although he has made only four films, he has become widely recognised as one of Hindi cinema’s most original directors. PRASHANT NADKAR / INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE

As we were speaking, a flippant thought hit me: here is another Baangali who isn’t quite a Bengali—his life and background don’t fit the archetype of the Bengali intellectual figure, although it’s tempting to slot him as one. His credentials as a discerning filmmaker apart, he is a perceptive, well-spoken man with a variety of artistic interests, someone who was raised in a genteel environment, cushioned at all times by the trappings of high culture. But there is a flaw in that portrait. Banerjee grew up in pockets of West Delhi, where his family has lived since 1950, when his grandfather—formerly an army man—shifted there from Ranchi. There was plenty of culture inside the house—his mother and sister are classical singers, and as a child he was surrounded by books. But outside was the boisterous world of the streets, a world of lower-middle-class business families that he came to know very well, as any Delhiite who has seen his first two films can attest.

“Bengali culture is not my primary influence,” he explained. “The primary influences would be Delhi the city, the Bombay film industry, and the Western intellectual and cinematic world.” That said, one of the first things he told me was that he disliked the word “intellectual” because of stereotypes associated with it. “Too often I have heard the word used to describe someone who has a judgement for everything, but who has never gotten his own hands dirty.”

For the young Dibakar, “getting his hands dirty” meant being part of a street-smart lifestyle that was far removed from the cliché of the armchair intellectual. And that early life is inseparable from what he is today. Even “good” international cinema came into his personal orbit through what was an adolescent’s rite of passage: at age 17, he and four friends rented what they thought would be a porn film called Confessions of a Taxi Driver to watch in a darkened room in Jhandewalan—and ended up with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver instead. “We closed the drapes, waited for the obligatory hardcore moment but nothing happened—and by the end, here were five guys from a typical Karol Bagh setting, riveted by what they were seeing.”

A few years ago, Banerjee drew three elegant sketches to accompany an article he wrote for First City magazine about his early memories of Delhi. One of them shows the courtyard of the house he grew up in, with a distinctive thick pillar, his father’s Lambretta scooter, and in a corner, hunched up in a chair, his then recently widowed grandmother. “She would look down and look up and then look down again,” Banerjee wrote of the sad old woman. The drawing—plaintive, sympathetic—is like an image long imprinted on the mind; looking at it, you can imagine a boy reading or playing with a ball, constantly mindful of the people and things around him. “Honestly, I would rather describe something by drawing it than through spoken words,” he told me. It takes an effort for him to refrain from drawing complex storyboards for his films—a creatively satisfying but time-consuming process—and to do functional stick-figures instead.

“Even when he learnt the alphabets, he drew them as if he was sketching,” his father told me when I visited his parents in their second-floor flat in West Delhi’s busy Maya Enclave, where the family has lived since 1984, when Banerjee was 15. “And he learnt to write in English, Hindi and Bengali at a very young age.” His mother Parul recalled him sitting with one thumb in his mouth while the other hand would be busy with a pencil, drawing. “Even today you’ll see him doodling constantly on his legs or on his shorts,” she said. She took out a small, worn diary with his childhood sketches: jumping lions, a warrior depicted from behind—an unusual perspective, much like our first view of Lucky sitting with his back to the camera, gazing contemplatively out the window, indifferent to the commotion around him.

Banerjee’s parents in their Delhi home. The resemblance between his father and Anupam Kher’s character of the wronged old man in Khosla ka Ghosla is not merely a coincidence. DIVYA DUGAR FOR THE CARAVAN

They listed his childhood achievements with pride: “After he joined Bal Bharati school, we didn’t have anything to worry about—he was always topping class, winning prizes.” Allowance must be made for parents inflating a child’s feats (and for the questing-vole journalist building a narrative around them in light of his later success), but photos and artefacts emerged: pictures of a little boy sitting at a table, a focused look on his face; an older boy receiving citations in school for painting competitions, debating, and Hindi recitations. Mr Banerjee produced a small sculpture that his son made of a woman breastfeeding a baby—a strikingly minimalist, almost featureless piece. When Dibakar was in class six, I was told, he did an English translation of Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s 1930s novel Chander Pahar; a few years later, returning to it at an age when his sense of language was more developed, he was embarrassed by the earlier translation and reworked the whole thing.

The young Banerjee, precocious and overachieving in school, went through restless and moody teenage years in the 1980s.

As with so many budding artists, creativity went hand in hand with restlessness; in Dibakar’s case, it also went with a tendency to easily get scared. “He was an unusually fearful child,” his sister Mallika—older than him by eight years—recalled. “If you gave him a moving toy, he would not take it. Balloons were okay as long as they were in his hand, but if one went up and got stuck in a corner it would set something off in his mind—he would refuse to come back into the room.” It made me think of uncanny moments in Banerjee’s cinema: an elderly woman with an ingratiating smile coming out from behind her desk to greet a minion, like a spider scuttling towards a fly; a bright red statue of a horse’s grinning head standing out amidst routine artefacts in a house; and the cold dread of a scene where a girl who has just eloped checks her phone and finds 40 missed calls from her father.

But you can’t expect quiet, imaginative children to remain the unblemished apples of their family’s eyes forever. At some point it’s likely that a gap will appear between what they are expected to do and what is going on in their own restless minds. His family faced this when he went from being their “Murphy baby” and Mallika’s “curly-haired living doll” to becoming a distant adolescent late in his school years; when he registered but didn’t show up for his entrance exam for the College of Engineering in Rourkee; and later, when he dropped out a year and a half after joining the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.

The young Banerjee, precocious and overachieving in school, went through restless and moody teenage years in the 1980s. COURTESY DIBAKAR BANERJEE

They may have felt similar misgivings years later when their son, having settled into an advertising career by the early 2000s—and having married his girlfriend Richa—told them he was taking time out to make a feature film. His friend Jaideep Sahni had come up with an idea for a movie about a middle-class man being cheated out of a precious plot of land, and had suggested they develop it into a script.

I HAD BEEN SPEAKING WITH BANERJEE’S FATHER for over 20 minutes when the nagging sense that there was something familiar about him resolved itself into a light-bulb moment: the man sitting before me could easily be an older version of Anupam Kher’s character in Khosla ka Ghosla. The features are uncannily similar, so is the gentle smile, the hesitant speech and the white kurta-pajama. It’s possible to see him as a peace-seeking man who might just fly into a temper if pushed too far by a recalcitrant son.

I cautioned myself to stop playing connect-the-dots, but a while later we were discussing Khosla ka Ghosla and Banerjee’s mother leaned forward conspiratorially: “You know what Anupam Kher told me during the shooting?” she said. “He said Dibakar cast him because he looks like his father. Kisi ko yeh nahin pata (No one knows this), but Dibakar asked him to observe his father’s gestures and his way of wearing his lungi.”

On the face of it, Khosla ka Ghosla is the coming-of-age story of Cherry (played by Parvin Dabas), an ambitious go-getter who is keen to leave for greener pastures in the US, but who eventually stays behind to face his responsibilities. But there is another son on the sidelines, Cherry’s older brother Bunty (Ranvir Shorey), a loafer whom the family has long given up on; he can’t even disappoint them any longer because they have no expectations of him. And there was a time when it may have seemed that Banerjee was heading in a similar direction. When he chose not to complete his National Institute of Design course, his parents were very frustrated. “Remember that scene where Khosla says, ‘Main bahut jhel chukka hoon (I have suffered a lot)’?” Mr Banerjee asked me excitedly. “I must have said those words many times to Dibakar. He put a lot of my anger into the film.”

“I wouldn’t call Khosla ka Ghosla autobiographical at all,” Banerjee had told me in Mumbai a few days earlier. But he admitted that this guileless movie was the proverbial First Film, “where you work with what you know most intimately—even the character played by Tara Sharma was based on my wife Richa”, and that it can be seen as guilt-expiation for the men who wrote it. Jaideep Sahni was a computer engineer who left his career to become a trainee writer at an ad agency. “He took a huge risk, and his parents were Punjabi refugees who had built everything from scratch. Another aspect is that this is my guilt for dropping out of college and becoming an ad-man and later a filmmaker, and making my parents go through that agony of a decade and a half: isska hoga kya (what will become of him)?”

The restless young man had answers for everything. “I have learnt whatever I could learn at NID,” his parents remember him declaring. “If I stay on there, it will be a waste of my time.” He had to move on to something else, even if he didn’t yet know what that would be. At home, though, there was limited patience for a lotus-eater’s whims, and things got very tense for a few months. “I will pay you pocket money for one year, but after that if you aren’t doing something you have to leave the house,” his father recalled threatening him.

“WHAT are you trying to do,” his father demanded. “You think you will be Rabindranath Tagore, the jhola-boy? Tu kya Satyajit Ray banega (Will you become Satyajit Ray)?”

HOW DID THAT BOY GO ON TO BECOME, not a Ray—it’s too early for such comparisons—but one of our most versatile film-makers? Banerjee himself insists that the journey involved no romantic stories of a hero emerging from a fiery trial. “My movie career was handed to me on a platter,” he said. “Jaideep and I were friends. He recommended me as a director based on our drunken chats in our agency days.”

Some of the discipline in Banerjee’s films can no doubt be traced back to his advertising years, which gave him a sense of how to express a mood instantly, and compress a story into 30 seconds. He also sated his hunger for multi-tasking during his early days in that profession, while working in agencies like Shems Combit and Anthem. Being from NID, he was expected to be a visualiser, not a copy-writer, but he had his heart set on being both, and occasionally found bosses willing to indulge him. If he was sketching at his desk and a visitor, or someone from another department, asked him what he did, he would reply that he was mainly a copy-writer; asked the same question when he was tapping away on a word-file, he would say he was a visualiser. “But I was hardly God’s gift to advertising,” said Banerjee. “I’m a better film-maker—probably because that’s what I wanted to do more.”

Banerjee came to Mumbai as a successful ad-film-maker with his own company, Watermark, and as someone reasonably well-known in his trade. “I never had to hustle my film from door to door. And my wife was a senior executive—financially, she cushioned what might otherwise have been a shaky experience. This is one reason why I feel uncomfortable about constantly being compared with Anurag [Kashyap]—he had a much tougher struggle to get where he is. As did Sudhir Mishra in an earlier time, or so many others.”

Just when I thought he might be consciously overdoing the self-deprecation, he pulled back a little. “What you can perhaps give me credit for is that despite the cushy beginning, I didn’t take the easy way out. I’m still trying to carve out a reasonably dangerous existence, instead of resting on my ass. But I don’t want to take too much credit, because I know that if I had to ragdo it in Mumbai for years, it would have affected my psyche. I wouldn’t be the same guy I am today.

“Most people struggle just to break into the system. My struggle has been to become the film-maker I want to become.”

Banerjee’s films are entertaining, but he seems to tap entertainment from helplessness: the mood he trades in is not a triumphal “this is possible”; it is more like “this is what the world is like. Now can you do this?” And significantly, his canvas has become blacker over time: as his frequent co-writer Urmi Juvekar pointed out, there is an immeasurable gulf between the cosy ending of Khosla ka Ghosla—fairy tale-like in the way good, middle-class guys triumph over a crass, nouveau-riche builder—and the cynicism of Shanghai which, even as it acknowledged the worth of individual conscience, left viewers with little to cling to. In this context, it is perhaps worth noting that one of the darkest scenes in Khosla ka Ghosla—the protagonist having a nightmare about his own death and his family’s blasé reactions to it—was a Banerjee creation, a radical twist to the original screenplay that began with Khosla waking up in the morning. “You have crystallised Khosla’s biggest fear, that nobody cares about him and that he is redundant,” Banerjee recalled Sahni telling him about the scene. The scene is vital to the film’s effect because it makes the viewer feel emotionally invested in Khosla from the start; but it also creates a strange foreboding that balances the generally upbeat—and sometimes silly—mood of the story, and perhaps points the way to Banerjee’s subsequent work.

Banerjee is aware that a commercial movie industry does not provide ideal conditions for such cinema, or for the personal filmmaker. “Movie-making is a craft, not pure art,” he said. “Pure art is where there is a minimum distance between what is in the artist’s head and what is expressed—between Van Gogh’s brain and his canvas, for example. There is more distance between an advertising painter’s brain or heart, and the billboard he makes—he has to go through many other processes, he’s removed from the final product.

“I’m trying to reduce that distance, to put as much of myself in my films as possible.”

So, to backtrack a bit: picture a well brought-up boy in a rude West Delhi colony. In the courtyard of his house he comes to love books, music and art; but in the streets beyond he makes friends from very different cultural backgrounds, learns the swaggering life that involves punctuating every sentence with “bhenchod”, or standing with a group of male friends and staring pointedly at a girl walking by, because that’s just what you do if you’re a young stud in a certain place and situation—even if you’re secretly embarrassed by your own posturing. He is in the moment, yet there is enough self-awareness to be able to record things like these in the little camera running in his head. Twenty years later he will put this scene (and others like it) into one of his films—allowing the viewer to look at young Lucky and his friends indulgently and see through their fake, brittle machismo.

Delhi is like the back of his hand and he will bring everything he knows of the city into his first two movies—even locations that strike a personal chord. (Watching these films, his family will marvel: how did he find a house exactly like the one he was born in, for the opening sequence of Khosla ka Ghosla?) In his later work, he will consciously walk away from his comfort zone of Delhi-style cultural details. Looking down from his flat on the 20th floor of a Mumbai building that came up in an area formerly occupied by textile mills, he will realise that some people who worked in those mills now have janitors’ jobs in these skyscrapers; that his home was constructed on the dreams of others. And he will put some of this into his new film, about a country setting its sights so high that it can no longer see ground realities. This film will open with a vertiginous bird’s-eye view of a city—Banerjee himself calls it his “Google map shot”—over which we hear the sound of a man whistling on the ground miles below, before the camera cuts to a close-up of his face. “What one is saying through that abrupt cut and the sound design is that in this town there is a life, and I have picked it up. Now let’s go to ground level and get right amidst these people.”

“JUST TODAY,” BANERJEE SAID, on the first day I met him in his office, “I passed a typical Bombay street-fashion shop—not high fashion, just Rs 150 for a T-shirt. And they had put the clothes on mannequins that had monster faces. It triggered a thought in my head.”

Such flashes of images frequently lead to ideas for his films: the genesis of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! lay in two newspaper photos of Delhi’s “super chor” Bunty, including one of the thief with a big stash of his loot—a visual representation of an underprivileged man pulling himself out of the world he was born into, by obsessively accumulating other people’s things. “This glimpse today of the Frankenstein in the T-shirt hit me in the same way. To me, it was alien—if you use it intelligently, you can use it to talk about any notion of alienation, whether it’s UP-wallahs living in Mumbai, or Muslims in India, or Kashmiri refugees in Delhi.”

A scene from Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! Banerjee drew from his own childhood in the Punjabi neighbourhoods of West Delhi to sketch class aspirations in the film.

Significantly, Banerjee resists talk of ideology or a specific thematic concern that governs his work. “If I had been born 40 years earlier, I would probably have been very ideological,” he says, recalling the moral certitudes—the conservative “straightness”—of his grandparents and parents. “But in my father’s case I saw a steady erosion of that belief. I think that generation never had the ability to climb out of itself and see from the outside. Truth was always with a capital T.”

“Dibakar is always very sarcastic about hypocrisy in society,” said Banerjee’s sister Mallika. “One thing that angers him is the transactionary nature of relationships,” said Kanu Behl, who was assistant director on Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and co-wrote Love, Sex aur Dhokha.

In post-liberalisation India, he feels genuine ideology has been diluted, and that a case can now be made for social improvement bereft of lofty goals—improvement that is just for the sake of survival: “Unless you clean up the air, your children will die; how about THAT to start cleaning up the air, rather than thinking of the ecology, or doing something because you are told it’s the right thing to do?”

What has become increasingly important to him is empathy, and as he spoke of this I recalled a description—“humanist”—that is often used for Satyajit Ray’s film work. Shanghai, ostensibly a political thriller, was a tapestry of characters with different motivations; watching it is a bit like reading a multi-narrator novel, where one empathises in turn with a number of different people, and indeed Vassilis Vassilikos’s book Z—which Banerjee adapted with Juvekar—tells its story in many voices. “The novel is deeply humanistic in comparison to Costa-Gavras’s 1969 film version, which was more explicitly Leftist, and that’s what Urmi and I tried to bring into Shanghai.”

In his audio-commentary track on the DVD of Love, Sex aur Dhokha, there is a point where he dwells on the same theme. The scene is one of the “joining” sequences of that three-tiered film, where we see a marginal character who will become the central figure in the next segment. “Life is about point of view,” Banerjee says. “Here is someone who comes into the frame for just five seconds, but he has a whole life behind him, which one is not yet aware of.” Notably, both Shanghai and Love, Sex aur Dhokha have key moments where the same event is shown from different perspectives, several scenes apart.

But as he pointed out to me, ideology—even if limited to something as basic as empathy—can’t be the starting point for a film; it is ever-present in everything he does anyway. “Your guiding belief is the sauce in which you cook again and again, or it’s a fucking frying pan that you never wash.” In other words, the distinct, underlying flavour will remain; the challenge now is to find new dishes, or modes of presentation.

TO SPEAK WITH BANERJEE over a period of time is to realise that directing movies was a natural culmination of his inquisitiveness, his need to know as much as he possibly can about many different things: it’s a good profession for a polymath whose mind frequently darts from one thing to another (like the student who left NID because he could learn nothing more there). During one of our conversations at his office, he told me about how the idea for Love, Sex aur Dhokha came to him after he gave a talk at a digital film festival at Symbiosis, Pune, advising the students not to use inferior digital technology for a purpose better suited to 35mm film. (“If you try to emulate a Rembrandt oil canvas with a piece of charcoal, you won’t succeed—but what if you use the charcoal to do a graphic novel with an insightful story?”) Take the new grammar and find an appropriate use for it, he told them—and then, on the way home, he realised he had sold himself an idea. There was an old story he had written in Hindi—a dark, ironic letter addressed to the director Manmohan Desai by a boy who has been murdered and stuffed in an unmarked grave with his lover. “Thanks for teaching me about love,” he tells Desai. “Now we are finally together, never to be parted, just like in your films.” What if this tale were to be told through a handheld camera wielded by the boy?

I expected this anecdote to lead us into more details about Love, Sex aur Dhokha; instead, Banerjee dwelt on the evolution of film technique, from DW Griffith to the MTV videos of the 1980s and beyond. He held forth on the shift from the long shot to the close-up—“the emotional upheaval for early audiences must have been huge”—and proposed that the documentary filming of combat during the Second World War changed movie grammar in ways that aren’t properly acknowledged, predating the French New Wave of the 1950s and even the “jump-cut” phenomenon.

He moved on to cinematography, talking about Nikos Andritzakis, who shot Banerjee’s last two films (“he would have been a star cameraman in old Hollywood—he designs everything around the narrative”), and about Kartik Vijay, whose work in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! made that film look as cheery as Shanghai was deliberately gloomy. (“He’s a Tamil boy who knew nothing about Delhi. I told him the Punjabis of west Delhi are like Italians, and I want to see the pasta and the tomato sauce on the screen!”) He spoke in high terms of the recently deceased Ashok Mehta, who photographed “one of the seminal films” in Banerjee’s life as a movie buff, Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen: “I wish I could have had a parallel life working with some of the greatest DoPs [directors of photography] and then come back with that experience. Look at what Subrata Mitra did with the interiors of a Calcutta house in Ray’s Parash Pathar in the 1950s—see his use of shadowless lighting. After they fought, Ray’s visual quality immediately dipped.”

(Right to left) Banerjee with his Shanghai actors, Abhay Deol and Emraan Hashmi. HT PHOTO

He reflected on the conundrums one faces while writing a good, balanced script. “If you make the dialogue deliver too much of the idea, the emotion goes away. When you take too much of the emotion, the idea gets hidden.” In his own writing, he constantly reaches for conciseness. At the end of Shanghai, when Abhay Deol’s bureaucrat character Krishnan subtly arm-twists the corrupt personal secretary played by Farooque Shaikh, the latter asks “Is this your justice?” Krishnan’s original, world-weary response was, “Justice ka sapna maine chhod diya hai (I have given up on the dream of justice).”

But Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar cut the line out, “because that line is what the film has already summed up to, and explicitly using it would have been a betrayal of the film”. The pithiness sometimes has unusual roots too. The words “Abhi jeena haraam hai, lekin marne se dar lagta hai”—spoken by the weary, exploited Jaggu in Shanghai—come from the lyric “Ah’m tired of living / And scared of dying” in the classic “Ol’ Man River” (famously sung by Paul Robeson). “That song became for me the core of Jaggu’s character.”

“I’m into music,” he said suddenly, in what turned out to be a very big understatement. This single line led us—like the sound of one man’s hum segueing gradually into a full-blown orchestral performance—to a two-hour conversation that covered such disparate material as Banerjee’s own childhood career as a tabla-player (he would play it while his mother and sister did their riyaaz), European techno and French North African protest music, Jamaican dub reggae, RD Burman’s use of the tabla in the scene in Sholay where Basanti is chased by the dacoits (“no one thought such a delicate instrument could be used so menacingly”), and the possibility that Burman might have got the idea for this by listening to the soundtrack of Dirty Harry.

One of Banerjee’s most vivid childhood memories is of resting with his mother in the afternoons while she listened to folk songs on the radio, taking down notes for her classes. Later he developed an interest in Western classical music—“I went from khayaal and Rabindrasangeet to Bach, Haydn, Schubert, I have no idea why”—and after that, Richa introduced him to “another river of music”, including Dylan, Cohen and Joni Mitchell. I struggled to keep up as he talked about the history of film music, from Pandit Ravi Shankar (“he was touring so much in the West, we lost a fantastic film scorer—look at how he reinterpreted Meerabai’s bhajans for Gulzar’s Meera”) to Salil Choudhury, and from Bernard Herrmann to Lalo Schifrin to the avant-garde jazz musician Don Ellis. Pulling his laptop out, he played the soundtrack of the Samurai classic Sword of Doom on YouTube (and typically, this led us into another detour about that film’s climactic swordfight and closing freeze-frame). “I am intensely influenced by Japanese incidental music—by Masaru Sato, who scored Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, drawing from western influences as well as Noh and Kabuki.”

To watch Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! is to know that it was made by someone with an excellent ear for the use of narrative-enhancing music; with lyrics and rhythms continually commenting on the hero’s changing fortunes. “I used to think Punjabi music mainly meant bhangra,” the film’s composer Sneha Khanwalkar said, “but Dibakar was tuned in to nuances of Punjabi folk music.” According to Banerjee himself, the idea was to use a musical structure that would mirror the repetitive storytelling traditions of the katha-vaachak, with certain motifs coming back constantly into a narrative. (“The story is like The Rake’s Progress—the hero is not changing or intended to change, he is reflecting the foibles of the society around him, and the music goes with the circular nature of such a narrative.”) After Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! he hasn’t had the opportunity to do a film with music used as a storytelling device—Love, Sex aur Dhokha and Shanghai had minimalist scoring—and this is something to which he wants to return. “I’m waiting for a screenplay to go back to the roots of Indian musicography so to speak, to bring out new ways of scoring for a scene.”

When he finally paused for breath, I told him I was surprised he didn’t become a full-time composer. “Oh no, he responded, “that’s only because I wanted to be a film-maker just a little more.”

INTERVIEW SOMEONE OVER A FEW DAYS, and your feelings about the person shift from one encounter to the next. At the end of my first day with Banerjee, for example, I came away thinking that he was one of the most articulate people I had met. By the second day, a touch of annoyance, stoked by my private snobberies, crept in: what kind of poseur holds forth on classical music and art and says “anyways” at the same time? And what was with that precious habit of replying “Let’s figure out life together” every time I texted him to confirm a meeting? (The annoyance deepened when our appointment was postponed and I had to wait a few hours to meet him.) By the third day, however, I returned to something closer to my original impression, seeing signs of introspection and what seemed like genuine humility. And so it went.

At times I thought I had him pegged. Asked about his early cinematic influences, he named Ketan Mehta and Satyajit Ray and said the Bachchan era completely passed him by—an intriguing admission from a Delhi boy who would have been eight or nine years old when films like Amar Akbar Anthony were released. He recalled laughing nonstop through that tacky tribute to testosterone, Manmohan Desai’s Mard, and there was ambivalence in his attitude to even the “Middle Cinema” directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterji—he liked their films for the songs, “but I can’t remember a single case of good art direction in them”. He didn’t take it as an unqualified compliment when Khosla ka Ghosla was likened to the “simple”, “grounded” cinema of the 1970s.

Naturally, then, when he mentioned being a Dharmendra fan, I assumed that (having scoffed at Mard) he meant the early Dharmendra, the sweet-faced leading man of such 1960s movies as Bandini and Anupama. But no: he was talking about Dharmendra on the cusp of his kuttay-kameenay phase, the glowering alpha male of Yaadon ki Baaraat, Charas and even the risible Shalimar. (“He was at his sexiest in that film! My sister and I were consumed by him.”) More paradoxes emerged: his principal filmic memories of 1979–80, he said, are of listening to the radio programme of Shyam Benegal’s austere period film Junoon, and also of random cheesy horror movies such as Jaani Dushman and Darwaaza.

And then, just when it seemed he had nothing interesting to say about the Bachchan era—you know, the one he barely registered—he came up with a startling suggestion about the superstar as comedian. “Many of those drunken acts, in films like Naseeb, might have come from his memories of watching Bengali box-wallahs in the Sixties when he was working in Calcutta,” he said. “Bachchan had a very Andy Kaufman-like quality, like a human installation: he would climb out of his character and do a completely different character under the guise of being drunk. And in those scenes you can see him sending signals to the directors around him, saying ‘I can do THIS, give me something like this to do!’ But he mostly got lazy directors and films.”

Banerjee himself was known for a zany sense of humour as a copywriter (“I have always been a funny guy in a facile sort of way—there is even a promo somewhere in the Channel V vaults, with me acting in it”) and glimpses of a stand-up comedian come through every now and again. Discussing subjectivity in responses to art, he conjured up the droll image of himself standing alongside an Eskimo in a gallery, the two men looking at Picasso’s Guernica through the prisms of very different life experiences. Recalling that the actor who played the terrifying father in Love, Sex aur Dhokha had a real-life stammer that he had to control, he went off on another tack. “That’s a great idea, isn’t it—for a story about a controlling patriarch who stammers, and many things don’t work out for him because of this. He has a sheep for a daughter-in-law because he can’t finish the sentence ‘Mere ghar mein yeh b-b-b-b-b-bakri nahin aayegi (This sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sheep will not enter my house).’ So now this sheep is his bahu and it’s frustrating, but he’s still a patriarch.” (I contemplated the possibilities in Ekta Kapoor financing such a film and calling it “Kyunki Baa bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi”. That isn’t as facetious as it sounds: Banerjee is full of genuine praise for Kapoor, who produced Love, Sex aur Dhokha despite her mixed feelings about shaky cameras. “She is one of the smartest people I’ve met—emotional, spontaneous.”) When in a bitchy mood, he can be very funny about some of Bollywood’s younger actors, “who are basically still-picture actors who sometimes behave like they are in a fancy-dress competition: ‘Main ab paagal ka role karoonga. Mera role very disabled person ka hai (I will now do the role a madman. My role is that of a very disabled person).’”

Most people are content to let certain things pass in small talk, but I rarely saw this happening with him. During a very casual discussion of Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde pe Mat Ro—over a fish-and-rice lunch in his office—I mentioned that the opening-credits sequence had a stylised, film-negative feel to it; it was a tangential observation, but he jumped on it. “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Not like the negative effect in Ray’s Pratidwandi, anyway.” And he is very particular about his own phrasing, meticulous to the extent that he will often backtrack in the middle of a sentence to correct himself or choose a sharper phrase, even when the original would have sufficed. (“The star system is related to a wave—no, sorry, not a wave—to a subterranean layer of dissatisfaction in an audience’s life.”) At other times, he would simply shake his head and admit to not being able to collect his thoughts (“Sorry, I can’t express what I want to say...maybe it will come later”), perhaps the sign of a man preoccupied with presenting himself correctly and saying exactly the right things. “Let it be a record of what I sounded like at a particular point in time,” he said of a book of interviews he has committed to despite misgivings about whether it is too early in his career.

Banerjee prepares with actors for a shot. Meticulous planning with his team far ahead of shooting has been key to his filmmaking method, allowing him to balance control and spontaneity while working on set. COURTESY DIBAKAR BANERJEE

As one might expect, he is full of frequently offbeat theories about filmmaking and the film industry. He discussed the phenomenon of superstars in India in terms of the country’s feudal history and the after-effects of colonialism: “In our system there is the ingrained acceptance of a superior and we enforce this through social rituals—fan following, worship, hagiography—until stars become feudal lords, and eventually patriarchs.” In India, he goes on, “an extremely elite member of the society—the superstar—is mainly communicating with the lowest common denominator of the society. The distance between his screen life and his real life is so large that it results in a kind of schizophrenia, which is why most stars get trapped in their screen persona—it takes a lot of energy for them to step out of that because they are already out of their comfort zone.” This is a different take from the conventional view that a star actor plays “himself” in every role, but as Banerjee pointed out, “avatar” is a better word.

This doesn’t preclude finding new ways of tapping into an existing persona. Casting Emraan Hashmi—a big star for a B-market comprising sexy potboilers—in a deglamourised part as the uncouth photographer Jogi in Shanghai may have seemed an unusual decision, but Banerjee cannily observed that the characters Hashmi played in the best of his noirish films had interesting psychological dimensions. “Most of those stories are about conflicted people, so maybe that schooling went into it. I had very little to do with Emraan’s transformation—there is an innate emotional intelligence that certain actors have without their even analysing what they are doing.”

Banerjee with Nikos Andritzakis, the cinematographer for Love, Sex aur Dhokha and Shanghai. The former, a formally experimental film, was shot entirely using hand-held cameras and CCTV footage.

Importantly, however, both men were clear from the outset that Emraan was working in a Dibakar Banerjee film, not the other way around. “Directors like me must be very careful not to import the entire star system into a film along with a star,” he said.

“Yes, I got that this guy is an asshole, but what kind of an asshole do you want him to be? Decide that first.”

“No, no, no, no, no.”

I played fly on the wall as Banerjee anchored a script session for the first film he is producing—Behl’s directorial debut, provisionally titled Titli. Banerjee, Behl (who wrote the story) and co-writer Sharat Kataria held a magnifying glass to nearly every plot turn in a script that—as far as I could tell—was about a young boy trying to break free of an elder brother’s controlling hand while himself getting involved with a less-than-legal project.

It took a while for them to warm up—Banerjee languidly chatted about the merits of the Scrivener software he was using to order the script (“it’s a great software for writing panel-by-panel descriptions for a graphic novel, which I hope to do someday”)—but as they discussed character arcs, things got busier. Jargon was bandied about, phrases and words repeated: stimulus response, beats, penny-dropping scenes.

For an outsider, this was an intriguing ringside view of the messiness of creative collaboration, where two people might argue whether a particular element is cute or tragic, even as they dig into an idli-vada meal together. It is also a view of Banerjee at an early stage in his career as a producer-mentor: on a tightrope, maintaining the balance between contributing something of value and giving autonomy to people whose work he respects.

Like an essentially benevolent schoolteacher who also recognises the need to learn, Banerjee raised questions, made his points, but then retreated and reconsidered if he heard a convincing counter-argument, readily saying, “Okay, I never got that.” He fiddled with the coasters on the table, shuffling them like dominoes. To make a point during the discussion of an epiphany experienced by the script’s protagonist, he invoked a personal dilemma: “I was speaking to Adi [Aditya Chopra] just today, about a possible deal. And I have come to a decision that if I agree to this aspect of it, then everything from now till the deal ends will require me to work at a notch lower than I want to. And therefore I won’t agree. Being a mundane, real-world guy, I had this epiphany while eating oats in the morning. For our character, we have to express a similar moment in cinematic terms.”

The discussion spooled on, with Banerjee raising one concern after another.

Iss character ki vipda kya hai (What is this character’s jeopardy)?” he asked. “Is it a first-degree vipda that will later be compounded by a second-degree vipda that will turn him berserk? Or is there a huge vipda right from the beginning?”

“Which is the character flaw? How do we seed the character flaw?”

“I feel these dilutions will take away from the core value of that scene—my fears could be unfounded, but I’d rather say them now.”

“A suggestion I have—which you are free to discard—is that...”

“You have your intention, you have the history of the characters in your head, but what the audience will see will be the sum total of the accidents of production. So it’s good to have a scene like this as insurance, to spell out this thought.”

What is a graph structure, I asked him during a break in the conversation. The term had been used a lot, and I figured it has to do with a character’s personal growth over a story. Banerjee confirmed this with characteristic precision: “Take Veeru and Jai, who go from being unrooted, devil-may-care types to becoming integrated into a wider community and taking on responsibility; and the film, while it is about other things on the surface, is fundamentally about how these two people undergo this transition.”

Anaath bacchon ko family milee (Orphaned children gain a family),” he said, enunciating each word. Needless to say, this is not your typical plot précis of Sholay, but it gets the idea across effectively.

Things lightened up soon enough. They talked about the films they love—from Scorsese and Coppola to the Korean thriller Memories of Murder—and movies with tropes similar to the script under consideration. Banerjee brought in jokey reference points to other directors, especially those from Bollywood’s kitschy past: “If you do the scene that way it will turn into a typical Rahul Rawail moment—I can even see the young Anil Kapoor in it.” (He simulated a booming background score—“dhan dhan dhan”—of the sort that might be used in such a scene.) “Remember that scene in Soderbergh’s Traffic where Del Toro bangs his face against the wheel? That was an absolute Prakash Mehra moment.”

They picked on definitions: how does duality differ from ambiguity? “Duality means two values in one mood: hero says ‘Fuck, I got what I wanted! But IS this what I want?’”

And after more than three straight hours of psycho-analysis and banter, he was tired of sounding off. “Ab dimaag nahin kaam kar raha mera (Now my mind is not working).” He lay down on a red beanbag and spread his arms out in an exaggerated show of Christ-like weariness. “Meri dukaan bandh hai (My shop is closed).”

His emphasis on planning every detail long before the shooting stage reminds me, a little uneasily, of Alfred Hitchcock’s claim that he never had to look through the camera and that he was often bored or distracted during the actual shooting of a film, because in his mind everything had already been done beforehand. Banerjee doesn’t see himself as being a control-freak of that magnitude; and he admits to be invigorated by the film-making process. (“If Hitchcock really was bored on the set, I wish he wasn’t—because then we might have had an even better Vertigo.”) But there is still a question to be asked about whether over-planning can result in a loss of spontaneity. “A huge inverted pyramid of various disciplines cones down into one small wedge called the shoot,” he says, “and planning well beforehand helps you to be spontaneous on the set.” He recalled the case of a cast member whose performance during a particular scene was too melodramatic. Banerjee realised that being told this outright could have shattered the actor’s confidence; as a solution, he decided to tire him out. “So you keep going for take after take after take. But you have that extra time only because you have planned properly; you can make the required adjustment in the next shot.”

“I had the option of doing this film with other people,” Behl told me later, “but the difference between Dibakar and everyone else is that they see the film as it is now and he sees it in terms of what it can become. That’s testing but also stimulating for a writer.”

In fact, Behl was thrown into the deep end very early during their association, when he was told—out of the blue—to handle the dubbing for Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, something he had no prior experience of, without the director’s supervision. Banerjee’s other long-time associates have similar stories. “Dibakar would tell me do what you want to do,” said production designer Vandana Kataria, “and if I don’t like something we can discuss it.” The meticulous set and colour design of Shanghai required Kataria to work very closely with the film’s cinematographer, Andritzakis. “I would tell him I have this shade chart for this scene, so be sure to use a cool light here. We would be intensely discussing something and Dibakar would walk past and joke, ‘Arre mujhe bhi bataa do (Tell me also), it’s my film!’” Andritzakis himself said he got many of his cues for the Shanghai look not during formal discussions with Dibakar but from his experiences of being in Mumbai as a foreigner for the first time.

In only his second month of working for Banerjee, Behl had a strong difference of opinion with him. Banerjee mentioned Rakhi Sawant for the role of Dolly in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, but Behl wanted none of it. “I’ll leave this film if you cast her,” he said, an audacious statement coming from a young assistant director. “Dibakar was taken aback, but he told me okay, in that case it’s up to you to find someone better.”

Such accounts suggest that Banerjee leaves his crew members alone, letting them work their own way through situations—uncharacteristically, for such an opinionated director. But Behl offered an explanation. “He trusts people, but he trusts very few people,” he said, citing other regular members of Banerjee’s team such as the editor Namrata Rao. Behl also feels that Banerjee isn’t a “people person” in a superficial sense of that term. “He won’t encourage a false sense of family. His focus is entirely on the film.” Or as Urmi Juvekar put it, naming a quality that binds so many serious artists, “He has a wonderful selfishness.”

WHERE DOES THAT SELFISHNESS LEAD HIM FROM HERE? At times Banerjee seems rigid in his ideas about how a creative person must be assessed—too hung up on the notion of a meaningful career arc. He prides himself on having gone a step further with each film. “I am getting better at understanding the difference between tone and content,” he said, “so that a funny scene which makes you suddenly giggle doesn’t take away from the horror of the next scene. In Khosla ka Ghosla there are some nice comic moments, but they are fragmented; in my later films, different moods are better integrated.” But this also implies a self-consciousness about improving in some easily observable way. When he discusses the career trajectories of other directors, he does it in terms of a rhetorical question like: “From Black Friday to Gangs of Wasseypur, or from Maqbool to Saat Khoon Maaf, do you see a growth? Is this an accretive journey?” And personally, this makes me a little uncomfortable: there should be room for a more nuanced discussion, given that these are very different kinds of films, and that many great artists have had puzzling career arcs.

Ironically, however, his own future plans involve varied movies. “I’ve said what I had to say about the things that are happening around us—the new liberalised economy and all that—and now I have to start afresh.” He now wants to make his canvases more intimate while still playing out the themes that interest him—including the oldest of them all, the nature of good and evil. “I’m trying to figure out what conscience is. How do you begin not to have it? What does the environment do to us that we lose the ability to distinguish between taking someone’s pencil and taking someone’s life?”

Banerjee expects his future films to become more intimate while still exploring the perennial themes of good and evil. NATASHA HEMRAJANI FOR THE CARAVAN

As he knows, genre fiction can provide an effective framework to examine such ideas. His next feature-length project, which is now at the script-development stage, is about Byomkesh Bakshi, the popular Bengali detective created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Banerjee’s adaptation, “a mélange—not a triptych—of two or three different stories”, will be a period film set in pre-Independence Calcutta. Meanwhile, other ideas keep coalescing in his head. “I want to do a film about personal combat—martial arts. That would be about craft, choreography, visual rhythm, about the use of the human anatomy and the space around it. Something close to installation.”

The horror genre, too, is very near to his heart—“that is the most moralistic tale you can tell, you can really preach when you’re doing horror!”—and he has developed an interest in TED Kline’s short story “Nadelman’s God”, about a monster emerging out of a goth-rock song written by an advertising executive. “I want to do an Indian version of this,” he says, adding—with a straight face—“The title will be Narayan Murthy ka Paaltu Raakshas (Narayan Murthy’s Pet Demon).”

“That’s the name you came up with?”

“Yes—it’s from Nadelman’s God,” he said, as if he was stating something very obvious; as if the comical juxtaposition of a banal word like paaltu and a menacing one like raakshas flowed naturally from that English title rather than from the imp inside his own head.

(Left to right) Directors Anurag Kashyap, Anand Gandhi and Dibakar Banerjee at TIFF, 2012. Kashyap and Banerjee represent two bold, yet different, energies in new Hindi cinema. MATT CARR / GETTY IMAGES

Before any of these, though, comes the short film he is making for a “100 Years of Indian Cinema” project—four separate short films directed by Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar, to be released together in 2013 as Bombay Talkies. Given free rein to choose his subject as long as it involved cinema in some way, Banerjee turned to Satyajit Ray’s short story “Patol Babu, Film Star”, about an unemployed 52-year-old man tapping into a long-forgotten creative impulse when he gets to play a tiny movie role. Banerjee has updated the story to contemporary Mumbai, turning his protagonist into the son of one of the displaced mill-workers of Lalbagh, an area he knows very well. “It is very vibrant—mere ghar ke baahar Shiv Sena ka office hai, din-raat traffic jam hota hai (outside my house there’s a Shiv Sena office, day and night there’s a traffic jam) because there is some party or procession.” He grew animated again as he described—with arm movements that resemble the Punjabi “balle balle”—how the people leading these processions behave like hooligans and show public-mindedness at the same time. “Even while they are dancing, they’ll be controlling traffic on this narrow road with BMWs, owned by the people who live in those bloody multi-storeyed things. Maybe this character in our film can join them at some point.” And he has other, whimsical plot points constantly swimming around in his head. During another script session, I thought I heard him say in a deadpan voice: “We have to work out where a man like that can keep that one emu, which is the detritus of his past.” I must have misheard, I told myself, but no, it turns out that the film’s protagonist is indeed contemplating emu-farming—in a crowded Mumbai locality.

Though this is clearly a fictional story about a dreamer looking for a break, one of Banerjee’s key decisions—another step in the journey out of his comfort zone—is to make this 25-minute film with the help of two documentary film-makers, Shabani Hassanwalia and Samreen Farooqui. He wants to use this collaboration to expand his understanding of human behaviour. “I am a documentary-junkie,” he said, in a tone that suggests it is one of the very few things he is interested in. (I rolled my eyes.) “It’s an important way of understanding how people behave at critical junctures in their lives. We don’t always get a real understanding of that from conventional cinema. When my grandfather was found dead, the first thing my father did was to go to the loo—he got so nervous.” And so, a notable decision in making this “fictional documentary” is to weave into the plot the personal story of the lead actor—Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who had a long, hard struggle before becoming, in just the past few months, one of the hottest stars of the new cinema.

A few days earlier I had asked Banerjee about the extent to which the major changes in his life—fatherhood, for example (his daughter Tara is now three years old)—are reflected in his cinema. “An artist,” he had replied, speaking in a note-this-down voice, “is a human being who has a good open window to himself and the world. A well-ventilated house. So if you call me an artist, I will have to express everything I feel, and my fatherhood will also be expressed.” It is no surprise, then, to learn that the updated Patol Babu has a little daughter and that their relationship is one of the points to be discussed at length. “If it’s a unitary family like mine, the father would mean a lot to a five-year-old girl,” he said. “But this man is from a background where male aur female ka social world alag ho jaata hai (the male and female worlds are different): the guy might sit in the Shiv Sena office while the woman will be with her friends. So in this situation the father is an old-style distant figure for daughter. We have to work out their relationship accordingly.”

YEARS AFTER Mr Banerjee mockingly wondered about his son’s chances of becoming a serious artist like Tagore or Ray, I got the impression that Banerjee’s parents feel a little daunted by the types of films he is making now. They haven’t watched Love, Sex aur Dhokha fully, for instance—the shaky camera was an assault on their senses. Their son may have anticipated their resistance. “He would force us to come for the shooting of the first two films,” his mother said, “even if it was at six in the morning. But for Love, Sex aur Dhokha he said stay at home.” Soon they sensed that something different was going on; Banerjee’s driver would tell them he had returned from shooting at 4 am and bhaiya was doing strange things, such as making a man jump repeatedly into a lake with a camera for a scene. What kind of a film was this, they wondered.

While his father seems more accommodating—on the surface, at least—his mother wistfully wishes that her son would make more films like Khosla ka Ghosla. “Usske picture ordinary people ke liye nahin hai, na (His films aren’t for ordinary people, right)?” she said, and I sensed an unspoken “hum jaise (like us)” in that sentence. “His brain has its own take on things, how can we interfere with that?” her husband told her gently. “We can’t expect him to make meaningless things like Phir Gol Maal, or Phir Hera Pheri.”

Mujhe toh wohHera Pheri films bahut acchhe lagte hain (I like those Hera Pheri films very much)!” she said, and they bantered about the relative merits of Hera Pheri and its sequel. During Durga Pujas years ago, Banerjee was well known for the comical skits he organised with the residents of the locality, his father mentioned. “Ask him to come out with a real comic picture— tell him that. We haven’t had one since Padosan!”

There was something touching about the moment. Here is Dibakar Banerjee, hailed as one of the sharpest creative people in his field, pushing the boundaries to make work that is hatke. And here were his middle-class parents, proud of his success, thrilled when they see an article about him in an international magazine—but a little lost, too, as if the boy they knew has moved into a creative dimension that they can’t really be a part of. And, perhaps, a little regretful about not knowing enough about him firsthand. “These days we get to know what he is up to from what we read about him,” his father said. “And, of course, through his films.”

Given that film-making is a chaotic, collaborative process, it might be said that Banerjee has—with the help of people whom he trusts—bridged the gap between his mind and his canvas to a large extent. “I’m trying to put myself into my work,” he said, “so that by the time I’m dead...”

“It will add up to a sort of autobiography?” I offered.

“No. What I mean is that when you see the films you will know me. That’s different from an autobiography, which is a conscious presentation of oneself. Knowing the person is more complex.”

What forces might prevent him from achieving this? One factor, ironically, is the acclaim that he and other Indie film-makers have been getting in recent years. “There is a new hubris of media around us,” he said. “From tremendous disempowerment and marginalisation, we are now in the middle of deification—an amateur, clubby, smoke-filled version of deification—where every film is being acclaimed as a masterpiece. As a result, there is a danger of your focus being taken off your craft.”

In the past few years, we have seen intelligent, offbeat scripts being executed with assured technical film-making and buttressed with a certain quantum of star power; directors such as Kashyap, Bhardwaj, Tigmanshu Dhulia and their young protégés are being recognised by the mainstream heavy-weights and congratulated profusely on Twitter. Movie-lovers in India find much to celebrate in this, but for the personal film-maker who wants to retain his integrity, to be the monarch of his (small) terrain, it can be daunting to find himself near that dicey zone where he might get to work with really big stars and producers used to dealing the cards. Or to find himself coming out of a preview of a colleague’s film that he didn’t like too much and giving effusive sound bites to the reporters outside—a sign that he isn’t quite as independent as he would like to think. Independent is a relative term, in any case: Banerjee has worked with big producers such as Ekta Kapoor and the Bijlis of PVR Cinemas, and he tells me candidly that he would like nothing better than to be the most commercial director alive, if commercial means reaching the largest possible audience; it’s just that he wants to do it by telling his stories, his way.

“Studio after studio, I hear executives talking down the films they produce; there is a jingoistic pride about the money they are making but they have shut off the topic of quality to some extent.” But despite these criticisms, he is surprisingly empathetic towards directors and producers who sell out. “Living in a cramped, difficult city like Mumbai, you’re constantly craving for a bigger flat, bigger cars. I sometimes think the extent of compromise in our cinema has much to do with the nature of this city—the climate, the road design, the sewage system. If the film industry were located somewhere like Pune, perhaps we would be making better films!”

In a chummier mood at Delhi’s Gunpowder restaurant—I had joined him, Hassanwalia and Farooqui for lunch—he told us that a real superstar had his own problems. “Uss ko 300 crore ki film karni hee hai (He has to do a 300-crore film), because he has to construct another palace atop the palace he already has in Bandra. Or build a helipad for his children because they are growing up.”

But of course, even those who prefer to focus on the creative side of their job must deal with the pragmatic—occasionally distasteful—aspects of the real world, much like the film director Guido in the opening sequence of Fellini’s Eight and a Half—literally soaring away into the sky and having to be tethered to earth. And it would be wrong to claim that Banerjee himself has never compromised. He has on occasion offered what he sees as minor sops to producers or to “lazy viewers”. For instance, he prefers the international cut of Shanghai because it is much subtler in its use of the songs “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Imported Kamariya” (both of which are presented as conventional, narrative-disrupting dance sequences in the Indian version). The question is: how long can he get by with little sops, and might they incrementally lead to bigger compromises?

After one of our meetings, I joined Banerjee on a car ride while he tried to work out the specifics of a financial deal on the phone, speaking the jargon of a marketing man. “It’s something that has to be done,” he shrugged later, “like all those promotional interviews whenever a film is released.” But there was something almost symbolic about the fact that this was a long northward drive from Lalbagh to a big-money producer’s office in Andheri, the place where, according to Banerjee, “all creative talent goes to die”.

“The moment you cross Bandra, the area of cheating begins. An ambitious director is cajolingly told ‘do this, yeh ho jaayega (this will follow)’, and that’s how all the compromise, all the lethargy begins.”

“People like me,” he said, as his car pulled into the huge entrance—the famous gaping maw—of the producer’s building, “must constantly be wary of Andheri and its easy solutions.”

Correction: The print version of this story, and the earlier online version, wrongly stated that Sharat Kataria was the dialogue writer of Titli. Kataria is the film's co-writer.