Zulfiqar is the ninth film of director Srijit Mukherji, a filmmaker with the Midas touch in the Bengali industry. His films are a mix of commercial success. Always in search of new stories with thought provoking themes, Mukherji has put together a first-of-its-kind ensemble cast in a Bengali film, with this Durga Puja offering. Here’s a chat with the director about his journey with Zulfiqar.
It is very rare to see a film’s marketing start five months ahead of its release.
Yes. I made the film in 2015 and finished it by January 2016, and the first teaser came out in March. I did that because I was moving to Mumbai to start work on my first Hindi film, Begum Jaan. So I finished Zulfiqar and I knew it would have a Puja 2016 release, so I kind of planned the publicity in advance.
Zulfiqar shows a different side of Bengal.
Bengal is stereotyped in both Bengali and Hindi films as essentially middle class and upper-middle class, Hindu-Bengal and is also associated with Durga Puja, images of the eye doll, rosogollah, Saurav Ganguly, Eden Garden, Victoria Memorial, the Ganga, Howrah Bridge, old streets, Satyajit Ray and Rabindranath Tagore. But beyond all this imagery is a Bengal that we have grown up knowing but has never made it to popular discourse, something attempted by Zulfiqar now.
Can we say the movie comes from your own experience?
Yes, I have friends in Kidderpore, Metiaburuz and Garden Reach areas, which have a predominantly Muslim population. I have had experiences which are unconventional in terms of the populist touristy images of Kolkata which find place in the film. The research for the film also includes a detailed study of the history and type of crime in these areas, how through the ‘70s smuggling and other such activities flourished because of the docks as Kolkata was an important port. The importance of Kolkata port has greatly diminished due to silting and various other reasons but the legacy, the myth, the history remains. It is such a fascinating part of Kolkata that I thought I would use that backdrop with Shakespearean elements of power, ambition, betrayal and love.
What kind of research did you do to make it look realistic since your film is set in the ‘70s?
I met the police and went through many police records. The Deputy Commissioner of Police helped me with files and criminal cases. In those areas, they say ‘unlegal’, not illegal, so he helped me understand the ‘unlegal’ activities in those areas. The police were of great help. Then, obviously, I met people who stay there and talked to friends who grew up there.
Also though I am adapting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, there was academic research beyond those two tragedies of Shakespeare put together. This helped to build plot points and the back stories of various characters. So I read up on the ancient history of Rome, especially Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch. So the film goes beyond Shakespeare’s stories.
How did you club ancient Rome and West Bengal?
That is the interesting bit. The main thing was recreating the Senate. In Julius Caesar, and indeed in the history of Rome, the Senate plays a very big role till Octavius becomes emperor. The Senate is like a group of people entrusted with the administration of the kingdom. I needed to recreate the Senate and I wrote something like that called Syndicate which much to my amazement, the Police Department said already existed in the area! That was a very lucky break. The concept of a group of people working together who are powerful and have control over an area is a concept that already existed in the dock area. So it was very easy from there onwards. All I had to do was draw a parallel with people who are stakeholders in managing the area.
Another interesting thing about Zulfiqar is that it is timeless. Sure, it’s a modern-day story in the post cell phone era but you can’t tell which specific year it is set in. I have not committed to any time frame. The history and backdrop is the cumulative history of these areas.
The film has a big star cast. Was it easy getting everyone on board?
Casting was the most difficult part as we had all the superstars of Bengali cinema coming together in this film. This became possible because of Venkatesh Films and me. Having personal relationships with these actors helped though I have to hand it to them. They could have easily said no but they didn’t for the sake of the industry and came together for the greatest star cast ever assembled in Bengal.