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The King’s Men

Director Srijit Mukherji and actor Jisshu Sengupta talk exclusively to Titas Chowdhury about their upcoming Durga Puja release, Ek Je Chhilo Raja, the ease of working with each other and much more

Jisshu, you have had many releases this year, including huge successes like Uma and Shonar Pahar. Do you think 2018 is your year?

Jisshu Sengupta (JS): No, definitely not. To be honest, I do not want to call any year ‘my year’. I take one film at a time. When a film releases and whatever its fate is, it is out there for everyone to see and then it is gone. Now I have to look forward and do better work than I did before. I have to look for better scripts and characters. I don’t indulge in the thought that a certain year was, is or will be mine.

Srijit, Uma released early this year. Ek Je Chhilo Raja will be hitting the screens soon. You have finished the shoot for Shah Jahan Regency. And you will start working on Vinci Da shortly. How do you manage to move from one film to the next so quickly?

Srijit Mukherji (SM): I don’t have a family as such. I am not married; I am single. I don’t have worldly responsibilities. I don’t have the habit of sleeping too much - I try to sleep for only four to five hours. Hence, I have 19-20 hours at my disposal. I try to make good use of that.

Where did this story come from?

SM: There is a folktale that I have heard since my childhood. My grandmother told me a story of a king who returned from the dead. There were many popular films and television serials made on this story. But unfortunately, they were far removed from the truth. The truth of the actual court case and the incident, and the palace politics were dealt with in great detail by Dr Partho Chatterjee in his book, A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal. That book forms the crux of the research that went into the film. I really owe a lot to Parthoda, as I call him. He wrote another book called Dead Man Wandering: The Case That Shook A Country. I consulted these two books. The latter is an easier version of the former, which is a scholarly essay. 

This is your first period drama. What are the challenges of directing something of this kind?

SM: The usual stuff - like removing cables and any remnants of modern technology, getting the costumes right, getting the artifacts right and getting the look and feel of the exterior world right. The film covers a vast time span, from 1903 to 1946. Over 43 years, things change, exteriors change. To capture that change is possibly the greatest challenge.

Jisshu, what kind of preparation did you need to do for your character?

JS: I do not do any preparation for my characters. I only read the script. I develop an idea of how a character would walk and talk, and then I discuss it with my director. Either he likes it, adds something or subtracts something. When I go to the set, it is the atmosphere and ambience of the place where I am shooting in that matters a lot to me. I completely believe in my director. It is his vision, after all.

You had to use prosthetics for your role in Ek Je Chhilo Raja

JS: Yes, the makeup took about one to two hours every day. I had to wake up early in the morning at about 4 or 5 o’clock. I have to give credit to Somnath Kundu, who did my prosthetics. He has been a part of the industry for a really long time now. Hats off to him! Whatever you see, it is his effort, not mine. I cannot take that credit. People are talking about my look. I have not done anything. If people watch the film and appreciate my acting, then, yes, that is the credit I can take. I cannot take credit for the look at all. The only credit I deserve is for sitting through the sessions in the cold for two hours!

When you are acting in so many films one after the other, does detachment from your last character and moving on to the next one get difficult?

JS: When I was shooting for Ek Je Chhilo Raja, I was also shooting for Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi. For me, as an actor, it is all about ‘action’ and ‘cut’. That is it. When the director says ‘action’, I become the character that I am playing. When the director says ‘cut’, I am off that character. I do not stay with the character. It so happened that one day I was shooing for Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi and the next morning, I took a flight to shoot for Ek Je Chhilo Raja. While in the former film I played a larger-than-life king, in the latter I played a sadhu in 50 per cent of the film. I have never thought about carrying a character with me, and it has never occurred to me either. I am an actor and I get paid for playing different characters in different films. 

You have worked with each other before. Do you think those experiences have helped you in this film?

SM: Yes. All those films have added to the chemistry that I share with Jisshu. It is a very palpable director-actor chemistry, which I think is very crucial to any working relationship in terms of the final execution. The history that we have helps our future.

JS: This is my seventh film with Srijit. Now I know how he works and I know exactly what he wants. In our first film together, he would explain a lot of scenes to me. In our seventh film, he would just say a line and I would understand what he exactly wanted. When you have worked with a director on so many films, it becomes very easy. While I was working with Rituda (Rituparno Ghosh), the same thing happened. My first film with him was The Last Lear and my last was Chitrangada - in that one, he acted as well. He would give me cues and I would understand everything.

In an interview, you said that Srijit never gave you scripts…

JS: Yeah (Laughs).

Is that his process?

JS: I got a script when I was doing Jaatishwar. After that, I got a script during Uma, thanks to my daughter Sara. Between these two, he did not give me scripts for the other films I did with him. I would go to the floor and get my scripts there. Obviously I knew the script. He would read it out to me. In Ek Je Chhilo Raja, he gave me a script. I was travelling a lot and so, he felt that I should be in touch with it. I don’t know why he did not give me scripts. I think it is the trust that he has in me. I prepare my scenes one day before we shoot. The thing is, I know the story in its entirety. The entire script is in my mind. That is the way I work. If I prepare too much, I get too tied up with my thoughts. I do not like that. I believe in being more spontaneous.   

SM: With Jisshu, the process is different, since he is a different kind of an actor. It is not good when one tries to over-intellectualize a performance. That is why I don’t generally give him scripts. I narrate them to him. He hears the narration and he has a working memory of that narration when he prepares for the role. He uses his memory of my interpretation, puts his own bit into it and creates the character.

Several other films are also releasing on the same day as yours. How do you look at that?

JS: Yes, I am aware of the clashes. But if I start thinking about that, I will not be able to act. To be honest, all the films are different. This Pujo will see the coming together of Kaushik Ganguly, Arindam Sil, Baba Yadav and Anindya Chatterjee, who are great filmmakers. The stories that they are telling are all different. I am only apprehensive about the audience – whether they would like Ek Je Chhilo Raja and me as an actor. But I am more nervous when I am shooting, than before the film’s release.

SM: No, not really. One very big reason is that I revel in competition. I like it. I am associated with Puja for eight years now. People actually call me ‘Sharodiya Srijit’, which means autumnal Srijit, because most of my films have released during Durga Puja. All my films have a 100 per cent track record of being blockbusters during the Puja season. From 2016 onwards, there have been five or six releases every Puja and my films have always been blockbusters, doing great business. I don’t think other releases will bother me too much.

What are your future projects?

SM: I have a web series based on Satyajit Ray’s short stories, called X Ray - Selected Satyajit Shorts. After Vinci Da, I have two feature films that will come in 2019. Then I have Gumnami Baba and Kakababu in 2020. One of the films that will release in 2019 will be Gouranga Itikatha. It is a take on Chaitanya’s life. So, yes, there is a variety of stuff in the pipeline.

JS: Currently I am shooting for four films - Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Devidas Thakur, NTR and Aparna Sen’s Ghawre Baire Aaj.

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