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Limelight| The Dibakar Banerjee Interview: I have no idea who I am

Dibakar Banerjee is a widely celebrated filmmaker. His films Khosla ka Ghosla (2006) and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) have both won the National Film Award. His other critically acclaimed movies include Love, Sex aur Dhoka (2010), Shanghai (2012), Bombay Talkies (2013), Detective Byomkesh Bakshi (2015). His most recent movies include the Netflix hit Lust Stories and his upcoming movie Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar releases on March 1, 2019. In this conversation with Swagat Baruah of Catharsis, he talks about his personal self, his movies and his philosophy. 

Swagat Baruah: So the last time we talked, we talked about a lot of things but one thing that really got me hooked on to was your talk about elitism. I’d  really like to know D.B, what was it like to be growing up in the 90s and witnessing the change of economic scenarios in India. And how those things affected your career choices back then.

Dibakar Banerjee: I have no idea of how to authentically try to replicate what I lived through in the 90’s. Because like everything else, my memory is also colored. Whatever I say is a function of my current understanding of what I was then, which I didn’t have at that point, I was just being. So I have no idea how much of what I remember is a function of my own memory or my later critical and historical knowledge about how 90s went for India. So I don’t know which came first me being the 90s generation X or the concept of Generation X.

Because like everything else, my memory is also colored. Whatever I say is a function of my current understanding of what I was then, which I didn’t have at that point, I was just being.

S.B: But I’m sure, at that moment you still remember what was it like to be.  I remember things about my childhood now, and we all have certain incidents back in school which now we look back to and laugh at. But at that moment we all knew that it was all horrendous especially when you were supposed to go to the principal’s office because you were caught in an act of mischief or something like that. At that moment we knew what we felt. But in hindsight everything looks funny to me now, including the whole banality of worrying back then. But I still remember how I felt back then. So if you were to carry on from that especially in Indian movies, how much of India or the idea of India do we really get to see in movies. What do you think of that?

D.B: I just compliment the 90s. I think my memories of 90s are to a large extent common with any other young person stepping into their early 20s anywhere in the world at any historical point of time. All your impulses are just functions of your physical age. And therefore perception is also the same, whether somebody grew up in the 40s or 90s. But then comes the accident of history. I think we were all at a critical age shaped by India’s economic liberalization, which in that particular context happened with the English speaking elite first, and then perhaps moved on to the other aspects of society. Since I had the key of English, I was inducted into it quite early. And the interesting thing with me was that even though I had the knowledge of English and I was deeply connected to the Western world and the Western culture, I still had a second ranker or a third ranker position in the elite pecking order of the country. I was not exactly at the top I was somewhere close to the top.

S.B: So you’re not the 1 percent but you’re definitely in the 9 percent?

D.B: Something like that. And basically I remember it as my climb through that 9 percent upwards. That’s one way of looking at it because at that point, when you are 23-24 and you’re extremely anxious to impress upon the world about your worth so at that point, you grab at many ways of showing the world your worth. But at age 26-27 suddenly the environment is such that you leave a salaried job and start a production company and it just happens, and then you think it’s all easy, and it happens because you’re young and you’re working 18 or 20 hours a day. The ideas are bubbling, you’re ambitious. You’re also at that age more susceptible to not choose, and keep doing many things. Because you think time is infinite so you can experiment and you can gamble and you can do as you think you want, because there is a sense of infinity in front of you. And there were infinite chances. Being in your 20s in the 90s probably was rather better; the best post-independent Indian youth have felt. This is definitely not nostalgia speaking.

Being in your 20s in the 90s probably was rather better; the best post-independent Indian youth have felt. This is definitely not nostalgia speaking.

S.B: People have fears in life. Certain common fears and certain individual, extremely personal fears. Did you have any fear back then which drove you to the cinemas? That is what I would like to know. Some people fear that there’s not enough time in life and which is why you gotta do what you gotta do at this moment as soon as possible.

D.B: I remember a hierarchy of fears from my childhood. My first fear was one of the first things I remember: that I’ll never be able to light a matchstick in my life. That was a big worry for me. Another worry that I had was that I’ll never be able to tell the time. Another worry was that I’ll never be able to cross the road on my own. These are my three memorable fears when I was a child. Another fear that I had was that I would never be able to catch a ball.

When I grew up and got into my teens I think my main fear was that I’ll not grow tall or good looking. And hence it came to the third fear that I’ll never lose my virginity. And as you can see these are the any fears that any 18 year old would have. Then when I went to NID, my fear was that I was wasting my parents’ money. When I came and joined advertising my fear was I would prove to be not very creative. When I left my advertising company and found my own production company was when I truly had no fear.

S.B: And that is when you conquered fear?

D.B: I have no idea of conquering fear. I just realized that when I formed my production company I don’t remember being afraid.

S.B: Yeah that is when I think you became who you are.

D.B: Also I have no idea who I am.

S.B: That’s understandable. This German philosopher Nietzsche in the 19th century, he has this line which is always used in motivational books. He says ‘Become who you are, make only what you are capable of’. But I think that people deep inside are really horrible and if they do became who they are. The world would be chaotic.

D.B: Nietzsche’s ramblings have led to a lot of grief. Especially Nietzsche’s misunderstood ramblings especially when they were ascribed with more meaning than they contain. And unfortunately a lot of bad shit has come out of that.

S.B: Getting back to the point of elitism. Something great has happened since we last talked, the #MeToo movement that shook-up the whole of India. We saw critics coming up and saying that this is a sort of an elite movement with  elites overthrowing elites and this will never seep into anything else. I disagree with that I feel that, revolutions will always start from the elite base and then eventually seep into the lower strata of society, I do feel positive about that.

But talking about culture; culture always has been in Indian cinema a representation of the elites. At least for the past few years. So what do you think of that and representation of elites in Indian cinema and about the revolutions in the society?

D.B: It’s rather a very simple answer. Whether the #MeToo movement is elite or whether the movement is one elite, none of those factors should be any reason to denigrate the movement. It’s not connected to it. And maybe when we are saying that the #MeToo movement is an elite movement all we are saying is that in a society like India only the elite have the voice. But that doesn’t change what they are trying to say. And if you’re aware of this being an elite movement, then why kill the #MeToo movement? Why not try and make it more inclusive? Why is the solution denigrating the #MeToo movement?

About the elite representation in Indian cinema I don’t think Indian cinema can be separated from any aspect of work in the Indian society and the access to work and the access to employment and the right to work. Like many other rights and like many other reasonably unjust societies, in India also, the right to work and the right to employment, to some extent also favors the elite. And it’s reflected exactly the same way in cinema. I don’t think the cinema industry should be singled out for being elite. So is the engineering industry and medical industry elite. Doesn’t that seem a lot bigger?

And if you’re aware of this being an elite movement, then why kill the #MeToo movement? Why not try and make it more inclusive?

S.B: How do you mean the engineering industry?

D.B: Children of the poor cannot afford education in an engineering college any more than they can afford an education in film-making and become a filmmaker. The poorest of the poor are as barred from filmmaking as they are from engineering.

S.B: I would disagree on that partly because the poorest of the poor do go to engineering colleges or at least they aspire to be there. But you never see a filmmaker come out of a very small village of a very small town a very small state. You’d never see that.

D.B: Actually we do have people like that, maybe not directors but technicians. You must remember that cinema industry is minuscule compared to the engineering or the medical stream of employment. In terms of skill there is no comparison. However, what I was trying to say is that you cannot single out the film industry for being an enclave of the elite keeping in mind the size. I think it is representative of elite capture as any other stream of skills and highly specialized employment in India. I’m saying that the reason why the elite have captured cinema-making not because of something intrinsic to cinema, it is something intrinsic to our society. That’s all I’m trying to say.

And over the last 15 to 20 years what has happened is that there has been a further concentration of English speaking professionals in the filmmaking industry. As a result the vernacular languages and literature which comes out of vernacular languages and the literature that comes out of Hindi language which is the main language of Bollywood, that flow has stopped quite a bit. And at this point I don’t even want to venture into guessing what kind of material we are losing out because of this fountain completely drying up.

S.B: Do you think that something like Netflix can revolutionize the industry, giving more voices to more people, which it actually is doing I think?

D.B: I hope so. But the problem that I was talking about was not about the lack of avenues. The problem that I was talking about was that however many avenues open, employment in those avenues is as such that it favours the English speaking elite. The poverty of material from the 15 or 16 literary languages of India will only come to translation. That means the thriving translation industry in cinema which has translators who read languages and translate and circulate the official translated copies of literature from all the languages would be at any given point of time available to any director or writer to look at and be available for auctioning for it’s screenplay rights. As we speak, I’m sure there is one whole industry or a sub-industry that can open up, but probably it isn’t because there is no demand or awareness that this ‘fountain’ has dried up right next to our feet. It’s right there and we’ve blocked it. It’s just a tap away.

S.B: So do you face these problems even when you’re writing or when you’re reading scripts. I don’t know what people you’re working with I don’t know what languages they speak but people generally like to think or are programmed to think in their mother tongue. And certain feelings can be explained or depicted only through their mother tongue. So do you find problems in deriving or having hardcore substance in your script in terms of language or do you lose out on material when you do that when you’re writing or when you get someone else to write for you.

D.B: I have no idea what language do I think in. I’m trying to think about it. And now we’re getting into the deep territory of psychology – from Saussure to Lacan to Barthes.

When I’m thinking to myself, I sincerely don’t remember the language that I’m thinking in. That means that probably the language that I use to talk to myself is non-verbal because I remember thoughts, I remember scripts, if it is a Hindi script I remember a Hindi line. But I don’t remember how the process of thought works and what is its language. Certainly sitting here right now I can’t remember any language I’m using to think. While you were talking, I was thinking, but I don’t remember the language. When I’m expressing I’m finding meaning and there is a little bit of a difference between what I’m saying and what I thought and that’s because language creates its own meaning. So I’ve no idea what language do I think in.

But I have this very practical problem that every time I look for a vehicle of a story or a novella to express some of the ideas that may be running through my head now, instead of looking at 15 languages I’m looking at two languages. You can imagine immediately how my field of search has restricted and basic mathematical logic sort of end-gaming tells me that I’m losing out on about 60 to 70 percent of an increment in my long list; at least of books or stories or things to read. So that’s a real practical problem.

One of the main things that I think is of immense practical value of being an Indian is that unlike most other people on the planet we are connected to at least three to four languages intimately. And because of the proximity and similarity and closeness of these languages, they are quite easily translatable and understandable. I was just sitting with my script-writer, he’s from Rajasthan and he told me that as a child of nine or ten he read Sharad Chandra in translation. I remember when I was a child of about nine or ten years of age, I would read all of English literature in Bangla because that’s the language that I learnt to read before I learnt to read English fluently. But I already had read everything from James Hadley Chase to Shakespeare in Bangla. And that sustained me, it widened my world. So when I’m looking for a script or a screenplay or something to stimulate and carry my ideas; if I’m looking at two languages instead of fifteen, I’m just losing out on that great-great fountain. And this is what I deeply suspect, and I hope I’m wrong.

S.B: So Lust Stories came out and you’re coming up with a new movie also. Can you tell me what you’re exploring right now? What does really interest you at this age and what are you really trying to portray in your movies right now?

D.B: A very interesting thing happened over Lust Stories and Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is that; for the first time in my life I was looking at personal spaces between people. And the difference between Lust Stories and Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is ‘class’. In the latter I was looking at class from a very personal angle. That’s something that I find myself obsessed with, not consciously. Because forms of it and motifs of it and patterns of it, reveal themselves all too frequently these days in whatever I’m exploring. Not in the same form, and not probably at the same stage of evolution, and it keeps increasing and changing hopefully. But some of the concerns are the same. I think right now I’m obsessed with working my head through concepts of power, class and desire.

S.B: So you’re exploring a lot of postmodern literature as of now?

D.B: I grew up in the postmodern era and without knowing about postmodernism, I read some literature. Being a part of a Colony of our chief language – English, you’re reading to get to the world. But you’re speaking it as an ex-colonial. You’re in a strange position, everything is open to you but you’re still a little obsolete. So I got to know of postmodernism as a term and I got to read whatever was coming up in the 90s in America only when I was in my 30s. And now that I’m in my late 40s, I’m still barely catching up. I mean I’m still catching up on stuff that was written in the 30s, 40s, and the 50s, which I find constantly to be paradigm shifting for me. So I have no idea of reading postmodern literature consciously. Because I didn’t know and I don’t come from an academic background. In fact all my reading is basically accidental. Because I read whatever my wife reads, or whatever she subscribes to. My library is my wife’s library. Whatever books I buy or I kind of have on my own are sometimes the result of me borrowing from my wife’s library. And then finding new points of contact and going and shipping and changing into those contacts. It’s again an accident of relationship that I’m reading what I’m reading. For example, 15 to 20 years ago I discovered Margaret Atwood only because of  my wife. And if I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood, probably I wouldn’t be reading Roxane Gay today.

S.B: Let me hold on to your idea of class and your fascination with class and power. I’m sure you have some perception of how human beings act in a society and that’s why you’re making movies about class and power, in which you’re putting out relationships to depict and explore those factors. Do you think that people are actually products of the forces of struggle, of power and class? Or, do you think that there’s more to human beings than being original? Or do you think that human beings are just really original and devoid of their caste or class or race, in terms of our actions in the society?

D.B:  I don’t think there is any other way for a human being to have been throughout, at least from the hunter gatherer phase till now. Hierarchy, class and power are not necessarily tools to oppress and suppress but they are probably tools of survival in a very primitive society and they are just accidental byproduct of labor division, which centers around child rearing in mammals, I think to a large extent. Because our infants need a very deep connect for a very long period of their childhood. So parenting becomes that much more complex and that leads to certain labor division and that leads to the accidental birth of hierarchy, class and other such aspects, but there is no way of escaping it. We have come forward from the hunter-gatherer stage, so it’s probably futile trying to deny the hardcore reality of it. However, the other things that you discussed in the same breath are complete works of fiction, so I don’t see the fit between those two at all, because if you’re talking about race or caste or class as defined by us as something divine, these are complete works of imagination; like our names. Someone’s being Brahmin or someone’s being an untouchable is a work of imagination.

S.B: But if you’ve already stated that there arises a hierarchy out of labor division, you would agree that, hence that would have to have a name. Although if you agree that the caste or race are all imaginations, then even labor divisions or even hierarchies are imaginations.

D.B: No. Because when you work into hierarchy or labor division without giving it the feel of it being divine and eternal it is not an act of imagination to perpetuate your part. It is an act of role division. Suppose if I’m working with you in an office in a professional capacity, you are a junior to me and I’m a senior to you. We know that tomorrow you could start a production company, earn loads of money and become a producer and I would direct for you and you would be on an equal position as me. And someday you may be in a senior position to me. There is nothing that stops you. And this is an established myth of the corporate world that if you keep on working you will be above everyone else and people who are your seniors will one day be your juniors. But the whole caste system is based on a myth which says that if you’re a Brahmin you’re forever superior and if you’re an untouchable you’re forever inferior. When you imagine these kinds of things, then it’s very clear that behind this imagination there’s an interest which is not the fulfilling of some role or job for which you are dividing labor. The interest is to appropriate as much of social material and cultural power as possible through a work of imagination which you pass off as divine work.

But the whole caste system is based on a myth which says that if you’re a Brahmin you’re forever superior and if you’re an untouchable you’re forever inferior.

S.B: But I would argue that, isn’t that what hierarchies are about. If every human being is determined by his will to power so is every class. And so there is no horizontal hierarchy, there’s only vertical hierarchy in terms of what we’re talking about, even in professional life. Say for example the hunter gatherers did divide labor and said that, X you take up this, Y you take up this. It is bound to happen that X would claim more power over Y or Y would claim power over X. And in the end whoever claims power, they seal it with ‘divinity’, and say that ‘I am above you and you are below me’. I understand where you’re coming from, it’s all man-made, I completely understand that, but to deny it as an imagination would be to deny hierarchy altogether.

D.B: But I don’t think that the two are similar. So what if the #MeToo movement is elitist. How does that make the #MeToo movement irrelevant? So what, if both are acts of imagination, I’m actually defining the difference between the two. One act of imagination clearly says that this is just to get this work done, once we are out of this room we are equals. And even if that mythos is not followed and reality rears its ugly head, at least that mythos of equality is there for you to take recourse to, if you feel oppressed. But what happens in a mythos where no matter what you do you are condemned by birth to an inferior position because it is divine and nothing that you do can change it? How can you equate these two? And especially when in the second mythos the fundamental fact that it’s divine, is not true, it’s a lie. So both the situations are acts of imagination. But this one is much viler and much more problematic and at the core of it lie all the problem of human civilization. If this mythos doesn’t have the counter-mythos of all of us having the potential of being equal and if we don’t keep pushing the counter-mythos actively at any point of time, then the other mythos becomes the reality. Do you want to live in a world like that?

If this mythos doesn’t have the counter-mythos of all of us having the potential of being equal and if we don’t keep pushing the counter-mythos actively at any point of time, then the other mythos becomes the reality.

S.B: Something you said really struck me and I thought about it about it a lot after that actually. You declared in our last conversation that everything is subjective. What did you mean when you said everything is subjective? Because in this age, with everything that’s happening right now, people on the wrong side of things would really like you for saying such things because people are actually questioning even basic truth. They’re saying even truth is subjective, and every aspect of truth is subjective. But I disagree with that. How would you defend saying that everything is subjective, there is no objectivity in this world? What do you think of that?

D.B: You know what I think of it, it sounds a bit like an anticlimax. You can check this out my friends, and it’s an egotistical sort of practice. Once in a while when we’re having fun, I tell them that there’s a bet and I make money off them; we can discuss we’ll say what we want. But it always comes down, ultimately, to these binaries. And that’s how I like to win all my bets because every topic of discussion or debate on this earth will come down to these binaries. And these binaries are: is the world the way it is because it is or because you think so? And you can answer that question only in that binary.

I have no idea if the world is subjective or objective, all I know is that every time I’ve gotten into any kind of argument in various forms it has always reached the same impasse.

S.B: I think I know what you mean because I think it’s something everyone faces. Even I faced this a lot many times, I’m a law student so we get into debates a lot of times and at this stage sometimes debating feels pointless to be honest.

D.B: No I don’t agree. I think therefore, I decide what to do on the sheer basis of blind ideology. Just as blind and just as extremist, as some of the blind and extremist ideologies that we denounce. I am blind and extremist about the fact that there is no conscionable reason for any human group to call out any other human group as inferior or less entitled or less worthy of being human. And by ‘being human’ I don’t mean the T-shirt that they make. Being human means whatever entitlements or whatever state of being that you are enjoying right can’t be denied to another human being. Whatever state of being and whatever way of being that you aspire to, unsuccessfully most of the. You cannot stop another human being for aspiring for that. That’s number one.

Number two; and I extremely and blindly believing in it. Every bit of anger or every bit of hate or rage that we feel for the is actually just the reflected anger, rage or hate.

I am blind and extremist about the fact that there is no conscionable reason for any human group to call out any other human group as inferior or less entitled or less worthy of being human

S.B: Do you mean some form or some sort of a proceeding dissatisfaction within ourselves which leads to the anger, rage and hate?

D.B: Absolutely. We know, that we are failing. And we are desperately looking for someone to blame. And our first reaction is: ‘You are to blame, and you should vanish! Just disappear, because your being here makes me uncomfortable’. And then comes the fact that by any chance if he has power, then we try and use that power in various ways to inch towards making that thorn in our side vanish. So, if you look at it at an anthropological level, it’s basically competing for resources. There is no moral conscience here. But the fact is that if I dropped the imaginary fiction of moral conscience, my life would not be very enjoyable. I won’t have a very good time; if that fiction is robbed from me. So I will use ideology to get out of this binary.

S.B: To carry on from your subjectivity point let me hear your thoughts on what do you think of truth. Truth as it exists, what do you think of the concept of truth? And how do you as a filmmaker grapple with it, because cinema is not always true. So how do you deal with that, in light of what’s happening with the attack on truth in today’s time.

D.B: You speak as if truth and fiction are opposite.

S.B: What do you mean?

D.B: Are you conflating truth with reality? Are you conflating truth with facts, what we commonly call facts? What are facts? I can only try and fashion up a definition as I’m thinking right now. I think facts are events related to with ideology.

S.B: But why do you say that? I’ll give you a very basic example of what I call facts or what I would call truth makers which are very different truths which you cannot deny. So for example you have a football match going on and a player goes offside. Now the player going offside is a truth. It’s a fact that it happened as it happened, is the truth. But how do you know it’s all said, it’s based on the subjective evaluation of the referee who’s standing on the line and who’s declaring it’s offside. Or if he’s not declaring it’s offside either way the offside did happen if the person was ahead of the defenders line. But then that is the truth, that’s the primary fact which you cannot deny.

D.B: Then again you have conflating facts and truth. What you are saying could be a fact, but what you’re saying may not be the truth at all.

S.B: No I said it’s truth maker. It makes the truth. It gives you substance to make the truth or build the truth on. It may not necessarily be the truth. Do you understand what I’m saying?

D.B: Sure, which is why I said ‘event’, you said facts and then you mentioned an event. And I said ‘event overlaid with ideology’. That’s a fact or a reality. Truth is something else, if we are really splitting hairs, truth is something which is more connected to meaning than the happening.

S.B: Would you elaborate on that?

D.B: Truth is something closer to a meaning that you construct rather than an event or a fact, that you observe or record. The two are not the same thing. And one may lead to different truths. It’s really not the same thing.

S.B: So how do you grapple with that in the real life world. A person reading the news every day would actually mistrust the news as much as Donald Trump mistrusts the news?

D.B: No. I don’t grapple with it all the time because I’m not interested in all meanings, I’m only interested in a few meanings so I’ll only grapple with a fact or an event and its meaning or be it truth if it is ideologically important to me. For example you are not ideologically important to me. What do you think of me, is ideologically not very important to me as compared to what the readers of this magazine think of me. But ideologically it is very important to me that I’m able to make my next film or me being able to educate my children matters  to me. So everything that I do I will try to grapple with the facts and the meanings and the truth which are closer to these other two obsessions of mine which is making my next film and educating and arming my children to face the coming world. I will select the truth around these two subjects and try to grapple with them. And the rest of them, either I’ll avoid or I’ll maneuver around, but I’ll simply not care about them. That’s roughly the way my head works or my grappling with truth works.


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