Judhajit Sarkar, an Indie filmmaker with an abiding love of cinema has made two films in the last three years, namely Khashi Katha (“The Tale of a Castrated Goat”) and Kolkatar King (“The King of Kolkata”). They are both gripping and are made on very small budgets; of under a crore of rupees. The treatment in both films has zest and humour despite the unshakably dark content, a far cry from mainstream films attempting a ‘serious’ subject. There is no sop on offer at the end of a grim tale.

Khashi Katha is about a goat being led to slaughter by a butcher. The goat, as in fables, can talk, and each time the butcher prepares to kill it, buys a reprieve by diverting his mind with a story, Arabian Nights style! The main narrative is about a poor Muslim girl from Kolkata fighting for her dignity and economic well-being of her family. A chorus singing in Rap style comments on the action.

Kolkatar King is about a foundling who grows up to take over the metropolis of Kolkata and run it like his own fiefdom. Hindi blockbusters have been made with a similar theme. They always end with the same sabak or lesson, that crime doesn’t pay. Sarkar’s film unambiguously says crime pays.

 He is a director who makes films that are entertaining and cerebral; they are not short of emotion but shy from the sentimental. Mainstream cinema in India, in Hindi and regional languages, thrives on sentimentality and the possibility of happiness in the next world.

Sarkar is a stubborn, courageous, intelligent filmmaker. His films ought to be seen by a paying audience that may possibly be willing to look reality in the eye. After all the world is changing, though not necessarily for the better. 

You have made two interesting films. Can you tell why you chose to make them? The choice of subject matter? The way you treated each film?

The instant reaction would be that I wanted to make a niche film which would stand out on its own. Ever since I graduated from the Film Institute in Pune I had decided that if I make a film it would be on my terms. The ideas I pitched usually met with blank stares or with total incomprehension from the producers I met. Or I had to work around a story they had. I got discouraged and in order to sustain myself, made corporate films, documentaries, news features, mostly commissioned work. Yes, I was getting impatient and when a couple of years back, I got the opportunity to make a feature film and make it my way, I jumped at it.

Khashi Katha is a simple story where a talking goat saves himself from the butcher’s knife by narrating a story about a poor Muslim girl from Kolkata slums wanting to be a regular boxer. Till then I found no film that accented on the real problems of the minority community. We offer lip service or cite examples from literature, which surely has some wonderful studies but here was something straight out of life. I had seen burqa-clad women come to a boxing club in a very poor locality of the city’s dock area wanting to train as boxers so that they qualify for a job in the Railways under the sport quota. Boys and young men come too—several documentaries have been made on this. I found this was a wonderful theme of an indigent woman from a poor, marginalised community wanting to prove her mettle in some way. Okay, she is a victim of circumstances but she also wants to live on her own terms, with her head held high. I wanted to reduce her own sense of victimhood.

So the story was around her brother who is no good, an ailing, retrenched father (once a maker of beautiful ladies handbags) and her sense of duty towards the family. We tried a number of things such as CGI, etc. It had some lovely music which we could not popularise over mass media for lack of a proper budget but it did receive critical attention. It, however, ran for a mere two weeks. After this there came some other films by other directors that tried to capture the minority community flavour but they did not work fully because of their handling. Then there was the Bollywood production Mary Kom with superstar Priyanka Chopra that very year and, sure enough, it delayed our release.

The second film, Kolkatar King, is about a gangster inspired by Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. There are hardly any similarities between both my films in terms of treatment and style. I am a dilettante by nature with lots of influences and styles from films, books, events, theatre and various other happenings affecting me. The treatment and style depend on what was dominant at that point of time. If suppose, hypothetically, I am asked to remake these films now they would not only be very different from what I had done earlier but also have no resemblance to the original except perhaps, for the plot. The treatment, therefore, is a reflection of me at a particular point in time. I am by nature inconsistent and this unpredictability reflects in whatever I do.

 You wrote the stories for both films and the scripts as well. The reason for doing so?

 I wrote the stories, true, but I wish there were good scriptwriters around. The sad reality is there are practically none. The so-called script writers operating in the industry—the few I have interacted with so far—did not excite me. Most of them are in a time warp. Their references and interests did not match mine. A lot of people ask me the reasons for this huge decline and I can only blame the abysmal state of popular culture.

Television, especially mega serials, has played havoc with the writers, even some talented ones. This has compelled most of the ‘good’ directors to write their own scripts. Our literature is rich and varied and one can look at the past and wistfully recall the great writers Bengal has produced. Even the mediocre works of the lesser known writers in the past are better than what is being produced by the current crop of popular and bestselling writers. I decided to be my own writer. But there were good collaborators, of course, for my films who helped with dialogues, etc., to give both films a colloquial flavour.

Did the deteriorating political/socioeconomic climate in India over the last 40 years have something to do with your decision? Would you elaborate, if yes?

I reflect the times I live in. Surely that would be reflected in whatever one does. In India it has been an ongoing story with some major changes no doubt. Currently we are living in very exciting times where lots of things are happening simultaneously, with a loud 24/7 blaring of news, cricket, reality shows. Entertainment has become synonymous with media—a potpourri served to us in dollops by celebs and politicians on the electronic and digital platforms. Deteriorating conditions or not, I try to reflect my reality, filtered through whatever I do, and produce. It does become challenging to sift between what is real and what is fake. It is also important to remember that one is not an activist in that sense of the term, so my work will not show immediate concerns of the world around me; a world which is very familiar to me.

There are rare cases of filmmakers who do well in when dealing with something with which they are not familiar. The biggest example is Satyajit Ray. He often dealt with subjects which were not from his immediate surroundings. For example: The Apu Trilogy, Jalshaghar. But Ray being a great artist created a world of which he had little experience, a world which was as unique as it was real. These are rare examples. Ritwik Ghatak, on the other hand, was extremely subjective. Society is constantly changing and one can be an active member in this evolution from whatever angle one chooses.

Khashi Katha deals with a young woman from a lower middle-class Muslim family with a talent for boxing desperately trying to better her lot by trying to get a job via the Railways Sports Quota. How did you hit upon this idea? How did you work out the treatment (which is novel) for the story?

Contrary to what I believe it dealt with a world I am not familiar with. I have seen such characters and seen the surroundings in which they live. It is much more dehumanising and depressing.  The story could be placed anywhere, any surrounding. The reason it becomes interesting is the protagonist is a minority among a minority and wants to rise above her circumstances. She takes up boxing by accident and the coach finds she is a natural. In contrast, her brother is a poor boxer. 

Coming to Kolkatar King, what made you turn to Bertolt Brecht as a model? Though inspired by The Three Penny Opera, the cinematic treatment is novel. It is as if you have chosen the form of the music-video and turned it on its head.

Brecht’s plays and poems continue to reflect the human condition and so are universal. His work can be performed at any time anywhere and still be valid. His plays are most effective when performed on stage. That may be the reason why they are rarely adapted for cinema. Three Penny Opera is a personal favourite and I took it as a challenge to make a film out of it. But my film is inspired by the Three Penny Opera and not an adaptation of it. Brecht mentioned somewhere that his plots should or could be adapted to suit the times. He was an aggregator—lifting and pinching stuff from various sources and creating an amalgam, which was original and very effective.

He had no qualms or shame in this act as long it served the purpose of a radical and activist theatre. To put it correctly he was a plagiarist with a mission who enhanced the collected material into a highly entertaining and intelligent venture. We are no match to what he has achieved. In my own humble way I tried to do a Brecht on Brecht. His plays for all their wise, truthful, tragic content are also constantly entertaining and have musical numbers, song and dance—the works. In my own humble way, I wanted to achieve a fraction of what he has done.

The other interesting observation one should remember is that Brecht worked in times where the oppression was directed at all strata of society barring the elite. For him, to survive and stay relevant with his intrinsic subversiveness was something to marvel at, and for successors to imitate. He was a great survivor in times (during the Weimar Republic in the defeated, economically beggared Germany of the 1920s with the demonic anti-Jew Hitler and his storm troopers round the corner) when the artist was the most vulnerable member of society.

With what is going around now there is an eerie similarity and Brecht is one prime example one should learn from. That may be the subconscious reason for selecting his play although I will repeat it is just an inspiration.

These two films have been well appreciated by small, select groups of cinema lovers yet have not found a wider audience. Your story-telling, despite the innovations, is clear and entertaining, so why were distributors and exhibitors being intransigent?

The distribution and exhibition system in Bengal does not encourage independent or low budget films. It is not a level playing field and only the manipulator and monopolist can thrive. The number of screens for Bangla films is roughly 250. The number of films produced in a year is about 100. Andhra Pradesh has 2,900 screens, Tamil Nadu 1,540, Kerala 970 and even Bihar has 269. What are we talking about? How can there be any growth in such infertile conditions? It was not like this, though. Bengal at one time had more than 450 screens and that is what makes the situation so sad. In such a scenario it is the survival of the wily. The person with the maximum influence in terms of contacts and political connections corners the market. It is not a level playing field anymore and a majority of the independent filmmakers are somehow surviving on bread and water and the delusion that they are doing great work. Sad but true. But at least they are functioning under very difficult conditions and one has to appreciate that.

The distribution-exhibition circuit in Bengal seems to be allergic to good, serious entertaining cinema. Who are the people with the money to produce films? Distribute and exhibit them?

It is not that the audiences are allergic to good, serious, entertaining cinema; it is just that it does not make economic sense except perhaps the ones I have already mentioned earlier. For an independent producer it makes no sense at all. I have often wondered how, in spite of such a situation, so many films are made. Last year only three made some money; the rest vanished without a trace. Why are producers still investing in films? Do not ask me. It puzzles me no end when it is a win-win situation for the actors, technicians and others in the Industry apart from the producer. He ends up with a fraction of what he had invested. How can you expect good cinema if the ground situation is so dismal?

However the situation could change if there are more screens and fewer films produced. The state government has to be persuaded to play a proactive role in constructing more theatres; maybe going back to the single screen type, insisting on better show timings and a fair tax deal so that it could contain the barrage of big films from Bombay. Again, harking back to the so-called golden period of Bangla cinema there were, as mentioned earlier, more theatres and fewer films (40 to 45 a year). It was much easier then. In the era of the multiplex, Shah Rukh Khan and IPL cricket I am sorry we don’t stand much of a chance. The other reason, which is a personal opinion, is that the audience has also changed. They have been degraded to such an extent that the successful films in the last couple of years have been those with a television-style of presentation, which is melodramatic and regressive, to say the least.

The new Marathi films offer a ray of hope and are building up a reputation in the national and international arena. This is in spite of being close to Bombay cinema.

There are exceptions here in Bengal as well but the returns on investment are modest. Some corporate houses or businessmen with real estate interests or traditional producers put money in films. Then there are producers who have made money in the entertainment business like film distribution or television serials. I do not know how the returns work but exhibiting/distributing is another ball game.

Somewhere along the way we have lost the audience or failed to cultivate a new one. Once in a while a young filmmaker comes and captures the imagination of a young audience but these are like a flash in the pan.

It is a pity that the film society movement started by Ray and other stalwarts way back in the ’50s has failed to build up an audience that would support and encourage good, sensible cinema. Who is to blame? I do not know. It is a chicken and egg situation.

Your films have been made on very low budgets yet are big in scope and polished in treatment. Would you like to discuss the problems of raising money, making the films, staying employed?

I am a low budget filmmaker by nature. I will find it very difficult to make a high budget film even if given a choice.  Although these can be termed niche films I tried my best to match up to them in whatever little way possible. It is difficult as one has to operate under severe limitations of shooting days or artists’ availability, and other requirements. Raising money has always been a problem since the dawn of cinema; ever since the collapse of the studio system. There were other avenues in their early days. A day might come in the near future when release in a theatre would not be necessary, with the Internet being the channel of exhibition. It is a scenario about which I am absolutely certain. The multiplex can merrily show just Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir as much as they like. (It is a different matter, which a lot of people are not aware of, that multiplexes are being bled white). It would be a fairer system in which the entire process of making and showing good films could happen in a transparent, democratic way.

Hoping my second film, still unreleased, will one day be seen by more audiences. But to date, the small screenings in various cities—Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad—have elicited very positive reviews. 

You teach cinema in an institute of Mass communication. Apart from providing a tolerable living what has the experience been like? What are your students like? What advice do you give them?

I am associated with a few media schools as a guest faculty where I teach film and media.  The earnings are peanuts but it gives me great satisfaction and energy when I interact with students. They have kept me young. I also get a chance to gauge their thinking. This generation is very different. Easily distracted, low attention span and no sense of history; you can add film history here. They are also very intelligent and skilled in the digital arena. I teach them to stay focused and to develop an independent voice in whatever they do. There is too much of a herd mentality and often the Internet is also not being properly utilised. These are challenges for both of us since there is a mutual transference of interests and outlook.

Do you see a future for serious yet entertaining cinema in Bengal and India?

I shuttle and swing between being hopeful and pessimistic, with the swing of the pendulum a little more towards hope. These are early days and we are at the dawn of an age where the entire system will undergo a radical change for the better, where free, independent, fearless and sensible films get a fair opportunity to prove themselves. But it is a bit strange in Bengal and even among Bengalis elsewhere that the kind of cinema that is liked even by the middle and upper middle classes is still rooted in melodrama. It is as if experiments in the format [the film] is made in is considered avant garde rather than striving for clarity of expression of content through the chosen form.

The big budget Bollywood films which simply score in scale and style are viewed as a different genre altogether. But the hope is that there are young filmmakers trying to make something stylised somewhere in the country. Similarly, we require new voices in Bengal. It is sad to see the same kind of content being repeated—there is no variety. You may be inspired by Ray but try to move consciously away from his style—create your own; as it happens in literature or art.

How has the new digital technology affected it?

The look of Bengali cinema has changed due to digital technology. Productions are slicker and smarter looking. They are not shoddy any more. But I am talking about content—we still don’t have something simple yet powerful, that used to be our forte once. Bengali directors of the past had some kind of honesty and simplicity in their story telling. We do not have films such as Masan, Mukti Bhavan or Court.  I may sound cynical but the truth lies somewhere nearby and we tend to evade it.

How is it different from the old analogue cinema?

Technology has made way for the change from analogue to digital and it is something we cannot avoid. It’s the horse buggy making way for the motorcar. I guess the change was inevitable much as you protest and lament. There are some directors who insist on shooting in celluloid (like Martin Scorsese) because the look it creates is not as “hard” as the somewhat synthetic look created by razor sharp images in digital technology. There are manufacturers of digital equipment who have promised to degrade the image quality a little in order to obtain the “cinematic” look. The big myth about digital technology was that it would be much cheaper than analogue. This unfortunately is not true. Costs have marginally reduced and there are other complications, too, but overall the portability and flexibility has been a boon to all filmmakers.