Srijit Mukherji, a statistician and economist by trade, developed his first film project over cups of coffee with the actress in Bangalore.
Coffee with Nandana Sen helped a film dream come true
ABU DHABI // After the world premiere of the Bengali film Autograph, the cast talked yesterday about the long journey they made in order to come together for the project.
The film is the first feature by the director Srijit Mukherji. A statistician and economist by profession, his foray into cinema follow years of directing and acting in theatre during his spare time.
"To say I dabbled in theatre is an understatement," he said.
After three years in Delhi, and four years in Bangalore, Autograph marks his first move into cinema. He says that not only did his economist's mind help him in theatre and film-making, but the artistic process fed back into his day job.
"There is a little bit of science and commerce in cinema," he said. "Whether it involved budgeting or the technical processes of bringing an abstract idea into something tangible, it helped me gain insight as an economist.
"You can't deny the power of numbers. These are the numbers that helped fuel my dream."
Autograph is a film within a film. It tells the story of a superstar, played by the Bengali actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, and a young actress (Nandana Sen), whose lives interweave during the making of a film.
It was inspired by the Bengali cult classic Nayak (Actor), directed by Satyajit Ray, and Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries.
"I am a student of pulp and kitch," said Mukherji. "That combined with my interest in world cinema created a hybrid sensibility called Autograph. This is not parallel Indian cinema [to mainstream Indian films] because that means they meet at infinity. This film weaves in and out of the mainstream."
The film was also released in India this week. Made in the Bangla language with a smattering of English, it has been given English subtitles for markets such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune.
"The purity of the language has been tampered with," Mukherji said. "Within Autograph, in keeping with today's reality, is the presence of a language that is unapologetically urban.
"There are lot of Indian films that deal with the country's poverty but this is also India."
Two years ago, in Bangalore, he met the actress Nandana Sen, the daughter of Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and the writer and poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen.
It was Sen's mother whom he approached first in his attempt to cast the actress in a play he was directing. A meeting was set up, and Sen was initially keen.
"We got along," she recalled yesterday. "We grew up listening to the same music, reading the same books, and watching the same films." Scheduling problems got in the way, though. "So we developed this project. That's how Autograph came about - over coffee in Bangalore."
They considered remaking Nayak. But Sen said: "How do you remake a perfect film? It had changed our lives [so instead] we worked on a script inspired by the film."
Mukjerji wrote a script, and after reading the piece, it is was Sen's turn to do the persuading.
She decided she had to talk him into giving up his career as an economist and trying to make it as a full-time director. "That was a little rash," she said. Sen, born in Kolkata, and having grown up in London and Boston, said her character in the film is a "girl of our times".
"It is entirely real," she said. "I have been asked to do commercial Bengali cinema but that is in a very different place right now.
"I haven't seen this character represented in commercial Bengali films, where the heroines have typical characteristics, where there is a certain kind of body language."
Autograph plays again on Thursday at 7.45pm at Marina Mall.
For more stories and features from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival go to www.thenational.ae/abudhabifilmfestival