A definitive ranking of Dibakar Banerjee films, from Khosla Ka Ghosla to Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar
In the last decade, if there has been one Hindi film director who has constantly resisted being boxed in, it’s Dibakar Banerjee.
Across five feature films, Dibakar Banerjee has flitted between genres, from comedy, social drama to murder mystery, political thriller and found footage surveillance anthology. Even the three shorts that Banerjee did as part of the anthology series started off by Bombay Talkies, to most recently Ghost Stories in 2020, have exhibited a storyteller’s restlessness to weaponise different methods from storytelling. In Ghost Stories, the filmmaker utilised 30 minutes to craft one of the most sensational indictments of Hindutva politics disguised in dystopian horror. In Lust Stories and Love Sex Aur Dhokha, he presented an outlook on love that refuses to sugarcoat the brutalities of being in love, whether it is confronting a gruesome end like an honour killing or a slow-burn attack like infidelity.
Banerjee’s films are suffused with more questions than answers, more technique than gimmicks, and more clarity than confusion. His gaze is steely but considerate, often from the point-of-view of the anxieties and contradictions of being urban middle-class in India. Very few storytellers respect their own craft as well as the intelligence of the viewers in a way than every Banerjee outing does. They’re also topped off by incredible once-in-a-lifetime performances, usually from actors you least expect from. The filmmaker had as much of a hand in establishing Rajkummar Rao, Sushant Singh Rajput, and Abhay Deol’s reputations as credible actors as he had in reimagining the reputations of Sanjay Kapoor and Emraan Hashmi. Even a turn from a gifted actor like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, prone to always delivering, becomes all the more compelling in a Banerjee film, one that distinguishes it from his other performances. In today’s world, it’s perhaps easier to be an interesting filmmaker than it is to consistently sustain being an interesting filmmaker for long periods of time. Over the last decade, Banerjee has managed just that.
It’s perhaps why like any Sriram Raghavan film, a Dibakar Banerjee film is more an event because you’re not entirely sure what to expect but also entirely sure that you’re bound to be blown away.
With the release of the filmmaker's latest with Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, here’s a ranking of his filmography. in ascending order:
1. Love Sex Aur Dhokha: Dibakar Banerjee’s hyper-stylish third feature film was possibly his most stripped down outing. It featured no known names, its cast consisting of Rajkummar Rao and Nusrat Bharucha, debutant actors who amassed stardom only in the decade after Love Sex Aur Dhokha came out. The anthology was structured as an anti-Bollywood outing and was shot as a found footage film, which inherently made it less a movie and more an experiment. The themes of the film too – love, sex, and betrayal – challenged the sugarcoated depictions that mainstream narratives usually associate with.
By focusing their gaze on honour killing, an MMS scandal, and a sting operation, Banerjee and co-writer Kanu Behl ended up casting the idea of voyeurism as an Indian way of justice and revenge. That the invasiveness of living under surveillance would come to forever affect the way we perform the most intimate parts of lives was a given even before Love Sex Aur Dhokha came out in 2010 – DevD had just released a year ago. But the biggest achievement of the film, an audacious leap in Hindi filmmaking, was in Banerjee pointedly capturing the erosion of the collective moral code that would define a new India.
2. Khosla Ka Ghosla: Dibakar Banerjee’s National Award-winning directorial debut is a masterclass in ensemble and in elucidating the Indian middle-class paradox. Working on an unassuming script supplied by Jaideep Sahni, arguably one of the most underutilised screenwriters in Hindi cinema, Banerjee crafted a middle-of-the-road social comedy that eschewed ostentatious storytelling for a language of realism in the same vein as Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Sai Paranjpye. The result was a searing portrait of the indignity of a middle-class existence where both deceit and dreams signify a coming-of-age. Besides, has any other Hindi movie come close to laying bare Delhi’s precise venality with such verve as Khosla Ka Ghosla?
3. Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!: An origin story more than a murder mystery, Dibakjar Banerjee’s sensual adaptation of Bengal’s most beloved private detective is a subversive take on the idea of a male genius. In the film, we meet Byomkesh before he becomes Byomkesh Bakshy and so Banerjee doesn’t build him a superiority complex. Instead, he humanises him – the Byomkesh we see in the film isn’t as much a detective as much he is trying to learn to be one. So Sushant Singh Rajput’s turn as Byomkesh lacks the simmering intensity that is par for the course for a detective. He chuckles throughout the entirety of the movie and frequently becomes a sum of his missteps (in one scene, he throws up on seeing a dead body), as ordinary as anyone desperate to prove themselves. In that, Banerjee infused a new life into Byomkesh Bakshy accompanied with a recreation of Calcutta that pulsates with infectious energy and noir cinematography that makes a case for the indispensability of a modern period Hindi film.
4. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!: It’s impossible to remember the director’s National Award-winning Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! without remembering it as an Abhay Deol film. But it's easy to forget the reason we remember it as an Abhay Deol film: the clarity of Dibakar Banerjee’s directorial touches. That Deol is a limited actor may be up for discussion but the fact that he is a director’s actor, the effectiveness of his performance directly related to the capabilities of the director guiding him is a fact. DevD and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! are proof. Even in this film, Banerjee primes Delhi as a protagonist, allowing the idea of its space and its cultural restraints to inform the protagonist’s motivations. Essentially, an acid commentary on the Indian class consciousness and its societal shackles in the guise of a crime comedy, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! to my mind cemented Banerjee’s reputation as a filmmaker who has cracked the balance between making an inventive film and a satisfying film.
5. Bombay Talkies, Lust Stories, Ghost Stories: A failed actor, a failed marriage, and a failed democracy round up Banerjee’s three offerings in the anthology franchise that has now spawned an entire genre in the streaming era. Each of these shorts, although different in scope, continue the director’s fascination with the unpredictability of human motivations in rewarding ways. Each of them are also curiously anti-establishment – if in Bombay Talkies, he takes a dig at nepotism, then in Lust Stories, it’s the idea of monogamy, and Ghost Stories, arguably his most biting film yet, takes a stab at the ruling government. More importantly, these three shorts establish Banerjee as a director whose vision isn’t constrained by changing formats or shortened runtime. The consistent brilliance of these three offerings is the fact that they’re almost faultless as shorts but they also manage to elicit the viewer’s investment in a way that you’d wish they had been feature-length films. There is something to be said about a director who can both live up to your expectations and simultaneously exceed them.
6. Shanghai: One of the most politically astute films in recent memory, Shanghai bellies the conventional potboiler approach of countless twists and the gimmick of a labyrinthian plot. Instead, Banerjee’s film is an exercise in restraint, one that resembles an anguished wail rather than an incoherent outburst. One of Banerjee’s trademarks as a filmmaker is conveying character motivations and shifts in interpersonal tension without spoon-feeding dialogue or at times, saying anything at all. That is on full display in Shanghai, which benefits the passive, uncomfortable viewing experience that the director intends to translate to the viewer. There’s arguably no other filmmaker concerned with recording the erosion of a civilised society with as much urgency as Banerjee. He is also one of the fewer directors in Hindi cinema right now whose competition seems to be himself. If Shanghai ranks lower in his versatile, gut-wrenching body of work, it’s less to do with the film lacking finesse and more to do with the filmmaker being unbelievably good at tackling other genres.
7. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar: In the making since 2017, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar has Dibakar Banerjee return to helming a feature after five years. There’s the usual suspects in here as well: subversion of societal and genre expectations, actors cast against type, doing so much with so little, and a memorable opening sequence. But there’s something missing here, in particular, the translation of his own voice. On paper, it looks exciting but on screen, it’s middling and uninteresting. The problem here is an inability for the film to come together as a whole, shining instead in individual segments. I truly believe that Banerjee is incapable of making a bad film, even if it stars Arjun Kapoor and Parineeti Chopra, but Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar proves that sometimes even brilliance can be underwhelming. After all, if Banerjee has consistently asked one thing of the Hindi cinema watching audience in the last decade, it's to expect better from our filmmakers.
There’s a scene that comes to my mind when I always think of Dibakar Banerjee. “Why don’t we middle-class people do something for our country?,” Rajput’s Byomkesh asks someone in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!. “We’re busy watching movies, “ comes the reply. If all goes well, we’ll be watching Dibakar Banerjee movies for a long time to come.
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