Dibakar Banerjee on mastering the art of 'hiding in open sight', and why it makes 'economic sense to have diversity of voices'

Dibakar Banerjee talks subversions in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, criticism of the male gaze, and the objectionable presence of Anu Malik in a film addressing toxic masculinity.

Devansh Sharma May 29, 2021 14:59:23 IST
Dibakar Banerjee on mastering the art of 'hiding in open sight', and why it makes 'economic sense to have diversity of voices'

Dibakar Banerjee. Twitter @Dibakar

Dibakar Banerjee can certainly be hailed as a master of subversion. From debut film Khosla Ka Ghosla till his short in Netflix India horror anthology Ghost Stories, he has he claims "been hiding in open sight.' The tools of this communication have been varied and plentiful, from comedy to satire, analogy to wordplay.

Even in his latest directorial, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, he does not let the veil drop. The target this time is primarily toxic masculinity. Celebrating the newfound popularity of the film after its digital premiere on Amazon Prime Video India, Banerjee talks exclusively about the slippery slope of subversion, exploring intersectionality through class and gender dynamics, and the criticism against the male gaze. He averted no questions, but may have subverted a couple.

If there is one word you must have come across in the reception to Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, it must be 'subversion.' Firstly, the title, and the fact that Yash Raj Films is the producer, make it sound like a Bunty Aur Babli-esque romance-cum-con drama. But your film packs in far more than that. From the character names (Parineeti Chopra is Sandeep, and Arjun Kapoor is Pinky) to the use of the pink palette to address toxic masculinity, there are subversions galore. Do you fear a day when subversion itself becomes the norm, the trend, the formula?

No. Because subversion always happens against the norm, against an orthodoxy, and while you're hiding in open sight. So subversions will change because norms will change. How you subvert will change. But subversion won't change. Having said that, I'd recommend subverting to those who won't fear getting rejected. I'd recommend subverting to those who are okay with not being seen. If you expect that you shout, "Look, look, I'm subverting! Hail me as a subversion hero!," that doesn't happen. Subversion really happens when you know that you won't be noticed, that you'd be noticed or suppressed.

Dibakar Banerjee on mastering the art of hiding in open sight and why it makes economic sense to have diversity of voices

Arjun Kapoor in the song 'Faraar'

There is a track about Bhai, a huge Bollywood male star who has great influence on a particular section of society. His fans bond over the shared fandom, dancing to his songs like 'Faraar' and having 'Baby Ko Base Pasand Hai' as the caller tune. There's a bro code here. But the most heinous crimes in the film are committed by those in air-conditioned cabins and behind desks in formals. Is there an analogy that while Bollywood is a soft target, the real rot lies elsewhere?

If you ask me personally, the Indian elite is responsible more or less for the mess we're in. We've colluded with power whenever convenient. We've kept the power keys firmly in our pocket through education, money or whatever. I'd absolutely agree that the mess India is in today can be laid at the doors of sycophantic power-worshipping elite. My film shows that because I believe it. I believe there's a small bunch of elite people with a lot of power, soft and hard powers, money and cultural powers, who decide they'll be acquiescent to political powers and suppressive powers. This they do to maintain their own eliteness. It's the most important thing to them, nothing else. And they can live with any other chaos, as long as their power is perpetuated. So yes, it is because of them that we're in this sh*t.

 

Dibakar Banerjee on mastering the art of hiding in open sight and why it makes economic sense to have diversity of voices

Parineeti Chopra and Arjun Kapoor in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar

I look at Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar as Jab We Met gone Dibakar Banerjee. Do you think the two characters are drawn to each other because they are in the same situation or is there more to their connection?

See, I don't know. I definitely think Imtiaz (Ali) has made a film that's completely his, and nobody else's. And I've made a film that's completely mine, and nobody else's. If you ask why they're drawn to each other, I'd go to Parineeti. She said the other day that in India, the class divide is so strong that you don't even feel that a person lower in economic class is fit enough to touch you, sleep with you in the same bed, or sit in the same chair. Because that sense of touch is abominable to a higher-class person. It's just another manifestation of a Brahamanical caste system. So even if these two characters are drawn to each other, where will they find the wherewithal to cross the huge class barrier and even touch each or sit on the same chair. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faaar actually shows you that process of them sitting on the same bed while fighting. They look at each other when the class barrier has dropped, and realise they're victims of the same system. That brings them together, and makes them trust each other.

Dibakar Banerjee on mastering the art of hiding in open sight and why it makes economic sense to have diversity of voices

Raghubir Yadav and Neena Gupta in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar

I found the characters of Neena Gupta and Raghubir Yadav fascinating. Besides being colourful, they are the quintessential hosts who provide shelter to two strangers. But is that not ironical for a couple living in a bordering town, where people are usually suspicious to not let strangers into their homes?

If you read between the lines, then Uncle and Aunty are senior citizens who are severely financially challenged. Uncle has retired but wants to get surgery done for Aunty's knees. And he needs money for that. They give shelter but they ask for rent because they need money. Sandy (Sandeep), coming from the banking sector, knows her customers, Uncle and Aunty, in a way Pinky doesn't. So she gives them this bait of rent. Uncle gives Sandy a room because he gets Rs 1,000 a month. It's the quintessential middle-class senior citizen-woes. It's a familiar Indian story I've seen in my family, and have borrowed from all the Uncles and Aunties across the country. Uncle is a poor patriarchal boy who grows up in a small town, he has nowhere else to go.

There is a school of thought that argues while the story may seem like that of Sandeep, male characters like Pinky, Uncle, and the cop played by Jaideep Ahlawat among others are more well-etched. Do you think the male gaze creeps into the narrative even if the intention is to target toxic masculinity?

I think the male gaze has crept into this analysis that males are more well-etched. When Varun (Grover) and I were writing, we didn't look at the characters' genders whether they're male to prefer them or give them more clarity than the females. We were clear that the story is Sandeep's. She makes the plot happen. The reason the story is there because Sandeep needs to be killed by her boss. Pinky came into the story because he was a tool to get Sandeep killed.

If somebody says the male characters are more well-etched out here, then it's a classic case of male gaze.

The women that I've spoken to have mostly said they haven't seen the everyday patriarchy meted out to women being said so simply and easily. I think that's why people are liking the film. Otherwise what else is there? There are two stars not behaving like stars, no huge item number, no action. There's nothing, only the characters.

Dibakar Banerjee on mastering the art of hiding in open sight and why it makes economic sense to have diversity of voices

Shashank Arora and Shivani Raghuvanshi in Titli

Another instance of another independent film, that too without any stars, produced by Yash Raj Films was Kanu Behl's Titli seven years ago, that was produced by you. Do you think YRF is not credited enough for supporting independent vehicles? If there is a Pathan (starring Shah Rukh Khan) and Tiger 3 (starring Salman Khan), there is also a Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar.

Yes, but Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is different be(from Titli) cause it has stars. Forget Arjun and Parineeti, even Neena Gupta, Raghubir Yadav, and Jaideep Ahlawat do have a following. I feel the question of credit is unfortunately connected to how well the film does on certain parameters. I think those parameters are flawed. The system is skewed against independent-voiced films. If a big studio which is known for primarily making star vehicles goes on to produce, distribute, support or market independent-voiced features, they're being taken to task for both for not being mainstream enough and independent enough. There's judgement on both ends.

Ultimately, it's the film that has to speak for itself provided it's been given a fair chance on the stage. That's the crucial aspect. The whole industry should think about how to find a stage that's viable and nurturing for a small group of independent-voiced cinema to also speak. It is mostly these independent-voiced films that have opened the narrative which has benefitted Bollywood by diversifying its storytelling, getting a new audience, reenergising the audience or becoming relevant again after having lost relevance. That's the crucial onus we have on us as filmmakers, critics, media, and industry to ensure there's diversity. Because that does make the business grow. There's GDP at the end of it. It makes good economic sense to have diversity of voices.

Dibakar Banerjee on mastering the art of hiding in open sight and why it makes economic sense to have diversity of voices

Parineeti Chopra, Dibakar Banerjee, and Arjun Kapoor on the sets of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar

You have composed the background score of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. Does the soundtrack then become more wedded to the spine of the film?

A film like Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar couldn't have been made without the music being an intrinsic part of the drama. That's why I decided I'd compose it myself. I do feel why a lot of the things are wrong with our cinema today is because of the music. I feel there's way too much gratuitous music. There's way too much insecurity with your own film and that's why we end up saturating and drenching it with wall-to-wall music, leaving the audience absolutely jaded and bombarded by the end. Somehow, our insecurity with our own film is so high that we don't want the audience to listen to the story and take in the subtle realities. We want the audience to be machine-gunned. I don't like it. It's my personal choice that I end up collaborating on the background track because that intricately weaves in and out of the scenes.

Speaking of the music, one quibble I came across on social media in the critique of the film is the choice of Anu Malik as the music composer. What is your response to that?

My response is that I want the toxicity to go. I really want the poison to go. I agree that there's toxic masculinity. I want the toxin to go away, not the male. And that's my answer.

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