Journalist-turned-director, Soumik Sen, 38, is a very sharp person who also has a great sense of humour! Like a true Bengali, he loves his music, food and Satyajit Ray. We got a chance to have a conversation with the very talented director before the release of Gulaab Gang about his discerning mother, the non-vegetarian Madhuri Dixit versus the vegetarian Juhi Chawla and why he believes a woman can beat a man hands down on all counts. Excerpts:
How did you become a filmmaker?
I was born and brought up in Kolkata. After studying at St Xavier’s, I did my masters in Economics from Delhi School of Economics. I did a brief stint at the World Bank, after which I became a business journalist and produced a business show on television, where I was required to research, write and interview people for the programme. I disliked Delhi as a city and after five years of being a journalist, I took a transfer to Mumbai, as I wanted to write films. I met Raj Kaushal, who was a friend’s friend and told him that I wanted to write films. He gave me my first film to write Anthony Kaun Hai, which Raj himself directed. I then wrote the Kishore Kumar biopic and spoke to Ranbir Kapoor. This is before Barfi. And then Anurag came on board to direct it. In the meantime, I wrote Gulaab Gang and have directed it. My next film will be a biopic based on the life of PC Sorcar, which I have written and will be directing too.
Tell us about your family?
I am the only child and being a single child helped, as I got all the attention of my parents. My parents are both retired now, but my dad used to work for Eveready batteries. I grew up in a joint family in Calcutta. If you are a Bengali there, there are two things naturally ingrained in you, one is Tagore, the other, Ray. Which is why I feel Bengali filmmakers have an advantage. Ray is not a part of our syllabus, but he is a part of our bloodstream. We all aspire to be Ray even though we don’t have 1/100th of his talent. He is the greatest filmmaker this country will ever have. I was put into Hindustani musical training at the age of eight and into learning sarod at 14. I played cricket for my school and state. Sourav Ganguly was my senior and house vice-captain, though, I never got to play with him. I would be a voracious reader and had a school band and was also into Shakespearean theatre. Joining Delhi School of Economics was the worst thing in my life. I loved economics, but their approach was way too mathematical. It lacked the human content. I remember I used to doze off in class. I was horrible in D School. I just didn’t like the place and found it just too boring. Every Monday, we would have a unit test. I got 8 out of 80 in the first year in one of the subjects. But, I was clear at a very early age that I had to be economically self-sufficient. And that at no point in time should my parents get the feeling that I am not financially secure, and that I can secure them. But they should not ask how I am getting that money as far as it was legally earned. My dad stuck to one company all his life, so it took him time to adjust to the thought that I could give up my job as a journalist one fine day to just write. When I told my parents that I wanted to make a film, they looked down upon it as I was not planning to make a Bengali intellectual film, but a Bollywood commercial one. At that time, ‘Bombay chala gaya’ was looked down upon. Now it’s exactly the opposite, where if you are a Bengali who has made a film in Mumbai, they look at you as a big achiever, be it Shoojit Sircar, Anurag Basu or Sujoy Ghosh.
How did Gulaab Gang happen?
I actually wanted to do a ‘Western’ which is a big film experience on the big screen. Anurag Basu and Sanjay Leela Bhansali give their audiences that. Sholay would be the best Indian example of a Western. Every Western has a protagonist and antagonist. And the underdog will take down the really powerful guy. Also, Mirch Masala was a massive influence. I believe that men are not big enough to empower women. And actually, if women are financially independent, men become redundant in their lives. So we wanted to create a masala film, where men are almost irrelevant. I have always been a massive Madhuri fan. I presented the film to her completely avoiding eye contact with her. I had written this film keeping only Madhuri in mind and she said yes. If Madhuri had not said yes, this film would not have happened.
How different are Madhuri and Juhi to work with?
Madhuri is somebody I can watch the Gunda video with. Gunda is a cult classic starring Mithun Chakraborty and it is so bad that it is so good. It is a D-grade film, but Madhuri gets it and loves it. I introduced her to it while shooting. Juhi is far more prim and proper. She is fun, but in a formal way. Madhuri is much more spontaneous than Juhi. Juhi is a lot more studied, conscious and puts in a lot more thought. Madhuri is incredibly professional. She will be there for a 5 am shot at 4.45 am with her makeup on. We had no stunt doubles or body doubles for any of the shots. Madhuri is non-vegetarian, Juhi is vegetarian. I remember when my associate director came to meet me for the interview, I asked him only one question, ‘Are you vegetarian?’ He said no. I said, ‘You are in.’ But I am way too grateful to Juhi to allow me to break her mould.
Who are you most attached to?
My mother. She is a very strangely crazy person and I am a lot like her. She is extremely loving and gets into these fits of this tempestuous anger, has a giving heart and likes to keep everybody happy. She also has a very discerning eye for music, art and cinema and she is a no-nonsense person when it comes to her telling you what she likes or doesn’t like. Of course, she has the Tagore hangover which every Bengali has. While she likes my singing voice, she would like me to call her more often. Boys cannot have conversations with mothers like girls can. My wife talks to her more than I do. She was a master in Sanskrit, but devoted a lot of her life to my cultural and emotional upbringing. I know that she could have done more with her life, but she sacrificed it for me. And, of course, she is a great cook. She came here and I made her meet Madhuri who immediately touched her feet. My mom immediately said, ‘See her upbringing.’ The best thing I like about my mother is that she keeps me grounded. The first time my picture came out with Madhuri in the paper, she called me to say your hairline is receding. The other anchor in my life is my wife. The day I took my first shot of Gulaab Gang, I had three missed calls from her. I called her back hoping that she would ask me about the shot. But she said, ‘Do you have Ramesh’s new number?’ He is the guy who delivers gas. That is life and it is brilliant.
Are Bengali women dominating?
I like dominating women as they are more competent. Also, versus physical power, you give the woman the same training as a man and she will beat the shit out of him.