Spotlight: Recreating Byomkesh Bakshi’s world

Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! is one of the most awaited releases of the year. What makes it even more exciting is the fact that it is being projected as a period noir thriller, a rare breed in Hindi cinema. Set in 1940s Calcutta, the film is a compilation of two of Bengali author Sharadindu Bandhopadyay’s famous Byomkesh stories Satyanweshi and Pother Kantha. However, making a period film is not child’s play, especially a dark, brooding thriller like this one revolving around an iconic character. The hurdles were many, as is with any film. Initially planned to be shot entirely on location, the team had to rework their plans, keeping in mind feasibility and budget constraints. A few big names were also in the running to be cast during the initial stages of the film. But the team, however, decided to create a whole new world to place their Byomkesh Bakshy in, right from the sets they developed to the actors they cast. We at Long Live Cinema love digging into such details of the production process and bringing to you the real effort that happens behind the scenes. So here’s production designer Vandana Kataria and casting director Honey Trehan letting us in on the workings of their respective departments and how they envisioned, planned and executed the same in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, which hits screens today.

On a time machine to the 40s
Vandana Kataria, production designer
What was the brief that Dibakar gave you before you started working on the project?
The only thing that Dibakar ever told me as a brief before working on the film was to imagine that me, Nikos [Andritsakis, the DOP] and he were on a time machine which transported us back to the 1940s. But he also said that the film should be contemporary in its own way with present day sensibilities and we would be using present day equipment. It was a noir film, a murder mystery and we had to show the dark, underbelly of Calcutta at a time when the city was at its cosmopolitan best. So the whole idea was to try and arrive at an image that was both historical, yet very contemporary.
What was the kind of research you undertook for Byomkesh Bakshy?
I was one of the first people who came on board for this project. So I started my research right from 2012, when Dibakar was into the post-production process of Shanghai. My first resource was the internet and then I spread the research over 6 months to cover other physical archives in Calcutta and elsewhere. I visited so many libraries–the national library, the police archives, the port trust archives, the World War 2 archives–to get the feel and tone of the period right. We had to recreate a world none of us were familiar with and we entirely fell back on such archived history. Another important part of my research were the oral histories I got from people of Calcutta who were 85-90 years old. They lived through this period and would tell me how life was then. I saw a lot of Bengali films and read a lot of Bengali literature of that period, and also looked at Hollywood films from the 20s and 30s for my references. For this film, I relied on a lot of photographs and paintings for inspiration and reference. That was the phase 1 of the research process. Phase 2 of the process started once the script was ready and was a part of the pre-production of the film. Then I did four more months of research.
What were the challenges you faced?
The biggest challenge was of course the budget. This is actually not a huge budget film although it is Dibakar’s costliest. The challenge then was to keep the budget as low as possible. Another challenge was to build two huge sets at Naigaon, because it was not something I had done before in my career. One was a recreation of a tiny little city, with real street lights, tram lines, overhead tram cables etc. It was a 900 sq-ft set, which was 26 feet high. It had drains that really worked, as in we put kachra [waste] and dirt in it to make it look real. We built ’40s Dodge buses, ’30s trams and carriages. The other set we built was that of the boarding house that Byomkesh Bakshy stayed in. This is a location which appears in like 50 per cent of the film’s scenes. It was a replica of a boarding house that the real author Sharadindu Banerjee had stayed in during his student days. We couldn’t shoot at the same location because it was a very old structure and we weren’t sure it could take a film set of 70 plus people working there day in and day out. So we recreated it in Bombay. Also every location we went to we had to age it to make it look like ’40s Calcutta. We had to change the fans, tube lights, switchboards and strip off modern wiring systems. And, the problem was that in 1940s itself, Calcutta had buildings that were 100 and 150 years old, so we had to make them look like that. We tried many methods. We put atta on the walls and heat treated it. We used tissue papers and heated them, we threw water on the walls, let moss grow on them, threw dust on them and what not!
What was the exact workflow of the production design team like?
The first step is sitting with the director and DOP to fully understand the vision for the film. We together decide on the shot breakdowns, the colour palette, the shades that would suit the overall look of the film. The story is the key element in this process. Every decision taken is dictated by the story and the character. Especially in a film like Byomkesh, I do not know the mindset of the people who lived during this period. So all my aesthetic decisions were driven by the characters we dealt with. After the colour palette is decided on, I pass it on to the art team, the costume and the make-up team, who then work around the same references to maintain consistency in the look and feel of the film. Also, the production designer is someone who always has to be on her toes. While the director and DOP tries to better the look and feel of every shot, I have to make sure that every little detail seen on screen is perfect. So I need to have a well-drawn out plan which will help me tackle any emergency that might arise on set. For instance, one of the street lights did not have a lamp shade in the last moment and we used a pink lifafa[envelope] instead. These tiny things are what I consider as my victories.
Were there any creative liberties taken in terms of design?
Definitely, a few, because we were presenting to the viewer our interpretation of Byomkesh’s world. First thing I can think of is that these stories were set in the summer. And, during summer, the common Bengali man would wear white homespun clothes. But for a noir thriller film, we could not have a lot of whites and wanted some more dark shades. So we shifted the season to winter to inculcate more dark greys and browns. Also, during 1942, it was a time when the last of Calcutta’s old trams were on the verge of going off the street and the newer ones came in not in the same year but a little later. We took some creative liberties with this timeline to play around with the old and new trams we were working with.
A sea of unknown faces
Honey Trehan, casting director

Casting Director Honey Trehan

How did you get on board this project?

I have always been a follower of Dibakar’s work and feel that he is a genuinely talented director. From his films Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye! Lucky Lucky Oye and his short film in Bombay Talkies, I have always been in awe of his command over the craft and his style of storytelling. But when I was called by his assistants for this project, I was a bit surprised as this was a Yash Raj film. They always work with in-house casting directors. When I met Dibakar, the first question I asked him was ‘why me?’ His answer further proved that he meant business. He told me that he had also followed my casting work. So there was an instant connect and that was how I came on board.

You were working with Dibakar for the first time. How did the equation between you two pan out and shape your work in the film?

It is very important for the casting director to know the story and the characters inside out. Only then can he bring those faces that the director has envisioned on screen. First, Dibakar gave me a full brief of the story. This was before the final script was locked in. He was constantly travelling to do research for the film. So we came to an agreement that everyday we would spend some time to talk about one character each. So this went on for a long time. Every night, wherever he was we would Skype and he would talk to me about one character for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. This helped me a lot because Dibakar had a clear sense of what he wanted. He had numerous references. He gave me references from Bimal Roy’s films like Sujata. Dibakar is a director who makes you work to your 120 per cent. Because of his outrageous demands, you will start doubting your 100 per cent and strive to put in more effort. So I loved the experience of working with him. I owe everything I am today to Vishal Bhardwaj. After Vishal, if there is a director who is so sure of what he wants his film to look and feel like, it is Dibakar.
What was the research that went into the casting process?
My research went hand in hand with Dibakar’s. He already had 7-8 big names in mind when he approached me. But I was a bit doubtful about them. They were all known names and established stars. But the good thing about Dibakar is that he gives you enough space to voice your opinions. I told him that through logical reasoning, these stars don’t seem to fit into the world of Byomkesh. The film opens with a super reading “1943, Somewhere in Calcutta”, and cuts to a scene where five people are sitting and discussing. So if the viewer already knows these 5 actors, what is the fun! The viewer will have a preconceived notion about each actor and will start second guessing the plot. What we had to do was make only Byomkesh a known face and Sushant was already on board. All the other characters had to be unknown people so that a new world is created. So now the viewer is not sure which character to trust and whom not to. Isn’t that what is fun in a thriller? Finally, I am more than happy that I was able to convince Dibakar to think beyond those mainstream names and that those anyway didn’t work out.
Second thing was that I am not a Bengali. I had to understand the language, the lifestyle and the people to find the right kind of people. So I travelled extensively in Calcutta, Nagaland, Kohima and Manipur. I had to cast 103 characters. Most of them were non-actors, some were associated with local theatre groups, some were picked up from NSD repertoires, some from the Anglo Indian Embassy. I hired two Bengali assistants for the film so that they could help me get into the groove. There was also Smriti and Gaurav from the production team who were of immense help to me.
Whom do you consider the biggest find of the film?
Anand Tiwari and Swastika Mukherjee. Dibakar wasn’t conviced about Anand at first as Byomkesh’s sidekick Ajit. But later, he auditioned several times and proved his mettle. Dibakar is now extremely happy that he finally cast him. Swastika’s audition was quite funny. She was a known actor in Calcutta and when she came to audition for Anguri Devi’s part, she came fully dressed up in a red sari, heavy makeup and good jewelry. She had already given some ten or eleven takes before I went to speak to her. I told her to wash her face and come in a normal ghar-ka-sari. She was extremely pissed. But the moment she came back and gave a take, I knew I had found my Anguri Devi. Dibakar also liked the audition she gave. After he selected her, some time later, in jest, I showed him the earlier takes she had given and narrated the story to him. He just laughed out loud.
Which was the toughest character to cast?
There was a servant in the film who was called Puntilal. He is a silent character and a great observer and is very crucial to the story. I took a long time to find a face that suited the character. I also had a tough time casting for Satyawati’s part, who is Byomkesh’s love interest in the film, and I had to find someone to play her uncle, which also took many rounds of audition to finally find the right one. But it all zeroes down to Dibakar’s trust in me and the space he gave me to work in.

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