Interview Bengali

Even Uttam Kumar's films did not quite capture the socio-economic reality of the time: Santilal Mukherjee

Veteran stage and film artiste Santilal Mukherjee speaks about his work, his choices and the role of cinema in society.

Roushni Sarkar

Senior actor Santilal Mukherjee has been working with important Bengali directors for the past 15 years. Primarily a theatre personality, Mukherjee has played serious, villainous and comical characters and done justice to them with equal finesse. Naturally, he is preferred by both mainstream and arthouse directors.

Santilal Mukherjee shared screen space with his son Rwitobroto for the first time in Mainak Bhaumik’s Generation Aami (2018). Now he will be seen playing an officer of the crime branch in Goyenda Junior, in which his son plays the protagonist Vikram.

In a candid chat with Cinestaan, Santilal Mukherjee shares his experience of working with Bhaumik and also on the current surge of thrillers and detective films in Bengali cinema. Excerpts:

This is your second film with Mainak Bhaumik, Rwitobroto and almost the same cast as Generation Aami. How has your experience been so far?

Yes, both the films within the span of one year have almost the same cast, yet the stories and genres are entirely different. The story of Generation Aami revolved around a family and the crisis among its members. In Goyenda Junior too, there are some issues of family relationships to which I am not directly related. In this film, my equation with Rwitobroto is entirely professional.

A friendship among the cast and crew members has grown over these two films and hence the comfort zone makes it easier to work. The rest of the cast are all my son’s friends and, therefore, I cannot really help but play the role of a guardian amongst them. They cannot really open up that much in front of me and I also need to keep an eye on them as part of my responsibility.

In a promotional video of Goyenda Junior, Rwitobroto can be seen dismissing all your inferences on a crime. Does his character continue to surprise yours throughout the film?

I play an experienced officer of the crime branch while Vikram’s intelligence and ability to judge crimes is better than that of average kids. Moreover, he reads a lot of detective novels and thrillers, but he never really aspired to become a detective. My character gets impressed by his sharp and inquisitive perceptions and I then start making use of his abilities to solve a crime. At the same time, my character guides him to hone his abilities in a proper direction.

Is it quite similar to the personal equation you share with him?

Yes, it is. He has the full freedom of taking all his decisions, while I am always there to guide him in need.

How has the experience of working with Mainak Bhaumik been?

He is a very calm director, and well-planned as well. He knows what he has to say, extract from the actors, or the experience he wants to give the audience. He is quite systematic and disciplined; hence, the process of working with him becomes very easy. Another important aspect of working with such a young director is that I get to learn a lot about how his or his next generation loves to work or think.

After working for so many years in the industry and playing a variety of characters, do you have the option to reject scripts you don’t like? Or does the question of monetary security come first?

Yes, I do have the right of not choosing a project. However, artistes do not have the freedom of choosing the characters all the time since the decision depends entirely on the directors. But lead actors do have that option. As character actors, we are much more content with getting different shades of characters, apart from the lead ones. Our satisfaction lies there.

What do you think about the contemporary content of Bengali cinema? What is your take on the surge of thrillers and detective stories?

I feel filmmakers are more getting inclined towards thrillers or detective films because Bengali audiences love to exercise their brains in that direction rather than only getting entertained with song-and-dance sequences and action. I don’t think any other industry in this country produces such a huge number of detective films. The last Hindi detective film I remember is Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015).

I don’t think there is any negative side to making too many detective films or thrillers. The more the audience likes to exercise its brains, the better. We already have a huge treasure of detective stories in Bengali literature. Now this generation is attempting to create new detectives fit for this era. These characters might also become popular in the future. There have been different eras in Bengali cinema. Once Bengali films only used to be based on literature, then there was a period of mainstream commercial films, and now Bengali audiences are more keen towards subjects which allow them to think.

But there are hardly realistic and socially relevant films. What are your thoughts on that?

I am doubtful whether hard-core realistic films are commercially viable. For example, Uttam Kumar’s era is considered the golden era of Bengali cinema, but his films hardly captured the socio-economic reality of his time.

Audiences always prefer to take refuge from all kinds of societal pressures through entertainment in the form of watching cinema. Cinema is a dreamland for them. The majority in the audience do not like to add to their emotional burden while watching films. Therefore, the number of realistic films is quite less these days.

Personally, I believe artistes are committed to society and they too have certain responsibilities. I feel socially relevant films should be made more. In this context, I can cite the example of Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday (2008, Hindi). It is not that the number is zero, but these kinds of films do not get proper promotions or screenings and hence the audience remains oblivious to them. Primarily, I think, it is because of the business purpose; most of the producers do not attempt these kinds of films.

How do you look at the digital platforms for the future of cinema?

I think one of the biggest contributions of digital platforms is the web-series which doesn’t have time constraints and where makers do not have to tell stories in a concise form. Also, there is no interference of the censor board which allows the directors to think beyond the usual framework of filmmaking. For the same reason, cinema now has to face the challenge of competing with these web-series and present quality works, remaining within its restrictions, because I personally don't think digital platforms can replace the charm of theatres. Digital platforms can never have the atmosphere of hundreds of people watching a film together, clapping and expressing their spontaneous reactions.

Rwitobroto is growing as an actor. What is your message for him?

I have told him one thing very clearly. Gas kheyo na. Don’t get carried away by praise.