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Interview Hindi

Pankaj Tripathi's contributions lent authenticity to Sherdil, says Srijit Mukherji

Set to be released on 24 June in theatres, Mukherji's second Hindi feature film also stars Neeraj Kabi and Sayani Gupta.

Roushni Sarkar

Srijit Mukherji’s Hindi feature film Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga (2022) has created a fair amount of anticipation with its exciting cast and interesting plotline.

Starring Pankaj Tripathi, the film, inspired from an incident that occurred in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, follows the story of a village headman named Gangaram, who sets out to sacrifice his life to a tiger so that the village can get a hefty compensation package promised by the government for victims of tiger attacks.

Also starring Neeraj Kabi and Sayani Gupta, Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga is Mukherji’s second Hindi feature after Begum Jaan (2017), starring Vidya Balan.

Ahead of the film's theatrical release on 24 June, the National award-winning director revealed in a group interaction in Kolkata how he fictionalized the original incident and why no one could play Gangaram better than Tripathi. He also recounted the experience of working with legendary poet Gulzar and the singer KK, who died less than a month ago, for the song 'Dhoop Pani Behne De'. Excerpts from the interaction:

Why did you think Pankaj Tripathi fit the role perfectly?

I needed an actor who is very much aware of the ground reality and can get into the skin of the character. I couldn’t think of anyone else playing Gangaram. Also, Pankaj sir has a lot of contribution to the development of the character and the script. An actor can only contribute in such a way when he is entirely devoted to the character.

I am a city person, but Pankajji could introduce me to a part of India that I could not have got acquainted with, without him. Because of his lived experiences in the villages, he gave me suggestions and did some improvisations that lend authenticity to the story.

The film is inspired by a real incident from Uttar Pradesh’s Pilibhit district that you read about in the papers, which was about how poor people often intentionally leave aged family members out in the farms to be devoured by tigers so that they can claim the compensation amount from the government. But in your film Gangaram decides to sacrifice himself to help the villagers with the money. Can you talk about this shift in the approach of the storyline?

See, in both cases, the necessity to claim the compensation money stems from acute poverty, the fear of losing crops and then the tendency to commit suicide. The news I read was quite morbid and tragic, but my film is a larger-than-life social satire. For the same reason, we have dramatized the real incidents and, also, I have lent a heroic twist to Gangaram’s story. When police investigated the death in Pilibhit, local people claimed that the victims went voluntarily to sacrifice themselves. So, I have taken that part and set the entire premise of the story in a fictional forest and fictional village.

How have you addressed the man-animal conflict in the film in terms of growing animal-slaughter?

Yes, the film aims to send a strong message on the man-animal conflict. I read a news that a tiger which entered a farm got beaten to death by people in Pilibhit. I have tried to highlight how both men and animals get threatened in such a scenario. Also, what are the primary reasons for such conflicts and whether there are any solutions to this issue have also been discussed in the film, not with a preachy tone but with an entertaining approach.

Both Pankajji and I discussed the storytelling approach a lot. Satire not only makes people laugh, but also encourages people to think deeply.

You have received many National awards so far. Do you think Sherdil can fetch you a Filmfare or two?

Awards are by-products of telling a story in a particular way and so are box-office success and international film festival nominations. I have always focused on telling stories that I am excited about in my own way. Sometimes the stories work and sometimes they don’t. But awards are not in my mind when I make films.

How was the experience of working with Gulzar and KK on the film?

Gulzar saheb has now become quite selective with the work he does. Our music director, Shantanu Moitra, had told me he decides whether to be part of a project after watching the film. We sent the film to him and he got so excited that he called us and expressed a desire to be part of the film with utmost delight, which is no less than an award for me. He said he never thought he would be writing a song like ‘Dhoop Pani Behne De’ now.

KK, on the other hand, has always been one of my favourite singers. I have lots of memories attached to his songs. I had told him that his voice has been my friend for long. What a jolly person he was! We chatted a lot on cinema and food. We planned to work again in the future, which is sadly never going to happen.

How did you get along with Pankaj Tripathi on the shooting floor? Also, he is known to be a good cook. Did you taste anything prepared by him?

Pankaj sir is a foodie and he enjoys the little pleasures of life, too. Normally, either we develop a good creative wavelength or a good friendship with an actor. Pankaj sir and I became friends while working on the film. After completing a shift of eight or 10 hours, we could chat about nature, politics, music, food and life. I think that bonding has reflected on screen as well. I never felt that I am working with one of the most talented and popular actors from Mumbai.

Speaking of the food he prepared, he made an interesting Bihari mutton delicacy, which I loved.