Directed by Prasun Chatterjee, the 2021 Bengali film Dostojee traces the journey of two friends from different religious communities in India. Palash (Asik Shaikh) and Safikul (Arif Shaikh) navigate difficult terrain in rural Bengal, where religious tensions simmer dangerously below the surface. Dostojee is a delicate, heartwarming and beautiful film that captures the simplicity of life.
I recently had a conversation with Chatterjee about his feature debut and the multiple challenges he encountered during the process.
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Dipankar Sarkar: How did you develop an interest in filmmaking?
Prasun Chatterjee: For six years, I was part of a theatre group, “Ensemble,” in Kolkata. During that period, I performed as an actor in one of the plays. But I was primarily associated with stagecraft, light designing, sound designing, color scheming, etc. While doing so, I got interested in writing and realized that I would like to tell stories — not on a stage but on the big screen. That is how I started to develop an interest towards filmmaking.
DS: You directed a short film, Shades (2017), that was selected at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. Did it help you to sharpen your skill and confidence as a filmmaker?
PC: I didn’t have as such any plans to make this short film. But there was an interesting incident behind the making of it. I was trying very hard to find investors and producers for my film. Since I did not have any film school background [and hadn’t] assisted any filmmaker, whoever I was approaching did not have confidence in me to greenlight the project. So, to display my conviction in executing a film, I wrote and directed the short film. But even that did not help me. The investors told me that there is a vast difference between making a nine-minute short film and accomplishing a feature-length project. I was taken aback and responded to them saying that I would make my first feature film, release it at the theatre and then I would approach them once again. But I must admit that making the short film gave me the courage, from [a] technical aspect, to make my debut feature film.
DS: You chose to set the story of Dostojee in the aftermath of the 1992–93 Bombay bombings and the Babri Mosque demolition in India. What was the particular reason?
PC: I believe that despite their differences, there was a kind of balance between the Hindu and Muslim communities of India in our society. But after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and as a counter-reaction, the Bombay serial blast completely shattered this balance. These two incidents, orchestrated by two different extremist groups, polarized the two communities in such a way that the repercussions are visible even in our present society. Moreover, the problems between Hindus and Muslims [are issues of] majority-minority politics, which exists throughout the world in different forms. This is the reason why I selected that particular era.
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DS: The hamlet where the story of Dostojee unfolds is inhabited by Bengali people belonging to two conflicting religious communities. Palash’s father is a Hindu priest and Safiul’s father is a Muslim weaver. We never find the elder members of the two families speaking to one another. Even the two houses are separated by a huge fence. Yet Palash and Safiul are allowed to intermingle with one another in Dostojee. Why is it so?
PC: Throughout the narrative, I have never implied that there wasn’t any closeness between the two elder members of the Hindu and Muslim families. There isn’t any scene in the film that indicates that the relationship between the two families was not harmonious in the past. The story of the film begins at a phase when [the] socio-political situation of hamlet is under duress due to communal undercurrents. It has inadvertently affected the relationship between the two families belonging to different religious beliefs. But the two younger members of this family, Palash and Safiul, are not that much affected by such differentiation. So, despite being neighbors, the elder members of the two families do not speak that much to one another because of the outcome of political mayhem that has happened thousands of miles apart from their location which created social turmoil in their village. These two families have to bear the brunt of disharmony.
DS: Midway into Dostojee, Palash and Safiul put a caterpillar in a glass jar and feed the insects with green leaves. The significance of this act ends with an emotional payoff later in the film. How did this idea occur to you?
PC: As a child when I was in school, going through the curriculum of Life Sciences, I got to know about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. So, out of my childhood curiosity, I used to capture a caterpillar and put it in a box for it to mature into a butterfly. Unfortunately, none of them ever transformed into a butterfly. So, the idea was already in the subconscious. During the process of writing, I discovered that the caterpillar would very well fit within the structure of the film and serve as an effectual medium of emotional release for Palash’s mother.
DS: What is the function of the loony man within the story of Dostojee?
PC: Throughout the film, this character plays the role of conscience and mocks the supreme power of the universe. Whenever he has to express his disapproval against someone or at some event, he folds his hands and raises them upward as if pointing towards the almighty and questions him about the man-made discords. For instance, when his belongings are thrown away from his temporary abode under the banyan tree for the purpose of making a new mosque, and the moment he is refused to be served food at the Ram Jatra [a Hindu festival], we observe such [posturing] from him.
DS: In another scene, Palash’s father tells his mother that Bengali worshipers are not used to placing much emphasis on the concept of worshipping Lord Rama because it is a North Indian practice. Why did you feel that it was important to reveal this important information through Dostojee?
PC: With due respect to the religious beliefs of my countrymen, I would like to say that for Bengali Hindus, Ramayana and Mahabharata are epics, and the practice of worshipping Lord Rama is not very popular in Bengal. Under such circumstances as a Bengali-Hindu priest, Palash’s father is a very helpless character because he is unaware of the rituals of performing the puja of Lord Rama. So, the function of the scene was to showcase how religious identity plays an important role in our lives.
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DS: There are a lot of playful scenes in Dostojee. In one such scene, Safiul and Palash go backstage in the middle of a performance to discover that the individuals playing the mythological characters of Rama, Sita and Ravana are smoking jointly. Out of their innocent inquisitiveness, they ask about being enemies. One of the characters replies that they are friends in real life but have to play enemies to earn their bread and butter. What is the subtext of the scene?
PC: This is a kind of mock fighting that is prevalent around the world wherever power and politics are involved. I believe that people in power are friends with those who are in opposition. Their enmity is the camouflage of their public image. Due to this, the common man is a sufferer.
DS: How was your experience of working with first-time child actors Asik Shaikh and Arif Shaikh?
PC: It was a challenging experience indeed. But I enjoyed the process. Asik and Arif, before the shooting of this film, had never seen even a DSLR camera. So, it was a mammoth task to cast these two boys in a film shot with a motion picture camera and film unit. But they are very intelligent kids and it benefited us a lot. At the same time, Joba — who plays the role of Palash’s sister — speaks volumes with her silent expressions. While shooting with child artists who are non-professionals, one also has to understand their moods and psychology. Now when I have to shoot a scene with both the child actors, I have to brief them differently, keeping in mind their psychology. But the most difficult task that I had to encounter was maintaining the emotional continuity between the shots. For instance, the expression that was displayed during the master shot has to match the close-up shots or else the continuity will go for a toss. So, I had to control such situations delicately.
DS: The mighty river bank, the empty streets dotted with greenery on either side, the vast stretch of paddy fields, as well as the exteriors, lit with lanterns, bring genuineness to the images of Dostojee. What sort of visual design did you have in your mind while shooting the film?
PC: We tried to be as close as possible to reality. But what we perceive through our naked eye is different from what we capture on the camera. The film is set in a village where there is no electricity. So, to light up the night scene, the source has to be the lanterns or the lamps. That was the demand for those scenes. For the rest of the film, the world of the two children is filled with blue and greens, surrounded by paddy fields, mango orchids, rain, etc. There is a playfulness to their world, and so it was framed in wide shots. Whereas when the communal undercurrent finds its way into the scene, the color scheme becomes gloomy and the framing becomes claustrophobic. At the same time, after the demise of Palash, the world of Safiul becomes shabby. The winter season also casts a worn-out feel to his world.
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DS: Did the structure of Dostojee change during the process of editing?
PC: No, the structure of the film did not change at all during the edit. There were a few scenes that we had to discard because I felt they were repetitive and not adding much to the story. I had a clear idea regarding the structure of the film while I was shooting. Several notebooks are lying in one corner of my home which is filled with details of camera positioning, lensing, color scheming, audio reference, costume information, shoot timing, etc. So, the structure of the film before and after shooting is the same.
DS: Could you discuss the sound design of Dostojee?
PC: I [did] the complete sound design for the film with my associate designer, Rohit Sengupta. During the post-production, I was sure not to use a background score for the film. I believed that multiple elements in nature would enable me to create an aural space to accentuate the dramatic moments within the film. However, popular songs are added to the soundtracks depending on the scenes. I utilized the ambient sound of the film as creatively as possible. For instance, during the second act of the film, when Safiul asks his tuition teacher what would happen if he adds his score jointly with Palash, the teacher replies he would become the topper in the class. In the master shot of this scene, we hear Safikul’s mother weaving handloom in the background. Then when I cut to a close-up shot, I increased the sound of the weaving by a few decibels. This helped to create drama. Similarly, in other scenes, I have increased the sound levels of rain, crickets, etc. according to the emotion of the scenes. I also used the distant sound of afternoon azan [a public call from the mosques for Muslims to gather for prayer] to express the loneliness of Safiul.
DS: Dostojeee has traveled and won kudos at several national and international film festivals. Did you benefit from such recognition?
PC: The film has participated in around 32 film festivals and won eight international awards. All these recognitions have helped me to create a brand value for the film, thereby facilitating the theatrical distribution of the film.
DS: Being a debutant, you have not only found a producer but also distributors for releasing Dostojee across India. Share your mammoth journey as an independent filmmaker residing in a nation where the practice of mainstream and popular filmmaking has always been prioritized.
PC: It’s extremely painful and at the same time satisfactory. The process of conceiving an idea to chart out the plans for mainstream distribution in an Indian market is a difficult proceeding. I am the producer of the company Kathak Talkies that has produced the film, and there are also three co-producers involved. I am extremely happy with the commercial success of the film. I never expected the film would receive so much love and acceptance from the audience. But I am not carried away with the success of the film. I prefer to ignore success because that allows me to have a peaceful life devoid of any pressure.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.
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