Listen to this article:
Kolkata: Last week, film director Prasun Chatterjee was faced with a difficult task at hand. He had to convince Arif Shaikh (11) – who played one of the protagonists in Chatterjee’s debut film, Dostojee – that he had won an international award for his acting.
For this, Chatterjee had to embark on a train journey to the Murshidabad district from Kolkata. From there, it is a few-hours’ car ride to the Domkal subdivision and then, 15 km more to reach Shaikh’s home.
Shaikh was oblivious to the success of the film that he had acted in, making it difficult for him to believe that he had won the best young actor award in the Child’s Performance (Boy) category at the 24th Olympia International Film Festival in Greece. When Chatterjee explained to the young actor that Greece is a country, far away, in Europe and showed him his pictures online, Shaikh quipped that he knows how pictures can be superimposed on the internet.
The film, which is yet to have its theatrical release in India, also received critical acclaim when it premiered at the BFI London film festival last month. But all Shaikh knows is that a lot of people are talking about it and asking him questions.
“People in the village and neighbouring areas who are literate have read about the film in the major Bengali papers. They have a sense that something significant has happened,” said Chatterjee.
The son of a brick kiln worker and a home maker, Shaikh is the first person in his family to go to school. When Chatterjee showed him the Bengali newspaper reports (which he was able to read), he was finally convinced. “It feels good that the work I was a part of has done so well, it must have gone viral,” Shaikh said. Chatterjee laughed and explained that for children in the village, anything in the video format going viral is the final parameter of success.
Shaikh’s own tastes in films differ from the realism of Dostojeee. “I like watching any film that has good fighting, like South Indian films. In Bengali, I watch Jeet’s (a Bengali actor) films because they have good fight scenes,” he said.
It was Shaikh’s suspicion and confidence that made Chatterjee decide, three years ago, that he would work with the then nine-year-old boy. Back then, Chatterjee had decided that he was going to base his story in this village that is separated from Bangladesh by the Padma River and has Hindu and Muslim families living next to each other.
When Shaikh came to know that the film was scouting for actors, he headed straight to the crew because he wanted to be a part of it. When he met the crew, he started looking for the director. “When I told him that I am the director, he was not convinced at all. He asked me to stop lying and fetch him the real director,” Chatterjee said.
Shaikh is a little shy about the incident now. “I was quite young back then and really wanted to be in the film,” he said.
Though Chatterjee was instantly impressed by the boy’s confidence, the process wasn’t all that easy. The film is set in the early 1990s, right after the demolition of the Babri Masjid when there was an announcement that a chhota Babri Masjid would be constructed in the area. This represented the turbulent political situation in the rest of the country was also making inroads into Shaikh’s village. People who had shared walls with each other for many years now started identifying themselves by their religious differences. Against this backdrop, the friendship between a Hindu boy, Palash (played by Asik Shaikh) and a Muslim boy, Safikul (played by Arif Shaikh) stands out for its innocence and purity.
“I wanted the boys to be from the place to be authentic about the way they speak, the intonations and manners. We did not ask them to memorise any lines but to read and say things the way they understood. Despite that, it wasn’t easy. It took time for them to be able to say things together and it took time for me to understand the nuances of the local culture,” said Chatterjee. The whole process took around a year before they were ready to shoot. And that becomes a striking feature of the film; it is impossible to distinguish the characters from the setting.
Shaikh, however, mostly remembers having fun. The best part, he says, was travelling to Kolkata for the dubbing. For him, it was an experience of many firsts – his first train ride, ride on the metro and his first time exploring the city. “We were working for long hours, giving voice to our scenes. But when we took breaks, we played games and visited different places in the city,” he said.
Chatterjee said that, while initially selected the boys, he didn’t realise how perceptive and intelligent they were. “It is just accidental how I landed these two severely talented boys. But soon, they were imitating me during the shoot. They had picked up details about shooting to the extent that they even asked for retakes when they moved a bit too much during a close shot,” he said.
Chatterjee remarked that with intelligence, there also comes the problem of satiating their curiosity. “I took them to the zoo in Kolkata and they just wouldn’t stop. They had to see even the donkey and then when they had seen it, they had to find out why a donkey, which was not different from the ones in their village, was kept in a cage. What was so special about that donkey?”
This energy of adventure that the two boys have, looking at the world with wide, wandering eyes translates seamlessly to the screen in Dostojee. But the question their families ask Chatterjee is: what next?
“This is the difficult question I am faced with. What can be done to ensure that this talent is not lost in the struggles of poverty? How can we work out a way?” Chatterjee said.