Ideas can be too easy, if they remain in the realm of unrealised abstraction. Like a secret, I’d always nurtured the idea of making a Professor Shonku film. Just like the detective Feluda, the scientist invented by my father Satyajit Ray for his sci-fi stories has intrigued me for decades. Bengali readers, with their penchant for tales of quirky intellectuals, loved the Professor Shonku stories. But he still exists as a mental artefact—each reader has conjured up his or her own Professor Shonku. Do these diverse impressions have something in common that a director can tap? Feluda has been played by different actors—all of them have instantiated, embodied, extended or even challenged everyone’s imagined Feluda. That fascinating, complex play has been denied to Prof Shonku. So I wanted to put a cinematic face to Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku.
Dhritiman Chatterjee will play him on screen. I couldn’t think of anyone more perfect for the Professor Shonku persona. He has to be erudite, for sure. And he has to exude a combination of intelligence, intensity and urbanity. There are physical descriptions too which need to match. He couldn’t be very tall, for instance, but rather a smallish and elderly man. He would have to speak impeccable English and possess self-possession with which to make the implausible seem entirely plausible. For the film, I have chosen a middle-of-the-series story—Professor Shonku in El Dorado—by which time the protagonist has achieved a kind of ‘seriousness’ to his personality which was not so apparent in the earlier tales.
Nakur Babu, a lead character in the series who’s supposed to have supernatural powers, on the other hand, has a certain Bengaliness to him. From his attire to his speech, everything had to point to slightly accentuated Bengali tonalities. Subhashish Mukherjee, an excellent actor, has been chosen to play him. The other characters include English and German scientists, for whom my production team are on the look-out. They are in touch with production companies abroad.
There’s one good reason the whole idea has been in gestation so long and it’s only now that I am moving: earlier, we lacked the kind of technology required to create the special effects/animation that are integral to each of the Shonku stories. Now we have excellent, world-class VFX on tap. If I had even the slightest doubt about the quality of visual effects technology at our disposal, and the aesthetic credibility of what it can generate, I would not have attempted this movie. I’m clear there could be no compromise on that: audiences have grown familiar with outstanding VFX and the first Professor Shonku film simply could not fall short. In fact, my first choice for screen adaptation was another story—Unicorn Expedition—but the climax was so VFX-intensive, I realised it would have been difficult to do justice to it without higher levels of expertise. So I zeroed in on the present story. It’s also a great challenge, but I have a very efficient unit to work with.
We are in the process of pre-production. We have already recced Giridih in Jharkhand, where the first part of the story is set. We’ll shoot in other parts of Jharkhand too, possibly Deoghar, to capture the scenic descriptions—though any outdoor location would represent Giridih. The Usri river plays a very important role in the tale, so that comes in too. The indoor shoots will be in studios, mostly in Calcutta. But spawning off from this very rooted locale, there’s going to be a strong transcontinental flavour. For, only the first 20-25 minutes will be shot in India. The remaining two hours or so would be in Brazil. In the story, Professor Shonku goes to South America and interacts with other scientists. The dialogues during this part will obviously have to be in English. You can’t have Professor Shonku conversing with British and German scientists in Bengali, can you? The India portion will be in Bengali. In that sense, this is a bilingual film. Abroad, we’ll use English subtitles for the Bengali, and we’ll dub the English parts into Bengali when it’s released in the districts and suburbs outside Calcutta. The Brazil shoot is tentatively planned for June-July. If all goes according to plan, we may see a Christmas 2018 release. That’s when we’ll finally know, whether apparitions of the mind and on-screen, how they talk to each other...and in which secret language!
(The author is a Calcutta-based film-maker)