Debutant director Romilla Mukherjee has always had a special fondness for murder mysteries and family fare. “Parinda" and “Parichay" may seem worlds apart, but she"s always believed that widely different themes can be blended beautifully together into one single movie. The result is “Detective Naani", ready for release this summer.
What is “Detective Naani" about?
It is about a crime committed in a Mumbai society complex. Since 75 year old Naani is the sole witness, she decides to solve the case herself. Her unusual team of detectives, made up of her 2 young grandchildren, 2 teenagers, an old invalid gentleman and her dog Bruno, bring high spirits and high adventure to the proceedings. As the crime is a serious one, their investigation brings them close to danger and evil, and only their united willpower and courage save the day.
What made you think of directing a feature?
Call it a childhood obsession. My heart was always with cinema. At age 13 I was already noticing names of directors, producers, cinematographers, editors, music composers, even casting directors. My father had a huge collection of old Hollywood magazines like “Screen Stories" which had abridged versions of screenplays and stills. I would devour everything from “Gone with the Wind" to Marlon Brando"s Julius Caesar".
But you never went into formal film training?
Strangely enough, no. I stayed in advertising, doing corporate and ad films. I never thought that Indian cinema would have room for the kind of stories I would like to tell. Obviously I was wrong. When Farhan Akhtar"s “Dil Chahta Hai" happened, it was like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly here was a film that spoke my language, and it had found the kind of audience I was looking for. It gave me hope and started me off on this journey, and here we are.
What made you think of this story?
I had seen a cover story of a criminal racket in an India Today magazine, and it stayed with me for years. When we decided to make a family film with an original script, the India Today cover popped back in my mind. I started writing about a lively, lovable 75 year old lady who turns into a detective to solve this heinous crime. Before I knew it, I had added 2 naughty grandchildren, 2 teenagers and an interesting old gentleman who acts as Naani"s ground floor spy. And ofcourse, a big huggable dog. I had finished about 40 pages before I realized that Detective Naani was inspired by my mother. It took me totally by surprise.
So your mother Ava Mukherjee was always your first choice for Naani?
Yes, first and last. She kept telling me to choose one of our many great senior actresses, but I knew without a doubt that she would be the perfect Naani. Her personality and charm had made such a success of the Ayurvedic Concepts Dadima campaign. I think the same Dadima became the inspiration for my Naani.
What was it like directing your mother?
Oh, she will tell you that I was a hard taskmaster. But I knew she had the talent and toughness to rise to any challenge. She has an aura of goodness, of grace mixed with a wacky, mischievous sense of humour. This is the absolute essence of Naani. By the time the camera rolled, my mother had totally absorbed the character into her system, completely lost herself in the story. She"s a very natural actress. Since her main language is Bengali, she spent 8 months working very hard, learning Hindi. She has a Bengali accent, but she wanted to honour the language by speaking grammatically correct Hindi.
Which part of directing did you enjoy the most?
Everything. Being a first time director, I knew that the best way for me to get great results is to create a democracy. My cinematographer, art director, editor and sound designer were my creative collaborators on this film. They protected my vision and enhanced it. The one thing that I did entirely on my own was working with the actors. There is a saying in film, “Never work with children and animals". Well, I did, and it was a total blast. Kids are so pure, so open to everything. Once they sense that you trust their intelligence and talent, they give you so much more than you could have imagined. When we saw the rushes after the first week of shooting, we knew we had something special.