‘Byomkesh Bakshi’ to Guru Dutt, the references for ‘Shyam Singha Roy’

Director Rahul Sankrityan opens up on his film ‘Shyam Singha Roy, starring Nani and Sai Pallavi, that unravels in two timelines

Yesteryear actor Uttam Kumar’s hairstyle, director Guru Dutt’s thin moustache, gelled curly locks and sparkling gaze, Satyajit Ray’s body language, Kamal Haasan’s cuffs in Nayakan were among the several reference points for creating actor Nani’s look for the titular character in the Telugu film Shyam Singha Roy. Director Rahul Sankrityan has been fascinated by the arts, cinema and culture of Bengal and when a story that takes place substantially in Bengal was pitched to him by writer Satyadev Janga, he perked up. “I loved the initial story and we built on it.”

The film scheduled to release on December 24 has a story that unfolds in two timelines — a contemporary space inhabited by new-age filmmaker Vasu (Nani), Krithi Shetty, Madonna Sebastian, Leela Samson and others, and that of Shyam Singha Roy and Sai Pallavi’s character in Bengal of 1969-70.

A guessing game has been on, with film buffs wondering if the story deals with reincarnation or a supernatural element. “There is something more to the story. I will be giving away too much if I discuss at this point,” says Rahul, who takes time out for this interview amid finalising the film’s post- production.

New-age filmmaker

The opening visuals in the trailer offer a glimpse into Vasu’s world, with books on Ray and cinema in the background. Rahul says, “A lot of detailing went into creating Vasu’s world which in turn connects him with Shyam’s world.”

Vasu is portrayed as a new filmmaker who has quit his software job and is making a low budget project. That part of the characterisation is an extension of Rahul’s own journey. He had quit his job as a software engineer to make short films and eventually directed feature films The End (2014) and Taxiwaala (2018). “I built Vasu’s character around my likes and dislikes. That was the easy part and helped me incorporate humour. His journey in the story is fictional.”

Taxiwaala had a supernatural element in the story and Shyam Singha Roy explores concepts such as human consciousness and the possibilities of emotions transcending timelines. Rahul’s fascination for these subjects stems from his interest in aspects that are beyond the day-to-day norm. He read books on philosophy and consulted a psychologist for the film: “I believe that some dimensions and emotions of human beings cross time and space.”

The Bengal portions are a throwback to 1969 and 70, a period that Rahul refers to as an “interesting time in India and Bengal.” Shyam is a communist writer who bats for social reforms. References from the lives of Rabindranath Tagore and Raja Ram Mohan Roy were used to develop the character. “Both Tagore and Roy were social reformers who hailed from the upper class and rebelled against regressive practices.”

Class and gender discourse

Rahul was aware that he had to characterise Shyam in a manner that doesn’t make him appear overtly as an upper-class male saviour. Rahul welcomes the increased dialogue on filmmaking on social media on how class and gender are portrayed, stating that it helps filmmakers avoid the cliches: “At the same time, if I give too much thought to how everything is going to be micro-analysed, I may not be able to do what is required for Shyam’s character.”

The story also talks about the Devadasi tradition, featuring Sai Pallavi in that scenario: “The tradition prevailed across India. It was predominant in the erstwhile Orissa and Bengal witnessed its spillover. This story talks about how women bore the brunt of superstitious and exploitative practices.”

To create the period Bengal setting, Rahul and the production design team led by Avinash Kolla referenced Bengal literature and cinema, particularly Byomkesh Bakshi. Bengali dialogues were included. Striking a balance between Bengali and Telugu lines posed a challenge. What came in handy was the learning that Telugu is recognised as an official language in West Bengal. “During Independence, several people from Srikakulam moved to Bengal to work in railways. Today there are several pockets in Bengal where Telugu-speaking people form 40% to 50% of the voting population.”

Shyam Singha Roy is Rahul’s third film and his most challenging yet. The film is high on visual effects and music. Rahul first approached A R Rahman, but the composer was tied up with his own project. Then, Mickey J Meyer was roped in: “I wanted someone who can compose for both eras and devote enough time. Mickey’s strength is melody, but he surprised me with the ‘Rise of Shyam’ song that is more dramatic. For the Bengali era, he used Hindustani ragas. He also engaged Baul singers.”

Grungy texture

Cinematographer Sanu John Varghese and Rahul were particular about the quality of visual effects. It helped that Varghese was clued into specific lighting for sequences that required visual effects. Warmer tones of browns and reds formed the colour palette for the period setting while the contemporary story allowed a cooler palette. “We wanted the Bengal portions to look like Rembrandt paintings, with deep reds and browns. We wanted the grungy nature of those paintings and considered shooting the period portions on film.”

In recent times, the Telugu film Mahanati had portions that were shot on film. Rahul had discussions with director Nag Ashwin and things were on course, but that was before the pandemic set in. “We did not have the luxury of time and stuck to the digital format.”

As the film nears the release date, Rahul looks back in gratitude at the support extended by producer Venkat Boyanapalli when a large part of the ₹6.5 crore temple set collapsed following heavy wind and rain. “He asked us not to compromise on what is required for the film. The entire set was rebuilt.”

A self-taught filmmaker and an outsider to the film industry, Rahul admits that the journey has not been easy. While he learnt the craft through online resources and by watching films, he says a film school or assisting an established filmmaker might have helped his journey: “Those who come from film schools are well networked with peers from other institutes, I miss that. Or, had I worked with an established filmmaker, I might have learnt how to navigate the industry better.”

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