Why this might not seem so easy
From his beloved debut to his recent Netflix anthologies, Dibakar Banerjee’s filmography covers multiple genres, including comedy, class satires, political thrillers and a horror film about India’s caste system. Knowing where to start can be tricky.
Raised in Delhi and a student at the National Institute of Design, Banerjee worked in advertising before turning to feature films. His ad work is where he honed his succinct style, and his subsequent film work is rooted in his experience of urban India.
Banerjee received consecutive National Awards for his first two films: Khosla Ka Ghosla! (2006) and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008). He later returned his award for Khosla Ka Ghosla! in solidarity with students who were protesting a leadership change at the Film and Television Institute of India, an autonomous institute set up by the Indian government.
In the late 2000s, when Bollywood was stiffly modelled and conservative, Banerjee and contemporaries like Anurag Kashyap made a move for independence. But while Kashyap was upfront in challenging the industry, Banerjee came in with a subtler method. He used the existing elements of comedy, crime and drama but treated them differently by immersing his characters in social realities and recognisable details that seem drawn from everyday life. Politics have informed his films, subtly or overtly, throughout his career.
Where to start – Khosla Ka Ghosla!
Banerjee’s debut, Khosla Ka Ghosla!, remains one of his most beloved films. It features Anupam Kher as middle-class dad Kamal Khosla, who puts all his savings into buying a piece of land on which to build a more comfortable house for his family. The land gets occupied by a thug named Khurana (Boman Irani), and so, in a bid to retrieve his patch, Khosla’s son Cherry (Parvin Dabas) and his friends step in, armed with a clever plan.
Scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni, who Banerjee met during his advertising days, brings a truth to the film’s themes, which cover some simple but resounding concerns, from not liking your own name to the different aspirations between generations. Likewise, the performances of Kher and Irani are rooted in the mannerisms of real people in northern India.
The film brought instant recognition for Banerjee and Sahni from both audiences and critics. Unlike most Bollywood films of the time, its success was in spite of the absence of a young celebrity star. Real-estate issues such as those depicted in the film were increasingly cropping up in a neo-liberalised India, and Khosla Ka Ghosla! struck a chord by showing how a middle-class urban family was suffering the perils of real estate rackets while negotiating their own way.
What to watch next
The desire for upward mobility in the middle class is a recurring theme in Banerjee’s films. 2008’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, which he wrote and directed, is a stylish piece of storytelling about a thief stealing, not because of need but because he is good at it and enjoys it. As Lucky, Abhay Deol is charismatic at playing a sharp crook who’s expert at fooling people in order to slyly pilfer from them. Yet his human insecurities make him take a silly decision that leads to his downfall.
The film twists expectations by celebrating the vices of a thief. It speaks to aspirational desires by involving status symbols like Mercedes cars being stolen, and shows Lucky investing in restaurants in order to gain more social status. Its truck art-inspired poster, depicting the characters careening along in a car piled high with swag, gives a good idea of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!’s vibrant tone.
Next, shock yourself with the discomfiting LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), which went down well with critics and cinephiles but was too scandalous for a section of Banerjee’s audience. It explores the eponymous themes of love, sex and dhokha (cheating) via three intersecting stories about honour killing, a video-texting scandal and a woman victimised on the casting couch.
Captured on a variety of cameras, including handheld and CCTV footage, it explores media voyeurism in an age of surveillance, when cameras had begun proliferating in our streets and society. The film begins in a typically romantic mode, even referencing the 1995 megahit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, yet once again upturns expectations by leading to the brutal reality of an honour killing. While Bollywood audiences are used to seeing violence and sex on screen, here there is no soft focus or wide angles – the violence is gritty, real and difficult to forget. Banerjee knows the pulse of India’s urban middle class, and knows how to unsettle them.
Follow it up with his political thriller Shanghai, released in 2012 and an analysis of the political parties and agendas in India at the time. A tale of corruption, it’s set in a small rustic town that suddenly receives an influx of government money to build a new business park. Watching it today is eerie, as you can see the founding blocks of many of the socio-political perils that have become rife in India in subsequent years.
The success of his early films gave Banerjee access to bigger budgets, and led to a series of anthology films directed in tandem with Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap. First was 2013’s Bombay Talkies, a celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema. Banerjee’s segment is adapted from a story written by Satyajit Ray, ‘Patol Babu, Film Star’, and features a failed actor (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) struggling to make a living after his father’s death.
With Netflix backing, the same filmmakers reteamed for a sequel, Lust Stories, in 2018. This time, Banerjee’s section followed a married woman, played by Manisha Koirala, who frees herself from the confines of burdensome morality. Watch it for Banerjee’s commentary on class, as well as on the politics of power between the sexes.
Most recent is Ghost Stories (2020), another Netflix anthology, which mines horror out of present-day India’s caste system, government attacks on education and freedom of speech, and the perils of reinforcing religious fanaticism.
Where not to start
Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) is Banerjee’s only period piece. It’s based on a fictional detective created by the Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Co-produced by Yash Raj Films, one of the big production houses in India, with elaborate sets and design, it’s aimed at a younger audience and doesn’t match up to Banerjee’s auteur status.