In a candid chat, he talks about Jaane Jaan and the curious case of the missing body, and dissects the genre
Sujoy Ghosh has most definitely, even if unintentionally, established himself as the master of thrillers post his 2012 cult classic Kahaani. The Vidya Balan-starrer, which had also gave Indian cinema one of its most menacing villains in the form of Bob Biswas—an unassuming middle-aged Bengali man who works as an insurance agent by day and turns a contract killer by night, had won Ghosh a National Award for Best Screenplay (Original). He went on to sharpen his skills as a filmmaker and establish his mastery over the genre with movies and shorts and web series such as Ahalya, Anukul, Badla, Typewriter, and a sequel to Kahaani. In fact, his segment in the 2023 edition of Lust Stories, Sex With Ex, was also tinged with elements of a thriller. And now he is back with the Jaideep Ahlawat- Kareena Kapoor Khan-Vijay Varma starrer Jaane Jaan.
Set in the quaint West Bengal hill station, Kalimpong, it is a take on Keigo Higashino’s crime novel The Devotion of Suspect X, where a mathematics teacher, silently in love with his next-door neighbour, comes up with a watertight plan to save his lady love once she gets involved in a murder. What ensues is a game of chess between him and the police inspector, who happens to be his classmate, where the Teacher ensures a checkmate (the story had earlier served as an unofficial inspiration for Jeethu Joseph’s Malayalam-language blockbuster Drishyam). It is a thrilling tale of love and sacrifice, and Ghosh’s taut adaptation powered by stunning performances of the lead cast has again proved his craftsmanship.
But ask him and he says: “I always thought of Jaane Jaan as a love story. It is about how far one goes for love — to protect the one he loves. Of course there is a thrilling element. But there is no mystery as such. We all know who the murderer is; we know who has done what. I saw the movie as a journey totally fuelled by love. In a thriller or a detective story, the journey is fuelled by the need to know the truth. But here the truth was already there for all to see. The core of the story is the relationship between the characters. This is like Rana and Vidya Bagchi in Kahaani, like Beauty and the Beast, like King Kong… a doomed love story.”
Whether it is a thriller or a love story can be debated, but there is no denying the fact that this Netflix movie has left the entire nation with one question: “Where did the body go?” As Naren (Jaideep Ahlawat) creates an ironclad alibi for Maya (Kareena Kapoor Khan), he promises her to ‘take care’ of the body. However, many were left baffled about its ‘disappearance’.
“Body kahaan Hai?” seems to be the new “Katappa Ne Bahubali Ko Kyu Mara?” …I point out as we sit down for a quick chat. It is greeted with a hearty laughter. “The whole purpose of any art is for the people to talk about it and discuss it, and I am glad this has become such a talking point!” says Ghosh. “Either you find the solution, or you believe the one I provide you…’ That’s Naren’s entire game! He is a chess player; he knows all the moves and countermoves—he meticulously designs and plans the ruse. In the beginning, while playing the coin trick, he tells one of his students, ‘Sahi jagah pe dhyan do’… even as an audience you have to pay attention at the right place!” he says with a sly smile. Excerpts from the interview that followed:
- The name of the movie is Jaane Jaan, which is one of the most famous Hindi film songs of the ’60s. Even in your previous short film, Sex with Ex had Jab Koi Baat as its mood song. You started your career with Jhankar Beats. What makes you go back to these old Hindi songs? What role does nostalgia play in your storytelling?
When I am narrating a story to the audience, I need to give them certain elements that they can identify with. Those give them comfort of the known in an unknown world. There are only two ways I can think of providing ‘comfort’ to my audience — one is through the scenes involving food—like in Jaane Jaan you had the momo scene — and the other is through music, especially songs that you already know. The right music also helps in setting up the ambience.
- It is a Helen song from Intaquam (1969). Even Vasan Bala’s adaptation of Keigo Higashino’s other book (Heart of Brutus) Monica, O My Darling had got its title from another Helen chartbuster. What is it about Helen’s cabaret songs being such a great fit for thrillers?
Hahahaha…that is mere coincidence! Jaane Jaan was also a film . I wanted this movie to be a love story and I wanted a term of endearment. So, the title came from there. Then came the association with the song. And then we realised that the movie Jaane Jaan had Kareena’s dad [Randhir Kapoor] playing the lead. So, quite a few coincidences!
- What according to you are the 5 essential components of a good thriller?
I feel any thriller or any film for that matter works when the audience is invested in the film. When they want to know more, they travel with the film. I’m no expert but for any good film I would want the following:
A kickass script/story where I am turning the pages as I read till the end!
Involvement As reader/audience I want to partake in the journey of finding the answer.
Characters Whether you identify with them or not, there is something about them that compels you to know more about them.
Questions According to me, the more questions a story throws up, the more it manages to grab and hold your attention.
The World where the story is set and how it adds to elevate the story.
- That brings us to the next question: The locations in your films have a lived-in texture — they are places not viewed from a tourist’s gaze but that of an insider. You turn them into an integral part of your storytelling. We saw you do this brilliantly with Kolkata in Kahaani and now in Jaane Jaan, Kalimpong becomes almost the fourth most crucial character. How important is the location in a thriller in general and in Jaane Jaan in particular?
Location is extremely crucial to all the movies I do. And I think that is the best way to introduce a place to the audience—to make it feel lived-in. Earlier, if a movie was set in Paris, it was mandatory to show the Eiffel Tower—it was a proof that you went all the way to Paris to shoot the film. But here I have nothing to prove. I don’t have to show the touristy places to establish the location being Kolkata. Those are for tourists. I represent a city or a town as I represent my characters — it is as is where is. So, I give you Mona Lisa Guest House instead of a Victoria Memorial in Kahaani.
Also, if you don’t build a world that is real, the characters that inhabit that world would also come across as fake and the only way to create a world that doesn’t come across as fake is to populate it with real characters. Just by walking on a foggy street of Kalimpong or showing the Chowk won’t give you the real feel of Kalimpong. It is the people that give a place its unique texture — unless we show the Prema and the Babu and Deepok, you don’t get Kalimpong. The character of the location, as well as the characters of the location, is of utmost importance to me.
- It seems you have a special fondness for hill stations! Kahaani 2 was also set in the same town. Is it because hill stations provide the perfect locations for thrillers?
I plead not guilty here, that’s what Bengali literature has done to us! Our authors have always taken us to these small quaint hill stations and build a romantic notion around such places while we were growing up (laughs).
Hill stations have their unique vibe but not every thriller would work in such locations. The original story was set in a small hamlet just outside Tokyo. Jaane Jaan needed a sleepy town where a small community of mostly academic people lives a quiet life. Almost everyone knows everyone but still there is scope for an isolated existence. The story of Jaane Jaan would not have worked in a metro where you have security guards and surveillance devices in almost every building, where you have the bustle of the laundrywallah, the milkman, the house helps, etc. and the incessant ringing of the door bells shatters all possibilities of a quiet life and a quieter crime.
- Jaane Jaan is an adaptation of The Devotion of Suspect X? Badla was an adaptation of the Spanish film The Invisible Guest. Anukul was an adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s short story. Te3n was South Korean film Montage. Ahalya was modern twist on a Ramayana story. What makes you opt for adapting a story instead of going for an original, especially since your most famous work, Kahaani, which won the National Award, was an original? What do you keep in mind while picking a book or a movie to adapt?
I adapt because I am a story teller. I love it if somebody gives me a good story— be it by Ray babu or Valmiki or Keigo Higashino. And there is no rocket science behind how I choose a book or a movie for adaptation. I really loved Anukul when I first read it and I was dying to work with that story. I got Oriol Paulo’s script and that became Badla.
I love reading. I love books. Growing up in Kolkata, we never had anything else. It is great to have a story that you can’t tell. I write also, I wrote both the Kahaanis. That is a very enjoyable process but it takes time. Literature is more exciting for me. There are so many books that I want to adapt— Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Aranyer Din Ratri, Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Tungabhadrar Teere, are three books I have my eyes on.