Raja Sen’s The Best Baker in the World opens up the world of cult (and sometimes controversial) films to children and their parents, as Sen’s tribute to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, comes visually alive with the stunning illustrations done by Vishal K. Bharadwaj. But what is the secret recipe that went into the making of this amazing, one-of-a-kind book?
Raja Sen and Vishal Bharadwaj spill the beans!
Where did the thought of adapting a cult-film into a book for children come from?
Raja: Great stories transcend boundaries. Children routinely read adaptations of classic novels and Shakespeare plays, and I strongly believe cinematic masterpieces are as fundamentally strong as those texts. I thought it would be fascinating to see if a mature, R-rated film can retain its narrative appeal without the ‘adult’ elements — the blood and violence and sex — and if we could still pay tribute to the iconic and memorable aspects of the original film. The characters, the moments, the drama, all of that still remains even if the stakes aren’t fundamentally tied to violence and war. The thing we must remember is that if told right, the popping of a water balloon can feel as momentous in a story as the assassination of a character.
Vishal: When Raja approached me to illustrate the project, two things were set in stone: that these would be ‘adult’ films i.e. ones that only they should watch, as opposed to all-ages classics or PG-13 level movies that a child might be exposed to with the right guidance; and second, that we wouldn’t do a shot-for-shot, beat-by-beat representation of the films. This transformative quality is what really intrigued me about the project.
Why a baker, and not any other profession, for your protagonist who happened to be the head of a mafia in the original?
Raja: More than anything, The Godfather is a film about family — a family business, if you will. It is also a specifically Italian family film, which means food features heavily. Thus I wanted to adapt it around a family business about food, and a bakery seemed both appropriate for the task and appropriately inviting for a children’s setting. As a bonus, my illustrator Vishal Bhardwaj loves cooking and photographing food, and I knew he’d draw mouthwatering pastry.
Vishal: Fairly early on I asked Raja if we could concentrate the setting of the book down to a single street or neighbourhood (the movie takes place across multiple countries and cities), since we were telling an intimate story of families. The term ‘godfather’ denotes a certain protector status, someone you turn to for guidance & comfort. So we thought of similar pillars of a community, the kind who would always be there for you and make you feel better. Also, since I have a penchant for food, a bakery, with all its warmth and the aromas of its fresh baked goods filling the neighbourhood, was the perfect fit.
How difficult was it to dress up The Godfather as a bird who’s a baker?
Vishal: The process took a couple of weeks to go from Brando to bird. Plenty of exploratory sketches, starting with straight renditions of Brando himself, then trying on different animal ‘skins.’ During the research phase I read that Brando thought of Don Corleone as an old bulldog, so he added in the now-famous jowly look to the character. A bulldog version of our Don was tried, but he didn’t vibe with our baker’s character. Finally, after hogs & lions and other beasts, he took the form of a bird, a wise owl. There was the right gentleness to him now, but when Raja saw me draw his wings as delicate arms that manipulated pastry, he asked me to change them to more formidable, warmly enveloping wings almost as huge as the rest of him, and the physical character was complete.
As far as actually dressing him, we moved away from the iconic tuxedo. He is a baker after all, so an apron was appropriate, and rolled up sleeves with a bowtie (he’s still dapper, not sloppy!). I put in a subtle nod to a contemporary chef I like, Mario Batali, who is known for wearing shorts and Crocs sandals under his apron. But because our Don is more old-school (and Raja, like myself, appreciates a good pun), did away with the Crocs and instead gave our big bird a pair of classic wing-tip brogues.
What are the other cinematic masterpieces being retold for children in this series?
Raja: We’re looking at taking on several mature, memorable films and recreating what made them special while setting them in an entirely different (and wholly innocent) world. Next up is a homage to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, a highly explicit and wild film about addiction, and one of my favourite films of the 90s. Others on the list include some of the most quotable films of all time, as well as a particularly scandalous one by Stanley Kubrick.
Vishal: I hadn’t seen The Godfather before saying yes to The Best Baker in the World (as it came to be called. For a long time we referred to it as ‘Project Cannoli’). The running joke of-late has been that whatever we end up doing, if it’s a film I haven’t seen before taking the adaptation on, we must be on the right track! Raja has dropped some intriguing names into the hat, from sprawling epic classics to mind-bending modern gems. I’m excited to visually interpret any of these.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Do you still need any more convincing to pick up this marvellous book not just for your little one, but yourself too!