Friday, August 03, 2007
4.25 am IST
Directors are an insecure lot. In fact I feel that most of us in the film business suffer from a great sense of insecurity. To some it is the insecurity of sustaining a livelihood. To some it is the insecurity of sustaining fame. To some it is the insecurity of sustaining expectations. To many it is the insecurity of surpassing expectations. To many like me it is the insecurity of being able to make their next film.
I have spent the last five years in near oblivion. A debacle called ‘Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai’ which seemed like a minor aberration became a major stumbling block. I hated the film. It was a creative low. It was tasteless. It showcased film-making at its worst. I made the film. And I have yet to forgive myself for this debacle.
My new film is nearly ready. We are deciding on an ideal release schedule. Once again, I feel insecure.
Times like these make you look back at your life, your films. You begin to question your own credentials. You begin to question the past. Did you ever make a good film ? Have you ever managed to suitably engage an audience in your tales? My sincere apologies if this piece sounds depressive. It is not intended to be so.
Friday, August 03, 2007
4.25 am IST
Clouded by these thoughts. Bereft of imagination. Full of alcohol. Staring listlessly into my laptop.
My email id is suddenly alive. A man named Rahul writes a passionate comment on ‘Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!’. Not one but three comments! Somebody bothered to read a post that is more than eight months old. Someone, somewhere made a mental connection with me. Reminded me of the past. For some odd reason I re-lived ‘Chhal’.
‘Chhal’ was a reaction to ‘Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar’ . The critics bashed ‘Dil Pe…’. Many friends were unwilling to acknowledge the man who made a film like ‘Dil Pe..’. I was completely flummoxed at the response that my labor of love had received. I slipped into severe depression. There seemed to be no way out. The next film looked impossible. The production company I had floated with two other friends was debt-ridden and in no shape to make another film. No producer was willing to make another film with me. The thought of returning to television was depressing to say the least.
The year 2000 also saw a major slump in the fortunes of the film business. Films were failing with amazing regularity. Many traditional distributors were closing shop. Revenue models of films recovering investments from the sale of music, overseas and satellite rights were fast becoming a thing of the past. When I look back I think that this phase was the beginning of a new chapter in films. In the years following this phase there was going to be a major turnaround. A turnaround in the way films would be made. In the way films would be marketed, promoted and sold. Most importantly, there was going to be a turnaround in the way films would be exhibited. Single-screens with huge capacities were slowly going to be replaced by smaller screens and would hold smaller capacities. However, in early 2001, this was still a thing of the future.
I met Suparn Verma at an internet chat that he had hosted with Manoj Bajpai from my home. He was a rediff.com staffer then. After the chat was completed I had tea with Suparn. We had a passionate conversation on film criticism, journalism and our favorite films. I was in the middle of the ‘Dil Pe…’ schedule then. After he left I sent him an email asking him whether he was interested in writing films. He called back expressing surprise. ‘How did you know that I wanted to write films? We never spoke about it when we met! Of course I want to write!’. Hyperactive, positive and focused. That is Suparn. Almost seven years after our first interaction and with very little hair left on his head Suparn still remains that way. The hair has dwindled, the spectacles have grown thicker, he has written some terrible films, directed one of his own terrible scripts but Suparn remains as enthusiastic and crazy as ever. I have great expectations from him. Someday he will live up to his full potential. He will make a great film.
Suparn wrote a script which we christened shaadi.com. It was a tongue-in-cheek, funny, realistic portrayal of life in an urban marriage. I wanted either Saif Ali Khan or Akshaye Khanna to act in the film. They were at the lowest depths of their career then. They were not ‘saleable’. I found a producer for this film but he was never excited by my choice of cast. The script was kept in abeyance for some other time which for me meant that it probably would never get made. Shaadi.com is a journey that might take up another voluminous post. Maybe some other time.
I was contracted by a producer to direct a love story which would mark the debut of Abhay Deol and Tulip Joshi. I think the film was titled ‘Kuch Dil Ne Kahaa…’. Phew! Thank God it never got made.
Suparn in the meanwhile kept inundating me with synopses of ideas that he had. I refused to even read them as I was unsure of their future. Chhal was one of these ideas. One night after consuming a huge amount of alcohol I happened to glance through some of Suparn’s story ideas. I gave it to my assistants Kanika and Shashi. I think I told them that it had the potential to be made into an interesting film.
I passed out to surface late in the morning. I woke up to find that Kanika and Shashi were still there. They told me that the idea was interesting and that I should read it. I saw the potential of creating a film that would showcase my proficiency as a technician. I saw the potential of making a slick Hong Kong style thriller. I decided that this would be my next film.
I called Nitin Patil, the reluctant producer of shaadi.com. Told him that I had a script that I wanted to make in a budget of approximately Rs. 1 crore (USD 250,000). Was he interested? He said that he would drive down from Nasik where he lived over the weekend. I was persistent. I told him that if he wanted to make it he should come now! Nitin Patil rushed to Bombay. I told him that I would make this film on a tight budget but it would be with actors and technicians of my choice. And I told him that I wanted to begin shooting within a month. 26 locations, 35 days, new actors, new technicians, super energy. Nitin Patil agreed immediately. Without his belief, single-mindedness and passion Chhal would have been impossible.
Kay kay was an actor that I found virile and extremely potent. I had worked with him on a television series based on Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel. Kay kay played Abel. I have always believed that he was an actor who could easily become a sex symbol because of his quiet intensity, his aloof exterior and his unusual looks. He could easily become India’s Chow Yun Fat. We decided that we would approach his character of an undercover cop in such a way that it would be believable. His internal vulnerability towards the world that he was supposed to destroy would be identifiable. His internal turmoil stemming out of newly developed friendships in a world that is largely seen as cruel and ruthless would be real. The action sequences designed around him were stylized, violent and slightly over the top. Kay kay pulled off the character with great aplomb. Sexy in a simple way, stylish in an understated way, Kay kay was spectacular. This wonderful actor is finally getting his due.
Prashant Narayanan was never my choice for the gangster with a heart of gold. It was a case of out of sight and out of mind. My initial choice was Aditya Srivastava. Aditya read the synopsis and expressed skepticism about playing this character. It had an uncanny resemblance to another character that he was supposed to portray in Shivam Nair’s film Informer. Therein lies another story. When Aditya told me about this uncanny similarity between my film and Shivam’s (scripted by Anurag Kashyap) I was a bit perturbed. Shivam was one of those guiding forces in the initial days of many careers including my own. He provided invaluable help and guidance when I made my first film Jayate… I immediately called him and told him that we should read each other’s scripts and find out ways to overcome any striking similarities. Shivam asked me not to make the film. I thought that was a ridiculous suggestion. I told him so. We decided to meet soon. The meeting never took place. I have been repeatedly accused of stealing Anurag’s script and making it into Chhal. Friends like Abbas Tyrewala who were under this impression realized the truth when they saw Chhal. There was no question of stealing anybody’s script. This was Suparn’s script and he was not even remotely connected to Anurag or Shivam. These allegations left me quite disillusioned. But that is not the point of this post…
With Aditya out of the picture I was suddenly lost. I approached Atul Kulkarni. He was skeptical about doing the part as he had just played a similar part in Chandni Bar. I tried to convince him that my character was far more stylish but to no avail. In any case, I think it is always good to cast an actor only if HE is totally convinced about his character, the film and the director.
We were stuck. Out of desperation I approached Uday Chopra. He was impressed by the role and the character. But he wanted a week to decide as he was offered a film of a similar genre. He had to decide between that film and mine. He decided to do the other film – Supari. I am eternally thankful to Uday Chopra for making that choice.
I knew Prashant Narayanan for many years. He was a successful television actor and one of my earliest friends in the business. He was always shamelessly pompous, obsessed by himself and a very good actor. I was having dinner at my favorite hang-out Sizzling China, an ubiquitous, low brow, multi cuisine, now defunct restaurant in Versova with my girlfriend. Prashant was celebrating his wife’s birthday there. We met briefly as he was about to leave the restaurant. After he left my girlfriend asked me why I did not think of him to play Girish. It was an inspired suggestion. Prashant lent his own personal traits to the character of Girish. His glasses lent a certain level of sophistication and intelligence to his looks. Prashant’s nervous energy combined with his cockiness provided the ideal foil to Kay kay’s understated character. Without Prashant Chhal would never have been the film it eventually became.
The film marked the debut of cinematographer Neelabh Kaul . We decided to create two distinct worlds within the film. One was the world that Kay kay experiences prior to infiltrating the gang. The web of deceit that he was eventually going to entangle himself into would be gritty, bereft of colour and very high contrast. We decided to use the Bleach Bypass process again (We had tried this process in Dil Pe…). Neelabh perfected this process after a series of tests. As a cost saving measure we had decided to shoot on Fuji. I have continued shooting most of my films after Chhal only on Fuji. I simply love the color rendition, the blacks, the contrast and the feel of Fuji. I also love the cost of the stock. I think it handled the bleach bypass / silver retention process much better than Kodak stocks we had used in Dil Pe…
Once Kay kay’s character gets embroiled and emotionally warped we decided to bring in more color and warmth into the film. The color was enhanced using an opal filter that lent the right amount of warmth to the visuals. While Kay kay’s life in the film was filled with romance and affection his mind was also off balance. We decided to represent this by always keeping the camera ‘canted’ towards the left or right. The camera was never straight.
Chhal was never a great script . It was never a unique story. It was simply a triumph of collective human spirit. All of us wanted to contribute to the story. My production team went that extra mile to procure permissions at impossible locations. The fabulous confrontation scene between Kay kay and Prashant was made spectacular because of the choice of location. It was a remote location on the outskirts of Bombay that was discovered accidentally. A violent confrontation achieved poetic connotations because of the location.
There were three other men whose contributions made Chhal so special to many of us. Apurva Asrani, my editor. The use of jump cuts in crucial scenes and the jerky narrative style took story-telling to a different level. We had many fights while making the film but ultimately were proud of what we achieved given our limited resources and lack of technology. Viju Sha, the underrated composer. His background score enhanced the energy of the film. The brilliantly composed title track remains one of my favorite numbers till date. Unfortunately, the music company did not show sufficient belief in the music citing silly reasons for under-promoting the film. Last but not the least, Arun Nambiar my sound designer. He made the silences eloquent and created a multi-layered, violent world. He made the bullets sound musical and blended sound effects seamlessly into the background score.
Again I cannot but thank all these people and so many more nameless souls whose relentless efforts to achieve a cohesive, singular vision went largely unrewarded and mostly unheralded. We were let down by our distributors. The awards ignored us. The critics did not take the film seriously and many of them even went to the extent of calling Chhal a poor copy of Satya and Company! The irony is that Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai did not suffer from any of the above shortcomings (the critics rightfully bashed it). Yet it was a bad film that achieved success that it did not deserve.
An experience like this ends up extremely disheartening because you feel that such rare spirited collective effort has been wasted.
I sincerely hope that one day I get to recreate the magic of Chhal. That one day I can replicate the spirit of Chhal. That one day a film like this will get its due.
One thought on “Remembering Chhal and Those Days of Uncertainity”
I really feel you man. Nothing hurts more than a film unloved. I know, I’ve been in the same precise place as you. There aren’t any short cuts to getting what you want except to be able to sit back and understand precisely what went wrong (this might take a while) but when you understand and accept that, one ‘learns’ I think in that process. What we ‘learn’ is hopefully going to be applied the next time round.
NO matter if its a ‘film you believe in’ and a ‘story that must be told’. The success of a film critically or at the box office lies in one utter universal truth: atleast that’s my mantra and that is:
a narrative that pins the audience to their seats and characters they take home with.
How does one achieve that… well, we’ve just got to make another film I suppose.
I didn’t intend to sermonize about anything, but in this place one’s got to wake up to one’s opportunities, capabilities and realities. And never give up trying!
It’ll be more than a decade and a half of work next year for me and I’ve loved and hated every moment of it.
Keep the fire burning brother.