A meaningless essay on a meaningful film (and film-maker).

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Anubhav Sinha and I have known each other for nearly 26 years. We are nearly the same age and we started our careers at approximately the same time and I have always envied him. Earlier it was for the wrong reasons. Then it was because he bought a swanky Toyota when most of his peers including me could barely afford a new motorbike. That car troubled me for a long time. Then one day in early 2000 Anubhav landed up unannounced on the sets of one of my songs. I don’t like shooting songs. This was one of those songs. He walked in, spent some time laughing with my choreographer and chatting with my film’s lead actor. After a while he left. And then I found my lead actor sulking in a corner. I asked an assistant why he was sulking. The assistant said that Anubhav Sinha had walked on to the set and asked my lead actor who the hero of the film was. My perplexed actor said it was him, why did he ask? Anubhav said that the hero would not be in the same costume as the other dancers. Hence, he wondered if the film had a ‘hero’. To cut a long story short – I had to rework the rest of the song picturization and give new costumes to my hero. And while I resented Anubhav for making that night so chaotic and stressful the truth is that the song did look better after those changes. So between 1993 and 2010 I had a mix of envy, resentment and warmth for Anubhav Sinha who made Tum Bin, Dus, Cash, Ra-One and many other films.

A few days back I saw his new film Thappad – for the second time. I felt envious. But as I reflected later this was dissimilar to the envy from our early years. This was the envy I felt after I ended up watching his earlier film Article 15 nearly five times. This Anubhav Sinha awakens a different kind of envy within me. A constructive kind of envy if there is something like that. But more about that later. This piece is about Thappad. It should be.

When I saw a cut of Thappad on the edit table I had predicted that this film would be widely reviewed, that this film would stir up conversations and that it was probably Anubhav’s best work till date. Thappad is a difficult film to make. But Anubhav makes difficult choices. Mulk and Article 15 were difficult films too because they questioned our own positions and challenged us to have conversations on religion, caste, identity and politics – things that we are all so enveloped by but are afraid to address. But Thappad is an even more difficult conversation to have and hence an even more difficult film to make. It is after all about our private lives. It explores our attitudes, bares our mindsets and strips us of all those artifices we have about gender and patriarchy in our day to day lives. It nudges you, it pushes you, it argues with you, it talks to you, it compels you, it engages you. Through its exploration of the political in the personal it affects you deeply and in that is Thappad’s resounding triumph.

As a father of two girls I wept. I watched the film with a stunned audience in Jaipur and wept inconsolably. Later I felt compelled to just take the flight home and to give a tight hug to my daughters, to tell them that they should be fearless in their choices and as a parent i would always be there for them. But most of all I wanted to hug them. Such was the power of this film. I also felt like saying something to my wife. But I will leave that for the end of this often forgive me for digressing essay.

I often complain to Anubhav that his films underline a lot of what the characters feel in words. Where I would have used silence, Anubhav uses words. It will always remain a point of happy disagreement between the two of us. For me silence is like a meditative and soothing yoga posture, it is a space for audiences to meditate over and explore the unspoken. For Anubhav words are like a healing balm. They can provoke you, they can anger you, they can stun you, they can frustrate you or they can make you weep. Anubhav’s words are sharp and usually elicit a reaction from you. That is his biggest strength and maybe in some cases his greatest weakness. Anubhav’s characters are sharply observed, his scenes are expertly staged, his world is authentic yet pleasingly cinematic, his storytelling is rooted in his stories and is free of ‘international’ pretense. His dialog with the audience is direct, sharp and very effective. His communication with your heart, with your conscience is straightforward. Therein lies the success of Anubhav Sinha 2.0. But again I am digressing .

Thappad is a very difficult film to make because often depiction of the upper middle-class, urban milieu is usually garish or painfully pretentious in many of our films. But Thappad is refreshingly relatable. These are characters you have seen. These are characters you can feel. These are normal people with normalized issues. It is in the exploration of this disturbing normalization of inequity and abuse that Thappad is brilliant. While it does explore how we normalize patriarchy, it also explores how selfishness and entitlement are also seen as completely normal in our modern-day relationships. So many of us live our day to day lives to fulfil the selfish desires of another – whether we are employed, married or in a relationship. In the fulfilment of the other’s desires we must find our happiness. This is what most women are conditioned to believe.  Thappad compels you to introspect. It forces you to question. It shakes you up from within. It makes your body react. It has the power to heal you. Thappad is a tour de force. It is one of the most powerful Hindi films I have seen.

This film would have been less than half the film it is without its wonderful ensemble. The ever consistent, vastly underrated Kumud Mishra is heartbreakingly good as Amrita’s supportive father.  His performance is dignified and wise – much beyond his own age. Kumud is the standout actor of the film for me. Then there is Taapsee Pannu – a rare, rare talent. She plays the complex yet seemingly one-dimensional, vulnerable yet strong, conflicted yet clear, emotional yet stoic Amrita with a rare dignity and with a luminescence that radiates beyond the film’s length. Debutant Pavail Gulati is an absolute revelation. I had seen stills of this actor on Instagram and I was apprehensive about Anubhav having cast a hunk over an actor. This was my stereotyped thinking at work. This hunk is a fantastic actor. He has perhaps the most complicated character in the film. He is wrong yet likeable. He is abusive yet loving. You are not supposed to hate him but you should not be rooting for him. This is the most accomplished debut I have seen in many years. Tanvi Azmi as a shadow of what Amrita (Tapsee) would eventually become if she did not make the choices she would eventually make is terrific. All the other actors (Ratna Pathak Shah, Gitika Vidya Ohlyan and Dia Mirza in particular) are also excellently cast and  most of them populate Anubhav’s complex canvas beautifully.

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I am not a film critic. This is not a film review. I wanted to tweet about the film but there were too many things I wanted to say and limiting those in a series of 280-character tweets would have been a task beyond my limited talents. But there are some people I must complement. Cinematographer Soumik Mukherjee for shooting all the characters and their spaces with love and without once trying to overshadow the film or its characters. Editor Yasha Ramchandani for expertly constructing a complex narrative from a woman’s perspective without ever being unjust to all the male characters in the film. Unfortunately, editors are always unheralded and undercelebrated as storytellers because many uninformed critics view editing as merely reducing the length of a film. Thappad is a gently shot film with an even gentler edit – a rare quality in our films and a great service to Anubhav’s storytelling. The writers of the film Mrunmayee Lagoo and Anubhav Sinha for being the man and woman behind this rare Indian relationship film. I had read a draft of the script a few months before Anubhav made the film.  While quite a few things have changed between the draft I read and the film Anubhav has made, I remember the script of Thappad being beautifully crafted and totally unputdownable. The juxtaposition of different stories in this film is done so skillfully that you rarely feel the stories ever missing a beat or meandering away from the films’ central argument about entitlement, patriarchy and freedom. All of Anubhav’s recent films (Mulk, Article 15 and Thappad) are particularly remarkable because they are persuasive in their presentation of a central argument. It is a rare quality and it is the hallmark of this very fine, evolved filmmaker. So yes, this is a very well written film. All other departments particularly the production design by Nikhil Kovale are so good that they are virtually absent and rarely drawing attention to themselves. Another sign of a mature film made by a secure filmmaker. I could ramble on and on and on. But I will stop here.

From hagiography I will return to envy. I still envy Anubhav but in a constructive way. Hopefully, his films will propel me to make better films. Hopefully, his films will help me become a better version of myself.

I want to end this rather lengthy, sometimes meaningless, mostly rambling and bordering on hagiography piece with a small personal note :

To all the women in my life. To my wife, my mother, my sister, my daughters, my ex-wife, my girlfriends and all those that have been subjected to my societal conditioning

I know it is late. But better late than never. Sorry. Sorry if I have let my sense of entitlement stifle your growth. Sorry if I have let my patriarchal conditioning render me insensitive to your needs. Sorry if I’ve been an asshole. I will try to change. If I don’t,  SLAP me. Kheench ke maarna mujhe Thappad.

Love, Hansal.

PS : Go watch Thappad.

An Open Letter to The Striking FTII Students


Dear Students of FTII,

Why are you on strike? Why are you not attending your classes? Don’t you have a reputation for going on strike at the slightest provocation? Don’t you realize that your institution needs change? Why are you so resistant to change?

Your chairperson is an eminent member of the film and television industry with many notable films, 700 television serials including an iconic portrayal as Yudhisthir. He has nearly 20 years of administrative experience within the film industry. Besides his enviable track record he is also a member of the ruling party. He is a nationalist. He believes that films with a good message make for good cinema. He reserves his comments on world cinema. Perhaps, he is afraid that his critical insights into world cinema might lead to unrest between nations. And the nation comes first, world cinema be damned. I am telling you dear silly students, Gajendra Chauhan is the man.

My dear students, you are living in a bubble. Your seniors from the institute were also living in a delusionary world. They were pretending to be inspired by the likes of De Sica, Truffaut, Goddard, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Ray. What use is Truffaut or Goddard or Fellini when your films cannot earn even a fraction of what Mr. Chauhan’s illustrious films have earned? Guys, you need a reality check. And Chauhan is the man to give you that. The truth is that you have been force fed a diet of films made by commies and made to believe that this was cinema. Why? Because your institute was governed by commies like Saeed Mirza, Mrinal Sen and their ilk. These commies are depressing people who make depressing films about the human condition. Nobody watches their films.

Friends, change is around the corner. Embrace it. We have a new government. We have the promise of a new, incredible India. We are now a country run by proud nationalists. Your cinema must reflect this new nationalism. The new wave of Indian cinema will emerge from the nationalistic cinema espoused by Mr. Chauhan and the sensible members of the FTII society who have not resigned their posts. Forget those losers Jahnu Barua, Pallavi Joshi and Santosh Sivan who resigned from the council. They are simply not cut out for the transformation that you are so stupidly depriving yourselves of. They have been part of some depressing films and their work deserves to be condemned. Ever wondered why the government appointed them to your society in the first place? I’ll tell you why. This government is very fair. They believe in equal representation. Unfortunately, none of you realize it. You have been blinded by the propaganda of the Left, without realizing that the pot of gold is actually to be found on the Right.

You find my reasoning warped? Then learn some of your illustrious seniors and industry leaders. They protested against the appointment of Mr. Pahlaj Nihalani as CBFC chief. At a meeting held in Delhi and an austere Mumbai five-star the good minister assured these wise men (and women) that ‘all izz well’. Mr. Nihalani is still the CBFC chairperson and really all is very, very well. What did you tell the minister in Delhi when he gave you precious minutes of his time? Why do you tick people off? Learn from your seniors. Capitulate to force, surrender to nationalism and you will reap the benefits of this new, free Bharat. Communism is long dead. Protest and perish. Prostrate or perish.

Mukesh ‘Shaktimaan’ Khanna is the CFSI chairperson and he is going to transform children’s films in India. He is also a worthy supporter of the ruling party and distinguished alumnus of FTII. Listen to him, he is inspirational. He wants you to accept this appointment and move on with your academic work. If you do not like this appointment you live in a democracy. You have every right to leave this institution. Understand and hang on to every word Shaktimaan says. Or perish.

I’ve watched your shallow defense of your unjustified cause on national television. A senior member of the film industry was right when he said that your institution has gone to the dogs in the past 10 years or so. Your institute has unleashed rubbish all these years – all in the name of art. Those awards you won, the accolades that you celebrated were all part of a larger conspiracy to weaken a nation that was in deep slumber imposed by the commies or their pseudo- socialist counterparts. When a democratically elected government (with a sweeping majority) recruits a person to steer you into the new world, you resist. They must be right. Because you are wrong.

Come on guys, chase that pot of gold. Achchhe din await you.

Jai Hind.

Hansal Mehta

this piece first appeared in thewire.in. Reproduced here with a few edits and grammatical errors.

A letter to Vishal ‘Bard’waj

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Date : Sept 30, 2014

Subject : Your Chutzpah.

My dear Vishal,

Firstly, thank you for inviting me to watch Haider last night. Thank you for thinking of me. Let me tell you that you robbed me of my sleep last night. Your chutzpah had me awestruck, wondrously grateful and might I sheepishly admit, slightly envious.

Did you really write Haider? Or did you actually paint it? Those paintings of Kashmir and its people refuse to leave me. The characters in your chutzpah – where did they come from? Your mind or your heart? Did I witness poetry last night? Or was it cinema as it was meant to be but has ceased to be?

I’m now tormented by the pain of your world. I am overcome with Haider’s plight. I can feel Ghazala’s dilemma. I am still swept by the unspoken truth in Arshia’s sparkling eyes. The landscape that you painted, is a Kashmir I have never seen before. There is so much beauty yet so much melancholy. There is so much music in the silence of that stunning paradise. I can sing praises for your performers, for the impeccable casting, for the cinematography, for the gentle editing, for the seamless screenplay, for the mellifluous dialog, for the choreography, for the costumes, for the authenticity of the language used by your characters but I would hate to recount my experience with such mortal, hence limited measures of brilliance. Real brilliance cannot be quantified. Real brilliance cannot be compartmentalized or presented in bullet form. I will, therefore, not use my meager knowledge to dumb down what is truly a spiritual experience.

Dear Vishal, it is rare that a film can actually make somebody as egoistic as me feel so humbled, so moved. I witnessed a grand spectacle last night, a feat I thought our cinema was incapable of achieving. I became part of an operatic journey that transformed me. After Haider, I don’t think I will ever be the same director I used to be. The change, I hope, will be for the better. The change, I hope, will have me thanking you forever.

Nevertheless, thank you for Haider. Thank you for making a sleepless night so fulfilling. Thank you for a meditative experience. Thank you for the chutzpah!

Lots of love,

Hansal.

PS : I must tell you that watching Haider last night made me lament your absence in my life as a music composer. Your music is special. Give me more.

 

 

Twenty Years On The Fringe – Incoherent Ramblings

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In 2014 I completed roughly 20 years in the industry – of course encompassing my work as a TV producer/director, editor and filmmaker (and atrocious makeshift actor at times). I call these 20 years my life. The remaining years were another life, led by another person, lived by another soul. In 1994 I was a directionless 25 year old bored of computer software, a failed entrepreneur, a young father and basically a young man without a vision for life. 20 years later not much has changed. Except the fact that I have survived. I have survived these 20 years like many other nameless, faceless individuals do in this industry – on the fringes.

Being on the fringes of this industry means that –

  1. You rarely get invited to parties or premiers or previews.
  2. You don’t get written about often. Your personal life is very personal and is of no interest to anybody.
  3. You are rarely / never perceived as a threat to established insider stereotypes.
  4. You don’t expect or win awards.
  5. You make less money.

Essentially, this oblivion means that you can focus on work, lead a simple life and most importantly it means that you do not have to be politically correct all the time. Being on the fringe also means that your mediocrity is often looked down upon as mediocre and you have to ensure that your most mediocre work is less mediocre than the insider’s least mediocre work. You can also be irreverent, impolite, even honest and fearless as an outsider – your survival after all does not depend on your conformism or your sycophancy.

Yes, there are disadvantages, mostly self-inflicted, of being a fringe player. You can get cynical very easily as you see those less talented and more fortunate than you get all that you believe you deserve. You can get very bitter and you can waste immense amounts of time limiting your own creative growth. Nothing will ever seem worthy of your appreciation – not even your own work. Yes, cynicism is the greatest danger posed by oblivion as you will soon be unable to look at yourself in the mirror and you will constantly lower your own standards to belong to a place that you will never belong to.

I write from experience. I was once happy in my oblivion. Then I was dissatisfied. I desperately wanted to belong. I got cynical, frustrated and directionless. I stopped holding a mirror to myself. Fortunately, failure helped me recognize this. I took some time off from myself and my ego. Today, I am comfortable in my own little world. Shahid emerged out of this comfort with my own aspirations and my own inner self. I now inhabit an independent universe that is driven by me, my own benchmarks for growth and my own levels of satisfaction.

I write this because I see many like myself fall prey to the perceived pressure of oblivion and because I see them afflicted by the rampant mediocrity around them. I often see these people fading away and resorting to desperate measures that either undermine their talent or see them fading away beyond the fringes that they belong to. The truth is that being an outsider is far more fulfilling than having to belong to a place that you never belonged to in the first place.

…Jayate – My First Film (with a link to the entire film)

Here is my first film … Jayate uploaded by Rajshri Films for free viewing. This film produced in 1997-98 was never released commercially but it had a small festival run through the Indian Panorama of 1998-99. Made at a meagre budget …Jayate marked the debut of cinematographer (director, Antardwand and DOP Laaga Chunri Mein Daag), writer Anurag Kashyap, editor Girish Madhu, sound engineer Arun Nambiar, actors Sachin Khedekar and Kishore Kadam. It was produced by R.V. Pandit, a big hearted producer who risked his money on a nobody like me. I got this film because Mr. Pandit was impressed with my work on the promos of Maachis and Darmiyaan. I owe this film to Vishal Bhardwaj who introduced (pushed) me to Mr. Pandit and because of whom I met Gulzar saab – an association that will remain my most precious one forever. However, the music score was by the violin maestro Dr. L Subramaniam on the insistence of my producer.

On hindsight …Jayate was a wordy, good hearted, often amateurish first film with some wonderful performances and dialogs. The film’s first cut was nearly 3 hours 40 minutes which we cut down to its current length of approximately 2 hours 20 mins.  Despite its many flaws it remains my debut feature film and very close to my heart. In many ways my recent film Shahid (2013) is a result of some of the lessons learnt from …Jayate – particularly the courtroom scenes.

…Jayate was also special because it was made at a time when the old fashioned film editing era was about to end. I was adamant about using the Steinbeck to edit this film and I think this process taught me a lot. The entire sound post-production was done using analog media and the final mono mix was done in two nights. Carrying reams of magnetic tape, film positive and audio tape in my old car from studio to studio remains an experience that I will cherish forever. This film taught me about how technology could not substitute simple story-telling – a learning that I have tried to incorporate in my better films with or without success.

This film was made at a time when Mumbai had no multiplexes, no studio system and when the old territorial distribution system based out of Naaz Cinema was in full swing. Distributors would leave my previews either mid-way or without saying anything about the film. Nobody was interested in a songless film without major stars at the time. Friends from the industry often derided me for making a film like this as my debut vehicle. It took me nearly 2 years and massive financial / personal burden post …Jayate to put my next film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!(2000) together.

I look back on …Jayate as one of my earliest attempts to break free from a populist mainstream system that I did not belong to. With Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and Chhal I tried to continue with that independent streak but somewhere in the ensuing years I lost that drive to strive on. Shahid marked my return to roots and my return to a path of making films without fear of stars, returns or flak. Shahid and its success has given me the impetus to continue my aborted journey of which …Jayate is a humble beginning. Do watch it…

Independently Yours!

(This piece appeared in Indian Express Play on Friday, 27th December)

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I made independent films much before they became fashionable and remotely feasible. Let me also clarify that i am personally against this branding of films and filmmakers as mainstream and independent. I am a filmmaker. Period. My job is to make films. And i love my job. For me independent is a spirit and not yet a refined business model.

Also let me clarify that it is too early to celebrate. The game has just begun. Change is still around the corner. It is still not there. Hence, I would throw in a word of caution here. We should not jump at the success of Shahid, Ship of Thesus and The Lunchbox. Not yet.

The exuberance and excitement around gems of the 70s-80s such as Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, Shyam Benegal’s Manthan, Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro died when a lot of trash was passed off as ‘parallel’ or ‘art’. Parallel soon turned into a movement that created poor clones of celebrated works. It almost became formulaic. Which is why I recommend caution while being optimistic. The focus has to be on content, passion and fearless spirit. There is no place for conservatism in this climate.

This year was iconic in that respect as what won over was the audience was presentation and content of independent films. For me Anand Gandhi emerged as the voice of this nascent movement. He is fearless, subversive and a unique story teller. I hope he continues with more striking work in the years to come.

IN order to sustain this emergence of independent cinema we need to come up with stories from the heart, stories that reflect a deeper collective consciousness. We must throw caution to the winds and exercise our creative freedom through our films. We are by nature complacent creatures and we seek comfort in the ‘formulization’ of content. Any attempt to do so will lead to an eventual decline and finally demise of independent cinema. The creative challenges are great and it is very encouraging to have big studios like Disney coming forward to give our films a respectable outlet. It is a step in the right direction. But I feel independent content must be created without studios at the helm while making the film. We will need to find more avenues for funding and completing our films before we take them for distribution or acquisition to the studios. My belief is that studios with their current rigid corporate structures and creative mandates are not equipped for producing such films. The way forward in the short term is to produce content independently and then seek partnerships with studios for promotion and distribution. I say this from my experience with Shahid – the independent producer and the studio have to share risk. At some stage it is imperative that the careful corporate culture will seep into the independent space. My contention is that it should be nearer to completion of the film than during development. The two entities have yet to understand each other better and until then they must cooperate with an understanding of the others strengths and weaknesses. But we are making a beginning in this area as Citylights, my next film (produced by Fox Star Studios and Vishesh Films) is being made with the fearless spirit of Shahid. Both of us are learning in the process and hopefully this cooperation will open doors for more audacious content from studios in the future

2013 could also prove to be a game changer if we learn from our experiences with festivals, sales agents and studios. Most of us were basically wide-eyed greenhorns at international festivals, trying to find our feet in a vastly competitive and mostly alien space. The Lunchbox was an exception and there is much to learn from its success. There is also much to learn from the release strategies adopted by Disney for SOT, Lunchbox and Shahid. Rational publicity outlays, limited release and focus on sustained runs might be the way forward. Time will tell.

Honestly, I don’t see this as a movement. I see this as a system arising from creative bankruptcy inflicted by self styled blockbusters and an unwieldy star system. I see the success of our films as the rebellion of a section of audiences that crave for greater intellectual, emotional and ideological stimulation than what is supplied to them in the name of ‘mainstream cinema’.

On a personal note 2013 has been a year of redemption for me. I have finally exorcised the demons of my past by making Shahid. I made some terrible films and succumbed to a system that thrives on mediocrity. My producers Anurag, Sunil and Sid have played important roles in this self styled resurrection. Anurag Kashyap was my voice of conscience when I faltered in the past. He backed my conviction with his belief. Sunil Bohra invested in my madness and trusted a failed man. Siddharth Roy Kapur is truly a CEO with heart and I will always remain grateful for the passion that Disney UTV poured into acquiring and releasing my film. The road was tenuous at times but eventually it was very satisfying. I discovered a young team that matched my passion and selflessly strove to make the film. It is in these young men and women that the future of our cinema rests. The onus is on us to take that leap of faith.