A Time for Audacity

I saw the honest, deceptively simple and thoroughly engaging Kaipoche last week. The film has apparently opened well at the box-office. It’s producers UTV seem to have backed a film without stars and without ‘safe’ ingredients to the hilt. Kaipoche is a triumph of conviction and a celebration of audacity. I believe this is the time. A time for the mavericks to shine. A time for the mad to blossom. A time for the honest to express. A time for the artist to create. A time for the fearless. A time for audacity.

kaipoche

4 reasons for me not watching (or not being able to watch) the increasing number of films released every week –

  1. I am perennially broke
  2. I am lazy
  3. I need to work
  4. My wife is not in the mood
  5. I am hoping I get invited for a preview/premier.

The past few weeks have been different though. The spate of films released and due for release stared at me in the face because

  1. They featured friends in lead roles
  2. They were directed by friends
  3. They were produced by friends
  4. I was looking forward to the films
  5. I felt compelled to watch them

I am going to limit my post to the Hindi films I saw because in the case of foreign films:

  1. I feel inadequate commenting about commenting on them
  2. I did not feel like watching many of them
  3. I am waiting for uncensored DVDs of some of them
  4. I don’t get invited for previews of these films

In the past few years, most significantly 2012, I am seeing a pattern in films that are successful (relatively) and appreciated. A majority of them stand out for their choice of actors, their choice of subject, their non-formulaic narratives and a host of other similarly intellectually stimulating reasons. One factor that has begun to increasingly stand out in these films is sheer audacity. The more I think about what drew me to watch the films, to like some of them, to dislike some of them and to find some of them memorable was the lack of apologetic film-making that has mostly led our films towards pathetic levels of mediocrity.

I’ve noticed that many film-makers no longer feel pressured to make the same formulaic nonsense with the same boring people over and over again. Many of the older directors also seem to realize the futility of formula and are trying hard to reinvent. Those who aren’t will soon be history.

Ever since I made Shahid I’ve been asked over and over again about how the trend of biopics is on the increase. The media unfortunately reads trends very poorly and looks for convenient analysis. Trade pundits who have in the past thrived upon silly generalization are very shallow in their understanding of artistic/creative decisions taken by film-makers or in analyzing the success of films that don’t fall into their formulaic comfort zones. The truth is that book adaptations, biopics and stories inspired by true events are an indicator and not trends in themselves. We now have film-makers looking for newer stories to tell. We have film-makers looking for new ways to tell stories. We have film-makers who are fearless. We have film-makers who are not afraid of audacity.

Whether it is Talaash, Gangs of Wasseypur, Ek Main aur Ek Tu, Vicky Donor, Special 26 or Kaipoche I notice a fearless streak in the directors and the team that has made these films possible. Even potboilers like Dabbang or before that Wanted or the recently released ABCD have displayed a certain audacious vision. Rockstar had the audacity to be deeply philosophical and sometimes meandering while pretending to have commercial trappings. A certain Anurag Kashyap whose films either got banned or termed as jinxed is now celebrated because of his delightfully indulgent Gangs of Wasseypur or his subversive take on Devdas. Sujoy Ghosh redeemed himself with the surprising Kahaani. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Pan Singh Tomar was commercially successful. English Vinglish marked the successful return of a Bollywood diva who churned out some of the most cringe-worthy films of my growing up years. Tanu weds Manu with it’s unconventional cast, relaxed pace and fresh music created a new benchmark for the romantic genre. The list could be exhaustive and I’m sure it will soon dominate successful box-office lists. On the other hand there has been a steady increase in films (Ship of Theseus, Miss Lovely, Peddlers etc.) that have found appreciative audiences in international film festivals and critics. These films have shown a fierce independence in their making while giving alternate Indian cinema a new lease of life and an unpretentious, fresh form of expression. They have been audacious in their abandonment of what we perceived as ‘art-house’ or ‘parallel’ cinema in India. They were unabashed in their treatment, style, narratives and expression. These and many other films that I have viewed over the past year and this year have challenged audiences, provoked critics and subverted formulaic convention with amazing audacity. Even more encouraging is the fact that producers, actors (including some stars) and trade have begun to embrace the audacious breed, backing them to the hilt.

So what is the point I’m trying to make? It’s simple. Audacity is in. Safe is not safe anymore. Take the second installment of Dabbang. It disappointed because it succumbed to ‘ingredientization’ and failed to live up to the fearless audacity of the first part. Films like ‘Zilla Ghaziabad’ or ‘Jayantabhai Ki Love Story’ are passé. They will continue to get made. They will continue to remind us of everything that is unimaginative and about how we have allowed ourselves to be taken for granted all these years.

So here is my two bit gyaan. Whether you aim for the mainstream or the alternate space, make it audacious. Just making it big will soon cease to work – neither for the makers or the audience. Yes we will have regular installments of successful franchises. We will have ridiculous remakes. We will have mindless, storyless films – but my guess is that all of them will work for their audacity and not for their adherence to convention.

Audacious will soon be safe. Safe is already dangerous. It could soon be suicidal.

The Stink Operation

I was in a meeting with two friends this evening. We were talking about getting another friend’s film made and about how there was a businessman who wished to invest in the film. We had no idea about the business of this businessman. We had no idea about whether we would get money or not. All we wanted was to get the film made.

As we spoke I got a call from my father. He told me there was some sting operation on CNN-IBN exposing black money in bollywood. That conversation with my dad had me intrigued enough to trudge back home with the ‘noble’ intention of deriving some vicarious, voyeuristic pleasure from this sting operation.

I normally sleep by 10.30. I stayed up to watch the drama unfold. I wish I’d watched Bol Bachchan instead.

I was expecting a potboiler spiced with titillation, drama and some comedy. Instead, I was subjected to a cheap tragedy. Here was a stink operation that looked for an unidentified, unbearable stench in lowly gutters of the neighboring slums without bothering to flush its own toilet.

An aspiring movie mogul, a director on the decline, a producer who was once big, a producer who wants to be big, two starlets and a faceless voice that did most of the talking. Correction. A faceless voice that put words into their mouths. The ‘sting’ exposed desperation of people either on the decline or people on the periphery of an imaginary land with an unfortunate name – bollywood. This was not an expose on black money or the dark underbelly of bollywood. Once again our news channels bereft of ideas and anchored by brain-dead loudmouths subjected us to a shoddy operation without investigation, research or basic understanding.  It is disturbing that an opportunity to expose those who exploit this desperation for money (black or white or any color/currency/form) has been totally wasted.

A system has been in ruin with tainted money from politicians, brokers, gangsters, betting rackets being laundered in films (also perhaps in property, but that is another story).  The film industry in particular has always been an exploitative place. Stars have exploited producers. Producers have exploited workers. Financiers have exploited producers. Distributors have exploited producers. Producers have exploited directors. Directors have exploited writers. The list is endless. The web is complex. Corporatization of the industry is simply the introduction of management jargon to justify traditionally exploitative practices. Here is an ecosystem in total ruin. Lack of transparency, mistrust and manipulation form the core values of the film business. Lies are freely traded. Nepotism thrives. Sycophancy flourishes. This is a safe haven for a larger system that creates unimaginable sums of ill gotten wealth. This larger system will continue to flourish while our government will continue floundering, while our fourth estate will continue regressing, while our desperation will continue increasing.

I have a lot to rant on this but I will stop. But this much I will say… Hamaam mein sab nange hain

How to Succeed without Success: Surviving in ‘Bro-World’

Disclaimer : Today was a dreadfully boring day in office. My utter boredom has led to this utterly useless and ridiculously indulgent outpouring of wisdom. Read it at your own risk.

Here is my randomly ordered list of 12 survival strategies in the world that so many of us inhabit, dream to inhabit, grudgingly observe or admiringly follow. Gentlemen (sorry ladies, nothing in this for you) here is my valued guidance – with malice towards none!

 

1. Remember! The world is male-centric

This is a guy dominated world. The opposite sex is purely an object of gossip, a target of lust and a recipient of false chivalry. Films succeed because of heroes. Films sell on the strength of the leading man. The leading man chooses. The leading man disposes. Obviously, I will restrict my ‘analysis’ to the dominant sex.

2. Never take sides

Things change. Nothing is permanent. In an act of bravado if you do take sides, do it in a way that you can conveniently deny, alter or contradict your stand.

3. Brother is the operative word

This is the ultimate expression of male bonding in B-town. Every contemporary, every rival, every threat, every drinking partner is your brother. Every question on every other male has the standard answer ‘He is like a brother to me’.

4. Without a camp you are nobody

Always park yourself in a camp. Play loyalist to the hilt until you get a chance to swear loyalty without having to pay a price for shifting loyalties. Camps have regular jesters, some tabloid editor/journalist for company, many desperate/aspiring filmmakers, personal attendants, business managers/star secretaries, compulsory attendance at all dos, forced laughter at all repetitive inside jokes, the same conversation over and over again. The camp has a leader who unfortunately foots the bill most of the time and in return gets the same spellbound audience for the same riveting speech or recounting of ‘that’ life-changing experience every single drunken night.

5. If you screw up, you are screwed

It’s a lonely world out there – particularly when you screw up. And if your screw-up is splashed across the screw-up-hungry tabloids only God can help you. Your camp will disown you. They begin to ignore your calls. Your brother remains your brother only for a persistent journalist who needs to stop his awkward questions. But take heart. Like everything else this is also temporary. Things change. Suddenly someone else screws up. You and your screw-up will be forgotten.

6. Criticism is NEVER welcome

If you are privileged enough to be invited for a sneak peek, preview or ‘trial’ of your buddy’s (brother’s) film be nice to him. Be lavish in your praise. You have been invited to find something praiseworthy and to dwell only on that. Criticize and you will perish. If there is nothing praiseworthy a nice, long, big hug will suffice.

7. Cultivate common hobbies

Outside drinking hours you must have common passions. Gym buddies, fellow bikers, car lovers, home theatre experts, gizmo freaks are frighteningly attractive and make great brothers. Did anybody mention cinema buff? That is an utterly ambiguous, uselessly exclusive and dastardly boring hobby. After all people (brothers) who are united by their love for cinema need to have a life beyond cinema.

8. Have a great DVD/Blu-Ray collection

You must possess the ability to spot plagiarism in work not featuring your brother, to smartly plagiarize for work featuring your brother, to unabashedly compare your brother to Cruise/Caprio/Pitt. Do not waste time watching anything seminal, cerebral or intellectually challenging; these are great decorative pieces for exquisite DVD shelves. Remember to continuously refresh yourself with an in-depth understanding of some popular Brando/Pacino/DeNiro films. These are often discussed at length; they are important reference points for some of the challenging work undertaken by your camp leader. American TV series are in. A thorough study of these masterpieces are an indicator of your passion for the unusual.

9. Reading is very important

Of course you visit the Jaipur Literary Festival every year. You brave the cold as you carelessly put on your casually purchased ethnic outfits. Always memorize the names of writers that have the largest audience. If you manage to remember the names of their books it is an indicator of your vast intellect. Besides the 4 days spent in Jaipur cultivate the daily reading habit. Recommended reading :

  1. Mumbai Mirror
  2. Mid-Day
  3. Bombay Times
  4. Twitter
  5. Shobha De

Your knowledge of these constantly updated reservoirs of vital information will determine your wisdom, awareness, standing, intelligence and capability.

10. Get Invited

It is crucial that you attend every event, every party, every ceremony, every celebration and that you are armed with a decent camera on your cell phone. Get yourself clicked. Inflict these pictures on your growing followers around the social media world. Use your superior memory to remember jokes, jibes and one-liners that you get exclusively on your messenger/messaging service. Always look like you are having a blast. Every picture must display your wide smile (visit your dentist regularly to ensure that your smile is always attractive). It is also a great pleasure to interact with the same people all the time; often at the same place most of the time. Revel in that pleasure. Take back unique stories/incidents/anecdotes from your outing. Note them in a diary. Narrate them to all your brothers to create avenues for stimulating conversation on a daily basis.

11. Stories of your sexual exploits

Here is a test of your ability to conjure up tales of sin, sex and digression. It is also the best excuse for a night of absenteeism from the camp meet. Brothers always support your eternal search for carnal salvation. Talk about a starlet that you might have seen at some event or a boisterous conversation that you might have struck up with a random attractive woman at some ceremony. Tell them how you got lucky. Tell them how you scored. Tell them how she is a beast in bed. Tell them how kinky she is. There is nothing more engaging or engrossing as stories of forbidden sex. Give your brothers a ‘deep’ insight into your story telling skills.

12. Terms of endearment

  1. Bro is the most endearing term of endearment. It is personal, intimate and essential for insider conversations. Advice often begins with Bro. Admonishment is softened by a Bro somewhere appropriately placed in a sentence. Affection, good wishes, exclamations, proclamations, public displays of warmth and all other things inclusive are generously sprinkled with a Bro here and there.
  2. Baba, Bhai, Kaka, Dada, Da either as a suffix or by themselves irrespective of age
  3. Innovative versions of your pet-names (Tony becomes Tones, Lucky becomes Lucks, Lovie becomes Loves so on and so forth…)
  4. Even more innovative versions of your surnames (Gupta becomes Gups, Kapadia becomes Kaps so on and so forth…)
  5. Imaginative derivatives from your first name (Sanjay becomes Sanju, Akshay becomes Akki, Govinda become ChiChi, Salman becomes Sallu, Sharukh becomes Shah so on and so forth)
  6. Respectful prefixes such as Big, Junior, Badshah, King are effective means of reverence and brevity
  7. Sir and Saab are widely utilized in the quest to attain Bro status.

Sorry but I will have to truncate this list now. I have failed to relieve myself of the boredom I hoped to abandon by writing this nonsense. I will need to find another avenue, another unsuspecting audience, another cure for this disdain of the mundane. Maybe I need to find myself a new ‘Bro’.

Until then… Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna!

Dev Anand, Chargesheet and me.

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When I was 30 I was troubled by questions of death and questions of life after death. The ‘soul’ was a fascinatingly escapist concept for me but supremely confusing. I have a spiritual friend – somebody who I end up having conversations with when my questions reach a point of extreme anguish. He told me that the soul was basically ‘impressions ‘ left behind by the deceased. These impressions were an amalgamation of deeds, work and relationships created by the deceased in his lifetime. I liked my friends simple logic but my hopeful mind did not wish to accept this one line solution to an abstract hope of immortality.

My twitter timeline which is a better source of information and concise entertainment than redundant newspapers or hysterical news channels was flooded this morning. Dev Anand RIP, Dev Saab RIP and many other eloquent, some not so eloquent, some downright rehearsed micro blogs have populated my timeline all day. Dev Anand is no more. And my spiritual friends simple logic has reappeared.

His soul will remain in this world for many generations. Through his films, through his songs, through images of a man who epitomized life. His impressions will remain with me until I leave behind my own impressions for the mortal world.

For me to write about Guide, Hum Dono, Tere Mere Sapne, Kala Bazaar, Jewel Thief, Johnny Mera Naam is futile. There are many more articulate writers out there with a better command over this language and with a deeper insight into Indian cinema than me. I am not qualified enough to write a treatise on my idol Dev Saab’s body of work.

My first film ‘Jayate’ was mixed at Dev saab’s Anand Studios in Bandra. I wanted to get a glimpse of my idol. I loved standing in the studio lobby surrounded by posters of Navketan films. Dev Saab by then was sadly reduced to a caricature by distasteful mimicry in even more distasteful films. He was still prolific but the output was an embarrassment to even his most ardent fans. I was happy to forgive all his cinematic misdemeanors and to live in my unabashed admiration of his delightful past body of work. Every time I caught glimpses of Dev Saab running up the stairs, jumping out of his car and always looking terribly busy my day would be made. My romance with Anand Studios and my distant romance with Dev Anand continued through most of my films.

Cut to December 2008. I was living in the village. Temporarily separated from films. Living a detached existence. My phone rang. “Hansal… Dev here… Dev Anand… I want you to do a character in my new film. Karle. Mazaa aayega…”. I left for Bombay the same day. I met Dev Saab at his Anand Studios office. I met a frail, fragile bodied man with the energy of an eighteen year old and with the childlike excitement of a debuting film-maker. “Thank you Hansal for coming over. I’m glad you are working in my film. Mazaa aayega… Mazaa aayega…”. He gave me a quick brief on the character and my costumes. Not that it made any difference to me. I was, I am and I will remain a terrible actor who never gives up. But there was no way I was going to let an opportunity to be a part of a Navketan film pass by. There was no way I was going to let an opportunity of sharing screen space with my idol pass.

We shot in Mahableshwar, a hill station that Dev Saab has frequently used in numerous films over the decades. Dev saab would simply give me and my co-actors single lines to deliver. All our lines were delivered looking straight into the lens without much thought or background. Dev Saab would correct us or cut the shot the moment we paused while delivering our line or if we shifted our look away from the lens. All our lines were delivered breathlessly in classic Dev Anand style – without the panache. Dev Saab would come running to us from behind the camera to make corrections in our delivery, to mark our exact positions and to demonstrate how he wanted us to act. Every ‘ok’ take would meet with a high energy shout of approval from him. We had no idea who we were really talking to in the film or what we were doing in the scene. It did not matter. We would have delightful discussions (led of course by Dev Saab) on his earlier films and his current films. He believed that times had changed and he was keeping up with the times by making topical films inspired by the changing social fabric of our country. He also felt that his earlier films had very poetic dialogue while to make films in the current scenario one had to write dialogues that were conversational and not excessively poetic. I had never met a man more articulate, more charming and more positive than Dev Anand. My insignificant role in his last film ‘Chargesheet’ will remain my most cherished life experience.

A few months later I was summoned to dub for my part. I had a throat infection and my voice was squeakier than it is. I’m sure Dev Saab was very upset that I did not dub for my character. A throat infection is the oldest excuse in the Bollywood book of excuses for not attending a dubbing session. I regret letting Dev Saab down. My voice was dubbed by a heavy voice with a heavy North Indian accent. I wanted to apologize to him. I wanted to meet him. Unfortunately that will never happen.

I will always smile with recollections of my ‘Chargesheet’ experience. I am blessed that an icon named Dev Anand came into my life and made it slightly less insignificant than it was. I am thankful that my idol touched my life with impressions that will remain etched in my consciousness for the rest of my time on this material universe. Dev Anand RIP.

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Rockstar and The Art of Healing

I stood by the lift with my girlfriend. We were laughing. We were talking rubbish. The neighbor looked at us amusedly. His look said it all. He got into the lift as we continued behaving as if possessed by a ghost called ‘Junglee Jawani’. He was embarrassed. We were not.

 ‘They must be drunk, idiots’.

I did not care. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to scream. I felt free. I felt light. My heart felt like a bird. Fluttering in the sky. Wandering freely. In a vast expanse of nothingness. A flight without an end. A journey without a destination. A life beyond death. A love beyond love. A heart beyond surgery. A soul beyond cleansing.

Today I experienced something sublime. Beyond logic. Beyond flaws. Beyond reason. Beyond beyond.

Today I watched Rockstar.

4.30 pm at Cinemax, Versova. With ten people in the audience. I watched as a journey of nothingness unfolded and led to a place called nowhere. Unknown to me an empty poem had engulfed me. I was unaware as Imtiaz’s love letter written on a white paper in stark white ink got etched in my dead consciousness. I was a silent spectator to a world of caricatures that surrounded the real world of a zen master named Jordan. The silent noise of distorted guitars, of deafening silence, of muted screams, of a weeping heart and a wounded soul stirred me as I sat through the 4.30 pm show at Cinemax, Versova.

Until yesterday I was sad. Brooding. Sulking. Upset with the world. I felt wronged. I felt like a victim. I felt bruised. I felt battered. I felt dead.

Somebody called Ranbir Kapoor made me feel alive today. Somebody called Jordan taught me about life by preaching nothing. Somebody called Rahman made my heart sing. Somebody called Imtiaz made my heart dance a sublime dance. I was connected to myself. To my beloved. To my truth. Without care. Without fear. Without the fear of life. Without the fear of death.

Thank you Rockstar for today. Thank you Rockstar for now. Thank you Rockstar for nothing.

Anurag banne ki koshish mat kar!

When I was in school I was often reprimanded by my parents for spending time with kids who were seen as errant, disobedient and generally rebellious. The fear that their child would not conform to what the world perceived as ‘correct’ and ‘good’ made me believe that spending time with them or secretly trying to be like them was the stuff fantasies were made of. Then I went to college. There were some boys who were always at the centre of every crisis, the reason for indiscipline and generally a bad influence on the rest of the class. Our professors, hostel wardens, good students and parents wanted us to be as far as possible from these unholy influences – lest their ward’s career would get jeopardized in such august company.

Then I started working. I got married. I had a wife. I had professional colleagues. I was prohibited from spending time with friends who went out to the theatre and then spent hours in a small room drinking, smoking and discussing stuff that was irrelevant to daily survival or totally out of sync with a professional growth plan. They were called destructive, careless and wastrels.

Then one day I got an opportunity to travel out of the country on an assignment. I was alone. No parents. No wife. No colleagues. I did everything I was prohibited from doing. I spent time with all the people I was conditioned to stay away from. I started appreciating music. I started viewing art. I started reading poetry. I discovered a love for the movies. And then movies hit me.

I returned home a different man. I returned home to a shocked family. My clothes were no longer neat. I had thrown away my ties. I was wearing old jeans. I was drinking rum. I spent all my free time either watching movies or listening to music. And I had a lot of free time. And I had no job. And I wanted to make movies.

I realize that my story is getting rather lengthy and that I need to make my point now.

In the process of trying to make movies and finding my feet as a different human being without a care for the future I met four people who changed my life. Each of them in their own ways had a very deep influence on my life. Being influenced is neither positive nor negative. It is simply an experience that shapes your likes, dislikes, beliefs, convictions, preferences and choices. Vishal Bhardwaj, Ashish Vidyarthi, Manoj Bajpai and finally the subject of this lengthy treatise – Anurag Kashyap.

Because of Vishal I met Ashish. Because of Ashish I met Manoj. Because of Manoj I met Anurag. And my first film was born. But that is not the point.

Anurag was a brat. He had an opinion. He had a voice. He listened. He paid no heed. Money could only buy him published screenplays and movies. And occasionally pay his rent.

So here was this passionate, opinionated, radical, often random, sometimes cynical brat who had scant respect for convention or rules. He reveled in argument, enjoyed criticism, angered critics, rubbished stalwarts, revered rebels, rejected idiots and suffered fools.

Years passed. We drifted apart.  I made many films – some decent, some memorable, some downright atrocious. Anurag wrote some great films, some terrible films, and made some brilliant films. He continued to anger many. His films were banned. He was mauled, heralded, hated and celebrated. Not much had changed about him. The only difference was that people now listened to him. His voice was heard. But few agreed with him. He was still a rebel with an unknown cause and unlimited anger. He listened to everybody but paid heed to nobody.

Anurag became the equivalent of the bad company my parents and my family had prohibited me from emulating or getting associated with. Conventional wisdom perceived him as destructive, indulgent and subversive. Any unusual story that I would narrate met with the refrain ‘Anurag banne ki koshish mat kar!’ (Don’t try to be another Anurag!). For the well heeled, for the formula suckers, for the greedy Anurag was a bad word. For the dead before it was alive Indian indie scene Anurag was a messiah. He made what he wanted without really caring about the audience or the eventual consequences on his career or finances. He was somebody you always aspired to be but would never have the courage to be.

I saw his new film ‘That Girl In Yellow Boots’ sometime early this year. And then I saw it last night. I have maintained that I am not qualified to review a film. I can only react to a film.

‘That Girl In Yellow Boots ‘ is is a fearless film made by the same brash boy I met nearly 14 years ago. Irreverent yet intensely cinematic, indulgent yet arresting, cold yet unabashedly emotional, soft yet utterly brutal this is Anurag’s most honest film to date. The narrative is unhurried, the rhythm is soft, the handling is deft and the vision is clearly that of somebody who is totally in control of his medium. This is a film that will occupy the highest place in his oeuvre. This is Anurag’s dance in the rain. This is Anurag’s subversive poetry. This is a cinematic representation of Anurag’s disturbed mind. This is a film that will disturb you. Whether you like it or hate it you cannot afford to ignore it.

This is a film that needs to be supported if there is to be any hope for independent cinema in this suffocating, star driven world of folly called Bollywood.

And it is my answer to all those who tell me ‘Anurag banne ki koshish mat kar!’

Remembering Chhal and Those Days of Uncertainity

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.

Suparn ‘Hyperactive’ Verma

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.