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.

Meanderings…

(first published on passionforcinema.com, Dec 15, 2008)

The last schedule of my new film is fast approaching. The office is like a fish market. I feel like the most important person on earth. The very next instant I feel small and insignificant. I am a bundle of contradictions. Production staff scurrying around with reams of paperwork. Assistant directors trying to convince production that their requirements are all part of the director’s vision. You cant meddle with vision…

Actors flocking the office. Many of whom are friends, many of whom I have worked with in the past. I try to avoid most of them as I am unable to offer them any work in my film. The casting is long over. The film is nearly complete. Yet they remain hopeful. Like me…

I sit back in my cabin isolated, oblivious and afraid. Afraid to face some awkward questions about my ‘vision’. Afraid to be reminded that this film is perhaps my last shot at glory. Afraid to face awkward questions from the producer. Afraid to face the angry accountant. Afraid to visualize the location. Afraid to think of how the actors will enact the scene. Afraid to imagine any spillovers in the already packed schedule. Afraid to think about how its all going to fall in place. Afraid to think that very soon all this is going to end. Afraid that maybe there won’t be a next time. Afraid of failure. Afraid of disappointment. Afraid of resentment. Afraid of jealousy. Afraid of anger. Afraid to face the disappointed actors. Afraid to face some quashed hopes.

A few days later…

I have been cursing myself through the entire journey to the location. Did I need to be so conscientious? Did I need to call a 6.30am shift? Am I hung-over from a drinking binge the previous night? Did I spend a sleepless night pondering over my fate? All I know is that I am sleepy and irritable.

Then, I arrive on location. 6.30am. Equipment is already unloaded. The generator is already connected. The make-up vans are operational. My lead actress had a call-time of 5.30am. Did she make it on time? Is she going to be ready for the first shot? Is the lead actor there? Is he ready for the first shot? And what is the first shot? I walk up the stairs and am greeted by almost seventy-five smiling faces. All of whom have gotten up much earlier and all of whom have slept much later than me last night. Most of whom do not have a comfortable home like I have. Most of whom cannot even dream to have the life I live. Most of whom have stopped dreaming…

Suddenly I stand there, humbled. I stand there, overawed. I stand there, amazed. I stand there, thankful. What would I have done without this life? All despair dissipates. All fear fades. I am a film-maker. This is where my life begins and this is where it must end. I pick up the script. The script assistant has marked out the pages of the scene that we will begin the day with. I decide to do the next scene first. My first assistant has the ‘I knew it’ look on his face. I am joined by the actors. We read the scene together. We read it again. We read it again. We change lines, try to make the scene conversational. I try to make the actors oblivious to the spoken word. I try to find motivations for moving my characters, for moving the camera.

We rehearse the scene once. While we rehearse again I begin marking the various camera setups with my cinematographer. We agree on camera moves. We disagree, then agree on lenses to be used for each setup. We decide on a floor plan. I look back at my first assistant. A look of disappointment is writ large on his face. Then a wry smile. He has spent the previous evening devising a floor plan and shot breakdown for this scene. The cinematographer puts his hand round the assistants’ shoulder, ‘my sympathies, mate’…

As the day progresses, all thoughts of tiredness are far removed from my mind. All negative thoughts are stashed away in my cold, comfortable cabin. As one shot germinates from another, a scene is born. As scene after scene is canned, a film is born. Cigarettes are stubbed, cups of hot, sweet ‘chai’ are downed, my throat is hoarse from screaming.

The magic words ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’. They are all I was born to utter. The illusion unfolding between these two magic words is my universe. This is the world I was born to rule. This is the kingdom I was destined to command. This is the only life I know and this is the only universe I want. These are the only friends I have and this is my true family. Finally, the dreaded call ‘It’s a wrap’. I am back in my car. Irritable, tired and mortal. In the chaos of this vast world – insignificant, insecure, unknown and uncouth.

Deep down, no one really believes they have a right to live. But this death sentence generally stays tucked away, hidden beneath the difficulty of living… – Jean Baudrillard

Dear Bombay, (My ‘Dhobi Ghat’ Impressions)

Dear Bombay,

Sorry my love for writing this random letter to you. I just want to tell you that I love you. I want to tell you that I am sorry my love.

I am sorry my love. I left you. I was angry. I was dejected. I was frustrated. I was hurt. I was cynical. I was disillusioned. I was selfish. I was stupid.

I am sorry my love. My love for you was not unconditional. My love for you was not selfless. My love for you did not stand the test of time. My love for you was not meant to be.

You did not question me when I abused you. You did not question me when I betrayed you. You did not question me when I hated you. You did not question me when I loved you. You did not question me when I returned.

I am sorry my love.

By the way, I met Arun yesterday. He lives in our beloved Mohammed Ali Road. He must be a good painter. He seems to love you. He listens to some really wonderful music. He is slightly ambiguous about his relationships. He smokes like a chimney. Just like you my love. He allows people into his life. He does not allow people to run his life. He lives in crowded streets. He is surrounded by humanity. Yet he is alone. Yes he is fragile. Just like you my love.

Then I met Yasmin. She described you so beautifully. She was so wistful yet she had so much hope strangled within her. I think I am in love with her. I want to hold her. I just want to tell her that all her longing can be fulfilled by you, my love. I want to hear her voice again. She kept talking to me last night as I slept cuddled in your arms. Can you find her for me?

I meet people like Shai every day. Smart. Mobile. Educated. Rich. Searching. Yearning. Running. Seeking. Refreshing. Uninhibited. Exhibitive. Giving. I must admit this. Initially I wasn’t too sure if I liked her but now I quite like Shai.

As I write this letter to you my doorbell rings. Munna has come with my clothes. Washed, ironed, folded and delivered. Some starched. Some ruined. Some old. Some new. The dhobi has been my unbroken connect with you my love. So many dhobis. So many clothes. But this Munna dhobi is quite a character. At first I was unsure if I liked him. But now I do like him a lot. He reminds me of you. He is much more than a dhobi. He lives for a better tomorrow. He is capable of love. He is honorable. He is noble. He is human. He is a survivor. Like you my love.

I met this bespectacled girl called Kiran Rao yesterday. Behind those big, round glasses were eyes that displayed so much love for you. Her love for you made me so envious. How could she? Tell me my love, do you love her? She calls you Mumbai. I call you Bombay. I met you much before she did. Yet she seems to love you much more. Despite the terrible name she calls you by. I think she meets you more often than I do. She expresses much more to you than I can with this juvenile letter. Can you please recite this small couplet to her?

naazuki us ke lab ki kya kahiye
pankhdi ek gulaab ki si hai

Can you thank this Kiran Rao for making me love you all over again? Can you tell her that her tribute to you called ‘Dhobi Ghat’ or ‘Mumbai Diaries’ has begun to heal my selfish, scarred heart? Can you please let her know that I will look forward to the rains because of her? Can you thank her for introducing those lovely people last night – people that will remind me of you for the rest of my life? Can you tell her that I have discovered my eternal love for you because of her?
Actually please don’t ask her all this. Just tell me this much…

Can you forgive me my beloved Bombay?

With love,
Hansal.

Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000) – Not So Funny!

I hate the past. But I still cannot help looking back. Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar is perhaps the most bittersweet experience of my life. A film whose highs and lows began way before it even started.

Sometime in August 1997 music baron Gulshan Kumar was brutally killed by unidentified assailants. There were many unsuccessful attempts on film personalities before this and it was a fearful time. Dreaded gangsters and ‘eminent’ film personalities were named in many conspiracy theories that followed this shocking murder. But who were the guys that finally pulled the trigger? What were their compulsions? What was their motive? These questions kept plaguing me as I tried to visualize the murder.

I think of myself as a voyeur pretending to be a film-maker. I love making films about internal conflict arising out of shocking tales that one reads in newspapers. I love all the agony aunt columns because they discuss issues related to human inadequacy and give you a peek into private worlds. So coming back to ‘Dil Pe…’, I was intrigued by the idea of making a film about the man who actually pulled the trigger on Gulshan Kumar. I wanted to be there on the scene of the crime to see his face. I wanted to see the killer and his victim before that defining moment. The idea for ‘Dil Pe…’ began to take shape.

My killer would be an ordinary migrant in the city of Mumbai. I wanted him to be a casual textile mill worker (casualdaily wages worker). I wanted my character, that of the voyeur, to be this workers best friend. I wanted him to be a marriage videographer (this was a term used for people who covered marriages, I don’t know if the term still exists). Not many people are aware that before I began my journey in television and films I used to shoot marriages. And before shooting marriages I worked in a textile mill! My story was about Mumbai – a city where for every fulfilled dream there are a few thousand shattered dreams. My story was about one such shattered dream and about the extent of internal destruction it could cause to people who seemed most innocent. My story was about desperation leading to people finding opportunity in the midst of maximum adversity. The idea was taking shape in my mind. But I was still making my first film ‘Jayate…’ then. The idea was too radical and I had no hopes of finding a producer to back this thought. But the idea kept troubling me. Everyday a new thought kept cropping up. A story was taking shape.

I shared my idea with two of my closest friends and associates then – Manoj Bajpai and Anurag Kashyap. If I remember correctly ‘Satya…’ was being shot then. We had very little idea about what life had in store for us. A fledgling director, a passionate writer and a struggling actor.  We got drunk that night. I gave Manoj and Anurag a handsome signing amount of One Rupee. We decided that we would make this film. And we continued drinking…

I made ‘Jayate…’. It never got released. ‘Satya’ was successful. Manoj Bajpai aka Bhiku Mhatre became a star overnight. Anurag Kashyap became a celebrated writer. He was also ready with a script that he wanted to direct. I think it was called ‘Mirage’. It was later rechristened ‘Paanch’. I had an unreleased film and was back to doing television. I guess all of us drifted apart then, charting our own respective destinies. ‘Dil pe…’ was put on the back-burner. No money, no career, nobody to back the story and the director…

I was shooting for a short story called ‘Ae Mote’ for a slot called ‘Rishtey’ on Zee TV. As the title suggests it was about a fat man. It was a fat man’s love story. Saurabh Shukla was playing the main protagonist. Television budgets were extremely restrictive and schedules were very demanding. I had to complete the 45 minute story in 3 days. The last day of the shoot was crazy. I had around 25 minutes of the story left to complete. It was going to be a long, extended shift. We began at 7 am and the shoot lasted around 30 hours. At 10.30 pm we were exhausted. Saurabh was trying to kick the smoking habit. He had been successful until then. An exhausted Saurabh asked me for a cigarette and sat down with me. He was going through a depression because of some confusion over a story that he had written for Ramgopal Verma. I think the film was ‘Kaun’. What seems trivial today was a big issue then. I am digressing again. Back to ‘Dil pe..’.

I think a director’s job is mostly about managing creative talent. Film-making is more about handling varied temperaments, assuaging anger, managing frustration and motivating people in the face of extreme adversity. Film-making is about making talented, disparate individuals focus on a singular vision. To keep Saurabh awake I decided to take his attention away from the impending schedule and exhaustion. I sat him down and narrated my story to him. Suddenly, he was awake. I had pressed the right buttons. He offered to write the film – FREE. The only condition was that he would play the marriage videographer. ‘Dil pe…’ was back in my life. We finished the shoot and kept meeting over the script.

Saurabh’s take on the story was fascinating. He saw it as an ‘end of innocence’ story. He saw it as a film about the city taking its toll on an innocent migrant. Gradually, the characters of Ram Saran Pandey – the garage mechanic, my protagonist and Gaitonde, his videographer friend were born. A brilliant character that Saurabh created was Tito, a loud, good-for-nothing ‘Dubai-return’ wannabe.  As the screenplay and many other memorable characters took shape we realized that we still did not have a producer for the film. The screenplay was funny, very dark and dealt with characters that were always bundled in contradictions.

We were still dreaming, but in vain… Saurabh spoke to a friend who agreed to back the film. The budget of the film was Rs. 20 lakhs (US$50,000). We were going to shoot the film on 16mm. The producer’s only condition was that Manoj Bajpai should play Ram Saran.

After much hesitation and awkwardness, my worst fears came true. Manoj refused the film. He wanted to be part of a much bigger film. He wanted to support me but in a bigger endeavor. In despair I approached the very gifted and under-rated Aditya Srivastava for Manoj’s role. Aditya agreed. The producer backed out. By then I was hell-bent on making this film. I was tired of television. I was desperate to hear the whirring sound of a film camera. I was desperate to make a film. I was desperate to make ‘Dil pe…’ . And the only way to make it was to produce it myself…

An entire book can be dedicated to all the people who came together to realize ‘Dil pe mat le yaar!’.  My co-producers Anish Ranjan and Ajay Tuli. They believed in my dream. They never let me worry about the constant lack of funds. We lived the agony and ecstasy of this film together. We had many fights, many arguments but ultimately we were driven by the desire to make a great film. We disagreed on a regular basis and had completely dysfunctional personal lives while making this film. My assistant director Kanika. Her father had sent her money from Muscat to book an apartment in Mumbai. That money helped us shoot the first schedule of the film.

Tabu and I met over another script that I wanted to make with her. That script never got made into a film. But I found a friend in Tabu. We became internet pals. She accepted the role without even asking for the script or her role. I narrated the script to her in half an hour. The great thing about this wonderful actor is that she approached her character without being judgmental about it. It was easy to call her character a bitch. She just played Kaamya. She is a special actor and a very special person. Hers was perhaps the most under-rated performance in the film.

Aditya Srivastava showed no disappointment when I told him that Manoj would be doing the role offered to him. He accepted the role of Tito for a pittance. He even contributed money towards making the film. I think Tito is one of Indian cinema’s most memorable characters. It was a great performance by a very magnanimous actor.

Saurabh Shukla was admitted to hospital while we were writing the script. He went through the entire pain of making this film with me. He was a stranger to me before the film. I found a brother while making the film. Thank you Saurabh. Without you ‘Dil pe…’ would have been another unrealized dream gathering dust in my store-room.

This film cost me my friendship with Manoj Bajpai. But I guess passion has its price. We react to situations at the heat of the moment and lose sight of ourselves in the process. Our personal situation, however, cannot detract from Manoj’s contribution to the film. His performance was faulted by many but I rate it very highly. It was earnest, energetic and straight from the heart. It was a difficult character that only an actor of Manoj’s caliber could pull off.

I could go on and on and on… Vishal Bhardwaj for his eclectic and very original music, Abbas Tyrewala for being more than just a lyrics writer, Anurag Kashyap for encouraging us through the film despite not being a part of it, Divya Jagdale for surprising us with her spirited performance as Gayatri, Remo the choreographer who made his debut with the film, Asha Bhonsle who sang the title track with such energy, all the very talented actors who played bit parts in the film just to be part of it. There are many people to thank and many people to condemn. But that is not the point.

The protagonist of the film begins with a journey that is soaked in fantasy. Ram Saran’s world is invaded by the beautiful Kaamya (Tabu). He believes that this ambitious and beautiful page 3 journalist actually loves him. Such is his innocence. Little does he realize that he is just an interesting story for her. His world of fantasy soon leads to despair. Then to desperation. Gaitonde, the videographer is a loyal friend with an unhappy marriage and a terrible bank balance. The only assets he has are a run-down, red scooter and an even more run-down video camera. As Ram Saran’s world spirals into a desperate realm Gaitonde changes. Loyalty is replaced by opportunism. Opportunity leads to betrayal. Little does he know that he is in turn being betrayed by his guest Tito and his wife Gayatri. There were multiple layers of betrayal and desperation in the world we had created.

I wanted the film to look ‘dirty’. I wanted the images to look carelessly framed and the camera movement to be minimal. As the lives of my characters reached various levels of despair I wanted the film to lose color. My cinematographer Sanjay Kapoor understood this need. We used a process called Bleach Bypass that involves retention of silver on the film negative after processing. I could get into a major technical exposition on this process. I would rather dwell on the end result. We used various levels of silver retention with grudging help from the laboratory (Adlabs, Mumbai) to gradually de-saturate the colors through the film. As the film progresses we have almost monochromatic hues, highly burnt out skies and very dark shadows. Today, it is possible to achieve all this using digital technology though I still feel that digital technology cannot replace the amorphous nature of film. Unfortunately, the DVD transfer of the film does not reproduce our technical innovation faithfully. I wish more people had seen the film at the movie halls.

I realize that I have written much more on this post than I intended to write. But there is a lot more to share.  Maybe on the next post.  If all of you have the patience to read on…