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…