Twenty Years On The Fringe – Incoherent Ramblings

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

Being on the fringes of this industry means that –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Independently Yours!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khursheed Mistry

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I’ve watched Shahid thrice; the last time, I even paid to see it!  What can I say about Shahid that hasn’t been said already and by many, far more eloquently than me? This time around I had half my attention on the reaction of the audience as well. They laughed when I did and cried when I was weeping copious tears (I promise I heard many sniffles during some overwhelming moments in the film). At the end of the film, we all cheered for our 2 hours well spent and worth every rupee!

I must admit rather candidly that I am guilty; of the same prejudices that most of the population of this country have towards Muslims. However, when I was watching Shahid, I forgot about his religion or his faith and could only focus on his zeal. What made Shahid tick? How did this young man so full of life and such goodness, deal with all the adversities in his life? The answer is simple. Shahid Azmi was a man of choices. Even the wrong choices made by him, he endeavoured to rectify. At every crucial juncture in his life, Shahid chose to listen to his instincts and heart. This man of internal steel weathered every storm in his life stoically and in a matter of fact manner, that warms the cockles of the heart. He never bragged about his achievements nor cursed fate for his problems. This country needs more people like him who turn to education to beat jingoism and the system rather than beat up the people.

Hansal Mehta has proved his worth by rising from the ashes like a Phoenix. By showcasing and with such skillful accuracy as well as sensitivity, the life of Shahid Azmi, a lawyer who was mercilessly killed for helping innocent convicts, he has shown one and all, the depth of his capability and evolution. From raw intensity, emotions, subtle humour and Shahid’s passionate belief in righting the wrong, Hansal has drawn out nothing short of natural and perhaps some of their best performances from his cast and crew.

There are some actors who define the roles they play so strongly that audiences find it unimaginable that another could have played it better. Raj Kumar Yadav, the unconventionally attractive actor lived and breathed the life of Shahid and infused a freshness that was very refreshing in the way the story was told. So convincing was his performance that he had me crying and laughing in the film. This multi-talented and gifted actor will go a long, long way!

In all this, due accolades must be given to the ENTIRE crew and cast of Shahid without whom this success would not have been possible. Baljinder Kaur, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Prabhleen Sandhu, Kay Kay Menon, Vipin Sharma, Shalini Vatsa, Yusuf Husain and many more, complemented and enhanced this labour of love with their contribution and presence.

Sameer Gautam Singh has expertly woven an excellent and well researched story. He painted it lovingly with myriad emotions and some unforgettable moments which had me spell bound!

No story is every complete without the contribution of the Editor. Apurva Asrani’s crisp and ever definitive cutting edge style leaves us with a visual delight beyond words. Precise and beautifully timed, this brilliant and talented Apurva has contributed greatly to the success of Shahid by also Co-writing the screenplay along with Hansal Mehta. No one tells a story with such purity as this award winning Editor!

Mercifully, this movie was devoid of raucous and idiotic songs. The music by Karan Kulkarni resonates hauntingly in the mind long after you leave the cinema hall. Anuj Dhawan’s cinematography is truly gasp-worthy. The capturing of iconic streets by day and night, opening credits of the film are only some of the many good scenes captured on celluloid by this bright professional.

As I left the cinema hall last night, on my way home it donned on me that all those, including me who saw and understood Shahid Azmi better could in fact actually change the system by drawing some inspiration from this larger than life man! Mr Shahid Azmi, you have our respect; your story will live on forever…

SHAHID IS NOT A 100 CR FILM; IT IS PRICELESS!

Shishir Gupta on Shahid

Shahid – one of the most honest efforts of cinema I’ve ever seen. I won’t go into the details of how truly the plot relates to the real case of Shahid Azmi but it truly represents how, in order to make their job easy, our police system has wrongly been accusing the Muslims(those who aren’t wealthier) as terrorists just because of their stereotype. Be it a Christian, Hindu, Muslim or any religion – belonging to a particular religion can never be a basis of any kind of accusation. You can see many people who are Hindu and not an indoctrinated RSS member, Sikh and not a chauvinist, Muslim and not a Sharia-law supporter.

At the same time, I’d emphasize that I’m not an admirer of religious system, which tends to make you an extremist, sexist and what not! You can never be truly liberal and religious as well. And that’s my answer to the question, the protagonist asks in the movie, “Why can’t we associate Islam(read ‘any religion’) and liberality?”

Shishir Gupta
Business and Systems Integration Analyst
Accenture Services Pvt. Ltd.
Bangalore

Rag Mayur – on Shahid

We’ve had enough of the manipulative biographies. We’ve had enough of the made-up ‘reality movies’. We’ve seen only fancy courts with freshly painted walls and the judge saying ‘Order Order Order’. But have we seen the real court sessions where there is only chaos, where lawyers sit on Nilkamal chairs and not on polished plywood cushioned royal chairs? Time to look at the reality! ‘Shahid’ does that in every aspect, be it a court, be it the attitude of media and the society, or be it the ways of how the system works. ‘Shahid’ is that authentic biographical film that is brave enough to portray real things very really!  The movie captures the various phases of Shahid’s life, crisply yet seamlessly. Raj Kumar Yadav is brilliant. He is a One size-Fits all actor. He can do an LSD;he can do a Gangs Of Wasseypur;he can do a Shaitaan;he can do a Kai Po Che. With ‘Shahid’, he has gone 3 more levels higher! Shahid firmly believes that religion cannot be associated with the doer of the crime nor the victim of that. Raj Kumar lived that in the movie! Kay Kay Menon was very graceful in a brief appearance. Zeeshan was good as the supportive elder brother; again very realistic unlike the usual Bollywood brother who says “Bhai tere liye jaan bhi dedunga”. Not to forget Prabhleen Sandhu, who played the role of Mariam so naturally. Director Hansal Mehta and his team deserve a standing ovation for this masterpiece. Shahid is an eye-opener showing the true picture of the prejudiced and parallelized society we live in, where a selfless savior, who goes out of the way to save the innocents, has no right to live! SHAHID IS AN IMPORTANT MOVIE WHICH WILL CHANGE THE FALSE MINDSETS OF MANY!