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.

A Time for Audacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!’