Chapter 1

Wind on my head. You on my mind. I travel. An uncertain journey. An arduous path. The mountains. Loom large. Your thoughts. Invade my mind. I wonder. I wander. I seek. The unknown. I crave. A future. I live. A present. I fear. A past.

It was 2007 when I took the decision. I was enraged with myself. I was enraged with the films I was making. My mind was bereft of ideas. Film-making had become a chore, an attempt to portray something meaningless through even more meaningless wide-angle lenses. Distorted images, frantic camera moves and non-existent scripts. I had only myself to blame. I was seeking nothing. I was angry. But the anger was misdirected. I was unable to look back at my own work. I was afraid to reflect.

I decided that it was time to stop. To do nothing. To reflect. To contemplate. To read. To cook. To wander. To leave the city.

It was a selfish decision. It meant uprooting my family. It meant putting them through a period of change. It meant putting them through an uncertain process that did not necessarily have a tangible end. But I had to do it. I had to find myself again.

The last few years have been difficult. Yet they were the best years I have yet spent in my limited life. The shift to a small village on the outskirts of Bombay was pleasant. I was enveloped by silence. There was a calm that took some getting used to. I rediscovered books. I rediscovered music. Love, time, quiet and space were my only companions in the beautiful wilderness. I found solace in oblivion.

It took me nearly 1 year to detoxify myself from the filth that had choked up my mind. I wrote meaningless things. I expressed myself openly. I flushed out my misdirected anger. I worked on stories. I worked on scripts. Every time I finished writing I realized that I was far away from discovering myself let alone delving into story, characters, layers and structure. It was a process of self appraisal. I distanced myself. From the demands of the city. From the narrow confines of ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t work’. From the JW Marriott coffee shop. From Barista. From multiplexes. From malls. No Bombay Times. No Mumbai Mirror. No Mid-Day. No traffic. Just pure solace. There was no rush to make a film. No desperation to be prolific. No compulsion to comply. No reason to conform.

But it was far from meditative. There was chaos in my mind. My mind was filled with fear. I feared an uncertain future. I was warned by many members of the trade that my absence would result in me being out of work. That I should sign a film immediately. That I should start a new film immediately. The greater fear was that I did not want to make a film. And that was scary because there was nothing else I ever wanted to do. Suddenly my calling was slipping out of my hands. An even greater fear was the trouble my family would go through because of this inner turmoil. Why should they bear the brunt of my introspection? I had made very little money from films. Finances were running thin. Soon the patience of people closest to me would be running thin.

My family stood by me during this chaotic period. While frustrated at my doing practically nothing my wife stood by me. She empathized with my confusion. She understood my need to find myself. My parents and children patiently (sometimes unknowingly) waited for that moment of truth to strike.

On hindsight I feel that film-makers are a selfish lot. Their need for self-discovery and self-gratification isolates their nearest ones. Their need for isolation makes their dearest ones lonely, sad and often confused. Film-makers also suffer from the ‘victim syndrome’. They believe that nobody really understands them or their ‘inner turmoil’. The truth is that they are victims of their own need for expression. I am still not sure whether being a film-maker is a lonely profession or whether it is a selfish profession.

There is pain. In my heart. It happens. Every time. I embark. Upon this path. A path. That is agonizing. Yet full. Of ecstasy. My breathing. Gets hurried. My mind. Searches an answer. To a riddle. A riddle. That I call. A story. My heart. Seeks salvation. In a temporary moment. Called creation. I also question. My anxiety. And wonder. Is it worth the pain? I have no answer. Except. My restlessness. Self imposed. Self inflicted. Painful pleasure. I feel privileged. Yet pressured. I ask. Why do I have to be different? Why do I have to persist? Yet I persist. Into an unknown quest. I attempt. A conquest. Of my own demons. I am thankful. And resentful. That I guess. Is life.

Personal circumstances, financial compulsions and the urge to make films again got me back to the city. I journeyed back to the city knowing only this much. I would make a film that I wanted to make. I would make a film the way I wanted to make it. I would make a film with complete honesty. I would make a film with somebody who believed in my story. I would make a film with somebody who believed in me. The process of making the film had to be organic. The story had to be from within me. It had to express something I felt deeply about. The characters, screenplay, structure had to flow from conviction and not compulsion. The shots had to germinate from the scene. The mis en scene had to evolve from a space that belonged to my characters. Nothing would be forced. Nothing fake. Nothing convoluted.  All this was easier said than done. The real battle had just begun.

I did not have a story yet. I had worked on many scripts and toyed with many ideas. Some of them were unrealistic dreams. Some of them were out of date. Some of them were simply terrible. One of them was an idea that I had for nearly 5 years. It was an idea that had consumed me for the longest time. It was a script that I wanted to make but ended up making ‘Woodstock Villa’ instead. It is a script I still want to make. That script is another story. And hopefully another journey.

February 11, 2010 changed my life forever. A tragedy gave birth to a story. A story that had to be told. A story that had to be seen. A journey that had to be witnessed. Finally I had a story to tell… My untitled dream was born…

I closed my eyes. As she flowed past. I tried to focus. On her journey. I tried to block. Thoughts of myself. But the mind. Played its game. Her journey. Got muddled. With mine. Both hindered. Both in turmoil. Yet flowing. Merging. Resting. Flowing. Sometimes rushing. Sometimes calm. Many confused moments later. I opened my eyes. My mind. And me. At peace. Until the next hurdle.

Stranger

Somebody. Who meets a stranger. In his room. For the first time. Kisses him. Lets him. Feel her. Just the lure. Of the forbidden. Of rebellion. An expression. Of disdain. Of boredom. An act. Of impulse. Of lust. Without regard. For the past. Without respect. For commitment. Just another moment. In a life. Where. Every new moment. Erases old moments. Where. Every act of lust. Endangers love. A life. In which. A great future. Is a thing. Of the past.

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.

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…

Chicken Curry – Amritsar Style

This is an amazingly simple recipe that I have adapted from an original mutton recipe. It is easy to make and is truly delicious. It tickles the palate and gets the digestive system really stimulated (in a good way!)

Ingredients

1 kg Chicken
12-15 Green Cardamoms (Elaichi)
2 Bay Leaves
5 Medium Onions, chopped
5 tsp Ginger-Garlic paste
3 Large Tomatoes, chopped
300 gms Yoghurt (Dahi), beaten
1.5 tsp Coriander Powder (Dhania Powder)
1.5 tsp Red Chilly Powder
1 tsp Dried Mango Powder (Amchoor)
1.5 tsp Garam Masala Powder
Bunch of fresh coriander (Hara Dhania)
4 tbsp Oil
Salt, to taste

Procedure

  1. Boil the chicken in approximately 1 litre of water with the cardamom and bay leaves.
  2. After 20 minutes reserve the stock, discard the cardamom and bay leaves. Keep the chicken pieces aside.
  3. Heat oil and add onions to this. Saute until golden brown.
  4. Add ginger-garlic paste and bhunao for 2 minutes.
  5. Add tomatoes and bhunao for 7 minutes.
  6. Add coriander and red chilly powders. Bhunao for 2-3 minutes.
  7. Add yoghurt and bhunao for 7 minutes.
  8. Add dry mango powder (amchoor), garam masala powder, chicken pieces and reserved stock. Bring to a boil.
  9. Cover and simmer until gravy is fairly thick (approx 20-30 minutes).
  10. Sprinkle fresh coriander. Cover and let the curry rest for 10 minutes.
  11. Serve with jeera rice, plain steamed rice or hot parathas.

A word about ‘Bhunao’ : This method implies continuous stir frying of masalas on high heat, stirring briskly and without diverting your attention to other insignificant worldly matters! It is a vital part of most Indian recipes – a method that gives the spices a slight ‘toasted’ flavor. It is also very simple, needs only your undivided attention and a strong hand!

Given the price of onions I feel a sense of guilt suggesting this but fresh chunks of onion, whole green chillies sprinkled with generous amounts of chaat masala, kashmiri chilly powder, chopped mint and lemon juice are a brilliant side to this dish.

I would love to have this with a glass of good chardonnay. But the doctor has asked me to stay off wine for a while as he suspects a wine allergy. So it’s just buttermilk for now!

 

Undhiyu – With Love to my Darling Mother!

First it was my father-in-law’s closely guarded secret – Yusuf’s Kate Masale ka Gosht. This time it is my mother’s secret recipe that I have tried to re-create here. I cooked this for lunch and well, it came close to her brilliance!!! The missing ingredient was perhaps a mother’s love! This recipe is a tribute to the selfless caring and unconditional love that will need many lifetimes to partly reciprocate.

A ‘gujju’ favorite!

This is a recipe that is found in most gujarati thalis or gujarati weddings. The version here is much lighter and less sweeter than most gujarati homes. If you wish to replicate the sweet gujarati flavor add more oil and a greater quantity of sugar!

Flat Beans or Papdi

Some of the ingredients are usually seasonal (particularly the flat beans (papdi) and yam (kand). These can be replaced with a different variety of yam and similar beans. The authentic recipe also features fresh garlic (kachcha lehsun) but for the sake of convenience I have used regular garlic cloves. If you do find fresh garlic make sure you reduce the quantity as it can get very, very strong!

Yummy!!!

Ingredients 

½ kg Potatoes (Aloo), diced
½ kg Flat beans (Papdi), stringed and halved
2 Raw bananas , diced
100 gms Yam (Kand/Suran) , diced
3 Baby brinjals (Chote baingan) , diced into quarters
2 “ piece Ginger
4 cloves Garlic
4 Green chillies
1 tsp Turmeric powder (Haldi powder)
¼ cup Oil
Pinch of Asafoetida (Hing)
1 bunch Coriander leaves (Hara Dhaniya)
1 tsp Mustard seeds (Rai)
2 tsp Sugar or jaggery

For Muthiya:

¼ cup Bengal Gram Flour (Besan)
Small Bunch Fenugreek Leaves (Methi), chopped
½” Ginger, grated
1 tsp Red Chilli Powder
½ tsp Sugar
Oil to deep fry
Salt to taste

Procedure

  1. Make a rough paste of garlic, green chillies, ginger and half the coriander leaves.
  2. Mix all the muthiya ingredients except oil and prepare a firm dough.
  3. Divide the dough into small portions and shape each into rolls, and deep fry in hot oil. Remove and keep aside.
  4. Heat oil in a pan, add mustard seeds.
  5. When mustard seeds crackle mix in ground masala (step 1)  and all the vegetables except the beans. Mix well.
  6. Cover and cook this for around 5-7 minutes.
  7. Put the the beans in this. Add turmeric, asafoetida and salt. Stir fry for five minutes on high flame.
  8. Pour a cup of water, cover and simmer on a very low heat for 15-20 minutes or until the yam is totally cooked.
  9. Add the fried muthiyas and sugar/pounded jaggery. Simmer for 15 minutes shaking occasionally.

Serve hot with bajra ‘rotlas’ or phoolkas laced generously with hot ghee!

Chaas – The Pacifier!

 Cold Chaas (buttermilk) with freshly roasted, ground cumin and salt is a great accompaniment with this meal. To make it even more rustic take some fried green chillies and lumps of jaggery with this meal. It is recommended that you schedule a siesta after this meal as you are sure to feel drowsy after a sumptuous gujju meal!

Yusuf’s Kate Masale Ka Gosht

 My father-in-laws secret recipe revealed!

This is a recipe that my father-in-law Yusuf Husain has perfected. It is his secret recipe – one which he rarely shares with others! Even if he does share it you can be sure that he will leave out some important detail.   I have ‘cracked’ the recipe after many unsuccessful attempts and after much cajoling. It was cooked last night and everybody loved it. Yusuf saab approved of the preparation and finally welcomed me to the family secret!

Ingredients

1 kg Mutton / Lamb, big pieces
10-12 Medium Onions, thick slices
12 Garlic cloves,  roughly chopped
3 tbsp Ginger, chopped
2 Bay Leaves (tej patta)
5 Black Cardamoms (badi elaichi)
2  Cinnamon Sticks (dalchini)
15 Whole Black Pepper Corns (kali mirch)
12 Whole Dried Red Chillies
Salt, to taste
75 gms Yoghurt, beaten
4-5 tbsp Ghee or Oil

Procedure

  1. Heat ghee/oil in a saucepan. Take approximately half the quantity of onions and sauté until golden brown.
  2. Add mutton, bay leaves, black cardamoms, cinnamon sticks, pepper corns, red chillies and 1.5 tsp salt.
    Sauté on high flame until the meat changes color.
  3. Add garlic and ginger. Sauté for another 5 minutes.
  4. Add the remaining onions. Mix well and sauté for about 1 minute.
  5. Seal the vessel. Cook for approximately 45-50 minutes on low flame. In case you are using a pressure cooker, wait for 3 whistles and then let the meat rest while pressure is totally released from the cooker.
  6. Open the lid and you will see that onions are totally liquefied and the meat has been simmering in the liquefied onions.
  7. On medium heat sauté the meat until most of the liquid has evaporated.
  8. Reduce heat and add yoghurt. Mix well. Cover the vessel once again (not under pressure) and simmer for 5-10 minutes or until the meat is totally done.
  9. Let the meat rest for at least 15-20 minute before serving.

This is perhaps one of the most delicate, delicious and wholesome meat recipes I have come across. The cooking of meat in the onion gravy is the key to a successful result.

You can also follow the same recipe for Kate Masale Ka Chicken. With chicken you have to be careful that you do not overcook and that onions, ginger and garlic are chopped into smaller pieces to allow the onion gravy to form faster.

The red chillies and browning of the onions lend this dish its distinct reddish color. Excessive browning will make the dish very dark and some people prefer it that way.  You can add approximately 1 tbsp roasted and roughly pounded coriander seeds after adding the yoghurt. This adds a little extra bite but many people do not enjoy the distinct coriander flavor. Try it or give it a miss, but this is one recipe that you must try!

Enjoy this with rotis, naan or steamed rice. I prefer devouring this recipe without any of these!

Mirchi ka Salan – my style!

Ingredients

10 ‘Bhavnagri’  Green Chillies / Large Green Chillies, sliced or slit lengthwise
1/2 cup Peanuts
1 tsp Sesame seeds (Til)
1 tsp Cumin seeds (jeera)
2 tsp Coriander seeds (Dhania)
1/2 cup Grated coconut
2 Medium Onions, roughly sliced
3 tsp Ginger-Garlic paste
2 tsp Tamarind paste
1 cup Yoghurt 
5 tbsp Oil
Salt to taste
Water

Procedure

  1. Roast the sesame seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and peanuts. Keep aside to cool.
  2. Take 1 tbs oil in a pan. Fry the sliced onions until they turn transparent. (Do not let them turn brown). Keep aside to cool.
  3. Blend the fried onions, grated coconut, roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and coriander seeds to a paste. Add some water (approx 1/4 cup) to make the blending easier.
  4. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a pan. Fry the chillies for approx 4-5 minutes on a medium flame. Keep the chillies aside.
  5. In the same pan heat the remaining oil. Fry the blended masala paste with ginger-garlic paste and tamarind paste for approximately 4-5 minutes.
  6. Add the yoghurt to this and mix. Make sure the yoghurt is completely incorporated into the paste.
  7. Add the fried chillies to this. Mix and add 1 cup of water.
  8. Boil for 5-6 minutes. Turn off the heat and keep the pan covered for 5 minutes.
  9. Serve with paratha or rice.

I love the Bhavnagari chillies for their correct amount of ‘hotness’. You can use any other variety of green chillies. You can also de-seed them to make the chillies milder. The real fun though is in the salan. It is tangy, hot and delicious. Replace the chillies with eggplant and you have Baingan ka salan!

I am not sure about the authenticity of this recipe but I know that it is truly delicious. Try it!

 

Non-Spicy Cabbage Poriyal – Simple, light and vegetarian!

cabbage-2Ingredients

1 Medium Cabbage, chopped
3 tsp Oil
1 tsp Mustard seeds
2 tsp Urad Dal
8-10 Curry Leaves
2 tsp Turmeric powder (Haldi)
Salt, to taste
1/2 Grated coconut
Water

Procedure

  1. Heat the oil. Add the urad dal to this.
  2. When urad dal turns brownish add mustard seeds.
  3. When the mustard seeds begin to sputter add curry leaves and turmeric powder. Fry for 2-3 mins.
  4. Add the cabbage. Mix well.
  5. Add salt and approx 1/2 cup water. Cook without covering until cabbage is fully cooked.
  6. Add grated coconut. Fry for 1 minute. Serve hot.

So simple. That is what I love about this dish. Quick, attractive, delicious, light and great with hot phoolkas. You can sprinkle lemon juice on this before serving.

Since my mother is unable to tolerate spicy food my recipe does not include red chilli powder and coriander powder. You can add these along with turmeric powder. I still prefer the masale-free version.

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