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.

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!’