Makdee was more than Vishal Bhardwaj’s debut feature— it was a promise, a sign of times to come. Times when the line between art and commerce would blur, when we would be treated with real stories, our stories, told in a manner that befits a country obsessed with stories; when literature would enrich our movies again; when cinema will be magic again. Twelve years on Bhardwaj has come a long way in keeping that promise. Getting him to reflect on his journey is an exciting prospect except he strongly dislikes being interviewed formally. Getting him to talk is a Vikram-Betal act- ask him a question he really wants to answer and hope he begrudgingly will. An exercise worth it only because the answers are so very fascinating.
An edited transcript:
What do you think of when you think of your childhood the most?
What do I think? I think of my sports days, you know. Because I am a sportsman. I have been a sportsman so I remember that I used to wake up at 4.30 in the morning, even in winters, and I never missed my morning workout and my evening nets. So my life was around sports only.
Okay. You know, your dad wrote lyrics for a couple of Hindi films. I believe your brother also wanted to work in cinema in some capacity. When you saw the Hindi film industry through their eyes, what did it look like? What were the impressions? And did that either deter you or spur you to go and explore it?
I mean, cinema from outside or from someone’s eyes always looks glamorous.
No, no, not cinema. I meant the industry. Log kaise hote honge (How would the people be)? You know, when you are a child you imagine something.
Not imagine, because I used to come over here. I used to accompany my father. Every summer holidays, we used to be here for a month in that heat. So, we all were cinema crazy people and my father was friends with Laxmikant-Pyarelal (popular composer duo Laxmikant Kudalkar and Pyarelal Sharma). And, at that time, we were all vegetarians. So, on Tuesday, we used to go to his house for dinner, and see lots of film trials. So, it was like a glamorous world. Jitne logon ke contact me aaye toh door se to sabhi acche hote hain (From far, everyone appears to be nice). Because this was not my father’s first profession. So, this was fine, we used to come here for a month or so and my brother— he wanted to be a film producer without money, so that was the most difficult thing to do. You don’t have money and you want to be a producer. So he also struggled here for a long time. I remember watching trial shows of many big films like Taxi Driver of Dev Anand and Hema Malini, then Aetbaar I saw with Smita Patil. So, those kinds of memories are there.
And I remember seeing a film called Damaad. In that, I remember Mithun Chakraborty sitting down because there was some old lady. So he gave his seat to that old lady and he sat on the floor and saw the whole film from the floor. So, it was an exciting world. I was like a child.
Vishal, I wanted to ask you. A lot of things happened early in your life. You lost your father; you lost your brother. I believe your father was also involved in some kind of a land dispute jahan aap log rehte the (where you used to live). You chose… you had to make a critical choice between cricket and cinema— well, cricket and music at that point. Do you see these as turning points in your life?
Turning point? Actually I think the turning point, you realize once you achieve the success and you look back. Then you see it as a turning point, and at that point it could be a very disappointing turning point. And then you realize some kind of a screenplay is there, some kind of a destiny is there. So, that’s why I am a big believer of this thing called destiny. That whatever happens, happens for the best. I seriously believe in this because when I came to Delhi University to study, it was not planned. I was to play for my state. And I was selected. I was actually the Vice-Captain of my team. Somehow, some objection came because of some eligibility issue because I was repeating my 12th (standard). So, some stupid rule was there that those who were repeating their 12th couldn’t be a part of the state team. So I couldn’t play and I dropped the whole year. And then I was so pissed off that I (thought), ‘I don’t want to stay in this state. I want to play for some other state.’ And that’s why I came to Delhi. And when I came to Delhi, my life changed. Suddenly I was exposed to the metro life, the people definitely behaved differently in a small town and in a metro city. My life changed, my friends changed. And because of that my taste changed. I discovered myself. So that was the main turning point, and everyone in my family was against that event, that I should go to Delhi and study. Everyone— my mother, my brother, it was only my father who was supporting (me). And financially, we were not in a very good position to send me, but somehow things happened and I landed up in Delhi. I was not a good student either but I got admission. I think that was the first turning point in my life. Then, I think… yeah, that was the turning point because that’s where I met Rekha (Bhardwaj); I met lots of friends who were into music, poetry, and in those days, in 1980s, India was going through a very unique phase when ghazal was being rediscovered by the youth, it was the days when (Mirza) Ghalib was the rock star, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi, so it was a very unique period and one of the best periods of the last 60-65 years after Indian independence. I think that the eighties was a very unique period where the ghazal came back. And with ghazal, a lot of Urdu culture and the traditional things that came back to the youth of which I was a part of.
And theatre also, you were involved in theatre also.
Theatre was always there, but today’s youth, unko toh pata bhi nahin hai ki ghazal kya hai, Faiz Ahmed Faiz kaun hai, Ghalib kaun hai. Shayad hum bhi aise hote, humko bhi nahin pata hota (They don’t even know what’s ghazal, who is Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who is Ghalib. Even we would have been like that, even we would not have known). Jagjit Singh was a huge thing, or Pankaj Udhas, they were like… So, I think wahan se, us ghazal se, us poetry se, us culture se meri grooming shuru hui. Aur wo agar main Delhi na aaya hota to shayad nahin hota wo mere saath. Toh Delhi aana meri liye bahut bada turning point tha (So I think from there, that ghazal, that poetry, and that culture started grooming me. And had I not come to Delhi then that wouldn’t have happened. So, I consider coming to Delhi as a huge turning point).
No… I was just smiling because of the conversation we were having before, and now you are giving Delhi so much of credit after…
And leaving Delhi was a bigger turning point. That’s why I was waiting for you to say this so I could say that leaving Delhi was the bigger turning point. Because had I been in Delhi, I would have been so stagnant because there was no scope for musicians in Delhi. Even now, I don’t think there’s scope for musicians in Delhi. Even the good recordings are done in Bombay and there was some kind of unprofessionalism in the Delhi music circle. I remember in one studio where I used to record, after seven o’clock, the recorder used to make his drink and he’s recording and drinking, even if you are recording Gita ke bhajan (devotional songs from the Bhagwat Gita). So, he’s having his drink. And I have no problem with that. Somebody can have a drink—Gita ke bhajan ho ya (be it the Gita’s bhajans or anything else)—but I am against that approach of unprofessionalism. So, I mean leaving Delhi was, and it was very difficult for me to leave because Bombay is very brutal. I remember when I first landed here, my brother had a small flat at Yari Road— Zohra Azadi Nagar, it’s called. And we were in that one bed and hall… if you say one bed and hall, the hall is smaller than your bedroom. But they say ‘one bed-hall’. It was a two room apartment where me and my mother and my brother with his girlfriend, they lived inside. And they… they don’t give you work. In Bombay you have to close your eyes and jump from the 120th floor, then only the city accepts you. Otherwise you have no place over here.
I believe the first thing you composed, I mean professionally, as in it was put out, was when you were 19. Was that true?
Yeah. Actually in a way this is my 29th or 30th year as a film composer. Because when I was 19, my father’s friend, his name was A.V. Mohan. He was a big producer, he produced many films including Damaad, of the time I’m telling you about. So he was planning a film at that time called Vahem. And my father was arranging some kind of finance for him, which he couldn’t later. Out of that favour, that producer agreed to take me as a composer. Not agreed to, I mean he showed as a gesture, he was a nice man. But my father couldn’t arrange the finance. But he was a nice man. He said, “So what if you’ve not arranged it? He’s going to be the composer of the film.” And in 1984 I recorded my first song when I was 19 with Asha Bhosle. And that studio… there was a very big, famous studio called Famous Tardeo. Now they have an Axis Bank over there. A few days back I was travelling to Tardeo and I saw now they have a big Axis Bank branch over there.
When did you start taking it seriously? Being a composer, when did you start taking it seriously?
My father was writing songs for a film called Yaar Kasam. Funny names of the films, when I look back. He had written one song which I composed, you know ghar mein aise rehte hue. Sabhi tune bana lete hain, toh maine bhi tune banayi (you know, when I was at my house. Everyone composes tunes so even I composed some). So then I came to Bombay with my father because that film ka mahurat, vagera hona tha. (that film’s mahurat was taking place) Usha Khanna was the composer of that film. So we were sitting at the director’s place, his name was Chand saab. He was, again, my father’s friend. So they were having drinks in the evening. My father said, “He’s also made a tune, that song I wrote.” So like a kid, they were having drinks and okay, “Gaana sunaao, tune sunaao (Sing that song; sing that tune).” So I sang my tune and they all loved it and immediately he made a call to Usha Khanna ji to listen to this tune. And I sang that tune to Usha Khanna and she said, “It’s so good. So meet me tomorrow.” And she said, “I’m going to take this tune and now I’ll develop on this. Do you mind?” I think I was so encouraged with that, and so was my father. For the first time I got the confidence that yeah, if a person, an artist of Usha Khanna’s calibre and stature is liking my tune and taking my tune, then maybe I’m good. That’s the first time I took myself seriously.
Aap ki kya umar thi us waqt (How old were you at that time) ?
Did you have any formal training in music? Did you train in music at all?
Who or what did you learn the most from when it comes to composing? Who taught you the most about composing?
Actually mostly self-taught. But as I told you when I was in Delhi University, there were a lot of musician friends that I had. There was a flute player who was a very good friend of mine called Thakur, who’s now no more. Being with him I learnt about Mehdi Hassan. I was not exposed to Mehdi Hassan. Then there was a friend of mine whose name is Deva Sengupta. He sang a few songs for me in Anurag’s film Paanch and later in No Smoking he sang one song. He was like the star of the University and he used to do professional shows even at that time. He was a ghazal singer, classically trained and he knew western classical as well and very good in both western and Indian classical. And I didn’t know anything about western classical. Indian classical, I had an idea because my sister used to learn sitar and there was something… Bhatkhande ki kitaab se main khud hi sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa, raag-vaag kar leta tha. And pagalon ki tarah main laga rehta tha toh mujhe idea tha (from Bhatkhande’s book I used to sing sa re ga ma by myself, and like a lunatic I used to keep at it, so I had an idea). But I knew nothing about the western… So he taught me writing a chord chart and exploring a chord or understanding a western chord in one night. Because he had devised a method where he mixed both Indian and western things. And it was so easy for me, in one night I understood it. And in that one night I knew the western method of chord deprecation. So then I kept on learning, jo bhi mila main use seekhta raha (whatever I got I learnt from it). And it’s still going on.
Yeh toh learning ki baat hui (This was about learning). I wanted to talk about influences. You know you spoke about coming to Delhi in the whole phase of ghazals. I’m sure that must have been an influence in the way you compose your music. How have the influences changed? What are the new influences that you have allowed in to the music you have composed, over the years up to now?
It’s not the question of allowing. If something is good, it comes in and overpowers you. You are overwhelmed by those things. I was a great fan of Jagjit Singh and a great fan of Mehdi Hassan. Then Rekha…
Matlab their compositions also you mean?
Their compositions also. I mean Mehdi Hassan’s style of singing and Mehdi Hassan’s style of composing, is so, so good, so unique and so beautiful. The way he expresses a word, a line, a whole ghazal, it’s out of this world. Jagjit Singh’s expression of words, his simplicity. The R.D. Burman’s chord applications, his whole approach to tune. So I’m a mix of all these things— Mehdi Hassan, Jagit Singh, R.D. Burman. Then I loved Madan Mohan. Unki jo emotionality jo thi gaane ki, jo jis tareeke se sur lagaane ke tareeke the, jo unke notes ka combination hota tha, jo unke raagon ka jo combination hota tha. (The emotionality of his songs, the way he applied sur, the combination of his notes and raag). Then Salil Chowdhury, S.D. Burman and yeah… I think I’m a mix of all this. And then I devised my own thing. Somehow I explored myself and I made my kind of music. But I remained open. I still remain open about this.
I was a big fan and I am a big fan of Gulzar saab and I grew up on his poetry. In fact, my father used to tease me. He used to take some of Gulzar saab’s nazm (poetry) or some song and then criticise it purposely in front of me ki “What is this? Aankhon ki kya khushboo hoti hai (what fragrance do eyes have)?” And I used to fight with him, fiercely fight with him. And then I later realized that he teases me and that’s why he does it. But after this death, the ghazal was just emerging, then I read one poet and his name was Dr. Bashir Badr. He’s a great poet. The greatest poet of this century. And I realized that he lives in Meerut where my family was at that point. So I read his poetry and I remained with him. Even now I’m in touch with him. He has been the greatest influence in my life as far as poetry, culture and sensitivity is concerned. Even now when I’m lowest or down in my life emotionally, I just open his book and I feel calm. And every time I open his book I find some new line in that. That’s where I developed my taste for poetry and I discovered Gulzar saab. And his films songs suddenly I started hearing it and listening to it in so many points of view. Mera dost tha, uska naam hai Ankur Gupta. Gupta ji. Toh usko pata nahi kahaan se itna accha taste tha songs ka. Toh woh mujhe rare songs sunaya karta tha Gulzar saab ke jaise, ‘Auron ke ghar mein rehta hoon, kab apna koi ghar ho?’ Usme ek expression tha ki, ‘Kiraye ke ghar mein aisa lagta hai ki jaise main apne aangan mein moze pehen ke baitha hoon’. (I had a friend, whose name is Ankur Gupta, Gupta ji. I don’t know from where he had such good taste in music. So he used to make me listen to rare songs of Gulzar saab such as, ‘I live in someone else’s house, when will I have a place of my own?’ There was an expression, in that song which went like, ‘Living in a rented house feels as if I am in the courtyard of a house wearing socks)’. I can’t feel the floor because I’m wearing socks. These kind of expressions-
‘Din khali khali bartan hai
Raat hai jaise andha kuan
Sooni andheri aankhon mein
Aansoon ke jagah aata hai dhuan
Jeene ki wajah toh koi nahi
Marne ka bahaana dhoondta hai’
(The day is an empty vessel
The night like a bottomless well
In vacant, dark eyes
There’s smoke instead of tears
There’s no reason to live
I look for excuses to die)
Is poetry ne mujhe itna zyaada affect kiya hai ki meri zindagi ka sirf ek hi dream tha ki main Gulzar saab ke saath at least ek gaana kar loon. Doosra dream tha ki Lata Mangeshkar mera ek gaana ga dein. With this dream I was living in Delhi. Aur Dilli mein ek recording studio tha. Us waqt Gulzar saab Amjad Ali Khan saab ke upar ek documentary bana rahe the. Toh main us studio mein apne chhote mote jingles record kiya karta tha. Woh [studio ka] owner Punjabi tha. Toh woh kisi din phone pe bola, “Haan Gulzar aa raha hai raat ko yahaan par”. Toh unhone jab phone rakha toh maine poocha, “Kaun aa raha hai raat ko?” “Arey, woh hai na Gulzar, woh film director, woh yahan par aa raha hai raat ko Amjad Ali Khan ki recording karne.” Kisi ke liye bhi izzat nahin thi uske dil mein. Toh bajeere shaam ko aur sardiyon ki Dilli, December ki raat. Kadaake ki sardi pada karti thi December ko. Ab toh nahi padti utni. To main wahan baith gaya ki main aaj Gulzar saab ke darshan toh karke jaaonga. Toh nau, sadhe nau baje aana tha. Toh sardiyon mein log chale jaate hain idhar udhar. Mere session main baitha hua tha. Toh phone baja. Maine phone uthaya toh Gulzar sab the, bhaari awaz mein bole, “Hello, main Gulzar bol raha hoon. Mujhe rasta nahi mil raha hai.” Bada odd si jagah tha studio, Safdarjung Enclave. Toh Bengali sweets ki dukaan hai, Safdarjung Enclave mein. Toh unhone bola, “Main Bengali sweets se phone kar raha hoon.” Us waqt toh mobile bhi nahi hote the. Maine bola aap wahin khade rahiye, main aapko lene ke liye aata hun. Aur maine kisi ko bataya nahin aur main unko lene ke liye chala gaya. Wahan se paanch minute ka walk tha. Uss walk me maine unhe bataya ki, you know, “I am a composer. I am a big fan.” Aur bahut log unhe aisa bolte honge but he was very nice and polite ki, “Bombay aao toh milna.” Phir yahan aa kar milne ki koshish ki toh badi mushkilon se… phir main toh yahan aa kar pehle do saal main job hi kar raha tha as an Area Manager. Finally I met him through Suresh Wadkar, jo mere dost hain, jo singer hain, unke kehne se Gulzar saahab ek T.V. serial ka gaana likhne ke taiyar hue jiska naam tha ‘Daane Anaar Ke.’ Chitrarth (Singh) uske director the aur do log hain Delhi mein – Vinod Sharma and Mohan Paliwal – us waqt Doordarshan se serial pass hua karte the na, bahut badi baat hua karti thi, ki humaara 13 ka serial pass ho gaya, humaara 26 ka pass ho gaya, humara 52 ka pass ho gaya. Toh unka 13 ka ek serial pass ho gaya tha aur unlogon ko mujhse gaana karane ke liye bola and maine somehow chakkar chalaya ki agar Suresh Wadkar Gulzar saahab ko bol denge toh woh likh denge.
(This poetry affected me so much that I only had one dream in life that I record one song with Gulzar saab. Another dream was that Lata Mangeshkar would sing one song for me. With this dream I was living in Delhi. And there was one recording studio in Delhi. At that time Gulzar saab was making a documentary on Amjad Ali Khan. So I used to record some of my jingles in the same studio. The owner [of the studio] was Punjabi. So, one day he said on the phone, “Yes, Gulzar is coming in the night.” So when he put down the phone I asked, “Who’s coming in the night?” “You know that Gulzar, that film director, who’s recording Amjad Ali Khan.” He never respected anyone. It was the night of December. And Delhi used to be really cold in December. Now, not so much. So, I was sitting there thinking, ‘No matter what, I will see Gulzar saab and then leave’. So he was supposed to come at around 9 to 9.30 p.m. So people, in the winters, go here and there. I was sitting during a session and my phone rang. I picked up the phone and it was Gulzar saab on the other end. He said in his deep voice, “Hello, this is Gulzar. I can’t find the way.” The studio was at an odd place— Safdarjung Enclave. So there’s a Bengali sweet shop in Safdarjung Enclave. So he said, “I am at the Bengali sweet shop.” At that time there were no mobile phones. I told him, ‘Stand there. I will come to pick you up’. I didn’t tell anyone and I went to pick him up. From there, the studio was a five-minute walk. During that walk I told him, you know, “I am a composer. I am a big fan.” There might have been a lot of people [who would have told him this], but he was very nice and polite and he said, “If you come to Bombay, do meet me.” Then when I came to Bombay I was working as an Area manager in a company for the first two years. I finally met him through Suresh Wadkar, who’s a friend of mine, a singer, and Gulzar saab agreed to write a song of a TV serial, which was called ‘Daane Anaar Ke’. Chitrarth (Singh) was the director and there were two more people in Delhi—Vinod Sharma and Mohan Pahliwal. At that time, serials used to be approved by Doordarshan. It used to be a big deal – ‘that my [serial of] 13 episodes got approved by Doordarshan, my 26 episodes got approved by Doordarshan, 52 episodes’. So, similarly, his 13 episodes were approved by Doordarshan and they told me to compose a song and I somehow, through Suresh Wadkar, made Gulzar saab write a song for me).
That’s how I met him. We did that first song. Then he developed some liking for me and he got me my first successful song. That was for serial called Jungle Book, ‘Chaddi pehan kar phool khila hai’. So, that song became a hit and the company I was working in, which was a recording company called Pan Music, R.V. Pandit was the owner of that company and he saw my photograph with Gulzar sahab in some recording studio and he called me, ‘What are you doing with Gulzar?’ So, I had said I am becoming a music composer now, I have recorded a song with him. So he said, ‘Can you arrange a meeting with me and Gulzar?’ I said, ‘Of course. But, for what?’ He said, ‘I want to make a film on 1984 riots, whatever happened in Punjab.’ So, I asked Gulzar sahab, can I arrange a meeting? And that’s how Maachis happened. And I got my first break. Such a long story.
Vishal, other than the films that you’ve done for yourself, films that you’ve directed, what would you say were your most exciting films as a music composer? Most exciting projects.
I think, Maachis, still remains my most exciting work because I had so much energy within me. I wanted the success so badly that I just blasted in that. So I think that work was very good. To an extent Satya was good. But I think the same kind of energy I felt again in Omkara.
You know, I also found your work in Paanch very exciting and I just thought it was, for lack of a better word, different from… But it was just very, very… like I remember hearing the cassette and then having to check who had done the music. Because my natural conclusion wouldn’t have been that it was you. I mean other than Akhiyan Chipki. Did you feel like that was departure for you in anyway? Or little freer as a project in some way?
More than freer, I was very excited about it because it was not my kind of work. And it was Anurag’s first film and he showed me The Doors. And he said, “I want this kind of music.” And I was so excited to make a rock song and it was so ahead of its times that Main Khuda, that song, I feel so pained for that. Good you reminded me. That music, that film never came out. But it remained a cult film. But it’s available only to those people who… But I think, yeah…
Ok I also wanted to ask you, before you made Makdee, you were doing a lot of films as a composer. Did you feel somewhere ki you were getting stagnated as a music composer? Or did you feel that you just weren’t getting the opportunities to grow as a music director? Which one of the two did you feel— if any of them?
I think the second one. Because I was not getting the kind of films I think I deserved. I was feeling stagnant also. And one thing apart from these two factors, which I felt, was I’ll be very less important in the industry if I don’t do something really out of the box. So that was the reason. Because I knew that I’ll be out of work in some time. And I’ll have to go back to television or advertising. And I wouldn’t be in the mainstream of this industry, of this media and I always wanted that. I always wanted to be in the limelight. I always wanted to be in the front. I always wanted to lead. Wanted to, not now.
Yeah, not now. So that lutf (enjoyment) was at its peak, right? And that fire was… I somewhere… I’m a sportsman, I knew that if I don’t do something extraordinary, I’ll be out. I’ll be out of the team. I’ll be resting in the pavilion for the rest of my life. That’s how it started.
Tell me about the struggles about making Makdee. Particularly with the Children’s Film Society of India. And do you feel now that you look back it was a blessing in disguise, that things didn’t work out very well with CFSI?
This is what I said at the beginning of the interview. When you look back you see the turning point as, ‘Oh that was the turning point’. When you’re going through that you think that you’re in a mess. And this is the worst situation you can be in your life. Yeah because they rejected the film I showed. I think they didn’t even see it properly because the way they used to see the film is like on a 24 inch T.V. with windows open behind. And if you’re trying to work in shadows and darkness, less light… They didn’t get it; it was a rough cut. They didn’t get the film. “Poor chap”, they said, “This is not a film, this is not what we expected.”
So there’s a friend of mine called Krishna and he really turned out to be Krishna for me. That he gave me 24,50,000 (Rupees) that time. I paid that money, bought that film back, for a year I kept working and somehow had it released and then everyone appreciated it.
Vishal do you feel that the attitude that the CFSI had at that point that’s also part of the reason why we don’t, despite being one of the largest film industries in the world, don’t make enough children’s films? Is that part of the reason why, you think?
It’s the attitude with which they approach cinema. I don’t think… I think it must be happening with every government organization. Because the kind of material that they produce, it’s so boring, so bad. And the government doesn’t have that kind of drive in it. Government and politicians, they don’t have time to do something good for public interest. Bichare apni kursi mein, apne problems mein itne phase huey hain, apne scams mein itne phase hue hain ki (Poor things, they are so entangled in their own problems, scams that) they really don’t have time to do anything for the public. Parliament sits for one quarter of the time it’s supposed to sit. Toh kya kaam hua iss desh mein? (So what work really happened in the country?) It’s useless, in our lifetime we’re never going to see good governance for this country. So to talk about poor Children’s Film Society, it’s a very small thing.
Okay, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about screenwriting. Again, like you’ve not been to film school as such. How did you… what were some of the ways in which you taught yourself screenwriting?
Screenwriting is a… you can never learn. I mean you have to keep learning. I mean, it’s the most dicey form of cinema. You can never learn it. Every time you think that you’ve learnt it and you’ve failed next time. So I read lots of books like a book called The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. And just 3 days before I read a book. I still keep reading. I read a book called Backwards and Forwards by David Ball. And suddenly I realized that what I was missing in my life. I mean, if I had got this book 10 years back, I would have made my films better. So it’s a very difficult thing to learn and understand and express, screenwriting. Because it’s like the story telling and then you don’t know where you fail. Character establish karne mein time nikal jaata hai, kabhi conflict aane mein der ho jaati hai, kabhi climax kharab ho jaata hai, kabhi plot point one kharab ho jaata hai, kabhi two kharab ho jaata hai. Kuch samajh mein aata nahin, jo kabhi achcha ho jaata hai, woh kashmas achcha ho jaata hai. Isisliye maine aaj tak hamesha collaborate hi kiya, writing mein. (You need a lot of time in establishing a character, at times conflict arrives too late [in the plot], at times the climax is botched up and at times the plot point. Sometimes the plot point one hasn’t turned out well, sometimes the plot point two. It’s difficult to understand, and if at all things turn out to be well, it’s by accident more than anything else. That is why I have always collaborated in writing).
Because I’m so scared of writing alone. I think only my first film, which I wrote, Makdee, because usmein itna kam paisa tha, co-writer professionally aata nahin. Aur jo dost toh sab log busy the. Mera paas kuch chaara nahin tha. Toh main socha bachon ki film hai toh koi dekhega nahin. Main khud hi likh leta hoon (it involved so little money that I could not have been able to afford a professional writer. And all my friends were busy. Also, I thought since it’s a children’s film so no one will watch it anyway, so I might as well write it myself). Uske baad (After that) the more you work, the more you realize how illiterate are you in screenwriting. So that’s why I depend on Shakespeare, because I take his structure and I adapt it my way.
No but tell me something, is it something you enjoy? Do you enjoy the process of writing your films?
I mean there is no other choice because I enjoy making films. So if I have to make a film, I have to write it.
Why is that?
You’ve been a co-writer in all your films. But why do you have to be involved in the writing?
Otherwise I can’t direct. If the film is not internalized, the only way to internalize a film, the only process I know, is to write it. Otherwise I won’t know, if somebody else has written a character. I’m still not that mature a director where I can take somebody else’s work and internalize it. For me the process is that I have to internalize it and that process starts with when I sit and write it with my own hand and with my… or bounce it with my co-writer. But that’s the only way I know. I feel confident.
You’ve always… I mean after Makdee, like you’ve said, you’ve always worked with co-writers. How does that process work for you? Like have you made a… does it change with every writer?
With every writer, you now, you have a different style but one writer friend of mine, his name is Matthew Robbins. He’s from L.A. And I met him in one writing workshop in Kampala, where Mira Nair had arranged a workshop. We all were mentors. He was head of all of us. He has written a film for Spielberg also, called The Sugarland Express, very early films of Spielberg. He has written films for the guy who’s made Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro. So we became friends in Kampala. And he came to India. And I wrote a film with him. With him actually I learnt a lot, the methodical way of approaching a screenplay. Still you fail in that also, but at least you know how to approach this beast. That you have to start by catching it from the horns or by its tail. Earlier you just go and just uska sar bhidaa ke aap lad gaye. Ya toh aap gir gaye lahu luhaan ho kar ya script gir gayi. Pehla toh yehi nahin pata tha. Ab yeh toh pata hai at least light bujhake aur torch uski aankhon me dal kar poonch se pakad kar deewar par marna hai. Toh ho sakta hai ki aap jeet sakein, toh us tarah ke kuch gur aur, ya how to approach. (Lock horns [with the beast] and either you fall down completely bloodied or the script turns out to be no good. Earlier I didn’t know all this. Now at least I know that I can switch off the light and flash the torch in its eyes, hold it by its tail and then bang it on the wall. If I do that, maybe there’s a possibility that I can win). Then I realized it’s a… it’s like when you want to become a doctor, you go to a medical school. You want to become an engineer, you go to engineering school. But in cinema if you want to become a writer-director, you don’t have to do anything, just come. Hum toh bachchpan se, dil se writer hain, bahut bade writer hain, hum toh bahut bade director hain. Toh yeh jo cinema ko leke, jo logon ka approach hai, jo mera bhi raha. Main bhi toh aake seedha ghus gaya ki main director ban jaaoonga, main writer ban jaoonga. (Most people think that they are born writers, directors. So a lot of people approach cinema like that, and even I used to think the same that if I just come to Bombay I will become a writer and director) Fortunately for me things… because I was intelligent enough to understand that I’m a fool. Some fools don’t understand that they’re fools, they are actual fools. So I’m very intelligent that I understood that I’m a fool. So I always had intelligent people around me, working with me, guiding me. So that’s how, you know, still, I am learning.
I have a bunch of questions on adaptations but I’ll start with this. There are so many forms of… Shakespeare ko har tarike se, har jagah, har kone mein adapt kiya gaya hai (Shakespeare has been adapted in every manner, everywhere). Two questions here. One of course ki, was there a sense of, did that make you a little wary or did that liberate you? Ki yaar sab ka ek alag Shakespeare ho sakta hai, mera kyon nahi ho sakta? Ek yeh sawaal hai. Dusra yeh ki what did you feel you had to add to that? Because it can also become a yeh sab toh kaha ja chukka hai? So what was it that made you want to adapt Shakespeare?
Actually to tell you honestly the truth, I thought nobody’s going to take notice of that I’ve adapted Shakespeare. And that was what I was made to feel by the industry people when I wrote Maqbool. So one of my financier friends, he told me, “If you want to make this film, please take out Shakespeare’s name. Because nobody will come to watch because literature is boring.” And I was somewhere, you know… and even I didn’t care for Shakespeare to be honest. I didn’t know who Shakespeare is, what his writings are. Because Shakespeare to me was a scary writer who haunted me in my school with The Merchant of Venice. And to me also, like anybody else, I thought that literature is boring, there’s going to be no drama in this. And in school you don’t even look at the drama, you look at the question-answer, what is this character doing, for what. So you miss the drama in school. When I saw Angoor and in that, in the last shot Shakespeare winks. And I realised, this is a story by Shakespeare, this is very dramatic. That was in my subconscious. I wanted to make a film on the underworld and I was looking for a story. I happened to read in a child’s book, in a very abridged version, form of Macbeth. And I thought it’s a very good for an underworld film, so let me adapt it to… And I think somewhere it was Angoor I had in mind. So that’s how I started. And I didn’t realize that what kind of liberty I’m taking with such a great writer till my film was screened in Toronto (International) Film Festival on that premiere night when I was attending to Q&A with the audience and the world press. And there were big film makers like, I knew Deepa Mehta. Like Deepa Mehta stood up and said, “Today I’m proud of India that a filmmaker has made such a beautiful film from my country. I’m so proud to be an Indian.” That really struck me. And then the kind of questions the press asked me. Fortunately they had loved the film and I realized- what if they had not liked the film? Toh mera kya hota? (Then what would have happened to me?) And I realized ki I mean Shakespeare ko leke, main aisa kar raha tha, jaise mere baap ki story hai. Maine kuch bhi change kiya uss mein. (I was adapting Shakespeare’s story as if it’s my father’s story. I changed whatever I wanted to). I’ve made Lady Macbeth into the king’s mistress. But I think somewhere , I was very… me, when I say I, I include Abbas Tyrewala. He was my co-writer. That we were very true to the soul of the film rather than the text. Soul of the play rather than the text of the play. And that encouraged me to do Omkara-Othello.
Do you sometimes miss that, for lack of a better word, a sort of carefree unknowingness? Do you sometimes miss that now? Because you can’t have that now, where you already know every film that you do will be scrutinized?
Yeah it is a problem because people come with their own screenplay in their head. They expect something. Then you’re told that your audience needs this, wants this, they expect this out of you, they take you so seriously. When I announced, when it was announced at one point I was considering doing Chetan Bhagat’s Two States. I mean the kind of mails I got from that Facebook page I had for two months. And on my friend’s Facebook page that what has happened to him? He has come down from Shakespeare to Chetan Bhagat. I mean this is stupidity. Chetan Bhagat has… he can write well, that novel is good. And I wanted to explore that frothy side of mine but it was such a strong reaction to my selection of that material. So I think obviously it’s a curse and this is very natural also. When people love you, they love your work, equal amount of people hate your work. So it comes in a package.
What is your approach to adaptation, one? And if you could quickly explain how’s the two (Ruskin) Bond processes been different from the Shakespeare? Because you know, Bond is a living writer, he’s working right now, you know, again our milieu. So one or two quick differences that you can tell between the two adaptations.
Shakespeare, I mean his work is timeless. Therefore it is so relevant even now, every filmmaking country makes one or two films in a year about Shakespeare. So his dramatic sense is definitely very unique and timeless. So it’s very easy to adapt Shakespeare. With me fortunately, especially in Maqbool and of course with Omkara also that I never felt the burden of Shakespeare. I treated him as my co-writer, my invisible co-writer who has given me material and I say thank you very much but I want to change Lady Macbeth to the mistress of the king. Because he is invisible, even if he is getting disappointed with it, he can’t tell. So I never looked at him, at Shakespeare like that. I looked at him like a friend who was…
The guy who winks at the end of the movie
Yeah. And who has done a very good, decent job in his story. I treat him like that. But I’m the director finally. That’s why that burden was not there and now I feel little burdened. But the day I’ll make another Shakespeare, I’ll again be treating him like that— come back, we haven’t met for so long, let’s have a drink together and talk about the story. Do you have anything new to offer? So that way, you know, I was fine. And that’s why if you talk to Gulzar saab, his point of view, that my films are not adaptations of Shakespeare. He says, “Just for cheap publicity, you say Shakespeare and because you want to have (the) publicity of Shakespeare, you want Shakespeare’s name attached to your work. Therefore you’re saying. But otherwise they’re not adaptations of Shakespeare, they’re original films.” So I don’t know whether it’s a compliment or it’s not a compliment. I don’t ask him because I don’t want to know. I take it ki okay it must be a compliment. But he says that.
As far as Ruskin Bond is concerned, Ruskin is actually like a friend. And I told you, I have a house in Mussoorie, where we share the same wall. And most of the time, you know, he’s… Sometimes on a wintry evening, he’s standing on his window and I go on my terrace for a smoke. So he says, “What are you doing?” I said, “I have a good malt.” He says, “Why don’t you offer it to me? I’m coming to your house.” So we actually sit and have a drink and we discuss. And even sometimes, when I’m not doing his stories, I bounce off my work with him. He’s like an encyclopedia of storytelling. Sometimes he takes out a book which is like 72 years old, printed in 1942 or 1946 and he just presents it to me ki, “ I think, I have marked this story called ‘Cocaine’, you go and read, you’ll get a good inspiration for your work. The kind of film you are doing, the kind of script you are writing.” The Blue Umbrella had a problem because it was a very short story and there was not enough material to turn it into a film. So some day a friend of mine, Minty Tejpal, who co-wrote that film with me, he came out with this idea ki…
What if it was actually stolen.
Stolen and the person comes with a red chhatri (umbrella). And then we made it like jo hamare folktale hain, ki wo seeyar pani smarang mein gir gaya aur aa gaya toh (in our folktales, where there’s a jackal that falls in the pond and then came back), we took that route. And in Saat Khoon Maaf he wrote it specially for me, before that was a short story called Suzanna’s Seven Husbands. Then I asked him, I want to make it into a film can you write a novella for me? Toh it was specially written for me.
Okay Maqbool, you set it in the underworld, the Mumbai underworld. But it was not like the underworld films that were being made. It was still your underworld film. It was not… for us underworld films are… it was not Satya, it was not… How much research did you do and how much of it was… like how did you… Was it a real Mumbai… how did you balance the real and the sort of ‘inspired’ Mumbai underworld?
It was not at all real underworld. In fact I was amazed that nobody noticed that. Because it was the underworld of the 1960s. That Abba ji kind of figure, was like a reference to Karim Lala or Haji Mastan. I had met Haji Mastan once, long back when I came to Mumbai around 1988-89. I happened to meet him. I went to his house, so I had that image. Then I met few police officers who did encounters, like that. But I think, what I did and what I generally do is I take a fantasy and treat it very really, in reality. That is what I keep doing. I take a fantasy and treat it in reality. That is what Maqbool’s underworld is. That is why Omkara is politicized the way it is. That’s what actually happens. It’s not that it’s totally fantasy. Like Omkara, there’s one scene where police is being frisked by the gangsters. And actually it happens, in one of the villages, if the police had to go in, the gangsters actually search, frisk police.
No, but Omkara there was a lot more… also that was very real…
Yeah because that’s where I come from so I know it. But the Mumbai underworld you don’t know, it’s a fantasy for you.
Actually Mumbai underworld is a fantasy space in any case. You know the gangsters mimic their own screen versions and their screen versions… you don’t even know what is…
Yeah, you don’t even know who’s whose mirror.
Who came first, it’s a chicken and egg thing. Okay, now tell me a little bit about the choices of making Lady Macbeth, not Lady Macbeth but the mistress of the king. And the other one, of making the witches more active than passive. Just sort of more… handing them more power.
Lady Macbeth, the reason was, because I thought, in a married relationship with a man and woman, which Macbeth had, I thought it’ll be so boring. Because it’s only being done for money. It’s only being done for power or for the lust for power. Because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, they must have been married for a long time. And Lady Macbeth wants that power, that throne. So I thought that it’ll be so dry. So what if Lady Macbeth becomes a throne herself for Macbeth? He has to kill his father to get that throne and there will be a lust. A real lust, a romance hidden with lust. So I thought that will be so good to explore. That was the reason, to have romance, otherwise there’s no romance in a married relationship of 12-15 years and where they’re planning to kill their father. So it’s a different zone, a different tone, a different genre. So I didn’t want to treat it that way. I wanted to have a little passionate romance, throbbing romance between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. And the only way was to avert the obstacle of the king. The king is the obstacle. Which is… I thought that, because I was looking at the contemporary parallels of all the things in Macbeth. The first thing was witches. So I thought the cops in the contemporary world, will make the best witches.
Yeah but what about making them more active? They’re not just predicting, they’re also in a way making it…
They’re making it happen, yeah. Again I told you, that I treated it as my story. That after a point I forgot about Mr. Shakespeare, that I thought the basic material is his, I’m… like Gulzar saab says, ki main uske zameen pe apni building khadi karke bol raha hoon ki yeh Shakespeare ki building hai. Toh Shakespeare ki toh sirf zameen hai, building meri hai, toh (that on Shakespeare’s land I am constructing my own building and I am saying that it’s Shakespeare’s building. But only the land is of Shakespeare, the building is mine) this is what he says. But I don’t like that. I want this building to be called Shakespeare Apartment. So I can sell it well.
Okay Omkara. How quickly did that choice of the adha-brahmin come to you, how quickly did that…
Because again I was finding it parallel to the moor.
But there are lots of other parallels. I mean yahaan pe aur bhi parallels ho sakte the, jo aap explore kar sakte the (there could have been more parallels, which you could have explored). Of that psychology, of that…
Kyonki iss mein ek… Nahin! Nahin hota (Because there could have been one more… No! It wouldn’t have been possible). You tell me what is the parallel of a moor? What will be a parallel of a moor? I don’t, I mean… there I think with a moor, which I very smartly avoided is that he’s a… it’s to do with a skin colour. And the person who is complexed with his colour, with his looks and he’s more complexed with the beauty of his wife. So that’s where I realized okay, he is jealous of his wife. He’s jealous, not jealous of his wife, he’s a jealous man because he is complexed with his wife’s beauty. Because he doesn’t see himself as beautiful as he should. Which I think the beauty has got nothing to do with your looks. I think it is your inner looks which make you beautiful or not beautiful. So for that, I think that adha-brahmin where uski maa…father Brahmin tha, he’s…
But I also wanted to know, how much… you grew up in U.P (Uttar Pradesh). You are a Brahmin yourself. How much did your own… what you actually witnessed, how much did your own experiences and things that interested you about the politics of U.P., go into this film?
The characters actually, more than politics. Politics sabhi jagah ek si hai, but wahan pe (the politics is the same almost everywhere but there) politics has a muscle wing. So every political party has or had a muscle wing. One big gangster is affiliated with one party. That is what the politics was. Aur uske bahubali hote the. Ki ek bahubali yeh hai, uska bahubali kaun hai (They used to have chiefs. That he’s one chief, who’s the chief of that group)? Matlab they had their muscle wing. But what I used with my experience of living in western U.P. were the characters. Like Langda Tyagi ka character. That character was a senior to me in my school because I studied in a government college. And there we had students from all classes of society. So I’m very fortunate. At that time, I was very… later I was very angry, that I should have gone to some English medium and you know, where high class, people from the high class of society were there. But now I thank God, because thank God I was there, because I could see so many people. Which I would have never experienced in my life. So Langda Tyagi was there, he used to carry a knife in his pocket and he was a gangster and later he became a very big gangster. And when I went to research, I came to know that he is a professor in a college now. So this was his growth. Then Ajay’s character, there was again a gangster called Rampal. When we were kids we used to go through Tyagi Hostel which was there in the film also. So all those characters I had seen in my childhood.
I want to talk a little bit about the… see Shakespeare’s universe has a very distinct moral universe also, very in tune with the Victorian times, right? How different is the moral universe of your films from Shakespeare’s? And what other things influence the moral universe of your films? Because morality and how you interpret that changes over time. The drama doesn’t but the morality does.
I don’t think morality changes. I don’t think morality changes because… and morality has a very strange point. I have a very strange point of view for this morality. When we are watching cinema we all become very moral. We must be doing the same wrong thing in our real life, but when we watch a film, we actually become very moral, that good should win. He is a bad guy, why did he do this? And it’s very natural that, it’s very strange that we become so moral. When we are watching film in a theatre or with bahut logon ke saath baith ke dekh rahe (a lot of people). We become very moral. So I think morality never changes. And the morality you are talking about, it has got to do with the filmmaker. Uski jo morality hogi, wohi screen dikhayegi (Whatever his morality is, you will be able to see it on the screen). What he thinks about women, what point of view he has on relationships, what way he treats kids, whatever he is in his real life, is shown on the screen.
Whatever he is or whatever he is interested in exploring?
He explores only those things which he is interested in. You keep going back. It’s like a domino thing, you keep going back and you’ll find the filmmaker only. He’ll only… because nobody will give his life for…
Something that he doesn’t …
Something that doesn’t interest him.
There were lots of ways in which Susanna’s Seven Husbands could have been interpreted. What was your first attraction to the… what was it that ‘Mujhe yeh explore karna hai (I want to explore this)’ Kya tha usme, story me? (What was in it, in the story?)
Usme I think the character Susanna, and the characters of the husbands.
And the idea of love? The very strange idea of love?
Uh…Yeah. I think what attracted me [was] the black humor part of that, that she kills her husbands. I liked the streak of that character, which actually attracted me. And it was so unusual, and it was based on a real character, Ruskin told me about that. So, I found it very fascinating that a lady who can kill, get married seven times, and kill her husbands.
Why did you think that the film didn’t do as well as should have really?
I think what I was hoping that, I was actually following Hitchcock’s line that thrill is better than the suspense, that we know that she is going to kill a person but how she’s going to kill a person, that process is interesting. And I think that didn’t work with people, that they knew that he’s going to be killed so they weren’t interested in the process, they wanted him to be killed as soon as possible. So, I think that episodic feel, which came, that didn’t work with people. For me, still I think I love that film. I think it was a very literary work of mine, where I put in the history of India through her husbands, and you see the Pokhran (nuclear explosion), you see 1984, and I think a doctor who makes killer mushrooms, so I think it was a very literary work of mine. The only thing which I am ashamed of in that is the makeup of Priyanka’s (Chopra) older look, which I hated and I was cheated by a foreign company who promised, we did tests in L.A. six months back, but the people who did the test didn’t come. It was a different team, which came, and there was so much at stake and we were in flow. Then I was promised by the special effects guy that we’ll do it in the post – that’s the easy way to get out, so don’t worry, but finally it couldn’t be achieved. But I think that wasn’t the reason that the film didn’t do well because it must be something else.
Was it also, did you feel that because you didn’t explain Priyanka’s character that people didn’t understand this character somewhere. They wanted a more directly moral tale for a woman… they didn’t, you know, get what was driving her? It wasn’t a black and white moral tale, yeah, I mean she does turn to God in the end and all that but…
Yeah, I think because, two things for that. One is, there were explanations about her character but people don’t pay that kind of attention. It was very subtle…
It was. Ped ke neeche baith ke (sitting under the tree), when she’s saying why not just divorce them why kill them and she explains that, it’s an almost poetical explanation; it’s not a spoon-feeding explanation.
Yeah, and there was an explanation for that, where one of the servants, the three stooges, one of the… Jab wo bachpan mein school jaati thi to ek kutta bahut bhaunkta tha, jis galli se jaati thi. Toh usne apna raasta nahin badla, toh usne apne father ki gun le kar kutte ko uda diya. Toh sahib raasta nahin badla karti hain, sahib kutte ka bheja uda diya karti hain. (As a child, when she used to go to the school, a dog in one of the gully on the way used to bark a lot. She didn’t change her route; instead she used her father’s gun to kill the dog. So, Sahib doesn’t change her route, she kills the dog instead.) So, she was like that, that was she had in that. She wouldn’t change her way; she would rather get rid of the person. And, she was looking for love, every time she was deceived in love. If you see all those marriages, she was betrayed in love every time and I think after one point, she became, to me, a psychopath. After the third murder, when after John’s character, I think she became a psychopath because when she kills the Russian husband she had a…she didn’t have to kill him, but I think by that time she had just started enjoying the killing. So, to me, she became a psychopath killer. And it was supposed to be black humour, which people didn’t get. So, it was supposed to be… and maybe Ruskin also blames me for that. Ruskin said that you have made it so intense that the black humour went out of the window.
Okay, I want to talk to you, Kaminey, I couldn’t… what did you start with? It was a caper film, it was a sort of take on a very Tarantinoesque genre, it was a sort of… whatever, it was a hat doff to Bollywood clichés, you know. What did you start with, where do you root those characters, where do you find those characters in the world that you wanted to root it in?
Again, it was like a fantasy put into reality. But, my starting point was to make a caper. To make a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Pulp Fiction, those kind of influences, so the starting point was that. And, then I wanted to have a little depth that why did these two brothers are at war… and yeah, I think that was my intention and that remained my most successful film so far.
Okay, Matru… (Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola) intrigued me even more. Where did you find, again, there was that fantasy, there was this bi-plane out of Tintin, the cow, the socialist politics, the, you know, what is the, whole land grab thing? Where did the characters in Matru… come from?
It comes from Brecht’s play called Mr Puntila and His Man Matti. And Brecht took those characters from Charlie Chaplin’s film called City Lights, in which a drunkard man takes Charlie Chaplin home and he’s drunk and treats him like his best friend, and when in the morning he’s sober he kicks him out, forgets that who is this guy, why is he sleeping next to my bed. So, that was a starting point and of course, I think there was a left side of me politically, so it was an expression of my left…
So you also trying, was it also something, like did you also want to explore (Emir) Kusturica’s idiom?
Yes, yes, Kusturica, because I gave homage to Kusturica at the end because I loved his films, Underground…
But, that’s how he treats politics, right? There are these characters that he’ll create but the way…
Yes, it’s treated like farce. Black Cat, White Cat; Underground; those films were a big influence on me.
I wanted to quickly talk to you about dialogue writing. Because that is something, you know, you do for all your films. Tell me about some of the pitfalls of dialogue writing? Tell me two secrets of good dialogue writing?
One secret is you can acquire, you can achieve. The other you can’t. First is, which you can acquire and achieve is, never let two people agree in a scene. Even if they are saying the same thing, never let them agree. So that’s where the conflict comes and that’s where the fun comes. If there’s a conflict, people are interested, and if there’s no conflict, they are not interested then. If two people are fighting, they are interested, so, this you can acquire. Okay, three things. Second thing is, never, which I learnt, I’m not giving you a gyaan, but this is what I do. The second thing is, never say things directly, say it through some object. If I want to tell you something, I will tell you through biscuit, that why don’t you have this biscuit, I will start my conversation, I will say through, I will say it indirectly, not directly. That always has an impact and third thing, which you are either born with it, you either have it or you don’t have. Which is sense of humour, if you don’t have humour then you can’t be a writer and you have to be… the more wicked you are, the better dialogue writing you can do.
Casting. Especially when you have casted for smaller roles, character roles, it’s something you are really known for. Something that’s widely discussed about your films. One, is there anybody you consult or take advice from, when it comes to casting? Secondly, is there a director that you admire for their casting?
Now, we have good casting directors, who weren’t there before. In my case, that guy, Honey Trehan, he has been my assistant the day he landed in Bombay, he has been with me. And over the period of time, he became a big casting director. And, as far as my casting is concerned, I am never excited about stars who are working in my film. I am always excited about the side cast, who are working. So, I get a kick out of their performance not by the stars’ performance, so that’s why they become very important for me. Like Deepak Dobriyal in Omkara, or Chandan Roy Sanyal or the Bengali brothers in Kaminey, or like Bhopey Bhau, so they give me child like excitement, so that and the one director I admire for, I think, Tarantino. His casting sense is out of this world. If you see the Kill Bill, that Bill’s casting, I mean, such a great casting.
Two things, like I said with dialogue writing, that you have learnt along the way with directing actors, be it stars or actors? Two things that you have learnt on the job, or three things that you have learnt on the job about directing actors? Some tricks that you have picked up.
Yeah, never ask them to repeat what they have done in the shot. If the shot is okay, and for some reason you have to do it, never ask them to repeat the same thing. And, I never spoon-feed them about what they should be doing. In fact, and that I came to know, because they have worked with many different directors. But when they work with me, am told again and again, especially many times by Priyanka, that when an actor comes and asks me that this is the scene and you have to go and sit over there, there’s a biscuit plate lying over here, and I have to come and sit over here. So, this is the scene. So, they ask me, if they ask me, that what should I do? Should I come from this door or that door? I never tell them. I say it’s your character, you should tell me where your character should come from. Don’t ask me to think for yourself. You think and tell me, if I don’t like it, I will tell you. So, if I do my first rehearsal, I tell no one what to do, I tell no one how to do, I just tell them – let them weigh themselves, and that’s where they get thrown off… this director is not telling us anything. This is my style of working. I never give directions. If I feel they are going wrong, I will tell them this is not the way; your character should be doing this.
Tell me, why did you turn producer? What was one big reason that you turned producer?
To have the power for the final product. Because I saw Gulzar saab suffering in Hu Tu Tu, then that producer after the release of the film, he went to the theaters and edited the film, the way he wanted. And, I saw him in pain, and when I became the director, then I realized that that’s the way you can kill the director. So, to avoid that day in my life I became a producer.
How much creatively… you know the kind of films you produce, which you are not directing yourself, how much do they have to be a piece of your own creative sensibility? And, how far would you say that, okay…
Yeah, it’s a very difficult thing to produce and I am stopping to produce anymore now.
Are you taking a break or stopping?
I mean, stopping for the time being. I don’t know, right now I am not in a mood to produce forever for anybody. Because it’s a pain.
What is it that gets to you about producing?
Because you are wasting your energies, you know. I can make my own films. Why am I doing it for others? This is the first feeling that came to me. Because I don’t do it for money, I never get money back. My films don’t make money, so then why should I be doing this? I should be creating my own work, why should I be doing it for others?
Have you gotten better at understanding marketing, or selling a film?
No, I don’t understand because even if I understand marketing better than the marketing people, the marketing people think that they’re understanding the marketing better. So it becomes a very difficult situation when it comes to marketing because they have preconceived notions about a film because they have set patterns that so many hoardings, hero should be there, the masses should come for this. So, it’s very bad, marketing, I mean, should be left to a filmmaker, which doesn’t happen because of the co-production thing. And the corporate has its own marketing wing – a bunch of fools, who know nothing about it.
What kind of aesthetics are you drawn to, when it comes to cinema?
I mean, I am not going to ask you to even explain that. You know, a lot of filmmakers have a thing for creating a partnership with a cinematographer. You know, whether it was Godard or whether it was Ray, they did that. You have not, you have worked with different cinematographers, you have repeated one. But, you have worked with different cinematographers at different points of time. Why is that? I mean, is that because you did not find the partnership, or making the partnership doesn’t interest you.
I want to remain in a live-in relationship in my creative world. I don’t want to marry, so this is one thing. And because, the problem with cinematographers is that they think that actually they are directing the film, the director knows nothing. This is the basic problem with most of the cinematographers because they are either failed directors or they didn’t have the courage to become a filmmaker, or they don’t get a chance to become a filmmaker. So, that kind of arrogance, because they have a kind of power on the set. Because the scene has to be lit and then they say that, “I am not getting my meter correct. I need so much time.” They have that kind of power. So, I have had a very bad experience in my first two films with my cinematographer, that’s where I thought I am not going to repeat my cinematographer. One reason because that cinematographer, he was a friend of mine, that he kept saying to everyone that he has directed those first two films, he (Bharadwaj) knew nothing about it. He knew nothing about the lens. True, first film I knew nothing about the lens, but by the second film, I knew everything, everything, but… and I felt very offended, I felt very offended with that, and, to prove him wrong and prove him to myself that I can work with any Tom, Dick, and Harry, and get my job done, and that’s why I started doing this. Now I enjoy because, you know, because it’s a very boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-wife, kind of a relationship between the director and the cinematographer. By the end of the film, he knows all your weaknesses and you know his, but the problem is, he knows your weaknesses. So, the next time he knows how to manoeuvre you, how to manipulate you, and I just don’t like someone manipulating or manoeuvring me. So when you get on the set with a new cinematographer, by the time he realizes your weaknesses or problems, the film is over. That’s why I don’t and I won’t.
Do you allow yourself flourishes as a director? You know, like a painter, as one of those flourished strokes, which may not be needed but it’s a flourished stroke. Do you allow yourself flourish, just purely indulgent, as an artist, as a director, strokes in your films? I mean, indulgent in a way that would spoil the story but your own, jaise keeda kehte hain, kuch bhi kehte hain, jaise bhi?
Yeah, I think, all the creative people do that.
Not all, I think..
Yeah, but if you realize that it’s an indulgence then…you know, that’s why I am very conscious about what I do. I don’t like to do anything for the sake of intelligence, but now I think I feel I should have been in few cases.
But why Vishal? I mean, the whole reason why you are doing this is because you have to enjoy it, right?
Yeah, yeah, but you know when the film comes to your final stages you become very insecure that whether it’s reaching what you wanted to say, whether it’s reaching or not, and I am very scared of one thing, which is boring people. Because I get bored very easily. Like if I am talking to you or if I do not like being in someone’s company, I feel that’s the most horrible thing. And I don’t want to do that to people, so sometimes it happens. But in few cases I am saying I should have been indulgent, like Irrfan’s (Khan) story in 7 Khoon Maaf, I think that’s the best work I have ever done in my life, but I butchered it because of my editor and I will remain angry with him all my life. Because that section was 20-25 minutes, 30 minutes long, or 25 minutes long and there was total poetry, no dialogue in that. The whole relationship was translated on the screen in poetry, using music and poetry. Still there’s no dialogue in the film in that story but that was long, and I should have gone with that.
Do you ever self-censor while making films for the fear of running into censorship problems?
The thing is, I am always morally right when I am doing a film.
Haan, but phir bhi hassles bhi bahut hote hain na? (but still there would be a lot of hassles, right?) You are also a practical director, and a producer, so is there something where you say, I don’t need this yaar, forget I am not going to…
Nahin, ab problem aane lagi hai kyunki satellite deals mein woh maangte hain (Nowadays, there’s a problem because satellite deals need) U/A, so broadcasters have started blackmailing. That’s where the cinema is feeling a big hurt and we will realize it after five years. Because of that the filmmakers are forced not to do certain things, which is very wrong for a creative man.
You know, Vishal, I am very intrigued because you had an anti-smoking song, you had an AIDS awareness song… how do you feel about the regulation that says that you have to put a warning…where do you think the line needs to be drawn? Do you feel like it’s fair game to say that there should be a warning every time someone, a character, smokes on screen? Or, the long ad that happens before…
Mera mann karta hai main jaa kar parda phaad dun (I feel like tearing the curtain). It is so inhuman. It is so stupid. It is so unnecessary. It’s like a fascist thing the health ministry is doing to us, the filmmakers. Because it’s not treated like fine arts, no? It is not treated like Arts at all. Abhi bhi nautanki tamashe ki tarah liya jaa raha hai cinema ko. (Cinema is still treated like a gimmick). Seriously lete hi nahin hain, kuch bhi ho cinema ke saath yeh kar do. Jaise har cheez film galat kar rahi ho. (They don’t take cinema seriously, whatever be the situation, cinema will be on the receiving end. As if cinema is responsible for everything wrong). Now this is really, really stupid. Isse bura aur kisi filmmaker ke saath ho nahin sakta hai, filmmaking community ke saath isse bura kaam nahin ho sakta hai. (That’s the worst that can happen with any filmmaker, with the filmmaking community). Now they are trying for alcohol also. That anytime if somebody has a drink, that [a warning will appear that] ‘Alcohol is bad’. I think kuch dinon ke baad yeh bhi karna padega ki kuch acchi cheezein jo kha rahe hain ki Biscuit khana accha hai. Nimbu toh zada nahin khao. (After some days, they will start showing that eating biscuit is healthy; don’t have too much lemon). That was my retaliation when I did the smoking song. That’s the way I retaliated to what they were doing ki zada nimbu khaane se daant kharaab ho jaate hain magar cigarette peene se aap mar sakte ho. (your teeth will be spoiled from a lot of lemons, but cigarettes can kill you). So, it is, I mean, I was feeling frustrated.
Vishal, I want to, you know, you are a composer but the trend today is not to have songs as a part…matlab item numbers ho sakte hain, (you can have item numbers though) but songs as part of narrative, in a way they take the story forward, brings out the inner conflict that is becoming…Is that something you would regret if it went out of our cinema entirely?
No, no, I think I would rather like it. Because mostly, songs are not required in our films.
So, then what happens to the rich, absolutely rich treasure of lyric songs woh bhi toh chala jayega na uske saath (even that will go with it)?
Haan toh maybe uske saath non-film music upar ayega jiske liye, you were regretting. (So, in that case, the non-film music will shine more). Delhi guys will have much more fun.
Yeah, but I don’t mean to have my life without Sahir Ludhianvi, without Gulzar..
But then Sahir Ludhianvi or Faiz Ahmed Faiz ne kaunse filmon ke gaane likhe? Ghalib ne kaunse filmon ke gaane likhe? Us waqt to Ghalib poetry kar rahe the…Toh aur cheezein upar ayengi na? Filmon ki wajah se aur cheezein upar aa hi nahin paati hai na. Film sab kuch apne andar absorb kar leti hain. Aap bahut bade poet hain, apne koi filmon ka gaana likha hai? Nahin likha. Toh aapke upar glamour hi nahin ayega. Dr. Bashir Badr ka naam bhi suna hai kisine, Dr. Bashir Badr jaisa poet nahin hua pichle sau saal mein. (What film songs did Ghalib write? At that time Ghalib was writing poetry. So, the other things would shine, right? Because of films, the other things are not able to come up. Film absorbs everything. You are a renowned poet, have you written any songs for films? No, so you would not be glamorous. No one has heard of Dr. Bashir Badr. A poet like him has not been in our country for 100 years.)
You touched upon the cinematographer, what about the editor? What is the balance? What is the secret of that relationship? What is the ideal relationship between an editor and a director? And have you ever found it?
No, I am still finding it. Yeah…Editing ka bada hi tricky hai, wo donon hi confuse ho jaate hain aapas me baat karte karte ki kya theek hai aur kya nahin theek hai. But, I think usme apne gut ke upar jaana chahiye. (Editing is very tricky. A director and an editor often get confused while talking to each other what’s right and what’s not. So, in that case, one should go by his instinct). Which I will try in my next film. Sometimes it’s not working as a whole story…I mean, you come across with very strange choices when you are going for your final cut. Very strange choices. Some moments you would want that is not adding to the story, so it’s very, very strange, the choices that you have to make. And you would realize your mistakes after six months or one year, like I am realizing about 7 Khoon Maaf.
What would you want in an editor, ideally?
I am telling you it’s a very strange relationship between an editor and a director. But, what I want? That…he should not contradict me. He should listen to me whatever I say. Not come with justifiable logics.
Come on! You know you also want that because otherwise you have no counterpoint at all. You are living with one film for so long. Clearly, you haven’t made your wish to Santa Claus about editors yet…
No, I am very happy with the editor I am working with right now, A. Sreekar Prasad. But one thing you hate about editors, when they read the script they don’t realize that it’s not needed. Once you have shot it, they say it’s not needed, so what were you doing? Were you sleeping when reading the script? So, this is one thing I hate about editors. They say it’s not needed. But, you read the script? Yeah. But now it’s not needed, so…
You know Vishal, the way we make political films in India, either it is a backdrop of politics or it’s a moral film disguised as a political film. Do you feel we have a mature political cinema in India? And, what kind of politics woven in cinema attracts you?
We can only make farcical cinema, as far as politics is considered because politics is farce in our country. Either we can make farce or we can make very (it) dark because there is no middle road. Most of the institutions are corrupt. Which good political films we have made? Koi bhi nahin. (Nothing).
What has shaped your politics?
I think social justice. I mean, if you are an artist, you can be an artist only if you are left. If your left is strong, only then you can be an artist, otherwise how will you take the injustice happening in society? If you are taking that, and you are still happy then you are not an artist. And only left provides you that window, which makes you see okay, that’s why you keep reacting with your left.
Why did you take a break from Shakespeare?
Because I am very scared of being slotted in something, and again, you know the fight within me, with myself, why can’t I say original stories? Why can’t I say original stories? For that I tried Kaminey so it’s because of that.
Why did you drop 2 States? You mentioned earlier that there was some opposition, but why did it not work out?
There were many reasons for that. One thing is that Shah Rukh (Khan), he developed a cold feet, and then I thought it will be very insensitive of me to go and make this with somebody else. This was the main reason. Because we planned that film together, but then both of us, we thought that…then he thought that he shouldn’t be doing this, then I thought I don’t want to do this.
What attracts you towards romance? How would you like to explore romance? What kind of romance in cinema attracts you and how would you like to explore…is there any way in which you would like to explore romance in your cinema?
I think the Ijaazat kind of film I want to make, because that is one of the most romantic films ever on Indian screen. Very beautiful film and that went unnoticed. That kind of romance where hawaldar ne ulta ek athanni de kar karke lautaya tha, usme meri ek chavanni padi hai, woh bhejwa do. Mera kuch samaan tumhare paas pada hai wo bhejwa do. I think that is one of the best romantic songs an Indian film has seen.
You know, you have explored your Kusturica’s idiom, your Tarantino kind of medium, (Krzysztof) Kieslowski, where you started off, you have always said that’s one big push you got towards cinema. How would you like to explore that idiom? What is it about that idiom that you would like to explore, if in future?
You know those kind of quiet films he made, which looked quiet on surface but they were screaming from within, that kind of quality of cinema I am really excited to make, and want to explore because Kieslowski’s films had this quality. To explore extraordinary conflict in an ordinary life is the most difficult thing and that’s what Kieslowski did in all his films. You see his Decalogue, you see his Blue, White, Red, extraordinary conflicts in ordinary life. Otherwise, it is very difficult to create gangsters, it is very difficult to create politicians, or you know farce, or those kinds of films, very easy to make. But to explore that conflict in normal people, that’s the most important thing.
What is your ambition today as a filmmaker?
To create a very, very honest film, which has always been.2 States7 Khoon MaafGulzarInterviewsKamineyMaachisMakdeeMaqboolMatru Ki Bijlee Ka MandolaOmkaraPaanchShah Rukh KhanThe Blue UmbrellaVishal Bhardwaj