Thursday, April 17, 2014

I feel vindicated, it is a triumph for the spirit of Shahid Azmi: National Award winning director Hansal Mehta

From a doughty debut in 1997 (Jayate) to being written off mid career, to winning the 2014 National Award - 'Best Director' for Shahid (which also won the 'Best Actor' award), director Hansal Mehta has toughed it out in an industry that is as rewarding as it is unsparing. 

He talks to me about 
his daunting yet unyielding journey in filmmaking, the overwhelming response for his award-winning film, expectations from his upcoming film Citylights, his voluntary sabbatical and his steely determination to come back.

How does it feel to be finally rewarded for all those years of hard work in an industry where you've constantly felt like an outsider?

I feel vindicated. Every filmmaker wants to make films that he will be remembered by, much after his death. As Mahesh Bhatt said after watching the film, "this is your obituary." Shahid's success is a victory for honest intent and linear, non-manipulative storytelling. I just want to make films and tell many more stories without having to adhere to the mainstream construct or the mediocre mindset. I hope Shahid's recognition does that. My only regret is not having my mother around to witness this recognition. Wish she had waited.

This is a triumph for the spirit of Shahid Azmi and for the undying spirit of my team. Like Shahid, they never gave up. I owe every bit of the success to the team that believed in me while I was written off by many within and outside the industry. 

How did you cope with that? Has it helped you come out stronger?

I had realized that I was trying to belong to a system that had no place for an outsider. The need to belong separated me from my inner self. I left Bombay for a small village on the outskirts of Lonavla to reboot my life, where I spent nearly three years reading, blogging, cooking and spending time with my loved ones. I also took charge of a social enterprise founded by my wife where I worked with international students designing and implementing experiential learning programs for them. Interacting with students, witnessing social change and looking at a world beyond cinema opened my mind and heart. I lived an idyllic life until I read about Shahid Azmi's death in the newspapers. I realized I had to make a film on his life and eventually realized that films are indeed my life! Shahid helped me emerge stronger. His character continues to inspire me. Adversity doesn’t bother me any more. I am more committed to being honest with myself and my output now.

After much critical acclaim and now a National Award for Shahid, are expectations absurdly high for Citylights?

I have seen too many lows in my career to get weighed down by expectations that are externally thrust upon my work. Citylights (releasing May 30) is again a film made with fearless passion. It is a new journey and like every film it is a new beginning. The only thing I carried forward from Shahid was perhaps some members of my team and the confidence to make my film without fear.

What drove you to make Citylights?  

Rajkummar introduced me to Vishesh Films who along with Fox Star Studios had acquired the rights to Metro Manila (Britain's 2014 Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category). A director looks for a producer who has faith in him and gives him the freedom to follow his creative vision. I was apprehensive initially as the production house had worked with mostly in-house directors who had emerged from within their ranks and l was a rank outsider in their setup. But after meeting Mahesh Bhatt and realizing that they did want to make a film with the resonance of Arth, Saraansh, Naam and Zakhm, I took up the challenge. Mahesh Bhatt asked me to take the script and give it my fearless interpretation without any creative interference from him. I was allowed actors, crew and production support of my choice. It was interesting to make a film as independent-spirited as Citylights for a production house that has succeeded immensely in the past with their definitive brand of films. The experience has been exhausting at one level but highly energizing at another. Not watching the film will be audience's loss.

How has your journey of filming Citylights been? Have you wound up shooting?   

Citylights is currently in the final stage of post-production. The film has been very challenging emotionally and physically. I chose not to watch Metro Manila, on which Citylights is based, as I didn’t wish to affect my instinctive response to the story and characters. Within the basic screenplay there were many layers that I wanted to explore. In Citylights, I have delved into values, family, love, greed and desperation through the narrative. I’ve tried to go beyond the surface of the screenplay and tell a story that, perhaps, unfolds at different levels in all our lives. I would often return home and tell my wife that I felt drained emotionally. We’ve shot at hostile locations in sync sound with almost no artificial light. The entire unit, including the lead actors, was intentionally deprived of the luxuries that they would get on other film sets because I wanted them in their environment throughout their shoot. To their credit they reposed faith in me and made many difficult situations quite easy to handle.

I believe that my films are made at the editing table and this film was no exception. The film's narrative has been shaped thrice. First, when Ritesh Shah wrote a very tight screenplay. Second, when I shot and discovered scenes from the characters’ lives that did not belong to the original screenplay. Third, when we edited the film where material was delicately restructured and shaped by my friend and editor Apurva Asrani. This is also my second consecutive film with Rajkummar Rao. Just like in Shahid, he seamlessly and effectively fits in here as Deepak, the hapless migrant who must protect his family from the city's darkness. Casting Director Vinod Rawat gave me an ensemble that allowed me the freedom to explore scenes beyond the written word and to improvise without affecting the film's powerful context. Other important roles have been played by Patralekha and Manav Kaul, both truly delightful actors. There is honesty and surrender in their performances that made some of the moments in Citylights magical. I salute them for tolerating a director like me.

Why would you say that? Are you a tough task master?

I would like to believe I am a tough task master with a gentle manner. Though, people I have worked with can tell better. I thrive on improvisation and pulling out layers hidden in the actor's emotional reservoir which can be exhausting at times. But to be fair with myself, I think we also had a lot of fun. I don't want to make films any more without having fun making them. The process has to be enjoyable for everyone involved.

What has changed from Jayate, your first film, to Shahid and now Citylights, 17 years after? What's different about being in the director’s chair?
Nothing much except the grey hair on my head! I am still a restless soul and get terribly nervous on my first day of shoot. I still reach the set with the fear that I have forgotten my craft. I still marvel at the magical universe that unfolds between the innocuous words 'action' and 'cut'. I still enjoy the process of making movies more than I enjoy watching them. The only reality I have begun to accept now is that we are temporary companions in a long journey. We are together in the process with equal intensity for a purpose. Once the purpose is fulfilled it’s time to move on. Temporary relationships don't bother me anymore. In fact, I cherish them.

What next after Citylights?

Shahid's success has buoyed me to continue telling stories that I would earlier be reluctant to even pitch to actors or studios because of their unusual nature. There is a film that I am planning with Nawazuddin Siddiqui based on a true story which I hope to begin later this year. It is again a story that looks at our hypocritical society through the life of its very fascinating protagonist. It is a film that is highly sexual in nature and is quite a scathing look at our world. There is another film for which I will commence pre-production at the same time. This might be one of my most ambitious films till date and will hopefully have me coming together with Rajkummar again. First things first though!  All I want right now is a holiday in the hills and some time to cook! 

One last question. A film you wish you had made and why?

Arth. A story I would have loved to interpret, about relationships I would have loved to explore further, with actors I would have loved to direct. I started my career trying to deal with the crisis of old age and 'maqsad' of Saaransh, with Jayate. Somehow, Mahesh Bhatt's earlier films always touched a chord in me and somewhere might have been responsible for my decision to make films. And now I am making a film for his production house.

Friday, April 11, 2014

I wanted to remind Sikhs around the world that 1984 is today, 1984 is everyday: Filmmaker Harpreet Kaur

The 1984 Sikh massacre, one of the most shameful episodes in the history of democratic India, may have conveniently been forgotten by its perpetrators but it comes to haunt its victims even today. The survivors’ battle for justice continues, almost 30 years after. Very few filmmakers have dared to touch this subject, for reasons obvious. The Widow Colony (2005) and Amu (2005) are the two most notable films on the subject.

We caught up with filmmaker, activist and the woman behind the award-winning documentary The Widow ColonyHarpreet Kaur. The film, which has been nominated at various international film festivals and won the Best Documentary and the Best Film Award overall at South Asian Int'l Film Festival 2006, is a staggeringly bold attempt at exposing the reality behind the mass Sikh killings of 1984. Here's a little background on the film.

What drove you to make this film? What did you hope to achieve through this? 

Dialogue. People need to start talking about what happened. This film is about the Sikh holocaust. It’s about women heroes who have stood ground and continued to fight for justice for over 30 years now. This film is a reminder to those who already know about the massacre to realize that we’re still at war. It’s not over. These women have been in the battle field since the day of the massacre. They continue to go to court, to protest and everyday live 1984. As a Sikh woman I wanted to remind Sikhs around the world that 1984 is today, 1984 is everyday.        

Through this film those who have never heard about the massacre will be educated. And those who have read about it or heard stories will have a better and honest understanding of what really happened.    

Has it made a difference or helped you achieve what you'd set out to, with this film? 

Dr. Martin Luther King summed it up beautifully when he said injustice anywhere in the world is a threat to justice everywhereThe Widow Colony is an important educational tool because human suffering is universal. Creating that dialogue and awareness in the mainstream has helped people better understand what really happened in 1984. This film unveils how a State-sponsored massacre by the world’s largest democracy was portrayed as a 'religious riot.' It’s the misleading notions and propaganda that have lead to a lot of hatred and brutal violence in the world. Lack of education has made it easier for one community to provoke another to kill. Therefore it becomes crucial for people around the world to not only embrace each other’s differences, but to know their history and this film becomes a tool to create that dialogue. The film has been successful in making viewers aware of the current situation of the survivors. Many individuals and organizations have made the effort to go visit the colony (Tilak Vihar) after watching the documentary.

It's obviously a controversial subject. Did you have any apprehensions while filming it? 

It really does take a lot of strength to go out and make a film like this and I honestly don’t know how it all came together because the whole experience has been surreal. From the point that I decided to make this film, I got tremendous amount of strength and inspiration from these widows. When I read their testimonies it drove me to pick up my camera and when I met these women and heard their stories it gave me a reason bigger than what my life was worth, to bring this film out to the world. I became fearless. I also felt that the media was not doing justice to the issue. I knew that a documentary about the survivors, their stories needed to come out. This would do justice to the issue and for the first time give the survivors an opportunity to share their stories with the world.

The documentary must have been an emotional journey for you. Tell us about the experience. Did you face any hurdles while filming it? 

I remember this one time when a widow furiously and bluntly said, “So many people have interviewed us on camera and we have no idea if our stories are ever even told. What are you going to do differently?” She was referring to news reports. I told her that I was making a documentary, not a short news clip and that this film would be shown to the non-Sikh community too. I assured them that their voices would be heard beyond the walls of Tilak Vihar (The Widow Colony). Her statement caught me off guard. I wasn't expecting them to question me. But I was glad she put me on the spot. When things got tough and I felt I wouldn't be able to pull off this film the widow’s question resonated in my head and I knew I had a promise to fulfill. When the film was premiered in India I had invited the widows that were in the film to attend the screening. They were thankful and felt that for the first time someone had been able to do justice in sharing their stories.    
For most, I will never forget the priceless gift these women have given me. They took me in their arms and embraced me. God knows I felt their pain because I carry it with me. It’s not something I can describe but it’s changed my life.     

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Full house, roaring audience and a charming couple... at Main Tera Hero promotions!

The 'Student' of the Year looks all set to shrug off his pretty, boy-next-door image with Main Tera Hero, an out and out commercial potboiler, set to roll on April 4. And with two million views in the first week, the trailer already has the audiences agog. The enthusiasm was as palpable at the CineGrand theaters, Gurgaon last night, where the star cast of the film dropped by to promote their latest venture. Varun Dhawan made a rather shy, quiet appearance, to a roaring audience, with the pretty, petite Ileana DCruz. No star swagger. No tantrums. A delightful mix of charm and warmth, both Varun and Ileana humbled to a thumping response even as the cheers grew louder and spirits zippy.


It took him a while to loosen up. But once he did, he was in his element, chatty, playful and dancing with his fans. Nargis was missing from the scene (apparently, away for a Hollywood project) but that didn't take away from the evening, that was fun, memorable and wholesomely entertaining. Let's hope the film lives up to all the noise!