In June, when HT Café decided to launch the Director’s Cut section, one of the first names that came up was that of film-maker Vishal Bhardwaj. Efforts to get him to sit down for an interview started almost immediately. But we just couldn’t get a hold on the 50-year-old director, despite several attempts. Now, as the series nears its end, we finally get to chat with the director about his eventful journey in Bollywood, and more.
You grew up in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. How did you develop an interest in films and music?
I guess it happened on its own and very organically. I am lucky that I always had great company. I studied in Meerut only till standard 12. I used to play cricket for the state. At that time, most players, who got into the national team, were from Delhi’s team. So, I decided to get into Delhi University. But the screenplay of your life keeps moving without you knowing what will happen next. A day before the inter-university tournament, my thumb broke during a practise session. I couldn’t play that year, and in the same year, my father passed away. Then, I couldn’t pursue cricket. I used to get very depressed, but in that period, I got inclined towards music. And by my second year, I had recorded a song.
Was it the same song that was used by composer Usha Khanna?
No, that was the song I made around the time I broke my thumb. My father was writing lyrics for a film and I composed one of the songs. Then, when director Chand, who was my father’s friend, heard it, he told Khanna about it, who loved it. That gave me confidence. Then, I got an independent film, Waham (1984). For that, I recorded my first song with Ashaji (Bhosle; singer). But I couldn’t compose the second track as my father passed away. I came back (from Meerut) in 1990, and started struggling again.
What made you turn towards direction?
The speed with which I got success, it left me as quickly. After Maachis (1996), I worked on Chachi 420 (1997) and Satya (1998), as a composer. At the same time, because I used to argue a lot with the directors, people started thinking that I’m arrogant. The next two-three years were bad. That time, I realised that if I don’t do anything else, I will be back to where I was. One day, Gulzar saab told me that I can be a good director. I still don’t know why he sad that.
So, how did you start the process of becoming a director?
Hansal Mehta (director) was making short films, and was looking for stories. I sent him four-five, including my own called Highway. After reading it, Hansal told me that he wanted to make a film on my story. I didn’t even know what a screenplay was at that time. I slowly started gaining confidence. Later, I started going to film festivals with Gulzar saab, and heard about people like Krzysztof Kieslowski (Polish director). My training started from there.
Do you feel any pressure with the kind of expectations people have from your films?
Not really. I don’t care as long as I am able to make my kind of cinema. You have a huge accountability yourself. I don’t lose sleep over what the audience expects out of me; I am my own audience.
Are you happy with the kind of films that are being made today?
I have no interest in being happy or sad about what’s happening in the industry. I’m only concerned about my films. I am not a social worker in the film industry. I am a film-maker, and not someone who wants to bring in any change.
You met Gulzar for the first time at a sweets shop in Delhi. How did that happen?
It was a life-changing incident for me. In the ’80s, he was making a documentary on Ustad Amjad Ali Khan (sarod player). So, he was on his way to Khan saab’s house to record something. I was in the same studio. It was a late-night recording, so everyone had left, except me. I overheard the owner of the studio saying that Gulzar saab was going to visit. So, I stayed back, thinking, “Aaj toh milke hi jaaunga (I will not leave without meeting him today).” I was sitting at the reception when he called to say that he couldn’t find his way to the studio. He said that he was standing at Bengali Sweet House. I went to fetch him. I told him that I am a huge fan, and also a music composer. He asked me to meet him in Mumbai. Two years later, I started working with him.
Was working with him a turning point in your life?
I am a huge fan of Gulzar saab. Whatever I am today is because of him. For the past 25 years, he has been my guiding light. Even today, I don’t take any decision without consulting him.
Watch: Vishal Bhardwaj’s Makdee
You are a revered film-maker now, but you had to struggle a lot…
I struggled a lot. To live and survive in Mumbai was, and still is, so difficult. I was working for a recording company in Delhi. My brother was in Mumbai at the time, and had suffered from a heart attack. So I told RV Pandit (producer) that I want to be with my brother. I worked for that company for a year, and then I left. It was a long struggle, especially the four-five years after Maachis. The tunnel would always seem dark, with no stream of light.
You have a lot of friends from that time who are also very famous now…
You survive that struggling period only due to your friends. Many of us, like Manoj Bajpayee, Ashish Vidyarthi and Piyush Mishra, were part of a gang. Ashish was my batchmate in college. I was the first one to come to Mumbai, and Ashish and Manoj followed. Hansal (Mehta; director) came from a well-to-do family, so we would meet every night at his home.
The music you brought in with Maachis was new for Bollywood.
I would hear songs from Gulzar saab’s films, since they would be fantastic. And when I got the opportunity to compose music for Maachis, I knew it was a do-or-die situation for me, so I fully concentrated on that music album. Gulzar saab’s guidance was very important, as I had a lot of raw energy at the time. I had struggled so much that I had to achieve success at any cost.
Watch: Trailer of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey
You have successfully adapted William Shakespeare’s works for three of your films. But is it true that you were scared of his plays in school?
Who is not scared of Shakespeare in school? In fact, it has taken my school friends a long time to soak in the fact that I am a kind of an authority on Shakespeare now (laughs). Even I am shocked that I am sort of authority.
What attracts you to Shakespeare’s works?
The dramatic writing and characterisation. What do we look for in the script? That the drama should be unique, it should be relatable. Look at the way Shakespeare plays with the psyche of human beings. That’s why his writing is relevant even after 450 years, and copyright is also not an issue (laughs).
When you started making films, did you know what kind of movies you wanted to make?
Initially, I didn’t have any idea. But yes, I was always very fascinated with gangster films. That’s why Maqbool (2003) happened by accident. I had no plans to take up Shakespeare. I had not read Macbeth; I didn’t know what it was. But I was clear that I wanted to make a film on the underworld, and I was looking for a great story. By chance, I read an abridged version of Macbeth, and wanted to turn it into a gangster film.
But you keep experimenting a lot with genres…
Even now, I want to explore more genres. I don’t want to get stuck to one genre. Now, I feel I have become mature enough to explore more people, more conflicts, more characteristics and more characters.
Where do you get ideas for your films?
It’s not like you sit and decide what you will take up next. Even though I am making Rangoon now, I already have three-four ideas for my next projects. It all depends on what mental state you are in at a given point. It’s a very instinctive decision.
How difficult is it to strike a balance between commercial elements and creative urges?
The kind of subjects and canvases I look for require big money. And if I need that kind of money, I have to camouflage my content as commercial. Film-making is actually about maintaining a balance between compromises and achievements. It’s the most difficult job, I think, after pilots of fighter planes (smiles).
Does success and failure affect you a lot?
It’s normal human tendency. Since I come from a sports background, I take my defeats in a very sporting manner. Of course, I take it to heart, otherwise how will I change and come out of it. I take failure as a learning process.
What’s your film-making process like?
The three stages are: writing, shooting and post-production. All three have different patterns. For instance, sometimes I collaborate, and sometimes I write alone. I love to be at home in Mussoorie (Uttarakhand) while writing. Whenever I go there, there’s some magic. What are your sets like while you’re shooting?
I don’t like any unpleasantness on the sets, even when things are going wrong. I can’t take unpleasantness. So no one shouts on my sets except for me (smiles).
How has your wife, Rekha Bhardwaj, influenced you?
It has been great. All my aesthetics of Indian and folk music come from her. So, when it comes to classical music, she is my guru. We have known each other for around 30 years.
Watch: Trailer of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider
You are hardly seen at parties. Why?
I am a very calculative person when it comes to such things. What do I gain by doing interviews and going for award functions? Everything is so boring. In fact, you lose something within yourself. I want to be a rich man from inside. It’s a selfish thing. But I drink, I smoke, I have my own parties with my friends. I joke a lot, and travel. I live my life. I am not a boring person who sits at home.
What kind of films influenced you as a kid?
When we were growing up, Meerut was all about Bollywood. As a child, I used to look forward to Subhash Ghai and Manmohan Desai’s films, and movies like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Suhaag (1979). But I was into sports. Cinema actually started influencing me after Maachis.
Zapped by Pulp Fiction
In 1996, during a travelling film festival, a number of my friends, including me and Hansal, went to watch Pulp Fiction (1994). We all went mad with the way Quentin Tarantino (film-maker) had messed up the timeline in the film. In fact, I had done such things to the timeline in the screenplay for Highway (1995). Tarantino just revolutionised a lot of things.
Watch: Pulp Fiction trailer
On Shahid Kapoor
He has been basically a very good actor, even in Kaminey (2009). Of course, he is evolving even now, and I can see it in every film of his. He is the best actor in his age group. Look at his mature performance in Haider (2014).
Bonding with Bond
I keep longing to go to my home in the Himalayas – Mussoorie. Actually, I want to shift there permanently, since I like that place so much. Anyways, 90 per cent of my work happens over emails and text messages. Ruskin Bond and I are neighbours, and share the same wall. When I go there, every alternate evening, we have a drink together. So, either he comes to my house, or I go to his place (smiles).
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