The idea of meeting Sudhir Mishra, the three-time National Award-winning filmmaker with a 30-year career and a French equivalent of a knighthood is intimidating. The writer-director is known for his hard-hitting, realistic and richly political films.
But at Delhi’s Crime Writers Festival 2016, he is all affable and candid, answering my questions with a characteristic passion and understanding of the industry. Excerpts from the interview:
What is it about crime fiction that attracts you the most?
To know the essential truth of any society, read its crime fiction, and what is popular. Then you’ll know the pulse of that place better than any sociologist.
What sort of research do you do to create your characters?
I never research. I never make films about things I don’t know. I had lived in Mumbai from 1982-83 till 1990 when I made Dharavi, which is possibly about my experiences in Bombay. I was around when the Emergency happened. I was 16-17 years old, starting college. I knew all the characters – that’s why I say they are my imaginary elder brothers – in the beginning of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi; they were all 23-24 at that time. I didn’t have to ask anybody when I started writing Hazaaron... in 1998-99.
What parameters do you apply when casting a film?
Ideally, when you write, a certain face comes to mind and you try and cast like that. But sometimes you have to search for that person. In Hazaaron... everybody was new, except Kay Kay (Menon). I did about 500-600 auditions for Geeta (Chitrangada Sen), and another 500 for Vikram (Shiney Ahuja) – and then found him next door.
Your films always have strong female characters…
Because those are based on women I know! I grew up with a paternal grandmother who single-handedly took care of five sons. In our household, women were stronger. Even my cousin sisters are far more independent than the guys.
Are female actors in our industry not given the credit they deserve?
Totally! The film industry feels that women shouldn’t be paid as much as men, that they’re not as big stars. I don’t think it’s true. Maybe we’ve regressed from the ’50s when there were big stars like Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Asha Parekh, Waheeda Rehman, Nargis.
Do you think filmmakers depend on a glamorous cast for box office success much more now?
There was more glamour in 1979 in Delhi University than there is in the film industry today! At times, the compulsions of a budget, a studio and people force directors to cast in a certain way. But the younger filmmakers are clever. They find the star that suits their film the most, and then correctly cast new people around them. That satisfies the studios, and they get a better budget. So, it’s a way to change and still stay the same.
Do you regret any of the films you’ve made?
I regret not being more firm when I was doing Calcutta Mail (2003). I tried to understand the producer’s problems. I think a director needs a certain cruel streak to be able to go on with what s/he wants.
A trend in Bollywood you detest.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, Bollywood had become synonymous with a certain lifestyle. It was as if those who led ordinary lives were vermin. I detest it when the poetry of the ordinary is ignored. I detest it when people state their views in conversation and not in their work. If you have a political opinion and something upsets you, it’s your job to reflect it in your work because that’s where it will have the maximum impact. Tweeting doesn’t fulfil the purpose.
What are your views on censorship?
There shouldn’t be any censorship. If we think a juvenile can be hanged at 16, a 16-year-old should be free to watch anything. By then, they are perfectly capable of making their own decisions.
And Shyam Benegal’s committee that’s looking into the censor board?
It’s a good initiative by the government. It’s better than having some arbitrary chairman with arbitrary views. However, I was hoping there would be a few 20-30-year-olds on the committee. I don’t understand why 50-year-olds in India decide everything in a so-called ‘young’ country.
Do you think there is disdain in Bollywood for intelligent movies?
Yes! There is a tendency to ‘leave your mind behind’. But I can enjoy Chaplin and Rajkumar Hirani and not leave my mind behind, and it’s fantastic. If you get into that habit, you’ll do the same when you vote! You don’t want to create a society of dumbos.
Tell us about your upcoming movie.
I’d say: “Abhi tak aapne Dev ko Das bante dekha hai. Ab aap Das ko Dev bante dekhenge”. In Aur Devdas, I’ve brought together Sarat Chandra (Chattopadhyay) and William Shakespeare. Because nobody understands power, its ambiguity and its lack of moral imperatives better than Shakespeare. The movie’s almost like a thriller.
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From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016
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