It's a shared chuckle emanating from deep within our bellies that breaks the ice — an advertisement lampooning a TV journalist has just flashed across the screen before the start of the film. I'm sitting between filmmakers Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui, and we've come to watch their debut film, Peepli Live (PL), at a New Friends Colony cinema on an extremely rainy Thursday afternoon.
It's a brave film, I tell Anusha in the interval. To have been a part of the same medium and then to sharply critique it. She shyly smiles a 'thank you'.
As we tank up on popcorn, Diet Cokes and hotdogs, Mahmood suggests moving to different spot — he wants to hear the audience's reactions. There aren't many people so it's easy to find seats on the other side. This is the fifth time they are watching their film in a theatre ever since its release last week. "At Eros [in Jangpura], a guy sitting behind us kept saying 'eh-le' at every key scene. It was in such a catchy monotone that soon Anusha and I found ourselves saying it too!" he says.
Movie over, we trek across to a newly renovated café for a chat. The duo is feeling "jaded" with the overwhelming response they've received for the film. I loved the film, but I'm a little curious. The issue of farmer suicides doesn't get mainstream attention in the first place. So, how is it in the headlines of the opening news segment in the film? "Well, the idea was in the hierarchy of headlines, with Mallika Sherawat at the top and farmer suicides being way down," Anusha explains.
Mahmood suggests we head to their place. As we make our way in their grey Maruti 800 to their Jamia Nagar home, he remarks that 'India's people's car' has become the "Fiat of our times," and immediately we tumble out about movies tastes, contemporary cinema, the widening audience gap with the multiplex culture...
Once comfortable in their cosy home, the conversation opens up in various directions. Mahmood is a fan of the Salim-Javed films through the 70s and 80s. "Cinema was a mass medium then. Twenty years ago, Dharmendra and Mithun couldn't speak English. Today, everything is a set straight out of an urban context," he says. And what about the same media, which has been royally dissed in the film, lauding their success? "We got a tremendous response from them, especially the Hindi journalists. They are really engaging with the film," says Anusha.
What were the references for their debut?
"We looked at films like Bandit Queen and Pather Panchali for local rootedness. We didn't want it to be like Swades or Lagaan, where urban actors with their well-fed, puffed up faces play villagers." So the duo, known for their revival of Dastangoi, the Urdu art of storytelling, dipped into their theatre network to cast people like Omkardas Manikpuri, who plays the central character, Natha, and is a Chhattisgarhi actor from Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre.
Reacting to reactions
With virtually no background in filmmaking — except Anusha's five-year-old production stint with NDTV — Bollywood presented a vast canvas of experience for the Dilli-walahs.
"We realised that building relationships across the board was the most important, especially since we ourselves went into the village and lived there for three months, invading the villagers' space," says Mahmood, as he answers yet another congratulatory call.
What's their response to some farmer groups wanting the film banned?
"Ask them. The film is not about farmer suicides. It's about the face of society as we see it. I don't like the media casting the film into a few lines — it's become easy to fix a film into a category today," says Anusha.
PL is being compared to the cult Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (JBDY).
"We're flattered. Dono ka mizaj milta julta hai (they have the same kind of mood), but they are different. JBDY was slapstick, madcap comedy, improvisation acting. PL is more plot and script-driven," says Mahmood.
The couple got married eight years ago and are St Stephen's alumni. Both sides of the families hail from UP — Farookabad district for Anusha and Gorakhpur for Mahmood. They met at NDTV almost a decade back.
So after a film like PL are the filmmakers angry or hopeful about their country?
"Nothing has changed in this country since 1857, I don't see how the next 20 years are going to be any different," says Anusha.