After asking us to push the interview by an hour, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, director of Nil Battey Sannata (NBS), reaches another 30 minutes late for the meeting in Andheri. But unlike seasoned celebrities who don’t bother with an apology, the first-time director comes with an apologetic smile explaining that she got late fixing the end credits.
“Everybody has an opinion on where their names go in the end credits,” she sighs, as she takes out her copy of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, and points out her favourite quote. “Once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive… But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about,” she reads out, adding that these lines sum up her current state of mind. Iyer then opens up about her decision to switch to film-making after 15 years in advertising. Actor Swara Bhaskar joins us even later.
Your film revolves around education. Was there any personal experience that came to your mind while working on the project?
Swara Bhaskar: For me, it’s a story of dreams. Of course, we have used the device of education to communicate the idea. I was privileged to go to the best institutes in the country — Miranda House (Delhi) for my Bachelors and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for my Masters. But during my time in JNU, I made friends with a lot of people who grew up in villages. They had humble backgrounds.
I remember one of my friends telling me that if he hadn’t come to JNU, success for him would mean setting up a grocery store. This person has completed his PhD from JNU, and is pursuing his post-doctoral degree in the UK. When I was working on this film, I kept remembering such instances. Hence, I keep saying that we need to subsidise higher education.
The film focuses on the dynamics of a child-parent relationship. In the process of film-making, do you draw similar parallels to that of the director-actor relationship?
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: Yes, I am definitely the mother, who is also a friend. I can bash her up if I am really angry (laughs).
Bhaskar: Ashwini, as a person, has this quality of being protective of the people she cares for. This was the first time I was working with a woman director. I wondered how different it would be working with a female director as opposed to a man. I found that there’s a certain ease that comes while working with women. I didn’t worry if I was giving the wrong signals, if I was being too playful or flirtatious. Those anxieties were taken care of.
If given a chance, what kind of changes would you like to bring about in the education system?
Iyer: The focus should be on experiment and learning as opposed to just learning by rote.
Bhaskar: I think we need to subsidise education at all levels. The state cannot hand over education to private institutions, and think that their job is done. Education is a fundamental right; it should have nothing to do with one’s ability to pay tuition fees.
Iyer: That’s true. I wanted to go to National Institute of Design (NID), but my parents couldn’t send me to NID because at that point in time (some 20 years back), the cost of the course as well as other add-ons came up to around R2 lakh annually. These expenses have only increased manifold. We need to also think of opening up avenues of education for people who didn’t have the opportunity to pursue academics when they were young.
Bhaskar: Yes, there should be more adult education centres or programs in the evening.
During your years at JNU, were you part of the student political unions? Are you following the recent unrest in JNU?
Bhaskar: I was never part of any political party in JNU. But I am following the Kanhaiya Kumar case. You can follow my Twitter account (@ReallySwara) and see all of it. I was actively involved in theatre with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) back then though.
There’s a dialogue in the trailer about an engineer’s child becoming an engineer, and a doctor’s child becoming a doctor. Neither of you comes from a film background. Did that make a difference when you ventured into Bollywood?
Iyer: I think I will always feel like an outsider. Only yesterday I was telling Swara, “How do you do this make-up every day?” I get bored just with the thought of getting out in the morning.
Bhaskar: Yes, I still feel like an outsider. I have no producer father or actor boyfriend. While shooting for Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), sometimes, I would tell Salman Khan, “Why don’t you just adopt me?” Nobody except for my own body of work will pitch for me.
Iyer: Bollywood is really opening up to directors who are not from within the industry. We have more writers coming in from small towns with fresher stories.
You said that the industry is open to change. How has representation of women changed in cinema?
Iyer: We are in the best era of cinema in both Hollywood and Bollywood. I see films like Wild, Blue Jasmine and Still Alice coming from the west. And we have films like NH10, Piku, Queen made here. Dum Laga Ke Haisha also dealt with a key issue of body shaming that women often face in our country. It is the best time for story-tellers in the industry.
Bhaskar: There have always been relevant stories told for women. Films like Mother India and Guide were made decades ago. But what is encouraging is that, today, these films are making money at the box office. As much as we call films an art, it is still part of the economy. The fact is that the kinds of films that are successful are the kinds of films that will continue to be supported and made. I don’t think there’s a dearth of stories. But there was a dearth of faith to fund offbeat stories, and that is changing.
NBS has travelled to several festivals. Earlier, festival films meant that they didn’t make much money. How much has this perception changed?
Iyer: I would not know much about the scenario because, honestly, I am only one film old. Moreover, we made NBS as a commercial film; it’s a typical Bollywood movie. We wouldn’t call it an art film. We just happened to send it to festivals and, fortunately, got selected there. I believe the audience is intelligent and is looking for a story. They don’t care about the film’s budget.
Bhaskar: Look at the films that made money at the box office in the last two years – Piku, Mardaani, Queen, Neerja – would you call them commercial? In fact, the so-called commercial pot boilers have failed at the box office.
We need to re-examine these terminologies. Besides, festivals are still important. A film like NBS usually works on word-of-mouth, and that starts with festivals. Certain credibility is always attached to films when you win an award at a festival.
NBS won the award for the Best Actress at the Silk Road International Film Festival, China. How credible are these accolades for a film, considering there are so many festivals and awards today?
Bhaskar: I think awards are important for projects like ours (where the content is king). These films don’t have Salman Khan to guarantee a blockbuster opening. Besides, for actors like me, who don’t have any recommendation other than our work, awards are the only thing we have to fall back on.
Nil Battey Sannata releases in theatres today.