Category Archives: Interviews

An incomplete archive of over 500 interviews I have done over the last 10 years for various publications: Open Magazine, Hindustan Times, MTV India, Firstpost, Khaleej Times, Mid Day, etc. Trying to update all my old interviews here too. The Open Magazine interviews are the most recent ones.

Interview: Anushka Sharma #QnA #OpenMagazine #Phillauri

Anushka Sharma: ‘I have never tried to fit in’

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/zAQg6k

ANUSHKA SHARMA HAS done 13 films in nine years, with Bollywood’s leading directors (the stellar list includes Aditya Chopra, Yash Chopra, Vishal Bhardwaj, Raju Hirani, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar and Imtiaz Ali). She is also the only Hindi film actress to feature in two of the four Rs 300 crore-plus grossing Bollywood films. But not one to abide by the rules and rest on her accomplishments; she chose to turn producer at 25 with Clean Slate Films. While the media seems to have an unhealthy preoccupation with her personal life, Sharma has made it clear that she has other concerns and bigger battles to fight—such as trying to bridge the wage gap for female actors.

With her new film, Phillauri, releasing in theaters this week, she speaks candidly about making movies that matter to her and why she hates the ‘Number One’ game.

You are an atypical star in that you have stayed away from masala fare, you have never done a ‘special number’, you are never seen at parties and don’t dance at weddings. What’s the belief system that drives you?

(Promptly) Peace. I’m a big believer in peace (smiles). I don’t do anything that takes away my peace of mind. Going to a party is not peaceful to me, you know. Having done those masala films would not have been a peaceful experience for me.

I’ve always been somebody who doesn’t want to be ordinary; I never had that herd mentality. Like, while growing up, I never even tried to fit in… I was happy just being in my own la la land. I would enrol myself in ‘Art of living classes’ because I used to feel this identity crisis of sorts.. at 12 (laughs). I think, to me, my personal growth, as a human being, is far more important than anything on this planet.

So when people ask me, even when Karan Johar asked me on his show, about the number 1 game, it makes me feel, like, not good, you know? It just feels sick. I don’t even want to walk on that path.

How did you manage to keep yourself away from these trappings, given that you were only 19 when you made your Bollywood debut? It would have been tough to deal with…

(cuts in)…Everything. Yes, it was, especially if you come from an army background, where your life is very different, you know? There’s so much uniformity, you live in the same houses, you don’t see any disparity. I don’t think I faced reality, quite honestly. And then, I’m suddenly, like, this Bollywood actress, and I was so afraid all the time about what I am supposed to say or how am I supposed to be.

I used to get so uncomfortable when people would come to me for photographs. And till date, I’m not someone who goes, like, ’Yeah, please.. let’s take a selfie’ (chuckles). I’m not that ‘cool person’, you know. I really envy people like Ranveer Singh, who go on stage and they’re like, ‘Yeah! I love you all!’ I can’t do that (laughs)! I can’t get myself to kind of embrace this.

But from the beginning, I had this thing where even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I definitely knew what I did not want to do. And I think, I met the right people in the beginning of my career, like my first director, Aditya Chopra, who allowed me to be who I am. So I had the courage to react instinctively and then back those instincts, even early on.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to accomplish as an actor? Because it’s interesting how you have done only 13 films in 9 years. Deepika Padukone has 22 in 10 years; Alia Bhatt has already done 9 in 5 years.

I was struggling with what I want to do in the moment, you know (laughs)? So I definitely did not think so far ahead. But yes, when I was growing up, I always knew I was going to be famous (laughs). I don’t know why! But I used to sit in the bathroom and give myself interviews (laughs again). One day I was a sportsperson the other day I was an actor like Rani Mukherjee.

I always had a big belief that some really special things are going to happen with me, you know. I do feel that I’m a very blessed person. And because I feel so blessed, I take risks. I’m an outsider, I come from a non-film background, I did not even think I was going to do this, then why am I doing well? So I have to treat this as a gift and make the most of it.

As for Deepika, you know, she has been a huge, huge motivator in my life. I’m from Bangalore too. When I was in junior college, she was my senior, and she was this beautiful, tall, very popular girl. Everybody knew who she was… and I always thought, ‘Man, this is cool!’ And I swear to God, her life has inspired me. It’s so bizarre that I was launched with Shah Rukh too. So the better Deepika does, I feel like, I’m also going to do that good (chuckles).

So what made you turn producer at 25? It’s a huge responsibility for a young actor to undertake.

There was never like a ‘Eureka!’ moment. Whenever I would watch something good, I would feel this urge to either act in it or create it, you know? So when NH10 came to me, I thought that when I’m taking this film on my shoulder, why should I not do it completely? The success or failure of it will still come to me, then why don’t I get into it as a producer?

When I started doing this, people told me, ‘This is what actresses do at the end of their careers!’ And I thought that was so bloody stupid! Why would you not capitalize on your hard work and your position, that you’ve worked so hard for? I should take charge of it, na? Of course, none of this would be possible without my brother, Karnesh. Clean Slate wouldn’t exist without him.

Bollywood does not have too many great scripts for actresses, so was part of your decision influenced by the fact that you’ll be able to create good work for yourself?

Yes, the best an actress gets is a romantic comedy, where you have a good role to play with a guy. Vidya Balan kind of started a whole phase of films led by actresses, with Kahaani and Dirty Picture, and I have a lot of respect for her. After Queen and then NH10, producers now want to make ‘female-centric films’ – and I hate that term – because this is a business.

But NH10 had no reference. And nobody wants to put in money until they have a ‘reference’. So you start feeling, ‘Kahan se aayenge roles?’ And when you get lesser opportunities, you work even harder. You come at it even stronger, you know. Because you know that you are not entitled and you are not privileged. By that, I mean that satisfaction you get from work on merit.. that is not something that we experience. So if I want things to change, I need to go to writers and directors and put things together and make those films.

But Clean Slate is not to make films just for me, you know? Right now, it’s easier for us to produce a film if I’m in it, but we want to tell stories, and we want to back new people. I come from outside and Adi backed me.. and if I’m in a position today, I want to be able to do that. By doing this, I feel like I’m doing a little bit more than just caring about my life.

Why was Phillauri a must-make film for you?

Karnesh and I know Anshai (Lal) since many years. So when Anshai and Anvita (Dutt) came to pitch the film to us, I thought the idea – of a guy who gets married to a tree because he’s manglik, and he inherits a ghost – was too cool (grins). It was funny and emotional and fresh. And then we made her a ghost who flies, who vanishes, who has fairy dust… she was a character, not just a ghost. I also knew that an A-list actress doing something like this would be interesting for the audience, so it just seemed very exciting.

NH10 made a statement about honour killings and Phillauri seems to take on superstitions like being a ‘manglik’. Do you feel a responsibility to tell such stories?

See, I understand that I may have a certain amount of influence on the society through my films. And yes, the films I act in or the films we produce, will never reinforce something that is not correct. But if you are telling stories thinking like that, that’s being very opportunistic, I think.

As an actor, and as a human being, I do take social responsibility by leading my life in a certain way. I don’t want to say I’m any role model because I’m not a perfect human being. I have a lot of flaws, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I have owned up to my mistakes too. I’ve always presented myself exactly as who I am because I don’t want you to think that there is a right way of being this perfect person, who is not real. It’s really okay to be the way you are. That’s the biggest responsibility for me.

Do you think that’s enough in today’s world? The discourse has become so sharply divided into extremes, isn’t it important for role models to speak up more actively?

(Pause) I deal with a lot of sexism in whatever I do… I think all women do. But I have never shied up from speaking about it not because I’m a role model but because I’m like that as a person. Having said that, when you talk about speaking up, trust me, what Meryl Streep spoke at the Golden Globes, if someone here had spoken about something that was against the grain of the majority, people would have pelted stones at their house, you know.

We can’t say one should exercise free speech here, because look at the repercussions that come with it! You can’t go out there and just be foolish about it because it amounts to what? You are compromising the safety of your family, your own safety and the safety of the people you work with you. Like, you know, what happened on the Padmavati sets.. how can that happen? I don’t even know how it’s possible.. but it happened, na?

When actors in Hollywood talk against things, there may be people who might abuse them on Twitter… but they are not going to come and actually hit them in person, which is an actual risk that we have. For example, because I’m a huge animal lover, I had this positivity campaign on Diwali about keeping pets safe. For something like that, people sent me videos and photographs of meat, and said, ‘This is your chopped dog’. So I’m like.. don’t listen to it na, baba? You want to burst crackers, go put them up your ass and burst them, for all I care, I don’t give a shit. But how can you be so aggressive?

This hasn’t deterred you from being outspoken towards the cause of feminism.

Yes, but I think I have said a lot more in interviews that has gotten me into trouble within the industry. Case in point, Anupama Chopra’s interview, where I went and spoke out against the wage gap. I got a lot of shit from some really powerful people in this place. But I spoke out not because I wanted to be sensational, but because I believe that the only way people can change is you try to change their thought process.

The fact is that this disparity exists today is not because people are against it but because it’s a deep rooted tradition of looking at women actors in a certain way. So I wanted to bring that out to the surface and I was fine with whatever I got out of it too. I will continue to be vocal about feminism.

After multiple 300 crore+ films, are you in a position where you can demand the money you want for a film?

See, my trajectory is always going to be a little different because I do a really successful film and then I produce two of my own films where, there’s obviously no money. So, for me, my success of any film is important so that I can produce and push the stories that we want to make through Clean Slate Films.

As far as the monies are concerned, you have to have the ability to say no and walk away. I guess there’s this sense of fear that’s always put in actors where the media, industry insiders and the biggies pit you against each other. You have to be very cautious of that, so you should just walk away. That’s why I have a lot of respect for women who are doing that, like Kangana. She’s asking for what’s hers, and more power to her.

Do you face misogyny as a producer as well? There are very few women in the top management of Bollywood studios, barring Ekta Kapoor.

At Clean Slate, no, because we truly believe that working with good people is the most important. But otherwise, let me tell you, misogyny is not male centric. I meet a lot of misogynistic women, who cannot see somebody else doing well, and if they are in the power to do something to bring you down, they will do it. And that, I think, is a lot worse.

But since I’m one of the first actresses to do this, I will face it in small ways because, to see a female actor who’s having a conversation with you is something that they are used to. For example, you will be asked to explain how you produce films. Like, journalists will ask you, ‘So what do you do in it?’

And then this recent thing, where people started crediting my ability to make a big film like Phillauri, to my partner. You will face people thinking that a woman cannot do something on her own… she needs a man to help her. And that’s like a dagger, you know… and I cannot believe people think like that. And of course it affects me, but you have to ignore it and move on, because that’s the only option.

How do you deal with all the social media abuse that has come your way because of your relationship?

You know, if my film tanks, or if I do badly, and you abuse me, okay, it is something that I will take. But when you get blamed for somebody else, (pause)… you feel belittled, you know. You are made to feel small. You have blamed me for someone’s failure, which is something that is a part of their life, while the success also is. (Pause) It’s heart-breaking.

But what do you do? I don’t think anybody will be able to understand who I am as a person or the nature and simplicity of my relationship. People look at it as some high-profile relationship, when it is actually the simplest relationship you can think of, of two very simple people, who want nothing out of their life but to be peaceful and successful in what they are doing, you know?

People like to speculate even more about your relationship because you keep it private now.

I was not at all private about it; I was not hiding it. But then, it became only about that. While I know that my partner is not going to experience that in his place of work, unfortunately I will have to, because I come from the entertainment industry, and my personal life is entertainment for somebody, you know. And I want to be taken a little bit more seriously than just my relationship. I’ve been subjected to journalists literally.. what is the right word for it (pauses)…

…Bullying?

…Yes, bullying me. You’ve called me to your own office and you are asking me questions about my personal life, which I have answered jitna I want to answer, then you are constantly asking me questions only about that. Why should I allow you to do that? Why should I allow you to use a part of my life to sell your own magazine, newspaper, or channel? It’s not for sale, you know. I’m a very private person and I’m very guarded. I don’t have that many friends also, quite honestly. I don’t even open up emotionally to too many in my family. My brother is literally my best friend. And my relationship is a very personal thing.. and I have to protect it. Because it means a lot to me.

I’m not someone who puts up vacation pictures on social media, or ask people to come to my house on Diwali and shoot it… I don’t even like people seeing my house. For me, the important thing is to safeguard my relationships. And that’s just how I am.

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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on March 24, 2017
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/i-have-never-tried-to-fit-in
Picture courtesy: Anushree Fadnavis for Open Magazine. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Interview: Saif Ali Khan #QnA #OpenMagazine #Rangoon

Saif Ali Khan: ‘I’am an ambassador for modern Islam’

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/YWqwjd

“I think that everything I’ve done, travelled, read and learnt, should show somewhere in a shot, and in everything I do as an artist. Otherwise, what’s the point, you know?” says Saif Ali Khan, when asked about what he’s brought to his next role, a millionaire producer, Rusi Billimoria, in Vishal Bharadwaj’s period epic, Rangoon, out in theaters this week.

Speaking to Khan, the son of swashbuckling cricketer and Nawab of Pataudi, Mansoon ‘Tiger’ Ali Khan Pataudi, and acting legend, Sharmila Tagore, makes the point he’s brought up, rather well. In a career spanning over two decades, Khan has gone from being the boy no one took seriously to a poster boy for the urban Indian man, to grappling with finding a comfort zone as actor-producer. The many worlds Khan has traversed as both an actor and as a man, reflect in the sharp wit, worldly intellect and sobering realness that he brings to a conversation.

The newly turned father of a gorgeous baby boy, Taimur Ali Khan Pataudi, that he gave birth to with actor wife Kareena Kapoor Khan, is free, frank and forthcoming about his career, his politics, and his legacy as a father, son and husband.

Do you ever think about legacy? About how you’d like to be remembered as an actor?

I think I’d like to be remembered as an actor who took some chances. And someone, who did a mixture of commercial stuff as well as films to promote something independent and interesting. (Pause) I’ve not thought of my legacy as an actor, but I think, I do represent a section of the audiences, who are not 100% mainstream, but a little more urban.

The reason that I ask is that you started off doing ‘masala’ films and had a renaissance in the early 2000s, as one of the first actors to experiment with ‘multiplex’ films, like the now-cult Ek Haseena Thi, Dil Chahta Hai, etc. But then you turned producer and veered away from your content-driven niche.

I think you’re absolutely right. Perhaps I got a little waylaid, or bored, or side-tracked with other things; my personal life took preference and maybe I did not focus so much on being an interesting actor as I did on the commercials. And I think I have paid a price for that. I had a bit of a wake-up call, and I’m certainly back to thinking the way I was.

If you look at the films this year, the first thing I turned to was a Vishal Bharadwaj movie, and thank God I did (chuckles). I’m lucky to get the chance, despite the mess of the years before. To be Vishal’s first choice, Akshat’s (Verma) first choice, Raja Menon’s first choice is like an achievement and I need to prove myself and the credibility of my acting with these three movies (Rangoon, Kaalakandi and Chef, respectively). And I think I have the capability of doing it. I know times are changing fast, and nothing can be taken for granted.

The last couple of years have really seen Bollywood go through an overhaul. Your contemporaries, whether it be Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar, have all found their groove in storytelling. Are there a certain kind of stories you’d like to tell too?

The obvious answer to something like that would be, yeah, a kind of a biopic, or a genuine kind of story, like a Neerja. I wouldn’t say Rustom but a Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and others like it seem to be indicating that the audience would like to move away from the tried and tested formula that we’ve been giving them. And a more human experience is required from the movies we make. I’m very keen on working with good directors and producers and following them. I have my eyes open for exactly the kind of film Akshay Kumar has been doing… at least the ones with Neeraj Pandey, you know.

Given that you made your calling as an actor with urban sensibilities, it sounds to me that, keeping with the current trend, even you want to veer towards cinema that’s more Indian at heart.

But, of course. You know, I think Bollywood is turning more mature now. If you look at the villains of our movies over the years, it says a lot. Earlier, it was ‘thakurs’, and then it was parents, then it was your own mind, and now it’s backwardness and mediocrity. If you look at modern India, people are going to the gym; they want to be as fast, as good looking or as fit as anybody else in the world, you know. And yet, there is still a brain drain, where some of the best minds are leaving the country.

So there is a struggle between a new India and a kind of old India happening, and I think Dangal sums it up perfectly. There is a large shift to looking inwards, at our own country, and being a bit more original with content by celebrating our heroes. So we’ve got to decide which side we are on. Even if you try and fail in a movie that’s trying to be progressive, I think that will be forgiven. But to be regressive now is not going to fly at all. As an actor, I would rather be part of a forward movement in the vanguard of the art.

In a post-Trump reality, the world is sharply divided into two as well: the liberals and the right wingers. And there seems to be a political slant attached to everything in the news. For eg. The controversy about the name of your son, Taimur. What was going through your mind when the uproar happened?

I’m glad you asked because I’d love to answer this. I think with social media today, there’s a downside that you can hear everybody’s opinion. And you realise that the world has many bigoted people. But I feel as far as Taimur goes, it’s ridiculous to judge somebody based on medieval history. It’s a name that I’ve grown up with – my cousins had similar names – and nobody had an issue with it in the 70s or the 80s or the 90s. It’s only recently that everything’s become so ‘touchy’. Some section of people, some kind of right wing, are now talking about Kareena and me and saying we are anti-national, or we’re too fair, or the baby is too blond (laughs).

You know, you’ve got to understand that India is not 40 years old and it is not only a Hindu country. This is a country of Jains, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and many more, who have trodden this earth and this soil and have given it the unique flavour it’s got. If it was only a Hindu country, I think we’d lose something. The idea is to respect all religions. But, you know, I understand it in one way, and I put it down to lack of education or lack of happiness, where, with the anonymity of the internet, people say terrible, uninformed things, and it’s ‘nationalism’. I mean, my Taimur will grow up to be an open-minded, very liberal, syncretic Indian, who’s a mix of all faiths, so what does the name matter?

But I was very happy that a lot of people were supportive and spoke quite liberally for the issue, which made me feel, that okay, at least there’s two sides to these arguments. As long as those voices are still there, I feel relieved that we also are in a liberal society.

Do you find it tough, in this climate, to be an actor and nothing more, just like in the days you were coming up?

You know what I find tough? Acting like a twit to promote my movie (laughs). You have to go onto TV shows and say incredibly fake things, like ‘I’ve got tears in my eyes’ because of somebody singing at Indian Idol, you know. Why can’t I just say I really liked the song (chuckles)? I mean, I can’t do all this bullshit! I just want to act. I don’t mind getting paid half the price, honestly. I just want to live my life simply without being a political tool or an emotional tool where I have to appease everybody.

Because of social media today, you have to say the right thing or do the right thing and have to come across as the right sort of guy. I mean, I haven’t been brought up like that, honestly, so why can’t I be someone like Billy Bob Thronton, for example? He’s such a great actor, but he’s not traditional. Johnny Depp’s not traditional. Why can’t we have far out ideas? Why can’t we be a bit rebellious? Why can’t we be creative and artistic and sometimes say the wrong things, as long as we are not bigoted or racist, you know?

Why can’t artists in India be outspoken, indeed? When you see what’s happening in the US, some of the biggest stars, Meryl Streep, included, are making political statements on global platforms, don’t you think India needs its Meryl Streeps too? Shouldn’t artists be political here?

No, when it comes to politics, I think, you have to be very careful because you have been given that platform to be an actor. And when you’re an actor, people listen to you. When you are successful at one thing, people have a tendency to imagine that therefore your opinion counts on all topics, which is a big mistake. For example, somebody, who is a big star, might be completely clueless politically, or might not be balanced in his opinion. So to use the respect and the support he’s getting by the audience for doing a certain job, which is acting, and to try and get people to agree with his political views on the same front, is very dangerous. In that sense, actors should completely be apolitical. Or, at least, the audience should be mature enough to separate the actor’s political opinion from his popularity as a screen idol, and, you know, not confuse the two. But they do confuse the two. They end up voting for Amitabh Bachchan when he stands.

You have always been forthcoming when asked about your politics. In fact, a couple of years ago, an article you wrote on ‘Love Jihad’ went quite viral too. You had mentioned the need for a moderate Muslim voice within it. Do you never imagine that voice to be yours?

In its own way, I am an ambassador for moderate Islam. I’m not very Islamic, and I’m not very religious. But when people meet me at Gstaad, or at London or wherever we are travelling abroad, I think I leave them with a certain sense of ‘Okay, well, we’ve just met a secular Muslim’. So in that sense, yes, but otherwise, I don’t believe in the philosophy of religion enough to want to be a voice for anything.

But with Islamophobia at its peak, don’t you feel like actively participating in progressive discussions about Islam —

— (emphatically) No! No! I mean, (pause), I think somebody might be required to redefine the religion, you know, as Jesus Christ redefined Judaism. Islam is, technically, the last revelation of the same message.. the first message was to Abraham about Judaism, the new message was to Jesus Christ, and then the most recent message was to Mohammed, but nobody agrees with each other to this point. It’s a mess when you get into religion. And just the idea… it’s post gratification to the nth degree, where, you know, you are even allowed to drink wine in paradise but it’s banned on earth. That kind of thing, I mean, I don’t buy.

You sound a lot more sorted in your head about what you seem to want from life, as you approach your 50s, as opposed to your early years, where you were self-admittedly ‘immature’. Is this state of mind a reflection of your marriage to Kareena Kapoor Khan and the second phase of fatherhood?

I mean, it’s more to do with age, you know. My father wrote me a note once that said, ‘The secret of Islam was revealed to the Prophet after his 40th birthday’. I think, he meant that when he was 40, he started going through a maturity too, where things kind of slow down. I’m not in a rush to lead my own life, and to explore my own horizons anymore. I’m pretty sorted with what I am, what I’m doing, in the kind of life I wanted to lead. So I’m happy to share all that with Taimur, you know.

(Pause) I loved bringing up Sara and Ibrahim, but, somewhere, I was also finding myself at that time. Of course, part of that continues, but I feel more grounded and I think I’ve grown. I’ve grown in front of people, where they were mimicking me with a nasal voice and now they don’t. Over time, with the kind of reading I’ve done, a process of enlightenment has begun, where one understands, and things resonate more.

And as for being married, like my father said, after a point, you must accept that your wife is another person than you. On one level, you are replacing her family so you need to be a bit aware of that. But, I think, in Kareena, I’m very lucky to have a wife who is very, very tolerant of me. I really don’t have to watch my Ps and Qs around her. But I mean, balance is the key in a relationship. Some space apart, some time together, and it’ll all be easy.

The golden rule, of course, is to not question it, you know (chuckles). It’s a quasi-religious approach (laughs). There’s no chance, no chance, if you start questioning. It has to be unconditional and unequivocal. You can’t even question whether you are happy or not or whether what your wife said makes any sense or not, just take it for granted and just get on with it, you know. As Abba said, ‘Think about something else’. (bursts out laughing)

I started the conversation talking about your legacy as an actor. I want to end by asking you —

— On legacy, actually, there’s one thing that’s important to me. Karan Johar asked me on his show, what are two Nawabi traits about you, and because it’s such a bloody high pressure show I gave him some shit answer like ‘horses and guns’, which I don’t mean, because I don’t ride a horse (laughs). But what I should have said is, looking after Pataudi is an honour, and that is my legacy. It’s something that I want to pass on for generations to come. I want the gardens to be perfect, I want the photographs that reflect cricket history to be perfect, I want to spend money that I earn, as Kareena says, standing in the sun for movies (laughs), on maintaining that house, and maintaining the family atmosphere there. So it’s somewhere we can all get together. That means a lot to me.

My question was about the legacy you would want to leave as a father?

Without being arrogant, I think Taimur is going to grow up, whether he likes it or not, as a bit of a Prince, you know. But the big thing for his mother and I, is to keep him level-headed and not to let him be spoilt. And the bottom line for that is a good school and a balanced upbringing, with a slightly strict focus on education being very important, because that’s the only thing that grounds children.

But, besides that, I think fatherhood is not about changing diapers and reading stories only, it’s a lifelong commitment, guidance, and rock-like support forever. I’m happy I have older kids like Sara and Ibrahim and a tot like Taimur, and I want them all around when I drink wine around the fireplace in Pataudi in later years. I must pass on the legacy of Tiger and his ancestors too, of what a man should be, and the open and curious mind one should have.

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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on February 24, 2017
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/saif-ali-khan-i-am-an-ambassador-for-moderate-islam
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Vikramaditya Motwane #Profile #OpenMagazine #Trapped

The Loneliness of Being Vikramaditya Motwane

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/Q5rGec

When Vikramaditya Motwane’s urban survival thriller, Trapped, releases on March 17, it would have been three years, nine months and a few odd days since his last film, Lootera, opened in theaters to universal critical acclaim. For an industry that churns out 200+ films every year, any director of calibre typically has a release every second year, and the more prolific or fortuitous ones may even manage to put out a film a year.

This inordinate gap between Motwane’s two films has little to do with his calibre; his debut film, 2010’s coming of age drama Udaan was officially selected to compete in Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Un Certain Regard category, the first Indian film to do so, in almost a decade. His second, the heartbreakingly beautiful Lootera, inspired from O Henry’s The Last Leaf, found a place in most year-end ‘Best Of’ lists, with film critic Rajeev Masand calling it a film that “makes a place in the heart”, and leaves “a lasting impression”.

Motwane’s prolificacy isn’t in question either; in the same period, as part of the directors’ collective Phantom Films, Motwane has produced an incredible eleven films (along with Vikas Bahl, Anurag Kashyap and Madhu Mantena) including critical and commercial successes Queen, NH10, Masaan and Udta Punjab.

So as is the wont of Bollywood, it all comes down to luck, and Motwane has been plagued by a particularly bad stretch of it over the last four years. At various points in these years, he has been attached to a dysfunctional family drama starring Ahana Deol, a thriller, AK vs SK, starring Shahid Kapur, vigilante drama Bhavesh Joshi, first starring Imran Khan, then Siddharth Malhotra, and a superhero drama Chakra, co-created by Stan Lee.

While the first film never took off, AK vs SK was shelved after some days of shoot, and at some point, so was Bhavesh Joshi, as the script had stopped being relevant, having been written back in 2011. And so, Trapped, a story about a man locked in an apartment in a newly-constructed, empty Mumbai high rise, trying desperately to break free, happened because of, and as a reaction to, the stalled movies before it.

“To be honest, the film was made in anger,” a wistful Motwane recalls amidst a packed Juhu café. “I had reached a point where I felt responsible towards my crew as they had hung around with me for so long through all those shoots that started and then stopped. I was also tired of just doing ads or prepping for movies. I wanted to shoot something narrative, something that was longer than three days.”

The idea for the film came to him through an email by writer Amit Joshi, and Motwane’s first reaction was, ‘I can do this!’ “It was such a good challenge for all of us,” he says. “It was a great story, easy to make, and I liked that the nature of the idea was universal. It could have been set in Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore, Cal (sic), or even Shanghai or America. And after everything that had happened, I just felt that I should jump in.”

Motwane and a minimal cast and crew did just that. Within three weeks of having decided to do the film, Motwane and his crew were shooting a start-to-finish month-long schedule in one location, an unoccupied building in the middle of Parel’s frenetic commercial district. It felt almost like a “student film”, Motwane says with a chuckle.

Beyond the fact that a survivor thriller like Trapped had never been done in India, what attracted Motwane, a filmmaker whose painstakingly beautiful frames in each of his first two films were just as much talked about as his grasp over storytelling, was its theme of ‘urban loneliness’.

The lead character in the film, Shaurya, played by the very able Rajkummar Rao, is an immigrant in the city, one of the many anonymous people with anonymous jobs, who come to Mumbai and try to find both, their calling and themselves. He is completely alone in that he has no dependency on anyone in the city, and there’s no one by way of family to come looking for him if he goes missing.

At the start of the film, Shaurya is in a relationship with Noorie (played by Liar’s Dice actress Geetanjali Thapa) though, and Motwane characterizes this relationship as a form of urban loneliness too, in that the two are “alone together”.

“When two people like each other in Bombay, and you see them together at Marine Drive or Juhu Beach or in cabs or trains, these are two people are both lonely because it’s only each other that they actually have ,” says Motwane. “Their isolation from the city to me was best encapsulated in a scene where the two of them are listening to music on the same pair of earphones in a train. It’s something I’ve seen couples do… and I find that very cute, yaar (smiles).”

There is certain comfort and ease with which Motwane talks about loneliness, and for anyone who’s followed his filmography so far, it’s not tough to see why. Both Udaan and Lootera were films about lonesome, misunderstood characters, whose battles were not just with the world outside, but with their own selves in a world that they were trying to find their place in.

In Udaan, the lead character’s isolation and quest to be appreciated by his father, was memorably captured in a scene where he beats up his father’s car. In Lootera, the isolation manifests both physically, as Sonakshi Sinha’s character, betrayed in love, lives in seclusion in Dalhousie; and symbolically, as Ranveer Singh’s character takes up a solitary task to of painting the last leaf on a tree every day, so as to give hope to the dying woman he loves.

In hindsight, Motwane reveals, he’s always been a bit of a loner himself, and his films may just be a materialisation of that on to the big screen. “I believe in characters whose actions speak louder than words, characters who do things alone and quietly,” he says. “I love making films without too much dialogue. That’s not to say there’s no communication in my films, in fact there’s a lot of it and I really, really enjoy that. But I really get off on silent scenes, yaar (smiles).

“Udaan has a lot of that, Lootera has a lot of that, Bhavesh (Joshi) also has a lot of that (laughs), and now that I think of it, maybe that’s what attracted me to Trapped as well. I just like lonely characters… I find them interesting in cinema, in books, and in general. There’s something about one man versus the world.”

On further reflection, Motwane believes this could be because, hailing from a divorced household, he grew up too fast as compared to other kids his age. “I had a maturity level a little higher than that of everybody else,” he recalls. “I started smoking before everybody else, drinking before everybody else and smoking weed before everybody else. I had elder cousins who were too old for me to hang out with, so maybe I took that leap to fit in with them. But I never could fit anywhere, not with them or with my friends.”

Meanwhile, the city in which Motwane grew up in, ‘Bombay’ changed into ‘Mumbai’ overnight and he couldn’t recognise what had happened to it anymore. He characterizes his relationship with it as “love-hate”; there’s parts of the city he grew up in and knows like the back of his hand, and there’s the bustling metropolis that is Mumbai, where it seems that some people care [about others], but the others do not at all. “The city overwhelms you in a weird kind of way now,” says Motwane. “It’s almost as if the city I grew up in was Bombay.. and Mumbai is a city I don’t know at all.”

This nagging feeling of being an outsider within your own city is a feeling that’s stayed with Motwane for much of his life. And as a filmmaker, who belongs to that school of filmmaking where God lies in the details and craft is just as important as story, this is a feeling that has percolated into the art he makes and the industry he’s a part of too.

“I still feel like an outsider, even within the industry and film circles,” Motwane admits, “in the sense that my stories are very different from what anybody else is making. I think that’s a good thing because compromising or becoming like everybody else is not going to be a solution to anything. On every story I develop or work on, I soon start feeling that ‘Oh, this has got a very limited audience’, which I’m quite happy about! I know I can then take them and turn them into something larger and bigger, within the aukat (capacity) of the film.”

Motwane agrees that it may be the producer in him talking about making things ‘bigger’ but the fact is, the movies that he grew up with, the classic ‘cinema’ of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg or even Quentin Tarantino, are hardly relevant anymore; the last movies of these auteurs – Silence, The BFG and The Hateful Eight, respectively – failed to set the box office on fire, and the ones before didn’t rake in substantial money either.

It now seems that with dwindling attention spans of audiences in the age of Snapchat, the only way to stay relevant is to move on from purist cinema towards a new kind of event cinema, which all modern day auteurs from Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) to Alejendro Inarittu (Birdman) to Christopher Nolan (every film) seem to be embracing.

Five years ago, Motwane would have been reluctant to agree, but today, having seen the collapse of the mid-budget film that could very well have been his strength, he concurs. You have to evolve now, you have to grow as a filmmaker… I think every film you make should be an event,” he says.

“I think there’s a general acceptance within me towards that; that you have to hit the ground running. The world is not as patient with cinema as it was when I made Udaan or even Lootera. You have to be conscious of that, and I’m understanding that.”

But all is not lost, where the scheme of things in commercial Indian cinema is concerned, and Motwane recognizes that. As a producer, he’s been part of films like NH10 and Udta Punjaab, that challenged the status quo of ‘mainstream sensibilities’, and still managed to work at the box office. Such risks are inherent to Motwane’s storytelling ability, and it gives him heart that the audience is welcoming them, as recent films outside his banner like Neerja or Dangal prove.

The fact that Dangal, a film that Motwane believes may not have been made at all ten years ago, is the highest grossing film of all time, gives him a ‘vindication’ to believe that the audience are accepting a certain kind of story now… that perhaps, it’s not a lone fight anymore.

And so, the Trapped director is prepping himself for the next stage of his career, where he wants to liberate himself from his own boundaries, by ‘overstretching’ and ‘overreaching’ and making all kinds of movies, including sci-fi and animation, as well as a sequel to Udaan, because of the opportunities he has at his disposal today. He wants to make up to two films a year, if possible, and will keep developing scripts till he is able to achieve that, but at the same time, is keenly aware of the library of his work that he eventually wants to put together.

“I feel that there is the here and now, where you go and make films and get successful, and then make more films, but then what? Do you want your films to be seen 15, 20, 30 years from now, do you want a library, in the (Stanley) Kubrick sense of the way, that people value? I do, and I’m conscious of that. So you need to not only challenge yourself, but in some sort of a way, challenge your audience too.”

For Motwane, the greatest such challenge lies in finding the balance in his work in a way that feeds his creative soul and still appeals to the audience. He calls Trapped his ‘most commercial film’ and believes that with it, and his next film, Bhavesh Joshi, he has found a way to make his stories “more accessible” and “universal”. This is not to say that he’s become less inventive or “sold out”, “I just believe it’s a bit selfish to be stuck in your own loop.”

“I have tried to open up my audiences but at the same time, I have taken exactly the kind of risks in Trapped that I know the audience for this kind of a film would like. So I’m hoping, film by film, the audience grows out. Because what’s happening on the commercial spectrum is so heartening that you also feel like extending yourself.”

Motwane pauses for a brief moment, then smiles. “Or maybe, it’s just maturity, you know.”

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on March 10, 2017
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/the-loneliness-of-being-vikramaditya-motwane
Picture courtesy: Ritesh Uttamchandani for Open. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Mira Nair #Profile #OpenMagazine #QueenofKatwe

Mira Nair: Breaking the Colour Code

Mira Nair’s new movie is a daring rejoinder to racial prejudices

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/bhuR62
““Irresistible” is one of those adjectives that critics should handle with utmost care,” reads the very first paragraph of the review of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, by the New York Times’ chief film critic of over a decade, A.O. Scott. “But if there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don’t think I want to meet that person.”
It’s been a month since the tenth feature-length live action film of arguably the most accomplished and feted international director of Indian origin, Mira Nair, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey spoke of how the world has been catching up with Nair’s stories. Bailey went on to proclaim that Nair’s time is “now”, and ever since, the accolades for both her and her new film haven’t stopped.Being a four-quadrant-pleasing inspirational Disney biopic of an underdog chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi, from the slums of Kampala, Queen of Katwe may not be the standout movie of Nair’s remarkable career that counts, among its many highlights, the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! and the screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful exploration of one’s roots, The Namesake. And yet, it is, by all means, just as important as every other story Nair’s chosen to champion through her distinct cinéma vérité style of filmmaking.Because this is the year in which the American film industry is still reeling from the embarrassment and backlash of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, where all 20 acting nominees at the Academy Awards were white, for the second time in a row, since 1998. It is also, lamentably, the year where US Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric against anyone who isn’t a straight, white, American male, has managed to sway a significant part of his highly-educated first world country into advocating for him.In such a time, so fuelled by class divide, prejudice and racism, here’s a film by the most successful of the ‘Big Six’ American film studios at the moment, featuring an all-black cast led by a 16-year-old debutant non-professional actress from Uganda, set almost entirely in Africa, and directed by a woman filmmaker of Indian origin. In any other year, a film like this would have been an anomaly, but in 2016, when the world seems to Benjamin Buttoning itself into a de-evolved, Neolithic version of itself, the very fact that Queen of Katwe was made, is akin to a miracle.

But that’s exactly what attracted Nair, never been one to shy away from challenges, to the story in the first place. “If you see Africa on any screen, even within Africa or without Africa, it is always to do with dictatorship or beastiality or child soldiers and violence; it has nothing to do with the kind of everyday life in Africa,” she says, over the telephone, in a conversation that took place minutes before her film’s European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

“I think it’s so important to break the ignorance, the myopia, and the, sort of, terrible tropes and stereotypes that exists about other places in the world today. Even in India, there is massive racism against African students. There is so much importance given to the colour of our skin, and there’s caste prejudice that we’ve been carrying on for years, that the government stokes every moment, you know. A film like this hopefully makes you realise that the Nigerian student down the street is not a hustler or whatever the world may tell you that he/she is, and that’s important to know right now.”

Lending a voice to those who don’t get much of a say has always been one of the prevalent themes of Nair’s movies. From tackling the pandemic of child abuse in Monsoon Wedding to the rising Islamobhobia in her last film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair takes pride in giving a platform to the disadvantaged, the marginalised as well as the misfits, while ensuring that their portrayal is not bleak, but instead, spirited. Nair calls it the “life-ist” attitude that she has seen as the fundamental component of the human condition, irrespective of where she’s set her film.

“This attitude, this embracing of life fully… the emphasis on how much you can create with your life, regardless of how little you may have, has always inspired me,” Nair says. “The struggle to just achieve you are by people considered outside of society, is a tale I have tried to tell since Salaam Bombay!, because there’s dignity and joy that you never see or hear of.”

When a Disney executive with Ugandan roots, Tendo Nagenda, brought her a cut out of a sports magazine that had profiled Mutesi, asking her if she’d be interested in making a film on her, Nair knew this was a story she needed to tell. Mutesi’s story took place barely 15 minutes away from her house in Kampala, a city she calls home since the last two decades (she met and married her husband Mahmood Mamdani, a Professor at Columbia University, New York, in Kampala), but it was opportunity to authentically portray a people she has come to love, that jumped out at her.

So if Queen of Katwe tick marks the genre sports film, it also firmly shines a light at the vivaciousness and compassion of the Ugandan community, beyond just the colours of its streets, the hip hop music or the vibrant camerawork (by 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbitt). The story of Phiona, she points out, is not just the story of how “genius can be found everywhere”, but that of the entire community that lived her dream with her, and for her, “because that is how life is lived in Kampala.”

“It’s not an individualistic life or a one person show. It takes a mentor like Robert Katende, a mother like Harriet Mutesi, it takes a street, a family… it takes a village to make a genius. It’s this prismatic view that I find interesting. I also think the world is ready to see on screen what the world is off screen – the multiplicities, the diversity, the inclusivity, and the humanity – which I love to film. Because I am certainly never going to make the reductive formula sports film that is expected of me,” she laughs.

Having grown up between Rourkela and Bhubaneshwar, then studying in Delhi University and Harvard University, and then, having found her calling in Hollywood, shuttling between her three homes in New York, New Delhi and Kampala, Nair is a global citizen, if ever there was one. So presenting an all-encompassing world in every story she illustrates on screen, is not just important to her, but in some ways, obligatory.

“If you are truthful and all-encompassing, whether you are watching Uganda in Queen of Katwe or Monsoon Wedding with the Punjabiyat of it, or the streets of Bombay in Salaam Bombay!, even if that world is far away from your reality, you will eventually see yourself in that truth too. You relate because you either know the feelings I have tried to portray, or you could know them.”

It was hence critical to Nair to have cast actors from the same streets that she tried to paint this honest picture of, if Queen of Katwe was to work. Madina Nalwanga, who played the lead role of Phiona, grew up not far from Katwe, in the streets of Kibuli, where she sold corn for a living, and was found through a dancing troupe she was a part of. All the other kids were non-professional actors too; a strategy that had helped her put together a magical cast during her debut in Salaam Bombay! as well.

“Children are like the maps of life in the way they move their hands or bodies,” she says tenderly. “I had no interest in taking an upper class child and teaching him or her how to bathe with half an inch of water. My interest, on the other hand, is actually being educated by a child, to show us the world that he or she is coming from. So when we found the kids, I distilled the roles according to their strength and their fun, so even the audience would feel a sense of familiarity on seeing them.”

“Morever,” she points out, “there’s a real alchemy that happens when you put together a kid from reality opposite a legendary actor like David Oweloyo (who plays Phiona’s coach Katende) or Lupita N’yongo (who plays Phiona’s mother Harriet), or Naseeruddin Shah in Salaam Bombay!. Because when you have a pure non-actor and a pure actor, they both have to meet at a point of purity, you know.”

It is this commitment to break out of the trappings of traditional Disney fare that gives Queen of Katwe the characteristic Mira Nair stamp, which the director gives full credit to the studio for not trying to “sanitize”. Because if the film plays out the conventional soaring, uplifting sports film tropes, like the sports metaphors that Katende uses to explain life itself (“Find your safe squares”), there are enough unpredictable and unexpected moments of genuine emotion derived from the “barbarity and brutality of living in the slums,” as Nair puts it.

The filmmaker points out specific examples of scenes where Phiona, when she first goes to the Church where the other kids are playing chess, is called a ‘pig’ and has to fight to eat the complimentary porridge by her own. Another scene, where Phiona, on beating a boy at chess, asks out aloud if she was allowed to win by him, is an example of the “familiar female diffidence” that is still rampant in so many women, according to Nair.

“These are not unique attributes, you know,” she explains, “These things happen to all of us, and that makes us think and believe that we are pretty much the same people, no matter where we are. I don’t like sugar coating this, but yes, I do like to tell it all in a way that you have mazaa (fun) also. Because if you feel the mazaa, you feel the pain too.

“That is how I make movies – I don’t want a harangue; I don’t want to be lectured to. So I have shaped the film like a human heart and the rhythm of it is like an accordion. It expands your heart with laughter, because the kids would do that to me with their finger snapping and their sounds that were so full of sassiness; and in the next moment, you’d see the reality of eating, where you are fighting for a bowl of porridge.”

A turning point in the movie, for Phiona, comes through when a kid she’s playing with explains to her why chess matters to her. “In chess, the small one can become the big one,” she says, referring to the chess rule wherein a pawn can become a queen if it makes it across the board to the other side. Phiona makes this her motto, deriving courage from it, and giving it her own moniker that ties back with the movie’s title: “queening.”

Queening can aptly be used as a term to describe the swagger of the women in the movie. Because Queen of Katwe isn’t just an inspirational sports film that would empower the young Phionas of the world to dream big and then chase those dreams down; but for Nair, it is also a feminist movie inspired by, and dedicated to the Harriets of the world, because without their pluck and persistance, there could be no Phionas.

Says Nair, “I don’t ever want to make a female character who gives up on life. Even the real Harriet is a formidable ‘Mother Courage’, someone who became a teenage mother but refused to let her children follow her path, as best as she could. She struggled so deeply in her youth but resolved that she will stand up for her children.”

“That’s the tenacity that Phiona has inherited too. She’s lethal and resolute in chess, and that comes from her mother’s life, struggles and courage. And these are the women I like depicting on screen: who are as complicated as we all are, and inspiring in their own ways.”

With virtually no wrong moves in her film career spanning three decades, be it through her feminism or her movies that feature protagonists embracing life with all the curve balls it throws at them, or through the film school she’s started in Kampala, the Maisha Film Lab, that has been galvanizing African youth through its motto, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else well,” perhaps Nair’s endgame too, has been “queening” all along.

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 21, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/mira-nair-breaking-the-colour-code
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Neeraj Pandey #Profile #OpenMagazine #MSDhoni

Neeraj Pandey: Captain Cool

A big budget feature film on India’s most successful captain is a different kind of thriller for Neeraj Pandey.

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/55CBEJ
In two weeks, National Award-winning filmmaker Neeraj Pandey will face the biggest test in his (roughly) decade-long Hindi film career. On September 30, his fourth feature film as writer-director, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, made over a period of two-and-a-half-years, on a reported budget of Rs 80 crore, will release worldwide in four languages.
A biopic on the life of arguably India’s greatest cricket captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer MS Dhoni will be Pandey’s first film since A Wednesday! to feature a lead actor other than Akshay Kumar (he starred in both Special 26 and Baby), in a genre other than a thriller, on a story not his own, and on a canvas far bigger than anything he’s ever played with.
But over an hour-long afternoon conversation in the meeting room of the office of his production outfit, Friday Filmworks, which he co-owns with producing partner Shital Bhatia, you could very well pass off Pandey as ‘Captain Cool’, the moniker deservingly earned by Dhoni for his ability to stay unfazed, especially at crucial junctures of any match.

If the film is a critical moment in his own journey, Pandey doesn’t betray any sign of nerves. He is visibly unpretentious, laidback and genial during the interview, and for a man fresh off a Rs 100 crore plus box office hit that he produced in August with Rustom, he is self-deprecating to the extent that he answers every other question first with a joke on himself, before grappling to find an earnest response, but only to satisfy the demands of the query itself.

Because, just like Dhoni again, Pandey seems conscientiously focused on the prize, and everything else in between is something he’d rather get through with, so he can do what he loves doing, his ‘9 to 5’, as he calls it. And for this reason, giving interviews, going to Bollywood parties or even being ‘visible’ for anything other than actual work is a task. “I love what I do, there’s no denying that,” he says, “but this is not my entire life.”

“My passion is pre-configured and I have a lot of respect for my ‘9 to 5’ or ‘9 to 12’ sometimes, so I don’t feel the need to display it. I have never felt I am a crusader in the world of movies, ki yahan jhande gaadenge (I’ll bury my flags here).  Between writing something and creating something, I’m dealing with the world in my own way, and that negotiates all these other issues, and purges me in so many ways. That’s my day to day motivation, and I hope it continues; I hope I remain this way.”

Pandey’s way, of course, is a stark contrast to most filmmakers in an industry that’s certainly a large part film, but also equal parts glamour. And that could perhaps be because of the non-filmy journey the director’s had to reach where he is today. Growing up in late ‘70s Calcutta, as it was called then, to working class parents, Pandey wasn’t the kind of child who had his life chalked out in any way.

“You know, it’s a myth that everyone in Calcutta is intelligent,” he says with a laugh, pointing out that he shouldn’t be perceived as intelligent ‘just because he was born there’. “No doubt, some of the people who shaped the film industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s were Bengalis, but you are talking about Howrah, jahan Bombay pata hi nahin tha kahan hai, hamein (where we didn’t even know where Bombay was). Most of my friends wanted to do BCom and the more dynamic ones had only one dream, bas yahan se nikal jaayein’ (to just get out of here). At that time, I really had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.”

If there was one thing that he did know, it was that he liked telling stories through his childhood. “I was very good at lying as a kid and it all started from there,” he says with a straight face. “I was a very mischievous kid, so I had to keep on making excuses, by using my imagination and digging up stories.  I think that, sort of, perfected my skill at storytelling and sowed the seed.”

Pandey was always a literature buff and was just as interested in all forms of sports, growing up. Looking back, he is certain that the nudge towards movies was more subconscious than either of these active hobbies. “I can make it sound profound and intelligent at this point, but to be honest, at that time, I just liked watching films a lot, without knowing anything about the film industry or that I’ll be pursuing a career in it.”

Two films in particular left an indelible mark on him, though. One was Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, the “experience” of which stayed with him through the years. The other was Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool that he watched a number of times to “find out why I am seeing it over and over again”. “Maybe it was the theme of rise-and-fall that affected me, or maybe it was the music, which I was very, very fond of at that time, contrary to what I’m known for today,” he says sheepishly.

“One song in the film, Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Dekhi zamaane ki yaari’ stayed with me and that disturbed my parents a lot ki kuch to problem hai idhar (there’s some problem here). Because at that age, you are not listening to this kind of music.”

Talking about his parents, Pandey says he feels “blessed” that they were always encouraging towards any hobby or passion that cultivated, as opposed to other parents of that generation, who’d rather their children pursue either of engineering or medical sciences. He remembers how they never stopped him from doing anything, until it was absolutely necessary. So when he took up reading and films as hobbies, there was no “resistance”. “In fact, I guess it was more a sense of relief than anything else for them that I found something to do with my life,” he reminisces with a laugh.

Films turned into a passion for Pandey during his college years in Delhi in the early ‘90s, as a literature student in Delhi University’s Sri Aurobindo College. He briefly flirted with theatre, strictly as a writer-director, he points out (“there was no confusion about this bit!”), and eventually decided to take up film because he “had no other skillset”, or so he insists.

“If you are a Lit graduate, you anyway don’t have too many choices left in life,” he grins. “Stories excited me, and so I decided to learn direction to be able to tell them visually. My source of inspiration, and my institution at that time was TNT. The channel, which was Cartoon Network by day, used to show black-and-white movies from 9 pm to 6 am. That became a huge source of learning for me. The best stories were made in the ‘40s and ‘50s, even in Hollywood, so watching them sorted me out in life.”

The aspiring director at the time tried getting admission in the renowned Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, but was rejected. So he started doing television in Delhi, as a stepping stone to film. He first started as an assistant director and then worked on a couple of telefilms and fiction television as an independent director for Doordarshan and others, because he says he knew that he won’t get to be a film director “so fast”.  “Main kisi ko jaanta thodi na tha (It’s not that Iknew anyone) that I’ll come here suddenly get a film.”

Indeed, after shifting to Mumbai in 2000, it took time for Pandey to get the chance to work on his first feature film, 2008’s critically-acclaimed A Wednesday! that won him a National Award for Best First Film by a Director. Till then, he worked on commissioned documentaries, TVCs and more television, a lot of it through the first production set up he formed with Bhatia, Quarter Inch Productions.

Meanwhile, he wrote three films, a romantic comedy, a comedy and a satire, none of which saw the light of the day. The 2006 Mumbai serial train blasts inspired him to script A Wednesday! that went on to become a sleeper hit, subsequently being remade in Tamil as Unnaipol Oruvan and Telegu as Eeenadu, both starring Kamal Hassan in the role of Naseeruddin Shah as the ‘common man’ whose life is derailed because of a terror attack.

It was this movie that labelled him as a “thriller guy who makes films about the common man”, a tag that he has now stopped fighting or reacting to. “I have realized you can’t control what the audience or critics take away from a film,” he states.

“I had gone to the theater to see the audience reaction during A Wednesday!, and found myself sitting ahead of two people, who were basically discussing if Naseeruddin Shah’s character was a Hindu or a Muslim and that’s when I realized it’s all gone to the dogs (laughs). The whole point of the movie was to not talk about that, and here I was. Of course, the good thing was that at least people were talking… and perhaps there is a third guy who would counter these two and tell them what the point really was. That’s who I made the film for.”

Ever since, he has stopped falling into this “trap” of trying to leave his audience with any sort of a moral takeaway through his writing. “It’s very important to me that I am not indulgent in thinking ki audience iske baare mein kya sochegi (what will the audience think about this),” he explains.

“But you do want them to be left with some residual value in broad strokes, so what you are trying to say is translated to them, else what’s the point?  Like, in Baby, you were looking to give people a sense of respect for the guy on the border. But usually, the audience gratification I want is only in terms of their attention. As a storyteller, my entire focus is to tell any story as entertainingly as possible and then I hand it over to the director in me, who is a crowd pleaser, and knows when to amp up the background score!”

If there’s one conscious rule that Pandey follows is in his writing is to never hurt or offend anyone, because he asserts that he holds all religions and people in equal regards. Beyond that, he only wishes to deliver quality storytelling, which he hopes people have come to expect from his films, but not so that he becomes “a brand name or something of that sort.”

“It is imperative for me that audience likes the film so people who put their money in the film recover their money so I can make one more film and explore one more genre and tell one more story, and the faith sustains… it’s as simple as that. We are not making films only for ourselves, else we may as well make home videos. We are catering to an audience, so you have to respect that.”

His successful collaboration with Akshay Kumar, twice as a director and once as a producer (Rustom), which has arguably resurrected the actor’s career and given him a new identity as this generation’s Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar, is also more a nod to the audience than to do with his comfort level with the star, or a conscious choice as a filmmaker. “If your gamble pays off, you are hooked on to it right? It’s no rocket science,” he smiles.

But of course, he continues, in Kumar, he has found a star who comes to set as an “actor”, which, he explains, makes his work as a director easy. “There are no airs about him. He and no last minute brilliant epiphanies on set ki koi bulb jal gaya (that some bulb has lit), and he is extremely disciplined. That gives me the ability to focus only on the job at hand.”

On MS Dhoni: the Untold Story, the job at hand may have looked daunting to some, in trying to do justice to the legend of one of contemporary cricket’s biggest idols, but for Pandey, the movie was never about the cricket itself, but about the man and his journey, and that’s what made him take up the challenge of presenting it on the big screen.

After he was offered the film, he found himself in a room talking to Dhoni, and reckons that experience to be a “déjà vu”, because “it didn’t feel like you are meeting him for the first time. He is extremely grounded and earthy and holds all his players and teammates in such high regard that I knew, in that very meeting, that this was a story I had to tell.”

“It’s a very inspiring story about the making of the man that is MS,” he continues. “It’s a story of tenacity, something that, in my belief, pays off big time. If you can be very clear about the fact that this is my goal and go after it, and look the odds in the eye, chances are that you will have a good journey, and you will reach a good place.”

MS Dhoni’s story, of a man who started from nowhere and went on to carve a kind of arc for himself that one can only dream of, is, in a way, the story of India’s ultimate common man. And as such, it only makes sense that Pandey was handpicked to direct it.

As the maker of films that glorifies the extraordinary deeds of the ordinary man, and for a man resolutely trying to stay common in an industry that thrives on the uncommon, it is possibly that the tenacity of Neeraj Pandey’s journey brought him here, and just like Dhoni, it is perhaps the thrill of the chase that will take him towards a good place too.

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on September 16, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/playing-with-dhoni
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THE AWESOME TV SHOW EP 6: David Harbour Interview (EXCLUSIVE) #FILMCOMPANION

Note: This video was written & hosted by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Film Companion. Check it out on YouTube here: https://goo.gl/1jD0LM

From June 2016, I have been hosting a YouTube Show called The Awesome TV Show for Anupama Chopra’s YouTube Channel, Film Companion. In the fortnightly show (mostly), I recommend awesome television shows to watch, recap and review new episodes of some of the best ones and gives loads of lists on what to watch and where.

EPISODE 6
In Episode 6,  I do an all-India exclusive Skype interview with actor David Harbour who played Detective Jim Hopper on Netflix phenomneon Stranger Things on how he prepared for the role, recreating 80s nostalgia and drawing inspiration from Hans Solo and Indiana Jones. For fans of the show, Harbour even gives us clues about what we can expect from Season 2.


NOTE: Watch the playlist of ALL episodes of The Awesome TV Show so far here: https://goo.gl/t59b7b


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Note: This video first appeared on the Film Companion YouTube channel on August 24, 2016.
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Interview: David Harbour #Stranger Things #HT48Hours #TV #QnA

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/e1WYWb

In a summer littered with film disappointments, the pop culture zeitgeist that’s captured the attention of every kind of audience is an unassuming sci-fi-meets-horror-meets-family adventure Netflix series, Stranger Things. The show, about a 12-year-old who goes missing in a small town of Indiana, is a throwback to the iconic films of the ‘80s like E.T., Close Encounters of a Third Kind and Stand by Me.

Actor David Harbour, who has worked with iconic directors from Ang Lee in Brokeback Mountain to Sam Mendes in Revolutionary Road  and writers like Aaron Sorkin in The Newsroom, plays the lead on the show opposite Winona Ryder, as police chief, Jim Hopper, who must uncover the strange going-ons.  In an exclusive Skype interview, he gives us a lowdown on the phenomenon that the show has become.

So are you aware of the incredible response to Stranger Things from India?
(Smiles) Yeah! One of the things that’s so amazing is that Stranger Things feels to me like a very American show, you know. It’s set in Indiana, a small town in the Midwest, but the fact that Indian people are moved by it, are touched by it, is very, very gratifying. It means we have something universal that connects us all. I love that.

What was the idea that the show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers, have for your character, Chief Jim Hopper?
We talked a lot about the skeletons in his closet. This guy has been through a lot of pain because his daughter died, and he’s channeled that into his ferocity of this search for Will. Like, he couldn’t save his daughter, so he’s going to punch his way into saving this kid. And it is so gratifying to be able to play this kind of a leading man role, because you don’t necessarily like him at first, you know? He’s kind of a jerk to children, he drinks, he smokes, he makes fun of Joyce (Winona Ryder) and her kid. And then, instead of making the villainous choice, he gets to go make the heroic choice.

The Duffer Brothers really let me take the reins on this. They’re just really great (chuckles). And they’re children! They were born in the ‘80s, when I was like 10 or 12, so they didn’t know about it as well as I do, and yet, I really think they captured it so perfectly.

The show had so many great homages to the ‘80s. Did you guys look at any ‘80s characters for reference points to Chief Hopper too?
Yeah, I mean, we talked about Han Solo (chuckles), and we talked about Indiana Jones! It’s funny… the hat wasn’t in the script. But I wanted to have an iconic hat that Hopper’s grandfather would have and who’d have passed down to him. And now it does mirror Indiana Jones. We also talked about this swashbuckling guy, who was dark, angry and messed up, and doesn’t know if he loves someone or has that self-awareness… like Han Solo. So yeah, they were big influences, and so was the character of Chief Brody from Jaws, who has this fear of sharks and the water, and then has to go and confront that. In the same way, Hopper has a fear of children dying on him, and he has to go confront that.

The show is like the ultimate tribute to Steven Spielberg. Were you also influenced by him when you were a kid?
My initial love of movies did come from Spielberg. I mean, there was such an earnestness of purpose, where it’s like, ‘movie magic’. You know, movies used to just be magical. Spielberg’s movies were magical. And I feel like we’ve, kind of, gotten a little bit away from it in movies now, it’s kind of become a little bit cynical. And I feel like Stranger Things has that magic quality to it.

Did you relate to any of the kids in the show? What do you remember from that time that you could use in the show?
I guess I was mainly like Finn. You know, I never got to sit at the popular kids’ lunch table, but I, sort of, had my band of geeky friends too, and I was like the leader of that, and would galvanize them (smiles). You know, one of the things we captured so well in the series, I think, is that it was a simpler time back then. It was less technology, nobody had cellphones, so you could kind of get lost in the woods. Like, now-a-days, I feel, like, every kid has a cellphone and so you text with your mom if there’s a monster running after you (chuckles).

What’s interesting is that Winona Ryder was a teen icon in the ‘80s. Did you ever bring that up when you were working with her on the show?
Yeah, I tried not to bring that up initially, because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable (laughs). I was such a huge fan! I had such a crush on her for years and year. I was like 17 years old, when I saw her in Heather, and I used to think she’s so beautiful! And she’s still so beautiful and such a good actress too. And she’s just such a strong woman yet so vulnerable. So yeah, by the end, once she got to know me and she knew I wasn’t a very weird person, I got to geek out with her and tell her (laughs again).

So what can you tell us about season 2? The show’s not been officially renewed so far and fans are dying to hear of the confirmation.
Umm, I do know that they want to continue to use the same characters, should we come back. And I know that they want it to feel like a sequel, as opposed to like a continuation, like how Star Wars was its own thing and Empire Strikes back was its own thing too? (Smiles) So we may not have the yellow scrolling text at the beginning but we may pick up later and reveal to you in some way what things have happened in the interim. And I feel like that sequel quality is also a very ‘80s thing, just like the show.

David Harbour’s Notable Filmography:
Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes (2016)
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016)
The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (2016)
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (2015)
Sam Shaw’s Manhattan (2014)
Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer (2014)
Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (2012)
David Ayer’s End of Watch (2012)
Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet (2011)
Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008)
Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008)
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005)

 

Follow the blog on your left and like The Tanejamainhoon Page on FB: /tanejamainhoonpage
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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in HT 48 Hours on August 18, 2016.
Link: http://www.hindustantimes.com/art-and-culture/exclusive-actor-david-harbour-speaks-about-netflix-s-stranger-things-and-working-with-winona-ryder/story-DIYYNGmeWjfjP6b4lQ1VuM.html
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.