Category Archives: Indian Interviews

SISTERHOOD OF THE ANGRY YOUNG WOMEN #ANGRYINDIANGODDESSES #OPENMAGAZINE #PROFILE

Finally a ‘female buddy’ film that explores what it means to be a contemporary Indian woman. The cast and crew on the journey…


Note:
This profile was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for Open Magazine. An edited version of the profile can be found here: http://goo.gl/INiyWG


There were 399 films from 79 countries screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the 40th edition of one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals.  473,000 film fans attended the festival over 11 days of the festival, including 5,400 industry delegates from 80 countries.

For the 38th year, a majority of the half a million attendees voted for their favourite film as part of ‘Grolsch People’s Choice Awards’ that has often been an Academy Awards predictor, with past winners including Slumdog Millionaire, The Silver Linings Playbook and 12 Years a Slave. Among this year’s favourites were big-ticket names like Ridley Scott’s The Martian (starring Matt Damon), Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (starring Johnny Depp), Brian Helgeland’s Legends (starring Tom Hardy) and Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl (starring Eddie Redmayne).

While the top prize went to Lenny Abrahamson’s emotional thriller aiggRoom, a little Indian film beat all the aforementioned names, and hundreds of other star-studded films to win the first runner’s up prize. The journey of Angry Indian Goddesses, director Pan Nalin’s third fictional narrative and his ninth feature film in all, featuring an eclectic cast of Anushka Manchanda, Amrit Maghera, Sarah Jane Dias, Sandhya Mridul Singh, Pavleen Gujral, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Rajshree Deshpande, was just getting started.

It’s been over a month since the prize, and the film, being called ‘India’s first female buddy film’ has now travelled to the Atlantic Film Festival, the Zurich Film Festival and the Rome Film Festival, been sold to distributors all over Europe, South America and even the Middle East, and is drumming up all sorts of noise for its India premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival in October-end, and a likely Diwali release, alongside Sooraj Barjatya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, starring Salman Khan.

A FILM ON FEMALE BUDDIES
“Seems like a good decision to go with Salman bhai,” laughs Nalin, as he’s fondly called, with his signature top hat firmly in place, “He is back, but our marketing is that we aren’t back; we were always there. The Goddesses are omnipresent, you just never saw us.”

It is quite something that an industry that produces over 1500 feature films each year in various languages hasn’t yet been able to give us a memorable film – or any film perhaps – about female ‘buddies’. It took Nalin, who is based out of Paris and Mumbai and shuttles between the two for work, a couple of years just to get the film financed. “When I wrote the first treatment of the film, producers asked me, ‘Who will watch this film?’ They said that the audiences are not ready… ek ladka daal do (put a boy in it). When Kahaani worked and I went to them again, they said, ‘That’s a fluke’ or again, ‘get 4-5 stars and maybe then it will work’. But I believed the Indian audiences are ready for good content, and with every rejection, my belief became stronger.”

It was perhaps an idea whose time has come. In the current climate, where films about kickass women protagonists are doing wonders at the box office (This year alone, Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu Weds Manu, Anushka Sharma’s NH10, Deepika Padukone’s Piku, were all hits), it was inevitably time for a ‘female Dil Chahta Hai’, as the film is being called by critics.

“It started with a coffee shop where a bunch of young, urban girls were chatting,” Nalin, best known for his award-winning film Samsara (2001), a runaway hit internationally, and his critically acclaimed documentary, Faith Connections (2013), among others, recalls. “I told my associate director, Dilip Shankar, to observe them; there was something in their body language, and their friendship, that wasn’t ever explored in films. For some reason, we’ve always represented women in the rural sides or women suffering. But I wanted to be friends with these girls!”

A REGRESSIVE CULTURE
As much as the idea of a film about female bonding excited him, at first, Nalin wasn’t completely certain that he would be the right person to direct the film, because “he’s a man”. But his background egged him to give a shot. Having grown up in the Gujarat countryside, Nalin was privy to the treatment meted out to women in small town India. When his parents, who couldn’t read or write, decided they wanted a better future for their children, and sent their daughter, Nalin’s elder sister, to study in Ahmedabad, they were faced with violent opposite by the town and were the subject of much derision.

“I remember my mother would come back from the temple crying because someone gave a taunt that your daughter must be a prostitute in the city, else how could she be surviving with no money? My parents had brought us up as deeply spiritual individuals, so seeing the inequality, I always felt the need for creating strong woman characters in my films. And when I was a bit unsure of directing an all-women cast and started looking out for a female director, I found out that even they were directing men! So that was that.”

But it wasn’t all that easy for Nalin and Shankar to pull this off on their own. Besides the fact that the film needed to be authentic to the point of view of young, feisty urban women, the duo, who started observing women closely wherever they went, were often midunderstood as letchers. “One time in Kolkata, I almost got beat up too,” Nalin laughs. It was then that they brought on board two women writers, Subhadra Mahajan and Arsala Qureishi, to research in the media about Indian women, with a single focus: to find out positive stories of women of India succeeding.

The stories they dug up helped Nalin’s team give an overarching structure, but they decided to keep the screenplay loose, since they wanted to build the story organically. Their starting point were the auditions, where 200 girls from all over India were tested, but in a unique manner. Girls were called to the casting office, where Nalin and Shankar spoke to them, for up to an hour each. The questions varied from ‘How was your childhood’ to minute details of how they were treated by their families. There were two big learnings for Nalin in this process.

CASTING THE ANGRY GODDESSES
One was the phenomenon of the ladies loo. “Have you ever cried in the gents toilet?” Nalin asks rhetorically. “Probably none of us have.  But we once met a girl who told us that she worked in a big call center in Malad with 900 other girls, and that she could guarantee that each one of those girls had cried in the toilet at one time or the other. They would cry about problems at home, sexual harassment, unsupportive spouses, or anything else. When we did our first test screening through a top ad agency in Mumbai, I asked the girls in the test audiences if they cried in the loo too. Slowly, all hands went up.”

pan nalinThe other thing that struck Nalin and his team was the unconscious inequality that was being created at each girl’s home through another woman: the mother. “We may have the illusion of a patriarchal society but the mother is very powerful,” says Nalin.

“A mother may not mean it, but when you scratch the surface, a secondary treatment towards women is visible. For example, a hot chapati at home would go to the son instead of the daughter. If it’s hot and the mother has only one cup, she will give it to the son and not the daughter. Somewhere, I felt that this is ingrained deeply in the psyche of mothers in India, and if they made a change, we would have no issues in 50 years from now. So I decided to incorporate both these behaviors, and several other things I learnt from the audition process into the film to keep the story real.”

“What I gathered was that they were not looking for actors, but for people who had the courage to expose themselves and be real, explains Mridul Singh, the senior-most actor among the ‘godesses’, who runs a casting company herself and was among the first to be cast.  “They wanted women who had the courage to reveal the truth, be themselves and have some sort of a fire in their bellies to fight. I had been long disillusioned by this industry because the brief was either that of a vamp or ‘two kissing scenes and six songs.’ I felt vanquished when this film came along. “

ORGANIC FILMMAKING
Even the way Nalin approached the characters was “organic”, once he had chosen a group of goddesses he called “magical”. “So we did four weeks of intensive workshops with these girls, but not for acting,” says Nalin. “We had sessions of yoga, meditation and the inner journey, where we asked the girls to think, feel and liberate themselves. In these weeks, the girls must have cried at least 50 times. They probably couldn’t believe they had come for a film and not to see a shrink.”

“I have always kept acting separate from the person, so if I’m howling in a scene, I’ll be laughing the moment there’s a cut,” elaborates Singh. “But in this film, I couldn’t do that. If I was crying in a scene, I continued to cry, until I vomited outside, lit a cigarette and then came back. It was an emotional rollercoaster. We cried a lot, laughed a lot, and went through a lot, but invariably, we had each other. Most of us didn’t know each other, but one week into it, there were no egos but open, glaring insecurities, vulnerabilities and joy.”

“The atmosphere on the set was one of trust,” says musician and rocker Anushka Manchanda, who is making her debut with the movie. “We were hanging out on the set, wearing what we wanted to wear, smoking, talking, abusing, discussing about sex and orgasms at lunch. There was no need to censor ourselves. I was like, ‘acting is so enjoyable, yaar!’ and the other actresses would scream saying ‘this doesn’t ever happen’!”

Nalin and Shankar created this safe environment for the girls to push them even further, by asking them to create their characters themselves and giving them activities like talking like their character, sitting like them, eating like them, and even collectively going out in the evening for dinner as their characters.

A THERAPEAUTIC PROCESS
“They made us draw the route from our houses to our schools and what we see on the way as our characters,” says Manchanda. “We were asked to write a letter to our fathers when we were 16. When we gave our first shot, we had a ready background as those people and a shared history too.”

“I couldn’t sleep for three days trying to write that letter,” adds anushka sandhyaSingh. “My father had passed away when I was 15 and I had blocked those memories. So when I had to write a letter to my father a year after, I somehow did it, and then called my mother and howled on the phone. Reliving our childhood memories brought out the truth in us, and that was the point. It was a cathartic experience for us. Gaurav Dhingra, our producer, would joke that the biggest production expense on the shoot was Nutella and peanut butter sandwhiches, and tissues. The girls would cry, use the tissues and then eat those sandwiches. It became a routine, but we were all one at the end of it.”

Nalin, whose past work is characterized and admired for its deeply spiritual themes and ideas, led the entire exercise to create a ‘spiritual bond’ between the “goddesses.” Why Goddesses? Because “women are attractive and sexy, from the anglo definition, and they are ‘devis’, from the Indian one,” explains Nalin. “But what I like most about the word is the connection of Goddess to Kali and Rudrani, the goddesses who would take a ferocious form to create a new world order whenever they would get angry. The goddesses in this movie are angry because of Nirbhaya, sexual harassment, corruption, bad partners, and more, but this anger is fueling change. And this film’s spiritual depth is rooted in that change.”

A UNIVERSAL ISSUE
Actor Tannishtha Chatterjee, who has an extended special appearance in the film as one of the goddesses, puts things into perspective: “On one hand, we call women goddesses, and on the other hand, they are raped, abused, and stripped of dignity, just like everything else we call ‘mother’, like the environment or several animals. Our anger is against this system. This is the first generation of India where every woman is aspiring for a career outside of being a mother and a sister, or fulfilling our professional and personal desires. We are free and liberated, and ready to explode if we are subjugated.”

And this is evidently a feeling that has resonated with audiences worldwide, as the film continues to roll its punches with standing ovations in all screenings. At TIFF, where initially, the AIG team was supposed to do only 8-10 interviews, the cast and crew ended up doing over a 100 interviews in a week, even as the goddesses were stopped on the streets for selfies “with their tongues out, just like Goddess Kali,” says Tannishtha.

And this is not limited to the Indian diaspora, in fact, most of the people who voted for the film and came for the multiple screenings were not Indians. “Greeks told me that this is a Greek film, the Brazil distributor told me that I’ve made a film on Brazilian women, one American girl came and thanked me for giving her a voice,” smiles Nalin. “We didn’t expect the response to be so universal. In fact, men are loving the film too! One man told me that the women in the film reminded me of his mother and wife at various times. I’ve not strived to make a film about issues but a film where, if you are entertained, then you may just get inspired too.”

“I think Nalin has cracked the code,” Singh says. “Women don’t want solutions, they just need to be heart. And this film gives them a voice. This is no man hating film, in fact we are sure men will love it.” “I really believe that men would come from this film thinking, ‘Wow, I learnt so much about women today,” grins Manchanda. “And women will come out of theaters saying, ‘F**k yeah!”


Follow the blog on your left and like The Tanejamainhoon Page on FB: /tanejamainhoonpage
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Liked/disliked the profile? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 23, 2015
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/sisterhood-of-the-angry-young-women
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.

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Anurag Kashyap’s 10 Commandments of No-Budget Filmmaking #Directed #Webseries #MTV

At MTV India, I produced an directed a very short web-series – Masterclass: The 10 Commandments of No-Budget Filmmaking by Anurag Kashyap; an Online Cinema Workshop – to promote Anurag Kashyap’s film, That Girl in Yellow Boots. I was in charge of the digital promotions of the film and this web-series was one of the various digital activities we did to market it online.

My work on the digital promotions of That Girl in Yellow Boots got me an award for The Best Entertainment Website (Silver) at the Indian Digital Media Awards 2012. 

Here are the videos:
Produced and Directed by: Nikhil Taneja

Promo/Making Of The Video



Commandment #1 – Do No-Budget Writing

Commandment #2 – With Limited Budget, Comes Limitless Scope

Commandment #3 – Keep An Eye for Detail

Commandment #4 – Take or Leave Free Advice

Commandment #5 – Use Friends with Benefits

Commandment #6 – Get Busy when Others are Free

Commandment #7 – Spam Everyone

Commandment #8 – Just Shoot, Don’t Talk

Commandment #9 – First Comes Story, then Bullshit

Commandment #10 – Feast on Fests

What did you think of the series? Leave your comments below!🙂

Follow the blog on your left and like The Tanejamainhoon Page on FB: /tanejamainhoonpage
Follow Nikhil Taneja on FB: /tanejamainhoonon Twitter:
@tanejamainhoonon Instagram:@tanejamainhoon,
on Youtube: /tanejamainhoon

© 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: Manish Mundra for Open Magazine

THE ‘VIJAY’ OF INDEPENDENT CINEMA
How Manish Mundra become India’s indie scene saviour

Note: This profile was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) for Open Magazine. An edited version of the profile can be found here: http://goo.gl/lgPf8B

Before he heads to the 68th edition of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in the French Riviera, where his fourth production, Masaan (co-produced along with Macassar Productions, Phantom Films, Sikhya Entertainment, Arte France Cinema and Pathé Productions), will be screened in the Un Certain Regard section, Manish Mundra is taking a two-week long detoxifying break at an Ayurveda Center in Bangalore, to ring in his 42nd birthday by himself.

While there, he’s received a script from an aspiring Indian writer-director he’s not familiar with, in his email, the address of which he had publicly given out a few months ago, inviting any and all potential screenwriters and directors to send across their original screenplays. Even between his hectic schedule of meditation, yoga, detox and Ayurveda sessions, Mundra’s already found time to read the script and admits that he was ‘swallowed into it’ the very first time he went through it. “It’s such a wonderful story that it made me cry,” says the soft-spoken Mundra. “I wrote back to the writer to come meet me in Bangalore. He’s coming tomorrow, and I’m making his film.”

Manish Mundra
Manish Mundra

That’s all it takes for Mundra, the producer of last year’s acclaimed Indian indie, Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi, which was screened as the opening film of the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival in August, to make a film. There’s not been a method or formula or returns-based calculation that has led Mundra to wholly fund five completed films so far, and the four other films in development.

“If a script I read connects with me and lingers with me after I’ve read it; if it’s a film set in reality and depicts human behavior and relationships in a way that you and I can relate to, because hamare saath bhi aisa hua hai, ya ho sakta hai (it has happened with us or can happen with us), then it’s a good film according to me, and I decide to make it,” Mundra explains. “It’s not a science for me, it’s instinct.”

How it all began
It’s this remarkable instinct possessed by Mundra, who, till a couple of years ago had no connection with the Indian film industry but led his life as the CEO of a Nigeria-based multi-billion petrochemical company that he built ground-up, which has seen each of the four projects he’s backed be selected and/or win a prize at a major international film festival last year.

Before the official selection of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan this year, multi-director anthology X – The Film screened as the opening film of the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival, Prashant Nair’s Umrika won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dhanak won The Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus international Jury for the best feature-length film at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

With Ankhon Dekhi, his first production and his foray into the world of films, it took even less than instinct for him to part way with his own income: it took a tweet by Rajat Kapoor. The story is already the stuff of legend among India’s fledgling but strong-willed and gifted indie film community. Acclaimed theater and film actor Kapoor, who had also directed four feature-length films, was looking to finance his fifth film but after doing rounds of various independent producers and studios, was headed nowhere.

Letting out his frustration on the social media platform of Twitter, where he had over 130,000 followers at the time of tweeting, Kapoor lashed out against ‘Bollywood’ and said he was putting his script on the backburner and going back to doing theater for a while. Mundra, who was among his followers on Twitter, tweeted back to him saying that he was a fan and that he would like to produce the film. After a brief but rather funny back-and-forth where Kapoor was initially hesitant suspecting some sort of a hoax (Mundra being based out of Nigeria, the country most famous for internet hoaxes, could not have helped), Mundra flew down to Mumbai, signed a six-page agreement at face value, and immediately transferred a chunk of the film’s approximately Rs 9 Crore budget to Kapoor, and went back again, leaving Kapoor to make his film the way he wanted it.

It was less a calculated risk or investment for Mundra, but more the culmination of a long-cherished dream, to one day put his money where his heart is: in the creation of ‘cinema’, his first love. “It’s all a plan of God,” smiles Mundra, “so if not for Rajat’s tweet, some other tweet would have happened. I had been tweeting to other filmmakers without any luck, but I didn’t have any other connection to the film industry. My objective of joining Twitter was to be connected with filmmakers and to get into films.”

Being ‘Vijay’
From as long ago as he can remember, Mundra has been obsessed with films. Growing up in the era of the potboiler ‘80s cinema led by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha and Mithun Chakravarty, as a young boy, he ‘lived movies.’ “Watch a movie on the big screen was the ultimate experience for us at that time,” he fondly reminisces. “Films were like a celebration; the entire family would get together to watch a film and post it, spend the next 6-7 hours in storytelling and discussions around it.

“The films of the ‘80s made you feel like the hero. You didn’t just want to be besides Amitabh Bachchan on the big screen, you felt that you were Amitabh Bachchan and you were Vijay. You lived like Vijay and even talked like Vijay (mimics Amitabh Bachchan’s voice as he says this). I don’t think I ever missed any Amitabh film after I passed standard 10th. And I was motivated by that euphoria to make it in life. The idea of people knowing you, clapping for you and saying that you’ve done something big, was the charge I needed to be successful.”

So it’s not a mere coincidence that Mundra’s life trajectory has mimicked that of ‘Vijay’. At the time of his birth, Mundra’s father was a successful businessman, but soon lost his money, having taken a few missteps. Growing up in Rajasthan, in a state where he was unable to pay his school fees at times, Mundra decided to take inspiration from ‘Vijay’ and be a ‘somebody’.

“I grew up with a patch on my back that I was a ‘poor’ guy,” he recalls. “There was a time when we would struggle for food and I spent sleepless nights crying and wondering why I was poor. But that inspired me to make something of my life. From class 9th, I began earning for my family. In the mornings, I would go to school and in the evenings, I would sell soft drinks from a roadside stall so I could afford the fees. During my graduation, I sold curd for two years and did various other odd jobs too.

“But I believe that if you pass through tough times, they should happen in your teens because that teaches you how to survive throughout life and makes you fearless. Since I had nothing to lose, I made very clear and precise plans of what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to do an MBA when others were doing IPS and IAS so I could become a CEO by 32, so I could earn enough by 40 to leave the business world and join films somehow. That was always the plan.

“Sometimes I failed and didn’t achieve my goals, sometimes I over achieved and crossed it. But by 32, I was a CEO and by 40, I produced a film. I still continue my job on the side though, but that is only because I want to continue funding films completely from my own money, and not depend on external support for P & A or distribution. I also want to continue giving back to the society that gave me so much because at the end of the day, you don’t want to die rich, you want to die satisfied. And that’s what drives me.”

Drishyam Films
Mundra, who runs a non-profit school in Jodhpur that provides free education and funds for over 250 students every year, is now writing a book based on his life to inspire the youth that “even if you have nothing in your hands but big dreams, you can achieve anything. If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” But before he helps shape the dreams of others, he now has a bigger dream, rather vision, for India’s unstructured independent film scene – to turn it into a self-sustaining, content-driven industry.

The first step in this process has been to establish his company, Drishyam Films, which would solely be focused on the curation, production and distribution of independent films. Mundra has already set the ball rolling with it, by appointing industry veteran Srinivasan Narayanan, the outgoing director of the Mumbai Film Festival, as the Chief Mentor, and the dynamic Shiladitya Bora, who until recently ran indie distribution outfit PVR Rare to much success, as its CEO. An office has been setup in Mumbai, and a team of cinephiles as young as 32-year-old Bora, has been brought on board for the specific tasks at hand: to focus on international film festivals; to ramp up the digital, social media and publicity arm; and to develop the line production outfit; apart from a CFO to manage the commercials. The ultimate aim is singular: “To create a platform where fresh, new talent with the courage to say, ‘I can make a film’, can actually be given the resources to make it.”

“When you look back, even mainstream films of the ‘80s had realism,” says Mundra. “You see a Laawaris or Muqaddar Ka Sikandar today, and they make you feel. A film like Guide, which was perhaps the first film that made me fall in love with cinema, is relevant even today. In that era, we had great filmmakers like Govind Nihalani, Prakash Jha or Shyam Benegal making meaningful cinema that was also celebrated. But around the 2000s, we deviated majorly and now we only care about making money. Apart from Marathi cinema, no other Indian cinema has managed to create a space for parallel cinema to exist or prosper in the last 20 years.”

Mundra has a solution to this problem. The solution is all heart, but he explains it through business terminology: “As I see it, for an indie film to do well, it only needs an audience of around 300,000 people in the first 3 days, which is not a huge target. To get that audience, we’ll have to do something called ‘Market seeding’. The idea is that without working backward from the point of view of turnover or profit margin, at this time, we only need to invest in films with good content and good stories. The investment must include money for promotion as well as social media so that an awareness is created and an audience is cultivated over 15 such films in the next 3-4 years.”

“So that’s what we are trying to do at the moment with Drishyam,” he continues. “I will invest as much money as needed in seeding good films, and then hopefully, if we have two more years like this, where our films circle big international film festivals, and in India, we are able to get the films across to the maximum audiences, then in four years, we will have enough traction to invite more investments and more importantly, more filmmakers to get the conviction to make good films, because by then, we’ll have both the platform for good films to thrive and prosper and the audience in place to watch it.”

Since Drishyam is only in its nascent stages, Mundra has also partnered with the renowned Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab and invested over a Crore to the ‘Drishyam-Sundance Screenwriters Lab, which will curate scripts and mentor aspiring screenwriters every year, with Mundra picking up the best scripts to produce through his production outfit. The next goal is to open offices in Europe and America, and attract co-producers internationally, not for investments at this stage, but to give the right kind of exposure to these films in the international markets. Mundra also plans to produce films in the Middle East and in Europe, to further establish the brand of Drishyam Films, and to create new channels for exhibition and distribution too, and unite the whole market with India as its base.

Ask Mundra what he can bring to the table in the international market, and he proudly says, “We are not looking for profits and that’s what makes us unique. Our philosophy is only to make good films, and I’m committing money to see them through to the release. Masaan cost Rs 3 Crore to make but I’ve put in Rs 5 Crores so I can release it myself, and not be dependent on anyone else. Whoever wants to join in, is welcome to, because I don’t want to be the Amitabh Bachchan or the lone ‘Vijay’ in this case. I want to be Naseeruddin Shah, and join hands with everyone to create a prospering independent film industry.”

Having already put his massive vision into action, this year will see the release of all four of Mundra’s upcoming films, with Masaan slated to release in June, following by Dhanak, Umrika and X. There’s also Anu Menon’s Waiting, starring the very same Naseeruddin Shah Mundra speaks so highly of, and four other films in different stages of pre-production. Ask him if his next aim is to work with his idol Bachchan, and Mundra chuckles and wistfully says that it will happen when the right script comes along. “But for now, the next aim is to bring home an Oscar for India. It’s high time,” he smiles.

Liked/disliked the profile? Leave your comments below!

Follow the blog on your left and like The Tanejamainhoon Page on FB: /tanejamainhoonpage
Follow Nikhil Taneja on FB: /tanejamainhoonon Twitter:
@tanejamainhoonon Instagram:@tanejamainhoon,
on Youtube: /tanejamainhoon

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on May 15, 2015
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/manish-mundra-scene-saviour
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: Imran Khan #OpenMagazine #Film

Chocolate Boy. Good-looking. Romantic. Dreamy. Cute. Sweet. These are the sort of words that an average cinegoer would use to describe Imran Khan. ‘Brave’ isn’t used much for him. Nor is ‘actor’. Yet there’s something odd about Khan’s filmography, as it stands today. His first release this year was Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola. His second will be Milan Luthria’s Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! Besides a Dharma Productions’ romcom, Khan has a film each lined up with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Vikramaditya Motwane.

Khan’s upcoming filmography reads like a list of some of the most anticipated films of next year—with some of the country’s finest directors. What have they spotted in Khan that the audience hasn’t? Or is the audience so used to correlating an actor’s looks with the scope of his acting ability that they’ve missed Khan’s risk-taking?

Take a closer look at his filmography; the only pattern that stands out is the distinct lack of one. At first glance, the number of romcoms he’s been in seems high. But Break Ke Baad and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, two of his lesser successes, were not your stereotypical Bollywood romcom fare. Putting these aside, along with the somewhat more mainstream Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, I Hate Luv Storys and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, you are left with Kidnap, Luck and Delhi Belly. These three films are all remarkably different from each other, and while one may call into question Khan’s acumen in picking the first two, one cannot blame him for not trying.

Talking to him, it becomes apparent he is one of the smartest actors of his generation—commendable in an industry where everyone would much rather be a ‘star’. Much like his celebrated uncle Aamir, Khan is a polite, well-spoken and intelligent interviewee. He gives elaborate, articulate and well-reasoned answers. Unlike his uncle, though, Khan never pauses to think before an answer. He has a clarity and honesty rare in Bollywood. He swears casually every now and then, and when he’s talking about something he’s obviously passionate about, he stammers a little. But once he gets into the groove, he speaks with an urbane and informal eloquence.

He’s mastered the art of conversing with journalists. You’d be prudent to think of it as part and parcel of the media game rather than as mere likeability. But even if it is a rehearsed act, it’s refreshing to meet an actor who is evidently aware of the trappings of Bollywood and doesn’t hesitate to say say so—without naming names or insulting an individual or a sensibility.

“I’ve become increasingly aware of this PR bubble that all of us—from the actors and directors to the editors and journalists—inhabit,” says Khan, off the bat. “We’ve all stepped inside this plastic bubble, and all of us are bouncing these crazy balls around, and we’re getting hit by them (chuckles). All of us are starting to behave and react based on what we see other people doing.”

“For example, I read an article in Bombay Times about an actor getting so many crores as a signing amount and I think, ‘Bhenchod! Mujhe kyun nahin mila?’ Or someone gets a big opening and my friend says to me, ‘Bro, tujhe aaj tak nahin mila!’ These articles may have been paid for by that guy to build up his image, but I go and sign a film with a director whose films I may not otherwise like so I can beat that guy. What I’m really doing is responding to a mirage. And I’m now working for a dishonest reason. That’s an easy trap to fall into, and you can’t fall into it.”

Khan employs another analogy to explain the bubble further: “Everyone’s life on Facebook is awesome! There are photos of the best coffee you ever had, of your shiny new sunglasses, the best Saturday morning ever. When you are looking at that, you think, ‘Yaar, kya zindagi hai iski. Why is my life so boring?’ Now all they’ve really done is gone to a Costa Coffee and taken a picture, but they’ve made it an event, and you start reacting to that. But you have to pull out of this bubble and this rarefied air and get some actual air. The PR machinery needs to be fed and you will be amazed how most of it has sweet fuck-all to do with being an actor. So you have to follow your motivations and let go of these distractions.”

Khan’s own motivations are quite elementary: do the work that satisfies you and lets you sleep at night. Perhaps that sounds a bit too simplistic coming from an actor who commands crores for endorsements and stars, along with Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha, in this year’s potential Independence Day blockbuster, Once Upon Ay Time In Mumbai Dobaara!, aimed steadfastly at those mythic ‘masses’, replete with action, item numbers and dialogues like ‘Agar main hero ban gaya, toh meri pehchaan bura maan jayegi (If I become a hero, my identity will take offence)’.

But then again, it may well be that simple, since Khan insists he stumbled into acting by chance. “It was always a short term plan,” he says. “It kind of snowballed. I’ve always wanted to be a writer-director, but I kept getting interesting offers, and I like this work too. So I’m choosing scripts based on straightforward logic—will I watch it? For me, it’s just about doing work that I like with people I like. There is no grand strategy.”

Around 2005, Khan came to India from Los Angeles, where he studied screenwriting and direction at the New York Film Academy, looking for work as an assistant director or writer. He landed himself a meeting with a TV channel that produced an hour-long thriller once a week and narrated a story to them that they seemed to really like.

“After much back-thumping and hand shaking and finger snapping and ‘Awesome to meet a young guy like you, bro’, they said ‘thanks’ and promised to call back,” Khan recalls. “Two months went by, but they never called back. And then one day a friend of mine who was acting in that same project told me that one of the stories sounded similar to [the one] I had gone to them with. When I saw the script, I was shocked. They had converted my story into a full-fledged script and, forget giving me credit, they hadn’t even called me!”

Khan tried to get in touch with the gentlemen from the production house, but to no avail. Livid and frustrated, he didn’t know how he could possibly work in such a messed up system. When Abbas Tyrewala offered him a lead role in his youthful, indie-ish romantic comedy Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, he agreed so that “my name would have some recognition and nobody could ever steal a script from me again”.

It was always going to be difficult to pull out once he got into acting. Especially for a cinephile like Khan, who got into the field just for the love of movies. “I remember sitting in this very room with my best friend and being blown away on so many different levels by Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” Khan reminisces, referring to the study-cum-lounge of his ancestral home, Nasir Hussain bungalow, named after his grandfather, the late legendary filmmaker.

“So when the script for Delhi Belly came into my hands, my heart started going, ‘dhak, dhak, dhak’… I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he laughs. “I was getting to be part of a movie that was emotionally and spiritually like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But I swear to God, when we were making it, not for a moment did I believe it was going to see the light of day. I believed in the movie, and I hoped it would find an audience, but I really didn’t think it would release. And then it did, and it worked. So when these things happen, you continue your journey and keep experimenting.”

Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and Khan has tasted as much failure as success. After the successful Jaane Tu.. Ya Jaane Na, Luck and Kidnap flopped miserably. Other risks he took down the road, like the quirky romcom Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, in which—spoiler alert!—the girl and guy don’t end up together, or the political satire Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, in which he plays a Haryanvi activist, didn’t quite pay off. Critics’ reactions to his acting have, more often than not, been unflattering, to the extent of being hostile.

But Khan has learnt to be undeterred by box office results and critical flak, as long as he’s constantly working on improving himself. “Imagine if a film of mine fails, and I go on the sets of the next one I’m filming and ask the director to make it a comedy instead. Or if I read a puff piece in Cosmo in which a girl says my eyes are dreamy and I tell the director, ‘Bhenchod, eyes ka close-up le, I’m telling you, chicks dig my eyes!’ Here, of course, it’s very important for the director to be strong and tell the actor to hold course,” he laughs.

“NK Sharma, who trained me for Matru…, turned life coach to me in the middle. He told me that for one critic who writes bad [things] about me or my films, there are a hundred people who watch and like me and my films. So if I’m giving weightage to the critic, I should give the exact same weightage to a member of the audience.”

“At the same time, without being overly critical of myself, I keep asking, ‘What could I have done better?’ I mean, forget as just a creative person, but in any field, the day you pat your own back and go, ‘Bro, well done,’ you are screwed. That is the day you stop any kind of growth. For example, I love cooking and I cook a lot. After I’m done, I’m always asking everyone, ‘What do you think? Enough salt? Too spicy?’ That’s part of the entire process, man. You’ve got to keep doing that. You can’t sit back and be satisfied.”

Khan admits that, apart from training specifically for a movie, he’s learning to act by trial and error. He watches playback of his takes to see if he did alright, he watches other actors he’s working with and even actors on screen to understand the nuances they bring to their roles. He learns gestures from directors or picks them up from actors onscreen and pieces together his performances by working hard. “It’s like walking down a maze,” he says. “Something doesn’t work out, and you hit a bump, so you go another way. As long as you keep learning.”

For this reason, despite being acutely aware of his limitations, Khan says he never lets his fears or doubts interfere with taking on a challenge or treading outside ‘the box’. “I feel, very often people limit themselves by imposing restrictions that no one else has imposed on them. ‘I’ll only do this type of film.’ But for God’s sake, why? You’re bloody building a wall. As a creative person, it is your job to stretch your boundaries, and hence stretch the boundaries of other people. If you voluntarily restrict yourself, how will you show the audience something they may not have seen before? If you don’t take risks, how will the taste of the audience evolve?”

It seems important to him to be able to contribute to the evolving tastes of the audience—even as his own sensibilities evolve. He compares the exposure of audiences to new kinds of cinema to eating sushi for the first time. “At first, you go ‘Yuck! It’s raw, and old and clammy.’ And then you reach the point where you love it. But for that, you’ve gotta try it first. So for those of us who’ve seen different kinds of cinema and have had more exposure, it’s important that we create an appetite in the audience for such movies. That’s the way I look at it. You bet on first time directors, small-budget but content-driven films and try to get audiences interested, movie by movie. But you don’t back away from what motivates you and what you like just because the box office isn’t a hundred crore.”

If there’s one thing Khan doesn’t like, it’s “pandering to the audience”. This is why he doesn’t watch television; he believes it assumes the worst in the audience. “It assumes that you are dumb, that you are shallow. And then it reaches out and it finds that, somewhere inside you, there is dumbness [and] shallowness, and it finds that point [in you] and massages it. When you’re actively believing the worst in people, and then encouraging the worst in people, I think you are directly contributing to the decline of society. This phenomenon has seeped into the movies as well, and I can never stand for it.”

That sounds like a paradox, in light of his forthcoming masala flick, but Khan laughs and tries to convince me it isn’t. “It’s a very classic movie. I mean, I watch movies to be entertained. I don’t view cinema as a high art form. I view it as something that is meant to make people laugh, to thrill them, or move them emotionally in some way. My romcoms have generally dealt with first world problems like, ‘She doesn’t understand me, bro,’ and the directors I’ve worked with like Shakun [Batra] or Danish [Aslam], who are my friends, shy away from making a scene too emotional because they think it’s melodrama… When I read the script of Once Upon Ay Time…Dobaara!, it had heightened drama; it made me cry and it made me laugh. These were life and death situations. I found it very satisfying. It came with jeera powder and masala on top. It was just very tasty… Obviously, I was full of doubt when I took it up, but then, it was another way of pushing my boundaries. And I love doing that. I can’t hope for anything better.”

Interview: John Abraham #OpenMagazine #Film

“We didn’t want to do it because we thought it’s contrived, forced and most importantly, it’s immoral,” says actor-producer John Abraham, when asked why his team didn’t use former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination as a selling point in the pre-release marketing of Madras Café, his second film as producer. “We believe that a film should only sell on content and not on controversy.”

In an industry where director-producer Ram Gopal Varma and UTV Motion Pictures once famously hung what appeared to be 15 dead bodies with blood oozing out of their mouths around Mumbai to create ‘buzz’ for their film Agyaat, where actor Akshay Kumar had grinning pictures of him taken next to the hospital bed of the visibly ailing cartoonist RK Laxman to promote his film Khatta Meetha, morality is hardly ever a concept you hear a typical Bollywood producer speak of. But then, Abraham is hardly a typical Bollywood producer.

Shoojit Sircar, the director of Madras Café and of Abraham’s first film as producer Vicky Donor, reveals that after the unprecedented success of the latter—which was about sperm donation and which made whopping profits on its budget of Rs 5 crore, earning a claimed net Rs 64.5 crore worldwide—there was demand from both the industry and the audience for a ‘sequel’: the unspoken cardinal rule followed by hit Bollywood comedies of the last decade. But Abraham chose not to give in to convention for a reason that few ‘typical Bollywood films’ seem to bother with—he didn’t have a “good script worth producing.”

Instead, Sircar and Abraham teamed up for a second time to make a political spy thriller set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war of the 90s, with its central plot about the assassination of India’s former Prime Minister kept tightly under wraps. “This was a film that had no music, where the ‘hero’ doesn’t take revenge when his wife is killed, runs away from danger when he’s asked to do so, and ultimately fails in stopping the assassination, and where the hero, who’s played by John Abraham, never once takes off his shirt,” smiles Abraham, whose “faith in the audience has been reposed” as Madras Café, made on a budget of Rs 35 crore, continues its successful run at the box office, having netted over Rs 42 crore in two weeks, as claimed.

“You know, all pre-release research showed us that our film would be finished in Rs 15 crore,” Abraham recalls, sipping a health shake to beat the fever he’s been running for a couple of days, still determined to do a last leg of interviews to aid his film in any way possible. “And when we did Rs 15 crore in two days, everyone was shocked, because it beat conventional wisdom. Because it proved that there exists a QCCA—a quality conscious cinema audience—in India, and that it’s smart, and that it doesn’t deserve films low on IQ most of the time.”

“Because what are we making otherwise?” Abraham continues, with genuine concern in his voice. “We’re not making films; we’re making proposals. A film that’s based on the structure of an A-lister hero beating up villains and saving the A-lister heroine who dances to five songs along the way, isn’t much of a film to begin with. I mean, it’s really time we stop underestimating the audience, and making the same kind of films and dancing in them and then dancing in malls to promote them and dancing till our pelvises break. I don’t want to make films that I carpet bomb in thousands of cinemas to recover 70 per cent of my revenue over the weekend; I’m happy making films that pick up on Monday by word-of-mouth. Because honestly, I only care about making good content, yaar.”

That’s a line Abraham repeats seven times over the course of the interview, with utmost earnestness. It’s evident that it means a lot to him, championing sensible cinema in contemporary India, and his sincerity is infectious, if not invigorating, especially considering that most of his misses at the box office as an actor have been in ‘sensible cinema’.

From starring in Deepa Mehta’s Water, a film on misogyny and ostracism in rural India that was nominated for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar, to Anurag Kashyap’s cult neo-noir psychological thriller No Smoking, to Kabir Khan’s road movie-meets-political thriller set in Afghanistan Kabul Express—all of which failed to set the box office on fire—Abraham’s been known to make brave choices. In a personal blog post in 2010, Kashyap compared Abraham with Aamir Khan, calling the two the only actors in the industry to have the ‘imagination or intelligence to see a film before it’s made’, and commending his guts for taking on risky projects.

But there’s still the paradox of the two contrary John Abrahams—the smart producer of high-concept cinema; and the mass entertainer-actor who has, since 2011, starred in pulp action films like Shootout At Wadala and Force catering to the lowest common denominator, and featured in four multi-starrer blockbusters, including Sajid Khan’s Housefull 2 and Abbas-Mustan’s Race 2, both of which are part of the Rs 100 crore club, one he admits is composed mainly of films that are “not great”.

“I don’t want to be condescending towards these films because I enjoy working on them,” says Abraham, who is next slated to star in the sequels to Anees Bazmee’s Welcome and Tarun Mansukhani’s Dostana. “I don’t have a problem with mainstream commercial films and, in fact, I’m a big fan of Rohit Shetty’s movies. Because starring in these films has helped me fund and back the movies I believe in. And I’ll do them only up to the point I can make content-driven films commercially successful.”

Abraham has a clear strategy here: marry content with commerce. Having been inspired by films like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List growing up, and, more recently, by Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana and Ben Affleck’s Argo, films that have garnered both critical and commercial acclaim, the actor-producer wants to make “alternative cinema commercial”.

“My aim is to entertain people, which is really important, but at the same time, give them something to think about while walking away from the movie. The idea is to try and touch the Rs 100 crore mark by giving a platform to another story like Madras Café that needs to be told, so as to break the myth that only bad films can make Rs 100 crore. As a producer, I don’t want to bow to the diktats of commercialdom, because our industry needs intelligent films. Someone has to be the flag-bearer of these films, and I’m proud to be among the ones to do that.” A quintessential Bombay boy, the 40-year-old’s deep-rooted patriotism is one of the key driving factors in his endeavour to make ‘good’ films. It’s also one of the reasons that the actor has shelled out crores of rupees to set up offices for his production house, JA Entertainment Pvt Ltd, in central London and Bel Air, Los Angeles, and is making international Indian films as well as international English-language films.

“I don’t like how the world perceives Indian movies,” he says. “Ask any of them about us, and they’ll say, (with an accent) ‘Bollywood! Song and dance!’ We have become caricaturish, and that needs to change. So I’m meeting with potential principal partners in LA and London to tie up with them and take Indian cinema to another level. Instead of screaming from the rooftops that I’m doing Hollywood films, I’d rather be doing an international film that’s an Indian film on par with international films. As much as I’d not like to lose my Indian passport for anything in the world, I’d like to propagate our evolved films internationally.”

“Also, I am not making these films to compete with Hindi films. I’m competing with any good international film from anywhere in the world. And if Hollywood is now making such inroads into our market, I want to bloody well make sure that I make films that are up there with them, so we can penetrate their markets too! I’m a true Indian in that sense,” he chuckles.

As far back as he can remember, Abraham, the son of a Malayalee father and Parsi mother, was ambitious. He enjoyed watching movies but he was most passionate about sport, biking and fitness. So even as he has become a name to reckon with in Indian cinema, he has continued devoting a sizeable part of his time, money and effort towards his pet passions.

“I’m indebted to sports,” says Abraham, who has captained various sports teams, including football, at both the school and college level. “Sports taught me to always be a leader. In fact, my coach told me something very dangerous that’s always stayed me. He said, ‘John, you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold.’ I never knew any other way but to win. At the same time, sport also made me gracious to loss. So when I was criticised for my acting, I took it positively and worked hard at improving.”

In an attempt to return a favour to sport, earlier this year, the actor-producer, who holds an MBA degree, announced a partnership with former boxing world champion David Haye to open a fitness franchise called JA Haymakers aimed at promoting boxing in India. Abraham had already launched a franchise of gyms called JA Fitness in Pune last year. A football academy with Baichung Bhutia has also been announced, and a clothing line called JA Clothes is already in operation. Abraham counts co-owning a motorcycling team in the MotoGP and owning equity in the manufacturing of motorcycles in India as priorities among his business goals.

With such a diverse portfolio of investments, the larger ambition isn’t so much an ambition but a motivation that stems, according to Abraham, from his “middle-class sensibilities”: that of making a difference. Ask him why that matters, especially as part of an industry that—by definition—revels in vanity, and Abraham digs deep down to narrate an incident that he vividly remembers:

“My father, who is an architect, has always been a very honest man,” Abraham reminisces. “He’s never taken a bribe from a contractor and he’s never been to the BMC because he doesn’t want to bribe anyone either. But I remember, it was the year 1996, and I had come back from college to find my father really upset. We had money issues, and he had been cheated of some money. Because of his honesty, he had often been cheated, but this time, it deeply affected him. And at that low point, instead of ranting about how honesty doesn’t matter [to so many others], he sat me down and asked me to promise him never to be dishonest in my life. He told me that credibility matters, being nice matters, doing good matters and being honest matters, even if people around us aren’t like that. That left a deep impression on me.”

“So making a difference matters to me because of the ethics, values and principles my parents have taught me, and because, when I was young and impressionable, many people made a difference to me, too. There’s an inherent core in me that tells me to always do the right thing, because my father has worked really hard to see that I am a good man. And I wouldn’t want to blow that away by any one bad deed.”

“And these are the principles my life and company are built on: We’ve never cheated anyone, dealt in black money, undercut anyone, owed anyone money or bribed anyone. We’ve ensured that the studio makes money on our films even if we don’t, because credibility comes before career. If I’m honest and make credible content, success will follow. At the end of the day, being middle class, I believe, makes me a lot more special.”

Abraham is one of the few actors who puts his money where his mouth is. In an interview with Times of India earlier this year, director Sanjay Gupta, who directed Abraham in 2006’s Zinda and this year’s hit Shootout at Wadala, vouched for Abraham’s simplicity and his distinct lack of ‘star behaviour.’ “John has built a powerful, positive brand around himself. What else can explain a dozen endorsements despite a mixed-bag filmography? Unlike other actors, if he finds a project interesting, he’s flexible on his fee. He doesn’t smoke or drink, is a fitness freak, stays clear of camps, doesn’t dance at weddings, sleeps by 10 and wakes up at 4 am.”

The actor says it’s easy for him to remain grounded—it’s being a ‘star’ that he isn’t comfortable with. He admits having the same five friends since kindergarten; he meets his parents every day; he drives a Maruti Gypsy, which, he points out, cost him only Rs 6 lakh; and “until push comes to shove, I still travel economy,” he says. “People tell me they can’t sit in regular cars because their backs hurt and it’s rough. But I want to feel rough because if I feel settled in my car, that’s a reflection of how I’ll feel in my life. And I don’t want to feel settled. I’m happy in this space and in this lifestyle.”

“It’s difficult for me to be a star with dark glasses and bodyguards because that’s not in my DNA. I can never be that. You can ask my make-up man, I never look into the mirror. I’m not narcissistic. And believe it or not, I am not concerned about a six-pack, I only believe in fitness. I think it’s ridiculous that we all walk around today looking like a bunch of Spartans. And I genuinely feel shy when I meet actors because I don’t know how they’ll treat me! Although, I’ve met some pretty wonderful people like Abhishek [Bachchan] and Akshay [Kumar]. I’m not in films to look good—I want to have a filmography I’m proud of.”

That’s not just a goal but a mandate for Abraham, who is looking to get into direction soon. As a producer, he has two films lined up on historic events with Shoojit Sircar, and a romcom with Sajid Ali, Imtiaz Ali’s younger brother. “The universe, or God, or hard work, or luck, or a combination of these factors has ensured that my childhood dream of being known by my name has come true,” he smiles. “I’m going to respect that and use the platform of films to influence society positively. I’m just two films old, but 10 films down, I want to be an influential filmmaker and one of the most powerful media people in this country. And I’m going to keep my father’s words in mind and work my heart out to make that happen.”