Category Archives: Open Magazine

Oscars So White… and Dull #OPENMAGAZINE

For the second time in two years, all twenty acting nominees at the Oscars are white, and the controversy surrounding that has given consequence to the 88th Academy Awards that were set to be all but inspid

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/DdV02l

On February 28, 2016, all eyes will be on Chris Rock, as he takes the stage to host the 88th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, California, in what has, over the last month-and-a-half, turned out to be the most talked about Oscars of this side of the 21st century, but for all the wrong reasons.

African-American standup comedian Rock’s opening monologue will have to pull no punches, mostly on the ceremony itself, if the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, that runs the Oscars, wants the 88th edition to be remembered for the right reasons, or perhaps one: six-time Oscar-nominee Leonardo DiCaprio potentially winning a compensatory Best Actor Award after 22 years of near-misses, heartbreaks and internet memes.

The story of this year’s awards, which were touted to be the most boring Oscars in a decade since the 78th edition, when Crash inexplicably won over Brokeback Mountain among snooze-fest Best Picture nominees including Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich, unexpectedly became significant, when, on January 14, it so turned out that for the second year in a row, all 20 actors announced as nominees in the four acting categories were white.

Not since 1998 had such a thing happened at the Oscars, and the fact that it has now happened two years in a row, opened the floodgates of controversy surrounding the Academy, as well as Hollywood’s, Achilles heel: its severe diversity problem. There had already been an outcry from Hollywood and beyond in 2015, when the snubs to award shoo-ins David Oyelwo, who portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Best Picture nominee Selma, and the movie’s director Ava DuVernay, gave rise to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, causing much embarrassment to the Academy. The hashtag trended again, immediately after this year’s announcements, compounded by a lengthy post by two-time Academy Award nominee, director Spike Lee, on Instagram.

“How is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the acting category are white?” Lee passionately appealed, “And let’s not even get into the other branches. Forty white actors in two years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!! (sic)” Lee has since refused to attend the ceremony this year to collect a Honorary Oscar that was presented to him for his contributions in filmmaking at the Governors Awards in November.

In a year where two of the biggest original blockbusters came in the form of F. Gary Gray’s biographical drama on the hip hop group, N.W.A., collecting $200 million at the box office on a $28 million budget, followed closely by Ryan Coogler’s Creed, that earned over $170 million on a $35 million budget, the reactions towards the nominations and Lee’s comments were swift and no-hold-barred. On last count, Jada Pinkett-Smith and husband Will Smith, David Oyelowo, Tyrese Gibson and Michael Moore were among the other prominent names who wouldn’t be going – or watching – the Oscars.

Besides them, all of Hollywood, from George Clooney, who said that the Oscars are “moving in the wrong direction”, to Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling, who added fire to the debate by saying that the controversy was “racist to whites”, has weighed in on the issue, with even President Barrack Obama stating, “The industry should look for talent and provide opportunity to everybody. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?”

The controversy has put Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy, centre stage, and Isaac has already set a goal of doubling the number of women and diverse members by 2020. She also put out a statement saying, “While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”

These changes, which include expungement of voting rights for inactive members of the Academy, are crucial for the 6,000-plus-member group that runs the Oscars that is, according to a 2012 Los Angeles Times Survey, 94% white and 77% male, with a median age in the mid-60s, not only because of its diversity issues, but also because it needs to stay relevant to younger audiences, who are all but tuning out of the Awards each passing year.

The audience for last year’s ceremony, which saw Neil Patrick Harris valiantly try to entertain in his underwear, dropped to 36.6 million in 2015, nearly 15 percent from 43 million viewers in 2014, a year remembered for Seth MacFarlane’s unfortunate segment, ‘We Saw Your Boobs’. It has long been time for change, and for that reason, David Hill (a former Fox executive) and Reginald Hudlin (Oscar-nominated producer of Django Unchainted) were appointed in 2015 to take over producing duties and make the show more engaging.

Their first call to action was getting Chris Rock back on as host after his 2005 Oscar-stage debut, in a pre-nominations move that has now become especially momentous, in the wake of the diversity controversy. In fact, Rock, who is said to be writing a monologue to “specifically” address the issue, responded to the #Oscarssowhite hashtag with the tweet, “The #Oscars. The White BET Awards. (sic)” referring to the Black Entertainment Awards that honour African Americans and other minorities in entertainment.

Besides Rock, Foo Fighters’ founder Dave Grohl is another veteran entertainer who may infuse some much-needed positive momentum and bring more eyeballs to the Oscars. Grohl is slated to perform at the ceremony, although the specifics of his act are being kept a secret. He’ll be a welcome addition to the other notable performances including Best Original Song nominees Lady Gaga, Sam Smith and The Weeknd, all of whom will attempt to keep audiences interested, entertained and awake through the four-hour-long Oscar night.

There will also be a noticeable change in format this year with Hill and Hudlin introducing a ‘Thank You Scroll’ at the bottom of the screen for home viewers, aimed at keeping the winner speeches shorter and more emotional, by taking off the pressure of having to say lengthy ‘Thank Yous’. All this may end up making the ceremony memorable, at the very least, or a game-changer, at best, especially if the #OscarsSoWhite drama carries out on stage through its diverse presenters including Quincy Jones, Kevin Hart and Kerry Washington. This is all very well, since the awards themselves are nothing exciting to speak about.

For one, besides Mad Max: Fury Road, none of the eight Best Picture nominees have managed to accumulate any sort of feverish fan following or emotional connect with the audiences, as opposed to last year, when Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma as well as Whiplash, each had its own cult following, or the year before, where 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity, Her and The Wolf of Wall Street were all popular choices for Best Picture.

This year, if you don’t count The Martian’s $609 Million worldwide gross, the collective gross of five other nominees, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Room, Spotlight and The Big Short, stacks up to $370 Million Dollars, the amount nearly grossed by two other nominees, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, themselves. The numbers are but an indication of how many people have watched these films or for that matter, really care about them, and they paint a sorry picture.

Adding to this dreary trend, is the fact that the acting winners are all but set in stone. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brie Larson have swept the Best Actor and Actress Awards respectively at the Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild Awards, The Critics Choice Awards and the BAFTAs, so it would take some doing for them to be left empty-handed (here’s looking at you, Leo!).

There are two favourites in both Supporting categories – Sylvester Stallone (Creed) and Mark Rylance (Bride of Spies) among actors and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) among actresses, as all four have won two awards each so far. But seeing how the Academy favours experience over craft, it is likely that Stallone and Winslet may win, but the only ones getting robbed here would be Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) and Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), who didn’t score a nomination at all.

Inside Out is certain to win Best Animated Film while Spotlight and The Big Short are likely to win Best Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay respectively, as both The Hateful Eight and Steve Jobs were shut out of the nominations.

It all eventually boils down to Best Picture and Best Director, which would be interesting only if Mad Max: Fury Road and its director George Miller stood any chance of winning, but given the Academy’s penchant for being blind to what or who has really wowed audiences, Alejandro G. Inarritu is probably going to win Best Director for the second year in a row, whereas Best Picture will be a close call between Spotlight and The Revenant, both award-season favourites, although no one would really bother if either of them or any of the rest won, as long as DiCaprio took his trophy home.

And if your heart is made of stone and you aren’t excited about seeing DiCaprio finally take the Oscar stage to receive a trophy, even as animators elsewhere in the world are creating arcade-style video games called ‘Red Carpet Rampage’ in tribute (check it out), there is still something for you to watch out for: Indian-origin director Asif Kapadia, is, in all likelihood, winning the Best Documentary Feature Award for his film, Amy, on the life and death of late singer, Amy Winehouse. Plus, Priyanka Chopra will be presenting on stage, and as long as she doesn’t give a shout out to Mother Teresa, at least India will have something to write home about.

 

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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on February 26, 2016
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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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
Follow Nikhil Taneja on FB: /tanejamainhoonon Twitter:
@tanejamainhoonon Instagram:@tanejamainhoon,

on Youtube: /tanejamainhoon

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.

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.

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on May 15, 2015
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/manish-mundra-scene-saviour
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Interview: American filmmaker Richard Linklater #Film #Indie

Is there an easy way to introduce Richard Linklater? An icon of American independent cinema, often credited with paving the way for the era of low-budget, light-comic, self-exploratory gen-X movies, Linklater’s legacy as a writer-director is deep and varied, his films fiercely original and undeniably interesting. He has managed to forge an inspiring film career by living and operating at the periphery of the American film industry in the era of clone blockbusters, and is one of the few remaining high-profile filmmakers who work not for money, but for the love of cinema.

Before Midnight, the long-awaited third film in Linklater’s utterly beautiful and romantic Before… series starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, released across the world earlier this year, premiering in India at the recently- concluded Mumbai Film Festival. In his first ever interview with an Indian publication, over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, the director of cult classics like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and School of Rock offers an insight into his mind and craft. And he’s just as amiable and charming as every one of his films. Excerpts:

Q In the 18 years it’s taken to complete the Before… trilogy, how has your idea of love personally changed?

A Now that I think of it, for Julie [Delpy], Ethan [Hawke] and I, making these films sort of introduced [to us] this subject of long term relationships and the definition of love or what love even means. That’s become the subject of our lives, you know. I find myself reading a book on that or reading articles or statistical data on couples.

Movies are like that—when you are making a movie, you tend to feel that you are doing a Masters [degree in] whatever the situation is. Over two decades now, this subject [has] really made me follow notions of relationships of long term, and question how things change and how things remain the same.

I don’t know if that’s an answer, but it’s definitely a subject in our lives and I’m always constantly thinking, ‘Oh this could be good if we ever do another movie—this notion or piece of information’.

So we can look at it both emotionally and scientifically, and we have our own lives going on with our long term partners, and it’s involved in there too.

Q In this time, how has the idea of love changed for Hollywood? Is ‘romance’ still relevant today?

A (laughs) I don’t know. I mean, the first film, Before Sunrise, wouldn’t happen today, or at least in the same way. It certainly wouldn’t have the same result, like they wouldn’t exchange numbers. I mean, they would get each other’s emails or texts, you know. People communicate differently today. That film was a little old fashioned even then.

I don’t think young people would approach love the same way [now], but I still think the core of that movie—two people meeting, that moment of attraction, of falling in love—that never goes away. That’s relevant. That was relevant 500 years ago and will be relevant 500 years from now. Nothing’s going to change in that area between people. There is something about that that is eternal, but the details of it change generation to generation.

But I can honestly say that Before Midnight covers an area that is not covered a whole lot in movies today, for obvious reasons. It’s not about the beginning of a relationship, it’s not about the end of a relationship. It’s about when they are having their problems. It’s kind of the middle area, which is not often used as subject matter for something in the romantic realm. It’s not very commercial. You don’t see a lot of compelling films made on this. Hollywood would never touch these films.

We have a low budget, and we make these independently, so we can do whatever we want and express things that don’t need to fit into a Hollywood romantic comedy construct. We can make something that we feel is much more honest, but we know we don’t have a huge audience for these movies. We just kind of figure our audience might appreciate some of the blunt honesty (laughs) of our characters in their situation.

Q I’m also asking about love in the time of the movie studio, because the Before… trilogy is one of the few movies where romance is real and uncontrived. How did you manage that?

A That’s a compliment, thank you. I think it’s just the approach. It’s what you are going for, you know? What is real? I don’t pretend any of it is actually real. I mean, they are not documentaries; they are actually scripted and rehearsed excessively, very well thought out, very constructed.

But the effect I am going for in the viewer’s mind is [for them] to accept it as some kind of reality, to feel like it’s real.

I don’t know if people want to feel that way. I like going to movies often, going into someone’s unreality. When you go into a Tim Burton film or a James Cameron film, you will enjoy being in their reality, [which] you know is not real but it’s wonderful. I’m not asking people to be in some kind of parallel reality, but to relate to [a film] on a closer level.

That’s what I love about the way people perceive movies. I kind of like that a film could be anything and mean something different to every one; it just has to be true to the story you’re trying to tell. People just come along for the ride.

Q When Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and you got together to write Before Midnight, how did you find common ground for it, considering that you might all have been in different places emotionally after 18 years?

A I think we just incorporate our different moods, you know. Whatever changes in character or whatever vibe you get from this movie that’s different from the last one probably reflects our changing mood, the atmosphere, the things we’ve all been through. I’ve tried to incorporate our personal reality into this film, into something that’s real for Jesse and Celine.

I think Ethan, Julie and I trust each other artistically, so we don’t have to work too hard to find common ground. I think we are all trying to be honest when we write something that means something to us. Julie not feeling good about something or being paranoid about something, you know, some of that might find its way into the movie. Or if Ethan is feeling creatively satisfied and has such ideas, then we’ll work that in. So we’re kind of basing the film on where we are at, to some degree. Our writing sessions were like comedic therapy (laughs). We’d sit around, laugh a lot, and just talk for hours and hours.

Q How would you say you have evolved as a writer and director in these 18 years?

A You know that’s a good question, because I don’t know if I have that much (chuckles). Stylistically my movies are still very similar—well, I do that on purpose—but I don’t know if I’ve matured that much. With anything you do, you get a little more confident, you get a little more experienced. I guess that’s all good, but I don’t feel I have changed significantly. I think my concerns are pretty much very similar. What I’m getting at is that I’m always surprised I’m much more similar than different.

I would say the same about Jesse and Celine: it’s not so much how they have changed; it’s really more interesting how they have stayed the same. And to think of it, am I that different than I was at 24? I am more mature and more experienced, of course. Life has a way of doing that whether you like it or not. But the gist of my life, what I’m interested in, what I care about, artistically, it’s still kind of similar.

Q You’ve mentioned that your films are semi-autobiographical. How many movies do you think you’ll need to express all facets of yourself completely?

A (Laughs) Well that’s really the question, isn’t it? I don’t know. I wonder if Ingmar Bergman [would say] at the end of his life… that he expressed himself completely in his movies. I don’t know if that’s even possible, if any filmmaker is totally satisfied. [Michelangelo] Antonioni, towards the end of his life I think, finally wrote a book [That Bowling Alley On The Tiber: Tales Of A Director] to say, ‘Here’s 30 movies I’ll never make.’ He had ideas, and a few pages about each of them. A book about unrealised movies—I could do that book now. I have 10-15 unrealised films (chuckles).

But to answer your question, you’d have to make, like, a hundred. Every film does say something. In every one, you are communicating something. But that’s sort of the challenge artistically, isn’t it? To try to express what you want to express. And some novelists or writers have perhaps spent thousands of pages trying to do that. I admire people though who kind of say, ‘No, I’ve said all that I have to say,’ and [then] quit writing, quit making movies, quit painting or quit making music. But I don’t really believe it. I don’t think you can retire from expressing yourself.

Q Do you write to discover something about yourself or do you already have philosophies you centre your films around?

A To be honest, I am always trying to discover something. I don’t look forward to the day that I have some knowledge to impart. If I have something worth making, it’s something I [either] have mixed feelings about or am trying to discover something about, or I’m not totally sure what I think about it, and that’s why I think it makes it fertile ground to try to make a movie.

To make a movie about something, specifically, that I definitely have strong feelings about and then [to] convey them exactly—that’s a lot less interesting, I think. Things you have strong opinions about find their way into the general tone and core of the movie anyway.

Films are truly much more about the exploration of your thought and lot of exploration is just the process of making a movie. And I’m inclined to think that everybody feels that way. I wonder if [Alfred] Hitchcock felt that way. Was he just physically manifesting what he had all planned out or was he discovering his deeper feelings about the subjects that he made [films about]? For example, in Vertigo. I don’t think anyone just renders something they’ve just printed out, as much as they try.

Q Your movies are very dialogue heavy, and that goes against the conventional wisdom of cinema, except if you are, say, Woody Allen. Why is dialogue so important to you?

A I don’t know. You’re right; that is Film School 101. (In a stern voice) ‘Don’t talk about things, show it’ (laughs). It is a visual medium.

The first time I turned on a camera and heard the characters, I thought that people talking revealed a lot; that was as interesting as any landscape.

I’m not that verbal myself. I’m not much of a good talker; I’m more of a listener.

When you fall in love with cinema, it’s usually visually, but it’s just the way you evolve. Like I said, I’m as surprised as anyone!

When I was making my first film, I thought strictly in visual technical terms; I wasn’t thinking so much dialogues or character, even though I had a background in theatre. I should have known that was coming.

I never improvise on camera. Never. Ever. That’s never made sense to me, I don’t know how to do that. It’s always very scripted and rehearsed. You know, it can be a loose idea, I can sit with the actors, but by the time the cameras are rolling, we have worked it out. We know what we’re doing. I don’t leave it to chance.

Q Even with your fascination with dialogue, you don’t just direct to, say, deliver the poetry of a script, as in the case of an Aaron Sorkin movie. You take direction very seriously, don’t you?

A Yeah, I mean, cinema is the most important.

I remember every movie of mine having a little cinematic scheme in mind—visually. I mean, I’m not, like, uber-stylist; I’m not that interested in that. But I do really believe in a cinematic design to the story you’re telling. And you spend a lot of time to work on it. I think people who come strictly from writing backgrounds, might not think that way.

But I always felt that it was primarily a director’s job to think cinematically, in terms of pictures and stuff, you know? What’s the particular tone, style, approach to a movie—I’d have really strong rules in that area. I plan all that, even though, again, it doesn’t drive too much attention to it I hope.

But, you know, it’s about creating a parallel world of characters and trying to make that work when it all comes together in the movie. I don’t see anything as separate; [it is] all part of the same thing, which is trying to tell the story appropriately, and that’s different from film to film.

Q Comedy has also always been an important part of your films, even when you are dealing with subject matter as serious as death (Bernie) or drugs (Waking Life).

A I think it’s just the way I see the world. Everything’s funny, you know! I’ve done a lot of comedies where most of what I do is pretty comedic, but Bernie was a challenge because it is about death. There is some dark subject matter swirling around that movie. But I think to make that a consistent comedy was a real challenge. That world’s so much like ours, even though it’s tragic [and] there’s a lot of ups and downs. I think it’s not a bad way to see the world through a comedic lens. Whatever tragedy, hardship or struggle, comedy is a pretty good way to offset it. And not more consciously—again, that’s just in films—but in the way you naturally see the world, I think, and the way you approach drama too. I just can’t help but see the humour. And I admire that in movies I like.

For example, Raging Bull is a movie that would never be listed as a comedy.

It’s just too dark a subject and what you take away emotionally from that movie is anything but comedy. And yet, if you really sat down in front of it, you would find yourself laughing very consistently throughout that movie.

And I thought that was brilliant! I mean, when I saw that movie, something clicked in me—this was before I was even thinking about making movies [myself].

It’s kind of like how I see the world: in the middle of fights, in the middle of all the horrible stuff, I would have these funny thoughts. Even as a kid, when things were bad, or parents were mad at you, there was always something ridiculous about it, something funny. I always liked that tone.

So even with Before Midnight—people wouldn’t think that film’s a comedy, in fact it’s an extreme opposite of it—when they fight in the movie, Julie and I think that’s pretty funny. Celine and Jesse don’t think it’s funny, far from it; but we, the audience, do. And I like that mixture—a little uncomfortable, a little real. I think it’s the right approach to a movie and to life.

Q Do you ever find it surprising that living in Austin, outside of Hollywood and the studio system, you have managed to have such a spectacular career?

A Yeah, well that would be my point of view—and I guess it’s yours—but Hollywood wouldn’t look at it that way. They would look at my career as an underachievement or a failure, you know. Whatever (chuckles). It’s all perspective.

When I go to LA, I do feel like a nobody, because I don’t fit into that world so well, you know. I haven’t made all that money. What I mean is that our concerns are not exactly the same. They are sometimes, yes, but it’s nothing I think about a lot.

It’s just the way it all worked out. I’m lucky to live in my own bubble and managed to make a life and living out of my kind of cinema. I’ve been lucky to get a lot of films made, because it’s hard to do, and it’s harder to do today. I think I came around at the right time. It would be tougher to get started now, doing what I’ve been able to do.

Q What would it take for you to come back to the studios? A superhero film?

A (Laughs) I don’t know about super heroes, but I’m always on the lookout for comedies. You know, when you are trying to get a story told, some need a bigger budget and studio backing because some are inherently more commercial. So obviously, I’m not averse to that.

School of Rock and Bad News Bears are good examples in the last 10 years of times I found myself way into a story where I felt I could express [something] or I was the right director for, but those are probably the only two films [I have done] that maybe would have existed without me. Like, if I wouldn’t have done them, someone else would have. None of my other films would exist as movies, you know, if I wouldn’t have done them. But those two, they are part of the system.

But I like the system. It’s nice to have that support. They have $30 million, a 50 day schedule, you can do it right. It’s kind of nice to have the—if you’re lucky enough—subject matter they think it warrants. Usually, I’m in the area where they say, ‘Oh! This isn’t a very commercial movie; we’ve got to do it for nothing!’

That’s okay, but that’s tougher over the years too. Bernie would have been a studio movie 10-15 years ago, but by the time I did it, it was like an [off-beat] independent movie.

Interview: Kunal Nayyar for Open Magazine

“I’m a Delhite who went to St Columba’s, and one fine day, I ended up on the biggest TV show in America. It’s actually quite hilarious, if you look at it one way,” says Kunal Nayyar, better known to the world as geeky Indian scientist Rajesh Koothrapalli of The Big Bang Theory.

A lead on the highest-rated American sitcom currently running and easily one of the funniest Indians in the world—at least one of the most famous funny Indians in the world—Nayyar, at 33, already has enough material for a memoir. Because unlike Kal Penn (The Namesake), Mindy Kaling (The Office), Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), or any of the multitude of other Indian actors who’ve made a mark on American television in recent years, Nayyar isn’t an American-born desi.

He was born in London to Indian parents—his father is an accountant and his mother, an interior designer—who relocated to Delhi when he was five. Nayyar was raised in Delhi and educated at St Columba’s, the prestigious all-boys school attended by Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi, where acting wasn’t really at the top of his mind. “In school, I was busy playing badminton and chasing girls. I hated studying and only wanted to play sports. I was a normal Delhi boy, in that sense, who wanted to be a rockstar or Aamir Khan when he grew up,” he laughs.

After high school, at the age of 18, Nayyar moved to the United States to pursue a business degree at University of Portland, Oregon. It was there that he caught the acting bug. Nayyar first enrolled in acting classes at the university for recreational reasons, participating in several school plays. But after one of his plays was selected for the regional round of the prominent American College Theater Festival, things quickly became serious.

“I believed that I was really good in the regionals but the judges gave me a firing for being incompetent,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe that! That moment motivated me to go back home and work hard on my skill, so I could go back and win the competition. And four years later, I won the national round too.”

By then, Nayyar had already enrolled in a Masters’ program in Acting at Temple University in Philadelphia. After graduation, he acted in a few plays, and only had a one-off role as an Iraqi terrorist on an episode of the crime drama NCIS, before he auditioned for The Big Bang Theory in the summer of 2007. He was 26 then.

“One of the reasons I probably got the role was because I had just come out of graduate school after three years of training, and I was bursting with all this confidence,” Nayyar chuckles. “I had done a little play in England before that and was just getting started in LA. And I think I was just young enough and clueless enough to not understand the magnitude of the audition at that moment, and that really helped me. Because I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I just went there and did my thing, and felt great about it.”

Nayyar took on the role—originally meant for an Asian actor and initially named Ramayan David—head on, and in the seven years since, The Big Bang Theory, co-created by Two and a Half Men and Dharma & Greg creator Chuck Lorre, went on to become a ratings, viewership and syndication juggernaut, with the actor pulling in a reported salary of $75,000 per episode.

So yes, it is definitely a story worth writing about, and while it has its twists and turns, Nayyar believes it is at heart a funny story. “Well it’s not funny ‘ha-ha’, but ‘I can’t believe this happened to me’ funny,” he says. “I mean, I’m so happy that I’ve achieved everything that I always wanted. But the truth is, I fake reality for a living… it’s not exactly rocket science! So you’ve got to have the ability to laugh at yourself. I’m not saying that acting is easy—it can be torturous at times—but if you look at it from the outside, it is a celebration of life, and like life, humour is at its core.”

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In his book, you can expect anecdotes about Nayyar cleaning toilets in Portland, being held up for 76 cents in Philadelphia, playing a terrorist on his first TV gig, playing a Star Wars board game for 36 hours straight, and then one day going on to marry a former Miss India.

Of course, the irony of that last part hasn’t escaped Nayyar’s fans. For a guy who got rich and famous playing a character who can’t so much as talk to women sober, and is the only one of The Big Bang Theory’s four leads to not be in a relationship—ever—he’s married a gorgeous former model, who represented India at the Miss Universe pageant in 2006.

“I have to admit there are things about this and about marriage in general that are hilarious,” says Nayyar, “but I find it funnier that people continue to confuse me with Raj Koothrapalli. When people meet me, they go, ‘Oh My God! You can talk to women! Oh My God! You are normal! Oh man! Are you actually wearing a jacket?’ Yes I am! Because I’m a normal person and what I do on the TV show is called ‘acting’!”

Even though this conversation with Nayyar is happening over the phone, as he’s currently in Los Angeles shooting the seventh season of his sitcom, it’s quite obvious the actor is a naturally-gifted comic. All his answers have a punch line, and when he says something funny, he doesn’t just say it, he delivers it. And it’s all effortless. Nayyar doesn’t need to try to make you laugh; he’s just funny as they come and the jokes run fast and loose.

He may always have been a funny guy, but Nayyar admits that a lot of his comedy has been shaped by the show and by American pop culture in general over the past decade-and-a-half.

It is a kind of humour that he calls ‘language-based’. “There is a huge difference between what India finds funny and what America finds funny,” he explains.

“I think there’s such a British influence on India, in terms of comedy, that everything that you see in Indian pop culture is more farcical and physical. In Indian comedy, the way it happens is that someone gets slapped in the face, his eyes widen and there is a music cue that goes (mimics the sound) ‘pyunnnn’. And that’s when you laugh. In America, comedy is more about setups and language.”

“There’s a rhythm or even poetry in the way comedy is written and delivered in America. A lot of the humour lies in this rhythm of the language. Every joke here is a 1-2-3-sentence set-up joke. For example, sometimes you might not understand the science stuff that’s being said in The Big Bang Theory, but because of the circumstances of the characters, and the set-up leading up to it in the language, when the punch-line is delivered, you will laugh.”

Having delivered this impressive soliloquy, Nayyar takes a breath, and then instinctively proceeds to deliver the punchline he has just set up: “I hope this is making sense. But I think the bottomline is that getting slapped in the face is hilarious in every country.” Like he promised, you laugh.

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With his fluency in American humour, combined with an instinct for the farcical elements of Indian comedy, Nayyar now counts himself among the growing ranks of Indian-origin actors on American television shows, most of whom are funny. And humour may just be the key to overcoming the stereotyping and discrimination that Indian actors before Nayyar have spoken out against—from Aasif Mandvi, who wrote about the ‘whitewashing’ phenomenon in Hollywood for Salon.com, to Kal Penn, who criticised the thinly-concealed xenophobia of Joel Stein’s notorious 2010 Time article, ‘My Own Private India’.

A couple of months ago, Kal Penn joked on Twitter about the way Brown actors are often confused with each other: ‘Creepy Australian Guy: Whoa, are you Russell Peters?! Me: No, I’m Kunal Nayyar. Creepy Australian Guy: I love Parks & Rec! Me: High 5!’ Penn is in fact one of the leads of the multi-million dollar comedy film franchise Harold and Kumar.

But the truth is, with Mindy Kaling writing and starring in her own sitcom The Mindy Project, Aziz Ansari becoming one of the biggest stand-up phenomena in North America, and actors like Danny Pudi (Community), Adhir Kalyan (Rules of Engagement) and Hannah Simone (New Girl) playing highly visible, well-liked supporting parts in top-rated sitcoms, now is a great time for Indian comic actors in America.

Nayyar agrees: “When it comes to diversity with regard to Indian actors in American entertainment, I believe that bridge has been crossed. People ask me, ‘Why do you think it happened?’ My version is that if you go anywhere in America today, be it a grocery store or a restaurant or even your work place, wherever you look, you’ll see Indians. America has always been a melting pot of cultures, and today, with Indian doctors and scientists and lawyers and engineers, we are definitely a huge part of that pot. We are highly visible people and we are upsetting Americans as a society (laughs), so when you see Indians on American TV, it’s not a stretch, it’s reality.”

“Where I’m concerned,” he continues, “I believe that America is no longer ignorant about India or Indians. How can they be? There was a sitcom on NBC a couple of years ago, called Outsourced, only about Indians.”

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While comedy may have been the overriding reason for the acceptance of Indian actors in Hollywood, as well as the cause of Nayyar’s humongous success, he isn’t satisfied doing just that. With the likelihood of The Big Bang Theory reaching its conclusion in the next three years, Nayyar is already planning for life after the show, and has his eyes set on direction, producing and teaching.

His first effort in this direction is Sushrut Jain’s cricket-based documentary, Beyond All Boundaries, which premiered in India at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival, and is produced and narrated by Nayyar.

He believed in the film because, being a huge cricket fan, he has always found that India is starved of good cricket content beyond just matches. “To me, cricket is not just a game, but a beautiful symbol for people’s dreams and their future,” he says. “Indian cricket fans have so many hopes and dreams riding on the game, that I really found it glorious to see a film about the impact of the game in the way it can shape our lives or even destroy it.”

As the documentary travels to festivals across the world to much critical acclaim, Nayyar will continue exploring different creative outlets, with his focus staying on his sitcom, his two upcoming films—the comedy Dr. Cabbie and the thriller The Scribbler—and on voicing the animation series Sanjay and Craig for Nickelodeon. He is open to Bollywood offers too, and would love to be in films like “3 Idiots, Barfi or Cheeni Kum, which are poignant comedies—the genre I love.”

But for the most part, Nayyar would be happy just to be home every night with his wife and some butter chicken. “It’s funny that after shooting for four hours and finishing an episode of The Big Bang Theory that maybe over the course of the future will be seen by 500 million people, all I like doing is coming home and eating butter chicken,” he says. “Like, I’ll heat up the butter chicken, put a little tadka on the dal and I’ll chew it, while watching music videos all night. People think I lead this glamorous life, but really, all I want is kebabs and butter chicken for the rest of my life, and I’ll be happy forever.” For once, he sounds completely serious.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 16, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/it-s-kind-of-a-funny-story
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: Hansal Mehta for Open Magazine

Over the last few years, it has seemed that Hansal Mehta had quietly retired as a doyen of Indian indie cinema, while his more vocal friend and colleague Anurag Kashyap took up the mantle full time. He and Kashyap had debuted together, co-writing the 1997 movie …Jayate.

Mehta’s first few films, particularly Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000) and Chhal (2002), seemed to herald the dawn of a distinct cinematic voice. But the difficulty of funding offbeat cinema before the beginning of the multiplex phenomenon, coupled with an appalling assault on him by members of the Shiv Sena, diverted his focus. After making a few critical and commercial duds, Mehta went into semi-retirement—until the death of activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi drew him back.

Shahid, Mehta’s biopic based on Azmi’s life, produced by Kashyap, is a searing portrait of an honest man in a dishonest system. Its unassuming simplicity, both in design and edit, lend it a heart-warming optimism, distinguishing it from other ‘rebel with a cause’ films. In an era of bombastic one-man-army heroes, Shahid is a quiet celebration of the hero within every man.

The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival 2012 to much acclaim, and has since travelled to several other festivals. Mehta seems to have found form once again, winning Best Director at the New York Indian Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Stuttgart. Excerpts from an interview:

Class conflict and the common man’s inability to fight the system were central themes in your early work. You’ve now returned from a long sabbatical with another film—Shahid—that addresses these issues. Why do they matter so much to you?

I believe art is very often a quest [to find] yourself and your voice. These issues you spoke of… have angered me most of my life, and when it came to making my first feature film, they found their way in. I’ve been a common man and travelled by [local] trains. I used to go to college from Khar to Dadar every day, and somewhere within me, I knew that I [wouldn’t] be standing in [those] trains forever. But I would get very frustrated looking at the people who I knew [would] die travelling on those trains. The man who wears the same kind of clothes every day and carries the same dabba to office—I would be angry at that man and at his inertia. My anger wasn’t for him, it was at him. Somewhere, I think, my films began to transform that anger into some sort of search or a quest for a solution to this inertia.

You were trying to make these films at a time when mainstream Bollywood was largely escapist; the parallel movement of the 80s, of films mirroring society, had died down.

Amitabh Bachchan’s fall and retirement in the late 80s put Hindi cinema in a complete quandary. Films started failing, star kids didn’t work—even Aamir Khan was doing Inder Kumar films. Our industry was in a state of flux and there was no hope, until Shah Rukh Khan came in. Anurag [Kashyap], Nagesh Kukunoor and me were among the first few people who started making such films at that time, when it was all but impossible to make them. Anurag’s first film Paanch didn’t release. I was debt-ridden because of Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and Chhal. There was no funding and, in fact, Dil Pe… was made on my assistant director’s money. Nagesh Kukunoor had the longest run of successful films, but somewhere, he also became a victim of the system. So I wanted to get out at that time because it was very lonely working against the system, and I couldn’t deal with it. It all became too much for me, and I felt that I may end up committing suicide. I had just wanted to make my kinds of films, but I had not taken on any responsibility. Koi jhanda le ke nahin nikla thha main, yaar (I didn’t start out waving a flag).

There was an incident after Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar where your office was ransacked and your face was blackened by members of the Shiv Sena because of a dialogue in the film. Though Chhal followed that incident, were the mainstream films you did afterwards a reaction to the incident in any way?

After the incident, I reached a point where I really regressed. I used to drink all the time. I was depressed and would be locked up in my room. I was in very bad shape. But it quickly got over because I like looking at myself in my mirror. And when I asked myself, ‘What the fuck are you doing to yourself?’ I got no answer, so I carried on. That’s Taurean nature: the moment I smell defeat, I push myself. But yes, Chhal began my diversion from the space [where I started]. It was a two-hour music video with pumping background music and cool shots. But at least it was an experiment in form. Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai was a sad episode. I think I failed as a director with it. But I was debt-ridden and I wanted to run my house. That was a desperate mistake, to have done that. I stopped looking at the mirror. At that time, the only person who was like a voice of conscience to me was Anurag. He’d meet me at regular intervals only to tell me, ‘Tu bik gaya hai’ (You’ve sold out) and would then move on.

Sanjay Gupta was very gracious to give me Woodstock Villa because of Chhal. I should have remained friends with him and let the respect override everything. But I got sucked into the glamour of it all: Sanjay Dutt backing you, the film [being launched] at IIFA (International Indian Film Academy Awards) by Abhishek Bachchan, and all the back thumping. But when I saw the preview of the film, I realised I had been dishonest to my craft, to my producer, and to the two newcomers making their debut with it. And I felt terrible. I still carry that guilt with me. The day the film released, I left Bombay and went away to [my] village.

You went away for quite a while.

I spent around two-and-a-half years purely in introspection. I took a step back to observe myself. And the first thing you realise when you do that is that you’ve not spent enough time with your loved ones. Ambition can be ruthless, especially to your loved ones. The moment you rediscover love, you start rediscovering yourself. I know it sounds idealistic, but spending time with the children, with nature and cooking, helped me become more transparent. The moment you can admit to yourself that you were dishonest, you find yourself. And [when] news of Shahid’s death came, it was a wake-up call for me to come alive.

What was it about Azmi that moved you?

When I read about his death, I thought he had a remarkable life. Here was a guy from below ordinary circumstances, [who] was possessed with this drive for change, and who became an amazing vehicle of it. He had spread so much goodwill that, for me, he is Gandhi—in that he’s the common man who went [to extraordinary] measures to bring about change. I saw my life in his journey. It was like my own autobiography magnified many times. Dwelling on who killed him wouldn’t bring him back, but his life could inspire many more Shahids. This movie is also the tipping point of my life. After almost courting Shahid and discovering a man of such integrity, I know I’m never going to make a film without full creative freedom.

The film mirrors our cultural insensitivity, yet at the same time, there is an undying optimism running through it.

We are an intolerant nation, and our intolerance is growing. This film is also a result of that. We are also divided on everything; we can’t just agree to disagree. These are volatile times we are living in, and that is the unfortunate reality of our city, Mumbai. It used to be called Bombay [earlier], and Bombay was not like this, but the name change has been very symbolic. But I didn’t want to leave audiences with just that because Shahid was an independent spirit who taught me to be fearless and [realise] that if there is a hurdle, it is only temporary.

That optimism comes from Shahid. Everyone we met during research had nothing but good things to say of him. The film has happened almost like a miracle. We shot with very little money, limited resources and no permissions for locations. Every time the shoot [was] stalled or we [ran] into trouble—which happened a lot—we’d meet someone who’d say, ‘Shahid bhai par film bana rahe ho? (You’re making a film about Shahid?) How can we help you? Please make a good film.’ There was a power beyond my own human capability helping me on this. I would often feel that Shahid himself was around, making this film happen.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 2, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/a-fire-rekindled
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: Jaideep Sahni for Open Magazine

In the past decade computer-engineer-turned-advertising professional Jaideep Sahni has become one of India’s most successful screenwriters and lyricists. The writer of films like Company, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Chak De! India and Bunty Aur Babli talks about the art of writing and why the middle class needs to be written about.

Q Your films are of different genres, and yet have all worked. What do you know about writing, or the audience, that others don’t?

A (Chuckles) I don’t know. I’ve never thought that way. For me, it’s like, you are in the middle of your community, and there are a lot of things you like about your community and a lot of things that make you restless or irritate you about your community. So what you do is: chowkdi maaro, kahani shuru karo. Darr kiska hai? Apne hi toh log hain (Cross your legs, and start the story. What are you afraid of? They are your own people). One day, they will pat your back and say, “Yeah you got it, that’s how it is.” And one day, they say, “Arrey yaar, you bored us this evening,” and you say, “Okay, I’ll come back next time.” I just try to keep it that simple. This whole thing about genres and movies and cinema, and the rest of it… I’m a bit ignorant of it and (smiles) I like to stay that way.

(Pause) I’ve never tried to research what the audience wants to know. Because if I did, then Khosla Ka Ghosla would never have released or I’d never have written a film about women athletes starring a Shah Rukh Khan who doesn’t sing or dance, or romance. A movie may be a product, but for me, it’s an emotional product. As a storyteller, your only job is to tell a story you care about. If you are doing it for the wrong reasons, then you are only going to let people down.

Q But you are one of the few screenwriters who research a film by going on reccees. What are you looking to pick up?
A To be honest, the reccees are less a scientific process for the writing and more because I am curious about the subject for myself. (Laughs) See, I’m not a movie guy in the typical sense. I don’t write a film because I have to write a film. It starts with me getting interested in something, which is a lot like falling in love—I don’t know why it happens. Then I’m just excited to find out more about the subject and if, for that, I need to travel, I travel. And it’s not so much research, but a pleasure… ki thodi dhoop lage, thodi hawa lage, thodi mitti khaoon (get a little sun, a little air, eat a little dirt). And sometimes, out of this process, a movie script may emerge. At other times, the subject may not be right for a multiplex, so I may write a book about it some day. A movie is a byproduct of my fascination with something. I never work backwards from the intention of writing a movie. All of that is like a middle-aged version of high school peer pressure, ki uski picture aa rahi hai, meri bhi aani chahiye (‘that person’s film is coming out, mine should too’). Ho gaya yaar, I don’t want to go back to class 11 again. (Laughs)
Q Your way of working is also different in that unlike other writers, you are known to stick with one project from inception to release.

A It’s just because I’m committed to that subject and the people whose story I’m telling. Of course, everyone from the director to the actors worry about all this too, but as far as I’m concerned, I believe the buck stops with me. These are my guys that everyone is working with, it’s my guys they are dressing, my guys they are playing, my guys people may come to watch, or not watch. I care about my guys, so whether it is sitting and writing alone, or being available when they are shooting on and off, or seeing the first print, I like seeing them through. (Chuckles) Maybe I’m delusional, but till the movie isn’t over, meri jaan atki padi hoti hai characters mein (those characters are my life), I can’t abandon them and start freelancing.

Q Do you also feel a certain responsibility towards your subjects?

A I do feel responsible towards the people I’m representing in the script, because I want to do right by them. The happiest days of my life have been when a sportsperson has come up to me and said, “You understand me,” because he saw Chak De! India, or when a salesperson says, “You got it right.” But another thing is, I genuinely enjoy the making of a film. I love to be around when the editing is happening or the costumes are being done, not in an intrusive way, but because I am excited for my guys. For me, it’s like a school annual day or a wedding in the family kind of thing. Sab apna kaam karte hain, par doosre ki help bhi karte hain na (everyone does their own work, but we help each other too)? Maybe it’s because I was from IT or because I didn’t know any better. But I know this is not the story of every writer, and I’m just lucky to have worked only with people who’ve never asked me to not be involved. I’ve worked with some really rare kinds of people, that way.

Q What fascinated you about the characters of Shuddh Desi Romance and Jaipur?

A I’m fascinated by cities like Jaipur, Lucknow, Indore, Kochi, which are the engines that are running India. They are different from the metros, which are world cities that operate on another level from the rest of the country. They are not the ‘small towns’ Bollywood thinks they are and portrays them to be, just because people in them speak Hindi more than they do English. These are places buzzing with energy, where things are actually happening.

The funny thing about these places is that the youngsters here have their feet in two boats: the traditional and desi, and the modern. You have a guy selling kachori who has two mobile phones. You have a dupatta salesman who can convert currencies and talk to tourists in seven different languages—to the extent his profession demands. It’s really exciting for me, as a storyteller, to see how young people try to navigate their love lives in these environments, with some following the traditional mindset (but only to an extent), and some breaking out of it completely and experimenting with relationships.

Q In the 90s, Bollywood was largely about aspiration, what you’d like your life to be. Your films changed the trend, in a way, to what your life is. Why do stories about the middle class need to be told?

A I don’t know, it’s some kind of conversation you want to have with the community you are a part of. (Pauses) Jinko kuchh bolne ke liye hai, unhi ko kuchh bologe, na (You talk to those to whom you have something to say)? Jo khush hain, Ballard Estate mein rehte hain, shaam ko Blue Frog jaate hain (those who are happy, who live in Ballard Estate and go to Blue Frog in the evening), I can have beer with them, but there’s nothing I can say to them. Because they are doing fine. I mean, they don’t blacken their children’s faces in parks if they do something against their ‘tradition’. There is a kind of oppressiveness in our so-called culture that pinches me. There is hypocrisy and fraud in the name of that all-encompassing word—‘maryada’. And this is a war that millions of youngsters fight every day. I mean, how many lies do girls have to tell every day in order to do what any young woman anywhere else in the world can do as a matter of right? Why is this 5,000-year-old civilisation making the youth lie all the time?

But what I’m doing is not a lecture or national service; I’m just trying to discuss. I just want to tell my people to breathe, and let the young be, and let them discover things on their own. These are the guys who’ll be running the country 10 years from now, because youngsters from the metros will fly away to America. It’s these kids who are the cutting edge of our swords against feudal traditions. I get very restless about all this. But at other times, it’s also quite funny, in a way. I mean, I don’t have any eloquent words to explain this, main engineer aadmi hoon, yaar (I’m an engineer type of guy, man)!

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on September 13, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/shuddh-desi
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).