Tag Archives: Interview

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.”

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.

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.”

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).

Interview: Shoojit Sircar for Open Magazine

Canned Conscience: Shoojit Sircar sees it as his responsibility as a filmmaker to make fresh, intelligent, unbiased films, regardless of commercial success

Prolific adman Shoojit Sircar made his directorial debut in 2005 with Yahaan, a politically charged love story set in Kashmir. He followed that up in 2012 with Vicky Donor, a brave and unconventional comedy, which tackled the taboo subject of semen donation with remarkable poise and went on to become a blockbuster hit, winning him a National Award for Wholesome Entertainment. Sircar’s new film Madras Café is a political spy thriller set in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war of the 90s. Here, Sircar speaks about his political beliefs, his responsibility as a filmmaker and how cinema can change society:

Q After Yahaan, Madras Café is your second film on a political issue. Are you a political person? Are you aligned Left or Right?

A No, I’m a socially conscious person. And I can’t be aligned either way, because I’m a filmmaker and it is my responsibility to be in the middle. If I go Left or Right, I will go wrong. I’ll be biased and [making] a judgment. I prefer putting the facts out there instead, and letting people introspect and decide for themselves. In the case of Madras Café, I had been following the Tamil issue and Sri Lankan civil war for many years and it has affected me a lot. At the end of the day, between the politics, human lives are lost and that’s what I wanted to show. People do ask me why a Bengali who’s grown up in Bengal and Delhi is making a film on Tamil sentiments. It’s because as a patriotic citizen of the country, any political issue will bother you as long as it has larger [relevance] for the country. And then, the issue transcends the politics and becomes personal. I just hope that this film will educate or inform some people and others relate to it. There are many more such issues I want to make films on, and I don’t know if this lifetime will be enough. (chuckles)

Q Were you always socially conscious?

A My father was in the Air Force, so at some level, like it’s said in Hindi, it’s your sanskaar (values). He has fought in many wars and, growing up, I’ve seen his commitment and passion for serving the country first hand. During the 71 war, when I was around 4 years old, we were living in an Air Force camp in Bagdogra in West Bengal. I remember how, for an entire month, the lights would go off at night and sirens would [sound] across the city, and the entire family had to take shelter in an underground bunker at night—in case of a bombing.

(Smiles) I’ve seen these times and I’ve always believed that it’s important to serve your country—and you don’t need to be in the Army for that. As a filmmaker, I should definitely entertain people, but I can also serve my country by making such films.

Q What started this journey? Was it a love of the arts or passion to make a difference?

A For me, theatre was the starting point. I was a footballer who worked at a hotel after my graduation in Delhi, but I was bitten by the theatre bug. I think somewhere during that time, because of the environment in 93-94, and because of the ambience and people I was with, I crossed over and started getting affected by the country’s issues.

I was part of Safdar Hashmi’s Jana Natya Manch group, and we did a lot of street theatre. As you know, street theatre was basically started not as an entertaining medium but as a revolutionising one. Theatre gave me an objective understanding of society, and whatever my discipline, my consciousness, my conscience, and even my love for film—it all stemmed from my days with this group, and, later, with Act One, the group I started with Piyush Mishra, Manoj Bajpayee and Ashish Vidyarthi.

Q Do you remember the first political play you were part of, or the first issue that got close to your heart?

A We did a play called Jab Sheher Hamara Sota Hai, an adaptation of West Side Story, about the rivalry between a Hindu and a Muslim street gang, and that was a very strong political statement about religious differences [made by us]. But we didn’t stop at plays. When the Khalistan issue was going on, Piyush, Manoj, Ashish and I went to Punjab with a harmonium and a dhol and sang patriotic songs in front of crowds. Many people objected, but in those days, we did what we had to do for society.

But if you specifically talk about the first issue that grew close to my heart, it was the Kashmir issue. Yes, Partition bothered me, the Lankan issue has bothered me, communal differences have bothered me, but I had many Kashmiri acquaintances, both Pandits and Muslims, and on getting to know them, I was shocked at how we treat citizens of our own country. Kashmiris couldn’t live inside Kashmir and felt threatened outside of Kashmir, because we’d treat them like foreigners or terrorists. That’s why I wrote Yahaan too, because I wanted to present the perspectives of the youth of Kashmir.

Q How did cinema affect your politicisation?

A In those days, Delhi used to [host] the International Film Festival of India, which is now held in Goa. It used to happen in the peak of winter, in January. The cream of India’s intellectual filmmakers would come. But the tickets used to be really expensive. So my friends and I, who were always phukkads (broke), used to wait for the evening shows, which very few people would attend because of the mist and cold. The festival would screen documentaries at those times. We would jump over the barriers and sit in the corners to watch them. One such documentary, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, changed my whole perspective of cinema. It was about the letters these American kids, who died in the war, had exchanged with their parents during the Vietnam war, and it was the most moving and mind-blowing experience of my life. Another similar film that affected me was Oliver Stone’s Platoon. After that, I started discovering European and Iranian cinema, and, of course, the cinema of Satyajit Ray. All of these influenced me because they were about human lives.

Q When Yahaan didn’t do well, and your long-in-the-making film with Amitabh Bachchan, Shoebite, which was also socially conscious, didn’t work out, did you at any stage consider making commercial cinema and moving away from social and political films?

A Never. Not once. That can never get out of me. I’ve never had a plan B. Plan B wasn’t even an option. (smiles) You know, when Shoebite didn’t release, I was down and depressed. It was my wife who told me that whether or not my film works or releases ultimately, I know how to write and I know how to make a film, and nobody can take that away from me. Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, two old men who tirelessly continue making films they believe in, also inspired me.

And then I decided that no matter what happens, I’ll continue making films for whatever years I have left. Even if no big film works out, I will take whatever lakhs [of rupees] I have left, take my 5D camera and make films on my own. (laughs) Because I could easily make a commercial love story, but I have this keeda (bug) to only make films I believe in. The fact that filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Raju Hirani were doing well gave me hope that the audience was evolving, so even after Yahaan and Shoebite, I decided to make a film about semen donation, because I believed in my writer Juhi Chaturvedi’s script. I’m lucky to have had John Abraham, who is a man with immense integrity, back me on it but I’ve always believed that, as part of the film industry, it is my responsibility to [deliver] fresh, new and intelligent films to the audience, because that’s the only way things will change.

Q Do you believe that cinema has the power to change society and youth perspectives, especially in times like these when most Indian youngsters don’t even care to vote?

A Yes, I do think so. I agree that kids today are less aware than before. I was surprised to [learn] recently that some Mumbai kids don’t even know that there’s an India that exists beyond Thane! But I think it’s a matter of time. Even during the time of our freedom struggle, only 20 per cent of the [country’s people] were fighting for freedom. The rest were still going about the daily course of their lives and working for the British. They had no clue what Bhagat Singh or Khudiram [Bose] were doing. It’s the same today, but I feel, because of social media, they are slowly getting opinionated and conscious. And trust me, it’s these young people who are going to set things in the right place. Let’s have faith.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on August 31, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/canned-conscience
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: Aanand L Rai & Himanshu Sharma for Open Magazine

All for Love: Aanand L Rai and Himanshu Sharma, the director-writer duo famous for Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa, talk about the unique brand of love that has made their films box-office successes

After more than an of conversation with Raanjhanaa and Tanu Weds Manu writer Himanshu Sharma and director Aanand L Rai on romance in their movies and in Hindi cinema in general, the topic of sex comes up. Or specifically, how the duo’s two romantic films so far have been characterised by a distinct lack of it.

Sharma, a well-spoken Lucknawi, whose thoughts and choice of words have a casual eloquence and easy wit to them, jumps at the opportunity to rib Rai, who is almost completely the opposite—soft-spoken, thoughtful and simplistic—with no suggestion in his language of either his early years in Delhi or the recent decade he has spent in the television and film industry in Mumbai.

“I have absolutely no problems with sex,” says Sharma, tongue firmly in cheek. “Give me a willing director and I can write the hottest, sexiest, sleaziest and most titillating film of Indian cinema. But the moment I have broached even a kiss in my scripts, Aanand brushes me off. I just don’t get it!”

Having already broken into an elongated ‘Arrre yaaar’ the moment ‘sex’ was brought up, as if expecting the mock rant by Sharma, and perhaps having been at its receiving end at various times in their successful partnership of three films over seven years, Rai explains, “I have always felt that if you can make love look beautiful and respectful without going that route, why put it in? Personally, I believe in the purity of love and innocence of romance.”

Ever since Mallika Sherawat exploded upon Indian pop culture with her 17 kisses and 1,700 bikini photoshoots with Khwahish in 2003, love has hardly seemed sacred in Hindi cinema. Words like ‘purity’ and ‘innocence’ are something of a joke in modern-day Bollywood, where even the most serious of filmmakers have had to add ‘item numbers’ to their movies to make them saleable, a la Dibakar Banerjee in his 2012 thriller Shanghai.

In the decade-and-a-half in which Karan Johar travelled from sweet Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to sexed-up Student of the Year, and in which every other romcom has at some level been a rehash of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (except that the leads wear fewer clothes), Rai and Sharma have brought a shared original voice to the silver screen. In their movies, the girls prefer patialas to skirts and kurtis to tank tops, whereas the boys are either too podgy (Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu) or too skinny (Dhanush in Raanjhanaa) to flex their muscles as a fashion statement. In other words, their films are about regular people, and, as a rule, neither lover takes off his/her clothes.

The romantic in Rai’s films is either the silent and brooding type, like Manoj aka Manu of Tanu Weds Manu, who falls in love with and immediately agrees to marry a girl who he’s only seen asleep; or is an over-the-top lafanga, like Kundan from Raanjhanaa, who comes every day to the same spot as Zoya just to get slapped by her, and waits eight years to marry her. But for both, the love is passionate and soulful, and not one borne of lust. This would have to be ‘true love’ because why else would the hero at some point in either story selflessly try to help the heroine reunite with the man she loves instead? And while this love appears to be a far cry from that of today’s ‘move on’ generation, it seems to have tapped something in their hearts, for the films have gone on to be hits (according to Boxofficeindia.co.in, Raanjhanaa has collected around Rs 60 crore in a period of four weeks, having been made on a budget of Rs 35 crore, while Tanu Weds Manu, filmed on a budget of Rs 17.5 crore, raked in Rs 56 crore).

Rai, who had been quoted in pre-release interviews as saying that he wanted to “teach the concept of love to the present generation”, is elated but not surprised that youth audiences are impressed. “Several people, including reviewers, have said that the film has a nostalgic feel to it and it takes you to the good old days,” he says. “But the fact is that Himanshu has written it today and I have made it today and kids of today are watching this movie and connecting to it, which means that somewhere the idea of love has never changed. It’s we who have changed. Why do you say that it’s nostalgic? Why do you not say that it’s you?”

“As a community, we have always believed in love in a great way,” elaborates Sharma. “That’s why we have never been able to make a Superman or Batman. Our superhero is Devdas, and even though we’ve thrived on him for decades, each time he’s come on screen, he’s made an impact. That’s because, as we grow older, although [such] notions of love start to seem overhyped and overrated if at all we go through a few heartbreaks, we still romanticise it in our heads. We are in love with the idea of love, even though we may not explicitly say it,” Sharma says.

“But I believe that somewhere, the handing over from our generation to the next was bad,” adds Rai. “People have lost faith in love; they speak of it as if it were a fairy tale. And more than love, people seem to have lost faith in people. And it’s important that we don’t let that happen.”

In his early forties now, Rai belongs—and proudly at that—to a generation for which love meant ‘commitment’ and ‘fidelity’. Having gone on to marry his high school sweetheart, his notion of love hasn’t changed since his school days: that it is eternal. At one point in our conversation, Sharma even jokes that Rai belongs to that clan of filmmakers for whom sex would happen “by mistake” during a particularly cold evening—to keep the other person warm.

At 32, the jovial Sharma finds himself at the cusp between the blu-ray generation and the older one that fondly reminisces about VHS films, and as a unique voice at the bridge of both these generations, narrows down love and the palpitations in our hearts to “chemicals in our brains—which ultimately is connected to the latent sexuality in us”.

“I believe that all inter-gender emotion is connected to sexuality, whether we are aware of it or not,” he says. “The fact is that while the present generation has seen our parents committed to each other forever, thanks to the ever-increasing exposure, they’ve—and we’ve—also seen that [old] taboos are slowly being done away with. That’s why there no longer seems to be the burden or tag of emotional or physical commitment, and the idea of ‘love’ has evolved into something much deeper than ‘love at first sight’.”

“But that’s not letting them settle down, is it?” Rai argues. “For some reason, there are too many calculations done before falling in love today. I respect the fact that youngsters are straightforward and honest, but my problem is that they fear falling in love and they fear heartbreak. They believe saying that they are emotionally dependent on someone else will make them weak. But I think that if there is no pain, there is no love. Heartbreak should be celebrated.”

The case for pain seems to have been made very well by the duo. While typically in modern Bollywood romances, ‘pain’ and ‘heartbreak’ are relegated to being a montage in a sad song, the pain of Manu in Tanu Weds Manu or Kundan in Raanjhanaa is quite sharply portrayed. Rai, in fact, recalls that his brief to composer AR Rahman for Raanjhanaa was that he wanted the music to celebrate guilt and heartbreak. While scoring for the last scene, Rahman joked to him: “Sir, we are about to celebrate death now!”

“Growing up in Lucknow, I was always of the opinion that love should be extreme—Ya aap ishq mein abaad ho jaayiye, ya barbaad ho jaayiye, bas beech ke jugaad mat kariye (Find fulfillment, or be ruined in love, just don’t settle for anything in between),” Sharma smiles. “The best love stories are those where a beggar outside Jama Masjid falls in love with a princess of Delhi, everything else is jugaad. And the truth is, pyaar mein barbaad hone ka bhi kuchh aur hi mazaa hai (there’s something extraordinary about letting yourself go to ruin for love).”

“And everyone knows this,” says Rai. “I was surprised at the number of people who came up to me saying they were like Manu deep inside. Even if they are haraami outside! It’s just that no one’s admitting this openly because for some reason it has become ‘uncool’ to admit it.”

While Rai has so far maintained that Bollywood reflects society and not vice-versa, he blames Bollywood in some small part for this mindset. “I think this has a lot to do with the term ‘aspirational’ that Bollywood was selling middle-class youngsters in the last decade,” he says.“In trying to buy the dreams that Bollywood was peddling and trying to change themselves, youngsters started losing out on inter-personal relationships.”

But Sharma puts things in perspective by saying that even if that were the case, Bollywood is likely to be the key to resolving this ‘generational loss’ that people are facing. “I still believe that movies like DDLJ or Maine Pyaar Kiya were the ones that helped youngsters find romance, and it was the photocopies that kept losing [other] generations,” says Sharma.“Instead of taking the soul of the movie, the easiest thing to take was Raj and Simran [the characters in DDLJ]. So, for the longest time, everyone in the movies was a Malhotra or a Khanna or a Kapoor.”

“But the good news is that youngsters have successfully changed their lives and chased their aspirations, faster than anyone thought they were capable of,” he laughs. “And that’s why now, interestingly, they are already ready to see what they used to be. Hence, movies about the innocence of love remind them of a time gone by.”

Even as they start working on their next romcom, the concepts of love and lust will continue to differ for Rai and Sharma, as it will for the generations past, present and future. But if there’s one thing the two agree on, it is that as this generation starts settling down, the notions of romance will come full circle in society, and they hope their movies play a role in it.

“And if that doesn’t happen, I’ll appease Himanshu and make a Basic Instinct in India,” laughs Rai.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on July 27, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/all-for-love
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: Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK for Open Magazine

The DIY Filmmakers: Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, among the first filmmakers to get zombies into Bollywood, on making movies with an edge

In a market where anything new or different is viewed with suspicion by the audience, where having a great story may not even earn you a release, it is almost peculiar that the zombie comedy Go Goa Gone, made on a Rs 10 crore budget, was so well received. Then again, it is probably just as peculiar as the slow and steady rise of its directors, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, who, from being just another immigrant engineer duo working in the US a decade ago, are helming two massive films today, starring two huge stars in two markedly different film industries—a Saif Ali Khan rom com in Bollywood and Mahesh Babu’s next in Tollywood.

As evident in the four films they have made so far—Flavors (2003), 99 (2009), Shor in The City (2011) and Go Goa Gone (2013)—their success formula is defined by the distinct lack of one. “Perseverance is probably the only formula,” smiles DK, who, along with Nidimoru, writes, directs and often produces their films. “But we were also at the right place at the right time when we started out, around the year 2000. The digital revolution had just kicked in and that was a great motivating factor. You’d read about somebody in Finland who made an indie film on a mini DV camera, and you’d think: ‘All we need to make a film is a mini DV camera!’”

Both Andhra boys, they met at an engineering college in Tirupati. Over the course of the next four years, they together won every cultural event, sporting event, quiz, etcetera, that they participated in and even topped their respective branches before moving to the US for further studies.

It was in the US that, driven partly by boredom and loneliness and partly by their inherent creativity, they started on their journey to be filmmakers. “Everything is fine initially. The problem starts once your life settles down and you aren’t using the right side of your brain at all,” says Nidimoru.

“And then you find out that a friend of yours has bought a camcorder, and at first, you are just using it to shoot footage of the road while travelling in the most cinematic manner possible,” laughs DK. “But then you think, ‘How difficult could it be to shoot a proper scene?’”

Nidimoru and DK agree that it was easier said than done, but reveal that their skill as engineers came in handy. “We went through the whole process very analytically,” reminisces Nidimoru. “We figured everything out like a flowchart: ‘Okay, we don’t know how to shoot, like, a film—but we have a camera. What do we do now?’”

The duo laugh while recalling how their first edit was a jugaad, something Indian engineers are gifted in doing when wracked by a lack of resources. They set up two VCRs together on their home entertainment unit, and while one VCR would play different angles of a scene upto the point where a cut was required, the other VCR would record all the cuts, and before you knew it, a short film was ready.

“That DIY process really empowered us,” smiles DK. “We read Robert Rodriguez’ Rebel Without a Crew and realised that we could shoot something ourselves, edit something ourselves and even add music ourselves. We had all the resources and knowledge to make a film.”

And that’s exactly what they did: bought equipment and software required to make a film, wrote a script (“We had mastered the formatting and syntax because we were engineers,” says DK) by following the ‘butt-in-seat’ rule (just put your butt down and write), got actors from the neighbourhood, edited the film digitally, and finished it over their weekends. They first shot an eight-minute thriller, Just Me, which ended up winning awards at film festivals. They then graduated to a 30-minute short, Love, Relationships and other Trivial Things, and a 45-minute short, Shaadi.com.

“Then we realised if we just shoot double of the 45-minuter, we could make a feature film!,” laughs Nidimoru. “And so, that’s what we did: collaborated with a friend, Anupam Mittal [founder of Shaadi.com], put our own money into it, got some professional help in terms of lighting and camera, and made our first film, Flavors.”

“We found the entire crew for the film online, including Sita Menon, who still writes with us,” says DK. “We must have made the film in less than Rs 1 crore; most of the cost went into digital conversion. It was a completely amateur effort, but to our surprise, it got selected in film festivals and won a bunch [of awards] too.”

Having made one of the first crossover films in the US with an entirely Indian cast, the duo took a sabbatical from their jobs and came to India to release the film, and to try and make their next one, a Hindi crime comedy called 99. Except for two tiny obstacles: neither did they know Hindi, nor did they know anyone in Bollywood.

“We spent around six months in Mumbai, saw the movie’s release and tried to see if we could make our next one happen,” says Nidimoru. “But we realised that, at least at that time, even if actors loved our scripts, they had apprehensions about committing [dates] to industry outsiders, even if we had made a film.”

So just as quickly as they had decided to make a feature film in India, the two decided to go back to the US for another two years and collect the funds required to produce a film in India. “The reasons were two-fold,” says Nidimoru. “At that time, we were not full-fledged filmmakers, since Flavors had just been a pet project. Also, Mumbai is an expensive city to live in, and we didn’t want to stand in line waiting for someone to back us. Many people do it here, but to us, it just felt like a lottery. So we went back, put our heads down and worked hard, came back and paid a lot of money to get the cast we wanted, and co-produced 99 with Anupam.”

“For us, it was never just about making films, it was always about making this film—a film whose script we were excited about,” says DK. “And that’s what would drive us.”

Once 99 released, and found critical and some commercial success, the duo hasn’t needed to pack bags for the US again. Just a couple of months after 99’s release, the Ekta Kapoor-led ALT Entertainment bought their city-based thriller-comedy, Shor in the City. The movie found acclaim locally and at international film festivals, and Saif Ali Khan’s Illuminati soon signed them on for their zombie-cum-stoner comedy.

“It started off as a movie about the slacker generation, but we knew we needed to find an edge to it,” says Nidimoru. “Once the zombie idea happened, the film fell into place almost immediately. Kunal [Khemu] and we were looking to work on something else together, and he loved the script and even wrote a Hindi draft of it. Then Saif came on board and he liked it enough to want to produce it and even became a part of it.”

Having realised that they specialise in genre-benders, the two plan to ensure that their upcoming movies are off the beaten path too. “Our other strength is that we still think like indie producers,” says DK. “Our pitch of a project to any producer is that it would cost half as much to make than if anyone else made it. Because if we have a good script, the actors are ready to take a pay cut, and the controlled budget can be spent on technical aspects. And a good script means that rather than gimmicks, you get true marketing: word-of-mouth marketing [among] audiences who loved the film.”

Ask them the question that the three leads of Go Goa Gone—Kunal, Vir Das and Anand Tiwari—frequently ask each other in the film: what do you know and what did you learn? “Stay true to your convictions,” answers Nidimoru. “Wait for your turn and don’t sell out. If you like your story, somebody else will like it too.”

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on June 22, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/the-diy-filmmakers

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: M Night Shyamalan for Open Magazine

The Curious Case of Manoj Night Shyamalan: Hollywood’s black sheep talks about his reputation and fears—and of filmmaking as therapy

Attempting to fathom what exactly it was that caused Manoj ‘Night’ Shyamalan to go from being a darling of critics at just 29—an Academy Award nominee for Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Sixth Sense in 1999—to being one of the most loathed and despised directors of his generation, is almost as much of a struggle as trying to understand some of the plot twists in his sci-fi-suspense-thriller dramas.

Having broken out in mainstream Hollywood with The Sixth Sense, which not only bedazzled critics with its ‘twist ending’ but also became a worldwide smash hit, making over $600 million on a relatively small budget of $40 million, Shyamalan received offers to write and direct films of franchises like Indiana Jones and Harry Potter and was hailed as ‘The Next Spielberg’—no small achievement for even the most versatile of directors, and Shyamalan was only three films old at the time.

For Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), which followed The Sixth Sense, critical reactions were mostly positive, and even if there was some dissent over his trick endings and laboured creation of ‘atmosphere’, their box office numbers were enough to make Shyamalan invincible in the view of film studios. Everyone loved Shyamalan, a first generation Indian-American boy from Mahe, Puducherry—or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, depending on which side of the world you were rooting for him from—who loved to scare and surprise audiences in equal measure, and was bloody good at it too.

Trouble began with The Village (2004), about a village turning inward in terror, in which Shyamalan’s trademark ‘twist’ ending not only fell flat, but failed so spectacularly, it moved the late legendary critic Roger Ebert to remark that, ‘To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes.’ Other American film critics followed suit, and soon, there was such a clamour for Shyamalan’s fall from grace, it seemed almost as if the entire critic community had been anxiously awaiting such a movie, just so they could pounce on him for trying to be too Hitchcockian for his own good.

Shyamalan didn’t help matters by defiantly defending his movie in interviews to all and sundry, nor by creating and violently killing off the character of a smug movie critic in his next film, Lady in the Water (2006), in which Shyamalan himself plays a visionary writer whose ideas are so momentous they inspire presidents and change the course of the world. In future interviews, Shyamalan would laugh whenever the topic was brought up, calling it tongue-in-cheek, but critics found the film singularly unfunny and unintelligent, and hated it with both their hearts and their pens.

That hastened Shyamalan’s downward spiral, and though all his films, barring Lady in the Water, have turned a profit, everything he’s touched since has been a critical disaster, with his last film, The Last Airbender (2010) being called ‘The Worst Movie Ever’ by Entertainment Weekly. But Shyamalan has marched on, undeterred, even producing the indie horror flick The Devil, which was publicised as being ‘From the mind of Manoj Night Shyamalan.’

Shyamalan has never admitted that he’s made a mistake with any of his movies, reasoning that his films take time to find their place in history after preconceived notions around them have passed. It’s hard to say whether he is unfairly castigated by biased critics and audiences, or, as Collider.com puts it, ‘if he’s delusional, narcissistic or just super defensive’. Ahead of the release of his next film, the Will Smith-starrer After Earth, which releases in India on 7 June, Shyamalan answers questions about critics, his family and his ‘obsession with fear’. Interview excerpts:

Q Did working with global star Will Smith change your approach in any way? How is After Earth different from other movies that have been sold on your name and under your sub-genre?

A You know, it’s a great advantage to have a partner who can help define the movie, and when we sell the movie, all I’m looking for is to define the movie in the most accurate way possible. That’s always my goal. And when it’s generally just me at its helm, misconceptions of me can sometimes be not great for the movie. Because with my name attached, the audience…get[s] the wrong impression.

Where I am concerned, I make all types of movies, but what they feel [my] name means might be a little bit off from what exactly I’m making. But this time, I had the opportunity, with Will [Smith], to define the movie perfectly. I was very excited to have this, and we’ll see when the movie comes out, but my hope is that the expectations and the movie are much more in line…and that thereby, the immediate reaction would be a very positive one.

Q Some of your films, like Unbreakable, may not have opened to widespread acclaim, but went on to become cult hits. But in the last couple of years, there seems to be a lot of negative buzz around your name, even before a movie release. Do you think this is because audiences have come to expect a twist ending in every movie, and are disappointed when you fail to live up to their expectations?

A Maybe. I don’t know. There are a lot of theories (laughs)…I believe that, with time, the context of the movies change. If you have a conversation about any movie of mine, let’s say The Village, you’re going to have a very different conversation with a hundred people today than you would have had with a hundred people on the day it opened. Getting away from expectations and getting away from the context that each movie is born into has been a really positive thing for my movies. Once my movies are away from that, they are seen as the stories they were meant to be seen as, rather than second guessed for twists.

With After Earth—at the end of the day, it’s a father-son story at the centre. You could do this as a play on stage. That was my goal and my hope for the movie. All the razzle-dazzle and [computer graphics], the creatures and all the other stuff was just the tapestry on which I did the drawing. But the drawing is just a personal story. With each of my movies, I aspire for them to be cross-genre. It’s always a drama and something else, but the problem is that they usually release it as a ‘something else’ and that’s where all the expectations come into play. In my heart, they are all dramas.

Q This is your second film with a massive budget. With the number of superhero movies and kind of global box office openings such ‘event’ movies get, are you getting to make the kind of films you want? Is there pressure from the studio or even from the audience to make event movies? Is that why you have moved away from your more intimate films?

A No, no. I try to write about things that I’m going through. I have two teenage daughters and a small daughter, and so I have all these feelings of letting go of my kids, [letting them go] out into the world, into the dangers that they may face, and I’m constantly thinking if I’ve taught them well and [if] I get to keep whispering advice to them. It’s a very vulnerable moment where the roles shift a bit, from complete protector to letting them go out into the world and become their own person. So, when I look at my movies later, each of them should be a kind of a diary of where I was at that time as a human being.

After I know what I personally want the movies to be, then come things like scale, budgets and release dates. If you choose to make a summer movie, then you have to compete at a certain level of muscularity. So my last two were summer movies and I’m probably going to make smaller movies the next couple of times.

Q What is it about fear that fascinates you so much that you’ve spent such a huge part of your life exploring it?

A I think ‘fear’ is a genetic thing that was built in us to keep our species alive longer, but I don’t know if it’s a great thing for us as individuals anymore. I think it’s very stifling with regard to growth. It has so many negative aspects to it. When we fear things that we don’t know, we ascribe to [them] a negative value. If we don’t know people from [an alien] country… we fear them. If we don’t know about a job [in] another city… we are scared we might not do well there. I think fear isn’t conducive to personal growth. It’s always something I’ve struggled with myself and I’m generally a very fearful guy. So my movies are all kind of dissertations on that subject of: ‘Does anybody else have these questions about whether our involuntary mechanism for fear is a good thing or not?’

I also think of all my movies as therapy—you try to work something out emotionally. Maybe that is what all art is to the artist. I’m trying to say something, I’m trying to understand why I feel this way. All the things I make movies about are still there. Maybe they’ll never go away. It’s just [a] conversation about why I feel scared, why I’m fearful. I get very angry with myself for constantly living in a state of apprehension. You know, ‘What will happen when the movie opens?’ ‘Oh my gosh, will they like it?’ ‘Will they be mad at me?’ ‘Will it be a success?’ That is ridiculous. I’ve gotta stay in the moment.

Q Since your films have a lot to do with spirituality and have often featured children in central roles, I’m curious if there was a particular incident or phase in your life that got you so keenly inclined towards this ‘dissertation’, as you call it. Was there?

A I don’t know if there was a particular incident. There are certainly plenty of incidents…[when] I got scared or there was something dramatic that happened when I was a kid, but I don’t know if there was any one incident that sent me on that trajectory. Being an overly sensitive kid, I think, was part of the equation. I was always scared to be alone. My parents knew I was always terrified when they left me by myself at home, because my imagination would go wild. I heard every single noise and imagined it was some killer coming into the house. Every single noise was wrong. So there would be somebody breaking into the back door, climbing on the roof, ghosts… and all these thoughts.

The same thing happened in adulthood too, which was such a waste of my energy and time. The few… things that did go wrong in my life weren’t such a big deal—you dealt with them. The father in After Earth is trying to teach his son that fear is a liar. He’s saying, ‘If you can see that fear is a choice, you also see that you have options every single time.’ Fear is an obsession for me. The two obsessions in my life are: a) Why do I have this grey feeling when I wake up? What is this about? Am I not balanced? It’s there every single day for a minute, and then it goes away…

What is my subconscious saying to me? So I make movies like Unbreakable that talk about that weird feeling, about ‘why am I not at peace here?’

And, b) the other [obsession] is fear.

Q Could that fear stem from having been raised a Brown kid in America, especially at a time when there weren’t many Indians there?

A I think you hit it on the head! It’s White people I’m scared of (laughs). I’m just kidding. You may be right, actually. The sense of isolation, the lack of examples, [of] older kids you can relate to—you don’t have that kind of guidance. Feeling alone tends to evoke fearfulness. Feeling different from others can evoke that as well.

I still didn’t face issues as much as my dad did. He was the first of his family to become a doctor and he chose to come to the US. At that time, in the 60s, it was not, you know, the most open-armed place.

I’m not sure if I’m as courageous as him. I know the ups and downs that he went through in his life. He took them hard and he now has perspective, and that’s what he’s given me, by talking to me now about how he felt and what went through his mind when he was doubted a lot by a lot of people.

Before he retired, his office was in the not-great area of Philadelphia, so he was treating more… lower income people in this little brick building. And sometimes we went on Saturday mornings and the windows would be shattered and we would see spray paint. I was a kid, but the image of him with his hands in his pockets, staring… he was hurt, you know, this was his life. You feel like there’s no place for you, and yet he made good.

I feel proud that, as an extension of me, now he can have perspective and success.

I remember the first time he got out of the car at my premiere and saw his name 20 feet wide on the marquee. I remember his face. I was doing press, and I looked down the red carpet and he gave me a thumbs up, and I felt in some way it was like fulfilment for him more than it was for me.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on January 26, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/the-curious-case-of-manoj-night-shyamalan
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