Thursday, November 29, 2012

Screen savers - 10 trailblazers of the new cinema

[Doing the blog-as-storehouse thing again. This is an extended version of my piece on “young experimenters of the new Hindi cinema” for the 5th anniversary issue of Vogue India – short, snappy profiles of 10 people across categories]

The Actor: Nawazudin Siddiqui

At the time of writing this, Nawazuddin Siddiqui has his cell-phone numbers on his official website, much like a struggling actor piecing together a portfolio – it belies the fact that this grounded, soft-spoken man is becoming one of our most celebrated performers. As Khan in Kahaani – the intelligence bureau officer willing to be amoral in pursuit of a greater good – he was a stick of dynamite, smouldering and exploding in turn. As the sensitive Faizal, destined for a life of crime, he brought kinetic energy to Gangs of Wasseypur (in addition to looking as sensual as the young James Dean in the first part of the film).

For a long time, recognition eluded Nawaz because he wasn’t “hero material”. “Lamba hona chahiye, gora-chitta hona chahiye, aur woh toh main nahin bann sakta. (I can't become tall and fair-skinned.) When you send in a portfolio photo to someone, you can do a bit of colour correcting, but when you are physically present in front of the agent they reject you straight away.” But perseverance has paid off (“luck always plays a part, but it was also important that I didn’t let myself get depressed or negative”) and he isn’t interested in being a “star” anyway. An actor should play completely different roles, he says – there should be no residue of the body language and gestures he used for his last character. “That’s what makes the process exciting to me. When I see big stars who repeat mannerisms in role after role, I wonder how they never get bored.”

His own enthusiasm is very visible when he discusses the intricacies of Method acting (“it gets mocked in India because we don’t have a tradition of layered characters in our cinema”) or reels off the colourful titles (Miss Lovely, Haraamkhor, Great Indian Circus) of the many films he has due for release. Though he is swamped with projects, don’t expect this chameleon-like performer to repeat himself anytime soon.

The Casting Director: Nandini Shrikent

Before she was offered the job of casting director on Lakshya, Nandini Shrikent had learnt set decoration and worked briefly as an assistant director. “I loved being on sets, but couldn’t handle it physically.” Her current work has its own rewards. She gets to read scripts early, discusses them at length, and sees diverse interpretations of a scene at auditions. “Some actors come in complete character – costume, mood, vibe in place.” Her scouting methods include speaking to talent agents, monitoring an ever-growing database and watching lots of theatre: “It’s so much fun to spot an exciting new actor and imagine the roles he might be suited to.”

Since many “big” movies are launched expressly for stars, Shrikent usually finds it more challenging to work on lower-budget or independent films. “A big-bonanza film can work against you because there can be politics involved – different camps and cliques, making it difficult to cast a particular person.” But there are exceptions. “One of my most fun assignments was for Aamir Khan’s Talaash, because the script had so many finely etched characters.”

What is tough – and saddening – is being inundated by calls from struggling actors. “Thousands of people arrive in Mumbai with beaten-up attaché cases and a heart full of dreams, but it isn’t possible to engage with everyone.” However, this has made her more sensitive to day players who are vulnerable to being exploited. “It’s important to ensure that they are paid promptly and fairly.” And it’s hugely satisfying for her when any role has been cast well – even if the character is a deliveryman who appears for just a few seconds. “So much hinges on intuition – you only know if something has worked when you see the final film.”

The Music Director: Sneha Khanwalkar

Listen to Sneha Khanwalkar’s compositions and one imagines she has been an inveterate traveller all her life. Her incredibly varied scores – drawing on musical idioms from around the country – have defined the mood of such films as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and Gangs of Wasseypur (which includes the 1940s-style folk ballad “Ik Bagal”, the hippie-reggae tune “I am a Hunter” and much else besides). Her MTV show Sound Trippin also involves travelling to understand indigenous forms of music. It’s surprising then to learn that until the age of 21, Sneha was very much “the girl from a middle-class family, who never got to go out by herself”. Her mother’s relatives taught classical music in Indore, but her self-education began when she “became cocky” and set out to discover the world and its melodies.

Since then, with the encouragement of such directors as Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap, she has connected with local musicians and employed singers who have no link with the Mumbai film industry – people who have, indeed, never even been to a city. “The relationship between people and their music changes with each state,” she observes. There have been priceless encounters such as the one with the septuagenarian Des Raj Lachkani, who sang “Jugni” for OLLO. “His voice is incredible – it’s like he has an equaliser in his vocal box – but I was concerned that he would have trouble singing the whole song at one go. Thankfully, he nailed it at the actual recording”. With innovators like Sneha at the helm, such voices will continue to reach larger audiences and few will accuse Hindi-film music of being one-dimensional, insular or unimaginative.

The Wild Card: Qaushiq Mukherjee (Q)

How do you define “alternative” or counter-culture in a country like India? It’s difficult, admits Qaushiq Mukherjee, a.k.a. Q. “The western form of counter-culture works because life is much more homogeneous there. Here, cultural shifts and clashes are entirely natural.” For him, therefore, going against the grain means experimenting with form rather than content – as he did with the Radha-Krishna relationship in Love in India. “The strength of the story lies in the telling. I am trying to find my own language.”

Having worked on documentaries for years, he set out to make a feature film that would shock. The controversial Gandu – still officially unreleased in India – drew attention for its explicit sexuality (much of which features Q’s real-life girlfriend Rii), but there’s more to it than that: it’s a full-blown assault on the senses, mashing up and regurgitating conventional narrative language, forcing you to rethink everything you knew about “non-mainstream” cinema. The film has been widely watched on the internet and Q would love to show it “as it should be seen, inside a theatre. However, a stupid relic of a law from the colonial past is haunting the system, and making it impossible to distribute in India, while we are showing the film around the world”.

It’s no surprise that Q’s influences include the English street artist Banksy, the legendary Japanese cartoonist Osamu Tezuka and rap-rave musicians Die Antwoord – all known for subverting norms in their fields. Ask if regular Hindi cinema appeals to his sensibilities and he replies with a terse “No”. Do his family members refer to his film by its title? “Hesitantly.

The Documentary Maker: Faiza Ahmed Khan

In under an hour, Faiza Ahmed Khan’s documentary Supermen of Malegaon captures a micro-universe about small-town filmmakers trying to make a Superman film on a tiny budget – with very basic computer technology and a bashful and emaciated leading man. The result is a story about people fighting the odds (the plural “supermen” in the title
of Khan’s film refers to director Nasir Shaikh and his team), following their love for pure filmmaking and commenting on their daily hardships: poverty and pollution among them. (Superman has to fly upwards because the cell-phone reception in Malegaon is bad; the villain is obsessed with dirt and filth.)

Khan has always been fascinated by Iranian cinema, “in which the line between fiction and fact is blurry. That’s the space I wanted to be in”. Documentaries are not widely seen because a formal distribution set-up is lacking, but with companies like Magic Lantern Foundation and PVR providing new screening initiatives, she is optimistic that the medium will have a mainstream future. Her next film is set in Golibar, a Bombay slum that is being demolished by a builder in connivance with the government and the police. “The country is currently going through the Great Indian Clearance Sale, with the government out to sell everything they can. Someone has to talk about these things.”

The Scriptwriter: Juhi Chaturvedi

Writing always played a role in Juhi Chaturvedi’s life, even if it took the form of long, expressive emails sent to friends. “I’m from Lucknow, where everyone is steeped in the storytelling culture,” she points out. Working in advertising – including the Titan series with Aamir Khan – she learnt how to tell stories in 30 seconds, and then got a chance to pen the dialogues for Shoojit Sircar’s still-unreleased film Shoebite. Then came Vicky Donor, which became one of the year’s sleeper hits. The idea for a film about a sperm donor “just happened”, but more important was the execution: Chaturvedi and Sircar took a premise that was a magnet for crude, fratboy humour and fashioned from it a charming, life-affirming story, as well as a commentary on Delhi’s sub-cultures. “The subject is such a sensitive one, I was very conscious of not making it cheap,” she says, “The process of sperm donation instantly evokes certain imagery, but we didn’t go there at all.” Even the character of Dr Chaddha – who might in other hands have become a leering old man – is a likably obsessive professional who sees all people as “sperrrm” types.

Chaturvedi has no plans to give up her advertising career, but is currently working on another screenplay. “I normally write at night, and plan to concentrate on one movie at a time.” Dr Chaddha would call her a “busy sperrrm”.

The Film Editor: Namrata Rao

Cliché has it that the editor’s job is thankless: it is invisible, most viewers don’t even understand it, and there is always danger of conflict with directors or actors who don’t want a shot to be cut. But Namrata Rao enjoys working with opinionated people who have differing views. “My job is to add value to the director’s vision – to be a facilitator and a sort of psychologist, and to show that I’m as concerned about his baby as he is. For Shanghai, Dibakar [Banerjee] was clear that the film should have a closed, claustrophobic feel to it, with very few establishing shots; there are many scenes where you have the characters shot in close-up or medium-shot at most, so it had to be put together very tightly.”

When Rao discusses a film, her language is that of a good critic; clearly she spends time thinking about the characters (and how the viewer should relate to them), the setup and shot composition. It helps to be involved with a project from the very beginning, she says, but she came in late on Kahaani and that was useful too – she wasn’t emotionally invested in the making of the film and could look at the footage with a more detached eye. Thus, a beautifully shot crowd sequence, with the sun rising over a river, was dropped because “it held up the narrative – and this was a suspense film where the viewer mustn’t get a breather, which would give them time to think about all the plot possibilities”. The biggest-budget project she has worked on is the soon-to-be-released Yash Raj Films film. Compared to some of her earlier assignments, this is a more conventional film in the way it is shot, with an emphasis on
dialogue and held shots – it doesn’t require frenetic editing. But it’s good to have different challenges, she says: “I can’t cut breathlessly all the time.”

For now, Rao’s acting aspirations – she did theatre in Delhi – are on the backburner. However, she did a short, very effective part in LSD as a loudmouth salesgirl – and one is glad that she didn’t edit herself out!

The Cinematographer: Nikos Andritsakis

Having directed six short films, Nikos Andritsakis became interested in cinematography during his time at the London Film School. “I was trying to understand how light and composition affect storytelling.” A Mumbai trip – to shoot a bike commercial – and a meeting with director Dibakar Banerjee led to the Love, Sex and Dhokha and Shanghai assignments. The challenge in the former, shot through CCTVs and handheld cameras, was “to simulate the un-staged randomness of real life – which is difficult because a filmmaker’s eye is always aware of technique even when it is trying not to be”. But the claustrophobic, noirish look of Shanghai was another matter. When he first came to Mumbai, Nikos says, he was impressed by the colourful night-time atmosphere in the streets. “This film was an opportunity to look back at my virgin, romanticised impressions and mould them into a cynical and threatening shape that would serve this story.”

With improved technology, he admits that today’s lensmen have much greater control over their images. “But this control has not always made films look better – sometimes roughness is part of the beauty of art.” He hopes to work on more Indian films because “there is a rapid transformation going on – it’s an exciting space”.

The Director: Anusha Rizvi

When Peepli Live was released, writer-director Anusha Rizvi was cagey about the label “Comedy” because she felt that would mislead audiences. But her film about farmer suicides and media excesses is very much a dark satire on the human condition – it has you chuckling and feeling squeamish at the same time. And it reflects a very particular sensibility. As Rizvi rhetorically asks, “How else do we deal with everything that’s going wrong around us? We have a headless government, and look at the crises in Chhatisgarh, in the north-east; at times it feels similar to the dying days of the Mughal Empire, when everything was getting decentralised. There are so many issues that one becomes numb to them.”

How do filmmakers living and working in the metropolises go about chronicling the many Indias hidden from their view? Rizvi believes it is possible, but you need a supportive and conscientious production team. Shooting in a village, she was adamant that her crew shouldn’t become as intrusive as the journalists depicted in the story. “We didn’t want to interrupt the villagers’ daily lives or usurp their space,” she says, recalling an incident where she stopped a light boy from chopping off a tree’s branch to set up his equipment.

Rizvi – who studied history and worked in journalism before entering the film world – is now working on Afeem, based on Amitav Ghosh’s sprawling historical novel about opium trade, Sea of Poppies. This may appear a very different sort of project, but as she points out, like Peepli Live it is a story about migration and its psychological and social effects. Ultimately, the human spirit is her subject.

The Mentor: Anurag Kashyap

One of our edgiest filmmakers, Anurag Kashyap overcame a long dark night-time of the soul – when his film Paanch was held up by the censors – and emerged from it stronger, wiser and ready to provide guidance to other writer-directors. Remarkably, he has settled into this avuncular role while losing none of his boyish enthusiasm for cinema. “I take a lot of time deciding who to encourage,” he says, “People like Vikramaditya [Motwane] and Rajkumar [Gupta] had worked with me for a long time. With others whom I haven’t had a long association with, I still need time to see their short films and scripts. And I prefer working with people who don’t know how to flatter you – people who haven’t yet learnt the industry tricks.” When he produces a film, he makes it clear he won’t step in for a quick-fix job. “I also give them less money than they need, to see if they have the courage to get it done on that budget, without stars etc.”

One of his protégés, Vasan Bala, showed exactly that initiative. “I initially rejected his script for Peddlers,” Kashyap admits, “but he went out and made the film anyway, and I was happy to be proven wrong.” Other acclaimed films to have received his backing include Motane’s Udaan and Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan – offbeat projects, but he believes the future lies in the coexistence of independent films with mainstream Bollywood. “There is room for both, and I will encourage both. Bollywood is very important and mustn’t go away – we need our songs and dances and our uniqueness – but the mainstream has to be redefined.”


  1. It's interesting that most of the people you have profiled have worked with Dibakar - Sneha, Nikos and Namrata, and yet Dibakar is not on the list. Is that because you feel he is not a "youngster" as such, or were you just given the list of people you had to profile?

    Also, I thought Anusha made an interesting point about urban filmmakers making films on rural India. I really enjoyed Peepli Live. Do you think it's because it gives them that distant voyeuristic eye to neutrally observe what is going on (ironically unlike the media in Peepli Live)?

  2. ArSENik: we worked the list out keeping a few factors in mind - including the practical one that there had to be a separate representative film for each person, which Vogue then made minimalist posters for. The films mentioned as "defining moments" for Sneha, Nikos and Namrata were Gangs of Wasseypur, Shanghai and LSD respectively.

    In any case the person chosen as "director" for this piece would have to be someone who was slightly lower-profile than Dibakar (hence Anusha, who has only helmed one film so far). And Anurag K was included not as a "director" but as a "mentor".

    But if you want to read something on Dibakar, do watch this space in around a month from now. And I can assure you it won't be short and snappy!

  3. Also, just to clarify again - since I'm being asked about this elsewhere - there were 10 pre-decided categories and we picked one person for each of them. And of course it's a completely subjective selection - it wouldn't take more than a few seconds to think of another equally interesting list with 10 different names.

  4. oh cool. excited to know you gonna write on Dibakar.

  5. Ik Bagal from Gangs of Wasseypur was composed by Piyush Mishra and not Sneha... please cross check the credits

  6. Anon: the lyrics were by Mishra (possibly co-written by Varun Grover, not clear about that) but Khanwalkar was definitely involved in the composing and arranging of the music.

  7. A clarification on 'Ik Bagal'. It was a composition (lyrics and music) by Piyush Mishra (from his theatre days in Delhi). The song was arranged by Sneha Khanwalkar.

  8. Thanks, Varun. I got the impression from my conversation with Khanwalkar that she was involved in the scoring, not just the arrangement - could be mistaken though.

  9. Thanks, greatly enjoyed the piece. I would have picked Amit Trivedi over Sneha Khanwalkar but obviously understand that its a subjective selection.

  10. Hey Mr Wock, is Mr Kashyap a liberal secular film maker or anti-Muslim as so many say? Your kind opinion Mr Wock, please. Thank you

  11. You missed out The Heroine - Vidya Balan, for she has changed the way the idea of a heroine in Hindi films for a change

  12. Arjun: no, the list provided space for only one actor. And if we had opted for a female actor, it wouldn't have been Balan - it would have been someone less well-known, and associated more with indie films. (Personally I also think Balan is being given too much credit for "changing perceptions", but that is another matter entirely.)