Tigmanshu Dhulia, known for hard-hitting films such as Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar, talks about Raag Desh, his forthcoming project on the Indian Army, and about trying to strike a balance between commercial imperatives and creative ambition. Excerpts:
What drives your choice of subjects?
The subject should be unique, satisfying and fulfil certain criteria. Being current is also important. It should have some visual potential — and by visual potential I don’t mean good sunset shots. It means you get to explore the space where the film is set. Location is also a character. Last but not the least, it should have a shelf life.
How and where do you start a new project?
Research plays a pivotal role. You start by reading books and whatever material you can get hold of, at times from a plethora of sources. Then if the subject is not set too far in history and some living representatives of that period are around, then they are the biggest help… they provide the emotion. The problem in making a biopic is that we have to face the brunt of many representatives guarding different ethnicities, social and political figures. Political parties are ready to make an issue for publicity, and artists are soft targets. It is difficult to show history in true light.
How did the idea for Raag Desh finally fructify?
Gurdeep Singh Sapal, the CEO of Rajya Sabha TV, got in touch with me and offered two subjects — Sardar Patel and the Army. I chose the Army because a film has already been made on Patel by Ketan Mehta, which ironically was my first job in films, as an assistant art director. I am a student of history and this subject also touches World War II. I was naturally drawn to it. Also you don’t usually get producers to back such projects in Bollywood; I did not want to miss this opportunity. The actual filming has just started, because this is not just a feature film but also a six-part one-hour TV series.
How daunting was the task — personally and from a creative point of view?
It was very testing and gratifying too. Whenever a new project starts, a lot of your friends and colleagues are tested. To hunt for like-minded researchers and writers was challenging. It was an uphill task to identity, delve into the archives, sift through the massive amount of material, and then arrive at a plausible narrative.
I could not have managed alone to read so much. Some writers with whom I had collaborated on earlier projects simply refused, as they thought the job was tedious and not within the framework of a regular commercial film. But many friends happily came on board. Creatively, I am enjoying myself. There was so much we did not know and it becomes our responsibility to tell the world how we got our Independence. Indian filmmakers have a bad habit of distorting history to suit the commercial side of the business. This has to stop.
You’ve been known to prod the viewer’s conscience the audiences’ consciousness with your work. Do you think that the audience is mature enough or even ready to face the truth?
The subject here is rooted in history. One hopes that it will have some empathy and create a sort of bond with the viewer. I also strongly believe that God lies in detailing. If the film has good detailing, or what you call nuance, then it will touch anybody and everybody. I agree our audience is not evolved enough for higher art, unlike the Europeans, but we respond to wisdom and true emotions really well. And that’s the area one works really hard at, because if done properly it has the ability to transcend most boundaries.
How does one manage commercial imperatives vis-a-vis creative ambition?
I believe in attractive realism. Just being real is boring; a newspaper can do that equally well. I was an assistant to Shekhar Kapoor and have also worked closely with Mani Ratnam. Both have had a great influence on me. Both choose subjects which are not run-of-the-mill and yet have been successful and created a niche. Similarly, I try and strike a balance between art and commerce. The film should fill a creative void and also get financial returns.
How does experience shape your vision?
For an artist the real strength comes from experience. You always dig in no matter which subject you decide to explore, your own self is the main ingredient, like a dash of lime in a salad. And what is you? Experience? an An artist can be alive only till he continues to experience…the day he stops his interactions with society, environment and God, he seizes to be an artist. See some film makers are products of cinema, a classic example being Tarentino and some are products of life, like Scorsese. I leave it to you to decide about me.
You try to break the mould with an audience nurtured on masala films. How challenging is it?
Without sounding intellectual, I will give an example. In the ’80s, there was a comedian in Marathi cinema called Dada Kondke, who also made a few Hindi films. Kondke was a phenomenon — all his films were huge hits; the audiences were the front-benchers, not the middle class. . Cut to 2012, when almost all single screen theatres were shut down across North India and ticket rates at multiplexes became outrageously high. A film called Great Grand Masti is released and rakes in Rs. 100 crore because the regular middle-class went and bought tickets. So, now, the middle-class audience has no qualms about watching a film that embarrassed it a few years ago. That should tell you something.
As a film maker, you’ve never shied away from addressing hot-button issues. Student politics, the underbelly of a metro or even the way we treat out heroes, PST being a case in point. Do the rewards validate your efforts and how has the journey been thus far?
The great poet Sahir Ludhianvi wrote for Pyasa : Hum gham zyada hain laaye kanha se khushi ke geet/ denge wahi jo payenge is zindagi se hum.” My films reflect what I have experienced in life and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of communicating them and bringing those unique moments to life through my work. As an artist I feel it’s my responsibility to mirror that aspect. It’s endlessly inspiring to know that I can make some sort of a difference. How can one shy away from that? Maybe it’s also a clarion call to introspect and correct that anomaly in the system, something which is eating at the very fabric of our ethos and our very existence.
Interestingly, even while dealing with a futuristic subject you’d want the future to be something which you’re your present lacks, or something which the present has but will soon lose. So in essence, you have to experience the present.
As I said earlier, cinema in India is not respected as an art form. It is business. The ones who are trying to strike a balance between the two seldom get rewarded in terms of money but, yes, sometimes the government does acknowledge their efforts, their contributions, which is gratifying.
The one feeling which I enjoy the most is freedom, — feeling free is the greatest gift one can have. A subject has to ignite your inner self, a memory, an experience, anything, which then makes the subject more engaging. And if and when that magic happens, you then slowly apply technique and turn it into a film script.
Content, as you’ve said earlier, is king, but now with the influx of so many Hollywood films and the market getting squeezed, how do you see filmmakers such as you holding on and carving a niche. Is the situation not emblematic of a larger issue?
I totally agree that the situation is emblematic; it’s like the coming in of burgers and pizza. Our traditional snacks took a beating and so will our film business. (laughs)
My take on this is simple; See the creators stopped being creative a long time ago. Mainstream Hindi cinema started catering to the NRI market, people who are ever so hungry for anything Indian, no matter how aesthetically bad it is. We could not even take our songs and dances to another level. Basically we started aping the west and since exploring new stories was never our forte, we lost our identity. The bright side of this is that it is a good time for regional cinema and it will thrive and flourish, because that has something which Hollywood cannot take away from us — our language, our culture.
The secret of your creative energy...
Fiction is always better then reality. A fictional world is where I reside, in a manner of speaking, thinking about stories and situations. Honestly, my deepest well of inspiration lies in the process of creating something out of nothing. My energy comes from the spiritual aspects of life. I see my version of god or the energy of the universe through my work. The experience of noticing the space around me and within me is the greatest inspiration of all. In fact, I also get inspired by introspection. Pulling my life apart at the seams and seeing what’s inside can be quite liberating. I’ve also in my journey realised that the simplest of pleasures, like immersing yourself in nature, observing people and surroundings, is a great way to unwind and relax. It helps me evolve and finesse my craft. Of course, reading the newspaper, watching cookery shows, playing with my dogs, arguing with my wife and being envious of other people’s work also contribute immensely (laughs).
Sanjay Browne is an advertising professional turned wildlife photographer and nature conservationist.