Canned Until Further Notice

The unhappiness of filmmakers and actors whose films get made but not released
Liquid Oxygen
Publicity poster of Paanch
Anurag Kashyap’s first effort at directing a  film. Though its pirated DVDs are available, the film remains unreleased

“For any director, the pain of an unreleased film is similar to that of the mother of a stillborn baby,” says Shoojit Sircar. It is the grief of a filmmaker who discovers that his film is destined for the cans instead of Cannes. An adman-turned-filmmaker, Sircar has had success with the recent Vicky Donor, but still awaits the day his 2008 film Shoebite, starring Amitabh Bachchan, opens at a theatre near you.

Producer Sunil Bohra, who rescues such stalled projects, helping them with a release, puts it another way: “It is as if you have a pretty daughter who is sitting at home because nobody wants to marry her.” Filmmakers’ preferred filial analogy for a film is ‘baby’. It speaks of an emotional investment in their work beyond just their time, effort and/or money, of a hapless entity they must nurture for its survival and success, of an enterprise of love above all else. And they do it for you, the film watcher. If it flops, it often sends them into a near state of mourning. But what if a movie is denied a release to begin with?

Nothing can be worse than not getting a fair shot, says Anurag Kashyap, whose Paanch has been stuck in the cans for over a decade. Inspired by the Joshi-Abhyankar serial murders of the mid-1970s, it is a story of a rock band set against the backdrop of drugs, sex and crime. The unreleased film has acquired cult status simply because it is the kind of film that people like to discuss without even having seen, though some evidently have; YouTube has a leaked version and the grey market bustles with pirated DVD copies of it.

Said to be ‘raw and gritty’, the film’s popularity on online forums led Kashyap to quip, “The myth of Paanch is bigger than the film.” It was his first effort and “most impersonal work”. Despite this detachment, he thinks audiences have a right to watch the film, as much for the pleasures—and “flaws”—it offers as a marker for anyone trying to chart his evolution as a filmmaker. It was shot in a little over a month, but for it to be such a quickie, Kashyap had to live with the script for four years and says he eventually knew each scene by heart. Its release was first thwarted by the Censor Board, which refused it a clearance certificate twice for excessive use of violence and expletives. Absurdly, its alleged lack of ‘positive characters’ was also listed as a reason for rejection. “They don’t seem to understand that there are grey [shades] in all people,” Kashyap told Rediff.com in October 2001.

Kashyap’s fight to get the film screened may seem romantic today, but back then it left him broke and put him off writing for months. Worse, there were no new offers in sight. “I haven’t earned a rupee in the last four months,” he said in the same interview, “I have been living off my wife.” Shattered, he slipped into depression. So followed his famous angry phase, which saw him raging against the conventions of India’s film industry. “Anurag was hurt because he had invested his sweat and blood in Paanch,” says Bohra, “It affected him deeply, but he is the kind of man who cannot be kept down for too long. He proved that.”

Whatever little hopes that Kashyap and his cast—which included Kay Kay Menon and Tejaswini Kolhapure—had of a release were dashed when producer Tutu Sharma refused to part with its theatrical rights. Having bought the film from Sudhir Mishra who had made the initial investment, Sharma was reportedly bargaining for a better price. Why, nobody knows. Perhaps an immediate release would have risked failure, while holding it until later—for Kashyap to first gain fame, for example—would have made better commercial sense.

The film’s non-release has arguably worked in Kashyap’s favour. It has become a symbol in an ongoing battle against censorship and given the director his reputation as India’s own Orson Welles, the fiercely independent Hollywood legend who was famous for having more unfinished and unreleased films to his credit than released ones.

It is also true that Paanch helped Kashyap evolve into the filmmaker he has become. Having felt the pain of rejection, he says, he is always keen to give fresh talent a chance. The film’s non-release also made him review himself critically as a director. “Today, when I see Paanch, I can only see compromises,” he told The Indian Express last year. “I see the desperation of a young filmmaker trying to get his film made and ready to change just about anything.”

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For Shoojit Sircar, the Shoebite freeze was just as demoralising. “I was upset for many, many months. Upset, depressed and disappointed, I had this feeling that I have lost everything I had,” says Sircar. When the film’s first look was made public, a dishevelled Amitabh Bachchan posing with knapsack on his shoulder and a bandaged right foot, it evoked reactions ranging from disbelief to excitement. “Mr Bachchan sported a different look, the kind you may not have seen him in before,” says Sircar.

Based on a concept by M Night Shyamalan, Shoebite was developed into a script by adman and filmmaker Rensil D’Silva (who directed Kurbaan). “It’s an eternal love story, that of an elderly couple who have spent years together. But does love erode after years of intimate closeness? This was the premise,” says Sircar, “It was the kind of subject that would have possibly changed a few lives. In all honesty, Shoebite would have touched more lives than Vicky Donor.”

Excited by the idea, Bachchan encouraged Sircar to direct it. On the first day of the film’s shoot, Sircar remembers being nervous in the superstar’s towering presence. “I had worked with him in ad films, but this was different, it involved more inter-personal interaction,” he says, “All the while I was thinking, ‘How can I bring myself to shout ‘action’ to this legend?’ I was shivering, but then all of us know what kind of an actor Mr Bachchan is. No other actor makes you feel more at home.”

Uptil a point, the film progressed smoothly. It was, as Sircar claims, a medium budget film was shot in 17 cities. The big blow came after they were almost ready with the film. Its producer UTV got into a legal wrangle with 20th Century Fox, and the film was dumped unceremoniously and indefinitely. Next, they heard that Fox was making a film on the same script with Denzel Washington playing Bachchan’s role. There has been no news of Shoebite since. It became history. All the effort, it seems, went waste. Or did it? “The producers keep assuring us that they will sort things out, but they don’t understand that for a director and his crew, a film is a matter of life and death,” says Sircar, “A studio or producer doesn’t lose anything if one film is stalled because they have many more in production. They will recover their money on some other film. What about us? Our career is at stake.”

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If a Bachchan starrer can suffer such a fate, imagine what happens to smaller films with few or no famous names. Yet, it can happen to anybody, and talent has little to do with it—as the case of Naseeruddin Shah shows. No actor has suffered more on this count than Shah, who is on record as saying: “I have, in fact, about 35 completed, unreleased movies rotting somewhere in NFDC godowns. Most of them have vanished without a trace.”

Director, designer and artist Muzaffar Ali is next on the list. Two of his most heartfelt efforts, Anjuman and Zoonie , are said to be languishing in the cans. He has often mentioned Zoonie as his favourite among all the movies he has made, a list that includes gems like Gaman and Umrao Jaan. Set in Kashmir, Zoonie stars Dimple Kapadia as Habba Khatun, a 16th century poetess-princess who was popularly known as Zoon, meaning ‘moon’. “When Zoonie was shelved, it was a bad time for him,” his wife Meera told Firstpost.com, “It was very tough for me that for years he brooded over Zoonie, and the fact that he could not make the movie. Friends told him to forget it, a lot of people tried to work it out of his system, but he held on. It was at the top of his mind and affected everything he did.”

Likewise, for years now, Manoj Bajpai has been seeking closure for Hanan, a film whose traces have vanished from the Bollywood book. He tells anyone who cares to listen that this unreleased film bears his finest performance. Yet, he cannot even show it to friends and admirers. “Frankly, I don’t know where the prints are,” he says, with a mystified look.

Actor Makarand Deshpande’s directorial debut, Hanan, or ‘annihilation’, has been stuck since 2004. “We finished it in six months flat,” recounts Bajpai, “I have kept making efforts to get it released, but with little luck.” He claims he has spoken to Sahara, the producers, on several occasions but they are uncertain about the film’s future. “I even had a chat with Mr Subrata Roy and he promised to look into it.”

Though Bajpai does not regret taking up the film, he recalls how he had decided to turn it down when Deshpande first made him the offer. “I knew him as a friend and I also knew that he had this reputation of making absurd plays. I was wary at first, but when I heard the script, I knew this would be an exciting film.” Revolving around a village simpleton, an almost ‘child-like’ figure, Bajpai says its narrative resonates with our times. “It is about how innocent people are used like pawns at the hands of the powerful, whether they are politicians or people who have made religion their core property,” says Bajpai. “Believe me, for rural India, this could have turned out to be a religious film, something like Jai Santoshi Maa,” he says, laughing.

For Nawazuddin Siddiqui who recently teamed up with Bajpai for Chittagong, fame could have come earlier if Meridian Lines, a film he worked on in 2008, had hit theatre screens on schedule. It was the first batch of films that featured this character actor in a lead role, recognising his talent way before others did. “I could have become a star back then. Maybe my struggle would have been cut short by a few years,” observes Siddiqui, who plays a eunuch in Meridian Lines, a small-budget ensemble piece. He has no idea why the film was dumped. Maybe producer Angad Paul, son of Indo-British tycoon Swaraj Paul, would know.

“A producer should push the film, ideally,” he says. The Pauls, however, do not seem interested in putting their film out for public viewing. There is another Siddiqui film that is lying in the cans—Sagar Sarhadi’s Chausar, a film about a man who saves up money to buy a gun that could get him a job as a security guard but who ends up entangled in red tape over a gun licence.

“A stalled film affects all of us equally,” says Bohra, who has been on both sides. In 1997, he directed a film titled Jeetenge Hum inspired by Bad Boys. At Rs 8 crore, it was an expensive film for its time. Though he felt let down by its non-release, he is unlikely to ever put it out commercially. “Maybe after my death it will become an epic. Like Pakeezah,” he quips. Then, he gets serious. “If an actor or director thinks that their time, talent and effort are wasted, then by the same logic, the producer’s money is lost as well. It’s loss-loss for everyone.”

Artistes, however, do not see why commerce should dictate whether or not a film gets out there at all. “Money is one thing,” says Bajpai, “Having your fate hanging in the balance, quite another. You don’t make a film for yourself. You make it for an audience. If they are not going to see it, what is the point? It’s totally meaningless. We might as well shut shop and go someplace else.”