Radical Indians

‘I still don’t know how to make films’

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…says the poster boy of Bollywood’s alternative cinema

Dishevelled and straight out of bed, Anurag Kashyap makes some coffee and rolls a cigarette before addressing the subject of independence and freedom. “All my life I have had to fight,” he says. “I fought for money to make films; that was not a problem. I fought to find a space for myself in the industry; okay, that’s not such a big deal either. But I don’t want to fight for my freedom to say what I want to as a filmmaker. It is my right, isn’t it?”

It’s 8.30 am and we are sitting in his study at his duplex apartment in Versova, Mumbai. The story that Kashyap owns the largest collection of DVDs among film directors doesn’t seem far-fetched. There are DVDs all around; they must be in the thousands.

Freedom is a term now synonymous with his style of filmmaking. That he became the poster boy of alternative cinema and its most cheeky voice is something he never aspired to; it just came his way.

For as long as he can remember, all he ever wanted was a free and fair environment in which he could nurture his talent and skills and those of other “rejects” like him. “I never did set out to do something grand,” he says. “It was about my own survival. People never thought my ideas were good enough to make money. My cinema was considered risky. My first film Paanch wasn’t releasing—and it didn’t. But I didn’t sit and sulk. I decided to do something about it. I knew I had to find a way of making the kind of films I believed in and for that I had to prepare my own ground.”

But the success of Dev.D, Gulaal and now, the Gangs of Wasseypur diptych reassured him that there is an audience for his work. A Kashyap film today means critical acclaim, top festival billings and box-office profit. This newfound confidence has made him more “irreverent,” as he puts it. “Somebody was telling me about [India’s] Independence Day the other day. I was like, ‘What do we celebrate it for?’ It’s just a date. Nothing has changed since we achieved independence. If today I wish to make a film using names of real-life MPs and politicians, would I be allowed? A filmmaker cannot trivialise icons who are considered sacred in our country. I want to make a comedy that pokes fun at everyone and every institution. The day I am able to make such a film and all of us can have a good laugh about it, that day I will feel truly free and liberated. Till then, every creative artist has to fight.”

Kashyap, whose early years were spent fighting off the enemies of free speech within the movie industry, says that as a society, “we have become narrower than when I made Paanch a decade ago.” By way of example, he points out that some of the reactions he got for Gangs of Wasseypur, his epic saga of crime set in Dhanbad, Jharkand, were shocking. “Some elements from the minority community felt they were not portrayed in good light. On the other hand, some Hindu analysts felt that Muslims were made to look like heroes. Someone said it’s India’s first leftwing film and someone else took the other view, that it’s pro-right. They are reading meanings where none exists. I get confused about what kind of film it really is.”

Despite the political and social subtexts that one finds in his cinema, Kashyap believes he never tries to send a message through his work. “Don’t see my films for any political statements. A filmmaker can only reflect reality. He cannot come up with solutions.”

Crime set against the backdrop of violence is a recurring theme in his cinema. He is fascinated by crime and its psychology. “I have a curious mind. I like digging. I like to know why seemingly normal people get involved in criminal activities. But I am always interested in the human element first,” he says. He often gets ideas from newspaper articles, but “the front page doesn’t interest me. I pick up my stuff from the crime pages, those small articles that are mostly tucked away in the middle pages.” He reads Hindi publications like Manohar Kahaniyan and Satyakatha. Unlike other filmmakers, he thinks in Hindi and writes in that language. “I cannot think in English.”

Among his other interests is laying bare the subcultures of a city, as seen in most of his films. “I am fascinated by the ghettos, the underground sections of society. I remember I had to travel to Brazil once. Three, four days before my departure, I ordered books by a Brazilian crime writer through an express service and read all of them. I explored São Paulo’s subculture through his books. This is my modus operandi while travelling—find a local writer and get to the heart of the ghettos of the place.”

A man from the UP hinterland, Kashyap always found it difficult to be a part of the mainstream. Although he first made a name for himself as a scriptwriter in what were intended to be commercial movies, he never felt comfortable. “If you noticed, I only wrote dialogue for mainstream films. But eventually it didn’t work for me. Mouthed by mainstream actors, my lines looked out of place and awkward. It was the hero speaking the street language.”

Kashyap has become an indispensible part of a much-needed movement towards realism in Bollywood. The other forces behind this movement include peers like Dibakar Banerjee, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vikramaditya Motwane and Vishal Bhardwaj. When these names are mentioned, he is excited.

“I envy Dibakar his eye for detail, his cynicism, humour and observation skills. I also like Imtiaz (Ali, his close friend). I am interested in seeing where he goes post-Rockstar. I feel his journey has started—I see a divide between his earlier films and Rockstar. As for Vishal, I am impressed with his command over language. But the advantage he has is that he can give music [too], which I can’t.”

But Kashyap reserves his warmest regard for protégé Vikramaditya Motwane. In his view, Motwane’s Udaan is among the finest films of our generation. “I am in awe of Vikram,” he says. “I would say more than I teaching him, he has taught me. He introduced me to my first camera, a Nikon, which really changed my ideas of imagery.”

Likewise, he has learnt from everybody he has worked with. For instance, he found in Amole Gupte one of his earliest supporters. “I was an assistant to Amole as dialogue writer on a TV show produced by Saeed Mirza. Amole is the most generous man I have met. When he saw what I had written, he said, ‘You don’t need to assist me, you can do very well on your own.’ I said, ‘I need a job.’ So, he spoke to Saeed and got me a job.” That was one of his earliest writing jobs.

For all the talk that his heroes are sadistic monsters and that his worldview is too grim, Kashyap surprises you by saying that most of his films end optimistically. “My heroes are stupid, like the heroes from pulp and noir.” he says. “They are stupid because they live in the moment. Men always display their heroism in that moment. That heroism exists only in their head. They don’t think through the consequences and they don’t come from a point of idealism. For instance, Dilip (Raj Singh Chaudhary, the protagonist) from Gulaal is handicapped by idealism, by what I call misplaced idealism. Somewhere my heroes are also always trying to impress the girl and they fall because of that.”

Known for his strong characters, Kashyap’s heroines—whether it is Chanda from Dev.D or Nagma Khatoon from Gangs of Wasseypur—are not damsels in distress or victims. “I see my heroines as catalysts, as the ones left behind in the end,” he says. “They don’t wallow in pity or suffer in silence. They are victims of their own choices. They can stand on their own. In the end, if the woman left behind is crying—like in Gulaal—it is because of what she has achieved and not because of what she has lost. I have never shot an image of a woman crying over what has happened to her at the end of the film. Look at Paro (in Dev.D). She moves on because she is a strong woman.”

Most of the women are inspired by his female friends and ex-lovers. “I have forever been trying to understand women. I don’t claim to be somebody who has a handle on them,” he says. “Girls-next-door are uninteresting. It is a woman’s attitude that makes her attractive. I have always fallen for such women.”

As a schoolboy and then in college, Kashyap was shy. Girls trusted him easily. “They felt safe with me,” he says. “I knew so many girls who had a reputation in college. Boys are very moralistic and judgmental at that age. These girls who were curious and experimented with boys early on and who the boys branded as ‘fast’ actually went on to do well in life. That’s because they figured themselves out early. These are the kind of women who find a place in my films.”

The women in Kashyap’s life contributed to his own ideas of freedom and independence, and one of his guides has been his wife, Kalki Koechlin. “She has stabilised me,” he says. “There was a time when I was angry. I was one of those people who would just sit and abuse and do nothing. I had read Camus, Dostoevsky and Kafka, and I behaved for a long time as if I was K [the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial]. But I didn’t know what to do with the knowledge I had. I felt like such a waste. My personal life was a big mess. I thought I was going nowhere. But when Kalki came into my life, things started moving in the right direction. I think I have found my soul mate.”

He finishes his coffee. “The only thing now,” he says, “is not to get bogged down by pressure, money and success, and [continue to] make the kind of films I have been making—those of the streets, shot guerilla-style, with unknown actors.” Eight films old now, he feels he stands today at the same place he did when he started. “Deep down, I still don’t know how to make films. I am still trying to find a language.”