Inside the Mind of Vishal Bhardwaj

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Filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey, who has worked with the director of 7 Khoon Maaf on various projects since 2002, on the quirks and passions that attend his talent

In 2002, after having worked on a movie called Shararat, I was disillusioned with Bollywood. I even thought of switching to documentary films. Then someone recommended me as an assistant director to Vishal Bhardwaj. He was making Makdee. In our first meeting, I remember the conversation being along the lines of:

Do I believe in ghosts? Yes.

Does he believe in ghosts? No. 

Rather than understand if I would make a good assistant director, he was interested in discussing superstition, which was at the heart of Makdee. Working on the film, I experienced an atmosphere and set of values that were different from those of conventional Bollywood. Since there were no stars in the film, schedules weren’t created around them. They were made around availability of light. I could feel the process of filmmaking. It was a reaffirmation for me, in a sense.

After Makdee was made, Vishal called me to a theatre in Juhu. Gulzarsaab and his friend Shivam Nair were also there. Makdee had been made for the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI). They had rejected it outright, claiming all sorts of problems with it—“Badly directed, badly shot.” He wanted us to see if that was really the case. We all thought their reaction was extreme.

Then Vishal did something courageous, given that he was just a music director then, and not the sort with 20 songs in the bank that he could give producers when they’d come to him. He had worked on very few films. As a producer, he was nobody. And yet, he decided to take the CFSI head on. He told them, “If you don’t like the film, I will buy it off you.” He must have paid Rs 20–30 lakh. He put everything at risk. We completed Makdee and went around town selling it.

Simultaneously we were trying to get Maqbool made. Those six to eight months were very hard.

It was a huge risk to take. If Vishal had succumbed and toed the line, he wouldn’t be the filmmaker he is. I didn’t understand it till I made my own film. If someone coughs while watching your film, you turn around and wonder why he coughed—that’s how sensitive you get to people’s responses. Vishal had the letter he got from the CFSI framed, and it is still on his wall. It’s right in front of where he sits. Not only was Makdee released, it also won an award at a children’s film festival in Chicago. ‘Courage’ is too goody-two-shoes a term for it. It takes balls.

The bar Vishal sets is very high. It’s scary, especially if you assist him. The amount of work he can do amazes me; if that’s what you need to become a filmmaker, I guess I don’t stand a chance. He gets up at 5 am, does his yoga, plays tennis, has breakfast, and is one of the first to arrive at work. Then, he writes every morning for a couple of hours, irrespective of what else he is doing. He spends a couple of hours doing music. He takes assignments. Even commercials.

There’s a lot of chaos around him—as a music director, film producer, director, writer. While writing a scene, Ronnie Screwvala could call; and he’d take it and discuss a contract. He manages to get something out of the chaos. Plus, Vishal is married with a child, and also runs a studio. He still manages to sleep by 10.30 or 11 at night.

Vishal is prolific. His film career began with Makdee in 2002, and 7 Khoon Maaf is his sixth film. It must be manic to work like that, but he is not high-strung as a person. He has all the conventional virtues—he is disciplined, organised and focused. If he is going to shoot for a particular film, the script of his next film is already under construction. This kind of commitment comes from a deep desire to succeed, a profound desire to do well. Otherwise, why would somebody push himself so much? 

In an abstract way, I guess you need some degree of madness for that, but he keeps his madness reined in; it’s in his control. He enjoys his alcohol, but he will not have more than two or three pegs. He doesn’t drink everyday either. Even when he does, he is the kind of drinker who gets high on his second peg.

Vishal says he became a film director so that he could create music that he really wants to create. Apart from being a director and music director, he is an equally good writer. I have worked closest with him in his role as writer and filmmaker. When we began with Makdee, he was still figuring the nuts and bolts of film direction. He still had questions like where to put the camera and why. He learnt to be a director, but he is naturally gifted as a writer. He is first a music composer, then writer, and then film director.

Vishal was the music director of my film, Ishqiya. After some discussions, I’d given him a music CD with the sound palette I was looking for, a CD he took rather carelessly. But he did listen to it, because he matched the palette.

When he works with his wife Rekhaji, a singer, they are completely professional about it. They have been working together since their college days. It’s his oldest working partnership. For the song Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji, I also met Gulzarsaab, who has had a long partnership with Vishal. We had wanted it to be like the ghazal, Abhi Toh Main Jawan Hoon. I got to see how they work. In one way, it’s like how Vishal and I are: we are friends. Since I’m younger, it’s ‘aap’ and ‘sir’, but we can pretty much speak about anything. Since they have worked so much together, they catch each other’s nuances very quickly. When Vishal said “Abhi Toh Main Jawan Hoon,” Gulzar immediately asked, “How about Dil Toh Baccha Hai Ji?” I was convinced that the film would do well when I heard this song. It was completely fresh. He really caught something from the ether that wasn’t there before.

The first song that we recorded for Ishqiya was a classical number, Badi Dheere Chaley. We tried many tunes. One day, Vishal called and sang this tune to me, and I said, “It sounds really nice.” In 2008, on my birthday, he asked me to come to his office. When I entered his studio, to my surprise, Gulzar, Vidya Balan, my parents and half the crew were there! That’s when my song was recorded.

Vishal is dangerously talented as far as dialogues are concerned, and especially good at anything colloquial that has to do with Indian streets. Also, he is a closet poet. He doesn’t write his own lyrics because he works with [acclaimed lyricist] Gulzar, but he’s pretty good at it too. He is well versed in Urdu poetry and street language, though sometimes one feels like reining him in. Let’s say there’s a scene that’s about only so much, and anything extra is what we call ‘lip flab’—it’s good repartee, but does the scene need it? Earlier, we had to edit his writing a lot. Having matured, he writes without flab now.

That’s also because in his initial years, he was making what he had always wanted to make—gangster films, children’s films—but he has moved to the next level now, exploring subjects he didn’t think he would five or six years ago, like 7 Khoon Maaf. This is a very literary space, with a lot of English dialogues which I never thought Vishal would do back then. In 2002-03, Hindi cinema was predominantly about the super rich or at least upper-middle class; it was glossy, colourful, romantic. In a way, our films were a reaction to that—we had more sweat, more grime, more so-called realism, though we don’t consider our films realistic at all.

Omkara was written in record time, just 25–30 days. I used to think something’s not right… how can it happen so quickly? From inception to completion, it took us nine months. Vishal usually works fast, but even by his standards, it was a little too quick. There were three people writing Omkara: Vishal, Robin Bhatt and me. We first did research, like a reconnaissance trip to Meerut and Muzaffarnagar, meeting many of Vishal’s old acquaintances, visiting the jail there. That’s where the film’s jail sequence comes from. We’d gone to meet some big shot, and inside the jail, there were tables laid out with biscuits, chai, and this big shot was commanding the jailer around.

We then drove to Mussoorie. We’d spend three to four hours getting the structure, script and progression in place, even cosmetic stuff like lighting. I used to be the one taking all the notes. I would sit with a laptop; Vishal is a pen-and-paper guy. Every hour or so, I would do a recap. We’d then take a break. I would come up with a step outline, which is a basic scene description. Since we were short of time, Vishal would take the scenes written yesterday and write dialogues rightaway. We’d meet at 7 with our drinks, and have discussions for an hour or so. That’s how we would write our scripts—till Kaminey.

When Vishal writes a script, he likes to share it with a lot of people. Usually, people in his position are very cagey about it. Not he. He tells me, “Kyaa pata kahaan se koi achhi cheez aa jaye (Who knows where a clever idea comes from?).” Vishal had asked me to adapt The Blue Umbrella from a novella by Ruskin Bond, but the script was only running to 60–70 minutes; it wasn’t feature length. Then Vishal decided to give the script out. That’s how Minty Tejpal, who wanted to write scripts, read it and suggested we change something. In the actual story, there is a failed umbrella theft. He suggested that the umbrella be stolen. It was a breakthrough. These are the advantages of sharing.

Vishal works well with actors. After all, actors need to trust the director—they need to feel warm and fuzzy and nice. Vishal’s persona is that of a sweet, non-threatening guy. He can say what he wants, but he manages to make them comfortable. Since he writes his own dialogue and scenes, he can tell you why it’s written this way, why you’re looking left-of-camera and not right. Actors get clear directions from him.

He has had ups and downs with other technicians. These episodes are volatile at times, but have to do with filmmaking, not ego hassles. At its core, any film is about one thing. It is not even a sentence, it’s one thought. People often work their entire lives with a filmmaker without understanding what he or she is really about. In Bollywood, especially, people work with each other because it’s convenient.

Vishal and I are obsessed with people who don’t like our films: not professional critics, but people critical of them. We really like to know what they have to say because it helps us see where they are coming from. More often than not, people have a problem with the kind of films we do… which is neither here nor there. I mean, it’s a choice that we’ve made. This is what we want to do.

Vishal focuses all his anger and ego on tennis. He speaks about how he wants to beat this guy or that. Even I found myself forced to play tennis. He’s also a very good cricket player—for Club MCC—but while shooting a film, he plays tennis.

Once Ajay Devgn, a known prankster, got sweets mixed with bhang [marijuana]on the sets of Omkara. I sensed it and didn’t have any. Vishal, who is against narcotics, did. He started feeling strange. He got palpitations. Pissed off, he went back to the hotel. He didn’t find it funny. “You’ve done what you’ve done,” he said, “but now I don’t feel like working.”

The entire unit was there, Ajay apologised, but Vishal refused to shoot. The producer came to meet him, but he held firm. For three whole days, he devoted all his energy to tennis on the hotel’s court. I still remember that scene well: the producer sitting on an easy chair, waiting, with Vishal saying, “I’ll finish my game and then we’ll talk.”

As told to Shubhangi Swarup