Shoojit Sircar sees it as his responsibility as a filmmaker to make fresh, intelligent, unbiased films, regardless of commercial success
Prolific adman Shoojit Sircar made his directorial debut in 2005 with Yahaan, a politically charged love story set in Kashmir. He followed that up in 2012 with Vicky Donor, a brave and unconventional comedy, which tackled the taboo subject of semen donation with remarkable poise and went on to become a blockbuster hit, winning him a National Award for Wholesome Entertainment. Sircar’s new film Madras Café is a political spy thriller set in the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war of the 90s. Here, Sircar speaks about his political beliefs, his responsibility as a filmmaker and how cinema can change society:
Q After Yahaan, Madras Café is your second film on a political issue. Are you a political person? Are you aligned Left or Right?
A No, I’m a socially conscious person. And I can’t be aligned either way, because I’m a filmmaker and it is my responsibility to be in the middle. If I go Left or Right, I will go wrong. I’ll be biased and [making] a judgment. I prefer putting the facts out there instead, and letting people introspect and decide for themselves. In the case of Madras Café, I had been following the Tamil issue and Sri Lankan civil war for many years and it has affected me a lot. At the end of the day, between the politics, human lives are lost and that’s what I wanted to show. People do ask me why a Bengali who’s grown up in Bengal and Delhi is making a film on Tamil sentiments. It’s because as a patriotic citizen of the country, any political issue will bother you as long as it has larger [relevance] for the country. And then, the issue transcends the politics and becomes personal. I just hope that this film will educate or inform some people and others relate to it. There are many more such issues I want to make films on, and I don’t know if this lifetime will be enough. (chuckles)
Q Were you always socially conscious?
A My father was in the Air Force, so at some level, like it’s said in Hindi, it’s your sanskaar (values). He has fought in many wars and, growing up, I’ve seen his commitment and passion for serving the country first hand. During the 71 war, when I was around 4 years old, we were living in an Air Force camp in Bagdogra in West Bengal. I remember how, for an entire month, the lights would go off at night and sirens would [sound] across the city, and the entire family had to take shelter in an underground bunker at night—in case of a bombing.
(Smiles) I’ve seen these times and I’ve always believed that it’s important to serve your country—and you don’t need to be in the Army for that. As a filmmaker, I should definitely entertain people, but I can also serve my country by making such films.
Q What started this journey? Was it a love of the arts or passion to make a difference?
A For me, theatre was the starting point. I was a footballer who worked at a hotel after my graduation in Delhi, but I was bitten by the theatre bug. I think somewhere during that time, because of the environment in 93-94, and because of the ambience and people I was with, I crossed over and started getting affected by the country’s issues.
I was part of Safdar Hashmi’s Jana Natya Manch group, and we did a lot of street theatre. As you know, street theatre was basically started not as an entertaining medium but as a revolutionising one. Theatre gave me an objective understanding of society, and whatever my discipline, my consciousness, my conscience, and even my love for film—it all stemmed from my days with this group, and, later, with Act One, the group I started with Piyush Mishra, Manoj Bajpayee and Ashish Vidyarthi.
Q Do you remember the first political play you were part of, or the first issue that got close to your heart?
A We did a play called Jab Sheher Hamara Sota Hai, an adaptation of West Side Story, about the rivalry between a Hindu and a Muslim street gang, and that was a very strong political statement about religious differences [made by us]. But we didn’t stop at plays. When the Khalistan issue was going on, Piyush, Manoj, Ashish and I went to Punjab with a harmonium and a dhol and sang patriotic songs in front of crowds. Many people objected, but in those days, we did what we had to do for society.
But if you specifically talk about the first issue that grew close to my heart, it was the Kashmir issue. Yes, Partition bothered me, the Lankan issue has bothered me, communal differences have bothered me, but I had many Kashmiri acquaintances, both Pandits and Muslims, and on getting to know them, I was shocked at how we treat citizens of our own country. Kashmiris couldn’t live inside Kashmir and felt threatened outside of Kashmir, because we’d treat them like foreigners or terrorists. That’s why I wrote Yahaan too, because I wanted to present the perspectives of the youth of Kashmir.
Q How did cinema affect your politicisation?
A In those days, Delhi used to [host] the International Film Festival of India, which is now held in Goa. It used to happen in the peak of winter, in January. The cream of India’s intellectual filmmakers would come. But the tickets used to be really expensive. So my friends and I, who were always phukkads (broke), used to wait for the evening shows, which very few people would attend because of the mist and cold. The festival would screen documentaries at those times. We would jump over the barriers and sit in the corners to watch them. One such documentary, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, changed my whole perspective of cinema. It was about the letters these American kids, who died in the war, had exchanged with their parents during the Vietnam war, and it was the most moving and mind-blowing experience of my life. Another similar film that affected me was Oliver Stone’s Platoon. After that, I started discovering European and Iranian cinema, and, of course, the cinema of Satyajit Ray. All of these influenced me because they were about human lives.
Q When Yahaan didn’t do well, and your long-in-the-making film with Amitabh Bachchan, Shoebite, which was also socially conscious, didn’t work out, did you at any stage consider making commercial cinema and moving away from social and political films?
A Never. Not once. That can never get out of me. I’ve never had a plan B. Plan B wasn’t even an option. (smiles) You know, when Shoebite didn’t release, I was down and depressed. It was my wife who told me that whether or not my film works or releases ultimately, I know how to write and I know how to make a film, and nobody can take that away from me. Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, two old men who tirelessly continue making films they believe in, also inspired me.
And then I decided that no matter what happens, I’ll continue making films for whatever years I have left. Even if no big film works out, I will take whatever lakhs [of rupees] I have left, take my 5D camera and make films on my own. (laughs) Because I could easily make a commercial love story, but I have this keeda (bug) to only make films I believe in. The fact that filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Raju Hirani were doing well gave me hope that the audience was evolving, so even after Yahaan and Shoebite, I decided to make a film about semen donation, because I believed in my writer Juhi Chaturvedi’s script. I’m lucky to have had John Abraham, who is a man with immense integrity, back me on it but I’ve always believed that, as part of the film industry, it is my responsibility to [deliver] fresh, new and intelligent films to the audience, because that’s the only way things will change.
Q Do you believe that cinema has the power to change society and youth perspectives, especially in times like these when most Indian youngsters don’t even care to vote?
A Yes, I do think so. I agree that kids today are less aware than before. I was surprised to [learn] recently that some Mumbai kids don’t even know that there’s an India that exists beyond Thane! But I think it’s a matter of time. Even during the time of our freedom struggle, only 20 per cent of the [country’s people] were fighting for freedom. The rest were still going about the daily course of their lives and working for the British. They had no clue what Bhagat Singh or Khudiram [Bose] were doing. It’s the same today, but I feel, because of social media, they are slowly getting opinionated and conscious. And trust me, it’s these young people who are going to set things in the right place. Let’s have faith.