Anurag Kashyap: ‘Pahlaj Nihalani Has United Everyone’

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The Udta Punjab filmmaker speaks about taking on Pahlaj Nihalani and how reality makes its way into his work

EVER SINCE HIS debut film Paanch (2003) ran into trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), director Anurag Kashyap has been no stranger to controversy. Over a career that has explored edgy, often dark themes, Kashyap has emerged as a powerhouse of alternative cinema. From the trippy Dev. D (2009) to the sprawling Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), he was at the forefront of the genre often referred to as ‘Hindi indies’. And in an industry where directors are often relatively unknown, he emerged as a star in his own right, with his voluble public persona, his success at international festivals and his undeniable innovation. In 2015, his Fox Star Studios-backed venture, Bombay Velvet, sank at the box office. From that career-low, a year later Kashyap is back in excellent fighting form. He has clashed with Pahlaj Nihalani, the controversial chief of the CBFC, over the certification of the upcoming Udta Punjab. Kashyap’s Phantom Films, which co-produced the film, moved the Bombay High Court over the matter and won a judicial clearance with only one cut.

With the controversy still raging, Kashyap is rebooting his directorial career with Raman Raghav 2.0, based on the story of a real life serial killer who prowled the streets of Bombay in the 1960s that he has updated to contemporary times. At Phantom Films’ office in suburban Mumbai, over a steady stream of hand-rolled cigarettes, Kashyap speaks about how reality makes its way into his work, how fans are an artist’s biggest liability, and the sneaking suspicion that he may have outgrown his muse, Mumbai. Excerpts:

What is the situation between Udta Punjab and the authorities now?

After we went to the Bombay High Court, we got the list of the cuts that we needed to approach the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). Now it’s in court. (On 13 June, the Bombay High Court directed the CBFC to clear Udta Punjab with just one cut and issue an ‘A’ certificate to the film.)

What is it like to function as a filmmaker in these circumstances?

It is stifling . You can’t make a film thinking about how it will be received [by the authorities]. But there is something good that is happening—which is that there is a movement, the entire industry has come together. That’s positive. The way the associations and the unions have come together, that’s never happened before. More than the film (Udta Punjab) it’s Pahlaj Nihalani who has united everyone, because of what he has been doing for the last two years and the way he operates.

Will it affect Raman Raghav 2.0?

We don’t know. Raman Raghav 2.0 has already gone to FCAT and they asked for some changes that we accepted. If it’s one or two words that don’t affect the film, nobody wants to pick a fight. But this is just wanting to kill the soul of the film. Now it’s gone beyond Udta Punjab to the need to try and change the system. Let’s see if that happens. Mr Shyam Benegal is very close to submitting the second part of his report [to the I&B Ministry on reforms of the film certification process]. We are hoping something will happen and that it doesn’t just stay an intention.

Tell us about the time you first realised you wanted to make films.

It was like an epiphany. I grew up on Hindi cinema and loved it. But for me it was as if a different set of skills was needed to make those films, [where] the hero can fly and heroines can sing. But when I saw cinema from the world, not just Hollywood, for the first time, I felt ‘These are stories I know’. This was January 1993, at the International Film Festival of India in Delhi. I watched five films a day for 10 days and that changed my life. The moment I realised it, I decided this was what I wanted to do. Within five months, on 3 June, I was in Mumbai. I complete 23 years this month.

What do you remember of the Mumbai ‘struggle’?

For me it was fun. I got a lot of work as a writer. Because I would write for food. I would write for any amount of money, for no credit. And I could write so much, 100 pages a day. I became the go-to guy for anyone who needed things at the last minute. And because I didn’t ask for anything, and I was just happy doing it, a lot of doors opened for me.

There is a movement, the entire industry has come together. More than the film it’s Pahlaj Nihalani who has united everyone.

I was making a lot of money by the time I was 21-22. I was writing dialogues for most daily soaps, and that paid me Rs 3,500 per episode. I was churning out three-four episodes a day, making Rs 14,000 a day. In 1994, it was a hell of a lot of money. I was just excited [that] I could buy all the books and the movies in the world. Till date, most of my money goes there, it doesn’t matter if I’m making Rs 14,000 or Rs 14 lakh, 60-70 per cent of my income goes into buying books and movies. Within three years, I got my first credit—on Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya.

How does it feel to work on a small budget after the Bombay Velvet extravaganza?

My budget on this film was one thirty- third of Bombay Velvet (laughs). It feels like being on home territory. I know how to do this very well. I think I didn’t know how to do that—it was too much money and living in a resort and making a film. [Now it’s] going back to the slums and shooting.

Is this a scale you are happy with?

I’m happy with anything. Even making Bombay Velvet was as tough, because within that money, except where we were staying, I was still trying to suppress everything. We still shot 75 days and did a lot in a day as compared to how other big-budget films are made. So my schooling has always been that.

With Raman Raghav 2.0, the advantage is that within the budget of Rs 3.5 crore, I have absolute freedom. Its success and failure is entirely mine. For me that’s the greatest space to be in. I can go out and push boundaries, there’s less fear of losing a lot. With Bombay Velvet, just the amount of money we lost is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. I don’t want to break box-office records but I don’t want to lose money either.

As a producer I would never put the burden of a budget on the director. That’s a big lesson for me. It does put you on the back foot, because more than the movie, the entire industry is talking about the budget. Everybody’s worried about recovery... You start losing perspective of where you started from. Suddenly it becomes all about survival and that’s where it puts pressure, which did not happen with Raman Raghav 2.0... I made the film that I set out to make.

Raman Raghav 2.0 is being called your comeback. Do you agree?

I had never gone anywhere; I don’t understand the meaning of ‘comeback film’. I think people want to see me in a certain space, [and] those expectations are killing. For me, I always say that the fans are your biggest enemy. They will not let you grow. They want you to keep doing the same thing till one day they are bored of it and then they accuse [you] of doing the same thing. If people think I’m back, thank you. Show it to me by paying the money and buying the ticket. Don’t say it on Twitter.

How did the idea of setting the film in contemporary times come about?

The story has been with me [for very long]. In 1994, I joined Media Classics (a production company) just after director Sriram Raghavan had just made [his video docu-drama, Raman Raghav: A City, A Killer], and it stayed with me. Sriram knew I always wanted to make it. When he made his film, the people associated with the case were alive; now they are not. We had the script since 2009. It became Raman Raghav 2.0 after the Bombay Velvet debacle; I had to rewrite the whole film. The title came before the movie. I was upset and aggressive and talking to my partners about making the film and said, ‘Fine if I can’t make Raman Raghav, I will make Raman Raghav 2.0... We will just move the story from 60s to now’. Then I thought about it and I called my friend in Delhi who’s kept my plays. He sent me the pages of a play I wrote in 1993 that became the opening scenes of the film. The play was about a criminal and a judge, with the criminal talking about the circumstances in which he came across and killed someone. They are having this moral, ethical argument about crime. That became the basis of the play, and now of Raman Raghav 2.0. It also has a lot to do with the kind of violence that surrounds us now. So it’s about the purity of crime. It talks about violence in the name of religion or morality or in the name of anything, vis-à-vis violence just in the name of violence. It’s a very dark disturbing space, but I think what evolved is some kind of a valid argument, if you can see it that way, from the flip side of it. If it’s a world only of crime, then there is a moral boundary within the world of crime.

How was it to get back together with your long-time collaborator Nawazuddin Siddiqui?

This is a very Nawaz-driven film. I like to explore things with Nawaz. Off screen, he doesn’t have a dominating personality. A lot of actors do and you can’t use them more than once. The camera loves him and another person emerges on the screen. As an actor you are offered films and a lot of money to play the most popular character you’ve already played. But that’s boring, and it’ll never be as good as what came out then. Nawaz is dying to discover, and with me he expects that he is given something new, and I expect him to do something new.

Fans are your biggest enemy. They want you to keep doing the same thing until they are bored

Did you explore a new side of Mumbai with this film?

I think I’ve exhausted Mumbai city. Now I think I’m tired of Mumbai, I need to get out of here and find a new muse. We shot in Dharavi, in Kidwai Nagar slums, Antop Hill slums, we shot in the abandoned colonies in Port Trust area. In Dharavi we found spaces where I think a camera has never been. We are not just shooting in the slums, we are also showing all the hidden sweatshops in the slums where you see people working tirelessly. There are lots of these huts where printing work and zari work is going on... it’s just one long winding maze. [The film] is also a social document in a way. Otherwise the film has no texture. If I just want to show huts, I might as well make a set of jhopdis. But how do people live in these locations? It’s important to see a lifestyle.

It also says this man (the protagonist) could come from a world like this. There’s a chase sequence where the cops are after him and he knows his way around the slum and the hiding places. The cops are the outsiders looking in. The people in the slum help him. They don’t know who this guy is, or how vicious a criminal he is, but they know ‘he is one of our own and we have to protect him against the outsiders’. That camaraderie that exists without two people knowing each other has to come through.

You have a great track record in finding new talent.

It’s just my greed to find people. As a filmmaker, I have to surprise my audience. With somebody [who has] a set image, I am already losing that, as they come with an expectation. With most newcomers. I can shoot on the streets. And because you don’t have time to work with them on the streets, you just get one or two takes, so we have to look hard for good actors.

Casting is 50 per cent of filmmaking; if you get that right, then a lot of other things are taken care of. We spend a lot of time on that. The most difficult casting that came in this film was Vicky Kaushal. We auditioned a lot of people for the role [of a troubled cop]. In Masaan he’s a very nice boy, [in real life] he doesn’t drink, he comes from a protected background. He took it upon himself to audition for it, and we had to completely transform him.

What’s your next film going to be about?

I want to make a character-driven horror film. We are already in the process of writing it, from the point of view of a woman. I’m thinking of shooting it in Cherrapunji. It has to be a place with either lots of snow and cold and fog, or lots of rain.

Would you ever make a romantic comedy?

I would love to, but it will definitely have some kind of bite in it. The world has to be real; most of them are not, barring someone like Woody Allen. I’d love to make a comedy but it would be a satire or a black humour. I think Raman Raghav 2.0 is my romantic film.