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Murder He Wrote

Priyanka Pereira is a Mumbai-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Open magazine
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Sriram Raghavan, one of the most underrated filmmakers of our time, on why he likes to only tell stories of deceit, revenge and murder
For filmmaker Sriram Raghavan, “why do you make only thrillers?” has become a rhetoric question. “I don't know how to answer it anymore or if I should answer it at all,” he says “It isn't like something ghastly had happened to me in my childhood. I pretty much had a fun time as a child,” he says. Raghavan feels the search for this answer is a life long quest for him, more so now because his audience too is demanding it. “Somewhere the audience has started believing that I cannot do anything else. I have another script which is a fantasy love story but I haven't been able to make it so far. Maybe it's just fate that wants me to take thrillers or whodunits or dark, edgy cinema,” he wonders aloud.

It is onerous for him to pin down what his reasons may be for making thrillers and whodunits or delving deep into the psyche of the human mind and exploring the dark side of human emotions, but what Raghavan has done for Bollywood is given it a genre that is otherwise barely explored. He laments the fact that this genre almost gets a stepmotherly treatment from Bollywood. But on the other hand, he jests saying, there is lesser competition too and hence he can as many films as he wants in this genre.

With his first film Ek Hasina Thi (2004), he extracted a performance out of Saif Ali Khan, who was till then caught in his rom com image. The film with tight script, powerful performances and brutal climax where rats eat up a tormented Khan, made Raghavan one of the most sought-after filmmakers. His follow up act was Johnny Gaddaar (2007), the debut of Neil Nitin Mukesh which gave him a promising start in the industry which he could never live up to, was a kind of noirish homage to the Vijay Anand brand of cinema. He used several references from 70s whodunit films giving it a flavour of the era while retaining the pace and thrill element which came with his brand of cinema, a merging of Indian and Western sensibilities, which surprisingly ends up as something entirely original.

Both these movies, now considered cult, failed to set the cash registers ringing. So Raghavan did what filmmakers sometimes do, he made a compromise and tried to pander to what he thought the audience would want. It took him five years to make his next film, Agent Vinod, a Bond-type adventure with blockbuster aspirations that ended up hollow and gimmicky.

The critical and box-office success of his new film Badlapur, has turned Raghavan into a happy person. With the mammoth flop Agent Vinod looming large on his filmography for the last three years, he needed a film like Badlapur to reinstate his place in the industry and to reiterate his faith in himself. “It is a contained film like my first two,” he says, with a contented smile. Dinesh Vijan, producer of the film also terms it an unadulterated Sriram Raghavan film.

One viewing of the film and you know where this stems from. Based on a real-life story Badlapur tells the story of a man who seeks revenge 15 years after his wife and son were killed in a hijack. The inspiration for this came from the written account of an Italian man who had spent 15 years in jail after he slught revenge for his loved ones murder. This story made Raghavan wonder about the human psyche and how it functions after the loss of loved ones. Despite zero encouragement from most quarters, especially his brother, film writer Shridhar Raghavan who wanted him to 'play safe and direct a regular film' Raghavan chose to follow his heart and decided to go ahead.

The first thing that strikes you about Raghavan is his reticence. Not for him the flamboyance that many filmmakers easily project, which may also explain why he remains one of the most underrated filmmakers of our time. He always has a nervous smile while he is giving interviews which along with his unruly mop of hair and moustache makes him look like an absent-minded professor. He would rather work from the confines of his studio or on the set, than talk about himself and his work. Shy and modest, he accepts praise for his work hesitantly. It is a little disconcerting that a person like him is known for stories of wickedness and deceit.

His office is proof that his love for noir and dark cinema almost borders on obsession.

A portrait of Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston and frames of Hindi movie thrillers cover the walls of his office. A bobblehead of Alfed Hitchcock lies on his work table. It all however started in the confines of his home in Pune. He is a third-generation Tamilian in Maharashtra and his love for dark cinema can be considered a family pastime. His brother Shridhar Raghavan, too, has made a living by writing cops-and-thieves stories. His first introduction to films came with Hollywood classics such as Ben Hur, Born Free and The Guns of Navarone. Later on, Alfred Hitchcock became an inseperable part of his growing up years. His fascination for Hitchcock can be seen in the way he uses the camera to tell a story. “I remember watching Hitchcock's North By Northwest and the spy became an irresistible character for me,” he says.

His reading then comprised James Hadley Chase and Alistair Maclean. His parents had kept Bollywood out of bounds for them, but slowly Raghavan introduced himself and his brothers to it. “I remember there was this one occasion when my mother let us watch this film called Yaadon Ki Baaraat. Well, it was a story of three brothers who are separated after their parents’ murder,” he reminisces between sips of coffee. Raghavan would then bunk school and watch a lot of movies. Films like Johnny Mera Naam and Jewel Thief impressed him. “I did not have the maturity to understand great films then. I found these thrillers enthralling and exciting and something stayed with me long after I had watched them,” he says.

When he was in his teens he shifted base to Bombay and decided to take up a job with a film magazine. However, this did not pan out well. His stammer and his shyness did not quite allow him to be the best of film journalists. When he quit, he happened to meet the then upcoming director Mukul Anand. Raghavan worked with him for a bit starting off with Aitbaar. Anand had told him that if he continued to assist, he would be a director in the next six to seven years. Raghavan thought this was too long a route and decided to take admission in Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. “Ironically, it took me 17 years after I passed from there to make my first feature,” he laughs.

At the FTII he made his National Award-winning diploma film, The Eight Column Affair, a love story set in a newspaper office. After leaving FTII, Raghavan made social documentaries for the Indian Space Research Organisation for two years. But his love affair with whodunits started with his short film on Raman Raghav, the serial killer who terrified Mumbai in the '60s. When he came back to Bombay in search of work, he also came with an idea for a film. He had read Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying and he wanted to turn this into a film. When he went to Tinnu Anand with this idea, he was informed that Abbas Mustan were already making the film. The film was Baazigar. Raghavan returned dejected and then waited for years before Saif Ali Khan decided to greenlight his first project.

Most actors who have worked with Raghavan will tell you about his dedication to a film. Varun Dhawan says, “Sriram lives a film and he makes sure his actors too live it.” This is perhaps the reason that most actors rise to the occasion in Raghavan’s films, giving their best performances. He has a Sudoku fanatic's attitude to his work, always willing to crack something new. “With every film I want to do something that has not been done before. I want to shoot a scene that has not been shot before.” Over the years, Raghavan has tried to hone all aspects of storytelling in his cinema. He has realised the importance of music in films and now gives special attention to each song in his film. “I have finally taken the plunge, lost my inhibitions about songs in films and I have started enjoying it.” In Badlapur, the soundtrack deserves special mention, every song fits in seamlessly into the narrative and yet stands alone.

He however laments the fact that the thriller genre is still not favoured in contemporary Bollywood. He believes that with films like Teesri Manzil, CID, Ittefaq, the Hindi film industry was actually on a good footing at one time. “Perhaps the filmmakers then were far more aware of the craft of making whodunits, one doesnt know,” he says, adding, “Over the years it has deteriorated so much. Maybe because there are fewer stories to gain inspiration from or borrow from.”

Vijan, on the other hand, feels there are fewer producers who are willing to take the plunge for cinema like this. “I understand there is limited audience and most of these films would get an A certificate from the Censor Board, but one needs to know how to work within the economics of it and make a profitable film.” With too much money, budgets are mostly for films with big starcasts and failsafe subjects. Despite all this, Raghavan does feel that this is a good time to be making movies. “We may not have enough producers and actors, but we do finally have an audience. No subject is considered out of the box anymore. In fact, most audiences will now look down on you if you stick to more run-of-the-mill stories.” Something that Raghavan is unlikely to ever do.