No Holds Bard
Getting under the skin of the man who proves cinema belongs to everyone.
In 1988, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski made a series of ten films about the Ten Commandments, using highly polished allegory to explore meanings and interpretations of each of the Commandments, while looking at the hardships evident in contemporary Polish life. The great director used a different cinematographer for each of the ten one-hour films, and the project created for television went on to become the master filmmaker’s best known work, surpassing even his pathbreaking Three Colours trilogy.
The series is called The Dekalog, and it is a collective of DVDs Indian cinema should be eternally thankful for, largely because a music composer born in Bijnor felt his jaw drop as he watched the films, realising the inexorability of his passion for the medium. Cinema is the most visceral of artistic formats, and it is a stunning testimony to its universality that a man untrained in the art form but propelled by his own awestruck reach towards greatness is now Indian cinema’s finest cinematic craftsman.
Vishal Bhardwaj is 48, just about the age that Kieslowski was when those ten films first made it to the world a couple of decades ago. I sit across from the director in his Bombay apartment as assistants and family chime in with wardrobe suggestions, moments before he has to leave for an interview. He speaks exasperatedly about how it takes more energy to promote a film than to make it, apologizing to pause between sentences to take calls fobbing off actresses, the sort popular enough to be unmistakable just by their first names. For everyone, repeat everyone, wants to be in one of his movies.
His latest film is a couple of Fridays away from release, and the explosively titled Kaminey does not look anything like what Bhardwaj, over the years, has lulled us into expecting from him. This is a director who has earned himself the title of Bollywood’s Bard by inventively adapting Bill Shakespeare’s immortal plays into very earthy Indian cinema, and one who has crafted some gems of children’s cinema in a country which regrettably ignores the genre. His last take on Othello is considered one of the finest modern films made, and critics and audiences have been earnestly craving a third Shakespearean act.
Instead, unpredictable as ever, the usually literary Bhardwaj’s newest offering is as pulp as fiction can be. Kaminey, loosely translated as Knaves, or Rascals, is a story of twin brothers with speech defects, a slick and handheld caper film set over madcap events taking place over one day, with an authentic romance squeezed in between the lines of cocaine. It looks at Bollywood cliché and turns it on its head while revelling in it, and promises to be far cleverer than standard theatrical fare. Dhan te na!
“Everyone wants to make a caper film,” Vishal trills excitedly as we clamber aboard his SUV to trek from suburban home to suburban studio. “At least once. Like everyone wants to make a gangster film, or have their own take on The Godfather. It’s such a juicy genre, yaar.” It is also a genre well suited to Bhardwaj, a director who balances violence with poetry with ease, deftly walking the unlikely tightrope between the ultraviolent cinema of Takashi Miike and the subtle nuances of a Gulzar romance. “I was really inspired by Tarantino’s films, Guy Ritchie. That was the space. In that I had to hunt up something original, do something that hasn’t been done before.”
It’s a tall order, but the director’s seemingly lunatic story might just do it justice. However, skepticism invariably kicks in when you look at his casting choices, Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, a pair of young A-list stars who have barely any acting prowess to boast of. Shiny pretty people who have yet to truly deliver. Then again, a few years ago this man announced a film called Omkara and I needled him about choosing Kareena Kapoor as Desdemona, and he just smiled as he asked me to wait and watch. That particular serving of humble pie has an aftertaste that still lingers.
He’s pleased with both decisions, saying the only Shahid film he’s watched is Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met where the actor indeed was commendably restrained and immensely likeable. “I felt he has talent. He knows how to act and he’s dedicated and hungry, and I always like to pick up those actors who have that bhookh. They try much harder. I felt Shahid was interesting but that I would have to totally distort, or at least twist his image. Totally. And for that he was ready.”
Priyanka, he admits, was a shot in the dark. “The film was of a certain size and we needed a heroine of a certain feasibility, a certain stature. And in that range, Kareena wasn’t available and nobody else looked interesting.” So Bhardwaj met Chopra and came away significantly impressed with her intelligence. “She’s very, very sharp. And so I challenged her, saying it will be a tough role and she will have to speak Marathi. And that more than half the crew is Marathi and they better not ridicule her.” He grinningly describes her Marathi endeavours, and swears the Maharashtrians on set drowned Priyanka with taalis.
When a performer isn’t a conventionally trained or naturally powerful actor, but just intelligent enough to steer clear of obvious acting pitfalls, he can parley those smarts into a pretty successful career. Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar pop up immediately to mind, smart men who know how to play to their strengths. Bhardwaj agrees that a keen mind goes a long way. “And also it must be said that the boys and girls of this generation are indeed a lot more intelligent, a lot more aware. And awareness comes from exposure, and they have so much more exposure now,” he smiles, going on about the difference between being able to pop into a DVD library and pick up any movie you want and, just ten years ago, praying that your favourite directors’ films would come to the local festivals or theatres.
He also praises the fact that the younger, hungrier actors make themselves more available – not just in manner of dates but in terms of giving themselves over to their roles. “The ones at the top are so bloody focussed on staying at the top that they’re too insecure to experiment, to push themselves. They think of themselves in the third person!” It seems like almost poetic vengeance then to see Bhardwaj push star sons and daughters like Shahid, Kareena and Saif Ali Khan far, far out of their traditionally urban comfort zone, the glossy over-urban cinema where struggling underachievers wear Tommy Hilfiger and Armani.
“And even if I keep them in an urban zone, I would like to make them do something that they can’t imagine themselves doing. And that’s where the fun lies, for both them and me. If they do ten films, nine and a half of those see them playing versions of their real-life personalities. So doing something radical will only benefit them as actors. And maybe that’s why they are perceived differently in my movies.” Do they all let him push them, though? Vishal breaks into a chuckle. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
The Bhardwaj method also involves surrounding these A-list stars with an unconventional set of excessively talented character actors. Saif Ali Khan’s staggeringly good Langda Tyagi in Omkara worked more because of the marvelous Deepak Dobriyal’s portrayal of Rajju, the sycophantic runt in a way responsible for all the ruin. They are Dobriyal’s war whoops that stir up both Saif and the audience, and the actor brings earthy credibility to the proceedings. Kaminey features Amole Gupte and Chandan Roy Sanyal in roles like this, alongside Priyanka and Shahid.
“When the audience hasn’t seen the actor, I think that’s half the battle won. Then if I say he’s Rajju, the audience says okay, he’s some Rajju. But then when in the middle of an Ajay Devgan and a Saif Ali Khan you place an unknown guy who is a brilliant, brilliant actor, that makes a wonderfully weird combination. Ajeeb sa. Our audience itself is so star-struck that they need references, it takes them time to place a star in a different context. And a combination like this unnerves them. ‘Yaar, this guy is using curse words with Saif!’ ‘Yaar, this guy’s shoving him, shoving such a huge star!’ They’re shocked,” Vishal says, gleefully. It is what brings believability as it erodes the star quality.
“The moment you put a real actor alongside the star, the star begins to become more real,” he says, interestingly drawing a neat line between ‘real actors’ and ‘stars,’ at least in his head. With our stars used to overacting because of commercial cinema and television, does his role become one of constantly reining in performances, making them more restrained? “Sometimes,” he says after a long pause, “not always. I try to make sure that everything around them is so real that they feel they should be more real. Like Naseeruddin Shah says, acting is more about listening, about reacting. If you’re in the moment and listening for your co-actor, instead of waiting for your own line… as a director, that is the false note that you have to try and capture. Sometimes things don’t look internal enough, the crying looks too surfacial. So you have to keep bringing actors back to the moment, the truth, the reality.”
Vishal shuns rehearsals entirely, feeling they decapitate all notions of spontaneity. “You become so rehearsed there’s nothing left. So we read the script, and we go deeply into character study.” Bhardwaj isn’t kidding. This is a man who recorded audio CDs in his own voice for each of his principal Omkara actors, giving them all a chance to acquaint themselves with their characters’ own heartland accents and dialects, each a little different from the other. “That character study is vital. It’s about more than what is on the page, in the script. That bit we can handle, but what has happened in this character’s life so far, what is his backstory? That is something I get my actors very involved in. What is not seen on the screen should be explored, and we should all try to live those unseen moments. So that when we arrive at this moment, the moment that is in the script, we’ll bring some sense of that backstory, feel some invisible energy. Then the actor is not just coming and performing those lines.”
His current film sees Shahid as twin brothers with speech defects: Charlie with a lisp that makes every S into an F, and Guddu who stammers. Bhardwaj explains how he and the actor went to a stammerer’s club with his ENT doctor to understand why you stammer in the first place. “The first thing you stammer about is the first letter of your name, because if your name’s Sanjay your mother and father are constantly asking you to tell your name, goading you on, and you’re nervous, hesitant, trying to avoid saying it, so you struggle with it. Sanjay s pe atkega, Vishal v pe atkega, Raja r pe atkega… and so on.”
Borrowing from reality is something that fascinates the filmmaker, and he describes how it was awkward to meet the stammering men, but amazing to hear their life experiences, of conflict and stigma and even romance – the maestro tenderly pilfering the poignant story of a the humiliation a stammering man went through when he discovered his girlfriend taunting him behind his back, and tacking it on right after the film’s interval.
I call him an auteur, a tag that instantly makes him blush and almost choke on a pomegranate pip in his vociferous, embarrassed protestations. Still, the question stands: when he makes a film like this, a slick, fast caper movie, does he feel the need to consciously try and make it more artistic? “Yaar, I think aesthetics are a part of a man’s nature. Anything you do, those aesthetics will come into it. Even if you do a hardcore, lusty explicit scene, your aesthetics will enter the scene. So it’s never a conscious attempt to be artistic, it’s just the kind of person the director basically is, as a person. He will be seen, he will be felt, he will be naked on the screen.”
One of my favourite visuals in Vishal’s oeuvre is a long tracking shot through a village house in Omkara as Ajay Devgan chases down a playful Kareena Kapoor. The shot, set to Vishal’s own voice singing O Saathi Re, stays lyrically unbroken till the couple finally tumble outside the house, and it must be hard for the director to resist the temptation to do more of the, well, obviously showy stuff. “As a filmmaker you do constantly feel the need to do something mad, bring in some craziness. Some shots you imagine while you write, and become fixated upon that they should be done just so. The others depend on the location, a lot. You go on location and you have something else in mind and the location is different, sometimes good and sometimes bad. And you can’t impose a scene on a location, you have to adapt it to that environment.”
The current film, he says, has had a lot of improvisation, largely because all of Kaminey has been shot using handheld cameras. “Nothing was fixed. None of the actors knew exactly which angles we were using so they all had to do the entire scenes all the way through. And we would do axis jumps! Right from the first scene! Paagalon ki tarah shoot kiya hai,” he beams wide. His partner in visual dementia this time is Omkara cinematographer Tassaduq Hussain, the first cameraperson Bhardwaj has worked with twice, despite a lovely, eclectic bunch of lensmen, from Sachin K Krishn of Blue Umbrella to Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro.
Bhardwaj is almost embarrassingly effusive in his praise for Hussain. “I think we have a really great rapport. As professionals, we have such an identical gelling when it comes to cinema. It’s happened many a time that a shot was cut and we both looked at each other, smiled and each knew what the other was thinking. It’s so, so good, the relationship. Strangely, we haven’t had a creative difference yet. Till date! And he’s a very fine technician, with a different level of understanding of cinema.” This leaves the director free to explore other aspects of the filmmaking process, secure that the camera’s eye is in perfect hands.
I’ve seen Bhardwaj on the sets with Navarro, the duo a model of sharp efficiency as the director made the 19-minute Blood Brothers, a short film on AIDS for a Mira Nair project, but Vishal assures me Kaminey was a wholly different beast. “Sometimes the situations were very difficult, like with a crowd of 10,000. If you’re pushed into the middle of the public, you end up having to behave like an army commander, walkie-talkie in hand, headphone in ears, shouting all the time.” The surreality doesn’t escape him for a second. “It’s a crazy job that way, a crazy job. You have to be so driven all the time. The connect has to be within you all the time, so you don’t forget what you are trying to achieve.”
He admits crowd scenes are a nuisance. “They’re all good fun later, baad mein bada maza aata hai. But when you’re shooting them it’s too chaotic. Now I want to do a very intimate, a very quiet film.” Fair enough, but he did think Kaminey would be a breeze as well. “I did, and I went completely wrong. It took me a whole year to finish it! Omkara took six months from shooting to release, and this is the longest time I’ve taken to complete a film. We thought it’d be a 60-65 day shoot, but we went on to 85 days, and those extra twenty days…”, he trails off, as if exhausted by the very thought.
The end result, he thinks, will shock people. “It will because we haven’t really made capers, and capers are about playing cat and mouse. Basically you confuse people; you don’t tell them everything. And before they can decode one clue you give them a new puzzle, a new twist.” And Bhardwaj is rebelling against the straight linearity and overdone coherence our audiences are used to. “This happened, that is happening, this will happen.. oh, and this happened three scenes ago, here’s a flashback! I haven’t done all that. I’ve tried to respect the audience.”
He talks about the openings of films like Pulp Fiction and Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, films where the first few sequences just lay down a bunch of interesting characters but make no effort to explain them. “And suddenly in one twist everything starts connecting, starts making sense. So I think Kaminey is going to be engrossing but you won’t know what is going on. At least for some time. And you’re going to have to decode what comes up after that. It’s going to require that much from the audience, so I’m nervous and excited.”
Exciting indeed because it would be a massive step for Indian audiences to respond positively to smarter cinema. “I’ve never spoonfed them, ever. But here I’ve really made it hard. I’ve hidden everything, made it all random. Forget spoonfeeding, now they have to sniff it out and lick it up if they can. Chaat ke dikhaao! I’ve done that, which I feel will make or break the film.”
The music has already clicked. The film’s title track, Kaminey, is a work of art sung by Vishal with lyrics by his mentor, Gulzar – but it is the album’s club track, Dhan Te Nan that has really gotten audiences enraptured. Bhardwaj considers the sound a classic Indian sound effect, a staple of our cinema that became so completely ingrained with our storytelling that, even now, if we narrate any story with lots of drama, we often use the fanfare sound to emphasise the entry of the antagonist or some such major twist. He first came up with the ‘dhan te nan, nana nana’ riff ten years ago in a 40-minute short film called Dhan Te Nan, a zany absurd farce that has now been boiled down into this hit song.
He shoves a lot of credit in Gulzarsaab’s direction, the Oscar-winning lyricist seeming to save the very best of his work for his star protégé. “It’s more of a father-son relationship now,” explains Vishal, saying that Gulzarsaab’s input goes far beyond lyrics as he selects story ideas, helps during the overall scripting and characterisations and essentially stays around throughout the creative process. Vishal is constantly decrying the lack of quality writers in the country, and having one of the finest by his side is an unquestioned asset, but as a producer, isn’t he tempted to nudge the great man back into direction? There’s a gleam in Vishal’s eyes. “We have all been pressurizing him a lot. Bahut time ho gaya. He must direct a film now.”
I tell the director that he should have sung the album’s ballad Pehli Baar Mohabbat himself, instead of handing the microphone over to Masakalli singer Mohit Chauhan, and he confesses to being a very reluctant singer. “What happens is that always before shooting, I make a mix of the song in my own voice, picturise it and then come back and dub. I don’t use the original artists till much later, unless it’s a sync song. This saves a lot of time and the song is still being made, and because it’s my composition I can sing it quicker. I sing all the songs, male and female parts, and its a reference to the singer later, so he or she knows what expression to give it, how it should be sung. But as people listen to it on the sets, they start liking it, and then when I change the voice they say your version was better. Which embarrasses me, because I really don’t want to be a singer.”
We talk of dynamic editing and cutting scenes to music, and Bhardwaj cuts in, strongly disagreeing. “When you’re shooting it, the shot was not conceived to the music, so it starts going wrong. I hate to cut to music. I cut separately. You should not have the music to stimulate you to cut. You cut it the way it should be, emotionally. And then put the music. Sometimes you are cutting a chase you can cut that to the rhythm of the music, but a sequence you wouldn’t cut to music. I hate it. Music comes in much later. I like to see my edit without music. Somewhere, that drives me to produce original music, it enhances my creative input.” And if the edit looks good but the music doesn’t fit? “Oh, we take out the music. Never touch the edit. Alag language hai woh. Music should follow the edit, edit shouldn’t follow the music.”
He’s tremendously reverential about the editing process. “A film is only made on two tables, yaar. The writing table and the editing table. Everything else is chaos.” He goes on to talk about how editing can rescue or ruin a film, and how he tries hard to capture the moments-before and moments-after instead of just the moments. “Often scenes look great in isolation but when you arrange them all together they don’t work at all. Editing is very elusive, and unfortunately we don’t have good editors,” he sighs. “It’s because that art, like writing, is also not appreciated the way it should be, because it can completely waste a film or take it to a different level.”
Besides Kieslowski, Bhardwaj cites several influences on his work. He talks about cinema with a feverish glee, merrily derailing an ongoing conversation to wax fanboyistically about a particular Emir Kusturica scene or go on about Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, which he absolutely loved. Vishal finds Hollywood wonderfully efficient but depressingly methodical, even taking Quentin Tarantino’s name with soft Ts, as if to yank that quintessentially American pop culture director from his US roots and place him with the world cinema masters he so admires.
Current Indian filmmakers he is impressed by include Anurag Kashyap — the man is all praise for most of Dev D — and Dibakar Banerjee, the man behind Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, going as far as to mimic the young-Sardar scenes from the latter. “That young romance, it has the kind of nuance I don’t see any other current director indulging in. Paagalpandi hai, yaar.” We speak briefly of message films and directors who take themselves too seriously to entertain, and while Vishal pooh-poohs the idea of trying to serve up a message instead of making a fine film, he doffs his hat reverentially to Raj Kumar Hirani and his Lage Raho Munna Bhai.
Having said that, apparently this weird and wild caper of his has a message too. “Consciously I never tried to say anything, but interestingly enough a message is born. A philosophical message. We didn’t start out with it, but it happened as we went along, making it, on a particular layer, a philosophical, even spiritual film. The message happened while writing the voiceover, and we saw that it has a very zabbardast depth. And so we took it all the way to the climax. But it doesn’t get in the way of the story, you can’t feel it.”
But hang on. How can Kaminey be a voiceover-led film? It can’t possibly be a stuttering voiceover, can it? “No, no,” he laughs. “Of course not. It’s the other Shahid. The one with the lisp, the one who says F instead of S.”
Impreffive, to fay the leaft. Wow.
Published Man’s World, August 2009