Category Archives: Essay

Queen: What Madhuri Dixit did next

“What did you choose? The coffee?”

There is such a thing as a very Andheri office. One building away from Mainland China, one alley away from a horrid little advertising agency I worked in for a few weeks when I first moved to Bombay, stands a functionally grey monolith. It houses, among many others, an office so utterly nondescript it could belong to anyone from a realtor to a stockist of ballpoint-pen refills. It would, however, have to be a stockist obsessed with privacy. Ringing the doorbell that sultry afternoon led to a voice through a speaker – with the firmly curt tone of automated gates in California-based TV shows – and I identified myself, promising the voice that I did indeed have an appointment “with Madam,” and waited interminably while my claim was checked and double-checked.

The reception area is tiny — barely a couple of chairs plonked across a man on a desk, surrounded by phones — and clearly not too many are allowed to come in and wait, at least at one time. “Two minutes,” said a voice too busy to sound reassuring, and I sat back amid the exaggerated normalcy. Until I looked to my left and saw – within that small, caricaturedly unspectacular bastion of the humdrum – a massive painting, vibrant and striking and carrying a stylish signature (and, indeed, a signature style) that even a philistine like I could recognise.

This is certainly a freebie, a present from the artist — the nation’s most iconic painter and the only one who is truly a household name — a man who famously watched a movie several dozen times before publicly declaring just how besotted he was with, well, “Madam”.

It was a movie, in fact, most of the nation appeared to have watched far too many times.

Video piracy in India began with Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and I was there. It was the autumn of 1994, with Delhi at its most affectionately crisp. The Sooraj Barjatya behemoth, released that August, monopolized every theatre in town. Video rental libraries were booming, with VHS cassettes regularly hitting shelves a few weeks or, at most, a couple of months after a film’s release. Despite the demand, Barjatya had stubbornly held out, leaving his film exclusively in theatres, near-bankrupting families compelled to ritually watch it.  I was thirteen when a very close friend sidled up to me after class and asked if I knew anyone who might want to buy a copy, on VHS. My mother’s ecstatic yelp convinced me a goldmine was upon us, and thus – with enterprising chum producing copy after copy and me pasting magazine pictures onto cardboard boxes in an approximation of cassette covers – did we please many an auntie of our acquaintance.

It is, therefore, with more than a smidgeon of disbelieving gratitude that – two decades after squeezing that unbelievably-long movie onto VHS by cutting down the songs — I am ushered into a conference room where Madhuri Dixit walks in and wonders if my cup has coffee in it.

~

MD3From scene-stealing ingénue to pinup goddess, from magnificence to misstep, Madhuri Dixit has always been worth watching. She sobbed and snickered and shimmied through movies of varying quality – taking on both clichés and surprises with equal brio – and the mesmerized masses lapped it all up. By the numbers, she’s the most successful heroine of all time, the highest paid actress and the only one to ever get paid as much as her leading men. She has bested any so-called rivals, been billed above the biggest actors, and, in an industry defined by songs, she owns the most unforgettable dances of all.

The last three decades have seen her celebrated, deified, dreamed of and craved. In 2001, Pakistan’s then President Pervez Musharraf sounded almost wistful when, at the Agra Summit, he remembered Pakistani fans at a Sharjah cricket match singing “Madhuri De Do, Kashmir Le Lo” (to the tune of “Joote De Do, Paise Le Lo.”).  That was a song from the bootleg-inspiring Hum Aapke Hain Koun which, despite all the obsequious saccharine pandering so evident now, was a considerable gamble at the time: an inanely-long film with over a dozen songs and one of the first 90s hits without a villain.

For a woman topping the A-list, Madhuri has frequently taken chances — with scripts, directors, co-stars – and bucked the predictable. The gangland drama Parinda came in 1989, alongside her first blockbuster Ram Lakhan; 1991 saw her in both Lawrence D’Souza’s weepie love-triangle Saajan and Nana Patekar’s introspective Prahaar; 1992 had Dixit dhak-dhaking away in Beta, and playing a blind danseuse in the understated Sangeet. In 1997, while basking in the spotlight of Yash Chopra’s Dil Toh Pagal Hai, she gambled on Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand – a woman-oriented character drama and one of the director’s earliest films, with the (still) unknown Ayub Khan as her leading man.

Dixit’s acting chops have proven as impressive as her stellar screen-presence, the star often gleaming despite films duller than the tired old tins their reels are packed in. Even in failed films, her eyes sparkle with eagerness, and a seemingly effortless spontaneity colours her performances, infectious energy carrying her through moments of tremendous farce as well as painful melodrama. Looking back at, say, the moronic Deewana Mujhsa Nahin — where Dixit has to contend with an annoying character, the worst wardrobe imaginable, and an obsessive stalker in the form of Aamir Khan at his most cutesy — the actress still shows off innate charisma. Like with all actors the camera has a crush on, even her lowest points are worth smiling at, and often show remarkable, untapped potential.

This might not remain untapped for long. While Madhuri Dixit may seem to have proverbially done it all, she is now picking radical parts and sharp filmmakers. Our cinema, staunch in its dated ways, isn’t prepared for this refusal to go quietly into the twilight of supporting roles. She may not command the numbers she once did, she may not be the starlet setting boys afire, but she is unquestionably, defiantly — almost inexplicably — still a superstar. What she does makes a difference, and she could alter how our cinema treats heroines. The reason Dixit’s experimental films haven’t show up as vividly, in the light of her considerable filmography, is because her hits have always dwarfed them to the sidelines. But thirty years after she first showed up on screen, Madhuri Dixit appears keener than ever to shake up the status quo — if only to make room for herself, one more time.

~

MD1A Madhuri Dixit movie isn’t what it used to be. In one of her two 2014 releases, she plays a parkour-ready outlaw quick with mid-air kicks; in the other, a poetry-fetishizing empress in love with her handmaiden. Both, as one can imagine, are suicidally huge risks for a megastar in an industry not used to rewarding bold choices. Playing a gay aesthete in January before playing Rajinikanth in March – there’s never been anything quite like it.

In that Andheri boardroom, Dixit, 46, sounded content about the new films. “I’m trying to think of any movie in the past,” she said of Gulaab Gang, “that, in that setting of a Bollywood potboiler, has women in the key roles. A movie with all the masala, all the dialoguebaazi, and yet with a female protagonist and antagonist.” Based (very) loosely on crusading outlaw Sampat Pal and her all-woman brigade of pink-saree clad vigilantes, Soumik Sen’s film is hardline commercial cinema, a film unsubtle enough to have starred, say, Akshay Kumar. “That a woman was playing that kind of a role was fascinating, I thought, because it changes the rules in one go. It’s like throwing down a bowling ball and watching the pins go flying.”

Gulaab Gang isn’t a great film, though there is a definite thrill in watching Dixit swagger about with exaggerated machismo, kneeing rogues in the chest. She essays her role with marked dignity, but the best part of her performance might be signing a film that unlikely: an old-school movie by a rookie director, with less of a budget than she, or that genre, is used to. The actress was attracted to it for multiple reasons. “The film also spoke about women’s rights and education, and society in general. It was a statement on what’s happening around us: laws need to be stronger; we have this whole infrastructure and yet nothing really happens. And I think, in its own way, Gulaab Gang addressed that too. There were a lot of things that made me do Gulaab Gang.” One of which, clearly, was getting trussed up in harnesses and swung around trucks to beat up goons. If only because her boys, Arin, 10, and Raayan, 8, would enjoy watching mummy wreak some havoc.

Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya wreaks very different havoc, a decidedly child-unfriendly film about con-men hoodwinked by an imperious lesbian with a literary bent of mind. It is a highly nuanced film, and Dixit – playing the once-wealthy Begum who plays up to men to pay her bills – does so with delicacy and a self-aware grace that eludes any of our current heroines. “The old culture is fast fading,” she says, “the nawabiyat is crumbling to pieces. As things become more ‘new-age,’ there’s no place for characters with old-world charm, and they try desperately to fit into the new generation.”

It is also a film where our most mainstream actress plays a woman who prefers the company of women, a twist that, while subtle enough, is certainly a shocker. Dixit assures me she wasn’t worried. “I knew exactly what we were doing. And there was a lot of ambiguity to it; we were not stating anything. We left it to the viewer to interpret it themselves: it could be two women who were fed up of men in their lives and they want to be by themselves, or it could be something else you notice. And I love that little ambiguity.”

Chaubey, whose first “lesbian draft” was wickedly explicit, confessed it gave his heroine cold feet. But then he realised, while honing his script, that overt sexuality would kill the loveliness of the story’s eventual reveal, an angle pegged on Lihaaf, Ismat Chughtai’s scandalous short story from 1942. “She told me about her fears, and I addressed it: This is exactly how I’m going to treat it. If you’re observant, you’ll get it fairly easily, however, if you aren’t watching carefully, you don’t get it, and that’s it. It doesn’t harm your enjoyment of the movie,” said the director, who co-wrote the script with Vishal Bhardwaj. “And then she was fully on, you know. Unlike Huma [Qureshi, who plays the object of Madhuri’s affections in the film] who was very excited and who was constantly talking to me about it — ‘how do I touch her? how do I look at her?’ — Madhuri didn’t fuss, she didn’t discuss it too much. However, when shooting, there were absolutely no inhibitions. She was all systems go.”

~

It is a career that took off with an advertisement.

Screen India was the most powerful industry-to-industry publication through the 70s and 80s, and their third-page advertisement was, for a considerable while, the hottest real estate in Hindi film publicity, limited largely to paid announcements for films celebrating a grand theatrical run, or first posters for films with whopping budgets. It was, therefore, rather startling to see a dramatic six-page ad ‘launching’ a heroine who wasn’t merely unknown, but unknown because her first five films had flopped.

At 17, Madhuri Dixit did a tiny film called Abodh opposite Bengali actor Tapas Pal, which sank without a trace. As did her next four films. During the shoot of Awara Baap, the second of these flops, however, she met Subhash Ghai. Ghai, a hugely successful director who was bulletproof at the box office for two decades straight — from 1980’s Karz to 1999’s Taal — glimpsed something special. “When I first met her in Kashmir,” said Ghai, who was there to scout locations for his 1986 multistarrer Karma, “she was playing some very small role as Rajesh Khanna’s daughter. A hairstylist, Khatoon, who had worked with me in Karz, came to greet me and said ‘ek chhoti ladki hai, side-role kar rahi hai’ (‘There’s this little girl, doing side-roles’) and she introduced me. Patli si ladki thi. (She was a slim sort of girl.)”

Ghai was impressed by the slim girl’s face, one he recalls as “absolutely photogenic,” and, he said, by her impressively “well-mannered, cultured and innocent” persona. “She was an unpolluted actor. I had the confidence that I could shape her into a star. So I took her on as a project.” Ghai spoke of this phase as “re-erecting” Dixit’s career because he discarded her flops outright and refused to even watch them. “I told her that ‘I am making this film called Karma, and after finishing this film, in one year, I will make a film properly to launch you.’ I wanted to sign her to a 5-year contract so I could groom her properly, and all I wanted was her loyalty.”

Ghai shot a quick Madhuri showreel, sending it to eight producers and directors. “Ramesh Sippy, Inder Kumar, Shashi Kapoor Productions… Everyone I knew well. I said to them that ‘If you think this face, this video is okay, then contact me. I am signing this girl and if you want to sign her, send me a cheque for Rs 5,000.” By the end of the week, Ghai had eight cheques, following which he took out the historically eventful advertisement.

MD8“This girl who was a flop yesterday is blooming today and will be a superstar tomorrow,” is how Ghai summarized the 1985 ad I was unable to locate from the Screen archives. “She had become a flop heroine,” said trade analyst Amod Mehra, “but what a launch that was! Six pages continuous in Screen? When nobody had even heard of her? It made her career.” Ghai’s coup de grâce was the final page, emblazoned with the names of the eight producers who had already signed the relatively untested actress. Thus was Dixit a sensation before stepping forth as Ghai’s heroine.

Then, like a much-shaken fizzy drink finally uncorked, came the stream of hits. Dayavan, Tezaab (1988); Tridev, Parinda and Ghai’s own Ram Lakhan (1989). From this point, there was no stopping Dixit, basking in blockbuster bubbles and getting stronger with each successive triumph. The film industry reacted the only way they knew how: as a herd. Dixit had nine releases in 1989 and ten in 1990. Everyone wanted her.

“If you wanted histrionics,” said Mehra, trying to sum up what producers felt at the time, “Madhuri Dixit was your number one choice. Very quickly in the 90s everyone started comparing her with Madhubala, as a beauty who could charm anybody. But Madhuri grew as an actress besides just being a star.” Mehra dismissed any serious competition. “Sridevi was a great comic actress, but that was it. She was a very commercial heroine. For big masala-movies people wanted Sridevi, but when they had a role that needed acting, they had to have Madhuri. She had an edge; everyone felt she was the complete Indian woman.”

~

“Madhuri Dixit is the most solid man I’ve met in the industry,” Shah Rukh Khan told Filmfare magazine in 2006. “Yeah, you heard right. She’s truly like a man. She’s the most solid thinker, the most solid emotionally, a solid believer. And of course, her talent is unquestionable. From her I’ve learnt the most.” Evidently one of those overachievers who believe a man is the ultimate compliment, Khan spoke about how he merely follows her lead. From a famously cocky superstar who knowingly exudes the persona of a charming narcissist, his compliment was very telling: “She is the only one I feel I am not as good as.”

MD7Dixit has always marched to the beat of a different benchmark. Her first “hit pairing”, in tabloid parlance, came with Anil Kapoor. Already a star with films like Mr India behind him, Kapoor recommended Dixit to director N Chandra, who cast Dixit in Tezaab, her breakthrough movie. The duo enjoyed colossal success and became a golden ticket for producers, the most recent of their sixteen collaborations being the 2000 release, Pukar. But all was not peaches and moustaches. One of their biggest films, Beta, in 1992, cast Kapoor unflatteringly as a bullied simpleton and Dixit as a firebrand defiantly challenging her husband’s mother. Dixit, all eyes-blazing, was the most striking thing about the film, especially while melting the screen with the ludicrously suggestive Dhak Dhak Karne Laga song. “Beta should have been called Beti, people tell me,” Dixit smiled nonchalantly at me, but according to Amod Mehra, Kapoor wasn’t enjoying the fact that Dixit was walking away with the lion’s share of the applause.

If so, he wasn’t her only leading man wary of, well, being led. “She only started Dil [in 1990] because Anil didn’t have dates at the time, and Aamir [Khan, with a string of unsuccessful films following his 1988 debut hit, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak] was a nobody,” explained Mehra. “So another hit pair was born. But once she became a superstar, the biggest heroine… Anil pushed for actresses like Urmila [Matondkar] and Sridevi in films like [1997’s] Judaai, while Aamir was picking actresses like Manisha Koirala [in 1995’s Akele Hum Akele Tum]. Nobody wanted to take on Madhuri any more.”

Assuming these actors didn’t feel threatened by Dixit, they might have had something to say regarding the characters she played. Most were canny, independent girls, bright students or feisty professionals who suffered little foolishness, especially from leading men who (not so long ago) played their saviours. Mainstream directors like Ghai – even in the loud, testosterone-filled Khalnayak, ostensibly a Sanjay Dutt vehicle – made sure they wrote a meaty part for Madhuri.

By the mid-nineties, she was queen. She had the films, the roles, the audiences. Once it became clear to producers that her name on the marquee resulted in that all-important box office opening, she began to render her heroes redundant. In Hum Aapke Hain Koun, for example, not just does she enjoy above-the-line billing higher than the film’s hero, Salman Khan, but – according to a recent article in The Indian Express – she was paid a then-astronomical Rs 2.7 crores for the film, more than almost anybody at the time. (Amitabh Bachchan, according to rumours, was paid Rs 2 crores for Khuda Gawah a year before.)

“This is what happens when the heroine becomes bigger than the hero,” Mehra said. “Stories and films have to be built around her stature. So they become heroine-oriented films — which then don’t work at the box office.” This doesn’t mean that independent, intelligent female characters weren’t accepted – on the contrary, 90s actresses like Kajol and Manisha Koirala brought much sass to their roles – but these characters belonged (according to conventional industry punditry) alongside even stronger male leads. This is an industry where sexism runs deep and male stars, to this day, cherry-pick the ladies they work with.

Getting too big to tread on her heroes’ toes would signal an imminent downfall, but Dixit avoided the precipice in defiantly heroic fashion. She roared like a cougar and began to do what only the heroes do – namely, working with young boys while taking charge of those films’ commercial reigns.

Madhuri was breaking ground, boogeying with young Akshaye Khanna in 1997’s Mohabbat, nine years after being pinned down by his father Vinod Khanna in Dayavan. Consider how notoriously unfair Hindi cinema has been to the ageing actress. Even as wrinkly heroes routinely don wigs to woo starlets a third of their age, leading ladies are put out to pasture cruelly early, age first relegating them to the dreaded sister/mother roles before forgetting them entirely. Rakhi Gulzar, for instance, played Amitabh Bachchan’s lover in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat before playing his mother in Shakti just a year later.

MD10Yet Madhuri played by her own rules and was rewarded for it, producers caving in and forking over the astronomical fees she demanded. “I’m proud I did it because it paved the path for others to follow,” Madhuri said. “And when you do something groundbreaking, there’s always a risk. But I think I was always clear what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be, and where I wanted women in cinema to be. So that always dictated my choices, whether it was the pricing or the choice of films, I wanted it to be the best and I thought I deserved the best.”

Yet Dixit’s ceiling-shattering didn’t pave that path after all. Measure that triumph, if you will, in the context of today, where the most feted heroines –Deepika Padukone/Kareena Kapoor – get paid less than half of what even a second-rung hero – Shahid Kapoor/Imran Khan – makes per film. That Dixit managed to achieve – and, on occasion, exceed – parity in an industry so irredeemably sexist is a testament to her singular star-power.

~

One of the ways Dixit managed to avoid slipping from the top rungs at a time when younger actresses were pilfering the spotlight was by retreating unexpectedly into the shadows. In 1999, she found herself a soft-spoken cardiovascular surgeon living in Denver, Colorado, one who shared her Marathi Brahmin roots. Her marriage to Sriram Nene was a largely un-filmi affair, following which she didn’t immediately pull the plug on her career. A few significant films followed, including Pukar and Lajja, but after Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s massively publicised Devdas — where, for the first time since her fledgling days, she got the supporting role instead of the lead, which went to Aishwarya Rai — she decided to relocate to America.

Her “comeback,” after five years off the greasepaint, was a 2007 production called Aaja Nachle, about an NRI dancer returning to India to save a theatre in her village. Produced as it was by Yash Raj Studios, it was mounted on a scale so lavish the earnestness was buried by bling. Madhuri dismissed any question of ring-rust. “It’s like bicycling. Or swimming, for that matter. Or,” and here she paused for a hint of drama, “actually even walking. You can’t forget. Once you’re in front of the camera, it comes very naturally.” It was the concept that clearly touched a nerve. “I loved the fact that there’s this woman who leaves her country and goes somewhere else, makes a life for herself, and then finds out that whatever she was passionate about is crumbling and she has to come back, and she has to fight for that culture and…”

So Madhuri Dixit has come back to save us all? “No!” She burst out laughing, those devastating peals of laughter. “You can’t save anyone, it’s not possible! But at least you can contribute to making people aware, at least talking about it, at least educating people about what is [fading], what we’re losing. Even today, the masters who are experts in Kathak, Bharatnatyam, in classical dancing, they all say people don’t want to learn it because they all want to be dancers overnight. Which isn’t possible when you don’t know classical dancing, but once you know classical, you can master any kind of dancing in the world.”

And then, to drive her cultural metaphor home, she talks about cyborgs. Naturally.

“Do you watch Star Trek at all?” she asked, a raised eyebrow topping that smile, acutely aware her half-man half-machine metaphor may be lost on a non-Trekkie. “So cyborgs just come and assimilate people into their own culture, turn them into half-men half-robots and that’s it. So they’re one, they think as one. But if you really want to live in a world as one and yet have your identity, then your culture is something that you uphold because that will give you identity.”

Yes, that Choli-Ke-Peechhe lady digs sci-fi. (“Trek and Wars,”she insisted, even after she nails a William Shatner impression.) Dixit loves the high-concept hoo-ha, and over the last decade, like any parent, has watched a whole lot of animated cinema. She raved about Pixar’s Up, lamented the lack of quality animation in India, and is fascinated by how emotive superhero movies can be, “with the dead parents and the villain going hahaha or the uncle being killed.” Would she do a superhero movie? “Oh yeah,” she purred. “Absolutely. It would be fun. It has its own fascination, from Spider-Man to Catwoman; there’s something exciting about these characters. And they’re all made from comic books. Which is just… amazing.”

Dixit is currently intrigued by the Hollywood model, getting writers and directors to develop material specifically for her, instead of merely wading through scripts thrust her way. If Dixit can facilitate the kind of movies she likes to watch, we may be in for an interesting time. But can she command a Krrish-sized budget today? And, if not, — given the fickleness of producers and distributors and the ever-changing list of eight or so actors considered “safe bets” — is the smallness of the film necessarily a bad thing?

~

A clue to her future may lie to her past: one of her best and most-offbeat performances.

Maqbool Fida Hussain’s Gaja Gamini is a peculiar beast. Hussain, India’s most emblematic modern artist (and a painter of movie-posters in his earliest days) watched Hum Aapke Hain Koun 67 times in theatres, got obsessed with Madhuri and made a series of paintings featuring her, a series he signed simply, and dramatically, as “Fida.” When HAHK released, he was 79, she was 26, but a friendship was struck. Six years later, Hussain directed his ode to Madhuri.

An evocative but indulgently absurd work, Gaja Gamini – which means one with the gait of an elephant — remains an unforgivably theatrical bit of navel-gazing that is, without question, stunning to look at. “There was a bound script,” she revealed. “You’d be surprised. There was a whole storyboard. But his thing was not about the dialogues, not about what we were saying to each other. He used to say he wanted to make ‘moving pictures’ where if you just snip any of the frames out from the reel, it should look like a painting. And that’s exactly what he did.”

In the film, Dixit plays three (or perhaps more) overlapping muses, the women inspiring Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam and a young photographer’s finest work. This photographer was played by her Dil Toh Pagal Hai co-star Shah Rukh, who didn’t quite understand what was going on. Dixit, on her part, couldn’t make out Yash Chopra’s trademark mumbles during the DTPH shoot – though her unintelligible mimicking is spot-on – and Shah Rukh would translate it for her. “So when we did Gaja Gamini together, I remember Hussain Ji would come and say ‘Abhi aese bolna hai, abhi aese bolna hai,’ (Now you say it like this, now like this) and Shah Rukh,” she laughed before throwing on a completely vacant voice, “was ‘What does this mean?’ And I explained that we shouldn’t ask what it means but follow what it says.” Thus did the biggest stars of their time provide subtitles of cinematic understanding, helping each other through entirely different, but equally choppy, waters.

It had to have been a daunting brief for an actress. “It was! What Hussain Ji was trying to do with the film was to say how mysterious a woman is. Poets are trying to describe her with their poetry, painters are trying to capture that magical moment, that smile or whatever, and yet she’s so mysterious that nobody can really describe or, say, define her because she just plays so many roles.”

“It was eccentric,” she agreed, smiling, “but very cutely eccentric. And it was, in a way, liberating, because I could give it my own interpretation. It wasn’t like he knew the nuances of what acting is or stuff like that, so I had a lot of freedom. And we created something that was very different. The dances, also, were very innovative.”

She spoke fondly of the “fabulous, fabulous” Hussain and his spirit, of how he’d come to visit her in Denver and frantically look around for a canvas, assuring her he was carrying his own paints. “And I said ‘why don’t you… just relax? Sit back, I’ll give you a cup of tea, put your feet up and don’t paint.’ And he says ‘you’re punishing me!’ And that was an eye-opener to me, the way nothing else mattered and he just wanted to paint, and go on painting.”

Masala movies of the 70s and 80s traditionally made a big deal of something called the hero’s “entry shot,” the first time the camera shows us the leading man, often a dramatic pan up from his boots to his face (at which point the camera, like an overconfident stand-up comic, freezes for a second, anticipating applause and whistles). Hussain, in his two-hour film, obscures Madhuri’s face for the first half-hour, showing us her dancing but covering her face with strategically raised mudras. Finally, we see her sitting by herself and are told she’s blind. Dixit smiles beatifically while men try to woo her with music, following which she breaks suddenly into a musical aalaap and, with a dramatic spurt of energy (and a change in setting) begins to dance next to gigantic musical instruments painted as white as her saree.

And it is here — as she sensually straddles a cello while a black, trademark MF Horse watches her – that Dixit scorches, unashamedly turning on the oomph around these fortunate over-sized instruments. It is a preposterous set-up but Dixit’s electric vitality makes it come alive; she gasps and thrusts and touches the instruments with a devastatingly fluid grace. A minute later, Dixit can be seen sitting and talking, softly and realistically. She’s surrounded by actors grandstanding theatrically, projecting their lines in an infuriating way, yet Dixit keeps things crisply, cleanly cinematic. There is a mastery here, an unwavering self-assurance through her every step, be it a tricky dance move or a demanding turn of phrase – perhaps because the film was tailored to fit her. It is a muddled but ambitious experiment, this film, and Dixit dazzles, turning in a unique performance, one without any cinematic reference point. The markedly abstract nature of the project aside, a reason the actress may have been so uninhibitedly luminous could be that Gaja Gamini was a pure artistic experiment, produced without making eyes at the box-office.

Which may just be her ticket right now.

~

Much of the go-for-broke ambition might have to do with having already exited stage-left whilst on top . Plus, she genuinely enjoyed being away. Strolling through a supermarket in Denver – “which is a very Caucasian kind of place, and the Indians there are mostly the transient kind, who come there for 3-4 years for their tech companies and move on” — occasionally spotted by an Indian or two and waving a quick hey before carrying on with her day, in gym clothes and bereft of makeup. Without minders to warn her from stepping out because crowds and the press were around. “For me having a family, a husband, a home, kids, was always a big part of my dream. Despite being so used to working, I was living the dream I’d made for myself. I was playing it to the hilt, really,” she laughed, then quickly clarified. “It wasn’t like a role, it wasn’t just play-acting. I come from a family of four kids and for me it’s very important, family is one of the important things.”

dedh-ishqiya-5vOn-set stories about Dixit revolve around an extraordinary work-ethic. “We were doing one of the songs,” recalled Soumik Sen, “and at around 12pm, lunchtime, she called me into her van and the first thing she asked me was ‘Do you have this location day after?’ and I was surprised but said yes. ‘Do you have the other artists day after?’ Yes. Then she broke the news that she’d been having a migraine attack since morning, and had been dancing with that. Now she said it’s getting too much, she’s had two pills, and it’s not gotten any better. If she feels okay, she’ll resume shooting, otherwise if I could please excuse her? It’s unbelievable for someone to ask you these questions first.”

Abhishek Chaubey was as thunderstruck, on the first day of shooting for Dedh Ishqiya, when she asked him, “in a very childlike way, ‘Was I good?’ It was a very innocent and very vulnerable moment, one where she was admitting ‘I could have fucked up, did I do it badly?’ It could have been an 18-year-old actor trying out a scene for the first time; that nervousness was there.”

It’s a good sign, the appetite remaining as desperate. Or is that the only way forward? Like Amitabh Bachchan over the last decade, is she forced to embrace the outlandish, the unexpected, in order to stay relevant? Is she choosing not to do a commercial vehicle opposite Salman Khan, or will that not be offered to her at all? Or has she found enough calm in order to do what she likes? She appreciates the edgier new filmmakers, and rattles off praise for virtually every young actress, from Kangna Ranaut to Priyanka Chopra, singling out the latter as a personal favourite. But don’t expect her to play mommy to them just yet. “I don’t feel like that yet, you know? I mean,” she burst out laughing, those irresistible ding-a-ling chimes, “my kids are just 8 and 10! I mean, what the hell? Let them be 25, and then I’ll play mother.” The laughter rings out genuine, secure, unafraid.

The Bachchan analogy draws itself. The late 90s saw Amitabh age gracelessly into self-parody unfortunate films like Laal Baadshah and Sooryavansham. Then came a television gameshow. So big became the actor in the role of the Kaun Banega Crorepati anchor that he sprung back into relevance, taking on a mixed bagful of roles. While not the leading man, he built up a new niche filmmakers were forced to respond to: despite him playing the hero’s father, the role had to be a textured one. This led to other senior actors – Rishi Kapoor being a prime example  – finding fresher and more challenging roles now than in their prime.

Several older actresses are doing interesting stuff. Shabana Azmi, for example, continues to shine despite her age with roles as varied as witch, don, affectionate mother and manipulative politician. But as an arthouse actress, she doesn’t have the commercial cache required to make producers and filmmakers change the way they write roles. When Madhuri Dixit does a small film, it doesn’t remain a small film.

By playing dyke and dacoit in the same breath, then, Dixit has blown the bloody doors off, in terms of perception and possibility. Thanks to her – and Sridevi, whose English Vinglish was a runaway smash – Hindi cinema is poised to create a space that didn’t really exist, at least for the commercial movie heroine. Suddenly it appears possible for actresses to stay pertinent despite conventional diktats of age or marital status or a certain kind of look. And she might not even have to dance.

~

MD2During her all-conquering 90s, it was easy to draw parallels between Madhuri and Julia Roberts – an amazingly successful star with an iconic smile, and paychecks as big as the boys – but things have changed. In Dedh Ishqiya, she delivers a finely etched, wonderfully-balanced effort, a breezy but brilliant performance that shows just how far she has travelled, from heroine to actress. Somewhere in the mid-90s – between Beta and Anjaam, I’d estimate – she grew aware of the breadth of her narrative range and started steering clear of false-notes since. This clarity, of precisely how taut one’s own tightrope is, is what makes an actor find her zone and begin to excel, and Dixit seems perfectly equipped to take on genuinely mature roles. Now, with an increased willingness for bowling-ball-sized risks, there is an emerging possibility for sculpting complicated characters and mature performances. Like, say, Meryl Streep. Of all the veterans revered for their acting, she’s the only one who consistently remains a leading lady, by any measure —  a red-carpet favourite, an industry icon, an influential actress, monopoliser of awards… A star. A Meryl Streep film, no matter its budget, can’t quite remain a small film.

Madhuri yelped at the mention of Streep. “That’s a big shoe to fill though! I just want to be different. I want to surprise with each film I do next.” Speaking of Hollywood influences, Streep “obviously” is the first name she took, but the choice of the second was rather tell-tale. “The new girl, Jennifer Lawrence. She just gets into whatever role she’s playing and she’s so young and it’s crazy.” She went on to mention actresses as varied as Angelina Jolie and Helen Mirren, and positively gushed over Cate Blanchett’s astonishing turn in Blue Jasmine, but the very fact that she’s citing a 23-year-old wunderkind as an influence shows how serious she is about not playing ma just yet.

She might not have to, honestly. The “heroine-oriented film” might have been box office blasphemy back in the 90s, but things are evolving. Vidya Balan was the hero in The Dirty Picture and Kahaani, as was Kangna Ranaut in Queen, and the audience showered those films with grateful applause. Dixit feels we are giving women more textured parts. “She plays a character now. It’s not just a revenge drama, and she’s not either avenger or victim, which is what heroine-oriented films used to mean.” She’s also gratified that female characters can now be unapologetic, without needing to justify whatever ambitions they might have. “Earlier you had to think that abhi aesa dikhaaenge toh audience might not like it; there’s a sick brother and uske liye kucch karna hai and that’s why she’s a cabaret dancer.”

A pivotal development in aid of extraordinary performers and performances in current cinema is the fact that hits and flops don’t matter like they used to. Not to actors, anyway. Now an actress can feature in a warmly-applauded flop and use the momentary acclaim to springboard toward her next project, ideally one with more visibility. It isn’t foolproof — and kismet can’t be cheated — but there are more chances and better odds for the talented, with even the looniest Hindi blockbusters now aiming at casting a richer ensemble. It is a highly promising time to be a strong actor, with newspapers and magazines looking beyond the usual, starry suspects to cast their applause. In Irrfan Khan, Rajkumarr Rao and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, we are beginning to see the rise of the unconventional leading man. The women aren’t far behind, and while there aren’t Streep-shaped roles quite yet, if this lady has her way, we might find the superheroine we’ve longed for.

The game is on. It’s been 26 years since Ek Do Teen, and Madhuri Dixit still counts.

~

An edited version of this piece appeared in Caravan Magazine, June 2014

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The Salman Khan Interview

dabanng1You can tell a lot about a megastar by the way he throws his punch.

A Hindi film hero might routinely fell over seven with one blow, but each has their own approach. Aamir Khan, all bloodshot eyes and biceps rippling with the fury of thousands of killed wives to avenge, brings both physical intensity and a sense of inescapable irony to the picture. Shah Rukh Khan, his every sinew straining with gargantuan effort, bellows like a wounded animal as he metamorphoses from charming lover to crazied aggressor.

Salman Khan doesn’t bother breaking a sweat or even trying for realism as he buffets his opponents, effort be damned, smirk and quip steadily in place. The ubiquitous one-liner just underlines how one-sided the battle always is. Because Salman Khan is larger than life. And he believes it.

As do we, clearly. Earlier this year in Dabanng, Salman’s shirt tears itself off his enraged body, as if anger – and the need to show off his bare chest – are reason enough for him to suddenly turn into the Incredible Hulk. Coming at the film’s climax, the moment is dated and ludicrous beyond belief. Eternal romantic Shah Rukh would have been laughed out of theatres for trying to do the same. Aamir would have had to write a longish blog-post explaining how the scene was all a metaphor, or, somehow, Meta. Salman earned whistles, his film becoming one of the most successful in the history of Indian cinema.

In Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio, two days before that epic release, Khan sniffles his way past a ravenous pack of news-channel cameras. In no mood for niceties, he struts, chest out, upto a studio chair, parks himself on it, and turns to them. In a brutal show of strength and savvy, he preempts the questions they want to ask him, throwing out monosyllabic answers to each. “Aur kucch?” The reporters, used to standard-issue questionnaires, are flummoxed and bereft of fresh queries, and Khan is pleased as punch. He relaxes, blows his nose into a big kerchief, and swaggers out. All in less than five minutes.

He sneezes just as I walk up, clearly not in the mood but nevertheless resigned to a conversation. At this minute, eyes visibly watery, nose nearly crimson, Salman looks anything but invincible. He warily grunts through the first few questions until I ask, young man to forever-swaggering man, where on earth he meets women. “You can’t be serious,” he laughs, tired eyes instantly twinkling. Oh, but I am; he’s dated Somy Ali, Aishwarya Rai and Katrina Kaif. Is there a clandestine bar where the world’s most attractive women consistently turn up? “Ha, I wish. There isn’t a bar, dude. Otherwise we’d all go every night. I’ve… worked with them, I’ve known them. I have been fortunate with the kind of women I’ve… met. They’ve all been very nice. I’m sure you’re talking about the way they look and everything, but I mean the kind of people they are, their personalities. I’ve known them for the longest time. And as far as people, they’ve all been really beautiful.” He takes in a moment to smile. “And really loving, and really caring. Yeah, I’ve been lucky.”

Luck aside, Khan at 45 is the only single man among the industry’s megastars. “You’re single till the time you aren’t married, dude,” he interrupts instantly. I agree, wholeheartedly, but my question is how a man that powerful can gauge genuine romantic interest. Isn’t every girl awestruck? “It depends, you know,” he says, thoughtful. “The ones who’re awestruck… Nahin, yaar. Doesn’t work. Just doesn’t work,” he shakes his head.

And yet his cinema is all about invoking that very kind of awe. Is being larger than life a conscious effort? “No, it just happens. You work with good technicians. And more than that, audiences want to see things larger than life, so they make it happen.” This is clearly a position Salman enjoys, and feels he has earned. “When I started working in movies, I could never have played that character. Maine Pyaar Kiya and all, the only role I could have played was a romantic hero,” he says with a slight sneer. “From that, to come to this stage has been a long journey.” He speaks of his action-figure persona as an evolution, saying that while both romance and emotion are vital, the fights might just be the hardest part to pull off.

Even as an actor, he rates it the hardest, most challenging part. “Action is challenging for anybody. To jump, or take a punch, do all kinds of stuff, cable-work… That is more scary, because with every shot you feel something could go wrong. And you still do it. And so far, touchwood, everything has been all good. So action is the most difficult thing to do.” And in terms of performances, I ask, in terms of actual acting? Khan grins and winks. “That? It’s all good.”

Increasingly lauded for his utter lack of pretension, Khan is considered a star who often phones in his performances, barely even attempting to act. “If a film requires hard work, you work hard, yaar,” he shrugs. “If a film doesn’t require any hard work, why should you do it? If a director says ‘okay’ to a shot, okay! If he says ‘one more,’ one more!” Unlike his peers, he refuses to use terms like ‘method acting,’ to spend a shooting schedule in the skin of a character, or, sometimes, to even stop playing himself. He’s Salman Khan, and once in a while — if a director is valiant enough, or a script stirring enough, he’ll stand and deliver — but the rest of the time, it is, as he said, “all good.”

Or, at the very least, good enough for him.

~

salman2Salman Khan was all set to throw a party for Will Smith. Legend — and relatively credible word — has it that Salman was utterly shattered when Shah Rukh Khan finagled Smith from Sallu’s guest-list, only to throw a party for the Hollywood A-lister at his own bungalow. Salman cut a melancholy picture at his own Smith-less party, while Smith reportedly looked bored at SRK’s party, where Salman wasn’t invited.

Undeterred, Salman turned up in a motorbike, yanked Will unceremoniously, casually and instantly from the party, and before anyone could react, took him to his own. If fellow guests are to be trusted, Smith got wonderfully jiggy at the new venue.

It isn’t a very hard story to believe, Khan’s off-screen persona being that of an old-school superstar, the picture of defiance, the ultimate rebel without a cause. Depending on who you believe, he thrashes actors in bars and sends over expensive watches in morning-after apology. He is also quite the philanthropist, and judging from how he got all of Bollywood’s A-list heroines to shake their collective caboose for his Being Human charity earlier this year, he’s doing quite the bang-up job. There are whispers about his constantly roving eye, and an almost mob-like entourage which gets him ‘anything’ he points to. And then there are those who vow he’s the most honourable man in the industry.

The myth, then, is as self-contradictory as the man. The role Khan seems to fill, in fact, is that of the man-child, who thrives on indulgence, indulgence we now have to spare, being so frequently cynical the rest of the time.

“How well do you think the media knows me, or any of my closest people?,” Salman snorts, instantly sneezing hard. Battling a cold valiantly, he takes turns blowing into a formerly-white kerchief and wrapping it tightly around his knuckles, as if preparing for a street-fight. Occasionally, when thinking hard, he absently bites into it, tugging it with its teeth as if insight can be sucked out of cotton. When emphatic, he punches the air in front of his face, a phlegmatic pugilist jabbing at invisible, omnipresent opponents. “Nothing ever bothers me. Nothing.”

He says every part of the public persona is inaccurate, but he can’t be bothered to go about telling people what to think. He laughs scornfully when the aggressive, ‘bad-boy’ image is brought up. “Please. If that was there… Listen, do you hear the questions they ask me? All the time? They ask me the kind of things my own father would never ask. I don’t care, and I don’t react. The day I start reacting to it…” He trails off in a dramatically threatening voice, before winking.

Naam, Don, Majboor, Sholay, Deewar, Zanjeer,” he rattles, with the unthinking ease of a man used to listing his favourites among his father’s screenplays. Son of Salim Khan, one-half of Bollywood’s most celebrated screenwriting pairs, Salman confesses a desire to direct. “I always wanted to direct. I really thought that I would, somewhere, make a… good… director,” he mumbles softly, before saying that he does make creative suggestions to directors he works with, but backs off because it is, eventually, their call.

“You don’t have cinema till the time you don’t have a story. You have a story to tell and you shoot the film with the worst technique, and that film will do well. And you have the best technique in the world, but the lousiest script, you can do anything you want to do but that film will not work.” So then do all the hits have strong stories? “There is something, dude,” he shrugs. “Something they like. The character, the script, something clicks, and they want to go see it. Why would they want to go see something they don’t like?”

He prides himself on his unerring script sense — “The ones that I thought will do well, so far, pretty much all of them have,” he says, saying that his thinking is that if he wants to see the film he’s making, everybody would want to see it — but that doesn’t reflect as well on his hit-loss record, with far more forgettable films showing up than actual hits. “Well yes, but the script is not usually made the way it was. They start improvising, they start changing, they get scared, yeh bhi daal do, woh bhi daal do…”

So what went wrong, then, with Veer, a film he wrote and produced earlier this year, a catastrophic failure? “First of all,” he insists, “Nothing went wrong with it at all, at the box office. But in my head, I felt a lot of things went wrong. I wanted to shoot for 18 more days.” I ask him why he didn’t, considering it was a pet project he was completely in control of, and Salman disarms me with the sort of answer no megastar could possibly dare to give.

“Dad didn’t let me,” he sighs, almost pouting. And then falls silent.

Moving on, I ask him about another bizarre Salman contradiction. “Painting?,” he grins. “Painting is a big jhol. I wanted to buy three paintings for my house. The artist charged me a lot of money, and they didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to turn out. So I thought, ‘let’s try.’ So I started painting, started getting good at it. I was fortunate to find my own style in the first five and a half, six months. Artists take the longest time to find their way to say what they want to say…”

salman1Salman’s paintings are sold at exhibitions with the money going into a charitable trust, and that’s clearly what fuels his fire. “So I’m getting better and better at it, and the money’s going to a good cause.” He isn’t under many delusions about why his paintings sell. “When somebody’s buying an artist’s work, two things are important: one is the amount of experience that he has, and two is a business plan: how long is he going to be there? After that, we’re going to make so much money because we’ve gotten his art, and after he’s dead, he obviously can’t paint anymore. So,” he pauses, briefly sounding alarmingly morbid, “they make money.”

“Here, how many paintings am I going to make anyway? I’m an actor. I paint when I find the time,” he says, explaining that it’s usually at night.

And how does he rate his own art, honestly? “If my name is not signed, it’s below average. Once my name comes down there, it’s outstanding work.” A smug grin accompanies the jab this time, the grin of a star who knows his worth. However unreal.

~

First published Rediff, December 29-30, 2010

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Read a book with legs

A couple of days ago, I was forwarded a piece called ‘Date A Girl Who Reads,’ doing the usual rounds all over the Internet. Affectionate at first glance, this was a rather offensive piece of simplistic drivel that assumed women who read don’t do anything but live within paragraphs of their beloved books, books they keep mistaking for real life, presumably because they smell them too much.

Right.

So instead of dating a hypothetical woman who doesn’t do anything but read, I exhort you to go one better:

Read a book with legs.

It’ll come to you. Literally, that is. When you call it. When you lie in bed and wish you hadn’t left it in the other room, all you have to do is ask for it loudly, and you’ll hear its high-heeled feet coming your way.

Read a book with legs. Just imagine how much fun dog-earing would be now. And instead of buying it leather binding, you could give it fishnet stockings.

Of course, it will need more room than the average shelf. Perhaps even the guest bedroom. Yet this is but a small bargain; picture those legs casually straddling you when you lay the book face-down on your chest, to take a phone call, say. Gosh.

You can take your book to the park, and as it sits with long legs crossed, you can read in bright sunlight.

It’ll go wherever you go, which is lovely. You will have to buy two tickets, of course, so air travel might be rather exorbitant. Yet the book will walk alongside you, helpfully enough with pages open so you peek through it without having even to break your stride.

Occasionally, you can take it to the library. And sit back while the legs head off to find a familiar shelf, and squeeze enthusiastically in between a Dickens and a DeLillo. Give it a while, whistle and it’ll run back to you. You see that coating of dust on its jacket now? Well, that’s wisdom. Just keep the legs away from the Nabakov shelf and you’ll be fine.

Take care of the book with legs. Don’t leave it lying around under a pile of living room clutter, its feet foraging for space between old magazines, constantly endangered by empty beer cans. Or worse, lying unattended and cold in the bathroom, its shivering legs constantly coiled in fear of spiders.

Also, while obvious, it must be stated: don’t read two books with legs. If you must, keep them very, very far apart. In different neighbourhoods, ideally. The sort of ruckus two pairs of incensed legs can kick up has to be seen to be believed, and when it comes to your shins, all bets are off. Just because you read one first, long before the second came along, and it seems reasonable to switch from book to book, suffice it to say that the books don’t buy that one bit.

But stay true to that one book with legs, and you’ll be fine. It’ll make you smile, it’ll make you think, it’ll make you weep and it’ll make you break into laughter so inappropriately loud those not in the know will think you’re smuggling some sort of tiny tickling woman in your overcoat. All that and it’s perfect for a late night snuggle. Read a book with legs and it’ll make you happy.

You could, of course, choose to instead go for a book with breasts. They’re just fiendishly hard to close.

~

First published Rediff, March 17, 2011

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Ram Gopal Varma and his Al Qaeda

The most influential Hindi filmmaker of the 90s, Ram Gopal Varma isn’t what he used to be — or so say we, embittered critics unimpressed by pandering, and disgruntled audiences unimpressed by waferthin storylines and disastrous remakes. You can’t blame us, to be fair. Just a few years ago, Ramu lied about me on his blog, claiming that I rubbished Sarkar Raj because I was a wannabe director being dissed by producers.

He has since apologised for what he calls a clerical oversight — I have never, ever wanted to direct a movie — but the question is often brought to my notice by sensation-seeking readers. One asked me a week back what I thought of Mr Varma’s blog. “I love it, and I love the fact that Ramu doesn’t let accuracy stand in the way of a good soundbyte.”

It is a line that has positively regaled Varma, the director wishing he had included it in his latest film, Rann, calling it symptomatic of his entire career, so to speak. And while he might celebrate his own alacrity for untruth, it is a charge often levelled against his increasingly surfacial seeming cinema. The gimmicks, the background score, the calculated moments of shock and awe… emptier and emptier.

Yet it wasn’t always this way. Six years ago, when I first met Varma inside his intensely funky Factory office, his production house was churning out more films, at faster clip, than anyone else. Abject newcomers were handed debut projects, and a proud Varma called the movement his Al-Qaeda, something to tackle mainstream Bollywood and force their way in.

“It was obviously said in a certain context,” Ramu now laughs. “It was the so-called realistic films, like Satya, Ab Tak Chhappan, versus all the Switzerland-New Zealand kind of films, with good clothes and good-looking faces. So it was like we were creating a small group of films, as a resistance to the big commercial films.”

“But I’m not very sure I’ve been very faithful to that idea. Because by default, not knowingly — or sometimes knowingly — inspite of the concept or the idea being new, I don’t know if the attempt was completely serious, in a way.”

He also admits he perhaps started too many films without really thinking them through, but he did give directors a chance. “I think I’ve learnt a lot from the mistakes I’ve made, and hopefully I’ll correct them and make new mistakes now.”

Mistakes or not, his crack squad of cinematic terrorists include major names. A look at the posterboys of modern independent cinema shows RGV scowling from a lot of their resumes. Anurag Kashyap, Shimit Amin, Sriram Raghavan, Chandan Arora, E Niwas — a handful of highly-regarded, potentially industry-defining directors, each of whom started their careers with Varma. Dozens others have showed flashes of brilliance but aren’t quite top-rung just yet.

Ramu himself isn’t entirely impressed. He feels the boys have made a mark, but haven’t quite reached the lofty expectations in place when he kickstarted his movement. “I would say [the resistance’s] success would be when it can be at par,” he grumbles. “When you look at Western cinema, European cinema, in terms of realism or interesting subject matter, we should be at par. I don’t think the cinema’s still reached there.”

He also feels, despite giving these people their first breaks, he couldn’t do enough for them. Considering Amin’s Ab Tak Chhappan the only complete triumph from his roster, he says he might have inadvertently shortchanged other directors by not giving them as good a subject and script. “I feel a director is as good as the subject matter,” he clarifies. “I mean I’m the same guy who directed Satya, and I’m the same guy who directed Daud. Who the hell am I?”

He admits the current new wave is making strides, but seems to credit the multiplex revolution — “which allows every kind of cinema to reach its audience” — more than the makers. “Some of them are making effective films, but they don’t startle me. In the way world cinema does, or some regional cinema, when I just get zapped. When I can’t believe a scene can be shot like that. I don’t see that here.”

Ramu singles out Tamil cinema for praise, gushing about how 2007 hit Paruthiveeran zapped him totally. He also applauds Vishal Bhardwaj, saying he scores very highly in terms of craft and originality, and, perhaps most importantly, “there is a point of view, there is a very definite personality [to his cinema].”

It seems inappropriate to label the men birthed in The Factory as Varma’s protégés, most of them leaving right after their first breaks, and can often be found armed with bitter stories about RGV. Yet the fact remains that he gave unlikely filmmakers life-changing opportunities, on a whim.

Vishram Sawant, for example, had designed the interiors of the Factory. And Varma gave him a gangster movie, D, to direct. “The more independent a person is in his way of thinking, I feel that much more difference can come in the way of his storytelling,” explains Varma. “Now, Vishram Sawant is a guy who thinks very, very wild. Like the decor of The Factory, I’ve never seen any decor like that, as an interior work. So if he wants to make a film, I would like to believe that it’d be so bizarre.. it’s like art, whether you like it or not, nobody’s seen it before.”

For all his take on the inadequacies of the new wave, Varma hasn’t watched any of his boys do their own thing, really. He insists this is because of an inherent lack of interest in the subject matter — “I don’t want to watch Chak De because I don’t like sports” — and not one born out of resentment. “Anurag keeps saying to the press that he’s stopped watching my films, but that’s okay, I’m still very fond of him.”

As always, Ram Gopal Varma is a ticking timebombful of contradictions. What cannot be questioned, however, is that if these men, or the filmmakers and genres they spawn, ever defiantly smash the twin towers of kitschy mainstream Bollywood masala, that man who made Shiva was the one who lit the fuse.

RGV on his protégés:

Sriram Raghavan

Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar. Our only bonafide thriller maker.

I saw a film he had made on this guy, Raman Raghav, the serial killer. I was pretty impressed with some portions of the film — if not the overall film, but I could make out budget constraints, etc. And I could see the brilliance. He surprised me quite a few times with the way he shot a few shots, and the mood he created with Raghubir Yadav and all that.

I’m also very fond of him on a personal level, person to person, you know? He’s a very patient guy, keeps on working all the time. So it’s a combination of the brilliance I saw and the personality I saw.

We kept discussing ideas. I had this story idea loosely based on this film called Concrete Jungle, about this woman — actually, it’s exactly the same story. So it was a combination of that and something I heard from the police forces, an incident like that, so it sparked off from there and we worked on it and that’s how Ek Hasina Thi happened.

E Niwas

Directorial debut Shool won the National Award for Best Hindi Film

See, E Niwas was basically my office boy. The point is, after a person works enough number of years… once he understands the basics of how a film gets made and if he can control the crew, tell them what he wants and doesn’t want, then he’s ripe for directing. He might be called technically the director, but Shool happened under the heavy supervision of Anurag Kashyap and Manoj [Bajpai], they used to discuss everything. So he might be the director, but I was depending quite a lot on the others around him to guide him.

His qualification is not because he was my office boy, it was because I saw his dedication and his sincerity to work over a period of time.

I think directorially he was perfect in Shool. If he failed anywhere, it was in the script, the story.

Shimit Amin

Ab Tak Chhappan. Chak De India. Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year. ‘Nuff said?

Shimit came to me because he wanted to work with me because he was very impressed with Company, and I was just starting Bhoot at that time. He came because Sameer Sharma, who was working with me on the script of Bhoot, along with Lalit Marathe, recommended Shimit as an editor. So I said fine and he came from the US to edit Bhoot.

In the course of interactions with him, more than anything else I wanted Shimit to direct. In fact, that was also Sameer’s suggestion.

I just felt that a guy who is not so much into the underworld here — he’s not a Bombay guy, he doesn’t move around with those people — and his basic exposure is towards cinema from there. He’s not into Mumbaiyya language and all that. So I thought it might be an interesting experiment to put a guy like that into a subject matter like this. So that’s how Ab Tak Chhappan happened.

Chandan Arora

Charming, naturalistic filmmaker behind Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Main Meri Patni Aur Woh, and the upcoming Striker.

See, Chandan also is quite strong as an individual. I worked with him on quite a few films as an editor, from Mast to Company to Jungle. Now, Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon was just a story idea I was told by Makrand Deshpande. I loved the idea, and then I mentioned it to Chandan, and he wanted to do it. So pretty much it was Chandan’s baby, I kept away from the film. Which means, in other words, it is his own thing that came out.

With films like Ab Tak Chhappan or even Ek Hasina Thi, I would have been very involved in the way the film is edited and cut, and also cutting the length etc. Madhuri Dixit, on the other hand, is a film that is pretty much Chandan’s. That’s not the [kind of] film I would make.

Anurag Kashyap

The cult-spawning icon of Indian independent cinema, began his career by co-writing and shooting chunks of Satya.

My first memory of him was when I was shooting Daud, he just used to be standing there and looking at me shooting. He wasn’t working with me. I don’t even remember now who it was, but I had told someone I was looking for a writer and someone sent him. I can’t recall who and how, but my memory of him was that he used to stand there waiting for my shoot to finish.

When I started Satya, the first writer who came to meet me was Anurag. And when I was speaking to Anurag, he sort of suggested this guy Saurabh Shukla. He knew him from somewhere, called him a senior guy. And so Saurabh came on board.

Over a period of time I was very impressed by some lines Anurag used to come up with, and by his intensity. He just gets completely immersed in whatever he’s talking about. Like when he used to come and narrate scenes to me, I probably wouldn’t even listen to what he’s speaking, I just used to connect with his intensity at that point of time.

And he’s very, very complex as a person in terms of whatever I’ve seen. See, I would have never ever made a film with Anurag — I never did make one — because he’s too independent and his style of cinema, his sensibility is very, very far away from me. He’s the guy who’d never probably make the film if I tell him the subject. He doesn’t like my kind of subjects like I don’t like his.

~

First published Man’s World, February 2010

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Watching Amitabh Bachchan act

Amitabh Bachchan defies description. We’ve read and written so much, apocryphal exaggeration and gossip combining with lanky fact and box office numbers to make up the myth of the megastar, that none of us knows exactly what to believe. I’ve interacted with Mr Bachchan on a few occasions, coming away with strikingly different impressions each time, deciding that — be he moody, difficult, overwhelming, prompt or affable — the much feted B, the Big one, must stand for Bewildering.

It is said, however, that the only way to measure a movie actor is to see him closeted by cameras, forced to perform, giving the scene his all.

And thus I wait. It’s a sultry day in Hyderabad’s massive Ramoji Rao Film City as I shuffle around outside a closed set, waiting for Bachchan and Ram Gopal Varma, who’s directing the star — and his son and daughter-in-law — in the Sarkar sequel, Sarkar Raaj. It isn’t too hard to find the set: you take a right near the fake railway station, and the Film City security guards are most helpful. ‘Amitabachchan,’ they repeat as one word, pointing you along. There is little of the Mumbai security madness or the hysteria — though possibly a Chiranjeevi-garu film might garner a lot more mob-security in these parts.

Krishna Prasad, KP, one of Ramu’s many youngling Assistant Directors, last worked with The History Channel on a show called Sharpe and with Wes Anderson on Darjeeling Limited, the hush-hush production the Rushmore director wound up before the Indian media could trace him, and I’m being regaled by tales of Bill Murray’s meteoric temper when the Sarkar director arrives.

Ramu’s in sunny mood, dressed in a lilac shirt and sporting golden highlights in his hair. He likes Hyderabad, he says, a lot more relaxed, while Ramoji has a great setup. “Plus, it was raining far too much in Mumbai, it kept disrupting the shooting schedule.” So, as I discover following RGV onto the sets, Sarkar’s quintessentially Mumbai bungalow has been recreated right here.

And while cameras are currently trained for a living room shot, the outsides hold the fascinating bit. Massive floor-to-ceiling blowups surround the building, flat photographs of palm trees and traffic — it’s hard to imagine that when seen by well-lit camera, this wallpaper-style façade can look convincingly deep, but as I soon realise, it does perfectly nicely. Well, well.

As the lights are readied, ADs jump into room for the stars. A tall longhaired youth tries hard to keep a straight face as the cameras focus onto him as Sarkar, and it’s decidedly surreal to hear the words ‘Sam is Aishwarya’ as yet another hapless neophyte fills in. Other senior actors – Govind Namdeo, Ravi Kale, Shivaji Satam — take their positions, cooling their heels. Bachchan, for whom the shoot is standing still, is late by at least ninety minutes.

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The wait is shattered with the confident squelch of leather against thin wood. The sets seem to reverberate with the sound of kolhapuri chappals taking long, tremendous strides as they head directly to the spotlight, dead center. In Sarkar garb walks Bachchan, other actors smiling politely and leaping over each other to move out of his way. Amitabh smiles at Ramu, gives the cameraman an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and instantly slips into his role as white-haired, black-kurta’d Subhash Nagre.

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Boylespotting: A profile

A blurry peek into the work of our current favourite Englishman.

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Danny Boyle never wanted to make a zombie movie.

After a rushed prologue, 28 Days Later opens with a long, haunting scene showing Cillian Murphy’s haplessly normal character Jim wandering through London. He walks through Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Bridge, staring confoundedly around him because these unmistakable London landmarks — areas of the city that define the word ‘bustle’ — are empty, and so Jim, who has just woken from a 28-day coma, finds himself lonelier than a woman at a comic book convention.

Shot on digital video, the impossibly empty London sequences are disconcertingly haunting, showing the city in an unlikely desolation that seems endless. Before the zombie virus called Rage strikes, that is.

The scene is a watershed moment in modern horror cinema, and even though Boyle refers to the film as a drama set in a zombie/horror backdrop, the fear generated by the film and that landmark scene is pretty darned intense.

Talking about the film now, sitting in Mumbai opposite director Sudhir Mishra at a Masterclass, the 52-year-old Boyle tells us that this specific London sequence was the only reason he did the film, before going on to elaborate how digital cameras were much, much cheaper than their film counterparts, and how they got 70-odd cameras and scattered them around the place and only held up traffic for a few minutes, early in the morning. And then it’s on the editing table that the sequence is intercut using various angles, cut to excruciatingly slow speeds, making it seem endless.

Boyle isn’t a big fan of the genre at all, but screenwriter Alex Garland — who also wrote The Beach — is a massive zombie nut, and insisted on this film. Boyle then drew parallels between his film’s Rage virus and England itself increasingly mired in day-to-day incidents of road rage and a general unease, and used the tension between himself and his zombie-lovin’ writer to give the film greater edge.

Danny Boyle never wanted to make a first film that was derivative of the Coen brothers. Danny Boyle never wanted to head down to Thailand with an invading army to shoot a film. And Danny Boyle never, ever wanted to make a film in India.

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