Sunayana Kachroo With Vishal Bhardhwaj: Be honest and instinctively alert

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Sunayana Kachroo with Vishal Bhardhwaj

By Sunayana Kachroo

“You need more than guts to be a good gangster, you need ideas” – City of God. A film industry that churns out prescription based hits and where tried-n-tested formulas ring the box-office registers, it takes more than just guts and intelligence to create meaningful cinema and attain commercial success. YOU NEED IDEAS!

National award winner Director, Writer, Lyricist and Composer Vishal Bhardhwaj has somehow skillfully managed to do just that. It was with Omkara that I had fallen in love with his craft, but weaving a plot around a mushaiya in Dedh Ishqiya appealed to the poet in me and I wanted to meet THE man. At the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) -2015, I sat down with Vishal to talk about movies, music and his journey in the industry. During the course of our conversation I realized that being relevant doesn’t just mean being aware of the surroundings it also meant being true to yourself. One way to do that as Vishal mentioned was to be honest and instinctively alert. Vishal advised to stay “badmash” to be able to write witty dialogues, read books and educate yourself to write crisp screenplays and to never lose the sense of wonder in the process. There was a nostalgic pause in the flow when I asked him to recite something that his father had written and then midst the interview we also broke into a Bashir-Badr Jam.

Sunayana Kachroo with Vishal Bhardhwaj
Sunayana Kachroo with Vishal Bhardhwaj

Grounded yet perceptive, Vishal is a man in motion and probably that’s what Gulzar Saab was alluding to in “Pluto” when he said “Vishal! Vishal Bhardhwaj batao na jaana kahan hai?”

Sunayana: Kuch taazgi ho lazzat-e-aazaar ke liye, har dam mujhey talash naye aasmaan ki hai (Daag). From Bijnour to Merut to Delhi to Mumbai to Makdee to five National awards for Haider..? Abb aagey kaunsa aasmaan? (What’s your new goal?)

Vishal: Sitaron ke aagey jahan aur bhi, abhi ishq ke imtehaan aur bhi hai.  Success has its own place and purpose. I acknowledge it but it is not the end point or a permanent resting place. I think to be satisfied and complacent with success would be the biggest mistake an artist could make. Success brings with it a responsibility. Responsibility to move on! There is so much to experience and explore and create. Mujhey ek naye asmaan ki talash hain.

Sunayana: Our folklores and legends are verbal traditions that indicate we are seemingly good story tellers, but do you think that in terms of film making we do not do well with translating a good story into a good screenplay?

Vishal: Screenplay in itself is an art yet there is science and a process to it. There is a methodical way of approaching the screenplay which can be learnt in a proper course or through good mentorship.

Sunayana: FTII has started a course on Screenplay recently?

Vishal: No it has been around 10-12 years and now we have begun to see that skilled crop of writers create some wonderful cinema, also now people are aware of the importance of “screen play writing”. So the coming years are going to be really interesting and exciting for Hindi Cinema.

Sunayana: Apart from the courses what are some of the movies and books that you would recommend for someone who wants to be a Screenplay writer? You had talked about Forward and Backward in one of your interviews.

Vishal: There are many books, so yes Forward and Backward by David Ball , then there is Art of dramatic writing by Lajos Egri that focuses on creative interpretation of  human motives and then there is Aristotle’s Poetics and there are many more.

Sunayana: The opening scenes of your films give us a sampling of the traits of the characters, do you think this creates a reference point for the viewers and keeps them engaged?  For example we see Khalu and Babban in a grave in Ishqiya or even the opening scene of Omkara is very intense and intriguing.

Vishal: I think the first shot not even the scene has to be impactful, that in fact is the most important shot of your movie, it should entice the viewer. So my whole effort is to create a shot that grabs the attention of the viewer and intrigues them to explore further. This also gives you some liberty to weave your characters into the plot unhurriedly and skillfully.

Sunayana: Also may be it creates an expectation in the mind of the viewer “Ki Woh Scene Kab Aane Wala Hai” (When is that scene going to come) so they hang on to the story longer?

Vishal: To keep audience engaged you have to be ahead of them- What will they think? Expect? As we discussed earlier everyone is a story teller. So they try to guess what would happen next. The trick is to surprise them with Logic.

Sunayana: So you are actually leading viewer into a certain set-up?

Vishal: Well I see it as staying ahead of them. Audience want to reach to the next situation before the writer and the director and you know Sometimes they do! And then you know what happens.

Sunayana:  “Khuda dosti ko nazar na lage” to “Jungle-Jungle baat chali hai” to “Paani-Paani re” to “Beedi jalaile” to “Bismil”, if you look back today how you do see your trajectory as a composer?

Vishal:  It’s been a long journey but I think I have matured a lot as a composer. Your life experiences also enrich your creativity so “Farq to badtaa hee hai”

Sunayana: Do you think this journey of maturing takes away the rawness that sometimes is essential to the art. Gulshan ka karobar –While managing the brutality of the business how does one stay relevant and yet preserve innocence?

Vishal: To save your rawness and the innocence is an art in itself, there is a lot of effort that should go into that. Once you mature and achieve some success then you have to protect and conserve your “Naivety”. The only way to do that is to be honest and instinctively alert.

Sunayana:  Paake bhi tumhari aarzoo hai shayad aisey zindagi haseen hai? How do two successful artists make a marriage work successfully? Why haven’t you recorded a duet together?

Vishal:  We complement each other a lot because this is the most “honest” reaction you can ever get and the most “biased” opinion someone can have of you. Knowing someone at such a close proximity creates a bias and there is a natural instinct to protect each other. So it’s a combination of authenticity and sheltering too.  Two artists can challenge and enrich each other.

We haven’t recorded a duet together and the only reason for that is that our scales are very different. She has a very low pitched voice and mine is on a higher side. So to bring these two together in one composition is quite a challenge in itself. As a composer I will have to design something for that.

Sunayana:  Mujhko bhi tarkeeb sikha do yaar jhulahe, please share some secrets of witty yet uncomplicated dialogue writing?

Vishal: For effective dialogue writing one has to be a little “badmaash”. There are some rules that help to keep it interesting. Well not really “rules” but different styles of conversational writing. For example if two characters are saying the same thing still they should not agree. Which means there should be some kind of conflict that gets created in there. Not say the obvious things through dialogues, some of the things can be said through the artifacts on the set.  So basically even if it’s a simple dialogue, the context could be twisted.

Sunayana: Give us an example of this from your movies?

Vishal:  Sure. In Kaminey there are many examples but there is this one -“Zindagi main fark isse nahi padta ki aap kaunsa raasta chuntey hain? Fark isse padta hai ki aap kaunsa rasta choddte hain?” (In life it’s not that important to know which road to take but what is important is to know which road not to take?)

Although you are saying the same thing but when you say it this way it makes it more interesting.

Or another one “Mere baap ne marte waqt kaha tha ki beta Charlie yaad rakhna ki zindagi badi kutti cheez  hain aur iss jahan mein kutton ka bas ek hee jawab hain -Kameenay” ( My father on his death bed had advised me to always keep in mind that this Life is a bitch and the only one way to handle it is to be Cunning and Mean)

I had this very interesting cousin who would often try to make his quotes interesting by saying “Mere baap ne marte waqt yeh kahaa tha…” even though his father was still alive.  So the dialogues have to make the conversations sound relatable, witty and stimulating.

Sunayana: Baazecha-e-atfal hai duniya mere aagey, hota hai shabo-roz tamasha mere aagey- Is film making a vent-out for an artist who is moved and disillusioned by the state of human rights in our country?

Vishal: Your art is a reflection or a reaction of what you see around you and if it is about human rights then that should be expressed with absolute honesty. Whether it is a Poet or a Painter or a Film maker they mirror what they experience directly or as a witness. “One who is not left is not right”

Sunayana: Interesting. What do you mean by that?

Vishal: Artist has to be left. A right winger cannot be an artist. That’s my understanding. A True artist would be leftist.

Sunayana:  Langda tyagi’s limping, Charlie’s lisping and Guddu’s stammering. Mostly the film industry dishes out disability in form of an ill-lucked blind person or someone walking on crutches, however the disabled in your films are portrayed differently…they are as clever and as conniving as anyone else.

Vishal: I hate self-pity. In my movies the characters that are disabled are actually very smart and entertaining. I feel that disabled characters generally have a quirk and are more fun to be around.

Sunayana: How do you know the right “recipe” for not going overboard with dialogues? Your dialogues are sometimes simple and poetic yet brutal and dispassionate too. How does one know? I know you collaborate with other writers too so do you consult?

Vishal: I write my own dialogues. The collaboration is only for story and Screenplay. There is no “recipe” I wish there was, then the film making would be much easier. But there isn’t! It’s all intuitive at that point. Obviously if you go wrong people tell you later and they tell you a lot!

Sunayana: Last book that you read and really loved?

Vishal: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sunayana: Among your contemporaries besides you whose style of direction interests you? Which was the last movie that you saw and liked (not made by you)?

Vishal:  Recently I saw a Marathi movie called “Court”.  A very young director has created brilliant cinema. It’s really unbelievable! I like Anurag Kashap’s work, Anurag Basu’s work as well, Dibakar is also brining in very interesting cinema. There are so many-many more.

Sunayana: Ye phool mujhe koi virasat mein mile hein tumne mera kanton bhara bistar nahin dekha-Do you think that the lack of struggles creates complacency and kills art?

Vishal:  (Quoting the next line of the couplet of Bashir Badr) Jis din se chala hoon meri manzil pe nazar hain. Aakhon ne kabhi meel ka patthar nahi dekha..

**At this point we jam with the couplets from this ghazal by Bashir Badr and actually forget what the question was!

Vishal:  The moment an artist becomes complacent art becomes dead and irrelevant. Life brings struggles and wonderful experiences too so as long as you are connected to life you will find sources to inspire you. You can be a failure and still be happy or a success and still be unhappy.

Sunayana: Kashmir doesn’t have just one truth, one story cannot encapsulate the truth in its entirety. Would you be interested in doing another movie on Kashmir especially the genocide of Kashmiri Pandits?

Vishal: This is one of the biggest tragedies of our times that has not been talked about as much as it should have been. There are movies that have been made but they are not worth mentioning. So first it has to be a watchable film and it has to interest people who are not connected to the genocide. I am looking forward to Vidhu Vinod’s film on this.

Sunayana: Well as a Kashmiri Pandit I felt that one of the best directors in the industry should have made a film on us first.

Vishal:  I understand that and I understand that people were hurt. So I hope that other film makers do justice to this and if no one makes it I will.

Sunayana: Your father was an inspector in the sugarcane industry but he was a poet at heart. Can you share with us something that he has written?

Vishal: There are many but the one that comes to my mind right now is

“Mandir me main khada neem ke ped sa

Sookhi baton ke patton ke deir sa

Mohar lagi hain jinpar sookhi chaanv ki

Janta hai concrete mere gaon ki”

Sunayana: Conversation with you cannot be complete unless we talk about Gulzar Saab. He calls you his “extension”, I do understand that some relationships are beyond tags, but as an admirer of his work I would really want to know how has he influenced you as a human and your work?  Also can you mention some of his songs that like but are composed by others?

Vishal:  I am what I am is because of Gulzar Saab. He has influenced me in everything. In my aesthetics, in my mannerism, in my life style and in fact everywhere.

There are just too many songs. Tujhse naraaz nahi zindagi, Tere bina zindagi se koi, is mod se jaatein hain and then there are the ones that have such wonderful phrases like “Auron ke gharon main rehta hoon”. His imagery is just incredible.

Sunayana:  Well with Gulzar Saab’s beautiful words we want to thank you taking out time and conversing with us, hope we can see you in the New England area soon.

Vishal: Thank you and hope to be in the New England area soon.

As I wrap up, I notice Vishal talking to his son over phone and all they talk about is the status of the editing of his film. Although I had been informed before yet I found Vishal humble, rooted, instinctively alert and extremely protective of that “Badmaash” within him.

(Special thanks to Sunny Thakker, Jitin Hingorani, Nikhil Mehta.)

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