Subhash K Jha In Conversation With Shanker RamanWhose Gurgaon Opened Last Week To Rave Reviews.
Your directorial debut has been greeted with some of the most glowing reviews I’ve ever seen. How well do you think the critics got the point?
I feel once the film is released it’s out of my hands. It can be relieving and scary. There is always a fear of being judged and misunderstood. This is something one overcomes while making a film. However, when the film is out it’s done. It’s important to allow for people to say what they want. Because it’s their experience. For my part I must be willing to listen. Even if it takes time for me to completely get what they are saying. So when I am willing to be part of that I discover that no one is actually being negative or dismissive. They all seem to have engaged with the film and are now truly expressing themselves. As for the critics, they seem to have done the same. I doubt if there was a singular point that I needed people to get. I wanted to offer them a created world, which seems radical and yet familiar. Almost close to home. And I think by and large they got that.
Ironically you came on the same Friday as a mighty Shah Rukh Khan starrer Jab Harry Met Sejal which got scathing reviews. Any lesson to be learnt from this?
We chose to release on 4th Aug. We were also well aware of JHMS releasing on the same date. Releasing a film is a business and we would do well to accept that. It may seem like a playground only for the rich and famous and that’s fair. However, it’s important to know what parameters you are following for your film, especially if it is a smaller budget film. There will be challenges with fewer screens and odd timings. That’s a given. Plus there is no guarantee that people will like your film. Or that it will work for them. It’s pretty much a gamble, especially when we don’t have the benefit of having focus group screenings to get a fair assessment of how it will be received and narrow down the target audience. Having considered all of that and after having released it with a big starrer there are lessons learnt. It’s important to give people a choice of show timings otherwise it feels restrictive. Especially if the film is doing well with word of mouth publicity. Which has been the case for Gurgaon. And I am very happy about that.
What struck me about Gurgaon was how well you had crafted the tale to exude the scent of a thriller. Was that the idea behind doing the film?
The idea was always to make a thriller. That was the starting point. The question for me was what is a thriller? Is it limited to big scale bank robberies or superheroes saving the country? For me, a thriller is a story where we experience the threat of witnessing something that will alter our lives forever. It’s much like the fear of death. The fear of the unknown. The fear of finding oneself lost and alone in unfamiliar unchartered territory. All human beings experience this threat one way or other. From a homemaker to someone planning a bank robbery.
How closely did you study the grime behind the glitter of Gurgaon?
The glitter only shines in brochures and coffee table books. The grime is all around us. Having said that, that’s how I choose to see it. Which makes me responsible for how I choose to experience it. The common narrative is that there is not much we can do to change the world. Things are headed for the worse. This is a standard complaint from the beginning of time. The only one I could study was really myself. What I think of everyone else is just my opinion. An interpretation. And I judge and suffer my attachment to my own judgements. This is the human condition. To hide, to block our self-expression for valid reasons which don’t work. There is a world of story in that. All I got to do is be willing to see it in myself. It’s one way to understand people who act with motives different from mine.
You seem highly influenced by Francis Coppola’s The Godfather. Was that an influence? What are your other influences?
Coppola is a master and I am just starting off. Although I can’t say I am influenced by Coppola’s work. The Godfather or any other. At least I am not aware of it. If people find a similarity then that’s how they see it. I am however a great fan of the Coen brothers, Dardenne brothers and the writer Cormac McCarthy. During the course of writing Gurgaon I saw and read their work several times. It’s something I would take refuge in. Their world of ideas.
Being a proficient cinematographer why did you let someone else shoot the film?
It was my privilege to work with Vivek Shah. I was clear I didn’t want to be the DP on this film. I needed all the time I could have with actors. I also wanted to collaborate with Vivek and seek his contribution to the narrative. He is a total filmmaker and an artist. All heart. What I benefited by working with him is priceless. Being a DP takes a lot of focused attention. You are dealing with several people at a time and over days it can get tasking. I was constantly re-writing and re-imagining the screenplay as we shot. This required my fullest attention and I am glad I didn’t shoot the film.
Tell me about the casting. How did you hit upon this intense and totally credible star cast?
I didn’t have a cast in mind when I wrote. When we were ready for production Mukesh Chabra CSA, came in and began auditioning actors. I lucked out with Pankaj and Aamir as they readily agreed to play Kehri Singh and Bhupi. I struggled with casting Preet because somewhere I was also struggling with the character in the screenplay. It took me a while to get what would work and how to communicate it effectively. When I saw Ragini’s audition I was particularly struck by her voice and screen presence. She looked very different from her usual on screen appearance. Almost unrecognisable. I knew she was the one. Very glad about that. Arjun and Ashish were easy. They are superlative actors who can mould themselves into anything. Karma Devi was another difficult one. Writing her part was the toughest for me. I had to really sweat it out to create her world. When Mukesh suggested Shalini I was thrilled. I have worked with Shalini in Peepli LIVE and she was brilliant. It would be amazing if she had the dates and liked the part I thought. Luckily she said yes and it helped immensely to further the character now that I could put a face to it.
Was it difficult to sell this amazing film to a reliable distributor?
This is a question only Ajay Rai(of PVR) and Alan McAlex can answer. I can’t imagine what they must have gone through to sell this film. Not for lack of content or quality, but just to convince people to take a shot at it. Give it a chance and be part of something extraordinary. This film is the result of great commitment from supremely talented people. I feel its important to tell that story. It runs the risk of appearing as if it’s one man’s creativity, when it isn’t. That’s always the hardest sell.
What is your next project? Would you work with stars if given a chance?
Still working on ideas. Undecided on the next one. I have no problem working with stars. I have in my capacity as DP. It’s a challenge getting them on board. There are several real factors. Cost of production, studio deals, dates etc. I don’t see it as an unreasonable thing. I am sure stars are also looking for strong original content with a strong voice to tell that story. I am happy to serve that need.
Who are the Indian filmmakers to have impressed you in recent times?
I love the recent crop of filmmakers. Chaitanya Tamhane’s court is one of the best Indian films to come out in the longest time. I would mention Kanu Bahl’s Titli and Avinash Arun’s Killa in the same breath. And of course there is Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane whose work has and continues to tirelessly support independent filmmaking. I have worked as a DP for a lot of TV commercials and I have been fortunate to work with some amazing directors. Shashanka Chaturvedi (Bob), Sabal Shekhawat, Zakir Chinde, VishweshKrishnamoorthy and Navzar Eranee to name a few. I have learnt a lot from them about economical, precise story telling which may be very different in grammar to traditional feature film narrative. However, the emotional quotient of their work and their approach is amazing.