Sunanda Mehta: How are the times for an independent filmmaker?
I think the best period for filmmakers like me was in the 1970s and 1980s because of the strong state support for alternative cinema. And even though the films of Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen and some others were oblique criticisms of the state, there wasn’t the kind of censorship we are seeing now.
Everyone is complaining about no Indian film making it to Cannes, but they should also realise that there is no Indian support for cinema. I don’t understand what are we going to achieve by just opening and setting up an Indian pavilion at Cannes, when back home we are not supporting anything. In fact, Chauthi Koot and Island City (2015) were the last two films supported by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). In the last three years, no go ahead has been given to any film.
Atikh Rashid: Can you elaborate? This year there is just one film at Cannes — a student film — from the biggest film producing country.
The people who pick films for top festivals like Cannes and Berlin and Venice are looking at cinema which is completely un-compromised and full of integrity. So you need producers that let you make that kind of cinema and NFDC was affording filmmakers that opportunity. If we had state support, more films would have been made and definitely one of those films would have been at Cannes.
Geeta Nair: What about private funding?
Though things are opening up a little in the private sector and there’s financing for a certain kind of cinema, even here there’s this overriding concern about return on investment. They will make trashy big budget films and lose money but won’t complain about it. But the same people will cry about a small Rs 3 crore film losing money.
Another option is to get overseas funding, which is very difficult to do due to high competition. I know so many filmmakers who are stuck because they get funding from Europe but not in India. This is such a sad situation. The funds will only be released once you are able to raise them in India and they will lapse if you are unable to raise them in three-four years.
Sunanda Mehta: How has the environment changed in the past few years in terms of curbing or restraining creativity. In terms censorship or otherwise?
There’s the recent example of An Insignificant Man, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now being denied a censor certificate. If I were the filmmaker, I wouldn’t have even applied for a censor’s certificate. When you are touching a topic like that which is a thorn in the government’s flesh, you are not going to be able to release that film.
I also heard that the chief of the censor board is saying that films going for international festivals abroad should also obtain a censor certificate. This is unprecedented! Technically, they can’t do this because the jurisdiction of the CBFC can’t go beyond Indian shores. The only way they can censor is through the route of customs. We are moving towards crazy times. How far are they going to impose this censorship?
Geeta Nair: So it’s a message to filmmakers that if you touch these subjects you would face trouble?
Yeah. But it doesn’t work. If people want to make films they will make them. Look at what happened in Iran, which has given us wonderful cinema in the last 10-15 years in spite of censorship. They have produced cinema which attracted attention from the whole world. You know Jafar Panahi, an Iranian director, when he made his first film ‘This is Not a Film’ he had to smuggle it out of the country in a pendrive hidden inside a cake. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that we are in for exciting times. If nothing else we’ll have good cinema now! (laughs).
Atikh Rashid: After making all these successful films which went places, why did you decide to come back and direct a diploma feature project for FTII acting students?
You want to come back to your alma mater and share the things that you’ve learned. You have an attachment to the place where you studied and which gave you so much. However, it didn’t turn out that way. The institute decided to stall the project saying I have violated an obsolete rule which is practised nowhere in the world. It was just a facade. They are giving just excuses to stop the film. The real reason is my support for rusticated students. We went to court against the institute’s decision and it’s pending in the Bombay High Court now.
Atikh Rashid: Did you have a premonition about what would happen to the film? It’s named ‘Sea of Lost Time’ and that’s what it ended up being for everyone involved.
As I said, we were making an uncompromising film and FTII is no longer the place to be forthright, fearless and outspoken. There was a time you could be. And I wasn’t going to be anything but that. If you are not there to service their agenda, it is very difficult to be in that place. They’re now trying to be very high handed in the way they handle things there. And one can’t be sure of who is now controlling the place.
Alifiya Khan: Abroad there are so many avenues where filmmakers can release their movies. Has any of it worked in India?
No, because we never set up a network of small theatres where independent films can be screened. Europe always had niche theatres catering to alternative cinema. I feel that 1975 was the right time to do it as the ‘parallel cinema movement’ was at its peak. But we never built them nor did we ever establish a network for distribution of smaller films. All the major funding goes to building malls and multiplexes. In cash flush Mumbai, barring the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) and Prithvi Theatre, which other cultural space is there?
Garima Mishra: Last year, a lot of people raised questions about Baahubali getting a National Award and this year about Akshay Kumar getting it for Rustom. Would you comment?
The government wants to promote a certain understanding of cinema. So when you give Baahubali a national award for best film, you are putting it into a category of great cinema. It’s like the state is stamping it with approval and is sending out a message that if you make these kinds of films you will stand a chance of winning a national award. They are saying the same thing when they appoint someone like Gajendra Chauhan as Chairman of FTII. They are saying that for them Chauhan is the role model and not people like U R Ananthmurthy or Girish Karnad.
Sunanda Mehta: Many people would complain that your films are difficult to understand.
What we feel is that it’s another aspect we are missing out on: Ki sab samajh mein aa jaana chahiye bass. To grapple with things that you don’t comprehend and then slowly getting acquainted with them. Why should there be an instant understanding, an instant gratification, instant knowledge of everything? This happened with people who had even worked on my films. After Anhe Ghorey Da Daan got all the appreciation and half a dozen awards, we went to the village where it was shot for a screening. The villagers watched it with glee but complained that they didn’t understand a thing. Thankfully, the local cable guy picked up a pirated copy of the film and started showing it every Sunday. A few years later when I was shooting for Chauthi Koot in the same area, several people from the village met and said ‘Pehli baar dekhi kuch samajh mein nai aaya, lekin ab hum dus baar dekh chuke hai toh ek ek cheez samajh mein aa gayi’. So if a villager can engage to that level then why can’t others do the same?
Sunanda Mehta: What are your future projects?
One film I am working on is the biopic of Amrita Sher-gil, the painter. Nobody has made a film on her. I am really interested in her life, like when she went to France to study at the Art School. She was 16, in love with her cousin and then had affairs and is trying to explore her sexuality. She comes to Amritsar in India when she is 21, buys a saree and wears it saying that she will not wear anything else! Then I want to make a film in Pakistan. That’s in Punjab. For me it’s the same as Indian Punjab. In fact, I shouldn’t say that I want to make a film in Pakistan then I shall say I want to make a film in Punjab but across the border. This whole enmity (between India and Pakistan) is just between governments. It’s a political thing and it’s not between people. I don’t love Pakistan army, I don’t love Pakistan government but how can’t I love Pakistanis?