Sunanda Mehta: The first thing wed like to talk about is The Good Road being Indias official Oscar entry. Did you ever,at any time,see this coming?
Not at all. Its a small film and I had completed it two and a half years ago…We had shot the film amidst much hardship and it was completely unexpected that it would land such a great honour. We had thought we would release it and let people watch it as there is a scarcity of Gujarati films being made. I had earlier worked for a commercial Gujarati film called Love is blind. This was an NFDC production and I have worked with them for long too. The movie was released all over Gujarat three months back and was watched by people who are interested in good cinema. Their response was more like – It is very good you are working in a Gujarati film,thank you for making a film in our language. So basically we had completed the film and forgotten about it and the Oscar nomination came as a complete surprise. I was performing at Shivaji Mandir when I got the news – there were some 170 missed calls on my mobile and my message box was full. My first thought was whether everything was okay at home. Then I called up the director and producer and they confirmed the news for me.
Sunanda Mehta: Its an film titled in English,made in Gujarati by a Goan director,starring a Maharashtrian actress. It doesnt get more diversified than this,does it? But still,according to you,what is its USP,that caused it to become Indias official Oscar entry?
Exactly,the movie is a replica of India. I really liked the story and when the story was narrated to me,the director played the music. He had travelled across Gujarat and collected a lot of folk music. He met various tribes,people from various regions,and collected music from various regions. While narrating,he made use of the music. It is a nice story,and has turned out to be a different film than what he narrated,but that happens. I understand that this is Gyans first film and as every debutant director,he also has experimented. This is a film about a truck driver and a small child. We get lost in the Rann of Kutch and the story is all about us finding each other and the hardships in the process. I think its the simplicity of The Good Road that clinched it. Its about contentment. I play a very small part in the film and you see me in bits and pieces.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: There has been a lot of controversy about the films selection vis-à-vis that of The Lunchbox. What is your reaction to it?
I knew this was coming! We are a country of many languages and films are made in those languages. We have to choose one film for the Oscar. Even for the National Awards we have a huge fight. When it comes to the Oscars,the decision is tough for the jury. But I do not think there is any controversy as such. Anurag Kashyap is a dear friend and we have worked together in a play called Sar-sar-Sarla and in the play we shared a good bond of friendship. Anurag had tweeted about the decision,and I had gone through all the tweets that very night. He said that he was disappointed that The Lunchbox was not selected for the Oscars,which I think is fair enough as we have freedom of expression. He was decent about it so it is okay.
Apart from Anurag,others who have talked about the movie lack locus standii as they are neither film critics,nor filmmakers nor actors. But there is a war in social media about how The Lunchbox was a good film Why are we not talking about how English Vinglish was a good film or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – I think that is very odd?
Manoj More: Do you think people should not criticise your films?
People should criticise my films,but Anurag has not done it. Only they have to watch the film to criticise the film. If you have not watched all the films,you have no authority to criticise them. Many people are saying they liked Lunchbox and there is a huge number that have not liked it too. They say the film is disappointing in the second half. We are not focusing on these aspects and the entire spotlight is on how The Lunchbox had made noise against The Good Road.
Geeta Nair: Now that the film is the official entry of India for the Oscars,how will you be involved in the campaigning for the movie?
We need to understand that this is Indias official entry for the Oscars and not the one shortlisted in the final five. We have a long way to go. Our producer is already in LA and he is trying to get the show together. I was really shy to talk about the film initially,but there is no else who can talk about it. The truck driver is a non actor and the child is preparing for his mid-term exams. He is not as confident to talk about the movie,so I was requested to talk about it. I take this opportunity to talk about my journey in the movies in all languages. Now,when the Marathi films are doing well,suddenly,many are realising that they too have Marathi surnames and have started working in Marathi films. I know how they had treated our filmmakers earlier. They would not even reply to the narration. I take pride in saying that I had always worked in Marathi and other languages.
Pranav Kulkarni: How much importance do you give to the Oscars personally?
Awards are important for debutant filmmakers. For Marathi films,there are many film award functions hosted by a battery of companies,radio channels and others. All the award functions are well-attended as this gives a boost to their confidence,especially to those who have just started working in the industry.
When we talk about the Oscars,I think we have a new breed of filmmakers who are confident about their work and awards will be more important to them than a box office hit as it would infuse faith in their belief that they are doing good work. Personally,for me,if you look at my filmography,I have been recognised for my parts internationally in all my films. My very first film,Cheluvi,by Girish Karnad,made it to Cannes – back when people used to go there to watch films! My English film producers had gone to Cannes to see my film and that is how I was selected for the part. So I would say it feels nice to be selected for international festivals and awards.
Nanda Kabe: Almost every film you have done has won an award. Have you been very selective about what you choose, or plain lucky?
I am a gambler and take risks. I do not fear saying no and rejecting films. There is always the challenge of balancing doing a film which is very good but has no funds,with a film which has lots of money. I have been always juggling and choosing the right films. For me,storytelling matters and the director matters. Money is also important and I earn well for myself.
Today I am in a position in which I can encourage my producers to have enough funds to do their films. So,if someone comes to me with an interesting idea but no money,I introduce them to good producers. I tell them,its important to have good funds. Creativity is not like a flower which will go to waste if you do not exercise it. We need to have patience and make our projects do well.
Sunanda Mehta: Despite worldwide recognition,you are still tagged as the Dil Chahta Hai girl for reference. Does that bother you?
Well,it does not worry me much as Bollywood is the most glamourous of the industries. However,I know the price I paid for it as I had a wrong manager and I was signed up for 8-9 wrong films,which never got completed. When I say 8-9 films,it translates into 3-4 years of work. I did Agnivarsha and Taxi No 9211. However there were films that never got completed and did not get me anything in terms of money or brownie points.
I worked hard on a Kannada film called Yellamma,where I played Lady Macbeth,which did not do well at the box offices. I worked on an Italian film where Omar Sharif was one of the co-actors. I walked the red carpet of the Venice International Film Festival with him. Work kept coming in,but yes a Dil Chahta Hai kind of film did not happen.
Geeta Nair: Is there an insider or outsider in the film industry? Do you see yourself as the outsider who went in there and made it big?
I do not think there are any more groups or barriers like this. Today,we do not have a wall between commercial and parallel cinema. For example,Wake up Sid I think is a pathbreaking film as it pitted an established parallel cinema star Konkona Sen against Ranbir Kapoor,the heart throb of the nation. I do not see any glass ceilings any more. The cribs come from people who are lazy.
Pranav Kulkarni: You are working with Nana Patekar about the life and times of Prakash Amte. Do you think the Marathi audience is mature enough to translate this movie into a commercial success?
I have complete faith in the Marathi audience. It is up to my team to reach the audience and market the movie. If people did not like good movies,serious cinema would not have survived. Also people are more than ready to support people like Prakash Amte. Such a movie is the need of the hour as we are in the city where Dr Narendra Dabholkar was killed. His assassination has shattered me completely. I had worked with him for 16 years and I was with him on August 12 for the inauguration of Sadhanas special edition. I am what I am because of two people,namely,Satyadev Dubey and Dr Dabholkar. Dr Dabholkars murder has been a great shock to me and I am still coming to terms with it. He gave me the courage to fight the rampant superstition in my industry. People wear stones,change their names spelling,walk barefeet to Siddhivinayak in the hope that their films do well. But Dr Dabholkar gave me the courage to fight that and carve out a niche for me there with confidence. In a similar vein,the Amte couple is working amongst a tribe,where the concept of giving Thanks is just not there. Once the patients are cured,they just walk home without thanking them. Yet they continued working with the tribes.
Manoj More: Tell us about your work with Dr Dabholkar.
I was not a full-time volunteer with the movement,but have been in touch with the samiti in many ways. Mukta and I were classmates and thus we have been friends for long. I had attended many of the rallies and workshops and in my own way I have fought superstitions. I ride an Audi and I had this problem of rats going through the bonnet and biting the silicon covering of the wires. Many people had advised me to install an idol of Ganesha,in the car,which I refused to do.
Prasad JOSHI: You have a flair for writing. Are you planning to take it to the next level and maybe script a film?
I think eventually I will script a film but I do not have any plans as of now. I am very involved in things right now. I will take some time to mature.
Debjani Paul: Do you think the industry has come of age when it comes to the question of complexion? Or are we still fixated with white skin?
I do not think colour matters so much any more and our wheatish shade is accepted much more. I must share an anecdote with you. Earlier I had this whole complex about my dark skin,and also my voice,which I felt is just not feminine enough. I was in a workshop conducted by Satyendranath Dubey that was attended by 200 girls. Every day,I raised my hand more for my sake than for a real question and was happy to be ignored. But one day Dubey told me to ask my question. I tried to make my voice as sweet and soft as I could and started to ask what one should do if one didnt have a good voice. But every time he would cut me midway. Finally,I just blurted out the question in a single rushed breath and he told me that this is what one should do – talk in ones own voice,have confidence in its quality and not imitate any one elses. It was a great lesson for me.
Prajakta Hebbar: Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I am playing the role of Manda Amte and the challenges are different. There is just one picture of her and so my reference points are very few. I also did not get enough time to prepare but it is a very challenging road ahead and I am hoping to walk it well.
(Transcribed by Partha Sarathi Biswas)