With his recent films such as Mulk (2018) and Article 15 (2019), Anubhav Sinha, once known for star-vehicles such as Dus and Ra.One, broke away from the Bollywood blockbuster mould, creating narratives resonating with the times. An engineer from Aligarh Muslim University who grew up in Benaras, Sinha directed music videos and television shows such as the acclaimed Shikast, before making a foray into feature films in 2001 with Tum Bin — a sleeper hit that he says was noticed by “star wives”. He went on to produce and direct many other projects. Apart from his films, his sharp repartee on social media also keeps him in the news.
SHALINI LANGER: You have directed two of the most talked about films recently — Mulk and Article 15. Both projects were a big departure from your previous work, especially Mulk. What prompted you to make the film? Was it the timing?
There are two answers to this. Between the Bollywood recipe films that I had been making, I always had this one story which I wanted to tell. But I couldn’t find stars, commercial viability… So I pulled back. I don’t blame others, I allowed it to happen. Until then I had had several flops in a row.
The other part of the story is that when I started directing, I did a show called Shikast. It was Manoj Bajpayee’s first show. It got me a lot of acclaim. Then I did Sea Hawks for DD Metro. It had glamour. Later, I went on to do over a hundred music videos. So there was all this drifting happening towards a bigger world. I was a boy from Benaras, my father was a government servant, so there was an attraction towards that glamour. And, fortunately or unfortunately, all these projects were successful. My first film Tum Bin (2001) was also successful. It was noticed by a lot of star wives. They told their husbands to watch it. So they did, and they also heard good things about the film. Then, whenever a project was being directed by Anubhav Sinha, they (the stars) were okay to work in it.
All this while, the guy who made Shikast was still alive. After Ra.One, Cash, Tum Bin 2 did not work, I almost lost my confidence as a director. I had started asking friends if I was a director at all. It’s okay to make a bad film which is a hit, or a good film which is a flop, but I was making neither. I thought maybe I was just a producer. But then the films I produced — Gulaab Gang, Warning, Zidd — didn’t work either. I am talking about 2013-14. At the time, I also suspected that the society was drifting towards the Right, which I was not in agreement with. I had a lot of energy against it. Around the same time, an incident happened in Kanpur, where a Muslim father refused to accept his son’s body because he was a terrorist. That triggered something in me and I wrote the story (of Mulk).
SHALINI LANGER: How difficult was it to put Mulk together?
Impossible. I got the actors eventually. Taapsee (Pannu, actor) knew of the story from day one. I desperately wanted Chintuji (Rishi Kapoor). I met him, he loved the script. He said, ‘Okay I’ll do it, but there’s no hero.’ I said, ‘Sir, you’re the hero, the script’s the hero.’ So then I had the actors but no money… Then, Deepak Mukut came in. He had a vague idea about the story. He believed in me and said, ‘Do it.’ He gave me the money and we shot the film.
After seeing Mulk, Anurag Kashyap messaged me, saying, ‘Ab aaya na Shikast wala Anubhav waapas (The Anubhav of Shikast has returned).” From that point onwards, for friends such as Anurag and Manoj Bajpayee, I became me again.
“(On Article 15) some Dalits asked me why an upper caste had to fight for lower castes? So are you telling me I should not stand up for you? I am not out to change society. I wanted people to talk and they are”
SHALINI LANGER: You are an engineer by training. What explains so many engineers drifting into creative professions?
That’s a social problem, not anymore though. In 1981, when I passed out of Class 12, you could either become a doctor or an engineer. If you did not take up Science in Class 12, you were not considered a good student. The Arts were a no-no. I wanted to be a good student, a good son to my father… I was very scared of blood, so I couldn’t become a doctor… hence I became an engineer. After becoming an engineer, I worked for a year in Faridabad. I was so bored. I used to live in a one-room apartment, and every night I would come back to a frog in my bathroom. I was getting Rs 2,200 a month… I hated it, and so I thought maybe I want to travel. So I changed my job and became a marketing engineer. Then again I was selling the same thing to different people who behaved in the same manner.
Then, one day, I just quit my job. It was 1989, I was 24. I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I had this actor friend, Viren Saxena, who had moved to Bombay but would come to Delhi often. With him I started going to Mandi House, and met Manoj (Bajpayee) and Ashish (Vidyarthi). But I knew I was not an actor. Then, a friend’s elder brother asked me to assist him on a documentary he was making. The second day of the shoot I knew I wanted to make films. Then I picked up my bag and went to Bombay. I thought if I had to play cricket, I had to play it at the Oval.
SHALINI LANGER: Your film Mulk had powerful women characters. However, in Article 15, Ayushmann Khurrana’s girlfriend seemed to exist just to add glamour to the film. Do you think the film needed that character?
She was his window to the world that he came from. I am surprised that people noticed her and talked about her. Just before we went to shoot, there was a discussion over whether we needed the character. I strongly felt we did. So I said I will shoot the whole thing, and then we will see. If we don’t need her, we’ll reduce her portions or take her out completely. The actress knew about it. But we ended up keeping every frame that we shot with her.
UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: When you made Article 15, did you have apprehensions about whether it will be accepted in commercial circles? Did you fear that the film was not in a language that the audience usually prefers? Also, how different was the response in cities from small towns?
I was hoping the audiences would accept it. I call it cheese — a small amount of which I have sprinkled over the whole narrative. There was a lot of difference of opinion while we were making the film. The biggest dose of cheese is when the hero walks back with the girl in his arms… It should not have been there. But that is a new recipe that I am trying to create. I am trying it out in my new film Thappad as well… I was sure that I did not want this film to be seen just by these people (pointing to the room), because what’s the point in making the film then? I also did not want to go too far into the Bollywood recipe, where the film loses its essence. But I still had to sprinkle some cheese for the crowd to come to the theatres. I was doing it very instinctively and, at the same time, I was hoping that there isn’t an overdose. I did not want to put you off either (addressing the room). It was a tightrope walk… and thankfully, the film reached the audience.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: What triggered your shift from films such as Ra.One to Mulk and Article 15?
It was a question that had been bothering me for several years. I was this social, political man making films which had nothing of me. That bothered me a lot. As a filmmaker, if your personality is not reflected in your movies, then what are you doing, why are you making films?… I cannot pinpoint any one trigger, but it kept bothering me that I was not the same person. It was not a happy place.
SHALINI LANGER: Bollywood is often attacked for not speaking out on issues that could be considered political or become controversial. You have defended them and pointed out that cricketers, for instance, are not expected to take a stand. After you made Mulk, did anyone from Bollywood reach out to you?
Bollywood is a low-hanging fruit. Anybody can make headlines talking about Bollywood. You know, ‘Why don’t we have a Sean Penn or a Meryl Streep in Bollywood?’… But the question is not that simple and neither is the answer. I often get a firing from my sisters and my family for my tweets. I say, ‘What the hell?’. I am criticising my government, I have the right to do that. But, that’s who I am. While I defend them (Bollywood), I also don’t agree with them… You are in a position of power, you have access to people’s hearts. Gandhi was a barrister, he didn’t have to do what he did, he was not a leader, but he decided to do it (join the freedom struggle). So somebody has got to decide to do it. It could be from Bollywood, it could be from cricket, I don’t know. It’s a very individual choice. But yes, it’s very disheartening too… I don’t like it when I don’t see a response from them on a social tragedy, as if it didn’t happen. It’s heart-breaking, I don’t like it. But that’s a personal thing.
TANUSHREE GHOSH: A lot of people have an issue with the hero of Article 15 being from an upper caste. Do you think the film worked because it was an upper-caste man looking inwards?
Yesterday I was going to ask Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan on Twitter, what caste was Vijay Dinanath Chauhan (Agneepath)? What caste was he, does anyone know?… These are hypothetical questions, I don’t know. This is the story I wrote, this is the film I made. If you think there should be a Dalit hero, you can write that film. The film released on June 28, and we are still talking about in October. It must have done something, no? I was at some panel at a festival, and a big group of Dalits were very upset, very angry… They said why does an upper-caste man have to fight for a lowercaste man? So I said maybe you are telling me that I should not stand up for you. Should I not?… I am not out to change society. I wanted people to talk about the issue and they are, which is fantastic.
“#MeToo never became a movement…and a lot of women were responsible for it… They gave it up… It was not a simple thing to be solved on Twitter… Needed larger discussion, which we did not have
SOMYA LAKHANI: Last year, in the Hindi film industry, a lot of men were accused of sexual harassment and misconduct. How have your film sets changed since?
I’m hiring more women… Men like us are concerned. I was asking myself whether I may have done anything wrong. My son, who is 18, asked me, ‘I hope your name is not going to come up.’ I said, ‘I may have flirted with a girl on WhatsApp, but nothing physical. I haven’t used my position for such things’. People like us are going through a kind of reorientation… A lot of times you do something inadvertantly. A long time ago, if someone did a good job, even a girl, I would pat them on their back. I didn’t realise that my hand was very heavy. One day I patted my art director on the back, and she started crying, because I had hurt her. It wasn’t sexual but I hurt her. I apologised and, ever since, I have stopped doing that… My only complicity was that if I saw something wrong, something going on between two people, I would leave it to them. That is the mistake that I was making as an individual. But now, if I see something wrong going on, I ask her, ‘Are you okay?’. If she needs help, I will help her.
SOMYA LAKHANI: But are you also conscious about the people you work with, who might have been accused?
First of all, I regret that #MeToo never became a movement, it just remained a campaign, and a lot of women were responsible for it too. No solution came out of it. There was this friend of mine who was accused but I know of him as this gentleman. I asked him once, ‘Did you do it?’ I spoke to him at length and I didn’t find him at fault. But suddenly there was this dark cloud over his head. I didn’t know what to do. I was very confused. There was no court case. Who will absolve them or punish them? Is one accusation enough for him to be sidelined from the business? Then I created my own court. I decided I would judge and I would punish. Like there is somebody who I have punished — I will not work with him for one year. After that if he is still the same, I will never work with him again. I don’t know how else to deal with it because there are no real answers that came out of it (#MeToo). At some point women also gave it up, I don’t know why. It should have been pursued….
It is also very multi-layered. It is not a simple thing that can be solved on Twitter. Sometimes you make mistakes. How grave is that mistake, pardonable or not, are you repenting or not? There are various layers to it. It is not as black and white as, ‘He once sent me a message saying will you sleep with me’. Does it solve everything? No it doesn’t. There has to be a larger discussion, which we did not have unfortunately. It’s because we shy away from the big names.
SHINY VARGHESE: How much of Benaras and Aligarh, where you studied, are reflected in your films?
Everything about me comes from these two cities. The music, the milieu, comes from Benaras. The food, the language comes from Aligarh. I grew up in Benaras until I was 17. The language spoken at the paan shops there… No one from outside will understand it. At home, my parents were listening to Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan… My English was good, grammatically, but my spoken English wasn’t so good. It’s because in Benaras there is a way you speak English. So the language also (in my films) comes from there.
MIMANSA SHEKHAR: Can you tell us about your new film Thappad?
If I have made it well, it is a very important film. It’s about marriage, man-woman (relationship), things that we are not doing right. There are eight women in the film. I find all the women in my life in that film, including my mother, sisters, cousins. It is the most difficult film I have made in my entire career. It is an internal, personal film.
VANDITA MISHRA: How would you categorise the Hindi film industry now? Some people would say that it has opened up to newer subjects, while others view it with greater scepticism and say that even breaking the formula is becoming formulaic.
I think what is happening now is not something new. We have had successful films such as Aakrosh earlier. These filmmakers have always existed. The audience has changed and they have more opportunities to watch such films. I should not discredit but… a little more is happening but, yes, it is becoming formulaic. Anything which becomes formulaic will fail. That is why I am not choosing my films based on what is working. I am choosing my films based on what is exciting me.
SHALINI LANGER: Which filmmakers do you find exciting now?
A lot of them. Vishal (Bhardwaj), Anurag (Kashyap), Tigmanshu (Dhulia), Sudhir Mishra, Sriram (Raghavan), Subhash (Kapoor)… In the South, there are more.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: How concerned are you about stereotyping people and communities in your films? Like a butcher would always be a Muslim, a Sardar is made fun of…
Stereotyping has existed in Bollywood… We are struggling with it… It’s because it is ingrained in our DNA. I met Diljit Dosanjh, I am a huge fan of his, and told him I will work with you when I have a story, where I don’t need a Sardar.
SOMYA LAKHANI: What was the discussion like with the Censor Board over Article 15?
For Article 15, the executive committee members had not reached a consensus. One of them thought the film should be banned. It was referred to the revising committee which suggested three changes. I accepted them and got a U/A certificate. For Mulk, I had a 90-minute meeting with the examining committee. It normally doesn’t take more than five minutes. The moment I walked in, I could see appreciation in their eyes and I knew I was playing on a good wicket. Then the head of the committee told me that it’s a very good film but we have issues, so you need to help us. They were very reasonable. I have stood up against the Censor Board too many times, but they have been kind to me.
If you go by the Cinematograph Act, 1952, 90 per cent of the films can’t be released. Pahlajji (Nihalani, former Chairman of the Census Board) comes in, and adheres to it completely, absolutely blind to the society he lives in. Then Prasoon (Joshi, current Chairman) looks at it more liberally. He clears films such as Mulk and Article 15 without any damage to the narrative. Some day Parliament should find enough time to work on the Cinematograph Act.