The latest edition of the Express Adda in New Delhi hosted director and composer Vishal Bhardwaj. In a discussion moderated by Deputy Editor Seema Chishti, Bhardwaj spoke on making films and music, the role of cinema and why Bollywood doesn’t speak up.
On abandoning cricket for films
I didn’t abandon cricket, cricket abandoned me. I was born in Chandpur (in Bijnor) but I was brought up in Meerut. I played Under-19 and then joined Hindu College because Delhi has always been producing international cricketers. In those days, Maninder Singh and Manoj Prabhakar were my contemporaries. One day, before the first intervarsity tournament, I broke my thumb. I couldn’t play that year. The next year, I lost my father. There were not many avenues to make money in cricket at the time, even if you played Ranji Trophy. I realised that unless I have financial support, I won’t be able to play. That’s when cricket, slowly, began to take a backseat.
On his journey from Meerut to Delhi
Delhi was a complete change. Though Meerut is only 70 kilometres away, the attitude, the lifestyle, everything was new for me. The openness of this metro city — Meerut was very conservative — made me see things in a different light. I met a variety of people here. I met some great musicians, I met my wife Rekha in college, she was my senior. When I met such talented people, my point of view started to change. It was such a beautiful time. The youth of the ’80s was intoxicated with ghazals. Ghazals normally return to popularity every 25 years, even though they haven’t surfaced in about 30-40 years now. Jagjit Singh, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali were rockstars at the time.
On finding good music outside Bollywood in the 80s
Bollywood is such a big shark that it eats up everything. You don’t get non-Bollywood music because we’re blood brothers with Bollywood and that’s both a good and a bad thing. Real popularity is actually only achieved through Bollywood music. Whenever Bollywood music goes down, parallel music comes up. In the ’90s when Rahman came, he brought in a new sound. Before that the songs we were producing in the ’80s were like Tamma tamma loge and Jab tak rahega samose mein aloo. We sunk, as much as we could, into the dirt. The biggest payback of that was that we got Jagjit Singh. He had been struggling in Bollywood for 30 years. When film music went down, Jagjitji came out with Baat niklegi toh door talak jayegi… which became an anthem for the youth of that time.
From making music to making films
I was introduced in Maachis as a music composer. Overnight, I became a star. From taking autos, I graduated to a Ford in two days. And when success comes, you know what they say, ‘sar kandhe par nahi rehta hai’. That’s what happened to me too. Once I was successful, I started questioning the directors of my films on the stories they were telling. I was raising genuine questions with an honest intention but it offended many people. I did only five to six films after that — Satya, Hu Tu Tu, Chachi 420 among others, and my career started going down. So, that’s when I started self-learning and Gulzar saab gave me confidence. He told me to start learning scriptwriting so that I could develop stories.
On quiet filmmaking and Tarantino
If you see the current political scenario, you have to be quiet. I think (Krzysztof) Kieslowski was a great filmmaker. The beautiful thing about his filmmaking and his writing was that he would find extraordinary conflicts in very ordinary lives. Till my last film, I didn’t have the courage to attempt such a quiet film where the conflict is so strong that even if the characters aren’t speaking and the film is very silent, you are on the edge of your seat. I’ve tried it in small segments, like in Haider, when he is searching for his father.
I have enjoyed all of (Quentin) Tarantino’s films barring the last one, The Hateful Eight. He only makes films that revolve around gangsters and I, too, really like to make films on gangsters. I’m a fan of his work. I tried those things in my own way, in my own language, in my own style in Kaminey.
On finding Shakespeare late
I hated Shakespeare in school. When I try and remember the first thing about Shakespeare, my memory goes back to ‘the pound of flesh’ (from The Merchant of Venice). Baat aai-gai ho gayi, phir kabhi Shakespeare se mulaqat nahin hui. My godson was studying in Dehradun and once we were taking the train back to Delhi. I was bored, so I asked him if he had a book with him. He gave me Lambs’ abridged version of Shakespeare. And the first story I read was Macbeth. And it was so good… mere hosh udd gaye, ki yeh kis tarah ki kahaani hai. At that time I was looking for a story set in the underworld but I needed a story that had depth, that had layers. And I thought this is my story! As soon as I reached Mumbai, I read Macbeth and all other plays of Shakespeare. Aur phir shayad purane janam ka rishta hoga Shakespeare se (Perhaps I have a connection with Shakespeare from our previous births), and then we started writing Maqbool. Now I can live my life in Shakespeare.
On the media and entertainment
Today’s journalism feels like a comedy show. It’s that bad. It feels like a comedy circus when you see Arnab (Goswami) screaming on the screen. First you think that you can’t see this and then you start enjoying it.
I think we should accept your (media) role. We (cinema) should become more real and matter-of-fact and say the truth, for a change. There is a strange race to be number one, especially in news. It’s become too much. It’s become very scary — is there any truth around us? Is there anyone speaking the truth, is anyone listening to him? Can such a person even exist today?
On whether Bollywood has held a mirror to the times
The role of films is to be a mirror for society. Films talk in retrospect, ki hum ek saal pehle aise the, ya hum pachaas saal baad aise honge, ya hum aaj aise hain (that we were like this a year ago, we will be like this 50 years later, or that we are like this today). Films show us a mirror. This is what the media should do too, show us what is right, what is wrong.
On drawing characters from his milieu
Langda Tyagi (in Omkara), was a student called Rathi and he limped, so he was called Langda Rathi. He was a dada, a gunda and a student (in Meerut). Jo bhi Omkara mein tha, I had seen all those characters in real life, I had seen those street fights. I had seen those ganglords and wars. The character of Naseer saab in it — Bhaisaab, the politician — there was a gangster in Meerut like that. When I went back (to Meerut) in 2005, things were the same, rather worse. And then I came to know that Rathi had became a professor, so I thought then I can become a filmmaker too.
On what stops Bollywood from speaking up
There is a psychosis of fear, that if you say something, you will be personally targeted. We have seen that, your community has seen that — Gauri Lankesh was targeted. Second, it’s our bread and butter. For you, it can be just entertainment. But for us, it’s our livelihood. If we have spent Rs 40 crore on a film and then, one week or three days before, you start an agitation, the cost becomes Rs 140 crore before the film is released. They hit you where it hurts the most.
We have never felt like this before. I am not saying that I liked the previous government or that I prefer one party over the other. We have seen genocide by both the governments. I was in Hindu College when the 1984 riots happened. But how easily did we forget about them. As artistes, we take no sides. We take the side of what’s right and that’s why I have always said that one who is not left is not right.
Associate ProfessoR, Jawaharlal Nehru University
You brought the rural hinterland to the metros through your movies. Did you ever go back to inquire how your movies are viewed there? In Meerut or Azamgarh, do people catch that symbolism or they read it differently from how, perhaps, we do in the cities?
I watched Omkara when it released in Meerut. People were getting that… because it is a language of that place, but honestly my films have not done well commercially so they have remained niche films. I do not have a problem with that because I have never had it in mind that the film will be a blockbuster while making it. But over the years, films such as Omkara and Maqbool… Haider got a lot of recognition but that was because of the controversy. The government had changed. I was called anti-national, but the film benefited from that.
Director, Sales, The Oberoi
What is the impact of Gulzar saab’s cinema on you?
Till 1996, when I attended the International Film Festival in Trivandrum, international cinema for me was commercial Hollywood cinema. In my childhood I just watched one film — Blue Lagoon, that too clandestinely in Meerut. For me there was only Bollywood and in that I used to know all of Gulzar saab’s shayari and dialogues of his films. I have grown up on his work. For me there is no better romantic film than Ijaazat. He has done poetry in films, he has done shayari in films and he got films into his shayari. His shayari lends to such a cinematic experience.
I stay in Mumbai where we are told that to become an actor you should do particular things — join workshops, go to the gym. It has become very superficial but your films have a lot of realness. How do you choose your actors?
I feel really bad for actors because they are dependent on someone else’s imagination of characters, stories and conflicts. In Bollywood, there is commercial cinema, where you mould the character according to the actor. In another kind of cinema, you choose the actor according to the character. In another, a combination of both is made. Gulzar saab told me something that I always share with everyone who is struggling. He said people who say they never got an opportunity to perform are lying. Because opportunities move in circles, they will come to you too, it depends on how ready you are. He told me, ‘load your gun and keep it so that even if someone calls you at night, you should pick up your gun and shoot. If you start searching for your gun and bullet, then that opportunity will go to another person’.
Student, the Shriram Millennium School
I am 13 and I love writing but often I run out of ideas. How do you get your ideas and your inspiration?
My father told me we all have the same mind, it’s how you fill yourself. My father would say if you want to write poetry, then read good poetry. If you will read a lot of good poetry the urge within you will arise to write something that is good. It won’t come overnight. You have to have an ustad or a guru or true friends who can criticise you or tell you the truth. Sometimes parents fail to do that. You have to have good critics around you. You are young, don’t be in a hurry to write. Try to read as much as possible and learn the craft. When someone wants to become a doctor, he goes to a medical college, engineers go to IIT…unfortunately in India we don’t have institutes to teach poetry because everyone thinks that if you live on poetry, you will die homeless. So the attitude has to change, we really need to take these things seriously as a state, as a society.