Abhishek Chaubey is a star director, but he denies it.
“I don’t have a celebrity bone in my body. I have no interest in being a celebrity. I resent the fact this is such a high profile job,” he told indianexpress.com as he sat down to talk about the time between Udta Punjab’s controversial release and Sonchiriya, his continuous fight with censorship and what do male writers need to undo before attempting female stories.
Q. It’s empowering that Abhishek Chaubey can be the face of his own film. It is great that writers and directors can shoulder their films and don’t need to stars to promote them.
It’s a great change but I don’t have any illusion about it. I don’t think anybody sitting in Raebareli is going to say, ‘Let’s watch Chaubey’s picture!’ That’s not going to happen. Usually, it would happen that ‘The film has Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pednekar so, let’s watch it.’ But yeah, if there are 200 film buffs in Mumbai who have liked the films that I have made and would come to watch my film, I will stand in front of the camera to speak about it.
Q. Did you have to take time off Udta Punjab before diving into the world of Sonchiriya?
Yeah, I went on a holiday for about a month. That was enough. I was working more on the holiday. It was a good break that I had. I was already working on Sonchiriya back then. We (writer Sudip Sharma and him) had started writing it earlier. So, when I was away on a break, Sudip was working in Mumbai.
Udta Punjab released in June and by November, we had the script of Sonchiriya ready. It’s very important in this profession to take timely breaks because if nothing else, the city gets to you. A lot of the pressure that you have as a filmmaker is real but a lot of it is imaginary. So, if you can cut all that from your life, it’s great but it’s hard.
Q. By imaginary, you mean the forces around a filmmaker, which ask him or her to get back on the director’s chair immediately so that they aren’t left behind?
Yes. You need to have a strike rate as a filmmaker. You can’t make a film in every five or seven years. So, you need to keep doing films as quickly as possible. Also, the nature of filmmaking is such that you will never know if what you are doing is going to be profitable for the producers involved. especially if you are making the kind that I do. There are some films, which are safe from the start, but they are the most boring kind of films according to me. So, imaginary pressure also comes from there that ‘If the film fails, I will go bankrupt.’ In reality, nothing of that sort happens.
Q. Like you said, you had already started working on Sonchiriya while Udta Punjab was yet to release. Whatever happened during its release, did it disillusion you as a writer-director?
It has not changed my approach to what I do. It has only changed the way I deal with the CBFC (laughs). I have got more experience of dealing with them. But thankfully, it hasn’t changed me so much that I have become careful. Actually careful is not the right word. As a filmmaker, it is my responsibility to be careful about what I am saying but I am not looking over my shoulder that if I write this, this will happen. In Sonchiriya also, I made some changes after showing to CBFC.
Q. Are you comfortable with those changes?
Yeah, because I was expecting them. The thing is only a part of the problem during Udta Punjab was cutting of content, the other half was the manner in which it was being done. It was terrible. There’s a larger debate on censorship but I expect the censor board to be responsible for it. But given how things stand, I would very much want certification to be rationalised and more collaborative. In that sense, there’s a vast improvement.
Obviously, when they asked me to remove certain things from Sonchiriya and we debated and finally I did it, it was painful for me but at the same time, at least we spoke like two human beings.
Q. Have you made peace with how CBFC functions?
No, I am never going to be at peace with the idea of censorship and I think it’s important for me to keep making uncomfortable content so that we will also see how much can they censor.
My interaction as a filmmaker, however, with the body and people there has been absolutely wonderful this time. They have been generous and collaborative. So, I don’t have any problem with the people. They are just doing their job and they have been hugely understanding in the case of Sonchiriya.
Q. For the kind of films that you make, is it difficult to get like-minded people?
It’s not easy. Making movies in our industry, if your style is different, is not easy. I find filmmaking very hard actually. Yes, I will do what I want to do but if I go deep into it, then there will come a day when I will stop finding takers because if you make a good film and not even 10 people turn up, you are going to have trouble. So, I have to somewhere balance it. If a film tanks, then make the next film where at least some people turn up and you are not written off commercially. To stay relevant, balancing needs to be there.
Q Is it frustrating to find that balance?
It’s tough. But I signed up for this. I could have easily written stories on my laptop and no one would have known. So, I should not be cribbing about it. Sometimes it’s frustrating. There are certain things that I do not want to do. I will never have bosom heaving on my camera. I will not do this rank, cheap objectification of female or male (body) for that matter.
But what I can do that can get more people to the theater. Like Sonchiriya is an action film. Yes, it has important themes and it talks about everything that I feel is relevant, but it also has action. It’s thrilling and engaging. It’s nail-biting. These are the things I want to use to engage the audience.
Q. You came fresh off from the success of your debut feature into your second film, Dedh Ishqiya, which didn’t work. As a result, were you advised to go for a safe film, after all you were new in the industry?
All the time! You are told, ‘Sudhar jao!’ You mentioned Dedh Ishqiya not working, that’s something I feel about. I don’t like to watch my own films and I don’t even like them when I watch them but Dedh Ishqiya was a movie with a good heart. Sometimes, I feel bad that people completely missed it.
(But) again, during Dedh Ishqiya, I had already written Udta Punjab. I tend to do that. I write it already so that a commitment is made. (Laughs). This is the first time I don’t have a film. But I am doing a series. I have almost finished writing it. The great wisdom behind writing your next early is that no success or failure affects you.
Q. Were you always enamoured by the bandits?
I am generally fascinated by people who live at the margins of society. There were Bollywood bandit films in the ’60s-70s, Sholay being the prime example of it. But there were many others like Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Mother India, even Ganga Jamuna has that angle. I was fascinated but in a very superficial sort of way. I did not know much about it. When we started thinking about the film and reading about these people and met some of them, that is when I understood what this world is really about. That is when I got completely enamoured by them.
Bandit Queen and Pan Singh Tomar are the only two films that come close to Sonchiriya because of the setting but both are biopics and essentially deal with why they became bandits. Sonchiriya is not that at all. They are already bandits and it is about what happens to them. In that sense, it is a very unique bandit film. It’s an exciting action thriller with bandits having existential problems (laughs).
Q. From Ishqiya to Sonchiriya, the characters in your films have only increased, which means multiple backstories and narratives. Does that make the writing process difficult?
Stories across the world are getting more complex and layered. Especially with the advent of series structure, which allows to explore characters in greater detail. So, the audience might not like my films, but they will understand what’s happening. There’s always a challenge when you have so many characters and writing becomes tricky also but not the shooting part because I am not intimidated by actors.
Udta Punjab was a far more difficult script to write than Sonchiriya because there were parallel narratives and inter-cutting. But this was not so difficult for us although we had five protagonists, who needed their beginning, middle and end arcs. The gang members especially needed to have backstories and all of it had to make sense. But there’s also a natural structure to the story as everything happens in three-and-a half days. So, whatever needs to be told has to be within the context of that time. It’s race against time. It’s an anti-chase, anti-revenge film. It turns the idea of revenge on its head. But I never thought we were doing anything complex.
Q. You said in an interview that you look at your female characters as people. How important is it for writers and filmmakers to look at women without the gender?
The thing is more men are writing women parts than women writing them. The percentage of men working as writers is very high comparatively and most of them are North Indian men (laughs). So, you can imagine. Not that South Indian men are any less prejudiced, but misogyny is more in North India.
I am not saying writers are misogynists but there is this sense of the other. I can completely understand that. Look at a poor, innocent boy coming from small town North India, who has studied in a boy’s school. It’s very hard to let go of conditioning and become this person who can look at gender without any bias. But who said life is easy? So, we have to make the effort.
Q. And we need to make space for female gaze.
Yes, a man needs to work extra hard on himself first then it will naturally happen in the script. Then, you will not think about women characters with ‘What do I do with them?’ or ‘Let me get a female writer to write this dialogue.’ You will not need to do that. Just write them for who they are. Stop thinking from your pants and think from your heart.
Q. Your relationship with Vishal Bhardwaj goes back even before you made your debut. Is the equation still of a senior and a junior or has evolved to a level where you argue and fight with him?
He has been my boss for a long time and is much older than I am. So, i call him sir. He calls me Chaubey. But yeah, we are more like friends. Having said that, there’s absolutely nothing that we will not be able to discuss with each other. Apart from being professionally attached for almost a decade, we are also personally very close to each other. There have been fights and arguments in the past. But in the last couple of years, we have hardly worked with each other.
Q. Does he critique your work?
Oh yeah! In great detail. I am always amazed by his attention while watching my films. When he saw Sonchiriya on the edit, he really loved it. He congratulated me, took me home for a dinner. Then he sat me down and told me what problems he had. He gives me all his scripts to read and I tell him what I feel about it.