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‘I’m yet to find My Voice’

Anurag Basu defends Barfi! against plagiarism charges,and talks about his days as a background dancer and why he doesn’t like to flaunt the cancer badge.

Written by Harneet Singh | New Delhi |
September 26, 2012 10:58:53 pm

Anurag Basu defends Barfi! against plagiarism charges,and talks about his days as a background dancer and why he doesn’t like to flaunt the cancer badge.

What was the first thought that came to your mind when you started writing Barfi!?

Strangely,I don’t remember how it all started. I feel the same way about my wife Tani. I can’t remember the first time I met her. A lot of things went into the making of Barfi! — bedtime stories to my kids,the realisation that my films are too verbose. I met a deaf-and-mute caretaker at an autistic school. He became the trigger for a two-page story I wrote. Jab maine story likhi,mujhe apne kaam se ishq ho gaya.

You directed the TV show,Koshish: Ek Aashaa,which was about an autistic man. Did that train you for Barfi!?

You know,every day,I used to regret not being able to portray that character because of the limitations of television. Koshish… was a big TRP success,but I had to take a lot of liberties in the characterisation. I promised myself that one day I would make a film and do justice to an autistic character.

After Kites,one would have expected you to make a safe film. How did you manage to convince producers UTV to back this film?

All those who knew about Barfi! didn’t think it was a safe film but I always felt it was safe. Even Ronnie Screwvala had confidence in it. My scripts are never more than 15 pages long. I rely purely on narration and there too I’m a very bad narrator. But somehow I manage to show the film that’s playing in my head to listeners. When Ronnie saw the final edit of Barfi!,he told me that it was exactly as I had narrated.

You’re known to elicit fine performances from your actors. How do you do that?

I don’t like to give too much information to my actors. I don’t want them to think too much. As a director,it’s my job to think. I remember Konkona (Sen Sharma) saying in her interviews that she had no idea what she was doing during the making of Life In A Metro. I brief my actors on the set,we stage the scene and we improvise. I act out the scenes for my actors but it never works when actors imitate the director. It only works when actors get inside the character’s head. As a director,it’s my job to take them there. I’m a good actor. I have done a lot of theatre.

When you signed Priyanka Chopra as Jhilmil,it raised many eyebrows. She tends to overact,like in Saat Khoon Maaf. Why her?

I auditioned 60 newcomers from theatre and ads. I didn’t get the right girl and I was getting tired. Tani was 50 per cent convinced about PC and pushed me to at least meet her. Even after meeting her,I wasn’t convinced but PC said she would take out a few days for a workshop. She was hungry for this role and that was half the battle won. In hindsight,I think she is the only established actress who could pull it off.

Is Barfi!’s happy-go-lucky philosophy inspired from your fight with leukaemia?

I don’t think I should flaunt the badge of cancer all the time. A human being’s spirit is always bigger than the disease. I’ve always been that person — someone who doesn’t take life seriously. I find happiness in small things. I think life is better lived if we don’t complicate it and that’s what I have tried to say through Barfi!.

There is a huge online debate about how scenes in Barfi! have been lifted from various films. Some popular blogs like moifightclub.wordpress.com and tanqeed.com have even posted the original scenes and the similarities are apparent. The debate is whether you are paying homage to or are inspired by films like City of Lights and The Adventurers,or whether you have plagiarised them. What do you have to say to this?

I’ve also seen the blogs. As a director,physical comedy is my limitation. This was the first time I was attempting something like this and I needed some support. I saw a lot of silent-era films. A lot of the gags are out of the Charlie Chaplin collection. Chaplin is a genre in himself. I have never hid the fact that I have taken scenes from his films. There is even a poster of Chaplin in the film. I was paying homage to him as to Buster Keaton. The ladder scene is from Keaton’s film. I’m not denying it. Even films like The Artist and Hugo do it,but nobody says it’s plagiarism.

What about the mother-daughter scene which is from The Notebook? The dummy scene and the nose scene which are from Singin’ In The Rain? The nail scene which is out of Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro?

I didn’t take any scene from The Notebook. The entire relationship between Shruti and her mother was leading up to that conversation. How can I base it on one copied scene from another film? Don’t forget there is the ticket scene on the railway station which followed this conversation,so it was all in the flow. The nail scene is from Chaplin’s The Kid. I agree about the Singin’ In The Rain scenes. I wanted these scenes and I informed Ronnie and we included them.

Isn’t it wrong for a director to base his exp-ression on something already out there?

Nahin. Mujhe nahin lagta ki hum kuch galat kar rahe hain. As long as the story,screenplay and characters are original,the film remains authentic,which Barfi! is.

But lifting scenes directly is plagiarism,isn’t it?

Nahin kiya plagiarise. Whatever we have taken is in the public domain. We are not hiding the fact. For instance,Othello is in the public domain,aapne Omkara banayi,toh kya plagiarise kar diya? Nahin,na. I’m not guilty of plagiarism. The idea was that film lovers will see these iconic scenes in Barfi! and spot them. I haven’t taken some portion from some film,mixed it with something else and made a film. In today’s world of internet and collaboration with foreign studios, you can’t do chori.

The narrative of the film with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks and flash forwards jarred a bit. Did you need to complicate the telling?

It wasn’t conscious. The first draft I wrote was with flashbacks and time lapses. I later wrote 10 drafts and tried to make it linear,but came back to the first draft kyunki baat nahin ban rahi thi. If the audience walks ahead of you in the film,it never works. This narrative was the only way I could make the audience walk behind me.

Looking back,how do you feel about Kites now?

I’m happy about the film but not proud. I was like a zombie during Kites. I didn’t know how to work under a democratic set-up.

What is a “democratic set-up”?

I mean it’s a system in which decisions are made collectively. Everything about Kites was discussed and okayed by me,Robin Bhatt,Akash Khurana,Rakesh Roshanji and Duggu (Hrithik Roshan). Kites showed that I’m not cut out to do jodi work. I’m credited for the screenplay of Kites but it was three of us — Robin,Akash and I — who discussed it. The screenplay let us down but I’ll take some positives from Kites — it let me shoot action scenes,which I hadn’t done before.

Which contemporaries inspire you?

I’m the No.1 fan of Rajkumar Hirani. I also like Imtiaz Ali,Anurag Kashyap,Sujoy Ghosh and Dibakar Banerjee. And after Paan Singh Tomar,I have become a fan of Tigmanshu Dhulia.

Where do you think you fit in as a director in Bollywood’s pyramid of importance?

I think as a filmmaker,I’m yet to find my voice and my turf.

Who do you think has found it?

I think Raju Hirani is probably the only person who has found his voice amongst all of us. What Barfi! has done once,he has done with all his films. He has cracked the art of making beautiful films that are also commercially successful.

Amongst your films,which one are you least happy with?

Saaya. It was my first film and there was nothing original in it. It’s really an embarrassment. I’ll hide it from my kids.

Is it true that you started your journey in films as a background dancer?

Yes,but it happened by chance. I had earned acclaim as an actor in inter-college drama competitions. I entered a film set and got cast as the hero’s friend. Ravi Behl was the hero and I had to stand behind him. I got to know that the background dancers were getting more money,so I decided to become one myself. I was studying physics (honours) in college and dancing in the group behind Mithunda in the song Chadh gaya upar re in Dalaal. Then I got into television with Tara and then films happened.

What’s next? Is it the Kishore Kumar biopic with Ranbir Kapoor?

Well,Ranbir and I are committed to it but Dilli abhi door hai. It’s a big task and responsibility, and we are still at the scripting stage. It’ll happen but not now. I have a few ideas ready including Life in a Metro Part 2. I have to take a call on what to make next.

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