Shot to FAMEhttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/shot-to-fame-2/

Shot to FAME

He spoke to terror-struck times with eerie clairvoyance. As director of A Wednesday,Neeraj Pandey,collects awards and acclaim,he remains a reluctant star

He spoke to terror-struck times with eerie clairvoyance. As director of A Wednesday,Neeraj Pandey,collects awards and acclaim,he remains a reluctant star
The story goes that when newbie director Neeraj Pandey told a friend that it took him just seven days to write the script of A Wednesday,a trade guru and his coterie were hovering nearby. They sniggered. “I could hear some people laughing. I thought maybe I had made a faux pas,” says Pandey. Considering the buzz the movie has generated,the joke is on the other guy. That must have been some power-packed week when Pandey wrote the smart,edgy and inexpensive thriller—one that presciently framed the growing sense of helplessness of the common man in terror-struck times.

After the box-office bounty,it’s the turn of the award shower. A Wednesday has kick-started the latter in style by earning Pandey four prestigious Screen awards (check list: best story,best director,best debut director and The Ramnath Goenka Award for excellence in cinema). Pandey is ambivalent about awards. Personally,he doesn’t care much about them but he knows their value for those who do. “Winning an award makes people close to you happy,so indirectly it makes you happy too,” he says with a shrug.

The 35-year-old is a no-frills guy,unaffected by all the hoopla that follows a well-loved film and not worried about pushing himself into the public eye. One of the most striking moments at the Screen Awards was when Pandey took the stage to receive his award for the best story and compere Farah Khan wondered aloud,“Is that really Neeraj Pandey?” Khan said so in all seriousness. Before he appeared on screen,nobody really knew what Pandey looked like.

You see,he doesn’t like “working the media”—to the point that he is dismissive about them. He cockily tells us,“If it weren’t for the awards,you wouldn’t have even got this interview.” He ticks off our photographer who had followed him on the awards nite. “I don’t think I heard a ‘Please’ from you when you were asking me to pose.” Hmmm. Surely,Bollywood’s reluctant flavour of the season needs to sign up for some quick-fix media management classes.

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To be fair to him,he knows that too. “I don’t exactly see the point in talking to the media but I know I have to do it. And I will. It’s just that I’m not really comfortable doing it,” he says,shrugging again.
We are in his spartanly stylish office in suburban Andheri. There is a huge poster of A Wednesday on the red wall. His custom-made walnut writing desk is adorned by books like A Silent History of the Al Qaida,The Looming Tower,The Clash of the Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order and Reader’s Digest Crime Casebook. Pandey himself faces a soft board full of famous quotes on showbiz and cinema many of which have been supplied by filmmaker Billy Wilder. Like this priceless gem: “I have 10 commandments. The first nine are thou shalt not bore. The tenth is thou shalt have the final cut.”

But our attention is glued to another piece of graffiti that seems to symbolise Pandey’s cinema journey: “If I were in this business only for the sake of the business,I wouldn’t be in this business.” The fearlessness he showcased in his first film is a testimony.

Born in Kolkata,the young man knew cinema was the only path he could take. “I didn’t have the talent for anything else. I liked fiction,storytelling and writing. The only place I could utilise all three was in cinema. So my career was pretty much decided,” he says.

A degree in English Literature from Delhi University followed a short stint of direction with Delhi-based production houses. And then eight years ago,Mumbai beckoned. “I knew eventually I had to come here. It was just a matter of when,” he says. Pandey terms his “Mumbai struggle” as “very interesting because it taught me a lot.” To recap,Pandey stayed with a friend for over six months,did odd jobs to survive,got his pocket picked and found his foothold in television.

Though he admits he never took to the small screen,television work sustained him in the cutthroat city. Pandey directed a few hourly special shows like Rishtey and X Zone. He also directed a Zee original film titled Itefaaq starring Kay Kay Menon. Though it was a productive time,Pandey was dissatisfied. “I was never interested in TV. I always dreamt of making a film,” he says.

The idea for A Wednesday came to him after the 2006 serial train blasts in Mumbai. While the film has been hailed by all for its ingenious plot,Pandey doesn’t think there’s anything special about his film. “Like a lot of people,even I had a lot of questions after the train blasts. I just happened to write it and format it as a story. There’s nothing completely original about it. A Wednesday could have been made by any common man. I just happened to be one of those who did it,” he says matter-of-factly.

The real struggle was getting A Wednesday off the ground. Pandey formed his production company,Friday Filmworks,with friend Shital Bhatia with the intention of making “the kind of films we wanted to make.” But it wasn’t easy getting the finance for this no-nonsense,non-star film.

Pandey and Bhatia then approached Anjum Rizvi and UTV for joint collaboration. While they were in talks,Pandey asked Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher to feature in the gritty thriller. Initially,Shah’s secretary informed Pandey that the actor did not like the script. “That was heartbreaking because we were back to square one,” recalls Pandey. But a few days later,Pandey got a call from Shah who said he was game for any role in the film even if it was a walk-on. “That was a huge compliment. Once we got Naseer on board,we got Anupam too and then two months later we started shooting the film,” he says. A Wednesday was wrapped up in just 28 days.

Industry reaction to the film has been heartening. Even at the Screen awards,Farah declared on stage that she loved the film. Pandey shares how encouraging Javed Akhtar and Farhan Akhtar were at a special screening of A Wednesday. The father-son duo had originally come for the screening of Rock On!! but decided to stay on for A Wednesday because they were hooked.

The only thing that perhaps marred the reception to the film was the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Those who read between the lines saw a prophetic similarity between the film’s content and the resultant public outrage of the common man after the strikes.There were reports on how Pandey was unwilling to make any statements on what had transpired. His stance remains unchanged till date. “I still don’t feel the need to make any statement and even if I feel anything,why should I convey it? It’s a personal feeling and I’d like it to remain like that,” he says.

Currently he’s busy scripting his next. Reluctant to divulge details,the only thing he’s willing to share is that it’s “a drama and maybe a comedy.” There’s also the desire to see his first script,a love story,on screen. Pandey is keen one of his associates directs that one. His logic is simple: “The best thing about A Wednesday is that now it’ll be easier to make my second film.”
We’re waiting.

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Pandey’s Picks
The Right Stuff: Amazing and difficult storytelling
Jewel Thief: Great visuals
Cinema Paradiso: All-time favourite
Guide: Great storytelling. Vijay Anand’s best
Mr. Brooks: Fantastic story and taut screenplay

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