It took him nearly a decade after his nuanced directorial debut Haasil to carve a niche in Bollywood. A string of successful films that include Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster,Paan Singh Tomar and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns later,Tigmanshu Dhulia now straddles the roles of successful director,award-winning actor and canny producer with ease. In this candid interview,Dhulia talks about the struggle to strike a balance between creativity and the box office,the characters who refuse to leave his mindscape,drawing inspiration from Hindustan,making amends with his films and a possible career in politics. Excerpts:
Now that Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns has released to critical acclaim,what are your thoughts?
I dont know how it is with other directors,maybe with time their anxiety gets diluted,but Im just six films old,so I get all wired up. The ultimate fear in my mind is that gaali nahin padni chahiye,izzat reh jaani chahiye (They should respect my film,not abuse me for it). Revenue aana,naa aana is in Gods hands but my reputation as a filmmaker is what is at stake every time my film releases.
Talking about revenues,how much does economics play on your mind when you make a film?
I think about the budget all the time. Filmmaking is a tricky art. Its not like writing a book or a poem,which you can do by locking yourself in a room and sitting with a laptop. There is a lot of money at stake in filmmaking. Creatively,its your idea and it better be good enough to interest you for the next two-three years as well as spark an interest in your crew so that they can aid you in fulfilling your vision. As a filmmaker,one has to always walk the tightrope of satisfying your creative vision,at the same time refraining from being indulgent and yet being financially viable. Thats why I always say that films dont fail,budgets do. As for me,I think Im a very producer-friendly director.
Of all your films,which has been the toughest idea to sell?
Undoubtedly,Paan Singh Tomar. I wanted it to be my first film and roamed around with the idea since 1991. I just had a two-page news article on him that I had read in a magazine. All I knew was that he belonged to the village Morena. I didnt even know where to start my research,there was nothing on the internet on him. I met so many producers but all of them said,get the script and then well see. Nobody understood that the script will come only after research and nobody was ready to fund my research. Once I met UTV,they saw the potential in the idea and agreed to fund my research.
And which has been the toughest to write?
Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns. It took me the longest time to crack the third act. I didnt want the film to end like a regular Hindi film. Normally,regular picture mein ek aadmi kissi pe gun point karta hai (a man points a gun at someone) but I didnt want to take that route.
When you write your films,do you always know the end? Do you know how your characters journey will culminate and then write it backwards or do you let your characters lead you to the end?
When I start writing,I have no idea where these characters are going. I have no idea where they will end up or who they will end up with. I let them lead me to the end and never the other way round.
Shekhar Kapur has gone on record to say that as a filmmaker Tigmanshus inspiration is so Indian and so pure. Where do you get your inspiration from?
When I was growing up,our society was more indigenous. After Rajiv Gandhi and liberalisation,our society changed drastically. India started losing its cultural identity. The samosa was replaced by the pizza hamara zaika hi badal diya (Our taste changed). The post-Sholay generation grew up on this change,but for me,growing up in Allahabad,it was always about the real and the rooted. Mere influences tab ke hain jab Hindustan Hindustan hota tha. (My influences are of the time when India was still Hindustan.) Im drawn to the ethos of that Hindustan and people who inhabited that landscape.
Of all the characters youve created,is there anyone who refuses to leave your mindscape?
Yes,that would be Irrfans character in Charas: A Joint Effort. The character was inspired by Marlon Brandos character in Apocalypse Now which was based on Joseph Conrads novel Heart of Darkness and by Amitabh Bachchans character in Kaala Patthar,also modelled on another Conrad character,Lord Jim. I was intrigued to portray Irrfan like these characters as someone who makes a mistake and in order to redeem it,creates his own kingdom. But somehow,I could not do justice to Irrfans character in Charas. It still bothers me and Im going to do something about it.
Now that you mention Charas,the movie that released next was Shagird after seven years. Since then,of course,youve been on a roll but how did you handle those seven years of lull?
I wasnt sitting idle at home,I was continuously working but somehow the films didnt take off or got stuck. I was making Killing of a Pornstar,but the film didnt go through. Then I started the most ambitious film Ive ever conceived,titled Ghulaami in 2005. I wanted to release it in 2007 which marked 150 years of Indias First War of Independence. The film toplined Sunny Deol,Irrfan,Sameera Reddy,we had an unit of 450 people and also shot key scenes in Bhor,Pune but the producer couldnt procure the funding,so it got stalled. Then I started writing Shagird and wrote dialogues for Rajkumar Santoshis Family: Ties of Blood.
Ive heard that you got yourself a Labrador and named it Action as a self-fulfilling prophecy in those seven years. True?
(Smiles) Who told you that? This is partially true. I love pets and decided to name this one Action. In fact we have another dog in the office called Sahiba. I attribute my success to her. Sahiba ke aane ke baad sab kuch hone laga… Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster,Paan Singh Tomar and now Saheb,Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (Things started moving after Sahiba came). Sahiba ne meri kismet badal di (Sahiba changed my fortune). In fact,she was a stray dog who I rescued,but actually she rescued me.
So tell me how did the film bug bite you?
Im the youngest of three brothers. There is a gap of some eight-nine years between us. While growing up,my brothers were not my friends but they influenced me a lot they had a band,they were voracious readers. I remember reading Irving Stones Lust for Life when I was in class X. I thought it was a porn book! I joined a film club and saw films of Bergman,Godard on a 16mm projector. I could not always understand the philosophy of these films but images pakad leta tha main. Filmein dekhne ka shauk ho gaya tha (I enjoyed watching movies). The excitement to go to a theatre and see the new poster of a film was immense. It all began with that excitement.
Well,Milan Talkies also celebrates cinema but it has a different aspect to it.
Lets end the debate once and for all are you a better director or a better actor?
(Laughs) Im a director and not an actor. Ive always known that. Ive always wanted to only direct.
Then why did you join the National School of Drama (NSD)?
(Laughs) Woh toh just by chance ho gaya (It happened by chance). I went to the campus to check it out and I saw girls smoking cigarettes,hanging out with boys,someone rehearsing a play. I loved the free atmosphere at NSD,wahan ki lifestyle pasand aa gayi toh admission le liya (I quite liked the atmosphere there,so I took admission).
You dabbled in television also. What did TV teach you?
When I was working in television,I didnt understand the medium. People say that TV is a medium of close-ups but I always treated it ki main film bana raha hoon,boss! I took all my shots,cues,tracking,camera angles as if I were making a film. The set of six stories that I did for Star Bestsellers (on Star Plus) followed the three-act structure also. That was such a lovely experience. Anurag (Kashyap),Imtiaz (Ali),Sriram (Raghavan) all of us made episodes. When that slot was taken off,bura laga tha (I felt bad).
Out of all your experiments as an actor,casting director,writer,director,producer,which experience taught you the best lesson in filmmaking?
It was while assisting Shekhar Kapur for Bandit Queen. He gave me a free hand and even allowed me to write the dialogues and handle the background action. Its my firm belief that the AD (assistant director) who knows how to do good background action will become a good director one day. Bandit Queen was a turning point in my life.
What is the toughest part of your job?
That would have to be writing because Im a lazy,slow writer. But when the writing is done,half of your job is done. I love shooting. I hate editing. I dont have the patience to sit at the editing table. The moment Im done writing I want to go on the set and work with the actors.
Talking of actors,you have earned a reputation of drawing out some fine performances from your actors. How do you break it down to them? Do you enact a scene for them?
Sometimes,I enact. Usually,it depends. Every actor needs to be handled differently. If I feel an actor is a good observer,I just give a reference and woh pakad leta hai (he gets it).
Youve worked with Irrfan extensively,what is his quality as an actor that still astonishes you?
Irrfan ki performance mein thought dikhta hai. Lets be clear India mein bekaar actors hain (India has pretty bad actors). All our actors are dialogue-driven. Acting is not just saying 10 pages of dialogues. Dialogues toh maine likhe hain toh actor ko kyun taali milti hai,mere liye taali bajao na. (I have written the dialogues,not the actors,so I ought to be the one getting the accolades.) A good actor should be able to express the thought of the character without even speaking. The acting on TV is far worse. There,anyone who says monologues is considered a good actor. Bakwaas hai woh toh (Thats rubbish).
So are you saying that Irrfan is the best actor that we have?
So then what are you doing making your next with stars like Saif Ali Khan (Bullet Raja) and Imran in Milan Talkies?
Id like to say that both Saif and Imran are actor-stars. They have box office reputations and are also very good actors. I loved Saifs work in Dil Chahta Hai and Omkara. Both Saif and Imran give respect to cinema and are ready to work in my space rather than the other way round.
What kind of thought goes into the writing of the women characters in your films,especially with regard to the Saheb Biwi… franchise?
Im not very comfortable in female company. My friends have always been men. Mere andar mardaangi hai (I am macho) because of where I come from the cowbelt toh woh mere behaviour mein aa jaata hai. While writing,one gets to rectify ones mistakes. Thats how I write my women characters they are my mistakes and Im rectifying them.
Will you ever write a film driven by a woman?
Im doing that with Begum Samru. She was a Muslim nautch girl who later rose to be the ruler of a small principality,Sardana,near Meerut.
What do you attribute your ghamaasan (heavyweight) dialogues to?
(Laughs) Well,I attribute my dialogues to growing up in Allahabad which has lent me some tameez of the Hindustani zubaan. The characters I create have a bit of me and so they end up talking like me. As for ghamaasan,let me say its not a new word for me. Its quite common in UP to say,wahan ghamaasan bawaal ho gaya (deep trouble brewed there) but I guess in a film,in a new setting,it clicks.
I believe an astrologer predicted that after making 16 films,youd join politics?
(Laughs) Yes,someone said that to me. Six are done,10 more to go.
Do you believe in astrology?
Yes I do. Though Im not a fanatic,it does interest me.
Have you changed something in your life based on an astrologers advice?
(Pauses) Not really. They keep making suggestions change your title,the spelling of your name but I try and write it on a piece of paper. It looks strange,so I havent done anything.
So then why the Returns in Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns?
I know the grammars wrong here,but it wasnt intentional. I wanted it to be The Gangster Returns. Thats how it came about.
So what about politics? Is it on the cards?
Yes I want to join politics but only after I feel that I have nothing more to do in films.
Name the five films that you consider are the textbooks of filmmaking.
Guide,Once Upon a Time in America,Taxi Driver,Sholay and Pyaasa.
How do you view the work of your contemporaries?
All of them are very good. Anurag (Kashyap) is my closest friend. Ive never met Dibakar (Banerjee) but I love his work. Rajus (Hirani) a brilliant storyteller. If I had read the script of Munnabhai MBBS I would have said yeh kabhi nahin chalegi (it wont work) but he made it like a fairytale. Imtiaz has a terrific sense of music,portions of Rockstar are brilliant. I do think that out of all of us,Anurag Kashyap is the boldest and gustiest filmmaker.
Is there any film of a contemporary that you wish you had directed?
I dont think I can ever make Dibakars Love Sex Aur Dhoka but I love it. Its a very difficult film to make and he did a fabulous job.
Is there a film idea that you are absolutely dying to make?
Id like to revive Ghulaami. Im a history student and the period of 1857 really interests me. That era was the most secular period we have witnessed. Hindus and Muslims were one. Do you know people used to tuck a kamal ka phool in a roti and send it across villages? It was a code for their unity: the kamal ka phool was a motif for Lord Vishnu and roti was considered a motif for moon,ie Muslims. I want to make Ghulaami to portray the time when Hindustan was Hindustan. I also want to make a film on Dr Verghese Kurien who I think should have been Indias President.