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Meet a new class of young Indian film professionals in Hindi cinema. Their stories are as interestingly different as the ideas they are trying to sell

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza |
February 14, 2010 12:37:12 pm

Educated in America’s best film schools,where they spent years dissecting the auteurs of world cinema,they are coming back to work in Bollywood,with its star system and organised chaos. Meet a new class of young Indian film professionals in Hindi cinema. Their stories are as interestingly different as the ideas they are trying to sell
What was Devika Bhagat,graduate in film-making from New York University and new to the ways of B-town,to do? No one had told her that Bollywood isn’t hot on reading scripts. They have to be read out to the beautiful people of the industry. “All writers in the Indian film industry are closet actors,” says the petite scriptwriter with a smile. “In Hollywood,I’d just have to hand over my script and the team would read it in their head,” she says. Well,she learnt. “I cringe every time I have to act out all the characters in my script during a narration. But I do it,” she says.

Bhagat returned to India three years ago and has made her peace with the desi style of film-making. The 30-year-old made her debut with a cracker of a movie Manorama Six Feet Under (director Navdeep Singh). She has written a telly series,Mahi Way for Yash Raj,and two other films,Bachna Ae Haseeno and the yet-to-be-released Aisha, which stars Sonam Kapoor. And despite the occasional hiccups of “script narrations”,the Delhi girl is here to stay.
Bhagat is part of a new pack of film professionals who have made a bewildering journey: from the best film schools in America to the organised chaos of Bollywood,from days and months spent dissecting the auteurs of world cinema to working around the Indian “star system”.

The obvious question: Why Bollywood? “I grew up on American pop culture and Hollywood blockbusters but that is the extent of my knowledge of American culture. If I have a story to tell,they are subconsciously based in the culture I am rooted in,” says Bhagat. Varun Shah,a post-graduate from New York University,came to Mumbai as the unit manager of the American production crew that assisted Hollywood star Lucy Liu in her directorial venture Half the Sky. The 26-year-old chose to stay back because “this is the best time to be in India”.

Anku Pande is an alumnus of American Film Institute,one of the most exclusive film schools in the US,which has impressive former students such as Darren Aronofsky,David Lynch,Paul Schrader and Scott Frank. In the early 2000s,when she was part of the media industry in India,Pande heard that international production houses like Warner Bros and Fox were looking to enter the Indian market. She didn’t want to wait for them to arrive. She specialised in production from AFI and then worked with Warner to help them set up their base in India.

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Today,the 37-year-old is the chief development officer at Balaji’s films production division. She is in charge of setting up new projects— from choosing scripts to getting the shoot underway,all the way till the film is ready for release. Pande is excited about being a part of the industry and annoyed at the bad press it gets. “It isn’t about which industry is better. Bollywood operates differently. With my education at AFI,I have the best of both worlds and I can help translate the styles. With our industry opening up,systems are bound to set in and we will be no less organised than Hollywood,” she says.

The impressive resumes of some of the professionals hide the fact that a fancy degree is no passport to Bollywood. “It doesn’t matter what institute you’ve been to,you’re a fresher when you are here,” says Pranjal Shriwastava with a laugh. The 33-year-old joined Mukesh Films as a trainee in the crew of Raaz: The Mystery Continues soon after his film-making course at the New York Film School. Three years of hard work and two films — Tum Mile and now Crook (tentatively titled) — later,he is now the chief assistant director with the company. Shah is 26 and has worked for two years on prestigious projects like Bette Gordon’s Handsome Harry as the line producer. But he gives himself five years to get established in India.
Rajshree Ojha,director of the much-anticipated Aisha,based on the Jane Austen novel Emma,isn’t as sceptical. “The degree may not hold much value here but the education does make a difference,” says the 31-year-old,who graduated from New York University and followed it up with a Masters degree from AFI.

Born to a Gujarati mother and a Bengali father,Ojha has lived in Kolkata and Bangalore. Her first film Chaurahen (2007) was multilingual,a product of her cosmopolitan,cross-cultural upbringing. She explains that most international schools offer courses that delve as much into the art of film-making as the technicalities. The courses culminate with projects that travel the festival circuit. “Graduate programmes often treat film-making as liberal arts,which exposed me to non-technical aspects like theatre,art,psychology and,of course,cinema from across the world that I didn’t even know existed,” she says. “All this enhances you as a film-maker.”

Pande says her biggest gain from AFI was her survival instincts. “The specialisation programmes are very intensive and the institute can throw you out in the third month if they feel you are not faring well. Having survived AFI,the Indian film industry seems friendly in comparison,” she says.
But it’s also true,says Ojha,that despite having won the Directors’ Guild Award for her feature Badger,the question that mattered when she started working here in 2005 was if she had worked before with any renowned Indian filmmaker. “The international exposure does help open doors but may not necessarily mean you’re served from a silver teapot,” she says.

No surprise then that these professionals feel like outsiders sometimes. Kiran Reddy,31,who did a specialisation in cinematography from AFI,promptly switched to the advertising world after his brush with Bollywood. “I had a great time working on Naach with Ram Gopal Varma but then he has always been ahead of his time. But the industry sees cinematographers as technicians,not artistes. There is a change taking place in terms of attitude,content as well as quality,” he says. Open to working in the film industry again,Reddy is making a start in the south with an untitled project that stars Chiranjeevi’s son Ram Charan Teja.

Ruchika Lalwani,a Masters from the New York Film Academy,is specially at a loss. Her profile is a script supervisor. On a Hollywood set,she would have one of the most important roles as she would be the eyes and ears of the film’s editor. Here,she gets brushed off as a lowly “continuity assistant director”. “A script supervisor keeps a tab on the script,the changes and the shoot. I eventually want to make films and took up this profile so I could be as closely in touch with the director as possible so I could learn the ropes,” she says. “But every time I talk to people about my work,they tell me about the late

Hassan Kutty,the only script supervisor India ever had. Looks like I am now one of a kind here,” the 23-year-old says,finally allowing herself a laugh. She admits that she is considering the old-fashioned route of becoming an assistant director to break in.
Bhagat,who has written Aisha for Ojha,recounts how they went from producer to producer and all were cold to the idea of a strong female protagonist. “One producer had a simple solution. He had dates for an A-list actor. So why didn’t we turn the story around to make it hero-centric?” says Bhagat. “There is no respect for writers here. A stylist could get paid more than a writer.”

Pande recalls projects when she was expected to budget the project based on the first 20 pages of the script and no other details.
But Ojha says there are ways to get things done. “We took the unusual route and approached Sonam Kapoor directly,who liked the script and helped with the funding. In the US,we could never have gotten close to an actor without first getting approvals from their agents and managers,” she says. Adds Shah,“In India,people are willing to work around the limitations and open to learning the Western way of doing things.” The scepticism co-exists with optimism and admiration. It’s the recent wave of cinema that excites this young crop and film-makers like Anurag Kashyap,Vishal Bharadwaj and Navdeep Singh,willing to take risks and try something different,are their role models.

Pande’s job profile allows her a wide view of the industry and she is impressed. “I read a script a day on an average and some of those can blow your mind away. Things like completion bonds,insurances,detailed schedules and bound scripts are on their way into the industry. It’s just a matter of time now,” she says.
Shriwastava believes he’s thrown in his lot with this change. “That we have adopted the middle path for now does not mean that the education will go waste. I will apply my learning to my work when I become a director. This is just the beginning of the change we dream of. And it isn’t bad at all,” he says.

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