By Sayan Bhattacharya, Kindle Magazine
Be it the searing Drohkaal or the complex Drishti, Govind Nihalani has dealt with diverse subject. One of the leading lights of the New Wave talks about the animation genre, the power of melodrama, his influences and more.
You are returning to the big screen with the animation film Kamlu Happy Happy… why animation?
Because I love it! Because I just love the medium and I became aware of this medium and the possibilities of it with my association with Mr. Ram Mohan who is the father of animation in India.
From a very early stage, when I came to Bombay , which is about more than 30 years back , and ever since, I always wanted to do something in it. The first stage was that I didn’t have any confidence and asubject which excited me enough. And then at that time the technology was not very advanced, so it was very expensive and it did not exist in India as a viable format for cinema. It’s only after when the markets opened up, when new technology came in, then we became aware of what technology is doing to animation – 3D technology and even in 2D, they have developed some softwares which make it very fast and very exciting. But ultimately the tables were turned when Hanuman was released.
It did so well…
Its success was phenomenal and people started looking at it as a possible medium where you could get some investment. Add to that, the fact that when the technology came into India, several studios started outsourcing for the foreign companies. They would get the design and the script and the storyboards from abroad, they would execute the job and send it back; there was no original content. But that industry was doing fairly well. Then you know several people started feeling that there is so much potential, commercial potential, so why shouldn’t we have our own original content in animation. Well, I heard so many people were doing so many things and you know in industry forums, entertainment industry forums like FICCI frames and all that which I attended, and I discovered that there was a lot of potential and animation was a very viable medium but only internationally. We didn’t have enough market in India to even recover the investment, so that was again a bit of a dampener. But after Hanuman, as I said, the doors have started opening and then I took the pledge, wrote my own story and script, conceived the characters and then approached people. But at that time also, there was no investor coming in.
Which year was this?
2005, after my film Dev released. I thought let’s give it a shot and it would get over in 2 years. I had to produce it myself and then we ran into a few problems and now finally it’s over.
Why a children’s film? Were you seeking some breathing space after the heavily political Dev?
No! No! There was no question of relief, because films are about your sensibilities. It was just that I love the medium. I like the excitement of making an animation film.
It is not a children’s film. See children are always a main driving agent for animation. But then you have children films like Tom and Jerry, mine is not that. So this is a film for the family where I am sure if you go, you will enjoy it. Walt Disney once said that, “Animation films are for the child in the adults” and then somebody came up and said “There are films which are for the adults in the children”. So a certain intelligence level should be there in the children to appreciate certain kind of films because animation is a medium where the films are very strictly divided into bands – 3yrs to 5 yrs, 5yrs-9yrs and above 9 yrs, so you make the script, a design for those audience bands. I didn’t want to confine myself because I wanted my film to be a little more accessible to a fairly large audience and I didn’t want an adult to come and say “What a kiddy stuff!”And I watched this film with some kids in a trial at my own studio and they were screaming. Particularly when the action came. So that’s how it happened. It’s a happy film… a very celebratory film…
So in these violent times when you are making such a celebratory film like Kamlu Happy Happy, is there also idealogical intent to that?
When you see the film you will perhaps find some references to the modern things and I’m sure that the critics will come down heavily and say “What is this stupid reference doing in an animation film?” but one has to deal with that kind of criticism also. I don’t bother. But the fact is that there are certain concerns that will remain and simply because yeh toh phir aisi baat hui ki jo hamesha raag darbari gaata hai woh pahadi nai gaa sakta. Usko nahi gaana chahiye kyuki Pahadi mein bahut khushi hoti hai aur darbari mein thori hulchal hoti hai. Yeh toh bahut galat baat hai! (laughs)
Dev released in 2004. It had a stellar star cast and its content was very political but it didn’t really click, neither at the box office nor with critics and a lot of your fans felt let down. What went wrong?
I don’t know because so many people I met and who had the same kind of question, had not even seen the film.
I have seen it…
I don’t know what was it that they felt let down by, whether it was the film, my narrative style or whether it was something else because that has never been made clear to me. I’m not trying to defend myself but this is one of my favourite films. I put a lot into it. After Tamas, this was the film I put a lot and ideologically, I thought it was a very strong film. But I tried my best.
To me, the film seemed quite melodramatic, especially the way it ends… perhaps you were trying to reach a larger audience base but it didn’t work.
Well, that is your perception. I don’t want to contradict it or I don’t want to justify myself but I was very satisfied with it because I conceived it that way. For me, ultimately the protagonist’s journey is very important. That is the fulcrum of the story. If I’m not interested in the character, in the fate of the character, the kind of transformation he/she goes through, it is of no interest. So this was a kind of a story where I wanted to see what role ideology plays in the lives of people who are supposed to be apolitical in performing their duties. Both of them are police officers who are supposed to be above their ideology, while discharging their duties and here one officer doesn’t maintain that objectivity. The other officer does it and the tragedy that ensues and it’s not that it’s only Amit ji’s character, Dev that is killed, but the other person, somewhere being a human being, deeply connected with his friend; after all he named his son, he can’t live with the guilt. He kills himself. So for me, this was the crux of the story.
Since we are talking about the way these characters react to situations… anger and screams are recurring motifs in your films. Take us through this tool that you use.
See nothing is designed that way. In Aakrosh, the scream at the end was not designed, I just felt like it. At some stage, a person of this kind, like the tribal Nathu, when he is pushed to the point that he has to kill his sister so that he knows he can save her from any more dishonour or abject poverty that she might face… what can he do? He’s not a well read person, he cannot thing logically, he thinks from the guts. Somewhere this is the only way his catharsis comes out. He doesn’t understand the system he’s against. That’s the whole thing and one should just let go. We didn’t even rehearse that scene. So that’s how it came, there’s always this emotional angle to everything and sometimes we feel that we should not be so loud, we should not be so melodramatic and all that… I don’t subscribe to that theory. Where melodrama helps, where going a little overboard helps shake up the audience, I use the tool and the first audience is me. Before it goes to the audience it should first satisfy me. So if I’m feeling ok with it, I am fine.
Now in Party there was no scream, it was a scream which was suppressed. The character which came in the last 2 shots, the character of Amrit, people were talking about him all the time and then he emerged. When he comes, played by Naseeruddin Shah, he’s stuttering with blood flowing out of his mouth because his tongue had been cut literally cut and that was the suppressed scream which was the loudest. You didn’t hear it as a scream but you did. And then I used the scream in the opening of Tamas. Tamas starts with a scream “Oh Rabba”, if you remember and that was again the scream of great anguish born out of helplessness and anger. And the fact that you who have seen the films years and years ago, more than 2 decades ago, you still remember them. That somewhere it reaches out…
How do you select your subject material?
My choice of subjects has always been influenced by what I see around me at that particular moment. The general situation in the country, whether it is a political situation, whether it’s a social situation, which is always in a state of flux. Toh uus waqt mujhe kya cheez disturb kar rahi hai, kya cheez se bahut khushi ho rahi hai , kya cheez se mujhe bahut satisfaction ho raha hai or something which is making me angry and all that, I normally pick up things from there or even if I’m working on literature, some theme from there echos in my mind and I pick it up. Like Drohkal , was inspired by Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes… betrayal, how do you deal with betrayal, when you know you have betrayed somebody. You have the same theme there also. How to deal with betrayal because Om betrays his friend. And normally when I write the script, when I pick up a subject, story, novel, play anything, some theme has to hit me. I cannot write without a theme. It’s like getting a sur in music.Aapko ek sur milna chahiye, ek irada milna chahiye and that becomes the basis of everything that happens in the script.
Going back a little, you started off during the peak of The New Wave of Indian Cinema, and somehow it petered out. Now when you look back, what do you think led to its decline?
Several things – opening of new media, technology. With technology, came the media also and the economics of the industry also changed. These are factors which are beyond your control. Then also the fact that certain filmmakers who had very brilliant ideas fell short of being the masters of their craft. So beautiful stories, not well made films. We were very much helped by a very supportive media at one stage, that also petered out.
The costing of the film became more, the number of theatres were the same. Why would anybody give space to my film which has no stars, when he’s getting a chance to show a film with big stars? So there are several things, there is no one particular cause that I can say.
And also lack of government backing…
Government backing has always been there. They still find films.
But they’re not distributed and marketed properly!
They never market films properly. Now they are a little more conscious because they are entering into co-productions. Their own money is directly involved and that too big money, which is a good thing. But the situation has always been like this.
Do you think it’s a myth that it has become easier for directors to work on experimental subjects because of multiplexes?
Depends upon the director, depends upon how they can convince the funding person and also depends on the kind of imagination they bring to their project. To make a different kind of film, has never been easy at any given time, even today but considering the fact that in the last 2 years, there have been a hundred new directors entering the Hindi film industry, so you know there’s a space for them! (laughs)
Talking about the star system, Naseerudin Shah has said that parallel films also had its star system – Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patel, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Farookh Sheikh…
Why not ? Who makes the stars? People make the stars. A star is an actor who people want to see again and again!
But directors who give them work for the first time and keep working with them, also have a huge role in shaping them into stars.
When they took them for the first time, they also had no idea that they would be stars. They are just good actors. Actors didn’t get continuous work from us alone, they worked outside. As an actor, they are open to anything, any kind of cinema. They became stars because of their own talent and the fact that audience took to that. Without audience, there is no star.
What do you think about the criticisms Naseerudin Shah makes on the New Wave Cinema?
That is his perception; it doesn’t affect the movement in anyway!
When he says something like “Directors living in Malabar hill shouldn’t make films on coal mines in Bihar”…?
It’s his opinion. I can’t comment on somebody’s opinion.
So today if you were to meet him, what kind of conversations would you have?
We would have a very nice, friendly, cordial conversation, aisa koi problem nahi hai, because these are just individual opinions.
You have collaborated with the likes of Shyam Benegal, Satyadev Dubey, Vijay Tendulkar… how were those days?
My evolution as a person, as a filmmaker has been very deeply influenced by 3 people – one is my guru Mr. V.K. Moorthy, the cameraman, Mr. Satyadev Dubey, with whom I have had an association of more than 50 years as friends, and Mr. Benegal with whom it was not a cameraman-director relationship but a personal relationship and he has a brilliant mind. Just being there, discussing things or hearing him discussing things, it was so stimulating. Quite often I used to be present at his script readings. All these are very highly intellectual, enlightened, and very sophisticated people. Just listening to them, being in their company, discussing things is very enlightening for me.
I was quite fascinated by Rukmavati Ki Haveli and wanted to ask you about the influence of theatre in your works.
A lot… I worked with Dubey. In earlier stages I used to work in the backstage- sound and lights but more than that, conversations with him. I used to attend his rehearsals and the way he would talk to his actors and particularly the handling of the dialogue, handling of emotion, interpretation of characters, just watching him rehearse with people, I got so much knowledge, so much insight. And of course there were personal conversations that carried on for hours and hours. That’s how it happened. I always found theatre very exciting.
What have been your cinematic influences?
Several… from Orson Wales to Ray, Ritwik Ghatak to foreigners like Kurosawa, Bergman, other European artists and filmmakers; there have been several. Influence in the sense that I don’t want to imitate them. Their films have opened up my door of perception, my understanding of the medium itself, opening up the possibilities of the medium, that’s the way it is. It enlightened me!
Recent films that you loved watching?
I like the works of Vishal Bharadwaj, Anurag Kashyap… Dibakar Banerjee is also doing good work.
Apart from Kamlu, what else are you working on?
There are 2 projects, one is in Marathi which I might start immediately after Kamlu, which is a script by Vijay Tendulkar and there’s a Hindi script that I am developing myself.