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Screen + Sound + Stage
February 27, 2020

Celluloid Dreamer

Photographed by Joshua Navalkar

Each of the films that Vikramaditya Motwane has directed — Udaan, Lootera, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero and Trapped — grapples with the desire to change one’s circumstances; the relentless chase for happiness, love, success…freedom. He surveys the commercial Hindi movies of the last 70 years and picks seven iconic releases, exclusively revealing how each one has guided his own aspirations, especially once he found his métier

MR. INDIA
Director: Shekhar Kapur, 1987

This was the ultimate commercial undertaking — something that should have started a revolution in Indian cinema. The well-written, well-performed musical fantasy film. But it didn’t. And maybe we weren’t supposed to learn from its success.

If you consider Independence Day (1996) as the start of big-budget Hollywood VFX extravaganzas, the fact is that we had Mr. India in 1987. An Indian adventure story that relied on very Indian characters. And we did nothing after that. We sat on our own success. Producers and studios should have backed the right commercial stories instead of always saying, ‘Star chahiye’. I think we missed an opportunity, and the industry suffered overall as a result. We didn’t get back to doing large adventure films till the Bahubali series that started in 2015. I personally feel that the heart and soul of every film industry is genre movies and, of course, we have our own genres, but these are wearing thin right now. We need to create new ones — whether it’s horror, comedy, adventure or action — rather than trying to make everything at once, which doesn’t really end up working.

PYAASA
Director: Guru Dutt, 1957

I watched it on a 35mm print at the very first MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) film festival in 1997, in an empty Tata Theatre at the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts). The festival crowd had emptied out after the previous packed screening of Dr. Strangelove, and those left would ‘tch’ at the start of every song because ‘What the hell is this song-as-narrative-device nonsense’….

But I was mesmerised. And I still think it’s the greatest Hindi film ever made. Guru Dutt is an inspiration because of his craft and his unabashed love for cinema; he put his heart and soul into every single thing he did. And it’s not just the technicalities. Pyaasa was also inspirational because of the protagonist, Vijay: his yearning, his tenderness, his poetry, his love, his aspirations, his anger…his final glorious call to burn it all down because what’s the damn point of it all. It’s especially relevant today when everybody thinks they are going to save the world on social media.

When I saw it, I realised that the industry was much more progressive in the ’50s, and it motivated me because it made me believe that if we could do it earlier, then we can definitely do it today.

GUIDE
Director: Vijay Anand, 1965

Nobody from my generation took Dev Anand seriously when we were growing up. Neither did I until I became a film student and discovered that he was a visionary and that Navketan Films had made the careers of Guru Dutt, Chetan Anand, Raj Khosla and Vijay Anand.

I thought Guide was a terrific, layered, complex film about infidelity and redemption and deep spiritualism. It moved me and seemed to take a massive weight off my shoulders when it ended. And it was very progressive. Infidelity is always a very mature theme for a Hindi film but more so when you realise that this was made in the ’60s. Guide has a profundity, although in a very different way from Pyaasa. One is about a happy man who wants to save the world, and the other about a man who wants to let the world go.

I wondered how the audience back then would have reacted to a film that didn’t take a moral standpoint. Maybe the film-makers had more balls then. Maybe their producers also had more balls. Maybe the stars had more balls as well. But the fact that Guide, along with Bandini and Bimal Roy’s other films, took such a radical stand on subjects that were taboo also made me think that maybe the audience was different, more open to watching new things.

Years later, I was invited to a special screening of the film in a multiplex by a radio station. Dev Anand was in the audience, and a lot of his fans turned up with their families. It was the sweetest screening ever. People sang along with the songs. Children walked in the aisles and played games without anyone harrying them. I realised then that Guide was a film that belonged to a different, calmer time. When the audience was patient, and into flaws and complexities.

SHOLAY
Director: Ramesh Sippy, 1975

The film that has everything. And taught me so much. About action. Scale. Distance. Silence. Music. Background score. It became the film we went back to as a reference — a massive movie that had ambition but also a childlike wonder. And it was also the first movie that confused me about real life vs reel life. I thought Jai was my best friend who was dying. I cried so much.

When it was being made, Sholay wasn’t the multistarrer we believe it was today. Zanjeer had come out a couple of years earlier, so Amitabh Bachchan’s star had only just begun to rise. Jaya Bachchan, though already famous, was known more for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s non-mainstream films. There was no established commercial movie star who could launch an action film except Dharmendra. But Ramesh Sippy had a vision, and he stuck to his guns and created stars out of the entire cast. Even A. K. Hangal.

I think of the film now as an allegory against the government — Salim-Javed’s natural re-bellious streak and what they were saying about society and the people in power was a call to arms, in a sense. The original ending, where the armless Thakur kills the villain who’s taken everything away from him, makes me believe that it’s a very obvious dig at the government. This sense of resentment had been brewing since the early ’70s.

The sad thing about Sholay, which was a film that was all about storytelling, was that it spawned a generation of films that had nothing to do with storytelling. After its success, everyone wanted ‘a Gabbar-type villain’ or a star, but you can’t do that without the script or story. The whole intricate process of film writing seemed to fall apart, and then we had the ’80s when nobody was writing real screenplays, they were just concentrating on individual elements.

HUM DIL DE CHUKE SANAM
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 1999

I went through a phase in the ’90s when I disliked commercial Hindi cinema. The DVD/LD world had opened up to me, and I was watching the films of Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Danny Boyle. I was influenced by them and also pissed off that we weren’t doing anything like them. It felt like the world was getting ahead of us, and we had no way to catch up; we were going to be stuck in the same place making the same films till eternity.

And then two men came along — Ram Gopal Varma and Sanjay Leela Bhansali. RGV did Satya which completely changed the way we looked at realism in Indian cinema. And SLB did something in commercial cinema that was equally important — he brought back artistry.

I used to work in television and thought I would stick on there because nothing interesting was happening in films, till I saw Khamoshi: The Musical. And I thought that here is a guy who I wanted to learn from. And I had the privilege of working with him on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (HDDCS), as soon as I turned 20.

Sanjay was working with the biggest stars, but he was doing it his way, with a new music director and a fresh story and a financier who believed in him. It gave all of us hope that change was possible, that we weren’t stuck in the rut, that we could dream and think visually, and that if we did, we could succeed.

It was the best kind of film school for me. I learnt everything I know as a film-maker from Sanjay and especially from my time on the sets of HDDCS. We shot on film, edited on film, did all our post-production work on film, carried 40 cans of reels everywhere for screenings and post-production. A post-production runner who carries a single hard drive around today will be unable to comprehend what that means.

BLACK FRIDAY
Director: Anurag Kashyap, 2007

I was personally invested in the film because it’s made by a friend. But the end product surprised even me.

The movie could have been grim and dark, but Anurag turned it into something that’s lively. It’s got humour, funny characters and these ridiculously emotional situations.

I watched it over and over because I was cutting the trailers and the promos, and I marvelled each time at the realism, the actors, the moments, the humour. And the cinematic excellence.

Sanjay Bhansali knows exactly what he wants, down to the last detail in production design, cinematography, costume, music, everything. Anurag also knows what he wants, but he also likes to work by the seat of his pants, which sometimes freaks his crew out.

Anurag and I met when we were working on Deepa Mehta’s Water. He was doing the dialogue and I was an assistant director. We both hit it off immediately because we liked the same books and movies, had the same influences. He has an infectious energy; he’ll say, ‘Karo na, why are we waiting?’ He is a great writer and talker and can really get you to buy into his vision. He wears his influences on his sleeve, he’s not hiding anything. He wants to know what people think of his material, he wants them to rip it apart and give him all kinds of feedback so that he can make it better.

Black Friday could have been the start of something quite amazing, like Mr. India. In the ’70s, you had Hollywood directors making genre-breaking movies like Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver and Network. And I thought that Black Friday could do the same for India.

Like HDDCS, it prompted me to think that anything was possible.

LOVE, SEX AUR DHOKA
Director: Dibakar Banerjee, 2010

This was supposed to be the dawn of a new age. Mumblecore. Super cool films shot on super cheap cameras about super weird people. Raw and real. The sheer surge of excitement I felt while watching LSD has never been replicated for an Indian film since….

LSD tapped into our voyeuristic desires. Twenty-four hour news is everywhere; we are being given scoops on everything. LSD tapped into that and made us feel like we were peeping into worlds we weren’t supposed to see. It changed the rules of cinema and what you needed to make a film. That was really refreshing. It was, and is, the future of moviemaking. Dibakar did something quite mad and cool, and it is a very 21st-century thing. It opened up the avenues for cinema as a language. It pushed the boundaries, but not in an ‘arty’ sort of way. It was a commercial, accessible film.

In these times, it’s the buzzworthy content that people will be watching, like Queen (2013), Andhadhun or even Fleabag. LSD was buzzworthy before we really knew what the term meant.

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