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Verve Man
April 20, 2009

Driving Mr Director

Text by Sona Bahadur and Mamta Badkar. Photographs by Joy Datta

Posing in a BMW, two hot new directors, Dibakar Banerjee and Kunaal Roy Kapur talk about the wheels, ideas and and cinematic visions that drive their worlds

Dibakar Banerjee
A hell ride named desire

At  20, while learning to drive with his father by his side, Dibakar Banerjee rammed his Fiat into a tow truck. That put the brakes on his driving forever.  But on this day as he poses for Verve in a BMW, the quintessential symbol of affluence, I realise this is the perfect moment to start a conversation with the ad man-turned-filmmaker about the matrix of consumerist desire so brilliantly depicted in his 2008 satire, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!

The faultlines of New India evident in the gaping disparity between its haves and have-nots formed the crux of Lucky. The BMW, like the red Mercedes in Lucky, stands for desire, status, the charmed life, which lures the impressionable protagonist of the film to become a con man à la Leonardo Dicaprio in Catch Me If You Can. Banerjee feels strongly about the subject “The way urban India and semi-urban India are poised right now, life is a hell ride called desire. Life is a streetcar on the typical Indian pot-holed neglected car-breaker road with Beamer SUVs fighting for space with bullock carts. If we don’t address it, we’ll implode.”

The cycle of desire portrayed in the film is something Banerjee can relate to intensely himself. “As a middle-class Delhi kid who grew up in Karol Bagh and went to a heavily RSS-dominated Hindi-medium school in Pusa Road, I too felt the class barrier young Lucky experienced.”

Crossing barriers has been a way of life for Banerjee who faced an uphill struggle with both his films. While his first film Khosla Ka Ghosla happened after two years of incessant struggle, Lucky was eclipsed by the Mumbai terror attacks. Though the immediate commercial collections suffered because of the tragedy, the film did screen time for a whopping seven weeks, became the most downloaded film on DTH and stole the show at the FilmFare awards. “When things come too easy I freak out. I’m used to fighting and inching and clawing,” laughs the maverick.

Now that he has arrived, the current object of his desire is a nice snazzy Beamer SUV. “But fact is that today I’ve got so much more outside of that SUV. I’ve got a lovely home, a lovely wife, a cat and a dog. I’ve got a life around me that sustains me. But the majority of the people in our society today lack that emotional sustenance. This creates intense desire and starving like in Lucky. Your be-all and end-all becomes that Beamer whereas it was just supposed to be a bonus, a cherry on the pie.”

The director is also sustained by his fervid imagination. ‘Lion won’t die,’ toddler Banerjee would promptly tell his grandfather the moment the latter started a bedtime story about a lion and a hunter. The three-year-old made sure he manipulated the story — and its end — just the way he liked. The line from childhood became a kind of leitmotif for the boy who always told stories with his own take on them.

What drives him as a director is layered, non-lazy storytelling. “There’s a huge preponderance of lazy storytelling in our films. It’s very plot centric, very phir kya hota hai driven. It allows the audience the luxury to sit back and be served each and every aspect of the story. There’s nothing to seek out or to investigate. I’m trying to make films that engage you rather than those that make you sit back and please you.”

The difference between pleasing the audience and engaging with it essentially sums up Banerjee’s evolution from Khosla Ka Ghosla to Lucky…. “Khosla… was still a big, big crowd pleaser. Lucky… is more enigmatic. It draws you out and makes you wonder, why is the story being told this way?”

Right now he’s excited about his third project, a political thriller about the importance of dissent in society. “As I travel across India, I see new towns coming up, trying to become overnight mall-cum-multiplex hubs. All plurality, variation and multiplicity is being homogenised. That leads to a monolithic, boring and ultimately negative culture. Nobody could have thought in 1921 that within 10 years the Nazi party would be in power in Germany leading to a systemic destruction of Jews. Or that we would be facing so much terrorism in our own cities right next to our doorsteps. But 15 years ago we did certain things. Today we are paying a price for it.”

The success of Khosla… and Lucky… has given him the clout to scale up his filmmaking ambition. But Banerjee, who continues to make ad films, doesn’t necessarily see higher budgets as a progression. “The higher you go, the lesser room you have to manouevre. The star pressures become too much. I’m enjoying being a fringe guy with low budgets and complete independence, yet trying to do things people like. The struggle is to go bigger but not get so big that you lose what you are known for.”

As for the Beamer, the 37-year-old Bong from Karol Bagh hopes to get lucky soon. “If I get it, I’ll never flaunt it. I’ll just enjoy it quietly”, he says with an air of sobriety. Then a chuckle.  “Actually I will flaunt it. Have Beamer, will flaunt. What the hell!” Oye!

— Sona Bahadur

Kunaal Roy Kapur
Off the beaten reel

My film costs less than the BMW,” jokes Kunaal Roy Kapur about the Driving Mr Director shoot. He’s a huge car buff, I can tell, as he rattles on about the Audi Q7, BMW M5 or the M3 and the Range Rover and tells me that I asked for it when I beg him to slow down. Having learned to drive at about 20, he stills drives his Tata Sumo, “a rusting, leaking workhorse.” “I’m a big car freak, it wouldn’t show from the car I drive but, yeah, I’m an off-road car freak, so I guess a Range Rover would be my favourite. That would be a nice car to have,” he says wistfully.

Drawing on the analogy, Kapur likens the people he works with to a car. “I expect a lot from the people that I work with. If you equate that with a car, I expect a lot from the car itself. It’s definitely not the driver alone. It isn’t just one person’s vision like it’s made out to be. That’s why you’ll find, films that win best picture also win five technical awards.” Kapur certainly doesn’t seem to have any rage issues behind the wheel or the camera. He tells me he is “scarily calm” on sets, plausible; given how easy going he is.

Dressed in a pale blue bush shirt and jeans, he says, “I wouldn’t want to say I don’t have a sense of style because I’m extremely picky about what I wear. It’s just that what I pick, is really unstylish,” he chuckles. When you watch a movie as irreverent as The President is Coming, you can’t well imagine a toffee-nosed director steering it from stage to the silver screen.

The movie, shot like reality shows we’re so familiar with today, is about former American President George Bush’s visit to India and his decision to shake hands with one ‘young Indian’; and the country-wide hunt which culminates in a competition between the six finalists. What we have isn’t a picture-perfect debut, but a nimble effort by Kapur and a blitzkrieg of jokes, as he candidly admits it’s his desire to entertain that drives him.

After a successful run in theatres, Kapur took to 70 mm the script he was dilly-dallying over even when it came to him in the avatar of a play. Newly wed and nursing ambitions in photography, he was mulling over the commitment a project like this would demand. “Rarely do you get the chance to choose what’s going to happen in your life. Sometimes you make the right call, sometimes you don’t but going with the flow is something I believe in. Taking the opportunities that come your way is important,” he reflects.

Principally an actor, he has starred in the missable Panga Naa Lo, the acclaimed Loins of Punjab Presents and will be seen in the upcoming Delhi Belly. He grew up in Colaba, on a healthy diet of contraband cable shows like Top of the Pops and The A-Team in the pre-liberalised ’80s. He jokes that he knew he was meant for the performing arts, after his turn as the main goat in a third grade production of The Sound of Music. “Just before going on stage, one of my horns broke and was falling into my mouth. I think I handled that well and thought ‘I could do this’,” he shrugs. One wonders if being an actor helped him as a director. “With direction you get to act in your head. When you’re directing actors, you’ve worked out how a line ought to be delivered or a scene ought to be paced, which are all acting decisions right?” As part of I’m Not Bajirao’s ensemble cast, he managed to pick up pointers just by observing people. “You gauge from the wings how an audience is reacting. You figure out what’s making a scene work. Being around all that has to help, whether you’re an actor, director or technician,” he declares.

Acknowledging that cinema is a whole different ball game, he insists that audiences fundamentally react in similar ways to something that’s funny. “I wouldn’t recommend taking a play and making it into a film all the time. Plays are verbally driven, whereas films are more visually driven. We consciously tried to add visual jokes. The mockumentary added a visual dimension and gave audiences a format they are accustomed to.” So, we’re privy to the hidden camera and visual jokes like alphabets painted on cows and a framed poster of Dharmendra populating the walls of the American Embassy alongside American Presidents.

Struggling with the space that the medium and the script afforded him, he says it can be done, citing Sidney Lumet’s jury room drama, 12 Angry Men as an example of a film that was adapted from Reginald Rose’s play, and that worked well in a closed space. “You’ve got guys in a room, sitting around a table and you slowly begin to feel claustrophobic. Goes to show, you don’t have to go out to make a film,” he adds persuasively.

Driven crazy by constantly feeling underprepared on this movie, he admits he is motivated to improve as a director. It’s not a feeling he’s likely to overcome soon, he confesses, and quickly adds that he’s working on two scripts. Adamant that he isn’t married to comedy, he tells me he is working on a romantic drama as well. “I mean finally, it’s only subjective to yourself and only you can be your best critic.”

— Mamta Badkar

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