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Cinema on his mind

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Abhilasha Ojha chats with and gets a glimpse of his passion for filmmaking, his need to better his craft and tell stories

It is midnight when Anurag Kashyap, sounding unbelievably perky, begins talking about Indian cinema, his need to tell and “steal stories from the lives of everyone around me” and Gangs of Wasseypur, which he describes as his “most ambitious, most fun project”.

While the cast and crew are busy lapping up the film’s critical success, Kashyap says he’s switched off. “I’m shutting my laptop, switching off my mobile and going away from all this tamasha,” he says. “My brains are fried, I need a break.”

Ironically, it’s not the task of completing such an ambitious project that has hassled Kashyap. On the contrary, it’s the accolades — “especially from industrywallahs,” he points out — that have forced him to switch off. “I’m used to failures. When there is a wall in front of me, I can knock it down. But when everything’s hunky-dory and people in the industry praise my films, I don’t know how to deal with it. They’re the same guys who hadn’t taken me or my work seriously. Now these people expect me to respond,” reasons Kashyap. “I don’t know how to respond to them. So, it’s best to just go away.”

Friends and colleagues who have worked with Kashyap and know him well aren’t surprised at his discomfort. “He may be a part of this glamorous industry but Kashyap derives happiness from working on his own terms, his own conditions. Because he’s never compromised on his cinema, never been a part of the glitz, he doesn’t like it,” says Nawazuddin Siddiqui, one of the lead actors of Gangs of Wasseypur who has known Kashyap for the last 12 years.

Sunit Sinha, founder of Actor Factor, a popular Delhi-based theatre company, and Kashyap’s friend since his college days when both were part of street theatre group Jan Natya Manch, remembers his infectious enthusiasm for films. Both went to Mumbai and while Sinha came back after a few years, friends often gave him updates on Kashyap’s period of struggle in the industry. “Kashyap was roughing it out, sleeping under water tanks, living in matchbox-sized rooms, but I don’t remember him being bitter about this phase,” says Sinha. In his view, the turning point in Kashyap’s career was Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, a film that he and Saurabh Shukla had co-written in 1998. The film was a success, bringing to light not just Varma’s knack for storytelling but also Manoj Bajpai’s acting skills and Kashyap’s finesse as a writer.

Another friend, who has known him for nearly two decades but doesn’t wish to be identified, remembers the time when many of Kashyap’s films were getting stuck because of the Censor Board, the producers or actors. “Paanch didn’t release, Black Friday and Gulaal were stuck, and another film, Alwin Kalicharan, never took off. Anurag would blog, drink and get depressed. He didn’t mind struggling but the thought of so many projects simply not taking off did rob him of his peace of mind. Then, quite suddenly, the audience, markets and box office woke up to his talent,” says this friend.

Kashyap admits to “those dark days” (both personally and professionally) but quickly adds that he’s in a “very happy place right now”. “My audiences were youngsters who watched cinema on the Internet. When they demanded films on the big screen, the producers showed interest and today I’m getting to do what I want to do,” says he. “Mainstream cinema is redefining itself; it’s getting real and I’m very happy with it.”

* * *

By his own admission, he’s not a hard taskmaster. Only he works through the night and “walks back home at 5 am”. “I don’t scream on the sets, I don’t shout,” he says. “I have a close-knit group of people with whom I work all the time. Many of us live very close by, the studio is walking distance from my home, and I just have to walk across to my friends and together we try and make good cinema.”

Many of his colleagues agree. “Kashyap will give you a free rein, trust you completely and understand that you know your work,” says Sneha Khanwalkar, music director of Gangs of Wasseypur. “If he played the tabla with his fingers on his waist, I knew the song worked. If he wouldn’t stop staring at his iPad, I knew I needed to get something better.” On her part, Khanwalkar visited Patna, Varanasi and Allahabad, “researched” on the film’s music for almost a year, recorded songs and even called singers from Muzaffarpur at 3 am.

Mukesh Chabbra, casting director for the film, remarks: “He’s a complete filmmaking school. He’ll trust your judgement. He’ll never shout at you. He just said: ‘Mukesh, get me real people for the film.’” Vipin Sharma, one of the actors in the film, was so keen to work with Kashyap that he didn’t mind doing a bit role. “When he saw what I was bringing to the sets, the role became bigger, more significant. On paper, it was nothing.”

Kashyap, on his part, says that he’s constantly exploring and nurturing the dream of making good films. While friends often talk about his generosity (“He’ll pay bills on behalf of his spotboys, pay hospital dues for a friend’s friend,” says Siddiqui), Kashyap is happy to turn producer for many of those who have assisted him. Films like Udaan, Shaitan and Aamir, to name a few, have been enthusiastically backed by Kashyap; another assistant director, Shlok Sharma, is making his directorial debut with Dabba.

* * *

Kashyap’s colleagues will tell you that while he works hard on the story and research (“I shut myself in a room and write non-stop”), he dislikes bound scripts and prefers to improvise on the sets. “I’ve had to run after him to hear what he wanted me to do in certain scenes,” laughs Siddiqui. While this exercise can help push the creative limits of actors, urging them to push the proverbial envelope, it’s a habit that also misfires.

Piyush Mishra, lyricist, who has also acted in Gangs of Wasseypur, for instance, complains about Kashyap’s “haphazard style of working”. Mishra says if he had a bound script in hand, he could have portrayed his character much better. “I prefer to rehearse my dialogues, understand my character through the script and screenplay. Originally, my character was supposed to be physically challenged. Last minute, it was decided that nothing of the sort would happen. When there’s no bound script, it’s not always possible to get the director’s vision,” says Mishra.

That said, Mishra also says that only Kashyap can pull off filmmaking like this. “Any other director would’ve fallen flat but Kashyap’s films work,” he says. “It is proof that somewhere he’s doing something right,” says Mishra.

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