He wanted to be an actor but realised he was not very good at it and turned to direction instead. Aabhas Sharma speaks to Tigmanshu Dhulia and finds out why he stays away from run-of-the-mill cinema
There’s an early scene in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar where a reporter, scared and flustered, asks Irrfan Khan what turned him from a national steeplechase champion and soldier into a Chambal dacoit. Eyes droopy, voice firmly under control, Khan says that dacoits are found in Parliament, he is only a baaghi (rebel). This is a contemporary statement in a scene from the 1970s. Later, Khan tells his superior officers with a deadpan face that officers don’t work — an unforgiveable offence that would be punished by more than a thousand forward rolls. These are lapses in an otherwise authentic film. Dhulia (“Tigmanshu” means one with a sharp eye) defends the second scene and says that his research showed that Tomar could be bluntly outspoken at times.
Dhulia can afford to be blasé about such omissions. In an age of candy floss romance, sci-fi, superheroes and Vidya Balan, he is the last hope for realistic cinema. Paan Singh Tomar may not have been a stupendous hit. Its first week collections of Rs 7.5 crore were short of The Dirty Picture (Rs 32.7 crore), Ra.One (Rs 133 crore) and even Desi Boyz (Rs 30 crore). But discerning viewers noticed that dacoits in the notorious Chambal region walk and don’t come on horseback because horses can’t gallop on the loose soil, speak Hindi with a dialect (Bundeli) distinct to the area, and bivouac in the open.
The film was shot on location for minimal drama, maximum impact. Dhulia met Tomar’s wife, son, former dacoits, policemen and others who had known the athlete-dacoit to flesh out his character. Some even saw shades of Bandit Queen (1994) in it. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because Dhulia had assisted Shekhar Kapur on that film.
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Dhulia is from Uttarakhand (a state grossly under-represented in Bollywood), but was born and brought up in Allahabad in a middle-class milieu. His father was a lawyer and mother a Sanskrit teacher. “Allahabad was fantastic for me. I learnt so much about movies and culture there but then I thought I wanted more freedom,” says he. So, in 1986 he came to Delhi and enrolled for a course in acting at the National School of Drama. “That’s because that was the only discipline you could specialise in,” he recalls, “I was an awful actor.”
In Mumbai, his first break was in the art department of Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, a biopic of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Dhulia then worked as casting director, and wrote dialogues for several movies including Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se. It was while working on Bandit Queen that he first read about Tomar. “I wanted it to be my first film but somehow it never happened,” he says.
Dhulia’s first film as director was Haasil (2003), a gripping story of love and campus politics set in Allahabad University where he studied. It was, Dhulia claims, based on a true story that one of his friends from Mathura had narrated. “I liked the love story in Haasil, and while people might say that it was based on student politics, my interest was the love story,” he says. Next was Charas (2004), a thriller set in Himachal Pradesh, followed by Shagird (2011), Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar (2012). While his earlier films earned him critical acclaim, he wasn’t an A-lister. He still doesn’t think of himself as an A-lister and says that was never his destination. “I made Paan Singh Tomar because I was amazed at the story. How could one man endure so much,” he says.
His recent success notwithstanding, Dhulia says he doesn’t understand the economics and commercialism of the film industry. “Everything in this industry is driven by money and I use very little of that in my movies,” he says. He hasn’t made a big-budget movie so far and is content doing things his own way. Haasil was made on a budget of Rs 4 crore, Paan Singh Tomar about Rs 7 crore. Quoting Karl Marx, he says, “You must be aware that the reward for labour, and quantity of labour, are quite disparate things.” So has Paan Singh Tomar finally given him the reward for his labour? “To be honest, I am not too bothered about what people — especially critics — have to say about the film. I am just glad it was made as I wanted the story of Tomar to reach out to people.”
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The success of his latest film will probably bring Dhulia to the notice of big producers and the budget at his disposal will go up. Dhulia is keen on making a period film based on 1857 but in the pipeline are a sequel to Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster and a love story called Milan Talkies. Up next is the role of a bad guy in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. “Kashyap called and said he wanted me to do a role in his film and I thought it would be a blink-and- miss role.” But when Dhulia landed there, he found it was one of the principal characters and was a bit taken aback.
Dhulia clearly believes in himself. Paan Singh Tomar is a sympathetic account of an outlaw. There are no shades of grey in the character. People might think of him and his movies as off-beat — perhaps rebellious like the protagonists in his movies — but Dhulia says that he has great respect for film-makers like Raju Hirani (Lage Raho Munna Bhai and 3 Idiots) and Imitiaz Ali (Jab We Met, Rockstar). Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla ka Ghosla, Love Sex Aur Dhokha) and Kashyap are other favourites. “Banerjee’s conviction in his movies is amazing, as is Kashyap’s,” he says.
Growing up he was fascinated with Raj Khosla and Vijay Anand’s movies, especially the latter, which he feels were way ahead of their time. Dhulia laments the absence of good writing in cinema these days and their urban orientation. So has it been a deliberate ploy to set his movies in the hinterland or away from urban India? No, he says, before adding that “basic things like love, friendship have deeper impact in smaller towns”. In urban India people are busy with virtual friends, PlayStation and live far away from reality, he quips.
Dhulia has a special bond with Khan, his senior at NSD, though he doesn’t remember interacting with the actor much then. “Khan rises above the script and doesn’t fuss over anything,” says the 44-year-old director. Working with big stars doesn’t seem to feature in Dhulia’s scheme of things. It isn’t deliberate, but he says that sometimes stars become bigger than films. Mahie Gill seems to be another favourite. Clearly, this is one area Dhulia doesn’t want to experiment too much.