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Movies don't inspire me. Life does
Last year, Tigmanshu Dhulia not only directed ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ but also surprised many with his acting chops as the wily politician Ramadhir Singh in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ . Dhulia, who returns with his sequel to ‘Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster’ , talks about why his characters have shades of grey, and the lessons he learnt from his mentor, Shekhar Kapur.
'Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster' was an indictment of royalty, its excesses and decadence. Along the way, it also explored themes of power, greed and lust. One assumed you have said what you wanted to say. Why the sequel?
Honestly, because we wanted to cash in on the franchise. If you remember, the first part ended on a note that promised a sequel. We made the first film in Rs 2 crore. I could do that because of my training in theatre, where I learnt how to make do with minimum resources. Anyway, we couldn't even pay the cast and technicians. There were many things I wanted to do in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster but couldn't because of budget constraints. Thankfully, this time I got to explore the areas of royalty I couldn't - polo matches, ballroom dances and lavish costumes. When you are making a film on royalty, royalty must look like royalty.
You said 'Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns' is a social drama.
In what respect is it so?
Social dramas are driven by heart just like a thriller or murder mystery is driven by revenge, greed or other emotions. In social dramas, people deal with people. The action takes place indoors, in a home just as Westerns are set in frontiers or dacoit films are set in ravines. Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (SBGR) has people at its core. I was interested in this genre because nobody handles it anymore. In 1950s and '60s, it was a successful genre. Apart from the obvious ones like Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Mere Mehboob there was Vijay Anand's Tere Mere Sapne and Blackmail. Saawan Kumar Tak kept the genre alive with Souten and Sanam Bewafa. After that, it disappeared.
Is there one theme or motif to your work?
Struggle. Somebody is always struggling against great odds to achieve something. My films are not plotheavy, except for Shagird which was a thriller. Otherwise, they are more character-driven. The reason being that plot-driven films are not so organic. They always seem written. They have too many coincidences, somebody suddenly stumbles upon a clue, somebody overhears something - it does not have the quality of lived life. In a character-driven film, one thing leads to another, underpinning the journey of the character.
What did you learn from your 'guru' Shekhar Kapur?
How to handle a script. He used to say, 'In a love story, the love has to be tested. If you are writing about an honest man, honesty has to be tested. Or, there will be no conflict'. Kapur's body of work resembles his uncle's (Vijay Anand), in terms of variety. He has a brilliant sense of music and performance. In person, he is a patient, wellmannered man who loves his actors. I think whatever little talent I have is because of working with him and Mani Ratnam.
What place do politics, society and morality have in your films?
I am affected by politics and so are my films. A film ought to have social context and morality. If you see SBGR, all the four characters are morally ambiguous but you sympathise with them because they have a reason to do what they are doing. Mahie (Gill) is a woman who wants her husband's love but he is not giving it to her because she has betrayed him in a certain way. In part one, she betrays him only to get his love, which he fails to understand. Any other woman would probably cry over it but Mahie manipulates. What people like to watch on screen is something they want to do but can't. And then they see a certain character doing that. That's where the identification - and a liking for that character - comes. People say that you must give the audience something they will never anticipate or speculate. That's wrong. Often, films that work have the audience's full knowledge and involvement of what's coming. You should never act smart with the audience.
How much do you borrow from literature?
In Charas, Irrfan Khan's character was inspired from (Joseph) Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Bachchan's character in Kala Patthar was also taken from Conrad's Lord Jim. He goes and works in a coal mine out of guilt. The beauty of Conrad's characters is that they have done something wrong in their lives and are seeking redemption. Conrad puts them through a test of fire.
Which was the first novel you read?
Van Gogh's Lust for Life. I was in class 8 or 9. (Laughs) I read it, thinking of it as porn. I used to read a lot of comics and Westerns - stuff like Commando and Louis L'Amour. Now, I have shifted to non-fiction, history and stories of the partition. Sometimes, I read classic Hindi literature.
You spoke of Amitabh Bachchan. What did he mean to you, growing up in Allahabad?
Khuda the Amitabh Bachchan, yaar (He was God). Especially, his angry young man persona - when he embraced his heroine in his long arm, it was not simply a hug but a promise for protection. We wanted to grow up like him - anger boiling inside, fighting injustice and protecting our women.
You are directing Saif Ali Khan in your next film 'Bullet Raja'. How would you describe him as an actor?
Very instinctive. He is the complete opposite of, say, Irrfan (Khan). It's like watching a beautiful animal in action. You can watch a lion for hours and not get bored because it has a natural quality and not a practiced quality. In Bullet Raja, Saif is a hero, like Mr Bachchan.
Irrfan Khan and you go back a long way - all the way back to NSD. Which is your favourite Irrfan film?
The Namesake. He doesn't have a single dramatic moment. He is subtle but forceful. I will never forget that scene when he calls Tabu just before he dies. I also liked him in Maqbool, Life of Pi and Ek Doctor Ki Maut.
Talking about acting, your performance in 'Gangs of Wasseypur' was much appreciated. What was it like to see yourself on screen?
I was embarrassed. (Laughs) For the first time I realised I must shed some kilos. Jokes aside, I am not an actor by profession. I had nothing to prove. I did it for friends. Maine socha Anurag bana raha hai toh koi chutiyapa toh nahin hoga (If Anurag is making it, it wouldn't be a frivolous film). Also, I agreed because they were shooting in Banaras and I thought from Banaras I could go to Allahabad (his hometown).
As a filmmaker, are you on the same page as Anurag?
Anurag makes darker films. He tackles issues that I don't even want to look at. But I admire his work.
His inspiration is Guru Dutt, yours is Vijay Anand. That says it all.
Let him make a romantic film like Guru Dutt. Even without our influences, we would be operating in different spaces. For example, (Martin) Scorsese takes from life and (Quentin) Tarantino, from cinema. Like Tarantino, Anurag is a product of cinema - which is very good. With me, it's different. Cinema doesn't inspire me. Life does.
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