A Director is not valued in the Punjabi film industry – Atharv Baluja
He directed his debut Punjabi film Aiven Raula Pai Gaya in 2012 at the age of 24. By the time he turned 28 not only did he direct his second Punjabi film Judge Singh LLB that released last year, but also opened Artha Film Studios – a fully equipped Post Production studio in Punjab which proved to be a boon for various Punjabi filmmakers. Meet Atharv Baluja – the youngest feature filmmaker of the Punjabi film industry. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Your last film Aiven Raula Pai Gaya was a family drama. How did you come up with the concept of a courtroom drama for Judge Singh LLB?
I thought of making it in February 2015 after I had a stint with the courts. A filmmaker friend was fighting a case related to her film and I happened to help her at that time. While fighting that case we went from the lower court to the High Court and then Supreme Court. That was my real interaction with courts over the course of five months. During that time I observed the actual functioning of courts and how the law is misused for selfish benefits of people. Amidst all this, somehow you also see justice being served because there are some genuine advocates and judges who help you. Also, it so happened that while shooting a song with singer-actor Ravinder Grewal in Leh, he shared a similar experience that he had at a court. So while driving to Leh and the ten days that we spent there, we kept discussing about making a courtroom drama. Eventually I started writing it in January last year and by April we had the script in hand.
What was your major focus while writing the script?
It started with a theme and a conflict. Each one of us feels that we are very innocent. Whatever we may be but we think we are honest. So I wanted that to be visible in the main characters. The characterization was a very important part while penning the script. We always talk about being honest but the one who is honest somehow goes through some problems but ultimately is the happiest. So that was the underlying theme that we kept in the film.
How did your stint at courts help you come up with a courtroom drama – a topic that was explored for the first time in Punjabi cinema?
During my stint at the courts, there was a young lawyer called Kshitij who helped us a lot. And our main protagonist’s role was largely influenced by him. This Chandigarh based lawyer is in his late 20s and is very bright. He has done his law from London and has been a double Assistant Advocate General in Haryana because of which he has already fought 700 cases there. He provided us with a lot of factual knowledge. We then also inculcated various real life incidents that we witnessed and experienced at various courts.
You’ve worn many hats in this film – director, writer, cinematographer and co-producer. How easy or difficult was that?
It wasn’t easy at all. And I hate being a producer as I think it is one of the worst first-time experiences. We really wanted to make good cinema and for me it was all about telling the story. I met a lot of producers but they wanted the film to be made as per their stories without actually realizing the sort of technicalities that lie within story writing. Story writing is the biggest art in itself. Then there were producers whom we told that we want to make a low budget film and they thought that I’m fooling them. So we never ended up getting a producer. Initially Ravinder and I both were looking for a producer but then since we both were confident about the subject and believed in it, we thought, ‘Why not produce it ourselves!’ Coming to dabbling with the different departments, the switch was mainly from a director to a cinematographer.
After your debut film, you launched your post production studio in Mohali, Punjab. What made you launch that studio?
I opened the studio because it was the need of the hour. While doing my debut film, I faced a lot of hassles and had to go all the way to Mumbai for the post production work. That’s when I thought that others must be facing the same problem. However once I opened the studio, I realized that majority of the post production of Punjabi films is still done in Mumbai as most filmmakers are based there. Even then we’ve managed to do nine low budget films in our studio so far. And a lot of other work has happened in bits and pieces. For instance Mukhtiar Chadda’s editing was done here while almost all of Gippy Grewal’s films such as Faraar, Jatt James Bond, Second Hand Husband etc. have been dubbed in our studio. In the coming years, I see Artha Film Studios as a hot spot for the Punjabi industry where people meet and a lot of good work happens.
From editing to cinematography, you seem to be self taught in every aspect of filmmaking.
While doing my engineering from Thapar University, Patiala, I made my first short film where I did everything myself – from story to the music, editing etc. That was a learning stage for me. Before direction, I think it was post production that excited me more. I have never learnt from anyone. Whatever I have learnt so far is only by reading online or experimenting with softwares. YouTube and the Internet teaches you a lot.
But as far as direction goes, filmmaker-producer Gaurav Trehan has had a huge role to play. I got to learn a lot from him and he has really changed my vision about direction. People in Punjab really don’t know what a director’s job is. According to them a director is someone who takes good angles or locations. But a director is much more than that. He has to manage these things but alongside that he has to execute the correct feelings, the mood and get the actors to perform. Ultimately a director is a storyteller but people forget that they are actually there to tell a story.
How have you seen your work grow from your debut film to your second film?
In Aiven Raula Pai Gaya I think I wasn’t much of a director. The biggest challenge for me the second time around was to go by the book. I haven’t experimented at all. In Aiven…. the most important feedback I got was that the film was good in parts. So I knew that I was lacking somewhere in the screenplay which I focused on in Judge Singh LLB. Also in Aiven….. the characters felt separated. They didn’t feel in the same universe. In my second film I made sure that a lot of work was put into every character. For instance the lead character played by Ravinder Grewal shouldn’t look like the singer Ravinder Grewal but as the character that he is playing. So there were some basics that I wanted to do correctly before moving on to other things and experimenting.
What kind of association do you have with Ravinder Grewal because almost all your projects are with him?
I started working in the Punjabi industry with Ravinder when we made a music video called ‘Kalli Noon Mil Mitra’. He has always been my supporter and it is more of a brotherly bond now.
When Aiven Raula Pai Gaya released there was a steep rise in Punjabi cinema and then suddenly there was a fall. What really went wrong?
Ultimately it is all about content. People have been saying that the fall is due to the never ending comedy films that were being made but I don’t believe in it. I think if you make a good product it will sell, be it comedy or any other film. It is the same audience that spends 200 rupees on a Hindi or an English film. So you have to obviously give them a product that matches the level of the other films that come out simultaneously.
According to you, what is lacking in the Punjabi film industry?
As of now, people don’t value a director in the Punjabi film industry. I have met a lot of producers who feel that it doesn’t matter who directs the film. According to them taking good actors is enough. They feel that if there are good actors in their film, they’ll ultimately perform themselves.
Where do you see Punjabi cinema in the coming years?
It will grow for sure because in a very short span of time our industry has become more than 10,000 people strong. It has generated a lot of jobs and several investments have been made in the industry. Though the government isn’t taking it seriously but it is one of the most upcoming sectors of Punjab. In the South or Maharashtra, the government supports regional cinema a lot. Once you get serious producers, our cinema will start changing. We have to move beyond Diljit and Gippy. How many films will they both keep doing? Also there isn’t much competition in the industry. Competition makes everyone grow. When the level of competition rises people grow.
Alike most Punjabi filmmakers, is Bollywood on your mind too?
I think I already have a long way to go. Everybody wants to move on and graduate to a Hindi film. But then you have to wait for the right opportunity to come.