A film should be such that it shows the character as the star:Pankaj Batra
Punjabi film director Pankaj Batra, who has directed a wide range of films from Naughty Jatts and Goreyan Nu Daffa Karo to Channo Kamli Yaar Di and Dildariyaan, is someone who doesn’t mince his words. By calling himself the ‘only Punjabi film director’ who neither works with ‘stars’ nor ‘established actors’, he portrays an image which is vastly different from the other filmmakers in this industry. Amidst enjoying the success of his recent release Bambukaat, he speaks to Pandolin about his choice of films, style of working and the reason why he prefers launching newcomers.
How has the response to your latest release Bambukaat been?
It has been quite mind-blowing and seems like one of the best reactions that I’ve received for any of my films. Both creatively and business-wise the film has done quite well.
What was it about Bambukaat’s script that connected with you?
If you look at all my films, I always try to direct subjects that excite me, and I hardly repeat myself. Out of the six Punjabi films that I have made so far, only Naughty Jatts was an out and out commercial film. Be it Goreyan Nu Daffa Karo, which was about the connection and conflict between grandchildren and their grandfather or Channo Kamli Yaar Di which was a female-driven film; I have always wanted to cater to the larger audience.
The problem in Punjab is that very few numbers of the audience watch films. So while I was researching the reason behind not being able to reach a larger audience, I realized that while making any regional film, one has to talk about that culture, background and point of view. Otherwise, they can always watch a Hindi film but if they are watching a Punjabi film, it should be such that they relate to it.
Why do you think Angrej worked? Despite the fact that its storyline was done to death and is already seen in many films, it still worked. Because the makers created a backdrop, which was new to people and the audience immediately connected to it. The bigger challenge (for me) was to not end up repeating what was shown in Angrej. The writer of the film Jass Grewal came up with a story which is really exciting and the idea clicked with me.
Talk about the casting criteria – this happens to be Ammy Virk’s first film as the main lead and you’ve also introduced two new female leads.
I’m the only director in the Punjabi industry who has made all non-star films. When I made my debut film Virsa (2010), Arya Babbar wasn’t a star at that time. Similarly at the time of Naughty Jatts (2013) Roshan Prince wasn’t an established actor. And when I did Goreyan Nu Daffa Karo (2014), all of Amrinder Gill’s previously films had flopped. Same was the case with Bambukaat. Prior to this, Ammy had not come in a lead role.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Punjabi cinema is that you don’t have many male characters to cast in the lead. Besides Gippy (Grewal), Diljit (Dosanjh), Amrinder (Gill) – who else do you have? Though there was a risk involved in casting an upcoming actor like Ammy, but it worked.
Therefore I have always felt that if I cast the right actor, I’ve won 50 per cent. For the main female lead, I could have cast anyone – Neeru Bajwa, Surveen Chawla or Sonam Bajwa – and they all are ready to work with me. But neither of them would’ve suited Pakko’s character in Bambukaat. So we cast newcomer Simi Chahal in the main lead and also organized a 15-20 day workshop for her.
According to you, what is Bambukaat’s USP?
If you remove Diljit from Sardaarji 2 – the movie that had an opening of 2.5 crores – wouldn’t have made even 20 lakhs on the first day. Therefore I didn’t want to make a film on a star. A film should be such that it shows the character as the star. Every actor in Bambukaat is a brilliant character in the film. It is the content of Bambukaat that has been loved by all. I’ve always felt that a star can only help you get a good opening and more visibility, but the film will only work if the script is good.
Another important point of the movie is that it is raw in many ways and that has connected with the audience. Creating a bike out of waste material was an idea that is being appreciated by most Punjabis. We came across Hobby Randhawa who is an automobile engineer with a huge workshop set up at his house in Kharar, Punjab. He is a passionate guy who customizes bikes. He came up with multiple sketches for a bike according to the story of Bambukaat. But the point was that we wanted a functional bike. So he came up with a sketch where he could create a bike using unconventional things like the engine and gear of a Maruti, some parts of a tractor etc. It took him 25 days to make the bike. It was an unachievable target to complete such a task in that time frame, but he did it.
Binnu Dhillon is an asset for any film. He has also been part of your previous films like Naughty Jatts, Goreyan Nu…, Channo… and Dildariyan. What does he bring to the table with each association?
He is the only actor in the Punjabi industry who is so versatile. We have worked together in five films and he is more like a brother. We understand each other’s body language and reactions. The Punjabi industry is a singer-oriented industry. They (singers) don’t even know how to stand in front of the camera. And only when they get a good director, can they perform. If they don’t get one, they faze out. But Binnu bhaji is one person who despite getting a bad director, can stand out by working on his body language, looks, clothes and character. He is always full of ideas. His look of a sardar in Bambukaat was decided by him. He is the only actor who can make you laugh without even delivering any dialogue.
I always want to retain the talented people who have worked with me earlier. And filmmaking is all about teamwork. Similarly, my editor (Manish More) and cinematographer (Vaneet Malhotra) are the same from the time of Naughty Jatts to Bambukaat.
How did your last film Channo Kamli Yaar Di, which was a female driven film, a rarity for contemporary Punjabi films materialize?
The story has to excite me. As a director, I have achieved a mark where I tell the producers in the first meeting itself that I’ll make only those subjects which I enjoy making. After making commercially hit films without any stars, I’m at a stage where the producers invest in me. I’m the only director who has given two hit films – Channo…. and Bambukaat – this year. Also, I’m the only guy who doesn’t run after star value. I have confidence in my work and just need to build confidence in the subject before I start working on it. I can’t make similar concepts repeatedly. If I just have to make money I can join any multinational company and work there.
Filmmaking allows you to do something new every time. And in the process of making new things, sometimes you kiss success and at times you don’t. Out of seven (six Punjabi and one Hindi) films that I have directed so far, only three films have suffered losses, rest all have done well. If Dildariyaan didn’t work, I don’t think it was the fault of its actors Jassi Gill and Sagrika Ghatke. It was completely my fault.
Like you mentioned, your debut Hindi film – I Love Desi failed drastically. What did not work in your favour?
I had to do the film because of yaari dosti (friendship). Sometimes you have to do a film for relationships. The film featured Akshay Kumar’s manager’s son. Akshay Kumar is a superstar. At times you can’t say no to someone. The film didn’t release for four years due to certain internal issues. The film was made in 2010. Also, you are a bit immature in the early stages of your career. Now when I see that film I realize what was wrong with it.
But are you open to exploring Hindi cinema again?
Today I have a good name in the Punjabi film industry. I won’t do a Hindi film till I find something interesting. And I don’t follow the criteria where if I do a Hindi film, I won’t come back to Punjabi movies or after doing a hit Punjabi film, I will take a break of a year to work on my Hindi film. I’m very happy making Punjabi films. Amidst all this, if I come across any Hindi project that excites me, only then will I do it.
If commerce and business are set aside, what kind of subjects would you like to explore?
You have to keep commerce in mind. According to me the film business is all about entertaining people. The audience who go to watch a movie with their families on the weekend consider films the cheapest way of entertainment. A family of four can have a good time and enjoy by spending just Rs.2000. Life is already stressed out for people and films entertain them. They have certain dreams and when they see someone else fulfilling those dreams on screen, they immediately connect with the person. I’m basically a commercial director and can’t make a film like Anhe Ghore Da Daan. Though it got a National award, but I can’t make it as it is beyond my sensibility.
What are the challenges that still exist in Punjabi cinema?
Most Punjabi films are not planned properly. I have never shot any film for more than 35 days. There are people who shoot for around 70-80 days. Obviously, they end up spending more. I don’t pay much to the actors but pay more to the technicians. I spend money on character artists but I don’t believe in giving over-the-top money to stars.
The biggest challenge for all the new directors is that there aren’t any commercial producers in the industry who know what filmmaking is. There are no production houses. The situation is such wherein property dealers get together and make a film. But they are more of funders. Even in my case, the producers don’t know much. It is me who knows everything about a film – from filmmaking and marketing to distribution. Technically I’m the producer as well. But the funders, who are termed as producers in Punjabi cinema, don’t even know the entire process. Pick any ten films and eight of them will have first time producers. Only two of them will be backed by an established production house that has previously made a film and know the process. A director ends up doing a producer’s job also besides his own work. He has to line up things, think about the marketing, distribution and how to release the film. In Bollywood, a typical director’s job is over the moment he completes his film. The rest of the work is done by the producer.
In fact, one of the producers of Bambukaat was also new to films. But by the time the other producer Karaj Gill came on board, half of the film was already shot. I had already streamlined most of the things – from putting up the sets to getting all the artwork done.
So what changes would you want to see in Punjabi cinema in the coming years?
Cinema here should start exploring actors other than casting singers in lead roles. Professional producers can also bring a lot of change. If any producer understands the process, instead of hiring a random director, he’ll hire a director who knows his job well.
In Punjab, unprofessional directors and producers come together and approach a singer who doesn’t know anything about acting. It’s high time that we stop blaming the audience, saying that they don’t appreciate good subjects. If there was any film that had even a little caliber, audiences have been kind enough to boost and appreciate it. Saying that our audience is not ready is a little foolish because it is the same audience that watches films like Jason Bourne and Sultan.
What are you now working on?
For the past one year, I was busy with Bambukaat. And after delivering a film of such a caliber, there are unlimited expectations from you. I have a few ideas in mind and am meeting more writers as well. I will definitely start something by September – October.