I could have never written a film like Chauranga
Onir’s past directorial ventures have paved the path to his standing today as an important voice in the independent filmmaking community. As the Producer of Bikas Mishra’s debut Chauranga, he elaborates on what made the script click, the nuances of the process and what’s in store for Anticlock Films in 2016.
Tell us a little bit about how Bikas (Mishra) and you met, and how you got involved in the project.
Both Bikas and I were in the same Script Lab at Locarno, which was in collaboration with NFDC, where I was working on a film called Shab while he was working on Chauranga. And while I didn’t know the details of his project, we’d constantly be interacting over the course of our time there. When we were on our way back to India, he asked me at the airport if I’d like to read his script. I was curious, and when I read the script, I was fascinated because the story is set in a world that I know I don’t have such an in-depth knowledge of. While most of my films are urban, this was set in a rural area and it was easy to tell that there was an insider’s perspective there — someone who was familiar with life there. Although in some ways it’s a critique of that world, it’s also someone who loves that world.
At that point — and I didn’t yet know how — but I told Bikas that Sanjay and I would like to produce the film. It would take time, and it would be a process, but that’s how it all began.
As a director, you have a very distinctive voice and manner of storytelling. What was it about Chauranga’s script that made it stand out? Also tell us the story behind the title of the film.
Bikas came to us at a point when we were looking at producing films as a production house (as Anticlock Films). I like to take my time with my own films, and we thought it would be great to provide a platform to other first-time directors. We were looking for content which we would be proud of, and also matches our vision of the kind of cinema we like and the films we’d like to be associated with.
Chauranga very organically fit into that space of powerful storytelling, powerful social content that is dramatic at the same time, and for me this was also the first film that I was working on only as a producer. What fascinated me was that I could have never written a film like that and to me, it’s interesting to work with directors who make films different from what I do. We want directors who enrich our basket of films with films that are diverse while still sharing the same sensibility. Chauranga just fit right in.
We were never in a situation where we were arguing or looking for a rewrite, or anything like that, because the basic script itself was so good and fit in with our sensibilities so well. The whole process was more discussion than differences, trying to figure out the final script.
How does it feel to produce exclusively without directing, and what sort of creative control did you have in the filmmaking process?
Bikas had complete control as a director. For me, this comes from being a director-producer; Sanjay and I have worked together for the past ten years, and as a director, I’m extremely stuck-up and I like my space. As someone who appreciates that, I just respected that Bikas would want the same.
What was working with Sanjay Suri like?
Working with Sanjay Suri doesn’t feel like working. We’ve been working together ever since I started working on films and we’ve produced films together and worked on several projects. We respect each other as artists and as human beings so it becomes easy — the vision is similar. We sometimes have huge fights and creative differences but they are always healthy discussions that turn into something better. We always balance each other.
What have been the highlights of this journey for you?
What we told Bikas from the beginning was that It wasn’t going to be a quick, easy journey. Unfortunately, today, even though we are one of the largest filmmaking industries, we are also a part of an industry that treats films largely as only products. Many filmmakers have stopped considering themselves as artists, choosing instead to focus on what is marketable to studios. More than regional cinema (where there is more acceptance), this is true of Hindi cinema. I feel like yes, commerce is important, but I also feel like many a times, quality cinema doesn’t even get the chance to be seen by most people. It also takes some time to develop a taste for a certain kind of cinema. With films like Masaan or Killa coming out it’s encouraging to see that films are being made which are geared to involve audiences in a different way and not just for commercial success.
It’s all about the foreign locations and resources available to the filmmaker, instead of the script and the film itself.
As a strong voice in the independent filmmaking community, how would you say has the space evolved over the past few years, since My Brother.. Nikhil?
Film festivals have nothing to do with stars, it’s only filmmakers who matter, and that’s wonderful. The international film festival is now held only in Goa, which I feel is a disaster, because there is no audience there, and everyone else has to travel to that part of the country (and might not be able to). I remember being a film student in Delhi and Kolkata and lining up for tickets for IFFI, back when it was held in several cities, making it more accessible.
While I feel like audiences in India are slowly growing more open to different kinds of cinema, the ambiance of filmmaking is becoming much harder, right from film certification to distribution and marketing. Paid media is very real today, unfortunately, and many a times casts the limelight on those who have resources as opposed to talent.
If you look at our history, during the 1970’s we had as strong a line of parallel cinema as the mainstream, and we don’t have that anymore. We were internationally renowned, and the audience was a much bigger niche that included much of the middle class.
There were a few scenes that the Censor board chose to cut from the film — how essential were these to the storytelling and how happy were you with the decision?
I feel like somehow we’ve taken a step back. My journey with the Censor Board has been pretty rocky to begin with (laughs). My first film that dealt with homosexuality was given a U/A certificate whereas my last film I Am was given an A certificate for reasons I don’t understand — it doesn’t show graphic violence, nudity or lovemaking. There is nothing like that, it’s talking about issues like child abuse, acceptance and love, ultimately. When heads are being chopped onscreen, there are questionable item songs and women are objectified, this makes even less sense — cinema isn’t as innocent as it used to be, or we pretend to be.
Perpetuating eve-teasing as a way of flattery, the act of rape being shown in an exploitative and titillating way, so that the audience actually enjoys it… we have become so shameless and irresponsible as an industry we really need to rethink many of these attitudes. That is the reality.
The cuts that were asked of us made no sense, if you ask me. If you’re giving it an A certificate, you can expect a mature audience to watch it. Also, we can’t forget that we are living in the age of the Internet. Don’t people understand that anyone can access the content they want at a click? As for television, you can show mature films post-11PM and if a child is watching then, it’s the parenting that’s the problem. Why should the filmmaker suffer?
We’ve heard your film Shab is due to release next year as well. Could you tell us a little bit about it, and when it will be released?
Shab is the first ever film that I wrote in 2000. I never dump my stories, I keep them with me and revisit them when I feel like the time is right. Over the course of the 15 years, it has evolved incredibly because I have grown as a writer and filmmaker as well. There is no formula to it, but it’s really travelled a lot. I feel good that I’ve finally done it, and I think it’s my best film. I’m very proud of it.
It’s about complex relationships, intense love stories, set in Delhi. Basically, it’s about people looking for love in a big city where ambition takes precedence.
What are the sort of films you’d like Anticlock Films to release in the future?
2016 is going to be great. We have three films under production and two films as a director, Shab and another film called Veda. Apart from that we are trying to identify two other films to work on that’d be a good fit for our production house.
Another thing I’m really excited about is the Anticlock Film Talent Division. This whole industry is always running after stars and if you look at Hollywood, for any role, you always have at least 10-15 options in terms of actors who can play it. The situation is very different in India where we have about 3-4 options. We hope to change that by developing the skills of younger actors and creating talent from different parts of India, regardless of their lineage and resources. We guide them with language classes, they can come to sets to get familiar with the atmosphere, and we try to identify and help them capitalize on their individual talents as well. Trying to nurture independent talent and have them evolve into wholesome artists. I’m very proud of all of these guys, we’ve done auditions in different parts of the country, as well as in Lahore and Karachi, to find these talented kids. I love being able to give them the opportunity to grow like this.