I don’t want to make films that help you escape, I want to make films that make you think that life is wild and beautiful: Ashim Ahluwalia
After an in depth insight into the making of Daddy, Director Ashim Ahluwalia continues his conversation with Pandolin. In a freewheeling chat, he shares his thoughts on studios backing different kinds of cinema, the new wave of technology and his upcoming projects that include his first English language film.
You seem to be drawn towards plots etched in the darker sections of society. What intrigues you about them?
I’m not so interested in grime or poverty, but in characters on the margins of society. They could be rich, poor or middle-class, that doesn’t matter. People who are “outsiders” tend to be the ones who don’t care about social norms; they challenge conventions, even if that could destroy them. There is something I love about these characters, it makes you question what we consider normal. I guess I relate to the idea of the outlaw because I have a rebellious nature and I don’t feel like I fit into any establishment myself.
I have always found happy movies problematic because that kind of cinema is escapist; those do well because many of us need to escape from reality. I don’t want to make films that help you escape, I want to make films that make you go home and think that life is wild and beautiful. It doesn’t have to be a film about the underbelly of society. Just because something is dark, doesn’t mean it’s negative, it could be positive – where you go home and realize how lucky you are for everything you have.
The pressure to make something that every person in the country goes to see is immense; everything has to have that scale
Post Daddy, will you be more comfortable working on India-centric projects?
I love being in Mumbai; this is my city. I’m excited about doing projects in India but many things that I’m interested in are considered too controversial or difficult. In India, the simple formula to get films financed is to make a basic kind of film and cast an actor that has box office value. In that sense, Daddy is a strange project as the star came to me with the film, offering freedom with the project by co-producing it. In the future, I should probably collaborate with actors directly because they ultimately have the power in this industry anyway. But there are very few that are secure enough to work so unconventionally, with a director that is as crazy as I am. That way, Arjun is quite rare.
As of now, my film projects are split, it’s either something like Daddy that’s primarily India-centric or it’s an international project like The Boyfriend.
With studios backing films like Paan Singh Tomar, Manjhi, Special 26 et all, is there a change in the industry?
Things are changing but not because the studios are suddenly becoming cinema literate. It’s because old formula films are failing and the whole idea of a Bollywood movie as we know it, is dying. So as a result we are seeing some openness, and that’s great for Indian cinema.
Certain set of actors who are now in their 50s are the last bastion of Bollywood. The newer lot are more open to experimenting and don’t want to get typecast. Actors are now willing to push themselves, directors are more demanding, studios have to adapt, so in this chaos, you are going to get something interesting. The audience is growing up as well, now that they have access to the Internet and world cinema and Netflix originals or whatever they want to watch. They don’t have to watch only a Dharma film. People are willing to experiment and see different kinds of films that they haven’t seen before. That’s a big shift.
There is a deeper problem, the Censor board is just the symptom of the issues that we already have
War Machine recently premiered on Netflix. The film’s commercial success was measured not by its box-office takings, but by new subscriber numbers. Is this possible in India? Is it a good move to release a film on an OTT platform?
I am not that excited about exclusive digital releases. I love the theatrical experience. But through Miss Lovely, I realized there is a monopoly of exhibitors and you begin to hate theatricals not because of the experience, but how they stop you from getting there. Unless you have a Salman Khan in your film, you are always treated like a stepchild and digital doesn’t do that. It has the option to get your film out there but that doesn’t necessarily make it better than theatrical, it’s just more accessible.
Daddy has an interesting combination – it is an Amazon film on one level but we managed to get a theatrical release first and that to me is more likely the future. Cinema is primarily theatrical. Most directors will not want to go straight to a Netflix or Amazon but want a theatrical release first.
I shot Daddy wide screen with anamorphic lenses, I would really prefer that an audience see that on a big screen and not on a phone.
The minute the technology becomes more important than the storytelling or emotion, it becomes an ad for the tech company; it’s not filmmaking
We are all hit by the storm of the digital medium, do you find it cluttered and lowering the video quality or is it a space that gives immense liberty to filmmakers?
In a country where you have a conservative system whether it’s the Censor board, the distributor nexus or the few Individuals and families that run Bollywood, the digital medium opens up an avenue for people who don’t have connections in the industry or a mega budget; that to me is liberating. People can go out there with a camera, make something and put it on YouTube.
A lot of the indie films around the time of Miss Lovely (2012), whether it was Ship Of Theseus or Thithi wouldn’t have existed if there wasn’t this democratic technology. The fact that they were made, went to festivals and later got purchased by Netflix means that another ecosystem exists. Independent cinema got a new lease of life after the Internet came into place, it’s a parallel universe. You don’t have to be bankrolled by a corporation to put an advertisement in the paper or on a billboard, so that has helped in creating an indie scene.
Technology is constantly expanding; there is VR, 360-degree videos, vertical videos, ad campaigns being shot on iPhones and the lot. Do you believe in keeping up with the times as a filmmaker?
Technology companies want us to think that their technology is required to make the latest kind of film but that’s a scam. The minute the technology becomes more important than the storytelling or emotion, it becomes an ad for the tech company; it’s not filmmaking. Ang Lee made a film called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk using 3D 4K, shot at a high frame rate. It delivered such a super sharp image that people couldn’t watch it beyond 30 minutes; their eyes were exhausted. Audiences started noticing the pores in the actor’s skin rather than connecting emotionally with the film.
Technology comes with its own baggage. Sometimes you’re watching a subtitled black and white film that’s 70 years old, and you might feel that you won’t be able to watch it beyond a point, but twenty minutes into it, and you are completely immersed, you forget what technology it was made with and for me, that’s pure cinema.
These are also times of a more intolerant society and a Censor board that has become harsher. Is it difficult to be a filmmaker in these times?
The whole act of censorship is awkward because it doesn’t respect audiences as adults. If somebody tells me what to watch that means I can’t decide on my own, therefore I am not a full-grown adult, I am a child.
To be fair, it’s not just the present government. We have had censorship from the very beginning. Anand Patwardhan has been fighting with Doordarshan for the last 20 years because they would not show his documentaries. India is a very intolerant country and now the intolerance is almost worn as a badge of honor. We take everything very personally, which is a sign of insecurity. Art is something you shouldn’t take personally; you should experience it, grow from it and move on.
If someone says something about your community, how does it become a personal attack on you? It’s their point of view on that community, take it or leave it. This sort of general insecurity tends to come from a country where our identities aren’t sorted, we are still figuring out who we are. There is a deeper problem, the Censor board is just the symptom of the issues that we already have.
Unless you have a Salman Khan in your film, you are always treated like a stepchild and digital doesn’t do that
What’s next from the Ashim brand of cinema?
Currently I am working on two international projects. The Boyfriend, an intimate love story based on one of the first published Indian gay novels. The second is a sci-fi film, my first English language film, set in the former Soviet Republic. This is with an international cast and is my first film that’s not Mumbai-centric.
In India, we don’t make movies for a thousand people, we make movies for 10 million people, there is no niche, so doing unusual things becomes difficult. The pressure to make something that every person in the country goes to see is immense; everything has to have that scale. It’s very hard but I do think that I have managed to do something unique with Daddy.