I’ve always been a big fan about common man’s story
The simplicity of Indian stories inspires him and is visible in his riveting short films including Mehrooni, Makhmal and more recently, Ludo. In a candid chat, filmmaker Faraz Ali talks about his films, his influences, the power of social media and how the short film format is here to stay.
Did you set out to be a director?
I’m a cinephile. And as they say, the first or rather the best step to learning filmmaking is by watching cinema. I personally feel that for a person to make films, he needs to be in love with films and be very passionate about them.
My journey began from my hometown of Allahabad where we were breeding on popular Indian cinema. I started watching Indian films like Disco Dancer, Tezaab, Parinda, Haathi Mere Saathi etc. English cinema was very limited to the first Jurassic Park. My introduction to cinema was not the new wave of cinema but the popular culture of cinema. But as I started watching movies and then moved to Pune for studies, met new students from different parts of the world, I got to know so much more. I started watching Iranian cinema and Majid Majidi’s Rang-e Khoda (The Color of Paradise) was the first Iranian film that I watched at The National Film Archive of India. I was so enamored by the simplicity of filmmaking and that was the day I decided, this is what I want to do.
What are your biggest influences in filmmaking?
I come from a small town and the advantage that I get is going through various phases and shades of life. My phase of life moved from Allahabad to Lucknow to Pune to Mumbai. I realized that there is so much of simplicity in Indian stories. If you see early Bengali cinema you realize that the maestros of cinema were simply picking very Indian, rooted and realistic stories with similar or melodramatic representation. But they were also very socio-politically relevant. Just like any Iranian film. My very big influence of cinema comes from popular Indian cinema and later watching Iranian cinema. For me cinema was also about Italian Neorealism. The first time I saw Bicycle Thieves, I didn’t realize the social context of it then but I really enjoyed it. I’ve always been a big fan about common man’s story. Iranian and Bengali cinema have this beautiful way of representing the reality and dealing with human relations. I love how Majidi, Kirostami, Ray, Ghatak, Guru Dutt, Kamal Amrohi conveyed their stories.
Another major influence in my life and works is the Middle Movement. Earlier cinema was divided into commercial cinema also called popular cinema and the New Wave Cinema where films spoke about socially relevant topics. But there were some directors that came up with the concept of combining the two. For example, Sai Paranjpye made a film like Katha that projected formalist cinema as realist cinema. I really like the middle movement films and my own films are inspired from this phase of cinema.
Tell us a little about your first film Mehrooni.
Mehrooni is very spacio-relevant although it’s a romantic film. The first line of Mehrooni is “Mujhe Mumbai ki sunhari rang ki subah bahut pasand hai, dhool and dhuen ke beech”. I’m romanticizing the city saying that Mumbai is full of dirt and dust but I love it, despite all the odds. It was a third point perspective on Mumbai. Though I haven’t grown up in Mumbai but I live here now and like the city. And amidst all this cacophony of life in Mumbai, I notice love somewhere. And that love is between my characters Mr.Sharma and Mrs.Sharma through an object – a sweater – that transforms into a character. Another thing that fascinated me is that in Mumbai, public space is a private space. You go to Marine Drive and people are enjoying their personal moments; they don’t care if you are looking or not. And I thought of doing a story around it.
You’ve also worked with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. How has that experience added to your filmmaking journey?
I met him for a casual meeting at his house. He was running short on time but the meeting went for longer that I expected, discussing our love for drama and music. Later he happened to watch Mehrooni, heard about my work and called me to his office. I was desperately looking for work in cinema and when I met him, it was almost like a bonding in the first meeting itself. I worked with him for 3 years and started doctoring some of his old scripts that are being made now and also worked on Goliyon Ki Raasleela – Ram Leela. And it was a great experience. After about 3 years, I left Mr.Bhansali. I feel that when you have been working with a Director, there is a lot of influence that comes from him or when you write something, you keep thinking whether he will like it or not. But you need to keep your individualism intact and there is a lot that you need to delearn after that.
Jackie Shroff was a part of your second film Makhmal. How did this casting coup of sorts happen?
I’d written Makhmal when I was shooting Mehrooni. Around that time a ship named Wisdom had accidentally come to Juhu beach. I’m still so in love with Mumbai that whenever I see something new I just go and shoot it. I was shooting Wisdom and there was a father and daughter duo playing at Juhu Beach. And I happened to hear their conversation. When I heard them talking I decided that this is a story that I’d like to develop sometime in life. After my work with Mr.Bhansali, I got the time to work on my own film. That is when Makhmal happened. Casting Director Shanno Sharma is a very close friend and when I narrated Makhmal to her, she really liked it. She suggested that I speak to Jackie Da. And my first question was – ‘he is Jackie Shroff, why would he do a short film?’ But on Shanno’s insistence I spoke to him and sent him the script. That very night Jackie Da called and said that he really liked the script and said “Bhidu mein ye script karega!” However, I didn’t have any money. Luckily by then a production house expressed interest in acquiring Mehrooni. So we used the acquisition money and our savings and ended up making Makhmal.
Music plays a significant role in your films. Is it a conscious decision to weave it within the story’s framework?
I think I’m the only short filmmaker who has full-length songs in his short films. The length of the film is ten minutes and there is a five minute song in it. Rekha Bhardwaj sang a song in Mehrooni and I was nobody then. Shafqat Amanat Ali sang a song for Makhmal. As Indians we are big fans of melodrama. When I shut my eyes I can only think of Guide, how the song sequences unfold and how well they are part of your text. But in today’s times, songs are not part of the text, even if you remove them from your film; it will not make a difference. But I put narrative as part of my song. When the Mehrooni song is going on you can see Mr.Sharma’s transformation. You cannot remove the song; my film will break. Sound plays a very important role in my films.
Tell us about your latest short Ludo. What was the purpose of this concept?
Sometime last year I met with quite a brutal accident and was in the hospital for around 6-7 months. When you’re on a hospital bed, you go through a certain journey; you ask yourself certain questions. That’s when I realized that while we are on the road, we put in so much trust in strangers – as men and women both. When you’re driving on left and a person is driving on right you have faith that he will not come on to your side. You don’t know him personally, you just assume and it’s a big trust we put in people. And once that trust breaks, then the person who is suffering will not be able to get over it. A similar thing happens when a girl is traveling, say, in a cab. She is entrusting her life to a confined space and the driver. And once that trust breaks it’s going to be the end of everything. I believe that road rage, accidents, molesting women, eyeing women in a bad way– all those issues operate on trust. I wanted to convey this to people in a very simple way.
There are many problems in India but certain directors make it easy for you to understand them. Gandhism is one of the most boring subjects in the way it is taught in classrooms but it was explained very interestingly in Munnabhai MBBS. Similarly, our education system is screwed but put forth in a unique manner in 3 idiots. Dum Laga Ke Haisha is another very relevant film that spoke about the dynamics of marriage and how women are being perceived. Films like Dum Laga… or Queen break social barriers and while they rib-tickle you, the after taste is such that you’ve taken away something from it as well.
Likewise I am a strong believer of representation of cinema, hence I thought let’s pick up something, which is very common among drivers. I’d gone to meet a close friend in Delhi and I saw these cab drivers playing Ludo. If you think of Delhi, it is like Ludo. You are subjected to luck to reach home safe. A lot of my friends have told me that they go through different kinds of molestation. There are times when a woman sits in a rickshaw, the driver is driving her and he is masturbating. He doesn’t touch her, doesn’t look at her. But for these kind of men it is psychological, they want to suppress the woman. It is a very complex thinking that won’t change in a day. Ludo can’t change anything but it will add to the dialogue. There are various films on the issues that women are facing but there aren’t any films that tell you how to react. The idea of the film is to educate the next generation. The tool to solve any problem is to educate people, educate the surrounding, talk to your helpers, your drivers, let there be no feeling of inequality.
Also with Ludo I’m celebrating manhood. There are three girls who aren’t reaching home safely but 30000 others who are. So I want to reward those people, salute those people who are treating them well and dropping them home. Through this I’m creating an aspiration level for those three men who have done something wrong. And trust me, everyone wants to be a hero. Even a villain isn’t aware that he is a villain. I’m trying to bring a culture where impressing a woman becomes a beautiful thing.
What made you’ll choose Whatsapp as a distribution platform for Ludo?
We came up with this interesting tool of making content for a cellphone, making a film for Whatsapp that anybody can access. Technically we compressed the film in such a way that without losing the quality we encapsulated it in 11 MB, which is very easy for anyone to share – be it rickshawalas or cab drivers. We got in touch with various associations of rickshawalas and asked them to keep sharing the film. We have only done it in Mumbai as of now. Our next plan is to get in touch with one of the cab services and have them send the film like they send bills on the phone. This will ensure that the film is reaching maximum cab drivers. We are also in talks with the RTO who are planning to make it compulsory for people who apply for their license or come for car training. I intend to continue like this and want to bring about better ways of dealing with the scenario rather than simply projecting the issue.
Sharib Hashmi featured in Mehrooni and now in Ludo as well. What is the kind of expertise that Sharib brings to the table?
I approached Sharib for Mehrooni when he had no film and he agreed to do it. The relationship was very symbiotic. Of course we were very good friends from before. But Sharib did Ludo because I wanted a very fresh person and a very good actor. Through the film Sharib is not really talking, but he is talking. There is only dialogue in Sharib’s voice and everything else is driven by my voice over.
Sharib is someone who brings a lot of improvisation to the table. When we were doing Ludo, he kept coming to my house, kept rehearsing and giving inputs about his look and other things. Sharib was behind the camera for a very long time so he understands the nuances. There is something called ‘actor’s intelligence’ and I think Sharib is gifted with it because he understands the problems of a director. When we write the lines and when the actor performs the line, there is a journey that happens. We write the lines; an actor punctuates them. An actor knows when to put a comma, where to put a full stop. Also I didn’t want the film to be very dark, I wanted there to be some niceness, which Sharib brings very easily. Sharib is a team player, it’s not like he just acts and leaves. He wants to know what’s happening on the edit, what’s happening with the sound – he almost assists the entire film. And it’s great to work with actors who are willing to give so much to a film. And not just Sharib, I’ve seen this with Bhushan, the other actor of the film, as well. I realized that they don’t want to interfere but want to be informed about other things and contribute as well.
What according to you has led to the popularity of the short story format? How vital are such projects in the repertoire of a filmmaker?
The inception of cinema happened through short films. So we cannot forget the short film format or say that it is a secondary format. And short films will exist till we have short stories. India is a country of short stories. Remember the stories you studied in class 10 or 12 – Munshi Premchand, Mahadevi Varma, Sadat Hasan Manto, O. Henry, and the likes. We have grown up on short stories. In today’s time more people are making short films because a lot of aspiring directors consider it as a workshop, it’s almost like a trial film that they make and keep on improving. On the other hand, a lot of youngsters actually have good stories and hence they are making them. There were short films earlier also but today we are getting to see them because there is more viewership for short films.
These films are very important. I always associate filmmaking with food – making feature films is like making tandoori, if you have never boiled milk on the stove, how will you make something as complicated as tandoori? At some point you need to pick up the camera and shoot something for yourself. A lot of people don’t find producers, and they won’t because you need to give some sort of conviction to the producers, show them your body of work. Producers are also putting in their hard earned money and you need to gain their trust. As aspirants you need to keep making short films.
Color Bar Entertainment has been a companion on your film outings – Makhmal and Ludo. Do they also share creative inputs on the films?
Yes, they are involved in the creative process and everything we do. If I have a story I tell Abbas & Imtiyaz (From Color Bar) and we sit and collaborate in a way that everybody has something to contribute. And Abbas himself has very good knowledge about cinema. I don’t want to work with a financer; I want to work with a “creative producer”. My collaboration with Abbas works because we are on the same page and as long as we believe in it, we’ll go together.
You’ve always used social media as a means to take your films to the target group. Would you share the same advice with filmmakers who have a story but no big means to showcase it?
I think social media is a very powerful medium. One, because of the reach and second is the time duration. It doesn’t take much time for the product to release. Digital medium has told us, “you make a film, we will take it to every house, every room.” Earlier we had Cinephile 1.0 where cinema meant going to a cinema hall and consuming movies. But the new age has given rise to a new generation of Cinephile 2.0 where we consume cinema that is meant to be consumed in the cinema halls on a laptop, cellphone or any other smaller screen. And we cannot move away from the impact of it.
If I release something on the Internet today, someone will instantly share it and soon it starts flying. Although it doesn’t ensure that you’re reaching the rural areas. But honestly, I’ve been to a lot of rural areas and I was surprised to see the way people are using Whatsapp. We sort of underestimate the Internet users but it has expanded phenomenally because of the cellphone usage. All of us are subjected to convergence of multimedia and it’s there, so put it to your use.