Loved the idea of making a film about a gangster who never really wanted to be one – Ashim Ahluwalia
Ashim Ahluwalia, a name that resonates with independent cinema has raised eyebrows with his latest directorial venture Daddy, a biopic on gangster turned politician Arun Gawli featuring actor Arjun Rampal. Ashim has a cult reputation in the industry and is known for his edgy storytelling. His debut fiction feature film Miss Lovely, based on two brothers who make sleazy “C” grade films, was the only Indian entry in the official competition in Cannes in 2012. Ahluwalia was named “one of the ten best emerging film directors working today” by Phaidon Press in “Take 100: The Future of Film.”
As Daddy’s release draws closer, Ashim gives Pandolin an insight into what went behind making this film. Here are excerpts (Part 1) from an EXCLUSIVE chat with the filmmaker.
Your 2012 film Miss Lovely was at the Cannes Film Festival and won a lot of international accolades, but we haven’t seen another film from you post that. What projects were you working on post Miss Lovely?
I’m not a very prolific filmmaker. I take time and get totally immersed in the worlds that I build. Miss Lovely was received well outside India and I was approached to develop projects internationally. I’ve been working with French and Canadian co – producers on a film called The Boyfriend, based on the first published Indian gay novel. Last year I made a short, Events in a Cloud Chamber, which premiered in Venice, so I keep doing things that interest me.
Miss Lovely seemed to have developed a cult reputation in the industry, which was surprising. I met Arjun (Rampal) on a commercial that I was directing. He had seen the film and knew my sensibility. He asked if I would ever be open to directing a mainstream Hindi film, but I said no as I don’t think I’m cut out for it. He then told me about the Gawli project and asked if I would be interested in getting involved, if I could make it with total freedom. This would be the first film based on the true story of a living don. That seemed exciting.
Daddy took about two and half years to make. During that time, I’ve been writing a sci-fi film set in the former Soviet Republic. It will be my first English language feature with an international cast and goes into pre-production next year. It’s different from anything that I have done before.
When I made Miss Lovely I used to get calls from porn actresses in the middle of the night asking me to come to their hotel rooms
What intrigued you about Daddy that you agreed to Arjun’s offer?
I grew up in Bombay in the 80s with the gang wars in the background. Arun Gawli has been part of the mythology of this city ever since I was a kid. I loved the idea of making a film about a gangster who never really wanted to be one, someone who just fell in accidentally and then couldn’t get out, no matter how hard he tried. We’ve all seen images of Arun Gawli with the white kurta and topi, but that doesn’t fit the image of a gangster at all. He’s always been a mystery, which is why he was so appealing.
Arjun told me he had access to Gawli and the family and maybe we could get official permission. I wanted to go into Dagdi chawl, hang out with Daddy, spend time with the family and get the real deal. No item songs, high-speed shots or far-fetched action sequences, no casting interference, no star tantrums; I needed total control on the film.
I think Arjun too wanted this to be unlike anything else he’d done before, so this became a genuine collaboration. In order to protect the cinematic vision of the film, and also the way I imagined his character, Arjun eventually needed to become the co-producer. This could never have been made as a studio film nor as an indie film. It needed a Bollywood star to get Gawli’s sign off. The celebrity power of Arjun being able to convince Gawli and me having the freedom to do it my way is something I found exciting. If this is the case with all industry films, I would have no problem making films here but it’s not. Daddy is a total exception.
From Miss Lovely to Daddy, there has been a shift in your filmography from independent cinema to something slightly more commercial – how would you describe this change in line of your cinematic sensibilities?
For many people, Gawli is a folk hero, so I wanted the film to be more accessible to that audience. That’s what is different from my other work – there is a different kind of viewer, perhaps someone who lives in Dagdi Chawl, and I don’t want them to be excluded. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to dumb it down or remove the complexity of his character or the world he comes from. For me, it’s an experiment to see if we can make a more nuanced film within the system and whether the audience will be open to something that isn’t all black and white, or all good and bad.
In many ways, the film has the essence of my other work. We shot on real locations with many non-actors (like small time gangsters) mixed into the cast, something I had done on Miss Lovely. Similarly, there is a huge emphasis on place and atmosphere. The storytelling is quite unusual by mainstream standards because it’s a multi-strand narrative. It’s a biopic but Gawli’s point of view is missing. The audience has to make up their own mind about what they think of him.
Arun Gawli has been part of the mythology of this city ever since I was a kid
In one of your previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that stars don’t interest you on a fundamental level. Does that still hold true?
Yeah. For me, cinema has always been a director’s medium. You know, Miss Lovely went to Cannes, it was released theatrically in the U.S., Japan, Taiwan France, Germany, but in India, it was extremely difficult to get a release. This is true of all our best films. In our industry, films are only mounted and financed on the basis of a star and not the director or the content. It’s a deeply flawed system and works for churning out box office numbers but not for making memorable cinema.
Most of the big stars don’t care about making great films, they are only interested in collections. But this is slowly changing, especially with the younger generation. Hollywood actors want to work with certain directors because they want a certain prestige, Brad Pitt with a Terrence Malick for example. We are now seeing that here as well.
Arjun had a long filmography but when he looked back, there wasn’t one film that he was absolutely proud of. He wanted Daddy to be that film. He was looking at an extension of what he thought was his potential, and I was looking for a space to make a film within this traditional structure of finance and distribution, which can’t be changed by making an independent film. It has to be done from the inside.
In a lot of Hindi films, characters have a plot and a trajectory but no relationship to their space
Do you think Arjun fits the character of Arun Gawli?
I committed to making the film only after doing the look tests. Arjun had spent a lot of time thinking about the character as he had been offered this role earlier with another producer and director. However, he realized that they were taking it into a Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai space, which was far from the real story, and he felt it had more potential. By the time I came on board, he had already been obsessing about Gawli, spent time watching his YouTube clips, getting into his mannerisms and learning Marathi.
Gawli has a small frame compared to Arjun but during the look and gesture tests, he was able to become the smallest guy in the room, that guy watching from the background. I needed him to capture that aspect of Gawli’s spirit. People thought I was crazy, that Arjun could never achieve this, but I felt convinced that this could be a real casting coup. Many assumed I was making a sell-out Bollywood movie with Arjun as a glamorous gangster. Of course, when you see him in the film you realize that it’s not like that at all and it breaks all expectations. It’s very much my kind of a film.
How important was it for you to get Arjun’s look right for the film?
It was important for Arjun’s facial features and body language to have a clear resonance to Gawli’s. I didn’t want him to project too much or deliver huge speeches because that’s not the character; Gawli isn’t like that in real life. He’s quiet, paranoid, constantly observing; you can never figure out what he’s thinking. He’s a total mystery. That’s the kind of character I wanted to build.
No item songs, high-speed shots or far-fetched action sequences, no casting interference, no star tantrums
What did your research for this film constitute?
I spent time with Arun Gawli and his family, his allies, his enemies, retired mobsters, shooters, policemen. We got information about the textile mills and the creation of gangs in Agripada and Lalbaug areas through police files and textile mill archives. But there’s hardly any accurate information in the public domain about Arun Gawli so it was very difficult.
I wanted the audience to experience what it would feel like to be in a Bombay gang in the 80s, a uniquely desi atmosphere, not a Narcos or a Godfather. Gawli comes from the BRA gang that comprised of Babu Reshim, Rama Naik and Arun Gawli. Babu and Rama were the bigger gangsters and Arun was, initially, more of a sidekick. My first question was, what did Babu really look like? We then found a photograph of him. There are stories of Rama’s love for his hair – he used to get it cut at a specific Agripada saloon. I had to see what his hairstyle was to emulate it. Finally we found his mug shot in a police file.
Next, I wanted to know how Gawli looked in the 70s, because I’ve only seen him in his current avatar, with his white kurta and cap. We found one picture of him in his youth with a stylish shirt and hairstyle, shot in the Agripada police station in 1979. That became the basis for the film poster. Once I became closer to the Gawli family, I looked through their family albums and recreated Asha Gawli’s look. Old timers from Dagdi chawl who have seen the film are amazed by the research done and how close the film is to reality.
It’s a biopic but Gawli’s point of view is missing. The audience has to make up their own mind about what they think of him
Were you scared at any point while making the film?
Daddy is set within the world of crime and although we have the permission of the Gawli family, there are numerous other characters who are thinly disguised versions of themselves. Some may not be happy with how they are represented. Making this kind of cinema involves some fear and you do get occasional threats. When I made Miss Lovely I used to get calls from porn actresses in the middle of the night asking me to come to their hotel rooms.
I’m not making children’s films so I’m aware of the risks involved. But it’s great to get to spend time with individuals I would otherwise never get access to. Whether it’s hanging out with pornographers or somebody who has done a decade of jail time, it’s a different level of human experience. As a filmmaker, that’s very stimulating.
Your films are set in a particular era, Miss Lovely was in the 1980s and Daddy is also around that time. How do you keep the essence of that era alive?
The next film I make has to be contemporary! I have done two period films and I am kind of done recreating that period in Mumbai. Maybe I’ve done that because it’s all disappearing; those buildings, people, the images, it’s all going. I have memories from growing up in this city. I don’t think I could get into this level of immersive detailing in a city that I didn’t have a relationship with.
Characters don’t exist in a vacuum. In a lot of Hindi films, characters have a plot and a trajectory but no relationship to their space. The town they grow up in looks like a backdrop, not a place that has produced this individual. But cinema is spatial, it’s not theatre, it has to be atmospheric. You need to build a believable world first and then populate it with the characters. Like Miss Lovely, even Daddy’s cast includes real life gangsters and people from that universe who wanted to act and are playing themselves. They aren’t actors. But it creates an environment on the set where you are immersed.
That’s what I generally do to create a world, I place the crew and actors in a crazy place; we might be in a brothel working in extreme heat and there is no escape, no vanity van or studio green room one can run to. When you do that over a course of days, there is a kind of hypnosis, everyone starts living in that world and it really shows in the film.
In our industry, films are only mounted and financed on the basis of a star and not the director or the content
You cast Nawazuddin for Miss Lovely when he wasn’t that famous or known in the industry. How do you go about the process of casting?
Miss Lovely was Nawazuddin’s first lead, before Gangs of Wasseypur. He came in for an audition having done only small parts, and I was like, he’s our guy! Daddy is the only film where the actor came to me, so in a way it was pre-cast. For the cop, we cast the director Nishikant Kamat. He’s Maharashtrian and had the right passive-aggressive attitude. He’s super in the film, totally unexpected.
My D.A. (Director’s Assistant) Leenali reminded me about Aishwarya Rajesh from the Tamil film Kaaka Muttai; she is incredible. I had to find her through festival connections; she couldn’t believe that she was being paired with Arjun Rampal. Aishwarya looks so much like Asha Gawli, even the family was shocked. This film has very diverse casting. The lead is a mainstream Bollywood actor, his wife is from the South and I’m working with Marathi actors and real life gangsters.
During the look and gesture tests, Arjun was able to become the smallest guy in the room, that guy watching from the background
Being a biopic, how much creative freedom have you taken as a filmmaker to fictionalize Arun Gawli’s character/story?
Certain names had to be changed to protect identities, and we needed to keep legal issues in mind, as there are still many ongoing cases. In some places, we had to simplify or tweak the storytelling, as it was difficult to keep track of all the details. Sometimes there are different versions of the story with no clear facts – in these cases we took liberties. Obviously everyone has a different take, so I chose to tell the story through different points of view. But mostly it’s very close, which is why we needed Arun Gawli’s consent on every scene.
Coming Soon: Part 2 of the Exclusive chat with Ashim Ahluwalia where he talks about his affinity to darker sections of society, the changing ecosystem of films in India and more.