Things that are not acceptable by the norm fascinate me: Onir
National Award-winning Filmmaker Onir is known for his stories, stories that challenge the norm. He has never been one to conform to the typical standards of society and is constantly looking for stories that don’t excite everybody else.
The Writer-Director-Editor-Producer who is drawn to relationships and reality is currently focusing on introducing new acting talent through his films. His latest film Shab launches two new faces.
In a freewheeling chat, we speak to Onir to know more about Shab and his other films, his influences and more.
The trailer of Shab says, “The only love stories worth telling are the forbidden ones.” Does that also hold true for your own body of work?
Quote unquote, Yes. If I look at My Brother Nikhil and the relationship between two guys, it isn’t something that’s accepted legally in this society. I feel that the society has its do’s and don’ts. I am always interested in the latter. My belief lies in the fact that there shouldn’t be any don’ts. Things that are not acceptable by the norm fascinate me.
How would you define Shab?
It’s a film about dreams, desires and destiny. It is set in South Delhi and is about different characters coming from different parts of the country. They come and realize their dreams, and how the city changes their lives. It’s about how the city makes you forget your original self. And about dealing with oneself.
My films deal with different shades of relationships
What are the influences for you to write?
What really inspires me are real life incidences and stories. Things that I see directly or indirectly push me to write. So, I’d say reality inspires me.
Raveena Tandon is one of the main characters in Shab. What makes her ideal for the role?
Raveena has been a part of this film since long. I wrote the film seventeen years ago and spoke to her about it when we first met. At that time, I was working on one of her films as an editor. Sanjay (Suri) and she were instrumental in me starting to write scripts. At that time itself, I was clear about casting Raveena. But the film happened seventeen years later. So, the script had evolved as it had to change with time. When I was through with the scripting, she agreed upon playing the other role.
And French actor Simon Frenay, how did he come on board?
His role was that of an expatriate who is a teacher in Delhi teaching French. I was unable to get a good actor in Mumbai or Delhi (for the role). They were mostly tourists and non-actors who were into modeling. Two of my films were being screened at Paris. So, I decided to audition there. That’s where I met Simon. We auditioned 2-3 times and he was shortlisted.
I am spending time and energy training them new actors to be a part of projects
Why did you choose to go with debutant actors Ashish Bisht and Arpita Chatterjee?
Contrary to belief, Arpita is not a fresher. She’s an established actor of Bengali cinema. Her casting was accidental. I’d gone to meet her husband Prosenjit who is a star there. When I saw her walking down the stairs, I got a feeling that she’s the girl I am looking for, for my film. There was something about her face which I connected with and saw her as my character.
Casting for Ashish’s character took a very long time. I had auditioned at various places, from Mumbai to Kolkata to Karachi. I wanted a newcomer but at the same time a person who is not just good looking but can act as well. I wanted innocence and vulnerability in his character. That was a difficult combination to get. Ashish had auditioned with me in 2010 for I am but got rejected. I had seen a spark in him back then. When he shifted to Mumbai, he kept in touch. He was always asking me for guidance on how to handle the city and his career. He was someone who would constantly ask questions to grow as an actor.
We auditioned him over fifteen times for this film! Each time he improved and never gave up. He’d say, “I am sure you will not find anyone and will ultimately cast me.” (Laughs) I liked that perseverance in him. Ultimately, what won him this role out of the other three persons shortlisted was his innocence and vulnerability. Others had seen the world. There is a love-making sequence in the film between his character and that of Raveena. That was a crucial scene for me and I wanted someone who could portray the emotion of being a novice. Nervousness and fear are the elements I was looking for. Ashish somehow had these in him naturally. After seeing the takes, I am glad I decided to go with him.
The film had its world premiere at New York and received a fabulous response. What according to you appealed to the audience, giving the film a global appeal?
I think it’s because the narrative is unique with respect to the space it is coming from. We do not usually see such stories from here. It is set in an urban city of India, so people can relate to it. Today, the world is becoming smaller and similar. Though the milieu is Indian but the emotion is human quality. My films deal with different shades of relationships. People can identify with the characters. They can identify with love, jealousy and hatred because they are true emotions.
You’ve also edited the film. With films that you edit, is it a different shooting ratio for you considering that you have an edit in your mind?
I have trained as an editor. I even work with my sister who is a National Award-winning editor. I give the film to her to review the cut. I do the first cut and give it to others to view. My training has been on film and not digital, so I am very disciplined about my shots. I am very particular about shooting only what’s required. I guess, that’s coming from my editing experience only.
Your last documentary Raising the Bar did well. Would you want to explore this format more aggressively?
The producer of the film, Mitu, is a dear friend. I did that film only because of her. She asked me if I could do it and I said yes, impulsively. I would again say, relationships and reality inspire me. For the sake of a relationship I did the film, and there was scope to explore reality. The story touched me because it was about love, acceptance and celebrating people who are quote unquote different. I don’t want to do lots of documentaries. I will only do documentaries if something inspires me.
Relationships and reality inspire me
With Chauranga you collaborated with debutant director Bikas Mishra. In the capacity of a producer, are you looking at more such collaborations with budding directors?
As a producer, I have introduced music directors, writers and directors. Right now I am also looking at introducing new talents in terms of acting. In this film you see Ashish. Even for Arpita, this is her first Bollywood project. In my next film you will see another set of actors who are debuting. I am spending time and energy training them to be a part of projects. So my focus is more on actors right now.
Your short film Aaba premiered at Berlin. How does the treatment towards a short vary as compared to a longer format. What are you more comfortable with?
I did not direct that film. It was directed by Amar Kaushik and I just co-produced it. Just like Bikas, I wanted to collaborate with him (Amar). Whenever he needed creative inputs from me, I was there. The story of Aaba is a real story set in Arunanchal Pradesh. The reason for being a co-producer on the film along with Rajkumar Gupta is that the story touched me a lot. It is the kind of cinema that I want to be associated with. It becomes even more special because it comes from a person who has been working with me since 2008. Shorts and features are two formats but the central thread is the same, i.e. the story. I like to tell stories.
You cannot write a festival film. You cannot write a film that will definitely become a commercial success
What kind of stories does Anticlock films wish to focus on going forward ?
Stories which generally don’t excite everybody else. People contact me and say that they have a script which will be a commercial hit. Or they have a script which will go to the festivals. These proposals are a big no from my side. I would rather have someone who has a story to tell. You cannot write a festival film. You cannot write a film that will definitely become a commercial success. It is all rubbish. If it were so simple then everybody would be doing either of the two. I just want to work with people who are honest about the story. Aaba was such an honest story, which is the reason why it’s won various awards at leading festivals around the globe and is being considered for the Oscars.