Sit With Hitlist: Maverick director Anurag Kashyap traces his journey in the movies -- from a wannabe actor in college to now -- via funny, never-heard-before anecdotes.
Anurag Kashyap joins Mayank Shekhar for the virtual edition of Sit With Hitlist from his Versova home
The first time ever that filmmaker Imtiaz Ali saw what a portfolio looked like — an album with photos of a person, in multiple looks and poses — was that of an actor called Anurag Kashyap. Back then, Ali was in college in Delhi, helping out a local TV serial crew, when Kashyap approached him with his portfolio.
"It was 1992. Imtiaz was in [Delhi-s] Hindu College. I had just discovered theatre, and was told that you need to get pictures clicked, if you want work. I did, after collecting Rs 3000, which was a big sum then. And I started doing a lot of acting on stage, and I did some films," the candid Kashyap recalls.
Ever since Ali told me about that portfolio in jest, during an interview, I-ve been meaning to ask Kashyap about it. Besides, he is before me on the screen — this conversation being held over a video-conferencing app. And the last time I saw him on screen was as an actor in the recent, cutesy Zee5 release, Ghoomketu, where he played a cop. Kashyap shuts his eyes with his palm, feigning embarrassment at the mention!
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"Also, what Imtiaz did not tell you was one of the first films that I did as the lead-actor, he was my co-star. The only copy of the film is with Zee, where it had premiered on January 26, 1994. We don-t talk about it. Imtiaz will kill me. If you ever pull out a copy from the Zee library, he will come after you too!"
"The good thing about being a bad actor is you know how to extract great performances," Kashyap tells me later. Which in his case, I-m told, notoriously involves hardly ever saying "action" or "cut" on set. Often, no lines for actors to mug up, let alone extensive rehearsals, before shoot. It-s a process only the best can survive.
Ali, of course, played the -93 Bombay bomb blast accused Yakub Memon in Kashyap-s first release, Black Friday 2007. He played a bigger role in his life, if you consider that Kashyap used to shack up at Ali-s place while the latter was doing a post-grad course at Mumbai-s Xavier Institute of Communications XIC.
This is also how Kashyap first met his key associate, Vikramaditya Motwane, with whom he later founded the production company, Phantom, where they did a string of films together. Kashyap also produced Motwane-s directorial debut, Udaan 2010. Likewise, Motwane was the show-runner for the Netflix global series Sacred Games 2018, which Kashyap directed both seasons of.
He reminisces, "I couldn-t get into XIC, and was living in Imtiaz-s room. Aarti Bajaj, my first wife and permanent editor for both mine and Imtiaz-s films, was a year junior. Vikramaditya Motwane was Aarti-s classmate. That-s how we knew each other.
"But we really became friends during the shoot of [Deepa Mehta-s] Water. Vikram was an assistant, and I was writing dialogues. The shoot got stalled [due to protests], and we spent a lot of time in Banaras. Thereafter, I kept meeting him because he was first assistant director AD to Vishal Bhardwaj in his first film called Barf, before Maqbool — that never got made."
In fact, if it wasn-t for spotting Motwane — somewhere in the back, in a baseball hat — in a picture from the -mahurat shot- of Kashyap-s directorial debut Paanch, that he had posted on Twitter, I wouldn-t have known that the two went that far back together. No, it wasn-t the film-s anniversary being celebrated on social-media. Can-t be. That movie never released.
Kashyap says, "Yeah, that was sometime around 2000. Vikram was one of the sound designers on Paanch. And because I was scared of shooting songs, and he had been Sanjay Leela Bhansali-s assistant, I asked him to direct the songs. He had two credits in the film — sound designer, and director of songs. It was a first for many people —Bosco-Caesar as choreographer, Natty [Natarajan Subramanian] as cameraman, Wasiq Khan as art director, Aarti Bajaj as editor. Abbas Tyrewala was the lyricist in the film and Vishal Bhardwaj did the music. Both of them, Vikram, I and others, used to hang out together. Then, there was Sriram Raghavan, Shivam Nair and a whole lot of others — part of another gang. Even Tigmanshu Dhulia, Irrfan and others were all close to my brother [Abhinav]. That was the third gang. I was the centre-point, everywhere. And then I had another friends- circle, with Anand Surapur [who directed Fakir Of Venice, Farhan Akhtar-s acting debut], Zoya Akhtar and the lot. When I wrote a script, I had way too many boards to bounce off. And that-s what we did!
"I was a huge fan of Sriram Raghavan-s Raman Raghav [a docu-drama on a serial killer that Kashyap remade in 2016]. And I used to write with Shiva Nair. They gave me credit on their [script] Ranga Billa, although I was happy to work without credit. Likewise, I rewrote a script of Shiv Subramaniam, Auto Narayan, because I had a take on it. But they also gave me credit. Then a strange thing happened, with a script I wrote officially, for the first time, called Nagarajan — with Kamal Swaroop Om Darbadar as director. For that film, I found an actor I was a fan of from Delhi stage, called Manoj Bajpayee. I put the film together. But it never happened. Nobody was showing faith in Manoj. He was going through a hard time and doing Ram Gopal Varma-s Daud, which is when Ramuji said he wanted to make a film [Satya] with Manoj. And asked if he knew of a writer for it. Without having seen any of my written works, Manoj took me to Ram Gopal Varma."
The rest, as they say — if you casually scroll up the -gangs-/cast of characters again — is history. Of post-millennial, part indie, part commercial, wholly entertaining Hindi cinema. Charge of the bright brigade, if you will. The new subversive Bollywood, arguably. It helps that Kashyap was not just at the centre of several spokes and that he continues to be.
The Hitlist editor connects over a video call
But that he-s also a liberal raconteur: "Oh, one of my favourite stories is about Mahesh Bhatt. He happened to me, right before Ram Gopal Varma. He got me to write films. And Mukesh Bhatt [his brother, and producer] was very miserly with money. I was struggling for rent. Pooja Bhatt was the nicest and kindest; I would tell her to talk to her dad."
"Then I just walked up to [Mahesh] Bhatt saab once and said that I-d rather be a carpenter than work in his office. With his brother [Mukesh] around, he didn-t say a word. When I was leaving, he came down, said, -Don-t ever change.- And he put Rs 10,000 in my hand. That was big money in 1994-1995."
Years later, at a post-screening event in a film-festival abroad, Kashyap was narrating the first part of the story above. He heard a voice from the audience: "Aur Mahesh Bhatt ne paise diye the. Woh bhool gaye?" "Bhatt saab was sitting in the crowd. I got so emotional. I have had funny incidents like these."
"I remember [the media maven] Amit Khanna trying to hold me back to work on TV serials, where there was so much money. Naseeruddin Shah also cast me in a play, Androcles and the Lion. I walked out of everything to do [Varma-s] Satya. It was instinctive. I had to write that film."
My favourite Kashyap story is about a prominent -90s film-critic who was chatting with Ram Gopal Varma on the sets of Shool. Gazing at a young Kashyap, who had written the film, and mainly to haze him, he asked Varma if his bratty assistant even knew what the word -shool- meant. Kashyap stuck out his three fingers, "That-s tri-shool." Staring at him still, he left his middle-finger pointed up: "And this is shool!"
He repeats the punch-line/move, laughs, continues: "There was a time when Mukul Anand was making Trimurti 1995. I wanted to work with him as an assistant. I would call his house land-line. Every call was a rupee gone. And he was always busy. Third time I said, -Subhash Ghai bol raha hoon. Unko bolna kal se set pe aane ki zarurat nahin hai [This is producer Subhash Ghai, tell him not to show up on the sets from tomorrow],- and hung up. Now when somebody trolls me on social media, I just remember my time!"
There is then the moment he randomly landed up at Shah Rukh Khan-s bungalow Mannat he mistakenly calls it Jannat on Bandstand: "I was hungry and I walked into his house, using our college connection [both went to Hansraj in Delhi]. I remember him feeding me. He only knew how to make omelette."
Screenshot of Anurag Kashyap during the call
And then, there are the more famous spats, with those clichéd kickers, -Anurag Kashyap ko gussa kyun aata hai-: "Karan Johar gave an interview calling me a psychopath. Till then we had not met. I called him a fat kid, who still thinks he is in school. Remember we had this fight in mid-day. I also said something about Anil Kapoor in the interview that became a headline. But people always knew I was childlike."
Of course much about public exchanges have changed since the late 2000s, where the audience is now equally a participant — altering and shaping opinions on public figures, based on beliefs, rather than any first-hand knowledge. Despite lack of the latter, one opinion is as good as the other.
Kashyap vividly remembers, "I bought my first laptop, and discovered the Internet. What-s the first thing you do then? Google yourself. I landed on a page where people were talking about me and my films with incorrect information. I was also going through a phase when everybody was saying things that I am not. I told them this is not true. These people were like, who told you? I said I am Anurag Kashyap! They said, why don-t you start talking? I said fine, I-ll talk, assuming 20 people will read."
That website was called Passion for Cinema PFC. If you-ll excuse the exaggeration, it was Bombay/Versova-s very own Cahiers du Cinema, with diverse/off-stream voices expressing themselves as critics/bloggers, before filmmakers.
Kashyap cites, "Chaitanya Tamhane [Court], Anand Gandhi [Ship of Theseus], Dibakar Banerjee, even before his first movie… There was [composer] Sneha Khanwalkar, Kartik Krishnan, who runs Filter Copy… So many names. Vasan Bala [Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota] and Neeraj Ghaywan [Masaan] quit their jobs. Suddenly many of these people started working with me. We were raising money. My office-space became a kind of dharamshala. People stayed and lived there — all we could provide was food."
This alternate eco-system might be Kashyap-s far more dramatic contribution to films, than merely his movies alone. He-s perhaps a film buff/activist, first. And this has always been the case. He-s gone to the extent of rescuing actor Rajpal Yadav from Andheri railway station, since he was returning to his hometown, having given up. That-s when, Kashyap says, he first met the nondescript Nawazuddin Siddiqui, standing next to Yadav.
At a data/practical level, consider the ensemble cast of Gangs of Wasseypur GoW; 2012, which looks now like the first batch of national school of lead-actors, for films and web-series — besides Nawaz, Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Richa Chadha, Huma Qureshi, even Jaideep Ahlawat, who killed it in the deathly dark Paatal Lok. Or, why not Vicky Kaushal, since he assisted Kashyap in GoW!
Also, over years, he-s allowed unfettered access to young/untested/fresh writing-directing talents, having actively produced their films, lent his name/heft for no benefit to himself; or generally egged on peers and past associates alike. "Who am I? Someone like Martin Scorsese still makes time for that," Kashyap reasons. Speaking of which, and exploring the film-buff side still — in a very PFC fan-boy sort of way — Kashyap equally lights up when you ask about his Alice/Anurag In Wonderland moments, meeting his own greats.
Like Scorsese, for instance who, after having watched GoW, invited him to be on the jury of the Marrakech film festival. Before Scorsese walked in, Kashyap was smoking outside with the Oscar winning Italian director Paulo Sorrentino, without knowing it was Sorrentino! Both were nervously puffing away.
"When Scorsese sat down on his table — me, [German-Turkish star-director] Fatih Akin, [French sensation] Marion Cotillard, [Italian star] Golshifteh Farahani…We were all equals, looking up to him. We were also there, because of him!"
Or this other time, Kashyap was in the same room as Francis Ford Coppola, "Sophia Coppola, his daughter, was with him. He is old. I kept staring at him for so long that he made me sit on his lap and said, now talk to me!"
These are of course perks of having your works travel among audiences/aesthetes abroad, as Kashyap-s both as producer and director have, especially at the movie Mecca, Cannes. Plus a global streaming giant like Netflix helps reach around 200 countries simultaneously.
Since Netflix began commissioning Indian content only three-four years ago, Kashyap has already directed two shorts in the self-explanatory Lust Stories, Ghost Stories, directed-produced two seasons of a show the underworld saga Sacred Games, produced a zombie mini-series Ghoul, and directed a feature Choked.
While the Netflix model evidently allows him to go out of the box office, as it were, there is also the mainstream audience that can-t be altogether alienated. I know at least one friend who did not understand Kashyap-s short film in Ghost Stories at all. While the others were gently scratching their heads, it went totally over hers. It was the same look on theatrical audiences with Kashyap-s No Smoking 2007. Where does he stand on the art for self-expression versus art for mass-communication debate?
Screenshots of Kashyap during the call
"No film is ever made with the intention of people not getting it. I just don-t like to over-explain. So, I try to leave hints here and there. With Ghost Stories, I thought absolutely everybody will get it. The idea behind that was of a woman dealing with her own trauma. Then Zoya [Akhtar] pointed out that I could have confused people by putting the kid in there. No Smoking taught me how not to make Choked. Both are magic realism."
Choked is about kitchen and bathroom plumbing, choking with money/cash! It-s also the first Indian filmic commentary on the 2016 demonetisation. Screenshots of related scenes from the film are already doing the rounds as memes on the Internet. Which is the default pop-culture response to most of Kashyap-s films.
For instance, the tagline Emotional Atyachar in DevD 2009. Where does that come from? "There was a line in the song Pardesi, that went, -Ikke ho gaye, agge yaar-. Sounded like atyachar to me, which is what I kept humming, when -emotional- hit my head at night, so I called [composer] Amit Trivedi to write it down. The brass band elements came from Kamal Swaroop-s Om Darbadar and Emir Kasturica-s The Underground. I told Amit and [lyricist] Amitabh Bhattacharya, "Band ko record karna hai. Emotional atyachar gaana hai. Baaki, you guys figure out."
What about the running/chase sequence in Black Friday 2007? "There were too many arrests to be shown in Black Friday, so we just compressed them with a chase, where we could see the world these characters [blast-accused] came from." How about -Tumse naa ho payega- from GoW? "That was all in Tigmanshu Dhulia-s delivery!" And what about… Okay, this could leap across pages. Will stop now. Deserves a series.
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