If there is one director who has learnt the art of balancing Art cinema with Commercial potboilers in India, then it is none other than Anant Mahadevan. He is one director who I believe follows his heart and makes movies around subjects that he believes in without caring about its Box Office results. Case in point are movies like Dil Vil Pyar Vyar, Dil Maange More, Aksar, Staying Alive, Xpose, Mee Sindhutai Sapkal and Gour Hari Dastaan among others. It is a proud moment for me as I am blessed to interview my favorite actor-director Anant Mahadevan today over a cup of chai and cookies. Here is an excerpt of our intense chat.
On the onset Anantji let me congratulate you on Gour Hari Dastaan. It was one of the most sincere movies I saw this year. How did the idea take shape?
(Smiles) Das’ story in a tabloid set me thinking about the “absurdity” of the drama. A man having to fight for an identity in his own country…a country he had helped to free. Why was this country living in a constant state of denial and untruth? Was the freedom that Das fought for abused and corrupted? The man opened up several layers to ponder about and translate into cinema that was at once a personal account and a political statement.
Right… So, how did your journey with Bollywood start?
I was self-tutored in the arts, particularly cinema. The film society and festival screenings exposed me to the work of masters from Europe, Asia and the Americas. But it wasn’t easy to start off making the films one wanted to make. I often wish I had started with Staying Alive and then gone on to Red Alert, Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, Gour Hari Dastaan and now Rough Book and Life is Good. But like they say, the brook has to flow through marshy land to open up into the river. I had to bide my time. Mainstream cinema helped me to get recognition and contacts.
In Bollywood you either see mainstream commercial movies or independent art movies. It is rare or I must say unheard of a director like you whose movie repertoire has a mix of both hard-core commercial potboilers as well as simple artistic movies. How do you balance it out?
I don’t know whether that is something to be proud of (throwing his hands in the air). Mainstream cinema often demands compromises and you wind up being dissatisfied at the end of it all. Like I said, it was some sort of pre-requisite to bring in the kind of cinema I was yearning to do. In the process I got this tag of being at home with “mainstream” and “independent” cinema. How I wish mainstream cinema would permit more sensibilities so that one could emulate a Billy Wilder, Scorcese or Spielberg who are the people who have pulled off both worlds so well (smiles).
You are one of the most talented actors in our industry. I have seen how well you own a character and turn yourself into that character eg: The villainous role in Khiladi, the fatherly roles in several movies, the comic role in Ghar Jamai etc. then why do we see so less of you in movies as an actor?
I have had my fill of blockbuster movies like Khiladi, Baazigar, Ishq, Baadshah, Gardish et al. They gave me some fine screen time and I still enjoy the adulation… But currently the scene tends to marginalize actors like me who want to sink their teeth into something substantial. Television has become a cruel joke and popular cinema ends up making you look redundant. So, I have to wait patiently for a Papanaasam to come and whet my appetite (smiles). I would now want to work with the masters of regional cinema like Shaji Karun or Buddadheb Das Gupta and others, and portray some memorable characters.
How did the Papanasam role come to you?
Kamal Haasan, after what seemed an eternity, called to find out if I would be interested to do a bilingual in Vishwaroopam 2. We had a great time filming it and the bonding strengthened. So when he recommended me for Uttama Villain, I was cursing my luck as I was shooting for Xpose in Mumbai on the same dates. But Kamal didn’t hold that against me. He along with director Jeetu Joseph who had made the original Drishyam cast me in the pivotal role of the boy’s father. Papanaasam brought me some of my best critical acclaim as an actor and I am grateful for that (smiles).
I loved your character in Papanasam (smiles) you brought in a different persona to the role which was quite different from what Siddique did in the original.
Thank you (smiles).
Any interesting incidents you can narrate while working with Kamal Hasanji in Vishwaroopam 2 and Papanasam?
Kamal would so gracefully prepare coffee for me from the percolator he carried with him and then discussions over life and cinema would begin. He had so much to share and lunch breaks were brainstorming sessions. There was this wonderful vibe between us… the thirst to discuss everything under the sun. That was so different from the Hindi film scene where only gossip dominates amidst actors (smiles).
You have worked with Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan whom did you enjoy working with?
I had more screen time and off-screen time with Shah Rukh. Baazigar, Baadshah and Yes Boss were three films I did with him. I then went on to direct his first fiction series for television Ghar Ki Baat Hai produced under Red Chillies’ Idiot Box.
With Aamir it was a guest appearance in Akele Hum Akele Tum where we enjoyed playing chess between shots, and the rather lacklustre Mann. So I guess Shah Rukh takes the bigger share of the pie (laughs). If only he showed some inclination towards substantial alternate productions, I could have shot some interesting films as director for his company. But I guess the commercial wave let loose by people around him will never let that happen (frowns).
The music in all your commercial movies have been chartbusters. How much do you contribute in your movie’s music or is it left to the music composers to come up with their own compositions?
I have a great affinity for music and melody is a trait I always cherish. Having devoured the great compositions of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, I was quite rigid about the best possible compositions from the mind of a music director for my films. I was lucky to get the rights to recreate Panchamda’s works in my debut Dil Vil Pyar Vyar while Himmesh came up with some lovely romantic melodies and toe-tapping numbers in Dil Maange More and Aksar. So did Anu Malik who recreated the Rajasthan ethos in Anamika. Sometimes I miss making musicals, but now I must not succumb to the formula again (smiles).
Out of all the actors you have directed in your movies, who is your favorite?
It would be tough to answer that. Suniel Shetty worked really hard in Red Alert, though it is Vinay Pathak who has me applauding each time I watch Gour Hari Dastaan-The Freedom File. The thought and work behind the portrayal of Das could open up an entire master’s class, though some critics displayed their utter lack of understanding of an actor’s preparation and pitching, and misread the whole performance.
Mee Sindhutai Sapkal gave you 4 National Awards, however Gour Hari Dastaan did not even get nominated for any. Any thoughts?
The 4 National awards for Mee Sindhutai Sapkal reinstated my faith in things working on merit in this country. But I was dismayed, to say the least, that Gour Hari Dastaan did not fetch even an award for maestros like Resul Pookutty and Dr L Subramaniam this year, forget Vinay Pathak! (pause) Did it not deserve even to be the best Hindi film, if not anything else? It was a real shocker but I have grown out of it and conditioned myself not to expect anything in future even if I have created a highly rewarding slice of cinema.
How difficult is it to tell a story of a living personality?
A tough call (frowns). You have your task cut out. The challenge is to steer clear of a documentary, yet dramatize the life without taking too much licences. Of late making biopics has become a sensational joke in Hindi cinema. The character is exploited within the parameters of the formula and tom-tomed as a true story. Both in Sindhutai Sapkal and Gour Hari Das’ cases I was extra cautious to recreate the lives without resorting to clichés and melodrama. And specially when dealing with a living person, the research and approach has to be just right.
Are you directing Xpose 2?
No Xpose 2 is not on the cards.
You have the distinction of giving Emraan Hashmi the first hit outside Bhatt camp. How was it working with Emraan?
Emraan is quite a trooper. He had the guts to say “yes” to a character that dies three-fourth into a film where the villain [Dino Morea] walks away with murder. He was a real professional who enjoyed his moments before the camera and was totally devoid of tantrums or attitude.
How comfortable were you while directing a Marathi movie? Any challenges you faced during the shoot of Sindhutai Sapkal?
Marathi has been a second language right from my school days, so the comfort levels were bang-on. Of course changing the style of Marathi actors to a more natural tone was the task, and I had to make them shed their sing-song dialogue delivery. But the filming was one of the best experiences I had and the rawness of the subject was appreciated worldwide.
You have worked in both Tollywood and Bollywood. What is the major difference you saw in both industries?
I have only worked as an actor in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, I hate those “wooden” nicknames (irritated) they are a disciplined lot and take their schedules seriously. In many ways far more organised than the Hindi film scene where laptops and emails are passed off as hectic prep activity.
So what are your future projects as an actor as well as a director?
ROUGH BOOK (excitedly), a gritty analysis of the education scene in India is my new film and all set to be theatrically screened soon. Principals, teachers and educationists who have seen previews are recommending it to scores of parents and students and I am hoping that the film becomes a cult film for youth. There is also another major biopic I am working on now after Rough Book.
Okay (smiles)… Anantji we have a small fun segment in Chai With Shai where I will ask you few questions and you have to reply in one word.
So brace yourself…here is the first question (winks) Himesh Reshamiyya as an actor or music director?
Even I would agree to it (smiles)… Which is your favorite movie Sindhu Tai Sapkal or Gour Hari Dastaan?
Gour Hari Dastaan, because it made me grow as a director
Okay here comes a difficult one (rubbing my hands) pick your favorite movie amongst Dil Vil Pyar Vyar, Dil Maange More, Aksar and Xpose.
(smiles) Dil Vil Pyar Vyar
Konkona Sen or Tejaswini Pandit?
Both a class of their own
Tollywood Err…. (pauses) South Indian Movies or Hindi Movies?
The South (chuckles),
Who is the most promising star among the younger lot?
That was fast (smiles)… Okay, your all-time favorite movie?
A Separation [Iran]
If given a choice which old classic would you like to remake?
No remakes for me (waving his hand)…Victoria 203 is a lesson learnt (laughs)
Which book would you like to ever adapt into a movie?
The book that scientist Nambinarayan has just written on the ISRO scandal. In fact am already doing it (smiles).
Last not the least, any advice to your fans?
This is not a career which is a last resort…education, passion, perseverance and resistance to temptation are the key-words (smiles).
Well said Sir, I am sure most of the youngsters will definitely take your advice seriously and act upon it. Thank you so much for being a part of my chat series, looking forward to many more straight-from-the-heart movies from you in the future.