A ‘Daas’ To Politics

On the sidelines of the ‘inaugural press conference’ for his movie ‘Daas Dev’ at Chandigarh, Sudhir Mishra a celebrated director known for his works like ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ and ‘Dharavi’, talks about his take on ‘Devdas’, politics, censorship among other things.

While he tried to connect this ‘inaugural press conference’ with Chandigarh and Punjab via the music of the movie, but the film is very much based in Uttar Pradesh.

Without further ado, here’s the Interview with minor edits.

Anup: Considering you have always done stories that are so different, why did you pick ‘Devdas’ considering its been done so many time?
Sudhir Mishra:
Either you can do something fresh with a thing or you can’t. Weather I take a story or my own life or take my own experiences, I haven’t invented them, right? I have a political inclination and I make a film of a certain kind which explore certain kinds of things. At the end of the day I try to hold you with that story, and I found this subject interesting.

At the same time, I wanted to make a film about power as an addiction. Something that links back to my own personal history in the form of my grandfather, Dwarka Prasad Mishra, who was the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and was instrumental in Indira Gandhi’s rise to Prime Minister of India. He always told me that power is not yours because you come from a certain womb, and he didn’t allow any of his lineage to inherit power and therefore we became ordinary people, in the sense of dynasty or nepotism. So, thanks to him perhaps film-making is the only political thing I will ever engage in.

Each and everything around us including film from my perspective is political. It will either support the status quo, in that manner even the film ‘top gun’ is political, John Wayne was political, and similarly I’m also political, we’re all political in different ways, but not propagandists. Political films are those that pose questions and provoke your mind, that gives you a different perspective on life.

How is your take different from the traditional Devdas?
Look ‘Devdas’ was very much a time and place thing, and it wouldn’t work in our current generation, and therefore the story just got so different that I literally had to flip it and even name it as such. In the very literal sense the movie follows ‘Dev’ as he turns from slave to a lord, In the original it’s the other way around. But this is still a love story, that’s the one thing I haven’t changed as every movie of mine is a love story, as Dev and Paro are inexplicably entwined, they can’t be separated. Furthermore, the difference between this version and its predecessors is that the love story is even more intense.

The writing process for the film took a long while too, I first started and then hit a block at some point and back then the script was way more faithful to the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel. But once I came back to the script I re-wrote it to its current form and got a different perspective on it. Further I saw a similarity in Devdas and Hamlet as I saw two indecisive characters.

Since you say that you’re a socio-political person and your films are often a reflection of that, what is your political inclination?
You know that the left is very defunct in our country, even they don’t understand what the left stands for. The left leader lives in a feudal nawabi times, they live in some Newtonian mechanics 18th century science, they are not engaging with the chaos, which is the present world. Further all politics will ultimately oppress, and generally people try to move towards freedom, and total freedom is not possible.

Strong female characters have been persistent in your films, do you employ female writers to give better dimensions to your characters?
Sure, I have worked with Ruchi Narain in ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ and I’m working with a female writer as we speak in this big wig web series that I’m writing. Personally, I don’t see what the problem is (If I don’t hire female writers), because if I’m not in touch with my feminine side then I’m no writer. Further when people asked me in ‘Hazaaron’ who do you identify with the most, I said Geeta the main female lead, as I’m not a naxalite or a fixer, I’m in the middle. This whole gender binary is false concept.

What do you think about government interference in cinema in the form of censorship and taxation?
I believe all cinema should only have to pay income tax, nothing more or less. As anyone who makes money gets taxed, so should we. That alone will liberate cinema like nothing else. Around 30 to 40 percent of our budget is just tax, if you want to make a 10-corer film then you need an additional 5 corer just for tax, which is an odd practice. Just from a tax perspective cinema is treated like a sin. I’ve never agreed with censorship, and today in the day and age of smartphones and Internet, what exactly are you censoring? In this age with a smart phone even a villager on a bus stand, can see anything with mobile internet, what are you censoring?

Further Cinema is not intruding on anyone and it’s a voluntary act. In-fact theatrical exhibition should be most free place (in terms of freedom of expression) because I don’t come into your house, you voluntarily view it.

If there is a certification of an adult film, a child shouldn’t watch it. If that is implemented or not, is a law and order problem. Again, it’s a voluntary act, (aapko bolta hun ki kya dekho ya na dekho?) it’s up to the viewer to watch it or not, I have no say in the matter.

Even in ‘Padmavat’ people weren’t clear on what they were upset with, first they said they were upset with the film but then they said it’s a very good film go and watch it, the same censors too, I say brilliant (sarcastically speaking).

Personally, with this film I haven’t faced much resistance, they’ve muted a few curse words, but that’s it, I’ve gotten a UA certificate. But even with that they shouldn’t make those cuts, considering UA stands for adult supervision, which is meant for 14 or up kids, now don’t you think a 14 or 15 year old, wouldn’t know a few curse words? It’s not as if the film has a lots of curse words to begin with, it only has 4 to 5.

Do you think there is an aspect of self-censorship attached with movies these days?
A bit of that is there considering you are going for a U or UA certificate which naturally can attract a larger audience with satellite sales are dependent upon those, and as such require you to self-censor at times. But there are people like ‘Q’ Qaushiq Mukherjee or Anurag Kashyap who aren’t afraid to go against this.

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“…literature is in a state of decay, poetry is in a state of decay.”

IN THE backdrop of opening of a cultural center in a school of his namesake, in a remote section of Zirakpur, Piyush Mishra a well-established actor who has begun his journey in the world of theater and subsequently gotten much acclaim for his multi-talented skill set, be it acting, composing or writing. Even he found it an odd proposition to have a cultural center named after him, he felt his name paled in comparison to the likes of Zakir Hussain who are usually people who are considered of grate cultural importance. None the less in an almost cavalier fashion, he accepts this undertaking.

In his previous interactions with media, he has often come off as a dichotomous personality, he often goes into bombastic explanations and tangents much like his eccentric performance in Gulaal. When he is asked about the state of culture in our present-day scenario, he instantly animates and says “Values, as we have proceeded from 1947, ever since we have gained independence to our current time, we have seen a progressive devolution of all literature. You can do Lakh’s of literature festivals, but literature is in a state of decay, poetry is in a state of decay. At this time in Mumbai, other than Gulzar and Javed sab, no one is there to write in Urdu. Even though I don’t know Urdu very well, regardless I try my best to contribute, with however much I’ve studied the language, because I wish to keep Urdu alive.”

Adding further “Other than that (decay of literature and poetry) value system has changed in that before when your book used to drop on the floor, you used to (mimicking picking it up and asking for forgiveness) do this to it right? If your computer falls down you just pick it up and keep moving, it has the same knowledge as a book. That’s why that value system has stopped existing anymore, of say touching your elder’s feet. Touching your elder’s feet was very much a prominent cultural tradition, if someone has come to your home, you have to touch their feet regardless of who it is. Name comes later in the conversation, relations comes later, but feet were touched on principle.”

When asked if he thinks that the cultural icons of yesteryear like B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh are slowly fadding away. He first agrees with the sentiment and then he goes off on a tangent saying “The thing called Facebook has so much hatred, nothing much can be said about it. Because with Facebook everyone has the freedom to be a revolutionary at the convenience of their home. They (Facebook revolutionaries) know that no one is going to come and harm you physically or intimidate you verbally, you are free to express any vile thing and any sort of non-sense you wish to put forward, I have seen good people getting demolished (Mainey achey khasey logo ka hannan dekha hai), these are good well-meaning public figures, they (Facebook revolutionaries) don’t stop to think about it, because they know there isn’t going to be any consequence for this.”

Moving on swiftly, when asked about his experience with short films, his eyes light up as he says “Those students are very jovial (mazeydar), my whole life is there for these students. I, from the start have said if you’re a student or a youth then I wish to connect with you. See, I have spoken at lengths about my own time, now I want to know about your generation, what kind of curse words are fashionable, which kind of girls are getting harassed (kaun si ladki chadi ja rahi hai), what kind of things you (the youngsters) are into, tell me that. Further, it’s all kind of fun working with these people.” Let’s just pause and reflect on how brazenly he goes into why he’s working with these young people, and what are the “fun” aspects of it.

Now when I ask him about his personal experience working with these “youngsters” he says that “they’re largely inexperienced but sometimes there are pocket of brilliance present among them.” Making a crude analogy with theater he states “Like there is a saying that the first show of a play is always good. In the first show of a play you don’t understand what you’re doing. In that first rush of excitement some things are greatly received and some things are spoiled. Then we try to re-enact those same things in the next show. But I have noticed that you never really succeed (in recapturing the first show). That thrill of the first show of theater, is what’s happening with these people (short film makers).” He concludes the answer with “…they’re just starting to grasp at what cinema means.”

When he’s asked if he prefers doing shorts or feature films, he instantly reply’s “Feature of course, considering I don’t take any money for these shorts…” he later explains “you don’t do it for the money, this is to fulfill one’s passion and to help them out, like alright, I can learn something from you guys and vice versa.”

After questions of culture, cultural figure and his stint in short films of late, I get a chance to ask him about his upcoming work in the form of “Palki” and “JL-50”. He is doing these films with a relatively unknown director named “Shailender Vyas”. Piyush narrates his interaction with Shailender in an autobiographical manner stating “These people just burst into my life and my room, him (Shailender) and his wife, they said there is a film called “Palki” will you do it? I said sure, explain the script to me. First, they had gone to Naseeruddin shah and then they went to Pankaj Kapur. Naseer had some scheduling issue, Pankaj Kapur was asking for more money perhaps. Then they came to me, I read the script and they said that we were scared to come to you before, I asked why? They say we had herd “things” about you. I said I definitely used to be that person, but I’m no longer that person. I read the script and I liked it. I said yes to it. As time went by I even ended up writing the story of “Palki”, even composed for it.”

From here we take a turn to discuss his movie and role in “Palki”, which is about a Punjabi farmer and his daughter. He explains his role as thus “I had a lot of fun doing that character. It was good that they didn’t quite make him a Sikh man. Otherwise I would’ve had to learn and speak Punjabi in a whole heated manner. I know a little bit of Punjabi, because my mother was from Kurukshetra. That’s why there is a little bit of knowledge of Punjabi with me. So, what little accent I could muster up I did, otherwise it would’ve been hard to perfect a heavy Punjabi accent. Not that they (the filmmakers) wanted a very heavy Punjabi accent for the character.”

Subsequently, When asked the obvious question, of what he felt about the farming community and the issues surrounding it? At first, he says that he doesn’t know much about the issue, then goes on to state “…I have a feeling inside me, when I notice that how much comfort I have in life sometimes, I mean these people at times don’t get any food, and when I hear about them committing suicide…all around. Then that really hurts me, but then I remember a time when I wasn’t doing anything, not earning anything. Then I think that it has something to do with the game of “karma”. What else can we blame other than “karma”. Before I was nothing, then I became something now. Likewise, some people were something a while back but they are nothing now. But for this there is no need to be guilty, but still I feel hurt. Me and my wife think that whatever extra money that comes to us, as I’ve already earned enough, so I can run a household without any issue. Though this idea is still in its nascent stage, and we can’t adopt any village as such, but can we not sponsor a family? me and my wife are thinking about it. If we can, we should sponsor at least one or two families, we would be duty bound to them.”

Its hard to gauge if Piyush Mishra is coming from a genuine place or not but, it certainly felt like it. Perhaps its a testament to his inner performer, you cannot really put your finger on it, but there is certainly something off about some of these claims, if the sponsorship does happen it would be great for him and the family he sponsors and perhaps the precedent that he sets in the industry he belongs to. With all that said, he did say he’s just thinking about it, or perhaps the short span of the interview left much room for prodding and poking.

(Original version was published in ‘The Indian Express’, Reformatted, re-edited and republished.)

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