‘Aligarh’, the upcoming Hindi-language film based on the true story of Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor who committed suicide after being fired from his job for his sexual orientation, will open the Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) later this month. It will become only the second Indian film to do so in the prestigious festival’s history. Directed by Hansal Mehta, it is written and edited by his frequent collaborator, Apurva Asrani. This is his first full feature-length screenplay.
Here, he speaks to us about the film, his career, Hansal Mehta and film criticism.
From editing Satya at 19 to writing Aligarh now…you’re only in your 30s, and you’ve already experienced long phases in your two-decade old career. Most artists are fortunate to start their mainstream careers at your age! Would ‘Shahid’ have happened if not for the decade-long struggle preceding it?
A. Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book ‘Outliers’ that it takes about 10,000 hours before one actually gains command over his craft. I don’t think it matters when you start; if you put in many, many hours of hard work, there will be recognition of your efforts.
I was 16 years old when the satellite boom happened, I think it was around 1994-95. I used to hang around UTV’s sets, they produced some of the earliest TV software. I participated in their game shows, sat in the audience for their talk shows; I was fascinated by their creative team. Then MTV launched on a two-hour band on DD & I got a job as an assistant on their countdown show – which eventually moved to a newly launched Channel V. It was all very exciting. We were the first lot of the media boom. I was of course a wide-eyed assistant, but I rode the wave and gained some years of experience before Satya happened. I used my TV editing experience on Satya, a film that was anyway breaking all the rules. That film gave me my identity and soon after I edited Hansal Mehta’s gangster film, Chhal. A year later, I won the National award for editing an English language film called Snip! It was a great period for cinema, in the sense that diverse films were being attempted, but it was still the era of single screens, so many of these films were deemed flops. Mainstream films became the only way to survive, and I made some poor career choices hoping to find commercial success. It suddenly all went pear shaped and I wasn’t happy with the work I had started doing. I felt burned out.
I then took a sabbatical for two or three years in an attempt to re-evaluate my career. I moved to London, I moved to Goa, I moved to Bangalore. I started cooking, gardening, adopted a pet, found love where I least expected. I kept my craft alive by making short films and writing. In 2011, I returned to Bombay when Hansal offered me ‘Based On A True Story’, the film that eventually became ‘Shahid’. By then I was really hungry to prove myself again, plus I was clear that my work had to have meaning. You’re probably right; I could only take that sabbatical because I was still in my 20s.
I remember watching Snip! at an early age, and being fascinated by the way it was designed on screen – the pace, music, tone, cutting – everything. You were very young when you edited it too. Do you think you’d be able to do something so drastic today?
A. You must be among the few that actually saw the film. It was way ahead of its time. The director, Sunhil Sippy is a very talented guy, who got disillusioned with the reception and never made another feature. The awesome Ravi K Chandran shot it. It had great actors like Saurabh Shukla, Makrand Deshpande and even Nadira from the yesteryears. Sunhil has a quirky sensibility; he’s a South Bombay angrez and the material I received was slick & super fun. The characters were whacky, the writing was irreverent. Naturally I had to cut it unlike anything I had ever seen and boy did we have a blast. The National Awards jury saw merit in our efforts and gave us the award for Best Editing. But it was a recognition of all our efforts at making such a spirited & unusual film.
It’s now difficult to think about a Hansal Mehta film without you and vice versa. It’s not often that two Indian artists share the stage so graciously. The virtues of trust and collaboration are often overlooked in this industry – tell us about this partnership, this workspace bubble of yours…
A. Hansal has a peculiar style of shooting. He loves his actors and pampers them to no end. He helps them find the character and the scene from within, and after that, he doesn’t impose too much. He rolls the camera and captures real moments with them, often refusing to say cut, till they themselves are done.
This style is only possible if he has an editor that he can trust – someone who will minutely watch the material, find the magic moments, and stitch the film together. That’s where he puts his faith in me. He allows me to believe that he is subservient to the editing process, never stopping my flow of thought, but actually he quietly hints at directions he wants the cut to go in. He is such a cool guy that you actually think you’re the boss. That’s how he works with most departments, giving them a kind of autonomy. What I love about our association is that Hansal wants to see my interpretation of his ideas. It is only after that, that we jam and tune it to a mutually satisfactory product.
With such directors you rise beyond the idea of a cutter & joiner, and become a creative collaborator. So there is a mutual respect. There has to be. But let me tell you its not all that easy to negotiate and share space like Hansal & I do – especially in a media atmosphere like ours that is only obsessed with actors and directors. Writers, editors receive very little encouragement and find themselves either remaining subservient to the director, or giving up their craft to become directors themselves.
He credited you as one of the writers on Shahid because of the way you moulded the film on the edit table. Don’t you think certain films (Kahaani, Rockstar) – where instinctive editing rescues and defines the tone/treatment of the film in a way even directors can’t – deserve this sort of co-crediting?
A. In Shahid, Hansal shot episodes of Shahid Azmi’s life. As I mentioned earlier, even his scenes are unrehearsed. The actors adlibbed dialogue and the scene was created – sometimes, with great moments that didn’t easily connect. I picked up on what Hansal was doing with the film. He was determined to create something raw, but it needed to be narrated in a way that brought form to the story. It was complicated to start with, but I think we succeeded in building a narrative that appeared simple and emotional at the same time.
Also, there were dry spells where no shooting was possible due to lack of resources. While we would edit, I would sometimes write scenes that I thought the timeline needed. I even wrote some dialogue for the film; that line in which the threatening voice on the telephone asks Shahid ‘Apne aap ko Gandhi samajhta hain kya, Jihadio ka Gandhi?’ was a line I wrote. Hansal dubbed it in his own voice on his cellphone and we used just that!
Many consider editing to be something the director controls – basically an exercise to manipulate the length of a story. It’s a lot more than that, but is editing as independent a craft as – say – writing, cinematography or directing?
A. It certainly is an independent craft. It is storytelling through cuts, transitions & juxtapositions – through rhythm, through build-up and through pace. It involves manipulation of words, picture, sound and music, and the ultimate goal is to find that unique perspective to the story. But unlike screenwriting, where your dialogue is audible to all, this is an invisible craft. Usually no one besides the director knows your true contribution to the film.
There are very few writer-editor combinations here. Technicalities aside, isn’t editing just another form of storytelling – and writing after shooting in a way? It must feel interesting to edit a film you’ve written, but not directed…
A. Yeah. Editing is screenwriting all over again. But this is the final chance to get it right – just how many words do we need to communicate this thought? Do we need words at all? Does this character contribute much to the film that has emerged? Isn’t the climax 3 scenes too late? These are some of the rewriting choices that you make on the edit table.
It was interesting to edit Aligarh after having written it. I expected to be very attached to moments and dialogues, and was prepared to suggest another editor if I lacked objectivity. But the editor in me is very critical, and he did what he has done for years now – protect the writer and hone his work. I had to do away with some good scenes that didn’t fit in the larger scheme of things and I rewrote parts of my own screenplay.
You have to be smaller than the film. You have to be open to seeing that another film may have come out of the director and the actors’ interpretation. It is important to edit that film, not the one you envisaged sitting on a desk encircled in a tobacco cloud.
I was particularly taken by the 1971-Bangladeshi genocide film ‘Children Of War’ last year – for its uncompromising commitment to grief and starkness. But not many critics watched it (missing Pavan Malhotra’s devastating act), and it mainly gathered steam on the festival circuit. What made you get involved in such a brave project?
A. See Rahul, this is why I love you so much. You watched Snip! and you even reviewed ‘Children Of War’ – both very brave films in their own right. Sadly most mainstream critics gave COW a miss. That hurt! The film, though indulgent in parts, was as terrifying as it was riveting. It was a sacrilege that Pavan Malhotra wasn’t recognized and felicitated for a truly world-class performance.
The director Mrityunjay Devvrat made a film that was a human story and a political comment at the same time. For a debutante, he was confident enough to helm such a vast canvas with actors like Pavan Malhotra, the Late Farooque Sheikh, Tillotama Shome & Victor Banerji, but he was naïve enough to believe that making a good film would be enough for it to get its due. I hope Mrityunjay has learned that good PR and clever marketing are equally important. Unfortunately, our country is not fair to those that don’t come without endorsements and recommendations. Get a studio or a star attached, and your film is suddenly visible.
I did the film because Mrityunjay skyped me one night telling me I had to do it. I had read the script and I had liked it, but I had just done Shahid and I had decided to wait till the film was out before I chose other projects. But you may learn someday that it is impossible to say no to Mrityunjay’s conviction & his childlike enthusiasm. Thank god I did that film; it has some of my best work in it.
You’re only a heartbeat away from writing, directing and editing your films – a one-man school of sorts. After Aligarh, your first full-fledged screenplay, do you think you’d be able to handle all these departments on one film?
A. I don’t think so. I probably won’t edit the film I direct. Or maybe I won’t write it. I think there must be some detachment, else it will be an exercise in megalomania. With Aligarh, I stayed away from the set, so there was a gap between writing and editing. Plus I treated the shooting rushes as the written word and didn’t really refer to the script. It was like editing any other film, till I saw the finished product and saw my name as the screenplay & dialogue writer. Then suddenly it hit me, I was like ‘Fuck! I wrote those lines; I helped create those characters!’
Except the more mainstream ‘Dharam Sankat Mein’, which received mixed reviews, most of your films have received great critical acclaim. Do you think critics actually get what you’re trying to do, or are they generally reacting because it’s something different?
A. I think critics react more favourably to cinema with meaning. They give you some concessions for intent and good manners that the mindless, escapist fare doesn’t get. Critics have been harsh to my films and to me in particular too. Khalid Mohamed once wrote in a review, “it appears that the editor is away on a permanent coffee break”. Deepa Gehlot went a step further and lashed out at my parents for applauding me at the premiere of one of my films. Critics are human beings too; they have good days and bad days. I’ve stopped believing everything they write, but I hope and pray that their reviews push people to come to the cinemas at least.
For a very brief period, you even reviewed films years ago. What are your views on Indian film criticism these days? Do you think it’s necessary to have some kind of background in filmmaking to be able to review today’s films?
A. I reviewed films during my sabbatical from filmmaking. Actually now I call it a sabbatical, but back then, I thought I was done with the Hindi film industry. I thought I had quit for good. But I still loved cinema. So my love for films, mixed with some bitterness at not being able to make films, pushed me to write reviews. I enjoyed it while it lasted, but when I was offered Shahid, I quit reviewing. The two careers didn’t overlap for even one day.
Criticism today is pretty diverse. There are so many reviewers out there that it’s a bit saturated. The positive effect of this is that the viewer is forced to use his mind to decide whether to watch a film or not. In fact, I think that’s the job of a good critic. To present the facts as he sees it, to write an entertaining piece, but never to deny the viewer the chance to figure it out for himself.
I would like to appeal to critics who are filmmakers in waiting. There is the danger of showing off one’s craft through a movie review. Almost like saying ‘If I had done it, I’d have done it like that’. I’ve done it and I stand guilty as charged. But I don’t think it’s healthy – not for the film and not for your filmmaking career that will follow some day. You just stand to make enemies like that. Basically, I don’t think you need to be trained as a filmmaker to review films. You just need to love cinema, and you need to have a desire to make it thrive.