Back in 2012, before the deluge of Indian films that were to take over Cannes and many other prestigious film festivals, a film named ‘Peddlers’ – made on a shoestring budget, against almost all odds – burst onto the scene and paved the way. It was screened as part of the International Critics’ Week, and opened there to mixed reviews. But most agreed that its debut director, an Anurag Kashyap protege named Vasan Bala, showed immense promise. This was perhaps the beginning of a new chapter for him, and many like him who were struggling to shape their voice and vision based on their target audience.
Almost four years on, Peddlers, which was quickly acquired by EROS, is yet to be seen by Indian audiences.
It played at the 2015 Mumbai Film Festival, its official Indian ‘premiere’, but Vasan – who has since been credited as one of the writers of the ill-fated ‘Bombay Velvet’ – wasn’t in the hall.
Here, Vasan Bala speaks to CHINTAN BHATT about his film, the 1000+ days of uncertainty that followed, his vision and stubbornness, Bombay Velvet and everything in between:
Can you tell us a little about your pre-film background?
A: I grew up in a very middle-class family in Matunga. Both parents worked, had steady jobs. I’ve grown up with that routine notion: complete a decent education and becoming a good employee. And that was the aim, or the forced aim – to become the best employee as much as your potential allows you to. I grew up with that programmed ambition. But then, movies happened. Because my father got a VCR at home; he is also a movie buff, although he does not show it. And he surprisingly introduced me to a lot of films that probably shouldn’t be shown to kids – like Django and all those spaghetti westerns, to those Steve McQueen movies. So that pretty much sealed it.
Since then, I always wanted to get into that. And while growing up, Doordarshan had the best material shown from world cinema. I probably cannot recollect what I saw, but the imagery was quite varied and dynamic, and the possibility that cinema could be anything was ingrained – not the articulation but the idea, subconsciously, the seeds were sown back then. So I think it was a combination of these things. And then one day waking up on a whim, and feeling that this impossible idea can be executed. I think a moment of epiphany doesn’t really happen. There’s no earth-shattering realization. I think it takes a while to get into the movies. All that bullshit where someone sees something and then he gets lost and finds the purpose of life – none of that happens. Ironically, movies have furthered that myth. This feeling takes its time.
I remember – You made a PFC (Passion-For-Cinema) short film long back, and acted in it too?
A: Yes I did, but Kartik Krishnan acted in it. It was called “Auto Madarchod”. We were getting late for a Sriram Raghavan lecture and we were not finding an auto (rickshaw), so I thought let us make a short film on it. Kartik was available, so we just shot it. It was a fun video.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Every filmmaker seems to have a different way to approach writing – what’s yours?
A: It depends. If I am a writer on hire, I just write whatever is required. I don’t really put my heart into it because you have to do it to pay your bills. Here, my chaste South-Indian training works to be a good employee. Sar jhukaa ke kaam karta hun (I put my head down and work quietly). But if it is my own thing, then it’s varied. There’s no real process. I am perennially dissatisfied with my own work. The germ has to be strong enough for you to be convinced with it, for you to take it right to the end. That’s the beginning, and sometimes the end. The idea has to endure. There is no fixed routine.
And how do you come across these ideas to develop them?
A: I think those selections happen automatically. Because it is such a tough process, writing. Every day, every minute, you can give up. As I said, it has to endure. And these ideas that don’t make you give up are selected as the ones you are going to pursue. It’s like an Auto setting. The process itself is painful.
How did ‘Peddlers’ (2012) come about?
A: It just happened, yaar. I had scripts, I kept bouncing them; no one was producing them. Somehow I felt I had to write something. I had this script and then just bullied everyone to make it. Because it was getting a little frustrating, and I am probably building up to that same momentum right now. It was a freak of nature.
One of my favourite Coen Brothers’ films is ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’. In it, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is carrying a sheet of paper with a zero on it. No one knows it is going to eventually become the Hula Hoop and no one knows why the hell Hula Hoops became so popular. In a way, that’s your script: that piece of paper with a circle on it, but everyone is going to see a zero on it. No one is going to see its potential, and no one is going to think you are amazing. Nothing of that sort is going to happen. But then, Norville Barnes never gave up that idea. You have to keep that piece of paper and that zero in it. Someone will just see something more in it. Someone will see that Hula Hoop in it. But you have to be a naive idiot to carry that chit of paper everywhere.
I saw Peddlers at MAMI, and for me, the Nimrat Kaur-Gulshan Devaiah scenes were some of the best parts of the movie. The scenes felt fresh and well written. How did you work with them?
A: The whole idea of the shoot was that whenever we had a camera, we would shoot. So the locations weren’t in our hands. And everyday the camera was God’s gift; you respect it and you shoot the hell away. That’s how it happened. I have known Gulshan (Devaiah) for a while and he has been a part of the film ever since the first line was conceived.
Yes, I read an interview where Gulshan used to say “JUST TELL ME WHEN THE SHOOT IS!”
A: See, that’s how amazing he has been. He was the one guy on the set who knew everything about the character. He knew everything about my process, because we had also done a short film earlier. And before that we had worked in ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots’ together. So we have been friends and that’s a big advantage when you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and have so passionately discussed the material; it becomes easy then. With Nimrat also, the same exhaustive process happened. Like long meandering conversations, questions in and out about the script – maybe not about the script but the character. And these discussions were had much before the shoot.
Richard Linklater is told the acting in his films feels so natural that it has to be spontaneous, but he insists it is all rehearsed. How true is that?
A: Even when you have a specific bowling action, however natural or weird it may be, that has not happened overnight. You have practiced it, you have seen other people, but for that ball on that day on that pitch, you will improvise. That doesn’t it is actually an improvisation. It comes from a deep-rooted thought. In that moment probably, you call it spontaneous because that has to be spontaneous. But it is everything – it is discussions, it is Nimrat’s 7 years of theatre, Gulshan’s 7 years of other work – all that put into that moment which has to look spontaneous.
Did you have workshops for Peddlers?
A: The whole idea of workshops is very romantic for me. As a director, you want to say you do the workshops but it is more about the conversations. It is not really about making them read, making them go through the material, tiring them of the material. That was never the idea. The Idea is to keep it fresh and alive as a conversation and as a thought, and that was successfully done with everyone. Everyone had questions. We had discussions so that even when people say something you disagree with, the arguments put forth make it even more clearer. It’s nicer as an environment and I think that was the workshop.
I was listening to the AIB podcast with you and you were talking about how at one of Peddlers screenings, someone told you that you come from a good background and look like a good guy. I wanted to ask you where then does this darkness, the edginess, in your work as an artist arise from?
A: I don’t know. I think it’s also a little deep rooted in that sense. That sense of expression. Like some films are extremely emotional on a very surface level, where even the characters are crying and you are crying. You know that may come from an aspect of a Director’s personality – who is that way in real life, who wants you to feel what he is exactly feeling. But there are others who over the years may have suppressed that to such a level that the deepest pain comes out as sarcasm, as fear, as humor. So when it has gone through that depth, your final output is a complete contrast, and not a correlation. I think these kinds of films happen, where ‘MY NAME IS NITIN AND I AM 6 YEARS OLD’ won’t be spelt out.
After watching the film, I wondered about the two stories of these 2 people – they were individually so haunting. There has to be a conscious choice to take them to a much more darker place.
A: I think I constantly keep shuffling between the time when I was a schoolboy and broke my head 6 times and got it stitched up every time. It means I was so trusting of the world, of gravity, of god, that nothing was an impediment. And I went to that extent. And while growing up there have been so many walls in front of me, which have probably been psychologically driven because once you’re grown up you understand that breaking your head is not the right thing. But then somewhere inside, I am still that boy who is willing to break his head. So probably Peddlers came from that…
That need to…
A: That inherent need to bang the head and break it once again. I don’t know what the joy is, because it is violent and mad but then again going back to that ‘Hudsucker Proxy’ page, that blank page with a zero, only you know how amazing it is. No one is going to tell you. And of course, once you find conventional success in mainstream cinema, everyone will suddenly tell you.
I read Gulshan’s tweet about how much the Indian screening of Peddlers at MAMI meant to him. How was that experience?
A: I stayed out. I never went in. I am not able to see that film anymore with an audience. This is also what Prerna told me. She edited the film. She sat with the audience to see it and when they came out they were very emotional. I think more than anything else, it was more of sort of a closure for the team. Like it has been so so long; I have been counting the days, more than 1000+ days. It is probably stemming out of that: a sense of closure, if not an absolute one. I don’t really know…
For people like me who saw it and liked it, it is a bit baffling that it hasn’t released commercially. Can you tell us what is happening?
A: I think when the film was being made, no one thought it stood a chance. But then Cannes Critics’ Week happened. So EROS jumped on after the Cannes announcement was made. It felt like a fairytale, perhaps too good to be true. I did not know at that time that this is how it will turn out. But I have no clue yaar, about the dealings and its details. What I know is that they bought it, but they don’t want to release it. Probably they don’t have enough faith in it. And if we have to release it, we will have to buy it back from them. And then have an investor to put in publicity money, which I think is a tricky proposition today because today there are no satellite rights sold at exorbitant amounts. There are other avenues that are going to pay back. For people to be pulled into the theatres, you need a minimum budget of 4-5 crores for basic visibility. And this is film was made for less than 1 crore, and suddenly it becomes a 6-crore film and it has to recover 12. Suddenly, there are pressures on a film that was not made with that idea and intent to earn a minimum of 12 to break even, just because the market changed. When we were starting out, this wasn’t the market we were updating. By the time we finished the film, everything had changed. So, yes, so many factors, and so many reasons. Sometimes things just fall into place and they happen, and that hasn’t been the case with my first film.
I was reading a THR interview of yours from 2012 where you were talking about how naivety and fearlessness exist in indie filmmakers. Do you think this experience has changed that?
A: Yes, you turn bitter. You lose your innocence. Again coming back to Norville Barnes, you have to be that idiot. Otherwise films cannot be made, yaar. Problem is, once you have made one film and people think you are reasonably talented, there will always be a South Indian film or a Korean remake to be done. If you keep saying no to them and you want to make a story of your own, tell that story in the way you want to and ask for final cut rights, of course the market wont be kind to you. So that’s what I am facing too. I have said no to these Korean and South Indian remakes. I am sticking to the stories that I want to say. To be done my way. So that is a stubborn, naïve thing. I could probably articulate my bitterness better now through sarcasm, but that doesn’t really change much. I still have to be the same guy. Maybe now I am slightly more patient and trying to work within the system confines in the legitimate way, so that my crew and cast don’t face the fate of Peddlers. But if you are pushed to the wall, then you go back to your animal self. But you have to see how big the story is on paper today, and you have to go out and make it with whatever resources are available today.
And you think you are veering back to that…
A: Yes, inching. That inner John Wick in me is riding ahead. My Daisy has been killed. So, yes, somehow it is becoming active again.
How do you think the current Indie scene is compared to 2012?
A: I think it’s a circle. Because Indie is by choice for many, and also by default for many because the mainstream spat you out. So indie becomes like this bastard space, which every illegitimate guy wants to be a part of. I consider myself being a part of that because the system spat me out. There is this ghetto, tadipaar area from where you have to operate. So I don’t know about being optimistic anymore; there are going to be people who thrive in it and do well, most might perish and some might even pass over into the door, because that door, once in a while, it always opens. That door is a tempting, seductive one. The Indie space is like a refugee zone where you decide whether to live, or decide to thrive or maybe use it as a transit station. That is what my reading of ‘indie’ is.
What do you do in these gaps between films?
A: You are a director for hire and writer for hire. And you listen to people. My Tamilian upbringing comes in handy. And take jobs, which, before you snap and go mental, you are done with it or you quit. I think if you are talented enough, there will always be a stupid job for you. On and off when you are feeling too ideologically driven, you don’t take up these jobs. When you are not, you take up these.
A: These small ads about which I don’t want anyone to know. Some writing work, some screenplays. So the good thing is that these studios commission a lot of screenplays, and 90 percent of them don’t get made. So you get a signing amount and then the project stalls. But you get that signing amount. Sometimes you go to level 2 and the project stops, so you get that amount. Earlier I used to write all these screenplays for free, now I write for some signing amount and those screenplays never get made. So you keep earning something. Whenever you are ready to put your head down and be that clerk, you will get that job. I have started doing that a little too often.
A: (Vasan laughs) No no. I think the audience is never an issue. Audience even accepted Bambai ka Babu in the 50s when Dev Anand fell in love with his so-called sister or ‘Muh Boli Behen’. So the audience has always been ahead in that sense. It’s like the Hula Hoop, you know. You never know what clicks with them. So you can never fault the audience with your work; all you can do is analyze yourself. Also statements like “ahead of your time” should never be used by directors. It can be used by the audience though; they can say things about the cult films they liked.
You can look back at Bombay Velvet objectively now?
A: Now? No, never. That was my first (writing) assignment in 2007. It took 8 years. So after 8 years in the industry, I am with an unreleased film and the biggest disaster in Indian cinema. So from here, I can only move up and do other things. I can’t look at it objectively. I love Anurag and stand by him and I am sure he knows what happened to the film. So it is pretty cool. He is not one of those people that lack objectivity or someone who has turned into something else. He is pretty much grounded. I mean, it’s a huge disaster, it hurts, and it will always hurt. You learn from it.
There has been so much feedback on the AIB (Irrfan) video and everyone loved it. So does that ever make you feel –
Not cynical, maybe greedy?
A: No, no. That was for a specific purpose. You don’t wish to also, dreaming of repeating an AIB video, right?
Not just an AIB video, but that space which sort of works with people.
A: I understand, but there is no greed to repeat that. Because the bigger aim is trying to make films, which is the biggest mystery in this universe, and then to keep cracking it. I don’t know. No one knows how a film is made. You just have an idea of it, and you drive it through sheer passion and a little less through knowledge. So that’s the bigger aim. These are just incidences. Sometimes you work as a clerk and sometimes you work as a proud clerk who has the freedom to close the account books. It was fun but that’s not really me. I’m not really missing it or having withdrawal pangs. I love Tanmay. Probably will meet him again, jam with him and come up with something else, but there is no desperation there.
What next? The thing you are veering towards. Can you talk about that?
A: I cant, yaar. I think I have jinxed myself. I don’t know. I have started believing in these things. That’s what it does to you. But no, there are a couple of things that are at Phantom Films and hopefully they will get made. Not hopefully, I have faith in them. I have stopped ‘hoping’. It doesn’t work.
How’s it going at Phantom? Their last few films haven’t worked.
A: They are smart enough. These things keep happening in a production house. When you go up, you do come down. And sometimes, it is better that way. They are very talented people, and very few people will ask a filmmaker what you want to make. There are very few people out there who are going to give someone a choice, and Phantom is one of them. Anurag is one of them. Even when I was down and out this year, the only guy who called me and asked me why I am not making a film is Anurag. No one else did. Everyone else had a South Indian or Korean film to remake. Only Anurag is the one who called and said TERE KO KUCH BANANA HAI KE NAHIN? (Do you want to make something or not?)
He is also bound by the system. He can probably wake up one day and make a film but it’s not favourable for people like us to do so, especially if your scripts are ambitious. I am currently stuck in that kind of space where I need a lot of legitimate money to make what I want to. But yes, if you are pushed to the wall then of course you find a space, and I am probably gearing up to that.