The Vishal Bhardwaj Interview
[As Vishal Bhardwaj's new offering Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola releases today, an interview with Vishal for CriticalTwenties, conducted after his last movie]
In a film industry where conformity to a tried and tested formula has long been a recipe for success, Vishal Bhardwaj dared to defy the odds. With a penchant for doing things differently, be it situating Othello in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh or weaving seven short stories into a single script, Vishal today has carved a unique niche for himself as a cerebral film-maker who has achieved both critical and commercial success. In a free-wheeling interview to CriticalTwenties, Vishal, amongst other things, talks about his last offering Saat Khoon Maaf, why he loves the movies of Quentin Tarantino, the current state of Bollywood and movie-going audiences in India and how a certain someone got him into music composition and the movies in the first place.
What was it about Susanna’s Seven Husbands that made you want to make it into a movie?
The dark side of the story…the dark humour. I find dark humour very fascinating- it instigates something in you- it scares you, disturbs you but is funny at the same time. When Ruskin Bond gave me the story, I immediately found the title very fascinating- why would someone have seven husbands? On reading it, I was deeply intrigued by the character of Susanna, killing her husbands, not out of hate but out of love. It was a powerful story which I tried to tell in a way that I believed would capture its dark comedic aspects.
In Saat Khoon Maaf, it was apparent that Susanna’s husbands, who were responsible for moving the plot, were essentially evil characters. Even in some of your other films, a central role is played by an evil character- say, Langda Tyagi in Omkara. Is there anything particular about evil characters which fascinates you?
I strongly believe that we all have evil within us. It’s just that we don’t bring that evil into action every time; we get evil thoughts at some points of time, and sometimes we act on them and sometimes we don’t. It’s interesting to see when man is moved to his evil side and for what reasons. Through portraying these characters, I try to understand human beings. And the reason for portraying the husbands in Saat Khoon Maaf as having shades of evil is so that the audience could swallow their murders a little easily; as six murders of perfectly reasonable people may have been hard to handle in the space of one movie that was not a murder mystery!
Any particular story in Saat Khoon Maaf was your personal favourite?
Annu Kapoor’s track as Keemat Lal, the police officer turned fifth husband. He starts off as a lecherous police officer, sexually blackmailing Susanna and allowing her to remain scot free despite having murdered her husband if she does him sexual favours. But, then there is a remarkable transition and he genuinely falls in love with her. And that’s where their paths collide since she was never in love with him and never wanted to be with him. I was very taken in by this transition that occurred in Keemat Lal’s character. And of course the way Annu Kapoor played the role was masterful. He is a tremendously talented yet under-utilised actor and it was wonderful seeing this performance from him.
Let’s talk a little bit about your leading ladies. Nimmi in Maqbool and Susanna in SKM- if you had to marry one of them who would it be?
(Laughs).. I wouldn’t marry either!
But if you had to…
Well, in that case I’ll convert to Islam and marry both so that one can take care of the other!
Having said that, I don’t think there is much in common between them as they are very different people; what Nimmi was doing in Maqbool was for greed and lust; Susanna was doing it for love, she loved her husbands so much that she killed them; besides I changed the basic characterisation of Macbeth, by making Nimmi the wife of the King and Maqbool’s mistress which showed that the intentions that motivated her actions were not born out of love.
Moving on, you’re a man who wears many hats- writer, singer, director, music director. Which do you enjoy doing most?
Music gives me a sense of peace; it’s so personal and so satisfying once you compose a song; the peace it gives is unparalleled. The highs come from writing; and the sense of power comes from directing; you have created a character and you personify the character on set and then you edit it; if you don’t like one or two extra scenes or even if the character says one or two extra words you can cut them out; this ability to edit I think is immensely powerful. Besides the fact that people feel emotionally moved by a story you tell is a great feeling as a director.
So what was it like in Ishqiya, which was the first film that you wrote the script for but was directed by Abhishek Chaubey?
Abhishek has been with me since my first film; it was like giving a break to a younger brother; I definitely disagreed with some of the performances; that is fair because the film is the medium of the director; the writer may write a scene but the director must interpret it in his own way; but Ishqiya is very similar to what I would have done but certainly there are some differences and that is how it should be.
As a director, who have been your influences and whose movies you enjoy watching?
Kieslowski, the Polish-filmmaker inspires me greatly, though I have yet to make a film of the tone that he made. Quentin Tarantino too- he works on the basic themes of love and revenge, executes it in a classy manner yet plays perfectly to the masses. He is, I think, extremely juicy as a filmmaker. Also Takeshi Kitano, who has an extremely unique style. In contemporary Bollywood, there are very few filmmakers who excite me. Of the few there is Anurag Kashyap and Sudhir Mishra. In the commercial space there is Raju Hirani, who makes movies for the masses and does it in an extremely witty and engaging fashion.
When you do see a movie, do you see it through your own eyes or are you constantly thinking as a director, on what could have been differently, what was the background thinking that went into a scene etc?
I try to watch lots of movies and it’s a very funny feeling I get when I watch them. The success of the film-maker lies in the fact that he/ she makes you forget your own craft; that’s where a good film starts- if I forget I am a director, technician or whatever else I am and get absorbed in the story that’s the mark of a good film; if the film does not hold then I start thinking as a director, on how I would have done things differently.
So when you start thinking about a movie, whether an original screenplay or an adaptation, do you start with the basic plot or essaying the characters and weave a plot around it?
For me, the most important aspect of a movie is the conflict. For a good movie, there must be a powerful conflict and it must be resolved in a nice manner. If a movie manages to do this, I think it will be successful. And by conflict, I do not necessarily mean a fight or misunderstanding or a traditional antagonism between people; the conflict could even be a disease or something of that nature; every movie has an inherent conflict and it is the nature of that conflict and its resolution or lack thereof that I think determines its success and failure.
And are finances a consideration in choosing a project?
Two things. First thing, as a filmmaker, I am not opposed to stars. I think the gulf between stars and actors is decreasing as stars also good actors nowadays. Second thing, I think various kinds of audiences exist nowadays, so if I want to make an experimental movie I have to think about the audiences very carefully and not be entirely absorbed by my own idea. This is something that I need to work on and I must adjust the expectations I have of the film accordingly.
Is this what you always wanted to do- get into the movies?
I always had a basic lust to be a famous man. Now fame does not come through education. So it has to be through movies or sport. So movies were an obvious choice (smiles)…
And music- we heard you started out in college to impress your wife?
Yes, my wife was an excellent singer then as she is now. We were in college together. I was not a good composer then and so I decided to take up music composition seriously to see if I could make an impression.
Given that you’re happily married today, clearly your music left its mark?
(Laughs)… You can say that.
Do you see any significant changes in Bollywood from the time you started?
Yes, lots of changes. All the developments in the last 10 years are inter-related. Earlier, the conditions of theatres were terrible, people who had money didn’t go to theatres, now with multiplexes the crowds are coming in. At the same time, with cable and satellite television, people have been exposed to all kinds of world cinema; their sensitivities have changed and there is much greater scope for experimentation. The Censor Board is getting mature, the kinds of films they have been passing shows a change in sensibilities. We are of course far away from the ideal scenario of self-censorship since education levels in the country are still poor, but we are headed in the right direction. Perhaps one important change which needs to be made is with more scientific ratings for movies; we need 12+, 15+ and even XXX ratings to come in; the Censor Board says they have been working on it, I hope it gets implemented as it is needed as audiences and their levels of maturity are changing.
So do you have your next project lined up?
Well, I am toying with two or three ideas; one of them could be an adaptation but I have not made up my mind yet. Especially after the reception Saat Khoon Maaf got both from audiences and critics, I am taking it very easy (laughs)…
And is there a chance of a return to Shakespeare anytime soon?
Yes, Shakespeare I have to do, but not so soon; I would definitely like to complete a trilogy of tragedies following on from Maqbool and Omkara with Hamlet, King Lear or Richard III. But first I would like to get out of Shakespeare. And you will hopefully see me return to it sometime in the future.
[With inputs, research and questions by Mukul Sharma; Originally posted on May 12, 2011]