The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled…Aankhon Dekhi was one of the rare films to come out of Bollywood last year, which took us straight into the centre of that dilemma, leaving us more unsettled than ever. The film needs frequent revisiting, not just for the sake of its pure cinematic brilliance, but for its sheer potential for philosophical exploration. The film just won the Filmfare award for the best film (Critics). On the occasion, Pritha Kejriwal spoke to its director Rajat Kapoor.
Firstly, congratulations and thank you for making the film… the award just gives us a chance to revisit it… So, what was the main philosophical construct of the film Aankhon Dekhi?
You know the idea was very simple. The idea being that this man, who decides that I will only believe what I experience… the idea has been with me for ten years. Now if you ask me about philosophical construct, I feel strongly, I feel very strongly that our minds are very limited organs and are incapable of really telling us anything. What we really know is only through our senses and through our experiences. And unfortunately, we believe less and less on our experience now, you know, because we are told things, we are given things. So somewhere as a part of growing up – you forget how to experience things, and I think Bauji is a guy like that who starts to experience things again and then weighing them to figure out what it is that is knowledge to him.
So this reminds me of Gautam Buddha and what he said… he said that don’t believe in anything just because your elders told you to, or your teachers told you to – carve your own path. Do you think somewhere it comes from that kind of a philosophy?
This… this is a philosophy as a whole, you know – Indian. But I think I am leaning a little bit more towards you know, Indian or Japanese Zen – which also came in Buddhism. I lean towards that a little bit.
So when I saw the film, it immediately reminded me of this brilliant short story by Uday Prakash, I don’t know if you have read it or not, it is called Paul Gomra Ka Scooter…
I have read that…
You have. So it immediately took me to that character of Paul Gomra…
The connection is not really there… I mean not really…Is there a connection?
The whole idea of this lower middle class social milieu and this person who is trying to expand his horizons, a person who is trying to experience things beyond his prescribed structures, simultaneously trying to cope up with a rapidly changing world around him and in the process, he loses his life. And in some strange way, it was a very instinctive connection which I could draw… I cannot put too many words into it…
I could not make that connection but I’m glad you made it!
Okay. So take us through this journey of Bauji, Rajat, because he suddenly has this epiphanic moment, he becomes a sceptic and then he goes quiet. Why does he go quiet? And then the second epiphany when he goes into this maunvrat of sorts… how did you flesh out his character?
With him nothing is fixed, and that is what I think I like about the character. He doesn’t really arrive anywhere…he is constantly seeking. And in that seeking, he will change everything. And that’s how he grows – he grows only when he decides that I am going to change my views everyday, because everyday I grow, I become somebody else, and Bauji is on that journey. So one day he decides that maybe if I stay quiet I will be able to experience things better than what they are. Also there is nothing good or bad in Bauji’s dictionary now. Everything is an experience. Gambling is bad… who says gambling is bad? For me it is a game of numbers, it is a game of possibilities, and I will experience it like that. So he is free of any moral judgements, you know, and attaching moral value to things, which we do. Ki ye aisehai, ye galathai, aisakaro, aisa mat karo. There is nothing like that in Bauji’s character. He is on a journey…
Okay. The character of Bauji jumps off from a mountain to experience flight. Very recently, another character – Michael Keaton in Birdman had a similar flight…
I saw Birdman two days back. Thank god Aankhon Dekhi came before that otherwise…
I also saw it two days back. Completely different contexts but in some strange ways connected… Did you feel that connection?
Yes, I saw the connection and that is why I thought that thank god Aankhon Dekhi came before because a lot of people are telling me on Twitter that this idea of flying and him standing on the ledge is very much like Aankhon Dekhi. Thank god Aankhon Dekhi came before Birdman!
But if you would kind of try to place the two together, get into the minds of the two people…
In a way they are both losing their minds, you know.
But completely different socio-economic milieus, right?
Completely. Where Babuji is aiming for a higher journey, this other guy seems to be sinking. The flight thing is the only common thing.
Now speaking of Birdman, the fragility or the pressures of psychological stresses of trying to be successful in a meaningful way, you know, working in showbiz… take us into your own inner world, Rajat. How do you feel going out into the world as it is, with your kind of cinema?
You know for me there was a sort of clarity when I came twenty five years back. I knew I wanted to make these kinds of films. And what happened to me eventually is much better than what I had anticipated would happen. But I was completely prepared that nobody will watch these films, that I will not be able to make these films… making them would be an impossibility, I was prepared for that. And like I said, I have been lucky that I have made six films. For me success is not how many people watched the film, how much money we made, but success is how close we have come eventually to what we had imagined in the beginning of writing the script. And I would like to tell you, there are five to ten people in this world, whose love and aspiration I crave a lot, and if they like it, then my job is done. I am very happy. If they say “wow!” you know, then that’s it. After that whatever happens is a bonus.
How important is the audience for you? Do you have them in mind when you are making your cinema?
That is the last thing on my mind, you know, when I am making my cinema, I don’t know who is the audience… Where do we draw a line? For me, I am the audience. When I am making a film, when I am writing a script, I am thinking how do I react to it? Will it work for me? That is the only way to judge, how can you judge what will others think, how will others react? I think it’s a bizarre way of working!
What context I was asking you this was, that if I look at the role of art in society, poets like Pablo Neruda, he would say that the only award or recognition for my poetry, the way I justified myself being a poet was when the people could pick up one thread of my poetry and it could give – ekraatki chain kineend to them, so that was when my poetry succeeded. So in that context, how important is your art to you?
No, see they are two different things. If you ask me about when I am writing, am I thinking of that man? No, never… I am the only audience then. Having said that, when we make the film, and someone comes to you and says, Sir, can I give you a hug? And that has happened to me a lot after Aankhon Dekhi, nothing better than that! It is an incredible feeling! I am so grateful for it, so touched by it that it meant something to someone else, rather than just myself.
Lastly, I just wanted to ask you why doesn’t Bollywood make mainstream cinema that explore unconventional themes or which has rare narratives or are experimental in nature? One could go by the logic of commerce, but that applies to mainstream Hollywood as well. But there is so much more experiment going on there, there is wonderful mainstream cinema there, which is so experimental in nature…
There are two or three films every year like that… not more than that. I think Hollywood makes on an average as many bad films as we do every year.
But still there is a lot of experiment happening, but nothing here.
There are five films like that every year. And here maybe there is one. But Hollywood has a lot of craft, and you know we have to realise that. A lot of craft. There will be a Cohen Brothers, and then a Birdman or something will come out, which is like wow! Everything else is quite average.
Forget about Hollywood, talk about our own cinema, you know, couple of decades ago, we used to have wonderful films like Do Aankhen Barah Haath, or Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, or the whole middle cinema which had this socialist, realist feel and this mainstream narrative going absolutely simultaneously. Why don’t we make such films now?
The ones, which used to do very well two decades or so ago…the films like those of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the films that say V. Shantaram did, the films of Guru Dutt, for example.
Guru Dutt made Kagaz Ke Phool, which was a huge flop…
Which was one film that didn’t do well. He was not just making fringe cinema…
Maybe… but there were all these other films by these other filmmakers you mentioned… In a way they were also mainstream films…they had songs, they had bad steps. Okay, maybe a slightly better script and a better sensibility, you know. But as far as I am concerned they are mainstream films. Slightly better written, because you remember them with some warmth in your heart but they were not breaking any new cinematic grounds. I mean in today’s context you can say Dibakar is doing that sort of thing. There are others as well… But really I don’t look back with too much nostalgia to that. Guru Dutt, of course was very special… very special… and so was Raj Kapoor and Vijay Anand in the 50’s, and then Ritwik Ghatak, I am not really fond of much of the 70’s…
So lastly, what is the latest that you are working on? And what can we expect from you in the future?
I have finished writing three scripts in the last year and a half. And I am waiting, which one will get made first and I am dying to start the next film. There is a gangster film. It is a completely mad idea, which I can’t talk much about and another one is a small film, in the same milieu as Aankhon Dekhi set in Mathura. I am looking forward to all of them, whichever makes it first… I hope I can make it through all.
Great. All the very best, and thank you so much for talking to us.
Thank you. It was lovely talking to you.