In this chat with Sayan Bhattacharya, director Anusha Rizvi revisits Peepli, explains why her next, Opium, based on Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies will be a masala entertainer, questions the shocking silence on Partition in cinema , talks about how she met the challenge of reading Fifty Shades of Grey and much more.
3 years down the release of Peepli Live, what kind of a life does it have?
Quite a life actually because people are still watching the film, you know. A lot of reactions don’t come to me directly because people don’t know me but even then, the term Peepli Live – outside of me or outside of the film— has a life of its own. Now it is used in certain contexts, for instance (the parliament stalemate on FDI). People constantly refer to it on twitter and facebook.
When the film released, it was mainly targeted at the multiplex audience…For us, the film was never targeted ONLY at the multiplex audience. It was targeted at all those who had any way of watching a film. See, when it was released, a certain number of prints were put out but when the demand increased over the weekend, the prints were doubled, if not tripled. And this was not just in the big cities, but even in smaller towns like Bhopal, which have very few halls. And when you see a film running there, you know there was a demand. But far more than that, what I gathered from the writings in the regional press was that a lot of people watched the film in non theatre settings such as TV or dvd’s or even pirated versions.
A change was noticed within the multiplex audience of this film as well. A large number of senior citizens, who won’t normally venture out to watch a film, came out to watch Peepli. A number of schools booked shows. Shows were held at the Prime minister’s residence and at the Planning Commission. So the film did reach much further than the traditional multiplex audiences.
With Arvind Kejriwal’s exposes, the issue of corruption has definitely taken centre stage but isn’t that just another manifestation of a dysfunctional democracy which has got its fundamentals wrong? With Peepli too featuring the caricaturish venal politician, do you think you could have delved deeper?You can only do so much with one film. And what more could have been done to it is a hypothetical question. It’s a finished product and so no changes can be made to it. Now, it can only be judged on the basis of what it is. Over and above that, it has slightly moved away from the makers or those associated with it because it has crossed over to the audience. They may read a lot more or a lot less into the film, but it has been told in one way and that’s how it remains.
As for the exposes, well it isn’t as if, we as a society or as a nation are unaware of these things. We know them so well that we are immune to them. We are jolted not so much by the issue itself but the fact that somehow it also involves you.
But have you completely detached yourself from your first film?
Yes completely! Or at least I hope so.
If you were to watch Peepli as an audience today?
I haven’t watched it for a long time and I don’t want to watch it for a very long time. So as and when I watch it again, I will tell you. Right now I am not watching. (laughs)
With the whole FDI debate, one could almost sniff a sequel to Peepli but you have of course moved on toSea of Poppies…
Well, it’s not that different, you know, in the issues it addresses. Yes, it’s a different story that will require a different treatment, a different language.
So what’s your take on FDI?Well, there has been a lot of debate on it. There is a certain amount of problem, conceptually, for me to understand it. Forget FDI but what has happened before or before that? This has been a sustained process and as an economy, we are pushed down one particular road. There has been enough resistance and enough public debate but it hasn’t struck anywhere. Some of the most important bills get passed overnight without any debate. You and I can talk here, the newspapers can talk but where is the political will or political movement? So if we have to start talking about this, then we’ve got to begin a lot earlier than the present…
You mentioned Sonmanto in the film and there was a dapper agriculture minister. The allusions were all too real. So why couldn’t we have a disclaimer at the beginning of the film stating that “All characters shown here are real” like what Costa Gavras did with Z?
In Peepli Live, we used a lot of prototypes but I can’t really say this person is this. For a film like Z, I think it worked beautifully but for a film like Peepli Live, it could have become a gimmick.
Could you elaborate on that?
We do not really need to reinforce that what we are trying to show through the film is the reality of the country. If the film manages to achieve that without a disclaimer, then that’s better, isn’t it?
The dynamics between Nandita and Rakesh is very reminiscent of the dynamics between Shobha and Vinod in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.
The way the editor uses her charm and prowess in English to use Rakesh is similar to Jaane…But don’t you think there is a definite class difference, unlike in case of Vinod and Shobha? They may not be closer in terms of power position, but they are definitely closer in terms of class, unlike Nandita and Rakesh. Vinod speaks with a certain degree of sophistication. He is a photographer. He speaks a certain language. Whereas in case of Nandita and Rakesh, they share no language, not even the region they live in. Rakesh is from a very small town while Nandita is from the post 90’s big city set-up like Delhi. There is no level playing ground between the two.
So didn’t you have any reference points while scripting Peepli… say your journalistic experiences?
There are so many reference points. Things that you have seen or read or heard about, all of those things are reference points, when one is writing a story. When Peepli began, it was about Natha and about his older brother Budhia, characters that you may have met or liked or empathized with. But the story turned out to be about Hori you know, who has two scenes in the film. And the reference is clearly Premchand’s Hori Mahato. It is also Rakesh’s film, a man caught between two worlds. But also a man who can’t turn away from what he sees. A man pushed to his limits, although differently from Hori. And I have to admit, it is Rakesh’s character that I identified with the most. His character is drawn from so many people around us.
The women in Peepli Live come from my grandmother, Habiba Taban. She was an amazing person and women of all kinds flocked to her house. They ranged from age 16 to the age where they could just about travel. They came with various problems and various temperaments.
But I realised one thing really early on, that most women have very tough lives. They are very tough though. My love for old women, especially the really quarrelsome ones, comes from there. Amma is definitely rooted in them. And so is Dhaniya. One day you and I should sit down with the film and dissect it scene by scene.
True… since your film has a lot of black comedic elements and it has been compared to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, why do you think, Bollywood has failed to explore the black comedy genre?
I am not very sure what genre Peepli Live falls in per se and it’s not my biggest engagement either. It’s neither a full farce, nor a black comedy in the strict sense. It’s just a story one wanted to tell and this is the style of the story. Now I leave it to others to figure out what genre they want to put it in. And I don’t know why the Hindi film industry doesn’t explore black comedy more, and I also don’t know enough about other language cinema in India to be presumptuous.
But speaking broadly, what do you make of these senseless 100 crore comedies? Why do we have so many of them?
Frankly, I don’t know! See, clearly there are people who find them funny, hain na? These films are selling, people are watching. Could it be because of a lack of options? Possible.
But a film like Peepli did well…
It isn’t a comedy.
It had its comic elements and most importantly people engaged with a film that is so political. It reached out to an audience, who have no connect with the rural base. Maybe they talked about the film over wine but still…I get what you are trying to say but the way the audience engages with a Peepli is not the same as their engagement with, say Golmaal. Even though Peepli is funny in parts, it is still a political film. And the ending is pretty depressing. So frankly, I don’t know how to answer that question… and as for the hundred crore films, I also watch a lot of these! (laughs)
Okay but what about the absence of any deep engagement with politics in our cinema? What do you make of that?
We were still trying to engage with the ‘social’ in our cinema, almost till the beginning of the 90’s. Mithun and Govinda are therefore still relevant in the B and C centres.
But the political seems to be missing. I don’t know why is that? Is it because we live in a deeply fractured society and our politics is extremely complicated, what with caste and linguistic differences to name a few. I guess it requires some research to figure out the actual reasons for the absence of political cinema in the country and again let’s not forget that there is a lot of cinema outside the Hindi film setup. It’s note worthy that an industry that felt Partition in the manner that the Hindi film industry did, did not engage with the greatest political and human upheaval of this nation, almost till Garam Hawa came in 1973. So from 1947 to 1973, there wasn’t a single film on the partition. Was it a case of a tacit understanding? I find it difficult to believe that the filmmakers were not affected by it, but we still didn’t engage with it cinematically.
There was Ritwik Ghatak. His whole body of work…
Of course there is Ghatak, and thank god for him, but that’s still just one filmmaker engaging with this colossal event. Let’s look at the Holocaust and the amount of artistic work it has generated.
There seems to be a deliberate clamping down of memory. Before and after partition, we see cinema that is showcasing emerging India, the idea of India and but there is complete silence on partition, which is inexplicable. Even after Garam Hawa, how many films on partition? Pinjar…
There was Gadar but it had its own sensibilities…
I am fine with different sensibilities as long as we are engaging with the fact that there has been a partition and a whole lot of people have been forcefully shifted or migrated or have died. So even today, if we cannot talk about partition, how do we even start talking about Gujarat or the anti Sikh riots or even the caste system?
After Peepli, one would expect you to pack your bags and move to Mumbai…
Is it? I packed my bags from Bombay and came back (Delhi).
Yes… so why?
First of all, my parents are here. Well it’s a personal decision and also a very comfortable one. (laughs)
Do you feel more at home here culturally?I guess we do. We stayed in Bombay for two and a half years but both of us (Mahmood Farooqui, codirector of Peepli and Anusha) felt the need to reconnect with our base, which is Delhi. Other than films, the rest of our work also takes place in Delhi like Dastangoi. Besides, Delhi has a very vibrant art scene and one always needs the inspiration, right?
The materials that you select for your work— whether it is Dastangoi or references to Premchand in Peeplior Sea of Poppies now— are very literary and rooted in home grown realities. How do you choose these, what ideas go behind them?
I guess somewhere the material chooses you first, long before you realise it. And I guess, when that one narrative is stuck with you, you need to get it out of your system in some form or the other. Also since we work as a team it is doubly difficult to say why one chooses certain material and not the other. For instance Mahmood chooses all the material for Dastangoi but then there is some material we choose together, such asA Free Man. And then I may choose some stuff, which Mahmood may like or may not like. More often than not, we end up being attracted to the same material.
There are many literary references in our work, and those are there because I think we have been brought up with IT. It isn’t as if one is going out looking for it… it’s just there somehow.
So what drew you to Sea of Poppies?We were on the sets of Peepli Live when someone sent us the book. We read it and loved it immediately. The falling in love began first at the language level, then the characters, the period, the history, the subaltern history … there is so much in the book to explore… the mannerisms, the costumes, the music and dance. It’s a fascinating project. It will give us the space to research, space to experiment with language, with treatment and of course it’s a project very close to us because we will be telling the history of the nation, a history that is unknown.
You have mentioned in an interview that Sea of Poppies will be in Bhojpuri and it will be a masala entertainer… please explain.
The film needs to be in Bhojpuri because that is the language of the region that we are dealing with. And we think that Opium, the film can well fit into our idea of what a masala film should be or can be. It’s about two doomed love stories, action, comedy, romance, adventure at sea, songs. It is about opium and all the seduction and curses it carries. Isn’t that masala enough?
So when are you going on floors? What state is Opium in now?
When I get the money! But it’s in a very good state actually. In good hands.
I wanted to ask this about funding… this book requires an epic mounting. So your film will be big and it will require a big producer. So then questions of marketing come, the conflict of ideas…
Tell me something because I get this asked a lot. What is your understanding of what went wrong in case of Peepli? Clearly the question comes from there…
I felt that the film was projected in a way that it had a limited appeal…
No… I meant what do you think were the issues between Aamir and me about the marketing of the film?
Okay… I felt why were the makers not on the forefront of the publicity… I saw you with Aamir Khan on one reality show but Mahmood Farooqui was completely missing…
I need to clarify this. Our issues with the marketing were not about whether we were on the forefront or not, though that appears to be the case. Our issues were very different. Our issues started long before the actual marketing— the one that you saw on TV— began. We felt that Peepli Live wasn’t fully understood by the marketing side. The marketing team found it difficult to understand how to pitch it. So we disagreed with them. Nevertheless, they went ahead and partly we went along. But when we felt that it was getting worse, both Mahmood and I decided that we wouldn’t participate in the marketing. Aamir did not stop us. These were professional disagreements.
So what were the issues like?
See… there were many issues but it’s been 3 years. If I sit down to recount all of them, I won’t be accurate because I would’ve forgotten half the details. It goes for Aamir as well, I guess. So in that sense, it becomes useless to talk about all it now. (smiles)
A lot has been said and written about Barfi. What’s your take on plagiarism?Plagiarism is tricky space, haan? Plagiarism in writing is a different ball game. As for films, there are only those many plots in the world. Now, they all have been dealt with in the Panchatantra. So no matter, who you maybe as a storyteller, you are telling nothing new. Now, how you tell that story is what matters. So to pick on plot similarities and talk about it… I find that troublesome because you will pick one plot and then you will find a million other things that have been done with that plot. But if you remake something, say in a different language, without acknowledging the source, that’s a problem.
So the crux of the debate is acknowledgement?
Well ultimately, it is about the quotation marks…
The discussion around Barfi, being the Oscar entry has been mostly centred around plagiarism but so many interesting films are being made across the country, which fail to make the cut…
The year Peepli Live was selected, there was a huge hue and cry about it too. Why was a regional film not picked up? I don’t know why. These questions are raised every year and yet those who are raising the questions, will wait for next year to again question the validity of the selection but won’t really demand an answer the rest for the year.
Why does this debate wait till, say September to October, why can’t this be a sustained interaction? If the Academy Awards are the be all and end all of our cinematic identity and self image, then why aren’t we proactive throughout the year and make sure that a worthy contender is chosen? Let’s start with what is the selection procedure and criterion? Who is on the selection committee? On what basis does the government chose the committee? Isn’t it more logical to figure all this out before hand? Why is Kindle not doing a series on this? I would love to get some answers! Isn’t it weird that everybody goes ballistic for one week and then forgets all about it? And why just the Oscar selection, why not the selections for the National awards? If we need the answers, then we need to engage with the question a little more seriously.
Hmm… from cinema to television. Sometime back you said that you love Udaan. Why do you think, our television industry fails to produce such rooted shows anymore, considering the fact that reruns of Malgudi Days are as successful?
Ya… this is a question that I asked in Doordarshan, when I went there sometime back. Why is it that Doordarshan no longer has enough money to produce a show like Udaan? It was shot on film, had fantastic actors, a fantastic storyline and that had a lot more impact on women than anything that has come in the last 10 years.
Recently you met I&B minister Manish Tiwari as part of a delegation of indie filmmakers. What led you to join this delegation and what transpired in the discussion? How hopeful are you?Onir had filed a Save Indie Cinema petition about 6 months ago. It’s signed by 44 film professional and 20 thousand film enthusiasts so far and it is continuing to grow. Ashwin Kumar introduced me to the petition and I agreed with all the demands that it was making. We went to present the petition to the Minister, following which we had a meeting with him regarding the issues raised in the petition, some of which are reopening of spaces such as Shakuntalam and Mahadev Road Auditorium to small films, appropriate slots to be given by Doordarshan for small films, retrospective tax returns after a film wins a national award and of course the problem of censor certification.
Mr. Tiwari was extremely generous with his time and tried to understand all the structural, financial and other issues filmmakers face. He agreed with almost all points raised in the petition and promised to make a concerted effort to help in reaching these goals.
So what are you watching these days…TV, cinema?
I have started watching TV after recommendations from my niece and nephew but news remains a mainstay.
News is fiction these days…
Oh…yes, it is.
Favourite films… scenes, moments that have stayed with you?
There are loads. It’s so difficult to name one. I grew up watching hindi films of all sorts. From Naseerudin Shah walking in and saying, “Hum Dilli haar gayen” in Junoon to Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi, how does one point to a few?
Recent films you loved or hated watching?
This year… I liked Pan Singh Tomar, English Vinglish, Vicky Donor, Love Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana.Absolutely loved Harud.
Who are your favourite filmmakers?
There are so many.
What are you currently reading?
This… (points to her table on which lies Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James)
And what did you make of it?
I want my money back! And this was supposed to be fan fiction, right? It’s quite shocking!
Yes… Twilight which was quite bad itself…
I haven’t read that and it is supposed to be for teens, right? I left my teen years long ago, so how would I know? And I am done with it!
But you are a filmmaker, who needs all sorts of inspirations. I find Letters from Penthouse on your shelf.
Letters from Penthouse to Twilight is not the same, ya! Twilight is for the 13-14 year olds. So you are not even supposed to pick it up and read the back!
So what drew you to Fifty Shades?Lots of conversations. Since many of us couldn’t individually go beyond the first 20 pages, we had a collective session for a quick read! We managed around 100 pages and then figured out that we don’t really want to know more!
You have acquired the rights to A Free Man. What drew you to it? Do you see yourself as a chronicler of the marginalized? Peepli, Sea of Poppies, now this…
It is such a special book. We were drawn to it because of the characters of course, but also the way it is written, the spaces it is exploring, the things it is telling us. But no more on A Free Man till we do some justice to it.The chronicler of the marginalized…waah! I would love to call myself that provided I am able to put one more film out there. At the moment the chronicles are just one movie long.