'In our film industry, the weakest aspect is acting'
After 23 years in the film industry, this is Tigmanshu Dhulia's moment under the sun, thanks to a brilliant acting turn in Gangs Of Wasseypur and an even better direction job in Paan Singh Tomar later.
This Friday, Dhulia's film Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns -- the sequel to the hit Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster -- releases, and while Mahie Gill and Jimmy Shergill reprise their roles in the sequel, Soha Ali Khan and Irrfan Khan have joined the cast.
He speaks to Patcy N about his struggling years in the industry, why a trained actor like him preferred directing, and why he named his dog Action!
When you made Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster had you already decided on a sequel?
No, because we were not sure how well the film would do. But I knew within me that the film would do well. I just didn't tell anyone.
If you have seen part one, you will notice that we had put the germ of part two in it. The last scene in the film is of the Sahib (Jimmy Shergill) now in a wheelchair and his Biwi (Mahie Gill) is wheeling him out. Someone asks 'who is this man?' and Sahib says, 'This is our new driver' (the driver was the gangster). The film ends there. I was sure that people would leave the theatre thinking that now the Biwi will have an affair with this driver.
So, after the film did well, we thought of making the continuation
There would be tremendous pressure to deliver a better part two...
Yes, there was a lot of pressure. First we had to get a good actor. People loved Randeep in the first part, so in this one we took Irrfan (Khan).
This time we have made the film on a grander scale. The film is set in a royal environment (Jimmy Shergill is a Nawab in the film). We couldn't do that last time because of budget constraints.
Image: Mahies Gill in Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns. Inset: Tigmanshu Dhulia
'As an artist, Irrfan pushes me to write difficult scenes'
Irrfan has been your lucky mascot all through -- Haasil, Charas, Paan Singh Tomar -- so you decided to take him this time too?
I would love to make all my films with Irrfan.
But, no, I did not decide because of that. Before I wrote the script I had decided on Neil (Nitin Mukesh). I just had an idea about what I wanted to do in part two then. I spoke to Neil and we decided that I will take him.
After I wrote the script, dialogues, and the scenes, I realised that Neil was too young for this role and I needed an older and more mature actor.
But you love working with Irrfan?
I enjoy writing for Irrfan because as an artist he pushes me to write difficult scenes. With him I can do things that I can't dream of doing with others.
When I am writing a scene and dialogues and when the scene takes a proper shape, if Irrfan is playing the character, I can think out of the box; I can write a little twisted.
In our film industry the weakest aspect is acting. We don't have good actors. We have big stars but they are weak in acting.
In our politics and also in films, if the father is an actor we presume that the son will be an actor too. And people accept that. That is the tradition and we have to follow it, there is no way out.
Cinema has changed now. The common man is exposed to foreign films through the internet. The standard of films he sees is better and he thinks that these foreign films have good actors but we don't have good actors, and they make fun of it.
Irrfan is a skilled actor. He is from the National School of Drama. He has knowledge of how to act. Plus he is a friend and I have a comfort level working with him. So why shouldn't I work with him.
Image: Soha Ali Khan and Irrfan Khan in Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns
'I kept a dog and named him Action'
You came to Mumbai in 1993. Your first film Haasil released in 2003 and it was a good movie. But recognition came only after Paan Singh Tomar that released last year. Was the intervening period frustrating and depressing for you?
I started as an assistant director in 1993, assisting Shekhar Kapur. It took me seven-eight years to learn the art. I started doing television before Haasil. I have a good body of work in television.
We were all doing TV together-- Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz (Ali), Sriram (Raghvan). I wrote lots of film scripts. I got a chance to work with good directors--Raj Kumar Santoshi, Shekhar Kapur, Mani Ratnam. I wrote films for all of them.
Charas released in 2004. The next seven years were difficult. I started a few films, they went on the floors too and then got shelved. In fact, the day after Charas released, I shot for my next film, Killing of a Porn Filmmaker. But something was happening. Every time I worked with a producer, he backed out at the last minute!
After Killing of a Porn Filmmaker I started a very big project called Ghulami, in 2005. It was a period film based on the 1857 uprising. I thought since it is a big scale movie it will take at least one-and-a half years to make and we can release it in 2007, the year India was going to celebrate 150 years of the uprising or the first war of independence.
It had Sunny Deol, Irrfan Khan, Sameera, we had foreign actors, all the preparations were done. It took a lot of time to write the script. We did a recce of the whole of India, the weapons, costumes. A total of 450 people worked on the film.
After three days of shooting, the producer backed out. I lost two years there.
That period was difficult, it was not that I was not getting work -- I was getting work but after two or three days of shooting, the project would get shelved. But since I was not sitting idle, and I was doing lots of work, all these things didn't strike me then.
Most of the scripts that I am making now were written in those six or seven years when my work did not take off. I kept a dog at that time and named him 'Action', and would keep calling out to him (laughs).
Image: Mahie Gill in Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns
'More than a hero, people would turn around and see Shekhar Kapur if he was walking on the road'
Like you said, in this industry if a father is an actor so is the son. You were an outsider from a small town. Was it difficult to establish yourself in the industry?
I feel proud of that fact. I don't think it was difficult because I was assistant to Shekhar Kapur.
Shekhar Kapur was a big name. More than a hero, people would turn around and see Shekhar Kapur if he was walking on the road
I worked with him on Bandit Queen, so I was already an assistant to a star director.
Shekhar Kapur had asked you to come to come to Mumbai, but then he left to make Elizabeth...
But he did a lot for us, me and his other assistants. After doing Bandit Queen, Delhi khali hogaya, all the talent from Delhi was in Mumbai, like Nimal Pandey, Manoj Bajpai, Seema Biswas, Suarabh Shukla. We all came here.
Shekhar Kapoor was here for two-and-a-half years more. I wrote three films for him that actually never started. Sometimes we would start with a song recording and then stop. Sometimes we stopped after an audition. For some or the other reason, the film would get shelved.
Before he left for Elizabeth, he was made creative head of a new channel that was going to be launched, called BITV, by Business India magazine. He made all of us producers of different serials.
I, Saurabh Shukla, and Kanna Iyer, who has just made Ek Thi Dayan, became producers and we started making serials.
We made a serial called Hum Bambai Nahi Jayenge about a drama school. We had good actors like Irrfan, Manoj Bajpai and Saurabh Shukla. Saurabh and I wrote the story and I directed.
We made 13 episodes, and then the channel did not take off. Had that channel taken off and had our serial gone on air, the television industry would be different today.
We did not make any money from that. We knew how to direct a film but we did not have any sense of how to produce it. But we were happy during the shooting; we were getting money but spending it all in the shooting, and the little bit we saved we spent on a party on 31 December!
But all the actors who worked in the serial got their show reel which they could take to other producers to ask for new acting assignments. The producer or director they showed their work to would ask who had directed the serial and then my name would pop up.
That's how people started recognising me, and from there on I started getting a lot of work in television. So, before Shekharji went, he did well for us.
Image: Mahie Gill and Soha Ali Khan in Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns
'I didn't act because I was a very bad actor then'
Though you trained as an actor at NSD, you never thought about acting till now. You were very good in Gangs Of Wasseypur and now you are going to act in Ketan Mehta's film.
I didn't act because I was a very bad actor then. But now I have changed and I don't know how. May be by making others act I learnt acting myself. When I passed out of NSD I was not a good actor, I knew what a bad actor I was.
I knew that in Mumbai I may get roles because my Hindi is very good and I speak well. I knew I would end up in television serials and I would be called an okay actor on television. But I did not want to do that. I was always interested in films.
Anurag (Kashyap) had acted in my Shagrid so when he asked me for Gangs Of Wasseypur. I couldn't say no.
I did not even read the script before saying yes. I gave my prosthetic trial but still I was not aware that it was such a big role and it would be such a huge movie.
I was not under much pressure because I thought that even if I act badly in the film, people will say he is a director not an actor!
I did Ketan Mehta's Mountain Man because I was indebted to the man. My very first film was Sardar Patel directed by him. I was working in the art department.
I was newly married --I married at the age of 22-- and I did not have any money. After the 16-day schedule everyone got their money but my art director said my account would be settled in Delhi.
I was in tears because I had planned to go home and give my first salary to my wife. Ketan Saab heard my story and came down from the office and fired the hell out of everyone and said, 'This boy has worked harder then anyone of you present here and you are not paying him? Pay him immediately.'
Recently, when I was shooting in Lucknow for Bullet Raja (his next movie) I got a call from Ketan Bhai that he wants me to act in his film. There was no way I would say no to him.
Image: A scene from Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster Returns