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December 1, 1999


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'I have not compromised'

Govind Nihalani The story of 'The Artist As The Populist' is always a story of courage. It holds the horror of a bathroom singer who has suddenly been transported on to the centre of a floodlit stage, at the bottom of an immense amphitheatre.

To please yourself with your own effort is the easiest. To please an occasional critic or two takes a little honing. But to win the applause of an ocean of humanity is the fine skill of market mechanics: Art for mart's sake. If you have not already noticed, the game is called 'showbiz'.

Even Christ knew it. Listen to the parables, there is a lesson to be learnt there.

Yet, there is nothing wrong in pure art: Art with complete disregard for another human. Only, it tends to be a little freakish. Like India's parallel cinema. Bathroom singing, you know. The only audiences and critics are all in the family.

Now cinematographer-director Govind Nihalani is about to step out of the showers! One of the high priests of India's arty flicks, the man is actually making a film in the popular genre.

Nihalani has nothing to lose. He has a reputation that few artistes ever achieve and he seems to be comfortably off.

Yet, by making Thakshak, he is sticking his neck out. He is exposing himself to a million critics, more mindless and more brutal than any kurta-jhola on the cocktail circuit.

Now, that is rare courage. It is not taught at the Film Institute. And surprisingly, it is also missing from the curriculum of Harvard School of Business.

Nihalani tells Sharmila Taliculam why he is doing this. Why he is putting at stake a fine reputation and a career built on handcrafted talent.

What is Thakshak about?

Basically, for me, Thakshak is my first effort at making a film in the popular genre. So far I have made movies which do not use the elements of popular cinema. It has been offbeat, off the middle track. Thakshak happened because Ajay (Devgan), who is a star in his own right, expressed his desire to do a film with me.

I thought it was a good idea and told him I had a story where he might fit, but I wasn't ready to narrate it immediately since I had still to work on the script. He told me he didn't need to read the script and he would be ready to start it as soon as I was. I was very touched by his gesture of having so much confidence in me. That was a starting point. I developed the script and started working on it.

Ajay Devgan in Thakshak Besides, Manmohan Shetty, a good friend of mine, has always been telling me to attempt something for the wider audience, to make more popular cinema which will create sufficient resources for me to make my next film. I thought about his suggestion, but I was initially very reticent due to star dates hassles, small schedules, big budgets... It is a totally different set-up. But when I saw how serious and sincere Ajay was about working with me, I decided to attempt making a film in the popular genre.

What is your perception of what is called popular genre?

In terms of my perception of popular cinema, I think it is more like modern, urban folk theatre. Traditionally, our folk theatres present simple, but interesting, stories. It combines elements of dance, song, enactment, and pure and simple narration. If you look at the Ramlila, some passages are sung, some are enacted, then there is a katha vachak where they narrate the story in parts.

Our Hindi cinema is also a form which incorporates all these elements and that is why it has been so popular for nearly hundred years. The style, the genre has emerged from our own soil. So I took it as a challenge of telling a story in a different form. And form, according to me, is an artistic statement. It is an artistic decision -- in the manner you are telling me a story, in the manner in which you are transferring an experience from the maker to the viewer.

Now, a popular film according to me should have four elements. One is that it must have stars. People love to see stars. They are good-looking, the audiences love watching them again and again. My film has stars like Ajay Devgan, Tabu, Rahul Bose, Govind Namdeo, Amrish Puri and introduces a new face, Nethra Raghuraman.

Secondly, a popular film should have good music. I have A R Rahman as the music director for my film, who perhaps is the best at the moment in the country. Thirdly, a film should have a simple story but it should be divertingly told. I think I have also managed that. The fourth is, it cannot have ambiguity. It cannot be a complex thing. Things have to be simplified so that the audience can understand it much better.

Parallel cinema has a niche audience of, say, the educated middle and upper middle class, students, serious cinema lovers... With commercial cinema, you are addressing a vast, mixed audience. So the story can't be too complicated or have too many shades of greys. There is not much place for ambiguity. You can narrate a serious, ideological story like Mother India, but the style has to be simple and accessible.

We have tried to tell the story in a simple way, but I have not compromised on the statement the film wants to make. It reflects my concerns, which have been part of my earlier films also. All my films have been a response to the realities around me. Whether it is a political reality or a social reality, something from the environment has always inspired me. When you see Thakshak, you will get the same feeling.

What prompted you to make a commercial film?

Two things actually prompted me to make this film. Ajay Devgan acted as the catalyst. The other thing is that, as a film-maker, I want to experiment with different genres. I don't want to make only one kind of film all the time because then you become repetitive. You lose the ability to innovate because you are doing the same thing.

I would like to make a musical, a thriller, a comedy, make films with the stars, make films with newcomers because these are the things that stimulate your mind. What is important is that I should be true to my sensibility, true to my beliefs, my conviction. If I can keep these intact, then I can tell my story in any form.

Thakshak, according to me, is a romantic thriller. I was very fascinated with the kind of films that emerged from Hollywood in the fifties. That was a genre which dealt with the underbelly of society. Those films attempted to explore the inner life of those characters, their psyche, their psychological motivations. They attempted certain elements of depth in their plot, which essentially dealt with underworld activities and the law's response to them.

Tabu in Thakshak They were trying to express the angst of the characters. It also gave rise to a particular kind of visual style. They were the kind of films that attracted film-makers from all over the world. I wanted to do a film of that kind, which is what I have attempted with Thakshak. It is my response to those films in modern terms. I have not gone into the visual stylisation to that same extent, I have kept my film on a more realistic level. But you can find the same elements in my characters.

Did you have to compromise a lot on your style of film-making?

I would not call it a compromise. I think it is simplifying a narrative. As I said, you cannot be too complicated, but that doesn't mean you become too simplistic. That will create distortion because you leave out certain areas or shades; that will not bring out the real picture. I have not gone to that extent. Take Bertolt Brecht's Three Penny Opera. He was talking of Marxist ideas, class conflicts, exploitation and he wrote this opera, which has songs and dance and comedy... so much like a Hindi film.

He adopted a form to talk of major issues, but he talked about them in simple terms which others understood. I don't think that was a compromise. The compromise is when you believe in something and, due to certain pressures, you change that belief, you change your statements which, as far as I am concerned, I have not done.

Were you aiming to make a good commercial film or a successful commercial film?

Both. Since I have invested in the film, I want the film to recover the cost. I also hope it creates the resources necessary for me to make my next film. Ultimately, it is the source and availability of finance which decides what kind of film one can afford to make.

Cinema is a calculated risk. Maybe, in small budget, parallel cinema, I wouldn't really worry so much about market pressures. But this is not the case in a commercial set-up. Even in Hollywood, except for a few directors, production companies have the last word on the final product. The director does not always have the last word on the final cut of the film.

Did you face a similar problem?

Yes, to some extent. After seeing the rushes, my distributors told me that, except for me, everything was right with the film and the set-up! So I had to make some changes in my script, which delayed the film by another eight, nine months.

How does Govind Nihalani feel about being told how to make a film?

Not good!

How do you think the audience would take to a film-maker, whom they have known as an art film-maker, making a commercial film?

There is a certain overlap. I know the hardcore popular cinema watchers, they don't necessarily watch different kinds of films. But when I make a film like Ardh Satya or Aakrosh -- or, more recently, when I saw Maachis -- I noticed that the same people went and saw these films and liked it.

Jaya Bachchan in Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa Nowadays, the audience overlaps. Anyway, when I made Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa -- I made it before I completed this film -- the audience didn't come to see the film at all. They have access to video tapes, 40 cable channels. They want to see the same film on television for free.

What went wrong with Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa? Why didn't it attract an audience?

I was disappointed that nobody came to see the film. Not that I expected it to be a great hit either. It was a serious subject. The kind of environment we have, everybody is looking globally. Material achievement has become the big thing and one doesn't want to look at the past the way I did. For me, it was important because that was a generation who thought they could change society for good. It didn't work for whatever reasons, but that film needed to be made. I might re-release it again.

Is this the reason you are making a commercial film?

The fact is, popular cinema gives me the resources to tell my stories. And if I can retain my freedom to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, and also retain my sensibility, then it's an ideal situation. But that doesn't mean I have given up the other kind of cinema. My next film is based on Manjula Padmanabhan's award-winning play, Harvest, which will be a totally experimental film. It has no iota of popular cinema. I am looking at popular cinema as an addition to my oeuvre, rather than giving up one style for another. It's not like that.

Will you make many more film under the popular genre?

I certainly think so. I enjoyed making Thakshak. The only thing is, temperamentally, I wasn't prepared to make a film spread over two years. That was frustrating. But once it started, I enjoyed it completely. I loved picturising the songs and dances in my film and I have used the best choreographers in the country. I had a good communication with Rahman, who gave me such a beautiful variety of songs. And I respect and love him for the fact that he is so open to experiment. If you hear the songs of Thakshak, you will never be reminded of Roja or Dil Se.. or Bombay. Thakshak's music has its own character.

Did you and Rahman work together on the music of the film?

Yeah we did, but Rahman essentially works alone. He is an artist who creates alone. We come in before the songs are created because we give the briefs. Then we come in when the songs are recorded. We decide whether a particular music will work or no. But as far as the process of creation is concerned, he works alone. There is a spiritual aspect to his work. He is not what you call a tunesmith, that you give him a situation and two words and he quickly composes something there and then. It's not a fast food joint.

Why did you choose him? Was it because he really was a good music director or was it because he was the most popular one?

No, I heard the music of Roja and fell in love with it. I heard the song Chini chini asai more than 20 times. The first time I heard this song, I wanted to know who the composer was. And I thought, whoever this guy is, I want to work with him. His musical sensibility came across in the way he used his songs, his instruments... I was impressed with the totally fresh, unexpected, surprising quality of his notations. His musical arrangement and musical idea is very refreshing and fascinating.

He is very modern. He is technically savvy. He has a mind you can communicate with. The first time we met, we got along. In fact, few know this, I was the first Hindi director to sign Rahman. But it took me time to make my film because my projects didn't come through in time.

Tabu seems to be a favourite with most parallel cinema makers. Is that why you chose her?

I have seen Tabu's performances. I saw her first film and, then, I saw her in Maachis. I think she is fabulous, a world class actress. I wanted to work with her for a long time.

Ajay surprised me totally. When you take a star of Ajay's stature, he comes with a certain baggage. And that baggage is his image. He has had, so far, an image of a tough guy, an action hero.

Govind Nihalani I decided to work with him because, whatever his image was, there was a certain sincerity, a certain honesty about his performances, the way he looks, the expression in his eyes, that comes through. I discovered him as I went along. You realise that he is a man without guile. It was this quality that impressed me the most. Then I also discovered that, as an actor, he was willing to take risks. I mean, he was willing to go along with something that is not in his accepted image.

In this film, he is a character who has shades, who questions, who has a certain ambiguity in his mind. He arrives at a decision after a long period of introspection. He is not a hero in white, shining armour. It's not about bashing up bad guys, it's about inner turmoil. You can see his journey, which starts at point A and ends at point B. It is a journey of self-realisation, a journey of discovering a new way of looking at life altogether.

Ajay spoilt me as a director! He was so quick on the uptake. There were no ego hassles, no tantrums or dramas on the sets. He has not even seen the rushes of the film to see how it has shaped up. He says he trusts me completely and this, of course, adds a lot of responsibility.

In the Gita, Arjun was told there were different kinds of loyalty. When you choose to stand on the side of right, you follow your Dharma. Which is, you stand by your beliefs and, in the process, if you have to face your own brother, your own father, you do it.

There is a personal loyalty, which we value it immensely in our culture. But there is a higher loyalty, which is to humanity. What is your responsibility as a human being and when there is choice between two kinds of loyalty, which one do you choose? That is the crux of the story.

There are many actors today who are ready to experiment with their roles and with film-makers. Does that make it easier for you to make such films more often?

I take this as a positive development. Secondly, it makes it easier to think of unusual subjects. When you have stars willing to experiment, it is good not only for the film-makers, but for Hindi cinema in general. There is too much stagnation and plagiarism of ideas. We must get out of this.

Does that mean films are going to get better?

I should imagine so. I imagine the younger and serious film-makers will avoid doing remakes and picking up ideas from already made films. Out of the 800 films we make a year, even if 20 films are original and interesting -- I am including regional cinema here as well -- it will be good.

What are your expectations for Thakshak? Will your decision to make more such films rely on the success of this film?

I am praying and hoping that the audience likes it. I am keeping my fingers crossed. If I have the freedom to choose my story, my starcast, and I have the freedom to keep my sensibility intact, I will do more films in the popular genre. I think it is possible to do it.

Are you nervous, now that the film will be released in a couple of days?

Yes, I am very anxious. I would be lying if I say I don't care or it doesn't matter. I want this film to do well at the box-office. A lot is at stake.

With inputs from Mrudula Rajadhyaksha.

Thakshak in Real Audio and Real Video

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