Saturday, July 15, 2017

The gang that couldn’t shoot straight

Though he’s been making short films since 1993, Ashim Ahluwalia’s first feature was the documentary John And Jane, in 2005. It was his first fiction feature, Miss Lovely (2012), though, which put him on the world cinema map. A dark, fractured narrative set in Mumbai’s soft-core horror film industry in the 1980s, the film was a rare Competition section entry for India at the Cannes Film Festival.

Ahluwalia’s candid, cine-literate interviews and experimental shorts (his last was the imaginative 2016 film Events In A Cloud Chamber) have suggested a film-maker whose sensibilities were headed in an opposite direction from the mainstream. This is why the announcement that he’d be taking on a popular genre (the gangster movie) and a star (Arjun Rampal) with a biopic of Mumbai mob boss-turned-politician Arun Gawli came as a surprise.

Daddy releases in September. Ahluwalia spoke to us—appropriately, given the genre under discussion, in the back room of a restaurant—about making a “mass” film on his own terms and getting a Bollywood A-lister to watch Japanese New Wave films. Edited excerpts from an interview:

‘Daddy’ appears to be your most straightforward, story-driven film.
The funny thing about that is, for people who know my work, it’s my most straight film, but the people from within the industry who’ve seen it, think it’s very edgy. Without revealing too much, it’s a Gawli biopic where Gawli’s point of view is missing. It has the framework of an investigation which takes place in 2011, when he’s coming to power. An old cop who’s almost retired is told to investigate him. He speaks to various characters from Gawli’s life, so you have multiple points of view.

For me, this is kind of an experiment: not because of the form, but to see if I can work in a mass genre. In my mind, it’s not a festival film. The dream is to make a film that a cinephile can watch, and a guy from Dagdi chawl can watch; that they can both take different things from and are still satisfied.

It was Arjun Rampal who approached you with the idea of a Gawli biopic.
He was not a producer then, but he had the rights. I didn’t know Arjun at all before we met on a commercial. I hadn’t seen any of his films, but we hit it off. He started telling me (about the Gawli biopic), saying, “Some of the producers are not getting it, it’s really unfortunate—I have the rights of the real guy but they’re making it into Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai.”

Arjun had started writing a draft based on the stories he had heard from Gawli and the gang. I think the fact that his draft wasn’t heroic was the reason I said yes. Had it been a superman movie in the guise of a gangster movie, I would’ve said no.

I told him, if we’re going to do this together, how about we chop this up, put in different points of view. I pulled out a lot of dialogue, put more voice-over in. It became closer to the kind of gangster movie I would want to make.

How did Rampal become the co-producer?
Arjun and I were clear on the kind of film we wanted to make, but the producers weren’t. I’d get recommendations from them to cast an A-list actor, or to have Sunny Leone do an item number. It didn’t feel right for this film. It had gotten to the point where I said, I can’t do the movie like this. So to fix this, Arjun became a co-producer. The company (Kundalini Entertainment) didn’t exist before this. He had to make a company to make the movie.

Were you wary of working in a relatively mainstream space for the first time?
Totally. My contract is so paranoid Arjun would just call and laugh at it.

Did you get final cut?
I have final cut, and I get involved in everything. That’s just how I tend to work. I’m even involved in the font design of the poster. In the beginning I was told in the industry the director just makes the movie, someone makes the poster, someone else cuts the trailer. I was like, no, but it’s my trailer!

Do you have memories of Gawli from when you were growing up?
This film is coming off the back of Miss Lovely in a strange way, because it’s also Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1980s. I grew up with pictures of dead bodies in the papers and the whole mythology of the gangster. I’m a south Bombay kid, so I’ve seen the mill lands before they were gentrified.

What was most interesting about Gawli is that I never found out who he was. Every gangster projects a certain kind of image. Dawood was very flamboyant, stylish—the classic don. Gawli is an enigma, impenetrable. My image of him was the politician with the topi, white kurta, clean—and I could never figure how this guy was the mobster. He breaks all stereotypes, Hollywood and otherwise, of the gangster. He’s very good with image-making, and he understands public perception. That to me is the basis of cinema as well.

Did you meet him for the film?
I spent time with him. One thing that struck me is how working-class he is. He comes from Dagdi chawl and he has an underdog complex. He’s often been treated very unfairly. I wrote this into the script—the guy who doesn’t want to be a gangster but just to prove that he can do it, he does something impulsive, and then he’s stuck. Then, to get out, he does something even more impulsive, and he’s stuck further.

This to me is the story of Gawli’s life. I think it is unlike any other gang movie—instead of a gangster with a proactive approach, you have one who’s on the back foot all the time. It’s a very reactive way of dealing with the world, very different from the plotting gangster you imagine.

Did you get the impression that he genuinely believes he’s a social worker?
I talked to people who live in Dagdi chawl and Agripada and they’re huge admirers of him. He is seen almost as a saviour. Obviously, that’s one side of the story: Some say it’s all a PR stunt. Of course, people have different views of him. If you ask me what I know about him, it’s as much as you do after watching the film, which is six different points of view, none of which match up.

The question for me isn’t, “Is Gawli good or bad?” but rather, who is the criminal? Is it the guy who cleared the mill lands? Is it the owner who wanted the workers out with low compensation? Or is it the person who bought a flat in a building that came up in place of the mills? It’s easy to say, this guy did the dirty job, but who paid him to pull the trigger, and where did the funds come from? Was that my security deposit that went into paying for somebody’s hit?

Are multiple points of view used as a formal disruptive device?
Absolutely. The classic film that does this is Rashomon. There’s also a film that was very influential when I was making this, which was Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine.

There’s an interview with Rampal in which he describes you showing him something that sounds like Imamura’s film.
Arjun and I have a funny relationship. He tries to get me to meet a Bollywood action director, and he watches me squirm, and I put him through Japanese New Wave films and watch him squirm. But Vengeance Is Mine was very interesting because it’s a film about a serial killer that doesn’t want to blame the killer, it wants to blame Japan for creating him. I think there’s a parallel here with the city of Mumbai.

Were there other cinematic influences on ‘Daddy’?
Imamura is someone who is deeply influential for me. That moment in Japanese history (when he began making films)—the late 1950s and early 1960s—is similar to the moment we’re going through now in India: a transitional phase where we’re getting all this global capitalism but there’s also this feudal structure, and both are exploding into each other. I find Imamura very relevant—socially, and in terms of dealing with sexual mores.

One of the things I really wanted to do was avoid the traditional gangster movie references—Goodfellas, the Godfather trilogy. That’s all been flogged to death, and that’s not the only mythology of gangsters.

They’re not my cup of tea, but I think that within Bollywood, gangster films have been the most interesting in some ways. A film like Satya—I think what Ram Gopal (Verma) and Anurag (Kashyap) were able to do with it was to break the fantasy, take the film on to the streets, make the film with real dialogue, with faces that feel like they’re from that space. What it’s done for the industry and for all of us to be able to make movies like that, is immense.

Have we been able to put our own spin on the gangster film in the manner that French or Hong Kong cinema did?
Not as much as I would have liked. If you look at a Hong Kong gangster film, or you watch a Yakuza film or an Italian gangster film, they’re all very distinctive. I think it’ll happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. I find the south Indian gangster films very interesting, though: I think that’s actually where you’re seeing a local cinema aesthetic developing.

‘Miss Lovely’ was largely improvised. In this film, you have a dialogue writer.
A lot of the dialogue was improvised or written on set. I didn’t have a bound screenplay. My Hindi writing isn’t great, so I wanted someone with whom we could do lines. So we got Ritesh Shah, who kind of knows my sensibility. When it became hard to improvise, or when we had an idea of a line but didn’t know how to phrase it, we’d call Ritesh. He’d call back, and say, how about this, and we’d shoot it.

You’ve used two cinematographers, Pankaj Kumar and Jessica Lee Gagné.
Jessica comes from an art house space—this is probably the most commercial film she’s done. It was quite difficult to convince everyone about her early on: 27 years old, French-Canadian, shooting a Bombay gangster movie, especially in this industry, which can be quite male-centric.

This is my first film that’s been shot digital. We did a lot of work—we shot anamorphic, we shot with old lenses that were used on Sholay. I wanted large frames but I didn’t want it to be glossy. She couldn’t do the entire thing because of scheduling. She shot 70% of the film. Pankaj and I always wanted to work together, so he took over for the remaining part.

The film spans four decades. Did you have visual cues for different eras?
Jessica and I developed a palette. I wanted to have each era lit with a different colour temperature. For me the 1970s was sodium-vapour yellow. In the 1980s you start getting tungsten and white tube light. The 1990s becomes cleaner, and 2012 is just glass and cold. So when you’re going back and forth in time, you don’t have to use colour grading techniques, you’re doing it actually in the environment. We used this as a basis for the art direction as well.

Has the indie scene changed compared to, say, five years ago?
I think the indie scene is really infiltrating Bollywood. Five years ago I wouldn’t even be able to have a conversation with a producer. Now I get calls from old-school Bollywood producers saying “Ashim ji, aake miliye (come and meet us)”, which is hilarious. So I think there’s something major happening, like a tectonic shift.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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