January 27, 2005. That was the day fixed for the premiere of my film Black Friday. We had worked our way through the Censor Board and the tada court. They had asked us to remove the tag line: The True Story of the Bombay Blasts of 1993. We had complied. We had fought the case claiming prejudice filed by Majid Memon, and won a clearance. Everything seemed to be falling into place. And then, a day before the premier, they got a stay order. This was my third film in seven years; not one had had a release. I slipped into a severe depression.
I was first drawn to the Bombay blasts when I was urged by producer Arindam Mitra to read journalist Hussain Zaidi’s book, Black Friday. It affected me deeply. Arindam wanted to make a TV series on the blasts, directed by Aditya Bhattacharya. But when I read the book, I convinced them it should be a film. Aditya backed out very graciously to make space for me.
From the start, it was a very difficult and bewildering project. There were so many strands, so many characters, so many motivations, it just would not fall into place. One day Arindam suggested, why don’t you work backwards to where it all began? Suddenly, it clicked. We started the film at a point three days before the blasts — when one of the accused allegedly tipped the police off but no one believed him — and worked backwards to the Babri demolition. I had the script ready in a week.
Balance was always the main difficulty. The subject was so sensitive, the film was almost like a trial. It dealt with real people, real names. We were determined not to go the usual Bollywood route and fictionalise or tamper with the film’s integrity.
We zeroed in on some central characters: Tiger Memon, Dawood Ibrahim, Rakesh Maira, the chief investigative officer, and Badshah Khan, one of the accused who became a police approver. (I wanted Irfaan Khan to play Badshah Khan and Naseeruddin Shah to play Tiger Memon. They both turned us down. We were making the film during the Gujarat riots and both actors were uncomfortable playing Muslim terrorists.) Many aspects of the case were not balanced in themselves, so the choice was, should we balance them for the sake of balance or should we be honest to the overall film? We opted for the latter. The film moves like a thriller, using the police investigation not just as the driving force but as the protagonist. But what does the film stand for? What does it say?
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. That is what my film Black Friday is really about. It was clearly a case where one community — not even a community but its self-appointed moral guardians — committed one set of acts, and the guardians of another community retaliated. Tiger Memon escaped. On the ground, some of the people who got caught were hardened criminals, but mostly they were people who were not in their right minds, young, scarred, vulnerable people who were brainwashed and abused. It was very difficult to arrive at this core yet remain faithful to the plot of the film.
The fate of Black Friday raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about us as a society. I feel I am a very responsible person. My film had a lot of integrity. Go out into the world — every country has political films which are not afraid to take names. But in India, we are not accustomed to that. What is the point of living in a democracy? Why can’t we address issues directly? If people disagree, why can’t we have a democratic debate? Why do we stop people from watching films? Why do we set ourselves up as moral guardians? Why should Ramadoss care about the smoking habits of my child?
My first film, Paanch, had run into trouble with the Censor Board in 2000. They felt it wasn’t “healthy entertainment” because it dealt unapologetically with sex, drugs and misguided, alienated youth. It was constructed around the famous Joshi Abhyankar murder in Pune, but I had fed a lot of my own life and angst into it — my anger, my escape into drugs and alcohol. Jakkal, the murderer, was a brilliant university topper, but he was led into crime. I saw myself in him; I saw what I could have so easily become if I had not channelised my rage into writing. I saw that violence often has no justification. Not everything stems from emotional desire, or motivations like revenge. It is just irrational, impulsive, irreverent. And, for being that, more brutal. But our cinema is not allowed to reflect our realities. Once Paanch was cleared by the censors, it couldn’t find a distributor: no songs, no stars, no foreign locales.
I have written many scripts for other directors: Satya, Kaun, Shool, Mixed Doubles, Water. But unless a film is seen, one cannot test one’s intuition. I could be before my time in Bollywood, but I am convinced I am not before my time in this country. We had more than 200 private trial-screenings of Paanch — the audience response was fantastic. But no distributor would risk it. Bollywood is controlled by families that have grown up in trial rooms. They have no knowledge of the real world.
When Paanch failed to get a release in 2000, I went through a severe black phase again. I was drinking at 11 in the morning. My weight shot up from 72 kilos to 90. I packed my family off to Delhi, I burnt the mattresses, wrote on the walls. I would break down in the middle of the road at 2 and 3 in the morning. I got myself into terrible, embarrassing situations. Finally, after almost a year, I pulled myself out of it and wrote Gulaal. This was based on the song from Pyaasa — Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai. It was set in a kind of futuristic Rajasthan, where royals come together, and since everyone’s demanding a separate state, they demand one too. Paanch was a darker version of Dil Chahta Hai, Gulaal perhaps was a darker version of Rang De Basanti. It couldn’t get made. Nobody believed in a subject like that, and the ghost of Paanch still hung fresh over me. Another year passed. Then, in 2003, I tried to do Alvin Kalicharan, a black, mad amalgamation of everything that comprises a Hindi heartland childhood: Bal Bharati, Champak, Manohar Kahaniyan, Satya Katha. Six days before the film, insecure, confused, Anil Kapoor pulled out. It pushed me back under again. Then I met Arindam for Black Friday. We had Black Friday ready in May 2004. This time, I kept writing. I didn’t want to sink into depression. But when a year later, it was blocked a day before the premiere, I caved in. I didn’t come out of my room for days.
These years have forced a lot of introspection. I’ve not had a release in seven years. I often can’t deal with that. Yet I survive because I’ve been trained for it. I’ve been training myself since I was five.
I grew up in Benares, part of a larger community of relatives and neighbours. My father was an officer in the state electricity board; my mother was a housewife. We often ate at a cousin and neighbour’s home. I was five when an elder cousin and a neighbour began to abuse me sexually. It was more than molestation; it violated everything. I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t speak of it. I was always a very detached child. I went into a deeper shell; my behaviour became erratic. When I was eight, my father sent me to Scindia School in Gwalior. It was more than he could afford and I will always be grateful for that. But Scindia was hell for me. The sexual abuse continued there for years. I hated myself. I couldn’t understand why it was happening to me. I was often picked out, beaten, then taken to the toilets. To save myself from the beatings, I’d give in to the abuse. Once I saw a senior abuse another junior. I spoke up about it. The repercussion was terrible. When I was in Class vii, I felt suicidal. That’s when I began to write.
I wrote a story, I still remember, called Apekshit. I was the youngest in my class, the prodigal, but always very good at my work. But when my teacher read the story, he said, this can’t be genuine. I looked up the word in the dictionary — the Hindi-speaking gunk in an elite English school — and that became my burden for life. I was thwarted at every turn. I excelled anyway. But every achievement became a joke.
I was filled with a black anger. I became numb. It was difficult for me to make friends. The worst of it is, when I was in Class xii, I tried to do the same to another junior. But I couldn’t complete what I had begun. When I hit him, he started crying.
I became weak. I tried talking to my father. He couldn’t deal with it. Years later, in Bombay, when I was 20, I told him again. We drank together then and cried.
My turning point came in 1993. I had joined the Jan Natya Manch while in college. Those years were a haze of beer and pot and anger. Then Moloyshree Hashmi and Joy Sengupta urged me to catch a de Sica retrospective. That changed my life. Cinema became my cocoon. Two months later, I left for Bombay. It was raining. I had Rs 6,000 in my pocket. I spent eight months on the street, sleeping on beaches, hanging around outside Prithvi Theatre for work and a night out of the rain. My most permanent shelter those days was the space below the water tank in the Four Bungalows complex in Andheri. Then, I wrote a play and people began noticing me. People like Makarand Deshpande, Mahendra Joshi, Shivam Nair, Sudhir Mishra, Ram Gopal Varma and Amol Gupte infused hope and faith into my life. They were my mentors; my proof of generosity.
Just before I finished Paanch, I began to talk of my years of abuse to people around me. It released me from the fear and shame. It allowed people to share their experiences with me. Scindia was hell for me. To survive in that school was the biggest struggle of my life. But my childhood shaped everything, it made me who I am today. Gave me my worldview.
I am now shooting a new film called No Smoking – a funny, Kafkaesque thriller about a chain smoker who gets into a rehab programme to save his marriage. My influences are David Fincher, de Sica, Wong Kar Wai, Scorsese. It is not staple Bollywood, but I am hopeful. I see things changing. Films like Omkara, Rang De Basanti, Khosla Ka Ghosla, and Lage Raho Munnabhai are proof of that. A film like Lage Raho makes me insanely jealous, but it also sets me thinking. There are other lighter ways of doing the same things. Perhaps I am too intense, black. Too ridden by demons. Javed Akhtar says anger gives way to cynicism, then to humour. For me, that last transition still remains. We think we can change the world — we can’t. But with humour, people understand more.
Now, when the blackness comes upon me, I take off to some part of the world, anywhere that I can lose myself till I find the willpower to return. My wife understands what I go through though it is painful for her. But it is my 6-year-old daughter who keeps me grounded and forces me to look at myself afresh.
John Berendt: “When Barcelona’s opera house burned down two years before La Fenice; they built an brand new modern opera house, because they’re a forward looking modern city, as well as a city with a big past. But Venice couldn’t do it, La Fenice was rebuilt practically brick by brick to resemble the original. History is the franchise you see.”
It is also possibly another reason why there’s been so little outcry over the way Ezra Pound’s widow Olga was allegedly swindled out of a large quantity of the author’s papers by a pair of American expatriates, heavily featured in City of Falling Angels. But it is the lack of justice in the trial of the La Fenice culprits that brings a telling note of exasperation into the author’s voice.
John Berendt: “The Mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari was warned by letter twice by the Prefect during the renovations of La Fenice before it burnt, that because he’d drained the canal around it, something you do every 40 years or so to dredge it, clean it and rebuild the walls, that he had to provide an alternate source of water should there be a fire. He ignored both letters but had there been an alternate source of water available on the night of the fire, fireman could have put the flames out, long before it did the kind of damage it did. If there had been water, the fire might not even have made it as far as the theatre hall. The mayor is no question, single-handedly responsible for the extent of the fire, not the fire itself, but the extent of it, because they couldn’t put it out on time. This is mismanagement on a grand scale.”