Avinash Das, director: ‘This era will show us who the real artists are’

Would it be fair to say that you’re a journalist who turned into a filmmaker?

Yes and I’d say that it wasn’t a well-planned journey or anything like that. As a journalist, one looks for stories and as a filmmaker, as well, one looks for stories. I was a journalist from 1996 to around 2013-14. I encountered a lot of stories in that span but those stories would get lost; they’d slip away from me. In a newspaper, a story lasts for two or three days. And the fact that many stories died caused me pain. So I was looking for a format where the stories I encountered would live on, where they’d have a larger shelf life. In this quest, I attempted a novel and wrote poetry. Then I realised that the canvas of film writing is quite powerful and wide. There’s more recognition in it as well. That’s why I took on this journey. But it’s not an easy one to undertake. No journey of passion is easy, especially in India. If you are chasing a passion, society or your family doesn’t generally support you. If you’re doing a certain kind of work and have found some stability in it, which was journalism in my case, then it’s difficult to leave it all and start something else. You may have a family to look after, bills to pay. It’s not easy. Even if one person in your family says that they are with you then it bolsters your courage. And that’s what happened to me and here I am!

How does your experience of journalistic writing talk to the film writer in you?

Earlier, when I wrote stories or poetry, I’d write whatever came to my mind. But journalism taught me to be factual. I realised how important f acts are and how to be to-the-point as a writer. Journalism has very little space for feelings. Poetry and stories, on the other hand, have a lot of space for them. From poetry, I learnt to articulate my feelings and from journalism I learnt to understand how much is necessary and how much is not. I think all the types of writing that I have done have helped me as a screenwriter. If you have been involved with writing of any kind, it is easier for you to write screenplays than it is for those who have never written anything at all.

Would you advise an aspiring young screenwriter to go to film school to learn the craft?

I can speak with examples. In song writing, for instance, sometimes you write the lyrics and then the tune is made and sometimes it is the other way around. This has been happening for years. Just like that, even in screenwriting, it could work both ways. Since I have never taken formal training, it’s easy for me to say that formal training is useless. I usually pour myself onto the paper. If I had studied screenwriting formally, my discipline of writing for the screen might have been different. I am not saying good or bad – but it would be different. I don’t think of myself as a perfect screenwriter or anything like that but personally, I believe one mustn’t get too involved with technicality. Having said that, if you are not just a screenwriter but a director as well, you will automatically learn a thing or two about the craft – when to cut something down, when not; how to transition from one scene to another, time management and stuff like that.

Do you think a good screenwriter also needs to have a good sense of editing?

Look, as a human being, you keep editing yourself. You set yourself a time to eat, to sleep, etc. There is a format in which you live your life. Even in writing, you have to keep editing everything you write. I tend to think every writer is an editor in his mind. I think it’s very important to be an editor. Without editing, forget writing, you can’t even live a fruitful life.

What was your childhood like?

My childhood was ordinary; nothing special. I grew up like any other lower-middle-class kid. There wasn’t an atmosphere of reading and writing at my home but people were educated. My grandfather, in fact, was a Maithili poet. Maithili is my mother tongue. But after him, in my father’s generation, no one really got into writing or literature. After my grandfather passed away, our family had a bit of a tough time. There wasn’t much money. We were in the Darbhanga district of Bihar, which is about 180 km away from Patna. We were in a very small village. My father did a good thing by taking me and my sisters to a town nearby. Back in our village, most girls would never study after the 10th standard but my father put my sisters in a good school and gave them education. We studied in a government school. I was particularly haywire about studies and failed in the 7th standard. In my school days, I was nostalgic about my grandfather’s poetry. I used to think about it a lot. At that time, I was exposed to some theatre as well and those experiences, which I took in at the time, contributed a lot to the person I am today. The first thing I ever wrote was a poem about a girl I liked in school. I still remember those lines:

Milan ka waqt hai pratakHarik hai shaam tanhaiArey woh din bhi kyaJiss din tumhari yaad na aayi”

How important is it for an artist in today’s time to be politically inclined?

I don’t think it’s necessary for an artist to be politically inclined. But, in a country like ours, you cannot truly understand the meaning of anything without being politically aware. You cannot fully fathom all the layers of a story or an event without being politically aware. I think political awareness makes anything more relevant. An artist needn’t be politically aware but should be if they want to do justice to their art.

Where is the freedom of expression in this country today?

I don’t think it exists. But I’ll tell you something interesting. In the countries where there’s a glorious democracy and a lot of freedom of expression, art is largely ineffective. Their art does not have too many shades. History is testimony to the fact that great literature has been created in places and at times when the state has been converted into a “gunda” state. Now, for instance, if one says that the state is bad or anti-people, there’s nothing great or artistic about saying it. But if the state shoots the person who says stuff like this then the person will have to change the format of his expression. He will still say the same thing but in a manner that is indirect, right under the nose of the state. If you follow many Russian writers of the early times or even Charlie Chaplin in the times of Hitler, they all changed their format. If you are an artist, then you would know more than one way of saying what you have to. The quest is to say it effectively and also to be able to say it for a long time. I do believe this is a difficult time for our country; I would call it a sort of an undeclared emergency. But one way to look at it as an artist is that this is a huge opportunity. Some people will change sides, some will go silent, some will try to write something in their screenplay but the censor board will not let it pass. The people who will be able to navigate this scene will be true artists. I think this is the era that will show us who the real artists are.

Have you ever set a goal for yourself as a writer of the things you want to say to the world?

I don’t think artists can have fixed goals. Artists are like flowing water. They will find their direction along the way. But the thing is that a cinema writer, as I call it, has it different to say, a story writer or a poet. You can think of a poem and write it; imagine a painting and draw it on a canvas. But cinema is not something you can realise just by thinking. It requires a lot more effort, a whole team, it has a lot of boxes and constraints too. Mostly importantly, it requires a much higher budget than the other arts that we spoke about. As an artist of film, I do have a goal. I want to “say” a film that nobody else can say or is allowed to say. The problem with Bollywood is that everybody gets confined to a genre. Have you ever heard anyone asking Steven Spielberg what his genre is? He has made everything from Jurassic Park to Schindler’s List to ET. But here, everybody is typecast as a genre filmmaker. I want to make horror even, in my style. Or even a serial killer film. At the same time, I want to also tell very rooted village tales like the stories of Phanishwar Nath Renu.

Swara Bhaskar in Anaarkali of Aarah (Film still)
Swara Bhaskar in Anaarkali of Aarah (Film still)

How difficult was it in Bollywood to write and make your critically acclaimed film Anaarkali of Aarah, which has a rare Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100%?

Oh, I didn’t know about the Rotten Tomatoes rating. Never checked it. And to be honest, I never sold this film in Bollywood. The thing is that way back in 2006, when I was working the night shift at office, I was exploring YouTube, which was rather new at the time. The night shift in journalism is relatively lean in terms of work. I used to spend most of my time at night doing YouTube searches. During that time, I came across a rather cheap video. A singer was singing something erotically and she had no expression on her face. I wondered how she could have such a blank face! She must have been around 36 but looked 60. I started searching for her story and tried doing a piece about her in the newspaper. But she was an unknown person and no newspaper would carry it. For the next four or five years, her story stayed with me. Then finally, one day, my friend Manoj Bajpayee, was in Delhi to promote Gangs of Wasseypur. Whenever he’d come to Delhi, he’d call me to meet him. At that time, he introduced me to a producer as his younger brother. I narrated the story to the producer who asked me if I had a screenplay. I said I did though I didn’t. We fixed an appointment for the following week for the narration. Before the meeting, I wrote the whole screenplay in whatever form I could. Then I met the producer. He had come along with about 10 others and I narrated my screenplay to them over drinks. The guy said that he loved it and wanted to do it. This was in 2012. Unfortunately, at that time, it did not work out. From 2012 to 2015, I tried to sell it in Mumbai. A lot of people, including some of my friends, tried to snatch the film away from me saying they should direct it as I wouldn’t be able to pull it off as my first film. But I wanted to direct it myself. Finally, in 2015, the film happened and I got to direct it too.

Your next film was Raat Baki Hai, which did not do too well. How did you happen to start working on that?

Zee5 asked me to do that film. It was not my idea. When I realised that my friend Siddharth Mishra was writing it, I thought, “Great, let me direct it.” I consider that one to be a film I did for others, not for myself. If you want to stay afloat in this business, you have to balance things by doing projects that you want to do and those that you have to do.

You have been a poet and a story writer and have focussed mostly on cinema. What is it about cinema that attracts you so much?

I think cinema has many challenges. It also offers more accolades. Also, I think Hindi cinema has a certain mainstream that needs to change. There are very few people like Shoojit Sircar or Nagraj Manjule who are changing it. Sometimes a film like Amit Masurkar’s Newton comes along and shows us that this can be done here. But there are very few people who want to make cinema like that. I think in poetry and fiction, there already are enough good writers. Cinema needs more people. At least the kind of cinema I love needs people. That’s why I chose to focus on cinema. Even if Bollywood offers you a completely pulp story, you can still give it undercurrents and a tadka of your sensibility.

Have you ever thought of making a full-blown mainstream Bollywood film?

Of course, I have. My favourite subject is history. But in Bollywood there are many risks when working on a film that deals with it. You will be at risk from the state, the narrative, censorship. The biggest risk is that of the budget. For example, Anusha Rizvi, who made Peepli Live, wanted her second film to be something called Sea of Poppies or Afeem based on Amitav Ghosh’s novel. She had budgeted it at around 60 crores. But when she entered the market to make the film, she was told by producers that with that kind of budget, she must have a star in the film, though she was convinced that she couldn’t make that film with a star. Unfortunately, the film has not been made yet. I think these kind of stories need to come out. Even I like Amitav Ghosh a lot; I also like Sunil Gangopadhyay’s work. He has a fabulous book on the Bengal Renaissance. I would love to make films on their work.

Have you experienced any jealousy in Bollywood?

I think jealousy is a natural human emotion. It is not a mark of a bad person. It exists everywhere. Even in a village when some else’s son gets a job, one wonders, “Why didn’t my son get one?” It’s natural to be jealous sometimes. Having said that, I came very late to Mumbai and wherever I’ve reached today is only because of my friends. They were the ones who supported me. Imtiaz Ali went to watch my film Anaarkali of Aarah and stood up and clapped for it in the theatre. Then he called me up and asked me to direct a series for him. I think Mumbai is the only city where if you tell someone that you want to make a film, they don’t discard you. People here believe in you. Try telling someone in Delhi or Patna about your big dreams and they will tear you apart or look down on you. Mumbai accepts you. It is an amazing city in that way!

You used to run a literary blog called Mohalla Live which was very famous. How did you take to blogging?

I am an anxious, unstable person. And I always want to do things, try new things. Back in 2005, when I was working as a journalist, blogging was very, very new. There were many English bloggers but very few Hindi ones. Even the few Hindi bloggers would write about food and travel and stuff like that. A person called Sunil Deepak, who lived in Italy at the time, had published some of my poems on his Hindi website. He was the one who told me how to create a blog and gave me a tool to write in Hindi. Then I started a literary blog. It mostly focussed on Hindi literature and sometimes cinema as well – opinion, criticism, everything. I invited many writers to contribute. One day, I told Ravish (Kumar) and he started writing there every day. Anurag (Kashyap) contributed a lot too. In fact, in Gangs of Wasseypur, he also promoted Mohalla Live, which by then was a website.

A scene from Mr India (Film still)
A scene from Mr India (Film still)

Who are your favourite filmmakers and what are your favourite films?

Steven Spielberg is my favourite filmmaker in the world. And then Christopher Nolan too, who has his own way of making films. In India, I like Shekhar Kapur a lot – his Bandit Queen is fabulous. Even Mr India is a film I quite like. I love Bimal Roy too. I have always loved the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. Also always liked Rituparno Ghosh’s work. In modern times, I love Nagraj Manjule a lot. I think he is an amazing filmmaker. I like Anurag Kashyap’s work – especially his work till Gangs of Wasseypur. In those days, I used to think of him as a marvellous filmmaker. Then I have always admired Vittorio De Sica, who made Bicycle Thieves. Then, of course, who doesn’t like Satyajit Ray? These days, even a lot of new Malayalam cinema is fabulous.

Who are your favourite poets?

There are too many. Nagarjun, Nirala, the greats. Also a Hindi poet that nobody knows of in the so-called mainstream of Hindi literature – Kailash Gautam. He wrote outstanding poems even about a subject like the court and law and order. Then I like Arun Kamal, Alok Dhanwa, Rajesh Joshi, Vinod Kumar Shukla. Among the new poets, I like R Chetan Kranti, Firoz Khan. These are people who are writing different kinds of poetry.

Could you name one film that you wish you had made?

Schindler’s List. I think if that was made by me, I would die in peace. It’s not a film, it’s an epic. It’s probably my favourite film of all time.

Do you think art can really change the world?

The world can only be changed by people. And art can change people. Art cannot directly change the world. Time is like a lake. And art is like a stone that you fling into it. That’s why art can create ripples in the world. Yes, art is a tool, sometimes even a weapon. But only people can change the world, art can’t.

Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’

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