(A piece on the public conversation I had with Sudhir Mishra at “Wassup Andheri” last Sunday, 3rd March, written for Lucknow Tribune).
By virtue of having made a full-length documentary film on Sudhir Mishra (entitled “Baavra Mann – a film on Sudhir Mishra and other Indian realities”, to release in 2013), I was invited to host a conversation with him at the Wassup Andheri festival on Sunday. The topic (chosen by me) was why Indian cinema is not up to the mark of world cinema (apt perhaps a week after the Oscars were awarded, and even more so for the “100 Years of Indian Cinema” celebration that is on till May.)
Having never done anything like this before, I was apprehensive about how it might go but assumed that the experience of making this film (over two years) with Sudhir Mishra would enable me to draw out the more candid, less politically correct version of him (as it did in the film). It almost happened.
Initially, he spoke freely about why a filmmaker like him (who has made films like “Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi” and “Khoya Khoya Chand”) has lately done films like “Yeh Saali Zindagi” and “Inkaar”, by his own admission having (relatively) slighter material. He said it is not always possible to do the more challenging films, in any case, as an artist he needs a break too. Besides, the current environment is by and large not supportive of films like the former – it is very difficult to get funding for the same, and he would rather make out-and-out commercial films than no film at all. Also, the challenge of appealing to more people (“the burden of being interesting”) is something he likes to take on periodically. However, he admitted that it does bother him that he has underachieved and that he may not fulfil his potential but he hopes to fight this and squeeze out the best from himself still; he feels there is still time for that.
About the state of Indian films, Sudhir Mishra was optimistic – boldly stating that the next 4-5 years would see a revolution in our cinema, with younger filmmakers using digital technology more innovatively and decisively. He also admitted that he has not set enough of an example as a senior filmmaker in using this new technology to do cutting edge cinema (particularly because, by virtue of not having children to worry about, he had a greater opportunity to take risks) – he hopes to rectify this in the near future.
He agreed that Indian cinema, by not having to cater to any other audience except its own, has made it complacent. This, despite the fact that younger filmmakers are being able to create films on subjects it would have well nigh impossible to do a decade ago. But he expects all of this to change for the better in the very near future.
Beyond this, Mishra went back to his default setting in public – of being politically correct and playing to the gallery. Rather than report on his pronouncements, I’d prefer to make a few comments of my own here.
1) It is becoming increasingly grating lately to find true-blue jingoism rearing up every time the word “Oscar” is brought up these days. “We don’t need Oscar approval” seems to be the new anthem in these quarters (and the gallery responded with claps too). It is fundamentally wrong because the fact is that the Oscars absolutely do put forward some of the best films of the year. From the 5 foreign films, 5 documentary films and 10 screenplay nominations (original and adapted) – at least 80% of these every single year are at the very forefront of world cinema (many of these nominated at the premier European festivals too, which Mishra said were more worthy). Even if you very conservatively credit 50% of the Best Picture and Best Director categories with this quality, that’s a further 5 films perhaps? Another 2-3 worthwhile films from all the other categories – altogether, accounting for repetitions, at least 20 great films? How much faux bravado does it take to dismiss a time-honoured standard of excellence from which we are so far removed from today?
2) Keeping apart the issue of not enough local rooted stories being told, I was trying to explore why established Indian directors are not even attempting international films, telling international stories (given that we have a distinct language and cultural advantage through exposure and familiarity) which films like “Babel” have done in the past and “Waiting For Sugar Man” and “War Witch” did last year (in different ways). After the session, someone actually came up to me and accused me of having an “international/Hollywood complex”. It seems as if having a complete lack of any perspective is now worn with aggressive pride amongst film industry people. To answer the scornful query of another of those (who threw names of two contemporary Hindi films at me), I even expressed my own thumb rule for judging (for myself) whether a film was of international standard or not – which is if I would want to see the same film if it was made in a foreign language. Not surprisingly, it led to further derision.
3) But the cake has to be taken by the most aggressive objection of the evening – about why I held this conversation in English and not Hindi. This is a certain brand of reverse snobbery that is gaining ground even amongst more evolved conscientious objectors than this particular one was, and it is getting tiresome. If someone has to tell them that English is an Indian language today (every bit like Hindi, Tamil or any other) just like cricket is an Indian sport, is it even worth the effort?
People have asked me why I chose to make a film on Sudhir Mishra (as if being perhaps the only filmmaker from the last 25 years who is still relevant today is not enough). Thing is, it is really not a film on him – it is not hagiography. It does not glorify him but uses him, his worldview, his life and his work to illuminate the decline that has so comprehensively set in milieus which were once marked by the sparkle of new ideas – milieus through which Mishra passed through (or is in now). The subject himself admits he has underachieved, explains why he has, and how he hopes to change that. It is as much the story of modern India as it is of Sudhir Mishra – just like each one of our own stories are. The candour and honesty with which he allowed this examination in this film was perhaps what I had hoped for in this public conversation. It didn’t happen entirely but as an admirer of his formidable mind and one of his biggest well-wishers I just hope that he doesn’t play to the gallery in his forthcoming films at least. He deserves better from himself.
– Jaideep Varma
(Jaideep Varma is a writer-filmmaker whose documentary film “Leaving Home” won the National Award in 2011. He has also published a novel called “Local”.)