Reflecting reality: Cinema as a mirror held up to society

Reflecting reality: Cinema as a mirror held up to society

By PAYEL MAJUMDAR | | 24 October, 2015
Director and screen writer Sriram Raghavan.
The dark netherworld of criminals and psychopaths has always intrigued Bollywood director Sriram Raghavan. He talks to Payel Majumdar about the role of moral ambiguity in films.
Not unlike the tragic heroes he portrays on the silver screen, Sriram Raghavan has the writerly reputation of being a quiet and reserved man — not easy to pin down for an interview. This proved to be the case when I recently attempted to get in touch with him, and while he never refused, it was difficult to get him over the phone for an extended conversation. Yet when he finally agreed, he made sure that our interaction wasn’t reduced to some banal publicity stunt. He had notes and anecdotes ready to fend my questions with.

Raghavan has closely studied the various aspects of crime, exploring the psyche of common criminals repeatedly in all of his films. In Ek Haseena Thi, Agent Vinod, and now Badlapur, his characters are firmly planted in a grey area, both in terms of the complexity of their sentiments and in terms of moral values.

All his films carry his signature aesthetic, and when seen together, it is not difficult to identify his thumbprint, not only when it comes to the storytelling, but also when we consider the more technical elements such as cinematography, and even the background score. “I choose the story, the cast and the team personally. After that, I trust my choices completely. I have been lucky to get a fabulous team of technicians,” said Raghavan.

 Each of Raghavan’s movies has a crime as its central motif, and as his protagonists get mired in that fallen world, their transformation becomes a crucial part of the narrative. Whether it is Urmila Matondkar’s bone-chilling avatar in Ek Haseena Thi’s climactic sequence, or Varun Dhawan’s character in Badlapur once the premise of his wife’s death has been set in the film, the transformation of these characters is part of what lends an edge to his films, placing them in the “suspense” genre. But these are films where the plot does only half the job, for his memorable characters make the movies worth revisiting.

Raghavan concurred that choosing the right cast for a film, and the right team that understood the film’s subject, is inherent to being a good director. All his stars were fun to work with, in their own way, according to Raghavan, but he remembers Dharmendra, who once did a cameo for him, especially fondly. Raghavan has talked about his admiration for Dharmendra and his movies in the past as well. “It was sheer profit working with Dharmendra, but right now I am the happiest about Varun [Dhawan] because he dared to take on a risky character like Raghu in Badlapur. It was good to see the actor in him evolve while we were making the film.” Dhawan had debuted in Karan Johar’s high-school musical Student of the Year before this, and his gritty role as Raghu in Badlapur had taken the critics and the audience alike by surprise. This is likely the reason he is taken more seriously as an actor these days, thought to be capable of David Dhawan-style bubblegum comedy and screen antics, as well as of “serious” cinema. And the credit goes to Raghavan.

“My parents were both movie enthusiasts, but that did not mean we were taken along to the cinema with them. I watched films over the weekend, lying to my parents about going over to a friend’s house.”

Raghavan has hardly ever deviated from suspense, and his fascination for exploring stories and themes based around crime became evident right from his first documentary, released back in 1991, called Raman Raghav. It was about a psychopathic killer on the loose in Mumbai in the ’60s, who was convicted of 27 killings. Raghavan remembers making Raman Raghav, the first film that he made after graduating from the Film and Television Institute of India, where he studied direction. He calls the ’90s “satellite days” as it was a decade when video magazines was a popular programme format, and shows like Newstrack and Lehren was watched widely all over India. This film was never released in theatres until last Thursday, 19 October, when it was screened at PVR Andheri, Citimall in Mumbai as part of an initiative by Drishyam Films called "The Masters", where Raghavan took a master class after the film's screening. Raghavan said, “My documentary was a 45-minute short made for one of these news magazines called True Crime stories. The idea behind the film was to highlight successful cases of the Maharashtra Police in  a docu-fiction format. I chose to work on Raman Raghav’s story because I was fascinated by the character; he was modern India’s first serial killer. One can explore a lot of themes in the garb of a killer. ”

Naturally, then, revenge also becomes a theme that drives his movies forward. Raghavan said, “I am attracted to strong stories and believable characters. Revenge is a very strong emotion and there have been hundreds of films revolving around revenge as a theme, including some classic films. Badlapur interested me because seen in that sense, it is anti-revenge.”

Ram Gopal Verma, the man associated with film noir in the Mumbai film industry is a close friend of Raghavan’s, and there was a point in Raghavan’s life when Verma mentored him. Raghavan recollected how they always had in-depth discussions about films. “We don’t meet as frequently as we once did, but whenever we meet, we talk about films. He usually gives me feedback on my work, though I have not heard from him after Badlapur. Maybe he’s not seen it yet.”

Raghavan considers the script vital to a film, but he chooses to work on a project entirely on the basis of whether its core idea, the basic premise of the script, excites him. He has worked with other writers for similar reasons — finding
inspiration in an original story and preferring to polish it on his own and to remould it in order to make it more cinematic. This was why he chose to make Ek Haseena Thi, and this is why he is currently working on an adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel The Accidental Apprentice. “It is taking me longer than I had estimated; I am still working on it. The central story is of a working girl and a twisted business tycoon. It’s a fairy tale and a thriller at the same time.” While he writes himself as well, Raghavan is never satisfied with the amount of time he spends writing, which makes him feel that  he needs to “discover” a screenwriting partner. “I do read and write a bit, but I am not as disciplined as I need to be. I mentor some writing workshops in the hope of discovering my Salim-Javed,” he said, referring to the screenwriting duo Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan.

Raghavan grew up in times when Hindi matinee shows were a real thing and when the ’50s and ’60s classics were screened in cinemas at subsidised rates. He traces his film education back to these times. FTII, of course, opened his mind to world cinema, and he credits the institution for “everything” that he has achieved as a director. “Classic Hollywood films such as Mackenna’s Gold were huge hits in Pune where I grew up. My parents were both movie enthusiasts, but that did not mean we were taken along to the cinema with them. I watched films over the weekend, lying to my parents about going over to a friend’s house. ”

As an FTII alumnus, he backs the ongoing students’ strike at the institution, saying he feels that the strike has gone on for too long. “I completely support the students’ cause. They have to sit with the government’s representatives and work out a solution that strengthens the institute.”

Raghavan by no means had an easy entry into the film industry.  He started out as a film writer in Stardust, a job that he quit soon enough to join the FTII. From then on, what ensued was 15 years of struggle before he directed his first feature film. “Raju Hirani and I were in the same batch at the FTII. It might have taken us 15 years to make our first feature, but we never abandoned hope at any stage. Munnabhai MBBS and Ek Hasina Thi released within a month of each other.”

The Masters is a monthly series organised by Drishyam Films, with curated screenings followed by conversations with master filmmakers. For more information, visit DrishyamFilms

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