Was film making always an obvious choice for you as you grew up in Bombay?
A. Not at all. In fact, my family never had any clear connection with cinema or with the film business. My father was an executive, my mother was a housewife and a teacher. My sister is a housewife and my brother is a professor of mathematics. Even today sometimes I feel like I am dreaming. I don’t know how I got into this and I am still in it, and I will still be making films.
Q. What is your take on the film certification process in India, given that we know the kind of hassle that Aligarh had to go through during the release of its trailer?
A. Yes, I had problems with the “A” certification of the trailer. I felt that it was a very arbitrary certification. And, it hampers the way we can promote ourselves otherwise.
Regarding the certification process, I think the entire system needs to be abolished. The current system, as it is, needs to be completely scrapped and a fresh certification process needs to be brought in. The government, as you know, quite recently has appointed a committee which will have people who have an exposure as to how films are certified the world over; who, I expect, will make sensible recommendations. But more than that, I am expecting the government to actually follow those recommendations.
Q. Don’t you think the new panel aimed at revamping the Censor Board is just an add-on since the initiative, ironically, has been taken by the I&B Ministry and not anyone from the film fraternity, which ideally should have been the case?
A. The panel has been appointed to revamp the entire certification process in India. So, all we can do is hope. I am not going to be the one who will be cynical and pessimistic without knowing what exactly is happening. I would rather be optimistic. Ideally, the Censor Board should not be a governmental agency but whatever is happening today with our film certification is a continuation of the precedent left by the previous government. The difference is that when the Congress was in power, very often somebody who might have been politically in their favour would get appointed but at least those people had the credentials to be on the body. They were qualified enough to be in these positions. Now, the qualification of the person is very suspicious. For example, you have a Censor Board chief, who discusses and laughs at films' box-office collections. I mean that's not his job. He's supposed to certify films. If there is a dissenting voice, if someone has said that he is upset with the certification of his film and if the film has not done well at the box office, I have actually seen him being very sarcastic about it. He measures everything with box-office success. That is not the job of the person heading the CBFC: to measure a film by its box-office success or failure.
Q. What do you have to say about the massive success your film Aligarh has garnered?
A. Aligarh was very acclaimed, highly appreciated and its journey has only continued. We have been travelling with the film and very recently, it was shown at a film festival in LA, where it won one of the top awards. So, yes, the film has been garnering appreciation ever since it opened at the Busan Film Festival. I could not have asked for more.
Q. Is there a slight tinge of regret that the film did not release where it should have: Aligarh?
A. It is sad. I won't call it regret though. I was expecting this to happen. This is what happens when there are vested interests involved who have no connection with cinema. Their only aim is to thwart any kind of positive conversation on issues that confront us.
Q. Aligarh, of course, did not get you under the government scanner for the first time. It had happened with one of your early films too, like, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar…
A. Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar was made in 2000 and it is a film I am very proud of. It was an important, special film. It was almost like an anthropological study of the city of Mumbai and the migrant issue, much before it actually exploded in our faces. Much before the MNS and the Shiv Sena started persecuting the north Indian migrants, my film had dealt with this at a very early stage. It was a film ahead of its time.
“Independent cinema, cinema that makes you think, keeps your mainstream also alive. And here’s why I think Indian cinema right now is going through a massive change. I think 2011 or 2012 was the turning point where a number of films came together: you had Lunch Box, Shahid, Ship of Theseus, Gangs of Wasseypur. And that has sort of sparked off the change in terms of quality.”
Q. A few years later, Woodstock Villa released, and you have written in your blog how you fled after that to Lonavala in a quest to rediscover yourself and your art. What was that all about?
A. Woodstock Villa was made in 2007, released in 2008. Nearly eight years after Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar. I kept questioning myself as to why I was making films. When I started off my career with Jayate, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, there was a filmmaker who was trying to voice his own concerns about the society at large, trying to tell stories of the common man. Somewhere along the line, I felt I had lost that voice. So after making Woodstock Villa, when I watched it for myself, I realised that I had locked my voice completely. It was a quest to introspect and to see whether I had a voice or not, and to see whether I had something to say. And, well, also to just take a break. I was making films continuously and the result was that I had become a part of the mediocre system. I felt like I had become the most mediocre in a mediocre system.
Q. With Shahid and Citylights you have shown us a good bit of fearless cinema. How fearless do you think is our mainstream film industry?
A. Our films don’t make 100 or 200 crore, and they don't have the country's biggest stars. Yet our films are being made and they are significant. Now, what is the reason for that? The reason is that independent cinema, cinema that makes you think, keeps your mainstream also alive. And here’s why I think Indian cinema right now is going through a massive change.
I think 2011 or 2012 was the turning point where a number of films came together: you had Lunch Box, Shahid, Ship of Theseus, Gangs of Wasseypur. Y ou had a number of important films that came out in these 2-3 years. And that has sort of sparked off the change in terms of quality of mainstream cinema. Look at 2016, and you have Fan, Neerja, Airlift, Kapoor and Sons and see how the mainstream has tried to reinvent itself. Indie cinema is actually helping the overall system find a new language, helping them find new stories to tell.
Q. Do you think the independent filmmaking scene in India has grown in terms of scope, since the ’50s and ’60s? If so, what do you think are the possible reasons?
A. I don't know, because I think the ’50s and the ’60s were very vibrant times. The entire Indian new wave blossomed and flourished in the ’50s and the ’60s. You had filmmakers like Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak.
The struggle to make a film is still the same. If your film does not have a major star, you have to find a way to be able to make your film. Earlier, when the parallel cinema movement was on, the state was a patron of the arts. Now, the state is still there but it has become more limited in terms of patronage. You have private patrons, who, you know support independent cinema; people like Manish Mundra. He is truly a patron of the arts. The patronage has changed hands.
Q. You recently paid a tribute to Rohith Vemula by coming out with a video on his last letter. As a filmmaker, what was your take on it while you were shooting it?
A. My take was to faithfully reproduce the letter. When I read it in English, I felt that the letter needed to be read out. It is an important document for me, a chronicle of the times that we are living in. So, that was the intention, to present it as a document. It was very beautifully translated by Swanand Kirkire from the original English version. I must say it is a very difficult letter to translate because Rohith had expressed himself in English very eloquently. So it was not only beautifully translated by Kirkire but also equally beautifully narrated by Zeeshan Ayyub. It was a very moving letter and that was the idea, to present it as it is without any kind of flamboyance. I didn’t want anything else to overpower what this boy had written.
Q. Not many people are aware that cooking is as important to you as making films. What is your favourite dish?
A. That is a very loaded question [laughs]. My favourite recipe has to be nihari gosht. I cook it very often and it’s a recipe that I have been refining for over several years now. I travel around the world and I go to many restaurants, to Pakistani restaurants; in India, to Lucknow, to Hyderabad and I have been travelling to search for the best nihari.
Q. And where do you think you found the best nihari?
A. In my kitchen [laughs].
Q. Do you usually cook for your family?
A. My greatest satisfaction comes from cooking for my family. My family is really honest about whether they like my food or not. When my children relish the food, there is no greater joy.
Q. Have you ever cooked on the film set?
A. Very rarely. The kitchen is a very sacrosanct place for me. When I came back from my sabbatical in Lonavala to Bombay, the thing that I worked most on was building the kitchen. So the kitchen is a very important space for me. I need my space, I need my kitchen to cook usually. I cook at people’s homes, sometimes on locations too, but on locations it’s very rare because we are so stressed out. But when we are shooting in Bombay and if we have a longer break, I cook for my teammates. In fact, tonight, my unit is coming over to my place for dinner.
Q. You were also the first to have introduced the concept of a food show in Indian television with Khana Khazana. How did that happen?
A. That’s how I began my career. Now when I look back I feel Khana Khazana was an act of providence. I am very passionate about food. So when everyone was aspiring to make soap operas, I wanted to make a food show for Indian television. And I am grateful to Zee TV for giving an opportunity to a complete newbie like me to direct the show. That itself was a huge encouragement, you know. After I got the show, I started looking around for somebody to anchor/present the show. And I had a very accidental meeting in a hotel coffee shop with Sanjeev Kapoor, and the rest as you know is history. Sanjeev Kapoor has become a household name. It all goes back to that one opportunity that Zee TV gave me that changed my life.