Q. Your professional career began as a theatre artist as far back as 1984. Tell us more about your journey from the stage to the screen.
A. So far so good. I started doing theatre in 1984. I joined an amateur group called Sakshi, and did a number of plays. We did Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, for instance, and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Later, I joined the National School of Drama. It was when I was there that Bandit Queen happened to me. Shekhar Kapur had came to Delhi to cast for Bandit Queen and I got a vital role in that. Shekhar later called me to Bombay for a series called Tehkikaat.
Q. But your biggest break in cinema was surely your association with Ram Gopal Varma’s cult classic Satya. Your portrayal of the gangster Kallu Mama in the film is still fondly remembered.
A. Before Satya, I did a film called Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi, directed by Sudhir Mishra. It was quite a maverick film, way ahead of its time. It didn’t do well at the box office because of marketing reasons, but it was really well-appreciated. Ramu was in fact a very big fan of that film, and when he was planning to make Satya, Anurag [Kashyap] was already working with him. Ramu said that he wanted another writer on board. Anurag suggested my name, and then Anurag and I both co-wrote the film. It was truly a wonderful film and it was made by a fearless bunch, because we all — I, Anurag, Manoj Bajpai — had nothing to lose. Ramu was the only one who was famous in this team. So, only his name was at stake and not ours.
But you must understand that one person alone doesn’t make a film. I always say that Satya was written by four writers — one is Anurag; one myself; there’s obviously Ram Gopal Varma, who was directing the film and a director is almost writing a film in his own capacity; and finally there were the actors in Satya, who also improvised a lot, so much so that actors became writers essaying their roles.
Q. In your film career, you’ve shown a penchant for out-and-out dark comedies. One can think of your roles in Jolly LLB, Kaun Kitney Pani Me, Calcutta Mail or Mumbai Mirror. Is it your preferred genre of cinema?
A. No. I’ve personally always liked dark or black comedy. But life is a mixed bag, and is never presented to you in one colour. So I get bored with films that emphasise only one colour. In some films, if people are good, they’re shown as being good for no reason, and if they’re bad, they’re so for no reason: they don’t have any other shades in their lives. I really don’t like that, and I believe such portrayals are false. Whenever I take up a role, I always try to bring different shades to my character. One-dimensional characters are boring, and what interests me are layered portrayals.
Q. But do we have a big enough audience for such layered, complex stories? Most people want potboilers that do well at the box office.
A. It’s true that some films need more investment at the level of the audiences. Many a time it happens that audiences do not want to sit through some films because the stories are too emotionally charged and viewers feel that they are emotionally consumed by the story. People say such things, but I don’t believe all this. Because, and this is a good example, PK worked. It is the biggest film in the history of Indian cinema, it earned so much money. And PK is not a film that caters to low-brow taste. It is a film that requires the audiences to think, and it is a story that you take back home and live with for some time. Similarly, Barfi was a big hit. It earned somewhere around Rs 150 crore. It, too, was a thought-provoking film — very humorous it was, very lovely, but it also talked about social issues, about real people and their problems.
We must understand that we are not a service industry. It is not that we are here to provide service to people. We are here to freely express our ideas. And if filmmakers are all the time going to think about what people are going to like or dislike, it would lead to a great dumbing down of the industry. My father saw Guide when I was a child, and my grandfather saw some great films. I ask myself, are we dumber in comparison to their generation?
People ask me, are the Indian audiences ready for a complex film? But I say to them that you cannot make a more complex film than Sharda. You can’t! You can’t make at least a more complex film than Guide, which at that time talked about a married woman leaving her husband and not getting married to anyone else, because she wants to be with a man who actually believes in her dreams. So can’t we make films like those anymore? Is there something wrong in our eating or drinking habits? Or have our brains become dead? No, this is not so. I don’t believe that’s true.
Q. Do you ever relate to the characters that you portray in your films?
A. Yes, all the time. There is not one single character which I have portrayed and not related to personally. The characters come from your own life. From what you see around, what you go through or see people going through. And that’s how I enjoy doing my characters. That’s why the audiences sometimes like them.
“Bollywood is a platform where different personalities congregate, and make different kinds of films. If there are no-brainers being made here, then at the same time there are films like Neerja, Jolly LLB and PK.”
Q. Do you think the space for satire is shrinking in Bollywood?
A. No, it’s not. People who have the capacity and the capability of creating satire are doing it. Those who can’t do it, will never do such films anyhow.
Q. What are your views on the kind of movies being made in Bollywood today? How do the creative values of contemporary filmmakers differ from those of their forefathers?
A. First of all, please understand that Bollywood is not a family. The Mumbai film industry is not in fact an industry. It’s not like we talked and decided to put together a movement. We didn’t do that. It is a platform where different personalities congregate, and make different kinds of films. If there are no-brainers being made here, then at the same time there are films like Neerja, Jolly LLB and PK. Here there’s room for everyone. And there are enough people who want to see films of substance.
Q. Would you agree that regional cinema and theatre have produced more talent than the mainstream? What’s your take on how Marathi, Bengali or Gujarati filmmakers have evolved over time?
A. I do not have much to say on this as I have not done much regional cinema. I have done only one Tamil film called Hey Ram, with Kamal Hasan, and another Tamil film because I liked the film and it was a beautiful film. Still, I think regional cinema is an important entity, because it is much closer to its land, its culture. This is one great contrast to Bollywood, which amusingly aims to cater to all cultures — in one film, you have to try and satisfy the north, the south and the heartland of the country. It’s too big a task. But regional films have their own beauty.
Q. Theatre is a dying art today, confined only to the big cities. Do you wish to see drama regain its old reputation and reclaim its lost space on popular entertainment itineraries?
A. Well, they always said that the classical arts and music were dying. My father was a classical musician and my mother too. So, I come from a family of musicians. As a child, I would hear people talk of how classical music was on the decline, and would soon be replaced by film music. But today, classical music is as much prevalent as anything else. Great classical musicians are still around, and even if not everyone is listening to classical music, it’s alright. I have been hearing about how theatre is dying ever since I was young, for almost 30 years now. My answer is: no, it’s not. But if you start comparing theatre with cinema, it won’t be a fair comparison. What’s important is that there’s room for theatre, and those who want to create or attend plays should be allowed to do so.
If theatre needs any support, it is from the media and from the government. It’s another thing to talk about figures like me or Vinay Pathak or Rajat Kapoor or Anupam Kher doing theatre. But let’s talk about this form at grassroots level, where you’ll find actors and writers who are not covered by the media. Most people won’t go to watch such plays. We need the media to write as much about theatre as they do about cinema. Only this will get the general public interested in theatre, inspiring them to make an effort to go and see lesser-known plays.
Q. You have yourself recently written and directed a play called Barff. Tell us more about it.
A. Barff is a thriller which is situated in Kashmir and it is about one night spent there in the deep winters, in the mountains in low pressure. It has three characters — there is one doctor, one driver and one woman who is the mother. It’s a thriller set in a secluded place where these three strangers meet each other. What happens when they meet is primarily what the play is about. The cast is Vinay Pathak, Sadiya Siddiqui and Sunil Palwal. We performed for the first time recently at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav and the response was overwhelming. We ended up performing two shows and got standing ovations.
Q. What about your work in cinema? Are there any projects, new films, in the pipeline?
A. Well, you will see Jagga Jasoos soon, which has Katrina Kaif and Ranbir Kapoor as leads and is directed by Anurag Basu. I have also completed Sudhir Mishra’s Aur Devdas in which I am the main antagonist. There’s another movie produced by Prakash Jha called Fraud Saiyaan, which has Arshad Warsi. There are also some other movies which I am shooting currently.
Q. Finally, what advice would you like to give to today’s independent filmmakers, many of whom are finding new ways to reach their audiences, through social media and sites like YouTube?
A. My only advice — for all, be it independent, commercial or any solo filmmaker, or even some youngster who has just entered this field — is to be truthful to yourself, make good cinema and enjoy whatever you do.