What works in Bollywood: Shoojit Sircar of Madras Cafe, Nimrat Kaur of Lunchbox speak

New Delhi | Updated: Oct 20 2013, 15:05pm hrs
Nimrat KaurNot once have I been asked if The Lunchbox is an art or a commercial movie.
And has it been truly laid to rest Is the script the new hero Do the suits call the shots Is it a great time to be an actor Can good cinema find an audience Is distribution the final frontier to cross Film professionals across the spectrum tell us what works in new Bollywood

Shoojit Sircar, 44

Director, Madras Cafe

From my first film Yahaan to Madras Cafe, I have been making reasonably populist films. But in India, my films are considered out-of-the-box. Honestly, that surprises me because I dont think Ive made anything remarkable. Hollywood has been making such films for 30 years now. Madras Cafe worked because of a novel story and it took the audience by surprise. This not just proves how starved our audiences are for good stories, it also shows how wrong we are about audience behaviour, our notion that we serve them what they want.

A large section of the urban audience has a certain amount of disposable income and theyll watch a movie on a weekend. What kind or genre, we dont know and truth be told, we never will. There are stress-buster films our masala potboilers and there are films like Madras Cafe, which give you stress. The audience cant be gauged and hence cannot be taken for granted.

Ive struggled to get producers for all my films because they were not safe projects. Even after Madras Cafe didnt have any takers till John Abraham came in, which helped us get Viacom 18 Motion Pictures as co-producers along with my own production house, Rising Sun Films. Before the release of Madras Cafe, the producers were worried about the lack of buzz and marketing surrounding the film. It released a week after Chennai Express and it worked on its own merit.

I applaud the audience for proving the formula wrong.

When I was new in the industry, the whole number game and crore clubs scared me. I used to think I would never be able to make a film. I was wrong. The last two-three years have been encouraging. As Amitabh Bachchan rightly said, it is a very exciting time for Hindi cinema. Grand Masti and The Lunchbox can run simultaneously and make money.

But its still tough for an outsider to make a mark here. A certain bonhomie drives clans in the industry but its also true that some of us with neither a filmi background nor godfathers Sujoy (Ghosh), Anurag (Basu and Kashyap), Dibakar (Banerjee), Tigmanshu (Dhulia) are getting recognition.

The question in the audiences mind is not just, Whos the hero anymore; they have started asking, Whos the director This is a sign of a great change. Id like to believe that people will look forward to what the director of Vicky Donor and Madras Cafe does next.

This isnt a new phenomenon in Hindi cinema though. Even during the 1990s, people went to watch a Shekhar Kapoor or a Shyam Benegal film. Somehow, that got lost in the middle.

The most important factor in Hindi cinema is the rising importance of the script, the story. More and more producers and studios are realising that.

Yes, there are inevitable commercial pressures when you are making a film with Bollywood stars, but you can still do your own thing. I got away with not using any song in Madras Cafe; it was a dry film by Bollywood standards. And Vicky Donor had a taboo subject, of a hero who is a sperm donor; Ayushmann (Khurana) wasnt even a star before the film. You can imagine how audacious it would have sounded on paper, and all producers declined it. Some thought I was trying to make a sleazy film and some said they liked the subject but werent ready to do it. But then John came in. He saw the rough cut and decided to go ahead with it.

I wouldnt have been able to promote Vicky Donor without Johns presence but the stars name can only help to the extent of getting the audience to the theatres on the first day. The rest depends completely on the films merit.

I would like to attribute a lot of this change in Bollywood to the internet. It has opened up a whole new world of cinema for our audience. People are making feature films on their mobile phones. Short films, television and new media: overall its an exciting time for the audio-visual medium.

The audience watches some of the best movies from the world and you cant fool around with them unless you are able to mount a spectacle like Avatar, which our budget constraints make difficult. So, the only way to progress is to make films based on solid stories, things that are rooted in reality.

Fortunately, for directors like me, studios have started understanding that a film is primarily the directors product and not the actors. Perhaps, mainstream stars also realise that. They do formulaic blockbusters but they understand that real appreciation comes for a well-written character or a superbly crafted film. A Special 26 will always look more special in Akshay Kumars portfolio and a Swades and a Chak De! India will hold more value for Shah Rukh Khan in his.

I was once told I should consider plastic surgery

Nimrat Kaur, 31

Actor, The Lunchbox

During the premiere of The Lunchbox at the Festival de Cannes in May, I was introduced as the modern-day Charulata. Though I liked the tag, I wondered whether it would stay on. Today, I am not afraid of being typecast because the six scripts I have read after The Lunchbox offer me roles that are diametrically opposite to Ila, from a romantic film to an action drama to a thriller.

This, for me, is a sign of changing times. So is the release of a movie like Ship of Theseus in 35 Indian cities. Not once have I been asked if The Lunchbox is an art or a commercial movie. People have talked about my deglamourised appearance in the film, but its a perception. Whats deglamourised Not putting on make-up That seemed normal as I had to fit into Ilas character. I let go of a few things. I stopped threading my eyebrows, bleaching and taking care of myself about four months before the shoot began.

I come from a completely non-film background. My father was an army officer. He was posted in Kashmir when terrorists took him hostage and killed him in January 1994. Following his death, my mother, sister and I moved to Delhi where my nana-nani lived. I went to DPS, Noida, for five years and later graduated from Shri Ram College of Commerce. My family was not much into movies, but I remember watching films featuring Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi and Anil Kapoor. I also enjoyed movies like Masoom, Mirch Masala and other Smita Patil films.

In my school and college days, I often found myself on stage during debates or cultural shows. After graduation, I figured that nothing resonated with me as much as performing arts. When I came to Mumbai, I did lots of commercials, even music videos, as I knew theatre did not pay. I met people for roles in films too, but I was wise enough to realise that I cant live with the hope of being spotted at a coffee shop by a filmmaker. So I chose to learn. When I came here in 2004, I did not even know how to read a script.

One always has to make choices. I would have done 15 films by now had I not been selective. When I came into the industry, people had different opinions about how I look. Some told me I was too pretty, others said I wasnt fair enough or tall enough. Nearly seven years ago, I was even advised by a filmmaker to consider plastic surgery. Soon, I stopped thinking about what works. At times, I was not comfortable with what I was being offered. I refused Anurag Kashyaps Gulaal, as being a Sikh, I did not want to smoke on screen. But I am happy with the kind of launch I have got.

It is a very exciting time for actors as roles that can surprise them are being written. This was not the case 15 years ago. A film like The Dirty Picture would not have been possible then. Also we, including the audience, are more exposed to world cinema these days. Its effect has seeped into the industry. Filmmakers today have a wider vocabulary. Directors like Dibakar Banerjee, Shimit Amin and Ritesh Batra are not scared of failure and that has helped them move away from formulaic stories. Then there are people like Kashyap, who has created a space to nurture talents and has backed them all the way.

I have always wanted to be part of a story that interests me. If I have to dance, sing or play a man, I will if I am inspired or feel connected to the story and the person telling it. Nothing tempts me more than being able to tell a story I can connect with.

As told to Alaka Sahani