“I Don’t Like Films That Define People As Heroes And Villains” – Ashim Ahluwalia
In 2012, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely competed in ‘Un Certain Regard’ at the Cannes Film Festival. The experimental film showed, with authenticity and honesty, how love could wreck several careers in porn. It made you wonder what this advertising film-maker could do with a commercial film. Well, the upcoming Daddy, with actor Arjun Rampal playing the eponymous role, might be the answer.
Can you please take us through the journey of Daddy? Why and how did you decide on the subject?
Daddy just happened by accident. There was a film already being developed on the life of Arun Gawli with Arjun Rampal attached. I didn’t have anything to do with that. I happened to meet Arjun while shooting a TV commercial [for Nivea], and we hit it off. He asked me if I would ever want to make a mainstream Hindi film, and I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But, he had seen Miss Lovely and knew my sensibility. He then told me about the Gawli project and asked if I would be interested in getting involved with a true story like this, if I could make it with total freedom and no studio interference. He had the rights to the story, access to the family and didn’t want to make a typical Bollywood gangster film. How could I resist that?
Obviously, Arun Gawli has been part of the mythology of this city and a presence ever since I was a kid. It’s a story that really is in line with who I am as a filmmaker, with all the elements of crime, betrayal, guilt, fear. There’s nothing like the pleasure of being drawn into the world of someone who has broken all rules and crossed all limits. Real violence is not CGI stuff blowing up, but the conflicts we have within.
How was your experience of shooting in places such as Agripada and Grant Road with a major film actor?
Insane, but I wouldn’t do it any other way. You can’t try and recreate the atmosphere of crime on a film set. It has to be real. We have shot in an illegal sweatshop, behind a whorehouse in Kamathipura on Eid. It became a near riot situation. We were dealing with things like rats falling from the ceiling and real-life gangsters threatening us while we were shooting a gangster movie. I could probably write a book on this.
In interviews during Miss Lovely, you deified C-grade film-makers. Has something similar happened with Arun Gawli as well? Has the criminal become an enigma in your retelling?
What’s common in these two films is that they are about people who are on the margins of society. These are stories you don’t usually see onscreen. We live in an extremely hypocritical country, so in some ways, these are also characters that are the most honest. It’s a way for me to understand how our society works, who we are as people. Who makes the rules? Who breaks them? I don’t like films that define people as ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, which is what our industry tends to do. It’s boring. The interesting stuff happens when people are both simultaneously.
As Daddy has been mounted on a much larger scale than your previous film, has it affected your artistic vision in any way?
I don’t think so. For many people, Gawli is a folk hero. So, I wanted the film to be more accessible to that audience. That’s what is different from my other work — there is a different kind of viewer, perhaps someone who lives in Dagdi Chawl, and I don’t want them to be excluded. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to dumb it down or remove the complexity of his character and the world he comes from. For me, it’s an experiment to see if we can make a more nuanced film within the system and whether the audience will be open to something that isn’t all black and white, or all good and bad.
What preparation went into turning Arjun Rampal into Arun Gawli?
I think Arjun was already into Gawli by the time I met him. Without even having a director onboard, he was quietly writing down the real stories into a sort of screenplay form. That’s what I found surprising about him. I don’t usually think too much of our actors, at least in terms of their willingness to go out of their depth. I pushed Arjun really, really far. And, he was really willing to go there, which was amazing. He studied Marathi, broke down Gawli’s mannerisms by watching his interviews on YouTube, he gave it everything. He was willing to shoot in extreme conditions, in the grimiest locations, with prosthetics on his face for 12 hours a day. I don’t work with a bound script, and we improvised everything on set. He probably would have killed any other director.
As someone who comes from a position of privilege, why are you so fascinated with Mumbai’s grime?
I think we all come from a position of privilege. The act of making films or being in the media is a position of power that few in this country have. This conversation, in English, for a lifestyle magazine, is itself a function of the bubble we live in.
Having said that, I am interested not so much in grime or poverty, but in characters on the margins of society. They could be rich, poor or middle-class — that doesn’t matter. For me, a film should explore worlds that people don’t want explored, bring things out of the closet to examine why people want to hide certain things. That’s the only way you can try and change mindsets. I relate to the idea of the outlaw, probably because I have a rebellious personality and because I don’t feel like I fit into any establishment either.
Is Mumbai even deserving of your affection?
It’s the love of my life. I can’t think of any other city in the world with the kind of density that this city has. At any time, you have a thousand parallel realities existing simultaneously.
Your ad-film portfolio is so different from your cinematic work. How are the two aligned in your head?
I am a Gemini, and I can split myself into two quite easily. On the one hand, I can make extremely realistic, gritty, open-ended cinema, and on the other, I can make a very cosmetic and glossy car commercial. Making a commercial, for me, is a very specialised craft. It’s not art, it’s a job. I think of myself as a very good carpenter, but the cupboard I’m making is not for me, it’s for somebody else.