Once upon a time, not too long ago, Anurag Kashyap was the Bhai of Indian indie. The man became emblematic of irreverent film-making, refused to tip-toe around “Bharatiya” sensibilities, was always ready to rip off hypocritical band-aids and allow wounds to fume and fester. Like a moth, he attracted like-minded writers, actors, directors, and artists, whoever frustrated with trying to fit into the Bollywood scheme of things, and soon, Kashyap had been able to erect a phantom industry (see what I did there?), alongside the Chopras and Johars.

On my multiple visits to the Phantom office for shoots and interviews, with Kashyap and his various associates, it almost felt like an ark, bravely afloat in a flood of mediocrity. But, a lot changed in the last four years. The Phantom partners parted ways, the audience started supporting and demanding script-driven real stories, the line between content and commercial started blurring, and, taking over the mantle from Kashyap, web streaming platforms became the new saviours of creativity. Kashyap, finally, after what felt like a decade, could just be a film-maker. An artist. A storyteller. The audiences had grown up, filmmakers had matured (to some extent) — Kashyap didn’t have to run a parallel industry within Bollywood anymore. He welcomed Netflix with open arms, getting to enjoy creative freedom possibly for the first time. When Sacred Games finally released, one of modern Indian cinema’s most censored film-maker was vindicated.

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Raman Raghav 2.0 released in 2016. His next directorial feature was Mukkabaaz in 2018, followed by Manmarziyaan in the same year. There was evidently a stark contrast between the stories Kashyap wanted to tell, and subjects he wanted to explore. Till 2016, Kashyap had been defined by his underbelly narratives, human darkness and evil, a corruption of ideologies, and an almost sensual relationship with violence. In 2018, both his films were about human relationships, warmth, and tenderness, inspiring slice-of-life pieces. What changed? With the disbanding of his film-producing partners and the entry of web streaming in India, did Kashyap realise that he didn’t have to challenge the status quo anymore? He didn’t have to make sure that every film of his pushes the boundary? With the audiences finally supporting stronger storytelling, was he finally able to shed a responsibility he had been shouldering for over a decade, and hence, settled into making two wonderful romances? I think so. It’s almost like someone put a hand on his shoulder and said, “your job’s done, Bhai. Why don’t you enjoy life now?”.

And enjoy he did. Kashyap suddenly evolved into a film-maker who didn’t have anything to prove. He didn’t care if everyone wanted him to repeat his past successes (*cough* Gangs of Wasseypur *cough*). He knew he couldn’t, and he was fine with that. It was time to explore all the undiscovered crevices of his creative capacity. His installment in Lust Stories was the most discussed, most-polarising, most-misunderstood. In this year’s Ghost Stories, he dabbled with macabre to a phantasmagoric extent that he would never have been able to explore as a mainstream, theatre-release feature. He produced and presented a bunch of exciting films in the meantime — Haraamkhor, Trapped, Moothon, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, and Cargo, specifically — that tried to push the boundaries of storytelling in the country. Were all his projects wellloved? No. Did Kashyap seem fine with that? Hell yeah.

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What Kashyap was able to do with Sacred Games has had repercussions of epic proportions. If heavy-duty, big-budget web shows can run today, it’s because Kashyap walked with Sacred Games, and showed the country the expansive scope of web streaming and mind-blowing possibilities of the canvas. Yes, the second season was rightfully panned, and surely he will come back with a different show with something new to tell, but nobody can take away the contribution of Sacred Games to Indian entertainment. The show single-handedly educated audiences of a format that, till then, was only viewed as a short-format, sketch-oriented, mostly-comedy platform. Netflix gave Kashyap the freedom to mount his vision, and the collaboration was nothing but a grand success. Anurag Kashyap is a free man now. He can make whatever he wants, he can dream up whatever he wants, he enjoys fandom in theatres and on mobile devices, and most importantly, whether you love him, hate his work, or misunderstand it, the curiosity and respect his name demands, is not faltering any time soon.

Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai is not a trademark Anurag Kashyap film. It has the backdrop of demonetisation, but it isn’t as dark as your earlier films. What made you choose this film?

All credit goes to Nihit Bhave, the writer. People might think that I made the film because of the backdrop of demonetisation, but Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai was written in 2015, which was way before demonetisation. I always believed that it was a good script, but it lacked the X factor. Post demonetisation, it became much more relevant, and served as its set-up. The film is about three families, their marital relationships, and struggles. The couple has artistic dreams, and also showcases the power dynamics of couples in a marriage. It is about how one finds love in a loveless marriage of 10 years, with a child at its centre. It’s mainly a story of survival.

In one of the scenes, Saiyami’s character, Sarita, gets her hand stuck in the drain. I thought something awful was going to happen to her, given your penchant for dark things.

(laughs) I chose to direct this film so that I could change my image. A lot of people felt the same way when they saw the scene. With my age and the influence of my daughter, I’ve become gentler on the inside. People don’t believe me, though (laughs).

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Did you deliberately incorporate various points of view on demonetisation?

Yes, I wanted to bring out all the perspectives on demonetisation. I didn’t want it to say what I thought about it. These characters have stemmed from Bhave’s observation of life. I am not here to preach. I am here to tell a story about middle-class people and their dependency on money. It showcases six different points of view of the same situation, as all of us think differently. Sushant (Roshan Mathew) is in favour of demonetisation while Sarita (Saiyami Kher) is indifferent. Tai (Amruta Subhash) is complaining because she is about to get her daughter married. They are not people of any particular political affinity. There’s not even a single character that has the same angst as I do. My summation of politics comes in the last song of the film, with humour. When you are not true to the characters in the story and enforce your personal opinions, then the film becomes propaganda. Whenever I make a political film, it doesn’t reflect my understanding of politics. It stays true to the characters.

Like you mentioned earlier, this film is about marital relationships and struggles. Has your opinion about marriage changed?

I never had an opinion about marriage. I have seen very successful marriages and very unsuccessful ones. Marriage is about two people who either make it work, or call it quits. No third person on the fence can understand the dynamics of a married couple. The people living in the marriage know what’s best for them.

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Cinema in Bollywood is no more just starry event films set in big, unreal colleges. It’s a change you’ve always fought for. How do you think the quality of writing and scripts has changed?

The most heartening thing is that our mainstream cinema has become about India. You know, our mainstream has always been set in foreign lands, and with NRIs, about nothing else but falling in love. And now that mainstream is borrowing from parallel cinema and arthouse, arthouse has become even more unique, and we have even more learned and aware film-makers coming in. Arthouse is more socially, politically aware about the world we are living in. We have still not broken out into the world of international platforms — we are breaking in spurts, but in a few years, we will reach a point where the next generation of film-makers are going to teach us how to make films.

Content-driven films have their own audience, and so do blockbuster films. Do you think content-driven films are enough to pull in theatre audience?

Absolutely. Films are still star-driven, but we are succeeding in pulling in masala and mainstream audiences to more niche films. There are more stars coming in, every day. It’s unfortunate that we lost someone like an Irrfan Khan, who broke into mainstream, but there’s still Ayushmann Khurrana and Rajkummar Rao, doing great work. There are incredible actors and film-makers with voices now. There are so many film-makers that I knew when they were starting out, and now, when I see their success, I’m so inspired. When I see an Anubhav Sinha reinventing himself, I’m so inspired. I feel envious, and I’m trying to reinvent myself.

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You’re really about the reinvention right now, aren’t you?

I’m fighting my own demons, which are expectations that people have from me. There are so many simple films I want to do, but people expect me to have a twist. That is my biggest struggle. Expectations are such a big killer. I feel so jealous when I see other film-makers, someone like Shoojit Sircar. I love what Juhi Chaturvedi writes, and would love to do something like that, but I’ll need to reinvent myself, and I don’t know how long that will take. I mean there are more things I want to do, apart from movies on crimes and gangsters and thrillers — its done to death. There’s more to life than that. People tell me we have a great gangster flick, and 50 per cent of them are called “Gangs of something”. Everyone sends me stories about their local gangsters, and it’s just tiring. I’m fighting the typecast because I can do so much more.

Does it look like we’ll match up to the quality that regional cinema is producing?

Sure, we’ll get there eventually. Right now, the way that Malayalam cinema is constantly throwing up surprises, it’s like the best stories at the moment, followed by Tamil cinema and in mainstream, Telugu cinema. I’m still discovering Malayalam cinema, and have a list I am exploring. Hindi cinema is still getting there, because we are still caught up in our own “biggishness”, and our overpowering language. We need to get out of that comfort zone. With OTT, people are speaking their language, and then there are subtitles, so you can learn the language by just reading and listening and watching. If people just start reading subtitles, we’ll be able to discuss so much more cinema from across the world. We’ve slowly normalised a person speaking their regional language, in a show. I get excited and envious when I hear about these films, and film-makers, I know I won’t be allowed to make films like that, and it’s because of the expectations attached to me. It’s like I got on to a passenger train, and then realised that it’s a Rajdhani, and I can’t get off. I’m trying very hard to do that, though.

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What’s on your radar when it comes to world cinema, and of course, your opinion on the legitimacy of the Academy Awards leading to a film’s popularity? Do you think awards still open doors, in that sense?

I’ve no particular country on my radar, it’s film to film. Every country goes through a renaissance. More than that, I keep discovering new directors and new cinema. Last year, I saw a Spanish film called Platform, that I was blown away with. There are young, independent filmmakers that I like discovering, more than the others. The legitimacy of the Oscars definitely exists, A Parasite has become so successful, that the world knows it. So it’s definitely there.

Between the theatre-going audience, the web audience, and the ones who consume both, do you think the pandemic is going to up the web’s game, and change theatre viewing?

Theatre will exist. People will still go and watch a Marvel movie, or a Nolan movie, in a theatre. But OTT has its own audience. Today, you have Mubi.com., which lets you explore cinema that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible to you. If you know the name of the film, you can find it online. There’s an app called JustWatch, which tells you which film released on which platform, in which country. My daughter, at this age, is discovering Alfred Hitchcock, because it’s all accessible. When DVDs came into being, the whole of Tamil cinema changed due to the pirated versions of foreign language films, that film-makers began watching. Now, with the access thanks to OTT, you’ll start to see Hindi cinema also change.

You’re essentially saying that theatres and OTT can co-exist, so what’s this fight between multiplex chains asking producers to hold off releases, really about? Theatre and OTT will coexist, but this ‘fight’ is more about survival. If all the big films will release on OTT, what will be left for the multiplexes?

Cinema halls will open in phases and when they do, there will be a bottleneck of movies. We’ll not have that much space as there would have been, otherwise. So everyone is fighting for survival. Some filmmakers don’t have the strength to hold on to their films, they have to put it out there. So, to each their own. No one has witnessed a time like this. No one knows how to deal with it. Everyone needs to adapt with the times. If we have a gathering of people in a theatre, we are inviting trouble, and waiting for the pandemic to escalate. In the end, it’s not just about one film, but the entire film industry. It roughly takes about 100-150 people to make a film. As film-makers, we will have to be responsible and adapt with time. Else, it would be extremely foolhardy of us.

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Celebrityhood is an important part of the film culture and the audience, but as social media emerges further, there’s more accountability, when it comes to issues that go beyond films. What is the role of a movie celebrity today?

A celebrity has his own struggles. People start complaining about how Indian celebrities don’t react to things happening in India but react to things happening outside the country. The thing is I can guarantee you that Hollywood celebs can speak up in America because the American constitution allows them to. They would be the same like our Bollywood celebs, if they had been in India. India doesn’t defend its supressed, every time. It is just the atmosphere. Our discourse doesn’t give us that space. People are afraid because they know the consequences.

You’ve embraced OTT. What are your creative plans, going forward?

I have found home in Netflix. I’m going to do more work on OTT platforms because for me, it has a way of reaching audiences, and the process gets done with dignity, as far as the funding etc. is concerned. The amazing thing about OTT is that you get budgeted on the basis of the content and not on the basis of who is in it.

How are you spending time during this lockdown?

Initially, I was reading books, and watching films. I was even cooking. Then, I had a downer in my mood. I didn’t want to cook, I didn’t want to watch films. I decided to start writing again. I wrote for two days straight, and thrashed out my ideas and concepts. Then I gave up. I noticed that I gained eight kilos, so, I decided to work out. On a good day, I introspect, and on a bad day, I just sleep.

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Your Twitter posts have mellowed down. How did that happen?

(laughs) Working on Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai changed me as a person. Initially, there was a lot of anger, and anger always paves the way to sarcasm. I found my humour, wherein I express my thoughts without getting angry. That’s the state of divinity I want to achieve. I don’t think I can ever be zen. After a point, it feels like you are all alone in deep space, talking to yourself. No one is listening to you. Am I even able to make a difference? Perhaps not.

How do you celebrate Bombay Velvet completing five years?

How do you feel when you look back at the film? I didn’t want to look back. The world forced me to look at it. Luckily, May 15 is also World Whiskey Day, so I poured myself a glass and two to celebrate that.

 

Interviews By Samreen Tungekar And Jigar Shah

Photographed By Aniruddh Kothari/Netflix

Art Direction By Tanvi Shah

Fashion Editor Neelangana Vasudeva