The Interview: Q&A with Vasan Bala

His movies are often smorgasbords of cleverly curated pop-culture references with a scrumptious side of pastiche. The filmmaker’s recent outing is as a show creator for Amazon Prime Video’s docu-series capturing the golden age of pulp cinema of the ’90s, Cinema Marte Dum Tak. A classic case of a genre agnostic die-hard fan of cinema crossing over to the other side and becoming a filmmaker, he seems to be the perfect candidate for the job

Vasan Bala, who ended 2022 with the retro pulp thriller, Monica, O My Darling is back with his next offering, Cinema Marte Dum Tak — a six-episode series documenting the thriving independent ecosystem of Hindi pulp cinema of the ’90s and the early 2000s.

 

Often called B- or C-grade films, these were made on shoe-string budgets and were high on sex, sleaze, and often horror. Catering to a socio-economically less privileged audience, these movies ran through packed single-screen theatres across the country. In recent times, they have found a new audience and cult status among the fans of camp. The Amazon Prime Video docu-series follows four of its successful directors, J. Neelam, Kishan Shah, Dilip Gulati and Vinod Talwar, through the process of making what could either be their swan song or their comeback movie — though the gaze remains that of an outsider. However, what helps in creating a more balanced and non-judgemental narrative is the fact that Vasan, who had discovered this kind of cinema through VHS tapes, is an ardent fan of the genre and his movies often incorporate pulp cinema references.

 

Monica, O My Darling, 2022

 

“They are from a different era and did what they deemed necessary to survive and made those movies. It is not on us to pass a judgement on their work, or who they are. The idea was to document them and their work in all honesty and let the people decide and have conversations around it. We didn’t want to be intrusive and push in our moralities on them. It is not about if they were good films or bad films, but that this kind of cinema existed in India at a certain point of time. Through it you can also understand the socio-economic situations of the era and how that impacted people’s taste and choices then. The culture of documentation is extremely essential for society,” says the filmmaker.

 

It is the cinephile in him that forms an essential part of his weltanschauung. Before making his directorial debut with the 2012 crime thriller Peddlers (nominated for a Golden Camera Award at the Cannes Film Festival that year), Vasan had worked as an assistant director in films like Dev.D (2009), Gulaal (2009) and Trishna (2011). He was also a co-writer with Anurag Kashyap in movies such as Bombay Velvet (2015) and Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016). Vasan’s movies are replete with movie nostalgia and meta references. His entire oeuvre so far can be called a fanboy’s ode to cinema. While Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota was a homage to the campy action films of the late ’70s and ’80s, Monica, O My Darling was also an ode to retro Bollywood, especially the movies of the 1980s and 1990s. While in the first he took a dig at the toxic masculinity projected in Bollywood movies, in the second, he subverted the idea of the femme fatale. His segment in the Netflix anthology Ray was about the perks and perils of being a movie star and had ample hat-tips to the cinema of Satyajit Ray. Although, there are times when it might seem that he has gone a bit overboard with his obsession with weaving in movie references, his cinema is always a treasure trove of Easter eggs, which makes them a delicious watch for fellow movie nerds.

 

We sit down with the filmmaker to talk about cinema, nostalgia, and everything in between. Excerpts:

 

Spotlight, 2021

 

The B- and C-grade films that ran in seedy single-screen theatres in the ‘90s have found a devoted fan base among the cinephiles in later years. What was your introduction to the subculture?

 

I discovered these through VHS during my growing up years. Ramsay Brothers’ horror films used to be much in demand and most of the times the video libraries would run out of these cassettes. So, they would try to push these movies by Vinod Talwar, Mohan Bhakri, Harinam Singh and the likes. I had chanced upon their movies like that, but had eventually moved on and forgotten about them. Then, in early 2000s, movies like Gunda suddenly blew up on Orkut and developed a cult status. It was then that I got reconnected with these movies.

 

While working on the series, how interesting was it to see their process up close as a filmmaker?

 

It was a great equaliser. Be it A/B/C or any grade or class of cinema, shot in any budget, all of it essentially are ways to tell the story you have in mind in the best possible way. It is about creating truth within the frame and whether the audience can catch on to your deception. Then it is about the gaze, the perspective, the education, etcetera… there are hundreds of such things that go on to ascertain what the film is.

 

Talking about the gaze, how do you see the shift from that of the audience these movies were initially made for to that of today’s audience who are viewing it maybe through a lens of camp?

 

Sometimes you have to go ahead and tell your story. The more you analyse and keep drawing pie charts; you will end up doing nothing. We wanted to tell the story in the most honest way without thinking how and if at all the audience will relate to it. We put blinders on such questions.

 

Pulp has made a big comeback. Can you break down its charm for us?

 

More than the charm, it was unique because of their audacity. This genre of films always had their market in every country, including Hollywood. People always seek out for less sanitised version of whatever is given to them — be it food, fashion, literature or movies. These are slightly off the mainstream and edgy. People get a certain voyeuristic gratification watching this kind of cinema.

 

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, 2018

 

Your movies are always replete with homages to cinema of not only the ’90s but also of yore. What makes nostalgia such a dependable currency?

 

Whatever goes out of fashion today will again come back in fashion tomorrow. It is a cycle. There is no way forward without getting informed or impacted by the past. It depends on the filmmaker how the movie memories and references come into his work. I can make a movie according to my sensibilities, the problem happens when one starts blindly aping.

 

Everything goes in a circle. Pathaan has just released and we are talking about the movies of the YRF spy universe such as Tiger and War. But then, we have seen Kismat (1968), Suraksha (1979), Agent Vinod (1977), Hukumat (1987), Bond 303 (1985), and these were all spy movies. Now, again there is a surge in spy thrillers. I think when a particular kind of cinema starts working; everyone keeps milking it until it goes dry. Then it is replaced by something new. But this is a cycle. The old comes back in a new form, with new technical upgrades. But the soul remains the same and that works.

 

Also, your movies are known for their Easter eggs, which are a treat for cinephiles. Are we increasingly making films for a film-literate audience?

 

It is heartening to see that we have a good chunk of the audience who gets these references, but I treat it as ek pe ek free. The primary product is the movie, and the audience engages with that. The Easter eggs are the add ons; a bonus feature.

 

This docu-series is your love letter to the golden age of pulp cinema. From Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon to Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show, it seems, there is suddenly a surge in movies made about the industry and the magic of cinema. Do you think the movie theatres shutting down during the pandemic and cinema facing a very real threat from the OTT content has triggered this meta mood?

 

Probably it is just that all these people are turning a certain age at the same time and feeling nostalgic about days gone by (laughs). Maybe it is just a coincidence that this is happening at a time when OTT content has become so big.

 

Do you think that eventually, OTTs would have more intimate indie content while theatrical releases would aim at creating larger-than-life experiences?

 

We keep having these discussions and then suddenly a film like Drishyam 2 comes and proves all those analyses wrong. There are no formulae. It is about making the movie that you want to make and putting it out for the audience. Whenever we start thinking that we have found a smart way to lure the audience, the audience will outsmart us.

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