About a decade ago, an interesting reality show premiered on TV. Titled Gateway to Hollywood, the show was about a group of young film-makers battling it out on every episode to win the top prize – the chance to direct a Hollywood film. Hosted by producer Ashok Amritraj, each episode involved making a short film either individually or in a group, keeping multiple instructions and stipulations in mind. Bejoy Nambiar won that show, but a career in Hollywood never quite took off. Years later, he broke into the indie scene with Shaitan, a drug-laced roller-coaster ride of a film, which made everyone label him as a “grim-and-dark” film-maker.
The multi-narrative track of David, his second feature, was not appreciated, even though it was a brave second attempt. Wazir, produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, is an ambitious project, given the two powerhouses who have been cast in it. What Nambiar brings to the table is a fresh take on subjects, a riveting visual narrative and solid storytelling. You would expect him to be really badass, but the man is quite amiable and soft-spoken and when he smiles – which is rare; I had to coax him endlessly to smile for our photographer – you see the hint of a nerd hiding beneath the surface. I meet Nambiar at his forty-second floor apartment in Mumbai’s film suburb, the absence of traffic cacophony almost feeling unreal.
I have been following your career for a while now and you are as “offbeat” as they get.
(Laughs) “Offbeat” is a bad word in this industry.
Yes, but then I look at Wazir and it is your most Bollywood film to date. Why did you decide to make it?
Mr. Vidhu Vinod Chopra had seen David and had quite liked it, and we started talking about possible projects. I started working on a reboot of Parinda, but it wasn’t going anywhere. So, after that, I went for a final meeting to say goodbye and just when I was leaving, he pulled out a box, produced six scripts and asked me to read them and see if anything excited me. I really liked Wazir’s script, which was called The Fifth Move. He loved the script too, and that’s how it started.
Was it intimidating to direct Amitabh Bachchan and Farhan Akhtar?
See, it is intimidating if you start thinking it is. I had to block that out. People around me were more intimidated than I was. I knew that if I start letting it affect me, it will affect the film and the process. And thankfully, I had had some interaction with both of them earlier and so it was not the first time I was meeting them. So that helped too. I had thought that the first day would be difficult, but it wasn’t.
Mr. Bachchan has been the industry’s most successful “formula”. What do you think still makes him relevant?
Look at his body of work. He is someone who has always been working with the best of the industry and he has worked with all the young film-makers. If there is anything new, Mr. Bachchan is one of the first people to do it. He has been a trendsetter from that perspective. That is what has kept him going. He has been constantly redefining himself. Even when he was written off, he bounced back with so much vengeance. He is not a fad. We still look forward to anything he is a part of. I am so fortunate, because every Indian film-maker wants to work with him. When the shoot was wrapping up, I wanted to get another script ready for him so that I could work with him again. There is no one else in his category, and people are writing scripts and roles for him now.
Do you think the Indian audience is not ready for your films?
I think it would be really condescending of me to say that. I think our audiences are very much ready and exposed to all kinds of material today. There is a huge appetite for all kinds of cinema, but the film fraternity is not giving them that. We are very wary and measured in what we have to offer. So for every Talvar, there are six Singh is Blings. And I know that if you keep giving them good films like Talvar, they would be watching it. Good films get appreciated abroad, but they don’t even find a release here.
Then, how can that be fixed? What do you think is wrong with the industry?
See, this problem lies in the Hindi film industry only. If you see the Tamil and Malayalam film industries, they are making major star-driven blockbusters along with interesting independent works, which the stars themselves are promoting, and those films, which have very offbeat subjects and new themes, are commercially doing very well. Sadly, the economics is not figured out properly. If one offbeat film works and the second one doesn’t, funding for all similar independent, interesting films is shut down. Very few people are ready to take that chance. And the only way I see it working out is if the bigger guys support the smaller films – and it need not be by producing it. When Aamir Khan supported Ship of Theseus, it made so much noise, or when Karan Johar presented The Lunchbox. The big guys need to step up and support good cinema. Even the new producers who are coming in are following that prototype set by the big guys, and only one producer, Manish [Mundra], is fighting so hard to support smaller films and even he is being beaten down. I wish he gets more success so that more people follow suit.
Are you hopeful about the young bunch of actors who have come into the industry recently?
To be very honest, no. They are all very clear about what they want to do. They have been groomed and focused accordingly. They almost have a set formula that – I will do two films of this genre, work with this film-maker and so on. One or two of them are trying to take chances. Like when Ranbir [Kapoor] did Bombay Velvet, everyone just beat him down for it. Whatever the film may be, it was also an actor taking a chance. We need to appreciate that. Varun [Dhawan] took a good chance with Badlapur and it paid off. For him, that’s a big chance. Like, I have heard that when Swades flopped, it really put Shah Rukh [Khan] off and he chose to stay away from films like that. But I personally think Swades is a cult film and I want to see more of that Shah Rukh.
On a similar track of thought, why do you think David didn’t work?
There are a couple of reasons actually, but I should just man up and take the criticism. I think the multiple narrative format did not work. People want to invest in one story and set of characters. Also, they started picking stories and so whenever a story they were not enjoying came on, they would switch off. Having said that, I really loved my film and I am glad I took that chance.
Sometimes, does that lead to confusion? Do you think Anurag Kashyap, for example, is confused right now?
We wouldn’t be sitting here discussing this if his last film had done well.
No, I am not talking commercials here. Personally, I loved Bombay Velvet. But, if you tracked his films from a high point like Gulaal to today, do you see a wavering of vision?
See, as a film-maker, I think even he is trying to make new attempts, go down new avenues and find new stories. It must be second nature for him to do a film like Gulaal again, it must be that easy for him, but I am sure he is also constantly trying to reinvent himself. I don’t think he is wavering or anything, he is also trying out new things. Well, sometimes it’s a six and sometimes you get bowled. I remember I met him after Bombay Velvet and I told him that I thought it was a great attempt, and he asked me what I was doing and I said I was struggling to get it done and all that. So he said, “You know what, they can’t write us away. They might kick us out, but we will keep kicking back in. Look at Ramu. Ramu’s still making films, right?” That’s Anurag for you.