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Life Lessons From Veteran Director Sudhir Mishra

The 58-year-old director’s new film, Daas Dev, releases this month. He reflects on his career and discusses the future

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SUCCESS TO ME MEANS… The ability to do my work in ways that my independence is protected, and to have the freedom to not work when I have nothing to say. To always be with people who I value and who value me. And, in some way, to be able to pass the baton of what I know to others [in the way] many have passed on to me, such as countless film-makers. The whole history of film-making has passed on so much to me, specifically, Kundan Shah, [Vidhu] Vinod Chopra, Saeed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Shekhar Kapur, Mahesh Bhatt, Javed Akhtar.

MY MAJOR CHALLENGE… is my own self. My major challenge is always to create an environment for myself [in which] I provoke myself. Fight the mediocrity in which we all collapse into. My major challenge is to renew myself every time. I always think that I’m not as good as I think I could have been. That always worries me, and that’s my constant challenge to provoke myself and to work in ways in which I can grow as an individual and as a film-maker.

THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE PEOPLE I HAVE MET… I once met Gabriel García Márquez in a New York restaurant. He was quite unforgettable and charismatic, very warm and generous. Vanessa Redgrave [is another person]. After the screening of my film, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi in LA, somebody turned around to me and said, ‘It’s a masterpiece.’ I walked past because a lot of people were saying ‘good film, good film,’ and then I turned around and said, ‘Shit, who was that?’ It was Vanessa Redgrave, and I sat down with her for some time. She was quite unforgettable. Badal Sircar, who was a playwright, and whom I met when I was young. He influenced me a lot. Jawaharlal Nehru, when I was three. I still have a specific memory of my father throwing me in his lap and him picking me up in the midst of a crowd. That’s kind of stamped in my head. From afar and sitting in a mixing theatre, I watched Satyajit Ray mix a film. That was quite an experience. It was a short film called Pikoo’s Day. He was mixing in Rajkamal Studio, and I was privileged to be an audience to that.

MY ROLE MODEL… is me when I was young, because I was very excited and provoked and wanted to do a lot of things and I didn’t give a damn. I was totally carefree. I was constantly in love. In a film-maker’s kind of way- Martin Scorsese, because he constantly reinvents himself and is so alive and so much in love with the medium and so humane, even though he makes very violent films. There is a great love that I see in his cinema and for human beings and people on the fringe [and who are] lost. I hope one can keep making films like he does at this age. That kind of mad devotion to cinema and music is unique.

DEALING WITH FAILURE… You can’t worry too much about it because you’re not merely failing when you make a film or the film doesn’t work. But, every day when you think of something, and you think you have not done it 
as well. I think failure is something you have to constantly interact with and constantly be at peace with it. I meet it quite willingly. I live with it all the time. It is inevitable in a creative man’s life. The idea of dissatisfaction: you have to make peace with it, play with it and dance with it.

ALTERNATE CAREER… I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. Then I thought I can’t sit around listening to troubled people all the time. So, I walked away from that. I would like to write novels. I would have loved to have been a scientist now, at the age of discoveries in medical science. Those guys are the real poets of our time, the scientific minds at the edge of breakthroughs. But, that’s another life.

ONE THING I WOULD LIKE TO CHANGE ABOUT MY LIFE… I would have [liked to do] more work. The few times when I actually think I have failed are when I listened too much to other people. There are many pieces of advice that I shouldn’t have listened to. I tried to be a nice guy, and I would stop being a nice guy if I could turn back the clock. I mean it in a sense that in order to do what you want to do, you have to be rude and confrontational. To have the will power to displease a lot of people around you. That I didn’t have in full measure. I would [like to] do things more individually than I have.

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY… Money has sometimes been a problem. Even now it is a bit. If I could turn back the clock, I would have earned more money so I could have been more independent as a film-maker.

DO I THINK ABOUT DEATH... Often. I don’t want to die. I think there should be two to three lifetimes. One lifetime is when you figure out life. So, I constantly get bothered about it. I would love to live forever, like Elon Musk. I would love to prolong my life as much as I can. Keep making some more films.

DO I BELIEVE IN GOD… I don’t know. I have interesting conversations with powers all the time. I’m not a big enough mind to grasp it all. But I often have a conversation with the unknown. I have a conversation every night. The mystery is fascinating. I hope there is God.

THE BIGGEST DECISION OF MY LIFE… To become a film-maker. To take the train to Bombay when Vinod Chopra asked me to come.

MY BIGGEST HIGH PERSONALLY AND PROFESSIONALLY… Personally, every time the ladies in my life have said yes has been quite a high. Professionally, the highs have been in isolation. When you write and something magical happens, and you create a scene and don’t know how. Or, when you shoot and some magic happens, and the actor and camera and everything are in perfect sync. That’s the time when you feel most alive, when you’re in tune with the medium and the world has aligned itself. Those are the highs for me. The rest of it is you pretend when you have obviously achieved something. Every time a film works or every time someone says, ‘Wow.’ Every time a kid you don’t know says they’ve loved a film of yours. You like connecting with people- that’s why you make films. But, for me, the professional highs are when I feel alive.

FILM-MAKING HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE… That it cannot be grasped in an ideology. That it slips away, and you have to be able to accept what is and realign yourself all the time. The way you view life is constantly changing. It has a habit of surprising you all the time in good ways and bad. Cinema is a bit like that. You have to keep improvising.