Vishal Bhardwaj’s ex-AD became a critically acclaimed film-maker in his own right, with projects like Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya and Udta Punjab. With his latest film, Sonchiriya, Chaubey has once again teamed up with
Bhardwaj, with the latter stepping in as the film’s music director
Growing up in a family full of film buffs, all Abhishek Chaubey could think was of was movies. To understand the extent to which his family was influenced by cinema, you only have to look at the fact that he was named after Abhishek Bachchan (the age difference between the two is a little more than a year). Even the journey to his dreams was nothing less than ‘filmy’. He came to Mumbai knowing no one, as a student at the Xavier Institute of Communications. After he finished his degree, his search for work landed him a job with acclaimed director Vishal Bhardwaj. Chaubey worked with Bhardwaj for 10 years as an assistant director, and as a writer, he worked on films like Maqbool, Omkara and Kaminey, to name a few. He also directed Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya under Bhardwaj’s banner.
Now, he is all set to release his fourth film, Sonchiriya, with Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pendnekar in the lead roles. It is a story about dacoits in the Chambal valley, set in 1975. This will be his first film post the censorship (and plagiarism) ruckus he had to endure with his last release, Udta Punjab, which at the time had become the face of the freedom of expression movement.
It is 2019, and you’ve made a film with dacoits in it.
While I was working on the post-production of Udta Punjab, Ronnie Screwvala (the producer of Sonchiriya) and I met up to discuss the possibility of working together. It was in our meetings that he suggested ‘Why don’t you make a western, action film?’ Thus, he gave me the seed for the film. I told myself, I have to make an action film before I get old (laughs).
Then Chambal became the starting point, as it is India’s Wild West. Thus began research and visits to these places. Yes, we have seen Bandit Queen and Paan Singh Tomar, but I still had very little knowledge about the culture and life of the place – after knowing it, it simply blew my mind.
There are five principal characters in this film. You seem to be very comfortable with big casts, given each person can come with their own insecurities and baggage.
I’m very comfortable with a large number of people working in my films, I’ve never been intimidated or bothered about it. Ishqiya has three important characters, Dedh had four, Udta had four and Sonchiriya has five and 70-80 other speaking parts. I guess working as an AD and as a writer also trained me. I’ve also understood that actors are not props, they are regular human beings with a lot of craft. I’ve also understood that you cannot talk to two actors in the same way… your approach needs to be different, but that is just basic people skills. I have a very rock solid team, which takes care of my cast. A part of a director’s job is to create the right atmosphere on the sets, so that a good film can be made. A director is not god, they can’t be omnipresent or can’t answer all the questions. They are there to guide, and sometimes you don’t even need guidance as an actor, you have understood your role.
There is a certain dirt and grime in your cinema, be it Ishqiya or Udta Punjab or Sonchiriya. What attracts you to this kind of cinema?
I don’t consciously think too much about the reason why I’m attracted to such cinema – it is a reaction to what else is being made in the country. Everything is so clean and washed and plastic and antiseptic, so someone has to make something different. Also, it is just a matter of chance, I didn’t plan my career this way – in Dedh Ishqiya, things were clean and beautiful.
It is said that Arshad Warsi told you, ‘Why do I even bother to take a shower before coming to your sets, as I’m sure you are going to make me go through dirt.’ If that’s true, I’m sure he wouldn’t have liked to be a part of Sonchiriya.
(Laughs) He would have hated it. We love working with each other, and we are very fond of each other, but I’m sure he would have abused me every single day of this shoot. I keep meeting him at parties. I’m waiting to show the film to my Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya gang. I’m sure Naseeruddin Shah will love it, and Arshad will go ‘Kya banata hai yeh sab tu!’ You are working with Vishal Bhardwaj again, but this time he’s your music director. What was that like? I enjoy working with him, we are like family – he is like my elder brother. I joined the industry in 2002 and worked with him for 10 years, so his influence on my cinema is but natural. While working on music, he gives me the respect that a director deserves, he will sit with his harmonium and sing the songs and ask if I liked them or not. I would also share a compilation of songs of the era in which the film is set, and we would work on our music. So whenever we would have a music sitting, we would first sit for an hour and faff about, and probably then say ‘Chalo ab kuch kaam bhi kar lete hai.’
Sushant Singh Rajput and Bhumi Pednekar are very much today’s actors. How did you mould them for characters who were present back in the 1970s?
In fact, it has become easier with the current crop of actors, compared to actors who were working 20 years before them. Today’s young stars are much more open to new experiences and not caught up with their image… they want to explore new things and take risks. Take Alia Bhatt, for example – what a wild risk to take with Udta Punjab. It was something she wanted to do, I couldn’t even imagine if she could do it – she convinced me and that too so early in her career. After a very long time, we have an interesting mix of actors, who are balancing art and commerce really well.
You’ve started a production company with Honey Trehan. Will we see you produce more films like A Death in The Gunj?
I’m a filmmaker, so I want to exhaust myself as a director before I turn to production. Yes, Honey and I have a company… we’ve line produced Sonchiriya ourselves. In fact Honey is starting his own film as a director, with Ronnie (Screwvala), so for now, we are concentrating on our films, we are making films the way we want to so we know where does the money go and how.
You are heading into the web space post the film. What attracts you to the medium, and what is your take on the new self-censorship steps that most OTT players now want to take?
Ever since the beginning of the web series format in the country, I’ve always wanted to be a part of it, because it is a long format, it allows me the space to explore characters and explore situations in a much deeper way. Self-regulation on the internet will definitely change things … it is a little bit silly though, the internet is not something that can be controlled, not yet.
Since the 10-year challenge is all the rage, if you had to direct a film from the past 10 years, which one would it be?
Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. It is one of the best films Dibakar Banerjee has made.