"For me, the definition of success has changed over the years"
An 'outsider', director, writer and producer Anubhav Sinha made all sorts of film – romantic, action, comedy, romantic comedy and a superhero film. But Mulk – a political thriller which he directed -- gave him everything that he always aspired for – applause, accolades, awards, box-office success and critical acclaim.
When my friend Anubhav Sinha was making Mulk, a 'political film', no one gave him money. But he still went ahead and made the film. This is probably why he calls himself pompous! He was in Lucknow recently to shoot his upcoming film Article 15. He came down to our 'Slow' campus for a slow and leisurely interview. He felt at home here because he confessed sometimes, he feels like running away from Mumbai. Anubhav is someone who does not hesitate to talk about politics, which is a refreshing change, especially when everyone in Bollywood tries to be politically correct. Though he is an open book, yet it was fun to unravel the real Anubhav Sinha in 'The Slow Interview'.
Me: What is your state of mind at this point in time in life?
Anubhav: My state of mind is like how life in a village is – slow, peaceful, expansive and widespread.
Me: As you grow old, your perspective changes. Things that used to be important to you, no longer seem that important after a while. Is this happening to you as well?
Anubhav: Yes, since past 10 years.
Anubhav: I sometimes feel I should have a house outside Mumbai where I could escape. The mad rush, the hunger to achieve something, the desire to be on the top, all this is still intact. But I am more at peace now. This is the biggest change. Now I feel one should keep working, one should keep doing good work. You will keep getting platforms to showcase that work.
Me: It's a slight sense of good detachment?
Anubhav: Yes, it's actually not even detachment. It's the ability to stop back just a bit. Just be a little outside of the orbit and see things. This way you are still inside the orbit, you are still playing the same game, but you are not getting hassled about things, so you are not being pushed around. You are playing your own game in your space. So, you are actually between two orbits – the violent orbit and the absolutely detached, meditative orbit. Somewhere in between.
Me: How were you as a person earlier?
Anubhav: People keep asking me these things – what was the turning point in your career? Tell us about the kind of films you are making. For me, the definition of success has also changed. Initially success for me meant comparison. I would compare – whose film is bigger? Mine or Sanjay Gupta's? Mine or Rohit Shetty's? Now success to me means if I am making a film, I should feel happy about it. I should enjoy the process. So, that's the difference between the state of mind then and now. Earlier I would think a lot about whose film has made how much money at the box office, who has signed which superstar, who is releasing which film with how many prints.
Me: Would you get jealous?
Anubhav: Yes, you could call it jealousy. Actually, I wasn't really jealous of these people. I was just being competitive. I was jealous of Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vishal Bhardwaj, Hansal Mehta. I was competing with them. I won, I lost. But I wasn't jealous of them.
Me: Do you think at any point in your life you were sensitive or empathetic towards people?
Anubhav: Yes. So, what happens is once you step out of that violent orbit, you get a better perspective of life. You only see yourself when you are inside that violent orbit and then you see people who are right in front of you and right behind you. It's a blind race. When you step out of the orbit, you see society at large. You also see from your car people sleeping on footpaths. You see their hands and feet dangling out of footpaths. You will not see all this if you are busy on your WhatsApp. You start questioning why are these people sleeping on footpaths? Why do so many people come to Mumbai? Why do they live such pathetic lives? They don't get a place to stay, they don't get food to eat, they don't have proper washrooms. They drive autos. They get abused by us. Some of them become watchmen. They work in two shifts. So, you start seeing all these things. And it's very important to see this side of the world all the time. It's painful though. But it's important. Because you spend a lot of time on unnecessary things. You give undue attention to a lot of things. There are privileged people in this world who got an opportunity to study, they got to see the world. People like you and me. It's our responsibility to also look into the other world.
Me: Take me to Allahabad where you were born.
Anubhav: I was born in Kamla Nehru Hospital in Allahabad. I obviously don't have any memories of that! I was nine-month old when my father got transferred. We went to a place called Dhikala near Garhwal. There is a place called Kalagarh where there was a temporary colony where they were building a dam.
Me: What was your father's area of work?
Anubhav: My father was into finance and account. The kayasths are known to be Yamraj's accountants! We came to Allahabad when I was in sixth standard. Then when I was in seventh, I think in 1976, we went to Banaras. All my growing up memories, all my acquisitions pertaining to my habits, my nature are associated with Banaras. After that I went to Aligarh to study.
Me: What did you study at AMU?
Anubhav: I did my engineering. Mechanical engineering.
Me: Oh engineering.
Anubhav: When you are in high school, in eleventh standard, every father wishes his children should take up medical or engineering. I was petrified of blood, so I took up engineering. I wrote entrance exam … got selected.
Me: I think I dealt with this situation very smartly! My father wanted me to be a doctor. I was studying in a school here. I took Biology. I was also very scared of blood and dissecting frogs. Once there was a parent-teacher meeting. Mrs Mishra was our class teacher. She was there, my father was there. Within few minutes, I dropped the bomb that I am not interested in Biology. There was long silence! My dad looked worried as there were two more years to go – 11th and 12th. By the time we came out, my father had devised a plan. He said if you get first division, I will let you do what you want to do, else you will have to listen to me. That was very smart of him because UP board is tough to crack! So, basically, he ensured that I study a lot for the next two years. I did, and secured first division. He also kept his promise. I opted for Arts and went to Nainital to study History, Political Science and Literature. And then my life changed forever.
Anubhav: No, I wasn't this smart! So, after completing my engineering, I worked for one year. But, as soon as I started working, I realised that was not what I wanted to do.
Me: Where were you working?
Anubhav: In Faridabad. Before that I got through Air Force, but I didn't opt for that.
Me: Oh! Why?
Anubhav: I didn't feel like taking up something that would leave me clueless about my life 20 years from then. Somehow my father agreed. When I look back, I think my father was being very brave. I started working in a private company. I didn't want to take up a government job. I was sure about that.
Me: Why do you call your father a brave man?
Anubhav: Because he went along with my decision of not taking up the Air Force job. It was a prestigious offer. I would have started of with a good package, something I wouldn't have got even after four-five years of engineering job. I would have earned a lot. Maybe Rs 2-5 lakh, which was a huge amount back then. But he went along with my decision. I came here and worked for a year. But then I left that job as well. I didn't tell my parents. I was in Delhi. I was aimlessly wondering. It took me one year to arrive at the decision that I wanted to make movies. Then I went to my place and informed my parents that I had not been working for a year and that I wanted to make movies. I told them I wanted to go to Mumbai. My father agreed, but my mother sulked for a day. This is why I call him brave. That time I felt that he gave me the permission to go to Mumbai, but in hindsight I feel that was a very brave decision. When I won the 'Best Film' award for Mulk, at the Star Screen Awards, I took that trophy and gave it to my father. I thanked him for allowing me to go to Mumbai. I told him that I have made the best film of this year. This is about this film. You know the rest. There is lot of TV, lot of music videos.
Me: So, how has your journey been. Did you feel scared to do big things?
Anubhav: No, I was never scared of anyone. When I look back, the kind of things I have done, I should be petrified! But I wasn't scared of anyone. Like, when I was working on Sea Hawks, I made 72 successful episodes. Then Zarina and I had some differences, so I quit the show. Then I did some music videos.
Me: That was a new chapter. The golden era of non-films. Tell me more about that era.
Anubhav: I really wanted to film a song. I just felt like it. So, there was this music company called Megnasound. One day I got a call from them. They gave me a Sonu Nigam song for conceptualisation. I gave them the concept in two pages. I had a meeting with Sonu Nigam and he readily agreed. We shot the song which had lot of visual effects, but they didn't come out well. So, I was very sad. I felt I would not get any offers. But the day it was telecast, the entire country went mad.
Me: Which one was this? Deewana?
Anubhav: Tu … Bipasha. After that all the music companies wanted to work with me. It became a trend and I managed to make a place for myself. People started calling me music video mogul and what not. This went on for 2-3 years, then I got bored with it because all the songs started sounding the same. I was shooting for a Bhushan Kumar song. I was very disinterested. He asked me if I wanted to make a film. I yes said, I came to Mumbai just to make films. He asked me if I had a story. I had one. Bhushan was in Delhi then. I met him after two days. I narrated him my story and he agreed to make that film. Bhushan's vision was that there should be 7-8, 10-12 songs in the film. I didn't have any hang ups. I just wanted to make a film. So, I made Tum Bin which was liked a lot. I had fun making it. I didn't read any of the reviews. Khalid Mohammad, who was working with The Times of India then, was a big critic then. I was waiting for his review. I still remember I went to Holiday Inn to read the newspaper at 3-4 in the morning. I opened the newspaper. Two films had released that Friday -- Aks and Tum Bin. Aks had Amitabh Bachchan and Manoj Bajpayee in lead roles. It was a Rakesh Mehra film. So, it got good reviews. The title of my review was 'Tum thin'! He felt the storyline was too thin. That was his assessment. But people really liked that film. They loved the music. Mine and Khalid's journey started from there in 2001 and ended in 2018. One day I was sitting at my home after Mulk released. I got a call from Khalid. He said, "Hi, my name is Khalid Mohammad." I replied, "It's that The Khalid Mohammad?" He laughed and said, "yes". He praised the film a lot. That's how we came the full circle.
There is a very interesting story. It was my first or second night in Mumbai. I only knew one man in Mumbai – Virendra Saxena, the actor. He took me to Lekh Tandon, the writer. He had some work there. He talked to me. He asked me what kind of film I wanted to make? That was a very defining conversation. This conversation happened in December 1990. This conversation has stayed with me. It will end only when I will hang my boots. I had told him then that I wasn't sure what kind of film I wanted to make and that if I get an offer, I would love to make a political film. He told me I would never become a director. Just imagine! It was my second day in Mumbai. I had left my job. And here there was a director, whom I respected, who said I would not become a director. I was actually scared! I asked him the reason. He said a director should know what exactly he wants to do. I felt he was wrong. But Lekh Tandon obviously knew more than me! I still don't know whether what he said that day was right or wrong. So, eventually I made a political film. I am making one more and then a third one. I don't know what will I make. I didn't stop at anything. I made a love story, I made a romantic comedy, then I made an action film, then I made Cash, then I made a super-hero film with Shah Rukh Khan and then I made Mulk. But this was something I was doing earlier as well, but then nobody noticed it. When I made Mulk, people started calling me versatile! I still have this conversation with Lekh saab. I still don't know whether I am a director or not! I mean I make films, but I am not sure if I have made a place in the history of filmmaking. I keep trying. This is my biggest strength. I am not so humble.
Me: I wanted to ask you this. Are you humble?
Anubhav: No, I am very pompous. I am very pompous when it comes to my publicity. I mean, I am not rude to people, I am not rude to my life. I am very grateful. I love my life, my friends. But I am pompous when it comes to what I can actually do. At least from within. I am saying this without any humility. And my biggest strength is that I can maintain this humility. Irrespective of the fact that people shower praises on me, I received so many awards for Mulk, I still don't accept the fact that I am now a director. I will feel good about the fact that I made a good film, which people liked. This is my new film. Then I will make more new films. So, this is my strength and I take pride in it. I don't have to put any effort for this.
Me: Yes. Mumbai is a hub for cinema. You can easily get carried away and start taking yourself too seriously.
Anubhav: Like I said, I went crazy after Tum Bin. Every hero wanted to work with me, every producer wanted to work with me.
Me: Did your habits change because of this?
Anubhav: Sadly, yes. Like I said, if you trace my journey, Kalagarh, Aligarh, middle-class father, he retired with a salary of Rs 12-14,000. And then I suddenly met people whose movies I had watched in theatres after buying tickets standing in long queues. Suddenly they wanted to work with me. So, all this attention got to me. I made Dus and it's set up wasn't easy. There were four big heroes in that. Three were big stars. Zayad Khan was coming up. So, who was making such films? An outsider who had nothing to do with the film industry. When I had arrived in Mumbai, I just had one phone number – Virendra Saxena's.
There is an interesting story. Vishal was supposed to compose the music of Shikast. But he fell sick and my producer and I, we couldn't crack a deal. So, Vishal could not do the film. Gulzar saab had gifted me a nazm for that show. So, for the title sequence I needed a nazm from Gulzar saab. Vishal knew him. He is my friend. So, when I requested Vishal to help me out, Vishal, Rekha and I went to Gulzar saab's house. I was making a pilot and I wanted Naseer bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) to recite that. He used to help me a lot. If I needed any advice, I would always go to him. He would offer me tea and food on shoots. When we went to Gulzar saab, he asked me to make the pilot first, which he would see and then decide if he would give me the nazm or not. He said we would discuss finances later. I made the pilot and requested Naseer bhai to dub it. Naseer, Rekha and I then went to Gulzar saab. Rekha and I waited downstairs and Gulzar saab and Vishal went up to see the pilot. He offered us biscuits from Kayani bakery in Pune. Rekha and I sat chatting. After 25 minutes they came down. He hugged me and said this is your struggle and this is my contribution to your struggle. That's how that nazm was gifted to me!
Anubhav: But, what did I narrate this story to you? I was telling you something else!
Me: How was it to work with Shah Rukh Khan?
Anubhav: I would always tell Shah Rukh when I was shooting with him that for me, getting to understand him was more important than making Ra.One with him. I have never met someone like Shah Rukh. He is the only star I know from close quarters. For me, it's very important that I keep knowing him. I get to learn a lot from him. I learn a lot from him.
Anubhav: Lot of things like belief, hard work. Before I met Shah Rukh, I used to think that I was the most hard working man in this world. When I met him, I realised he is my baap (father)! I have stolen chivalry from him. He is very chivalrous. He takes care of people, he offers them water, he offers them food, he walks with them to their cars, he opens the door of the car, he personally sees them off. He is another level. His relentlessness is outstanding. So, if I don't get to make another film with Shah Rukh, I won't have any regrets, but it's important for me to continue to know him. Talking about Ra-one, it was a new thing for me, it was a new thing for Shah Rukh. Our friendships saw many ups and downs them. It happens in all films.
Me: Does it happen that after a film releases, that day director, actor … do they indulge in blame game.
Anubhav: Yes, it does happen. It's sad. Friendships turn sour because of this. But if the outcome is good, people bond. So, when I make films, I am very scared of this thing. You befriend lot of people while making a film, but if the outcome is not good, those friendships end. But when I manage to make a good film, it's all worth it. So, I always try to make a good film, because everyone makes money. People go out of their limits to make it better. They are all following your vision and if your vision is not right, you indirectly betray them and that's not a good feeling. So, like in case of Ra.One I feel it could have been way batter. I betrayed a lot of people.
Me: Do you feel that?
Anubhav: Yes, yes. I betrayed Shah Rukh, I betrayed my son.
Anubhav: He loves it! But you know, I wanted to hear good things about it from all across. He hears about Mulk. Everybody who knows films says good things to him about Mulk. I wanted that to happen regarding Ra-One too. And that is my betrayal for my son and to Shah Rukh and to each and every individual who helped me make that film. So, at the end of the day, the onus is on me because I am sitting on that chair. I know a lot of people, I meet a lot of people. It's a very strange film in my career. The percentage of people who love it and hate it are 50-50. It's not 55-45. It's 50-50. They either love it or they hate it. Till date I am not aware. Shah Rukh says he made his money. Kishore Lulla (Eros) made his money. So, going by that logic, it's a successful film. It's liked by 50% of people. There were two producing partners, they too made money. So maybe it was a good film. People come up to me and ask me to make a sequel. So, I guess it's a success. There was so much negativity in the industry about this film. I think they wanted Shah Rukh to flop once. They desperately wanted him to flop once.
Anubhav: I don't know. He is too …
Me: He is infallible.
Anubhav: He still is a star. He is Shah Rukh Khan. You can't be Shah Rukh Khan. Shah Rukh Khan can continue to make flops for fifteen years and still remain Shah Rukh Khan. It's not for competitors to deal with it. And I don't think it has anything to do with being talented. It's also the fourth dimension of an actor which goes beyond logic. So, you know some of our actors are not that great looking, they are not that good actors, but they are huge stars. That's the fourth dimension of an actor. When an actor can reach out of the screen into the theatre and touch you, that is important. So, I could feel the negativity around Ra-One. I could feel it in the air. We had BBM then. What'sApp was very new. People were spewing venom. One of Shah Rukh's friend mailed him -- I don't want to name him – he ended up writing on Twitter: 'I just heard a Rs 100-crore fire cracker go burst'. This happens when you celebrate other people's failures.
Me: This is what you were talking about earlier.
Anubhav: When people call me successful, it's strange. Especially when these people are your friends.
Me: Tell me about your father's stories.
Anubhav: He suffered a brain stroke. He has managed to recover fully, but still sometime he goes into the past. One day he was telling me a story. The year was 1938, when he was 6 …
Me: I have seen this in old people. They have very sharp memory.
Anubhav: Their short-tern memory is poor. They won't remember what happed day before yesterday, but they would remember what happened in 1942. And these are the things that I have never discussed with my father. We were not very close to our father. We were scared of him. My son calls me 'bro'! But it wasn't like this before. We couldn't even touch our father.
Me: I recently wrote a story called embrace. You met him only during Holi?
Anubhav: We would touch his feet on Holi. We could never hug him. That wasn't a part of our upbringing.
Me: What do you two talk about now?
Anubhav: Cricket, politics, family. We discuss my younger brother, my younger sister. We talk about complaints, inspiration. He knows lot more about my film than I know about them. He watches all the shows on television. We subscribe to trade magazines. He read those. He knows everything about business of cinema. We talk about everything under the sun. It's fun. It's been 1.5 months that I have met him.
Me: In a city like Mumbai, its difficult to maintain relationships and enrich and nurture them. Are you able to manage that?
Anubhav: No. I mean I know lot of people who follow that American concept. Their children stay away from parents. Maybe my son will also do this. But I don't understand this concept.
Me: Are you still a Banarasi at heart?
Anubhav: Yes, and I feel happy about it! I don't find it to be backward. This is what we are about. This is our Indian-ness. This is our culture. These are our values. So, I am not ashamed of the fact. You are getting restless. You want to walk around?
Me: Let's go on a walk. You have seen both success and failure.
Anubhav: It happened many time … 3-4 times. People wrote me off. They said Anubhav will never be able to make a film again.
Me: When a film fails or is not a commercial hit, is the director made to stand in an invisible witness box?
Anubhav: If he is honest enough, he will stand in his own witness box! If he is dishonest, he will find way to justify failure. But how hard you try, deep inside you still know what went wrong. But it's business. Capital investment is an art form. It's difficult to raise that kind of money again. It's difficult to convince someone all over again that you will make a good film. It's back-breaking.
Me: How did you pick yourself up when you realised you won't be able to make movies?
Anubhav: Not me! People said I could not make movies! I told you I am a pompous man. I will make films. No one can stop me!
Me: I sometimes wonder it's so difficult. You saw many highs in your career. But there are so many people who wait for years to make one film. These are such strange journeys. What do people do in between? How do they make a living?
Anubhav: I don't know! Different people have different ways to deal with it. But those who want to make movies, they can't do anything else. All they can do is make movies. You can tell someone at a gunpoint not to make movies. That person will say shoot me. It's a kind of intoxication. It's like a deep desire. Call it passion, there are no options in this.
Me: How did you keep your passion alive for so many years?
Anubhav: If you have to keep your passion alive, they it's not a passion, right? Passion will keep itself alive. It will never let you die. You don't have to do anything to keep your passion alive. Post Ra-One, people in the industry would say this guy made a flop film for Shah Rukh. In 2011, it made 1.25 crore. Even then it was dubbed a flop. There was so much negativity. It was little difficult and heart-breaking. I put my heart and soul into it. I made mistakes. But then, which film is perfect?
Me: You sent a message across through Mulk. You were active on the social media. Now you have disappeared.
Anubhav: Can I abuse people on this show? I didn't feel like interacting with those idiots! I was on it because I would meet people like Neelesh or Hansal. I want to know what is Neelesh up to? I want to know if Neelesh has written a new poem or if Hansal has recommended a new film. And then I commented on ills our society. Then I commented on politics. So, there was a scope for discussion. But when you have to deal with machines on the social media, it's difficult. It wasn't a good experience. I think I will come back when these machines will die. I will talk to Neelesh on SMS or I will WhatsApp him.
Me: Did you make Mulk as a concerned citizen?
Anubhav: Yes, Mulk is purely from a concerned citizen. A concerned citizen who is very angry.
Me: What were you upset about?
Anubhav: Generally, things that are happening around us. If you notice, there is not a single political character in Mulk. Mulk is about us. I was angry with all of us. I was angry with the Muslims and the Hindus. I was that concerned citizen who was feeling responsible. I wanted to tell people, "This is wrong, fix it." I wanted to tell people that where they are headed, there are no roads. There is an unscalable wall. You will not be able to break it. We all have to live here. Handful of people instigate you and you start flighting. You are out on the streets wielding swords and guns. Suddenly a cow is the most important animal in our country! We see so many cows on the highways, so many cows around us are eating plastic. No one is bothered about these cows. I was angry about all this.
Me: I have heard that when you were making Mulk, for 1.5 months you didn't even know how would you finance it.
Anubhav: I didn't have money 15-20 days prior to Mulk happened. Pre-production work was happening in my office. I put my money into it and was looking to raise money. No one was giving me money. They said on one will watch such a film. Finally, Deepak Mukut invested in this film. I am so happy that he got his money back. He even made some money. We all earned some respect. No one wanted to make Mulk, but now that it's successful, everyone wants to make Mulk.
Me: Yes, the herd mentality.
Anubhav: No one wants to take up something unprecedented. Actually, our producers need to get more film lovers. In many cases there are, but in lot of cases, there are not many movie lovers.
Me: Do you sometimes feel like disappearing from Mumbai?
Anubhav: Yes, 100%. But I am not able to figure out where. I though of going abroad. But then culturally those countries are very different. I will get bored. If you step outside your home in India, people will discuss khichadi or wheat! What will I discuss abroad? I can go travel. But I am still finding that place where I can go. I am finding a home somewhere, where I can go for a while. I want to do what you have done here. You have a fantastic house here. Have you name this place Slow?
Me: Yes. This place is called Slow. Here, life comes to a standstill.
Anubhav: Everything is slow here! Life should be slow. We are all running. We get tired commuting from Andheri to Juhu. The traffic is sickening.
Me: It was fun interacting with you!
Anubhav: I enjoyed too. This was an incredible experience. Kadhi-chawal, tea and such amazing conversation.
Text: Swati Subhedar