Big Stories From A Small-Town Man

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Barfi! may hit the sweet spot with critical acclaim and box office sales, but director Anurag Basu didn’t get it on a silver platter, says Sunaina Kumar

Photo: Vinit Bhatt

ANURAG BASU is used to being driven to his knees. His reputation as a director was shot to pieces after his last film, Kites. It was meant to be the feather in his cap after a string of successes like Murder, Gangster and Life in a…Metro. Despite the debacle, Basu has managed a marquee star like Ranbir Kapoor and backing from a big producer like UTV for his next project. This is when Barfi! is far from being ‘saleable’. The two stars portray characters who are differently-abled — Priyanka Chopra has been deglamorised to the point of being unrecognisable, Pritam’s soundtrack is tuneful, but devoid of the obligatory chartbuster. Some may ask, Mr Basu, show us the money.

“What is the worst that can happen? It will not work. I would not be heartbroken. When you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you feel less scared of failing,” says the 37-year-old director in his office that looks more like a cosy living room filled with antique wooden furniture.

In 2004, Basu and his wife Taani were expecting their first child. This was the time when Murder, his second film, had become a huge hit and he was to start shooting his next. And then one day, while on the sets, he started spewing blood. He was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Basu did not take his illness seriously till the day Mahesh Bhatt broke down in hospital. That’s when he knew he was facing certain death. A pivotal scene in Life in a…Metro shows Nafisa Ali die in a traffic jam. He wrote that from his experience of nearly suffocating in an ambulance amid a traffic jam. “Please don’t let me die in traffic,” he kept telling himself. He remembers wanting “to live for another six months, so I could see my baby. My parents and my wife treated me normally. There was no crying and a Kishore Kumar song was always playing by my bedside.” His only regret then was not saving enough for his family, “not movies, not fame, which had always been my priority”.

After his treatment, he could find no work. Producers, who had signed him after Murder,reneged on their contracts. He took on any sub-standard television work that came his way, even signing a film for a B-grade producer till the Bhatts decided to take a chance on him. Gangster, a film inspired by the Abu Salem-Monica Bedi romance, had all the elements that have come to define Basu’s brand of cinema — sound performances, lyrical camerawork, uplifting soundtrack, heightened drama and a taut pace. In short, a story well told.

Music has been an important component of his cinema. Gangster and Metromainstreamed the sound of rock music in cinema, and now Barfi! has a sound that is retro but so new. “He pushes and pushes till you are out of your comfort zone, and give your best. I was tempted to insert a hit song in Barfi!, but he told me that he wants music that will stop people in their tracks to check and see if I really am the music composer,” says Pritam.

Basu’s mentor Mahesh Bhatt refers to him fondly as “my boy” and one of the finest directors from their stable. “I’d noticed his capacity to draw brilliant performances, his stylistic superiority and an emotional quotient intrinsically Indian, not inspired by world cinema. After his illness, the emotional depth in his filmmaking flowered along with the thirst to express himself.” His need to tell stories is overwhelming. While working on a film, he keeps writing two-page stories. Some get converted into scripts and some are kept aside for a proposed book of short stories.

Life in a…Metro, another important film for Basu that interwove stories of urban angst, put him in the extraordinary league, where he continues to be, the dark horse in the roll call of young, independent-minded directors like Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Imtiaz Ali. He says, “The key may be that people who grow up in Delhi and Mumbai find their references in cinema. We, the small-town men, find our references in life.” He wears the small-town boy identity with the vernacular accent as a badge of honour. In Metro, he put a bit of himself in Irrfan Khan’s character. “His mannerism is like mine. I have this very bad small-town habit of leching at women, an auto passes with an attractive woman and I have to turn my head and look. My wife barely tolerates it.”

Basu grew up in Bhilai, a small town in Chhattisgarh. His father was an employee in a steel plant and his mother a teacher, and together their passion was an amateur theatre group called Abhiyaan. Most of his childhood was spent in the green room, trekking across different parts of the country for performances, and growing up with a theatre person’s condescending attitude towards cinema. In Barfi!, he has woven his life’s experiences. “Barfi! is a combination of telling bedtime stories to my children, and working with NGOs after my illness. After my diagnosis, I went to Bhilai. Three of my teachers have started a school there for autistic children, called Muskaan. Being there, doing workshops with them has been a life-changing experience. You inhale life and exhale cinema.”

He dropped out of engineering to study Physics at Bombay University and started with amateur theatre in college, acting, writing and directing. “Anurag Kashyap has seen me act and offers me a role in every film, even one in Gangs of Wasseypur. We’ve done many platform performances at Prithvi Theatre.” Those early days, he hung out with fellow strugglers and tried to force his way into sets as an extra, a dancer, a make-up assistant and a camera assistant, till he landed the job of an assistant director and at 22, became the director of India’s first soap opera, Tara. Siddharth Roy Kapoor, CEO of UTV Motion Pictures, says that Basu is one of the most talented directors working with them. “He has a beautiful sense of relationships and human drama.” It is this confidence that has made them back the proposed Kishore Kumar biopic that Basu is working on with Ranbir Kapoor. There is also talk of a script on Anand Kumar of Super 30 fame. With Barfi!, Basu, the master of thrillers, has taken up an unfamiliar genre. There is trepidation.

“We’re unsure of what works with the audience. One tries to push the envelope, but also tweak the script to make it commercial.” The film is a celebration of life and love, a story he felt he had to write after the second chance given to him.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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