After decades in the wilderness, Pankaj Advani’s comic genius finally finds an audience, says Trisha Gupta
IN MARCH 2001, an expectant audience of documentary filmmakers, earnestly cool film students and excited movie buffs gathered outside the India Habitat Centre auditorium in Delhi for the screening of a film called Urf Professor. It had just won the award for Best Film at the ongoing Digital Talkies International Film Festival, and the buzz about it was strong. That evening’s Habitat screening never took place, because the film failed to get a clearance from the Indian Board of Film Certification. But those in the know tumbled into auto rickshaws and friends’ cars to watch it at the much smaller British Council auditorium, a ‘private’ venue not governed by the Censor Board. The word about Pankaj Advani’s madcap genius has been travelling through the corridors of film schools ever since. So when Sankat City was released last week to pleasantly surprised reactions from reviewers happy to have stumbled upon a comedy that seemed a world away from the pizza-stuck on-the-ceiling sequences that pass for humour in the Hindi film industry, a tremor of anticipation ran through gatherings of film buffs, real and virtual: “It’s the guy who made Urf Professor!”
For a film that was never released, it seems an incredible feat for people to still be talking about it eight years after. But then, the world of Urf Professor was intensely memorable; a world where a perfectly planned murder runs into trouble because the hitman forgets his glasses, where a make-up man devotes his life to creating perfect corpses, where the demure, tongue-tied bride on her suhaag raat suddenly shocks a wannabe-liberal husband with a confession delivered in language that no Hindi film actress — before or since — has used. One italicizing writer on ‘Passion For Cinema’, a blog popular with independent cinema aficionados in India, vows that Urf Professor “is among the top three comedies of Hindi cinema made in the last 30 to 40 years”. “It was insanely funny, and radical for its time: its exploration of the city’s seamy side, its openness about sexuality, its use of extremely talented actors who were not stars,” remembers Aman Tulsian, a fan who watched the film on video seven years ago, with film school friends who’d got hold of it from a filmmaker. “Even its amorality had a certain appeal.”
BUT THOUGH the film travelled to a few festivals (winning the Best Editing award at the Kara Film Festival) and was once shown in a highly toned-down avatar on a latenight Zee TV slot, Advani’s deliciously dark, over-thetop comic vision has never really seen the light of day. And at least in that early, noholds- barred form, it probably never will. “I didn’t even think about the censors when I made Urf Professor,” admits Advani. “Partly I did what I wanted because I was making a digital film; the stakes were not that high. But mainly because I was enjoying myself so much.”
‘Pankaj Advani is our Tarantino; his characters are the scum of the earth,’ says Anurag Kashyap
Sankat City may not be anywhere near as outrageous as Urf Professor, but it’s clear that the 43-year-old Advani is still enjoying himself a great deal. The saltand- pepper hair, college professor glasses, faded Tshirt and even more faded jeans are perfect camouflage for a mind whose vision of the world is simultaneously darker than Anurag Kashyap’s and more manic than Kundan Shah’s. The ruthless universe of Urf Professor, where the hitman’s work was a job like any other — and people killed were just in the wrong place at the wrong time — is tempered in Sankat City, to the extent that there is a bad guy and conversely, characters the audience can root for. But anarchy still rules.
Visually and conceptually, Sankat City is a loving madcap tribute to the Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Stock characters — a car thief and a con-woman (think Kasme Vaade, Parvarish) — appear in superbly tweaked versions: the car thief is not slick and silent but a gullible loser, the con-woman is hard as nails, a far cry from the heart-of-gold gals played by Neetu Singh or Hema Malini. A film-within-the-film stars a flop actor called Gunmaster Gagan. A meteor mentioned early on plays an important role in the second half. There’s even the classic bichchhde bhai trope – the brothers separated at birth who must meet by movie’s end. “These are characters we’re familiar with, gestures, even dialogues we know. But what was done seriously in countless ’80s films, Pankaj does as parody, as farce,” says Kaykay Menon, who plays the car thief. And Advani’s enthusiasm is infectious. “You might be shooting for 12 to 14 hours at a stretch, but working with Pankaj, you will not feel it,” says Manoj Pahwa, who plays Professor in Urf Professor and B-movie producer Gogi in Sankat City. He recalls the time in Urf Professor when the unit was required to finish a shoot in Kandivili, get to a hotel in Bandra and set up and shoot the pivotal swimming pool sequence, all in the span of ninety minutes. “There was no time even for a second take. But in one take, what a kamaal ka scene he created!”
IT’S SOMETHING of a miracle that Advani has managed to sustain this legendary enthusiasm, considering just how long he’s had to wait for his scripts to be taken up by producers and just how many of his projects have fallen through. (Apart from Urf Professor, there was Lovaria, co-written with Kundan Shah, that never got released and a TV series called Photo Studio that he conceived, wrote and directed for BiTV, only to have the channel fold before it could be aired.) Perhaps it helps that at every stage, Advani has known what he didn’t want to do. Having studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Baroda’s MS University and film editing at Pune’s Film and Television Institute, Advani was certain that all he really wanted was to write film scripts. And the person from whom he wanted to learn how to was Kundan Shah, writer and director of the cult satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983).
‘I met the actors and producers of sex and horror films, daku films, Tarzan films,’ says Advani happily
“Pankaj called me from Dadar Station,” remembers Shah. “I said, ‘Baba, I don’t have a job for you,’ but he said, ‘I am coming.’ ” “He thought I wanted an editing job,” grins Advani. “But I just wanted to write with him.” That was 1989. The two went on to collaborate on several projects, including Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993), a romantic comedy starring Shah Rukh Khan as a loveable loser, for which Advani was co-writer.
In 1993, he approached the Children’s Film Society of India with a script for a fantasy-adventure film about “separations and reunions, chases and mishaps, slapstick and magic, trains and cars and road rollers”. Starring Ratna Pathak Shah, Shri Vallabh Vyas and child actor Imad Dalal, Sunday (1994) won two National awards and was shown on television, but never got a commercial release.
Frustrated with the vagaries of film distribution, Advani, who had sworn never to do “boring TV work”, made “one good move”: he went to Channel V, which was then just starting to produce India-specific content. He ended up doing two TV programmes that have fed into his later work: a series of slightly surreal silent shorts called Bheja Fry, with the likes of Shankar Mahadevan and Silk Route starring as well as providing music and Toofan TV, a series about Indian B movies. “I got to meet the actors, directors and producers of sex films, horror films, daku films, Tarzan films,” says Advani happily.
This fascination with the underbelly of the film industry goes hand in hand with an interest in the underbelly of the city, and both are crucial to Advani’s style of cinema. “He is our Tarantino equivalent; his characters are people on the fringes – the scum of the earth, the garbage of the city,” says Anurag Kashyap, who first met Advani sometime in 1994 when Kashyap was writing for Saeed Mirza and decided to walk into Kundan Shah’s office next door. “There’s a genuine pulp feel to his movies. Even when the plot revolves around money, the amount in question is negligible,” Kashyap points out. “What Pankaj always wants to achieve is a certain madness, a whirlpool in which people are caught,” says Kundan Shah. “In that sense — not literally of course — he makes the same film over and over again.” We hope to catch version 4.