WHEN ASKED recently about making too few movies, Quentin Tarantino justified his long-gestating projects with this bitesized piece of wisdom, “One bad movie lessens three good ones.” Vishal Bhardwaj (47), self-avowed Tarantino fanboy, is all too aware of this rule of the movie business. His last film, 7 Khoon Maaf, far too flawed for most critics to commend without qualification, lessened his earlier works. It fell in a dark hole between black comedy and macabre thriller and led to the filmmaker’s quest for a script dramatically different. So he wrote Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, a madcap comedy, which is a genre entirely new for him.
This is his Fellini-Kusturica moment, just like his earlier films referenced Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Federico Fellini’s 1973 film Amarcord is a comic drama set in a village in Italy which Bhardwaj turned into Mandola, a village in Haryana. He was also inspired by the absurdist flourishes of the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica. The allusions to world cinema that pepper his conversation are not meant to sound hip or snooty. It’s just that he continues to derive the same joy from a fine film that he first felt on seeing Krzystof Kieslo wski’s masterpiece The Decalogue, which was when he decided to become a filmmaker.
Two weeks before the release of Matru, we find Bhardwaj standing in the middle of the reception area in his office, a scraggly space that looks like a second-hand music shop with record boxes and instruments littered all around. He is on the phone explaining to a music executive that the opening line of Oye Boy Charlie, that rambunctious melody from Matru, is a surefire hook that the audience will love. “‘Nazar mein tu hi tu hai, Tu meri timbuktu hai’ is picturised on Pankaj Kapur serenading the pink buffalo, so nobody notices the lyric but we must push it in promos,” says Bhardwaj. He knows a hook better than most; he asked Gulzar to write lyrics around Dhan Te Nan for Kaminey, borrowing the thundering dramatic phrase from the bedtime stories he narrated to his son. The music of Matru, catchy and soulful, clever and fun, affirms the power of the long-standing collaboration between Gulzar and Bhardwaj.
He leads me to the sanctum of his office where the parts that make up his think tank are immediately evident. Music and literature jostle for space: a copy of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers sits on the desk along with Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines and Shakespeare’s King Lear, and one of the many copies he has of Urdu poet Bashir Badr’s collection of poetry. King Lear may be the play he will adapt to complete his famed trilogy. He does not know yet, the return to Shakespeare is still some time away. A beautiful piece of music is playing in the background, it is a recording of Bhardwaj on the tanpura.
Bhardwaj became a director just so that he could compose the music he wanted, music being an essential part of his storytelling
On the day we meet, he’s been working all night on the post-production of Matru, and has to tackle writing the climax of his next production Ek Thi Daayan, which is directed by one of his assistants. His secretary darts in to remind him of the meetings for the day and we start a freewheeling conversation that ranges from his nosy neighbours in Meerut to Gulabo, the pink buffalo, and feminism. He talks about his new film. “We haven’t explored the farcical comedy genre in our cinema. The closest I can explain this in our context is Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. All the characters are real, but they’re all crazy,” he says. The pink buffalo is a crucial part of the film and is part real, part computer- generated.
So, why would Vishal Bhardwaj take up a zany comedy when he is best known for sexing up violence in the badlands of northern India? The answer lies in his trajectory. As a music composer just finding his feet after the success of Maachis, he directed the offbeat children’s film Makdee set in a village with a witch (which Shabana Azmi prophesied would ruin his career before take-off ), an imperfect but promising beginning.
He then did the unexpected by placing Shakespeare’s Macbeth in an authentic underworld Mumbai setting with Maqbool. The film heralded the arrival of not only a new and astonishing talent but also of a new form of cinema. Actor and lyricist Piyush Mishra, whose first major part was in Maqbool, says the film was a game-changer. “After Satya in 1998, we were all waiting for the next big film, a film that would be new but also populist, that would make an uproar about the change in cinema and Maqbool was that film,” says Mishra.
After Maqbool, no one could have predicted that his next film would be the gem-like The Blue Umbrella, set in a small village in Himachal Pradesh with its idyllic and simple universe. It gave Pankaj Kapur, a stalwart hungry for good roles but overlooked by contemporary filmmakers, a part he could relish. Kapur, who plays Harry Mandola, a capitalist-turned-socialist in Matru, says that he’s amazed every time Bhardwaj calls him and offers him a role, that he trusts him enough to do justice to these characters.
OMKARA is the film that cemented his position as the most feted of directors. It made vernacular cool, was supported by the celebrity heft of big stars, was edgy and different but not to the extent of alienating mainstream audiences. The new wave had arrived and Vishal Bhardwaj was its face. With Kaminey, he shifted gears again, to a favoured Hollywood genre, the caper film, but imbued it with his distinct sensibility. The film was flawed but the characters so quirky and the atmosphere so thrilling that it masked the cracks. He has often been called an auteur, a term he shies away from, though his talent does seem almost unfairly boundless — writing, directing, composing and singing, creating a genre all his own. His wife, singer Rekha Bhardwaj, who often collaborates with him, says that he became a director just so that he could compose the sort of music he wanted and music is an essential part of his storytelling with the two passions feeding off each other.
His assistant and collaborator, Abhishek Chaubey who directed Ishqiya, which bore the Vishal Bhardwaj stamp, says that every film he does is different from the other, yet each film is “very Vishal in look and feel and dialogues and music and characters. He’s a multitasker who is full of ideas and we have fun jamming on scripts”. For Matru, the two of them travelled extensively in Haryana, stopping and meeting random farmers, after which they went to Vishal’s house in Mussoorie where they wrote the screenplay in solace. Chaubey feels Bhardwaj’s strength lies in creating milieus steeped in authenticity and atmosphere and unforgettable characters, like Abbaji (Maqbool), Langda Tyagi (Omkara), and Guddu and Charlie (Kaminey).
‘Girls would not look at me, but if I wasn’t from a Hindi-medium government school, I would not be the filmmaker I am’
His female characters deserve a mention. Nimmi (Maqbool), Sweety (Kaminey) and Indu (Omkara) are some of the strongest women seen on screen in recent Hindi cinema. Bhardwaj says it comes naturally to him. “My female characters always take initiative, take charge of emotions like Nimmi, initiating sex like Sweety. I feel men draw emotional strength from women who are much stronger.”
When it comes to industry hierarchies, Bhardwaj belongs to the high table of the most exciting directors of our times, his name often juxtaposed with Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, his peers in experience and accomplishment. But while Banerjee and Kashyap (to a lesser degree as he straddles both the cities and the heartland) represent the voice of urban angst and depravity, Bhardwaj’s cinema represents the other India — rooted, earthy. Film critic Shubhra Gupta says that Bhardwaj is not as new age-y as some of his contemporaries, “He tells a purer story because irony is not used as a weapon in his films, his is a more traditional, deeply vivid cinematic exposition.”
Long before the hinterland became cool, Vishal Bhardwaj helped us discover it through his cinema. Given his background, he understands the specificity of small towns the way only a few directors do. His father was a sugarcane inspector in Uttar Pradesh, who dabbled in writing lyrics for smalltime films. Bhardwaj grew up in Meerut with an aspiration to be a cricketer. “I have seen lots of gangsters, lots of street fights and been part of some fights myself.” He studied in an all-boys, Hindi-medium government school, “Girls wouldn’t look at me, you know, because I was not from an English-medium school. But now, I know if I had not studied in a government school, I would not be the filmmaker I am.” He describes his friends from school, a motley tribe made up of sons of traders whose fathers owned sari, chudi and paan shops, “My closest friends were from the slum near my house. I grew up playing gilli danda, kancha and cricket with them, and so I could never absorb or accept the class system in our society.” When he went to study at Delhi’s Hindu College, he discovered the headiness of freedom that a big city affords. “I think my journey has been very good, my experience turned out to be the perfect screenplay for my life,” he says.
As a filmmaker, his astuteness lies in how he mined his early life experience to create a new idiom in cinema. The mofussil, which was lost from our movies after the 1960s and ’70s, reappeared, faithful but snazzier. He attributes it to the fact that we are all great pretenders for whom the cool factor is the main thing, who love khichdi but pretend to like steak. In The Blue Umbrella there’s a canny reference to our subservience to English language and culture. Pankaj Kapur’s character buys a robotic fortune-telling toy, which predicts he will be the next Bill Gates. When he discredits it, the shopkeeper tells him, “Angrezi mein bhi jhooth bolta hai koi?” In that one line is packed his lifelong frustration with what he thinks of as our rejection of our roots.
For a director who started off with brilliantly intuitive casting in early films like Makdee (Shabana Azmi and Makrand Deshpande) and Maqbool (Pankaj Kapur, Irrfan Khan, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Tabu and Piyush Mishra), his working with big names in later films has raised questions about pandering to the star system.
An associate who has worked with him says on condition of anonymity, “My fear is that he is buying into the idea of being Vishal Bhardwaj, selling out in a way.” Undoubtedly, the purity of intent and vision seen in Maqbool was watered down in Omkara and further depleted with Kaminey. 7 Khoon Maaf should be left out of the reckoning as every director is allowed that one creative misstep: Kashyap has No Smoking, just like Spielberg has War of the Worlds. For Bhardwaj, Matru could represent a critical turning point.
To imagine Imran Khan as a Jat boy is a stretch but Bhardwaj says he told Imran, “If I can direct, then you can enact this. I never thought in my life that I would be a director. I knew nothing about lenses or cutting or camera left and camera right, but I understood that I knew nothing and needed to learn.” It is this image that one takes away of Vishal Bhardwaj, that most contrarian creature of the film industry — a self-effacing film director.
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.