Student politics, gangsters and now a near perfect biopic. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s success has been a long time coming, says Sunaina Kumar
LOOKING BACK, 2003 seems like a significant year for Bollywood. Big-ticket releases like Munnabhai MBBS, Kal Ho Naa Ho jostled with new-fangled multiplex films like Jhankaar Beats and Joggers’ Park. The one film which could, or should, have been the year’s talking point for preceding a genre was not noticed at all. It took a cluster of similar films like Maqbool (2004), Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) and Gulaal (2009) for Tigmanshu Dhulia’s debut feature Haasil to finally be recognised as a cult film. A heartland story with guns and gangsters set in the world of student politics, it addressed real India, before the genre became a fad. The filmmaker, however, did not make it to the exalted league of Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bhardwaj and the older vanguards, Sudhir Mishra and Prakash Jha.
It was the worst of times. For seven years after his second film Charas: A Joint Operation (2004), a misguided effort set in the world of drug cartels, Tigmanshu Dhulia did not direct a single film. He got himself a Labrador puppy and named him Action. That was the closest he got to feeling in control of his destiny, being able to say “Action” through the day. And then, as if to make up for that rather lean period, in the past 10 months, there have been three releases by him. In the summer of last year came out Shagird, a sound and fury cop drama with Nana Patekar playing a gun-toting eccentric, followed by Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster, a twist on the Guru Dutt classic with under-realised potential. As if both films were a warm up to the real thing — Paan Singh Tomar. The closest we have come to making a near-perfect biopic.
In the right order of things, Paan Singh Tomar should have been his first film. He’s been brewing the idea since 1991, when he first read of the athlete-turned-renegade in a newsweekly. As casting director for Bandit Queen, he shot with Shekhar Kapur in Chambal Valley, and was familiar with the hostile terrain. Even then, the research was backbreaking work, with only one solid lead, the name of Paan Singh’s village, Morena. Following stray clues, he managed to trace Paan Singh’s family, army colleagues and gang members, culminating in an interview with his nephew and gang member Balwanta, an active dacoit who insisted on meeting in the cover of the night in achai shop on the highway. Kapur, who has been enthusiastically tweeting about Paan Singh Tomar, says Dhulia is very much aware of what is happening in India now. “His inspiration is so Indian and so pure, it’s new wave but not derived from any other cinema.Paan Singh Tomar manages to be authentic and yet entertain in the realm of commercial cinema. And Tigmanshu manages to extricate great performances from every actor.”
Dhulia tells the story with practised ease, he’s had to repeat it ad nauseum since the movie released. On a Sunday afternoon, he sits in his bedraggled office in Andheri. There is no fancy furniture, the sofas have been chewed by Sahiba, a stray dog rescued by him. The posters on the walls are the only indulgence. Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the usual posters from a fanboy collection. There is a poster of The Beatles. He owns three guitars and in another life, before becoming a filmmaker, taught the late Amit Saigal, his friend from Allahabad, how to strum the strings.
Ultimately, Dhulia aspires to be a politician. ‘You can’t change society by making films. Making films is the easy part,’ he says
It’s this other life that opens the window to the man and the filmmaker. Dhulia, 44, was born and raised in Allahabad. In the ’80s, it was the cultural capital of the Hindi belt, with high-minded progressives and a Nehruvian sense of elite. Dhulia’s father was a judge in the Allahabad High Court and a secretary of the Students’ Federation of India, student wing of the CPM, and his mother a professor of Sanskrit. The youngest of three brothers — one joined the navy, one is a judge in the Uttarakhand High Court — he is the only one to have betrayed the family tradition. “Whatever I am today is because of those dinner table conversations,” he says.
At Allahabad University, he joined the students’ movement, as member of the pro-Left Progressive Students’ Organisation. He wrote revolutionary songs and organised street plays. Student politics then was powerful and volatile. Haasil, which was set in his hometown, was a tribute to that time. Every film since is imbued with a sense of politics. He aspires, ultimately, to be a politician. “I want to do something for the people. You can’t change society by making films. Making films is the easy part,” he says. He adds with mock seriousness that politics will come after he’s completed 16 films, as predicted by his astrologer. Five are done, 11 more to go.
His friend Amaresh Misra, writer and member of Congress who studied with him in school and college, mentions a strange duality from their growing up years. “Being Allahabadi was about being macho, bakaiti (bragging among the friends). But our evenings were dedicated to world cinema and music. We watched classics by Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorcese. Our love for street brawls was matched by our love for culture.” Dhulia’s films are a testimony to those “macho days”. Except for Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster, it is the men who carry the action forward.
AFTER COLLEGE, he studied acting at the National School of Drama in Delhi, realised he’s a bad actor and theatre has no scope, and soon worked with Ketan Mehta on Sardar and Pradip Krishen on Electric Moon, followed by a stint in television, where he directed Just Mohabbat and Star Bestsellers, just before the advent of saas-bahu soaps.
Irrfan Khan, who trained with Dhulia at the National School of Drama and has collaborated with him on every project since, says that as an actor himself, he understands performance and the material he writes is so rich that there is always room to delve and explore. The entire cast of Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster opted to not take a fee, as Dhulia was producing the film. He promised himself a quick film after the intensive process of Paan Singh Tomar, and pulled in Randeep Hooda and Jimmy Shergill, who play table tennis in his office every evening, for the main leads.
His approach to filmmaking seems almost improvised, DIY. The films worked because of his instinct for storytelling, a reason they’re not as stylised as the works of his contemporaries. After Paan Singh Tomar, he feels responsible, as if he can’t just pull a movie out of his hat. This year, he’ll direct the sequel to Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster and Milan Talkies, a film about a single-screen theatre in a small town.
The best film may be the one he never made in those seven years of purgatory. Killing of a Porn Filmmaker is about a porn filmmaker who realises that he was Adolf Hitler in his previous life and decides to atone for his sins by working in an orphanage till he’s killed by a Jew. Irrfan Khan, are you listening?
Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.