Actor by Accident, Director by Choice
Photo: Rana Bose
You may remember him as the dutiful, short-kurta-ed Ramprasad Dasharathprasad Sharma or the bold shirted Laxmanprasad Dasharathprasad alias Lucky Sharma from Golmaal; or call him Sanjay, the smiling hero from Rajnigandha; the shy Arun Pradeep from Choti Si Baat.
Still soft-spoken and ever charming, the simple, believable hero of yore—Amol Palekar—was in the Bay Area in a different role: as director. His latest film Dhyaas Parva, which is on the life of social reformist Raghunath Karve, screened recently at several venues in the Bay Area. We took the opportunity to share his thoughts on the film and get a peek into his career and future projects as a director.
Why did you decide to make a movie on Raghunath Karve?
I am fascinated by the marginalized people, the forces that drive them, and where they derive the strength to stand against society for their beliefs and convictions. I had dealt with this subject in a different way in my earlier film Daayra (selected by Time magazine as one of the top 10 films of 1996), and Aakreit. Raghunath Karve is one such example where I could try to understand the marginalized person in relation to the society which is supposedly progressive, educated, cultured, and very tolerant. Why was a visionary like Karve so shabbily treated by society? As a citizen I wanted to know and have a look at ourselves self critically. That is how the whole thing evolved. We did research for about 1½ years before I started making the actual script. And as we kept on doing more and more research, it kept on becoming that much more fascinating.
What kind of response did you hope to evoke amongst the audience? Did you want them to know how society behaved during a certain period in history, or was there a deeper message you wanted to convey?
It’s not just about how society was at that time and how better off or worse off we are today. It is also about all the issues he (Karve) talked about. He was so far ahead of his times. He started the first birth control clinic in India in 1921. History tells us that Marie Stobes started the first ever birth control clinic in the world in the same year, and we rightly acknowledge her as the pioneer. But we don’t even know about Karve. Hence, the purpose of this film is, firstly, to make people aware that such a great man existed right amongst us. This realization itself, I think makes you feel proud that there was an Indian who could see so far ahead. Also, as early as 1923, he talked about gender equality and women’s empowerment—ideas that were nonexistent at the time. When he stood up for these concepts, there were legal cases against him and he was socially ostracized. Such a great man and his life, I think, can only inspire us.
How has the film been received?
The film has won national accolades, six state awards, and acclaim in international quarters as well. However, it is not sufficient to rest on these laurels. So I went on another journey of taking the film to the people in Maharashtra where the film has been seen by more than a 100,000 people by now, from a tiny place called Latur, to another small town in the northern part where Marathi films hardly ever reach because they cannot compete with mainstream Hindi cinema. The purpose is not only to make a good artistic film, but also to take its content to the maximum number of people. So that is what I am doing here, reaching out to the NRIs so that they can take it further, and help me to take it further.
How do you go about getting financing for your movies? I read that you had budget problems with Kairee and you had to work with a small budget.
(Smiles) It wasn’t a problem. I was asked, “You made this film in such a peanut budget. Suppose somebody gave you Rs. 5 crore, how would this film be different?” And I said I don’t need Rs. 5 crore, so I would return the money and I would make it in exactly this amount.
Merely because you have a bigger budget does not necessarily mean that you will make a better film. How to use your talent and your creative peak is also important. If you see the technical talent that has worked with me in this film—I have Bhanu Athaiyya, who is the only Oscar award winner from our country. She is also the costume designer for Lagaan. But she came and worked on a shoestring budget for Dhyaas Parva; the kind of ethnicity she has maintained in that shoestring budget is unbelievable. My art director Nitin Desai has names like Devdas and Hum Dil de Chuke Sanam in his resume.
So how do you get them to come and work for you?
It is in the subject that I am making, and it is also, I think, because I am able to excite them slightly more, stretch their creativity a little more than what is required for a mainstream simple cinema. And they all have given a little more than their best. That’s why I am able to make such a grand film in that budget.
Dhyaas Parva was released last year. In today’s times of simultaneous releases in India and the U.S., why has it taken so long for the film to be brought to the Indian-American audience?
You are talking of the simultaneous release hype of mainstream cinema. Mainstream cinema works on different kind of insecurity. Such multiple releases are done because you don’t know whether the film is going to bomb or not. I am not worried about that. I don’t have to release my film at 300 centers at the same time so that if nobody turns up in the second week, I will have still recovered my money. I have been taking the film to various strata of people, right from the yuppie non-Maharashtrian crowd, to absolute orthodox village crowds. And you should see the way people come forward and offer to help take the film further. This is a different kind of ball game that you are talking about here. You release a film: a) to make money. That is one aspect, and a legitimate approach of doing it. I am doing it for a different purpose. I want the message, the content to reach out to maximum number of people. So if it does tomorrow or day-after tomorrow, it is still relevant. I am not losing out on anything.
Dhyaas Parva is not mainstream cinema. Is it an art movie? Independent film? How do you classify it?
I would not use clichéd superficial labels. This film goes much beyond that. If at all, you will need to coin a new term for it.
So what would you like to label it?
You label it. (Laughs). In any case I don’t label my films. It is the media that loves to do that. All I can say that it is a great film that is not only absolutely fascinating in technical excellence, but also a film with purpose, a film which not only makes you ponder, but also makes you feel responsible.
There is a lot of information about you and your films as a director, in the media, especially in places like Germany, and in Europe. When did you turn director?
Oh, that happened long back. In fact, I haven’t been acting for the last 16 years. So it is no news at all. I made my first film as a director way back in 1980s. So that (directorial career) is also no great news.
What about recent movies like Aks where you made an appearance?
Aks was a very special exception for various reasons. One of those being that Amitabh had done the same gesture for me in Choti Si Baat and Golmaal (where he makes a special appearance). So Aks is probably repaying in the same coin (laughs) kind of thing, nothing more than that.
You used to make television serials like Kacchi Dhoop. Do you have any plans to make such serials for children?
No. The whole scenario, especially with television, is not something that I like. I am very happy that people liked Kacchi Dhoop … and even today people keep asking me about it, but that only proves that there is so much of dearth in children’s programming in television.
Why does nobody make them anymore?
I can only answer for myself. After Kacchi Dhoop, whenever I have approached any channel and said that I would like to make programs for children, the response has been: “Oh yes, there is nothing for children. But why don’t you make a sitcom now and we will make a children’s program tomorrow, in the future.” Basically, it is a nice decent way of saying, no we don’t want anything to do with children’s programs. So be it! I certainly do feel concerned about children, so I will do it in the many different ways I am doing. But as far as television is concerned, I don’t want to be part of a scenario that is reducing everything to the lowest denominator. That is not my idea of doing things.
What can we look forward to in your future films?
If you see all the films I have made, right up to Dhyaas Parva, each film is different. And I promise to keep that in my next film.
Will they also be on social issues?
Why is it that you are attracted to such themes?
I am concerned about things and the problems around me that I have to go through as an individual, responsible citizen, and a social being. I also believe that we have to talk about all this in a very interesting manner. For all its problems and irritations, the world around me is beautiful. We tend to have this feeling that socially relevant issues are not our cup of tea. But in some way or the other, we are concerned. It is just that we do not want to transform it into our creative process. I am fortunate to be able to do it.
Are you hoping to affect people in a way that they might actually change their outlook, or do you just want to inform people? What is your actual goal in making such movies?
I read a story. Or get a thought. And that thought, story keeps growing and becomes an almost inevitable part of my existence.
I wanted to make Kairee based on a short story. I wanted to make it for 18 years. I couldn’t find the necessary funding for 18 years. But ultimately I did find it (funding) and I did make one of the most beautiful films of my career.
If it is such a good story that it bothers me for 18 years, then I want to share it with people. And when I do manage to do that (share it) and I see that same kind of satisfaction in my viewers’ eyes, I get doubly recharged. I can very proudly say that in all my endeavors, I have started on a lonely journey, not knowing how many people will like the film. But at the end of the journey, I see that the number of people who are with me is growing. In the case of a film like Dhyaas Parva, if a 100,000 people get involved, I can hardly ask for anything more.
What do you do when you are not directing or making films?
I am perfectly happy not doing anything. I don’t start chewing nails that I haven’t done anything today. I am at peace with myself. I am perfectly happy putting my feet up and thinking about some story and maybe start working on that, maybe scripting. I have three scripts ready and I can start making a film tomorrow. I am scheduled to start shooting my next film in February. I am hoping to work on all my three projects, but two of them will be ready by end of 2003, if not all of them.