Box Office India (BOI): How did the project come about? Who approached whom?
Preety Ali (PA): Humara Movie did a similar project in 2014, called Shuruaat Ka Interval. We promote upcoming talent and we met more than a hundred directors in the last three years. Last time, ‘Interval’ was the subject, and then Vinay (Mishra) said, let’s release it, we did, in 2014.
Then we wanted to do it again but we couldn’t repeat what we had done two years ago. It suddenly struck me that we should take directors who have already made their mark in the industry, and let them give a chance to newcomers who they think deserve a chance.
Initially, I was afraid that these established directors would reject the idea, which is why I was very surprised when everyone I approached accepted the offer happily. In fact, we even e-mailed some of them, those we didn’t know, and they too agreed to come on board. So, it was all about established directors mentoring and grooming up-and-coming directors. Of course, known names always help a project.
BOI: Zoya, did you get a call or an email?
Zoya Akhtar (ZA): I have known Preety for years, and when they told me the idea, I thought it was really exciting. It gives an opportunity to assistant directors, newcomers, to have something concrete on their reel. So this was a fantastic opportunity for young talent. Your first film is always your toughest.
After that, you tend to get work if you have a spark. I think it was incredible to facilitate that. And we had to choose someone, that was also really nice. She (Amira Bhargava) has been my DA (director’s assistant) and it is amazing to make a short film at this age and get this kind of experience.
BOI: Was it an instinctive decision to mentor her and not any of your other assistants?
ZA: Yes but, also, we work in a different kind of system… I mean, my first assistant director is not Indian and is going to become a producer. Among the assistant directors, very few want to be directors. Most of them are producers, whereas the DAs, director’s assistants, want to be directors. Also, I had worked with her when she was referencing work for me. She was part of the whole process and I thought she was very bright.
BOI: What was it about her story, Aamer, that grabbed you?
ZA: I liked seeing cinematic noise through someone else’s eyes. She made a very socially relevant comment on noise pollution in our city and on how immune we are to it, without actually talking about it, without actually saying we live in a noisy city. It is only when you see it from this perspective that you suddenly realise that it’s scary. I found that really interesting.
BOI: How did Zoya break the news to you, to tell you that your story was selected?
Amira Bhargava (AB): We were editing an ad film and she was already in touch with Preety. One day, she just looked up and said to me, ‘Do you want to make a short film?’ I said yes, without giving it a second thought. I had no idea what it was, I just said yes. Imagine being asked that by someone you have always looked up to, someone you have always admired, and then they offer you this opportunity. So I grabbed it without knowing what I was about to get into.
When she gave me the details, it was such an exciting project because I also had a friend who was directing for this film. Also, it is exciting to be part of a project that has people who are at the same stage of their careers as you are. It is less risky because you are not the only one.
Pallavi Rohatgi (PR): The interesting thing is that Mira Nair, who was
mentoring Rahul Chittella, said that Zoya had been her intern and now, Zoya has Amira. It is such a small world.
ZA: Yes, my first film job was with Mira.
BOI: Supriya, while you were being mentored by Nagesh Kukunoor, was the process the same for you?
Supriya Sharma (SS): Yes, it was pretty much the same. I got a call from Nagesh and he asked me if I wanted to make a film. I said, ‘Yes of course!’ Then, he forwarded me the email that they had sent him and I got in touch with them.
PA: When we thought of this film, we had prepared a list of directors. We thought if these directors don’t say yes, then we would have to approach the next list of directors.
ZA: It was like casting for a film. (Laughs)
PA: Yes, it was.
PR: But everybody jumped on board.
PA: I thought some may be busy and others may make excuses, so I was thrilled when none of them said no. We even had Raju Hirani who was on top of the list. He had said yes but eventually couldn’t do it.
ZA: Because of the format, it doesn’t make sense to say no. It is amazing to have somebody who works with you given an opportunity. All you have to do is be there while someone else does all the hard work. I mean, it’s just perfect. (Laughs)
PA: She thinks we did all the work. And, yes, it was really difficult to make this film. Initially, I thought if I get mentor and mentee to work together, I wouldn’t have to do much. It would be their problem to figure out the story and how to make the film. But I was wrong!
ZA: Surprise!!! (Laughs)
PA: (Laughs) It was crazy, seven directors… There was a time when I wondered whether I should have taken just four. Now that it has turned out so well, I am glad I took seven.
ZA: Also, next time you will know.
PR: There’s a first time for everyone. Handling seven different sensibilities and seven different personalities was a challenge. But they are extremely talented people. But everybody has a different way of expressing themselves, so, as producers, it was hard to handle seven different people. So, sure, there were some rough patches but that is part of the filmmaking process.
I mean, even in a feature-length film, I don’t think everybody loves everyone all the time! Creative clashes between a director and a producer are essential and an important part of the project.
BOI: When you approached these directors, did you have a specific genre in mind for each one of them?
PA: No, we had a round-table meeting, where we discussed a few topics and all the mentors had their points of view.
ZA: But they had a theme. I mean, ‘Shor’ was the theme, and you could go with any genre you wanted within that theme.
PR: The good thing about Shuruaat is that we tried to give complete creative freedom to the directors, to the mentors and the mantes, so that they could work in their own individual creative space. The idea was not to ask them to use any specific genre but to work with the theme in their own way.
BOI: Were all the seven films shot simultaneously?
PA: We started at the same time.
SS: We all had our challenges as the logistics were different for everyone.
PA: I think Amira was the first to complete and submit her film. But when you have to put all these films together, she had to come on board again, to work on the sound again. Each one of them challenged each other as they are very competitive and want the best for their respective films, so they wanted to change even a little comma here and there in the subtitles!
PR: At the same time, certain practical aspects come into play. That creative vs practical clash was…
AB: In the six years’ experience I have, I have not worked on a single project where the director and the producer have not clashed. I mean, they are all working towards the betterment of the film.
ZA: But the nature of their jobs gets in the way. That’s why I admire people who produce and direct their own films. I don’t know how they do it. It’s schizophrenic.
AB: But that was a limitation we were given and we learnt a lot from it. Since I had to produce, I was in a position where I couldn’t really afford to get people, beyond a point. I had to take a lot of production calls, which was totally new for me.
ZA: That happens when you have a small budget.
PA: And directors often have to take production calls even when there is a producer on the project.
PA: You have to keep the budget in mind. I have seen directors do that.
ZA: You have to decide what you want to cut out and that’s tough because you are, like, then I won’t have this location or I can’t take this actor. A good production needs money. It’s like you can’t shoot at the Taj and these are the options that you have. I can give you this instead or we can do this instead. We can shoot half a day here and cover it with production. That’s good producing, and it’s not just producing. We make sure the catering arrives.
BOI: Tell us about the entire process of you mentoring. What was the process like?
ZA: It was quite easy for me. I used to just keep showing up and bouncing stuff off. My entire process was mainly just meetings, from the first time she came with the idea, then we spoke about it, then I read the script and we spoke about it. Then she would go and write it and come back. Then it was time to cast and she’d be, like, I like these people. She did everything.
So it was just, like, I went into the edit and, as part of the mentoring process, I would give her my feedback, or ask her certain questions, or make her think in a certain way. She would find her flaws
But that’s the point. It has to be her film. You can’t take over. You can’t tell her what to do. You can suggest, you can say what you feel and have a conversation. But, eventually, it has to be her essence.
BOI: Was it the same for you, Supriya with Nagesh?
SS: It was pretty much the same. I have worked with my mentor for more than 10 years and it’s, like, I know I can approach him. I used to e-mail him drafts as he was in the US then. I used to Whatsapp him, saying ‘please read and get back.’ So, yes, it was the same thing. He used to ask me questions, like, why I wrote a particular scene the way I had.
BOI: Have you watched each other’s films?
SS: Many times. There were so many screenings. I really loved it. When I watched it for the first time, Amira wasn’t there. I watched Azad and Aamer and I really liked them.
AB: I loved her work. I was telling Zoya before she came here today. I love her as a director. Her film needs such a steady hand, and she had a very established actor in her film. That can be intimidating if you’re a debutante.
SS: When I watched Aamer… the way she has shot and used colours even in those parts of Mumbai.
PA: For a first-time director working with Sanjay Mishra, you need to have the ability to direct someone like that. In her film, she picked up the boy and made him act so well. That was fantastic. Both of them have done a fantastic job. That, I think goes to the director. And both of them have a thin storyline. There is no story, as such, but it’s done so powerfully. It shows that they’re good directors.
PR: It is very interesting for us too. It’s seven films but just one topic. It’s so amazing because each style is unique. And then you have the Zoya, Nagesh Kukunoor of tomorrow. Five years from now, you might see them sitting as mentors with their assistants!
SS: We met each other for a few months only, once or twice for the first round. Then we disappeared, did our own thing, and we tried to meet two weeks or so before MAMI. I don’t know how she felt but I had butterflies in my stomach, wondering what the other films had turned out.
BOI: Do you think platforms like Amazon Movies and Netflix will change the structure of the movie business?
ZA: The kind of money you need to have a theatrical release is sometimes more than the budget of the film. Posters, publicity, yeh woh, taking the prints everywhere… So a digital platform like, say, Amazon allows you to release your film and it cuts out the rest. There will be a lot more content coming out, there will be a lot more voices being heard, there will be a lot more cinema, there will be a lot more actors working, there will be more work because there won’t be any expensive propositions.