Smriti Kiran: Abhishek Chaubey comes from a film-crazy family based in Faizabad, U.P. It is said that his parents named him Abhishek after Abhishek Bachchan – a claim we will get to verify today. Abhishek grew up on a staple diet of cinema, and moved cities a lot while growing up. He passed his 10th standard from St Xavier’s, Ranchi, in 1993, high school from Hyderabad in 1995, graduated in English Literature from Hindu College, Delhi, in 1998, and moved to Mumbai to do a diploma in film and television from XIC.
Post XIC, and after a brief stint with a television company, Magic Box, he got the first on-set gig thanks to his course coordinator in XIC, screenwriter Urmi Juvekar. He worked as an AD on Gurudev Bhalla’s Shararat that had Abhishek Bachchan in the lead. Truth really is stranger than fiction! After Shararat, he joined Vishal Bhardwaj as associate director on Makdee. Vishal encouraged Abhishek to write after he read the first draft of a short film that Abhishek had shared with him. Abhishek co-wrote The Blue Umbrella, Omkara, Kaminey and Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola with him.
Abhishek made his first film as a director in 2010, Ishqiya – a film that he co-wrote with Vishal Bhardwaj and Sabrina Dhawan. He turned producer with Konkana Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj, MAMI’s opening film in 2016. His latest film as a producer, Raat Akeli Hai, marks the directorial debut of longtime collaborator and business partner, Honey Trehan.
From a film lover to associate director to writer to filmmaker and now producer, it has been an exciting but exacting journey for the creator. He loves logistical challenges, the specificity of the worlds he creates and calls himself a tier-2 town kid with pride. We have the very dynamic and distinct Abhishek Chaubey in the house.
Smriti Kiran: Abhishek, the first film for any creator is really, really special. It is the first step that the creator is taking into the world; it is a reflection of their creative voice, their politics, and it sets up the stage for them. And like any other film, it translates into a minimum three-year commitment. How does one decide what to commit to?
Abhishek Chaubey: One of the most difficult questions a director needs to answer for herself or himself is what to make. In today’s world, we realise that as filmmakers we get a lot of points for choosing the subject, more than even the film that we make. So, deciding what to make is a very important question. It’s a cliché to say it but it’s true that a film is the director’s voice, it reflects their personality. So, I think, especially with the first film, the filmmaker should choose something that is close to him, something that’s important to him, something that he has some idea about. You could make something that really moves you, that’s important to you. Genres don’t really matter so much – whatever you are attached to. But make something that’s really close to you. And it’s very important for a story to really come from within you – that is the most important question.
There is no one way to be a director. There are various paths that you could take and arrive at the destination, but, yes, do something that’s close to you.
“For me, the structure is texture, structure is emotion.”
Something that’s personal. I think that’s the important question. By ‘personal’, I don’t mean you need to make a movie about your family. For example, Ishqiya is a mishmash of genres. Somewhere, the lineage of that film is noir-comedy; it comes from that. There are elements from noir, tropes of noir, the stock characters from noir, and the setting is unique to my setting – it’s a world that I know. These are people that I have encountered in my life. And it was very dear to me. The setting, the world that I chose to set the story in, was something that I knew intimately, and the genre that I decided to go into was something that I love watching. I’ve been a big fan of two-penny novels that you pick up at the railway station and you enjoy over a short train journey. So, that’s what I wanted to do really.
Smriti Kiran: One of the first things that Vishal sir asked you to do, because he knew that you wanted to be a director, is to commit yourself to writing. You took his advice seriously. And then, you consistently wrote with him. What are the common mistakes you see aspiring and first-time filmmakers making?
Abhishek Chaubey: One thing that I, as a filmmaker, can say to other people is that work at the level of craft. I never react to a film as an audience – I’m not the audience – I’m a filmmaker, so that’s how I react to a film. You can make a film on any subject matter, and you can make it well. But what I would really like to impress upon is the craft of it. When we talk about writing a movie – I don’t need to re-emphasise things like emotion or texture – I think what’s most important is structure. We tend to give it a little less thought when we think about writing. For me, the structure is texture, structure is emotion. It’s not like a dry job. When you structure, you are really telling people that this is how it goes, this is how it flows; in that flow of the narrative lies the mystery, lies your story, lies what you want to say. Young people who are writing films should really think about structure because that’s where the beast is.
Smriti Kiran: You’ve stayed very nimble and open as a creator. Your lens on music was very different before you started working with Vishal sir. You changed and re-visited your lens on Udta Punjab once you visited the Majha districts of Punjab. Your draft of Ishqiya altered almost completely once you went and jammed with Sabrina Dhawan in New York. And Sonchiriya changed once you and Sudip (Sharma) went out to research in Chambal. How do you manage to keep this kind of flexibility?
“Filmmaking is an exercise in listening rather than telling. You tell at the very end.”
Abhishek Chaubey: Filmmaking is an exercise in humility. I don’t know how we talk about filmmakers when we say things like, ‘I think he’s lost it,’ or, ‘He’s too full of himself.’ I don’t know how that happens because it’s a perpetual exercise in humility. The moment you think you’re on top of it, it teaches you a lesson, and you realise you know nothing. Again, to quote an oft-repeated cliché, ‘You’re never a master of films, you’re always a student’.
The great thing about filmmaking – especially what I do: I like to delve into cultures and go deep into it as much as possible in the story – in that sense, is that it’s always a new job because if I’m doing a Dedh Ishqiya, then I have to really delve into the world of the Muslim aristocracy, of sher-o-shayari. If I’m doing Sonchiriya, then I need to learn about Chambal, the social rules there, the people. So, you’re really learning all the time. To pre-set ideas is a little dangerous.
Also, filmmaking is an exercise in listening rather than telling. You tell at the very end. But until that point, you’re just listening. You listen to people, what they have to say. Even in writing, for that matter; after a point, once you set up the world that you’re writing, once you have the basic hook of the story in place, once you have a basic essence of characters in place, they are telling you what to do because if you come up with an idea that does not fit in the jigsaw, you have a difficult night – you can’t sleep very well, and you wake up in the morning, and think this is the mistake that I’m making. So, I think, no matter how corny it may sound, humility and the ability to listen are qualities that go a long way.
I have been on film sets where a technician has said something while I’m taking a shot due to which a light bulb has popped in my head because it’s absolutely right in the composition of the shot. So, it’s important to respect the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative process. Your collaboration is not only with the people who are on set, but it’s also with the people that you meet on the street while you are trying to make your story. So, when we’re talking about Chambal, we’re meeting police officers, daakus, and what they tell you is really what goes into the story. I think that is really very important.
Smriti Kiran: When a filmmaker begins to make films, there are producer pressures and other kinds of pressures; you might even be pressuring yourself. What is the one thing that you should not do if you have doubts? What do you do if, as a filmmaker, you have doubts at the last minute?
“If you’re stuck, don’t try to be a hero – confess, say that I don’t know if this is going to work or not.”
Abhishek Chaubey: Confess, I would say. Because the thing is that all artists are always riddled with doubt. It happens even when you’re writing. You work for months writing the material and you’ve solved a lot of problems, and you’re feeling that you’re in a good space at the end of your story. But there’s a little problem that’s been there, you’ve been seeing it, and you know that the problem will come to bite you later on. When you come to that problem, you realise that the basic foundation of your story is bad – it sucks completely. Whether this film is worth making or not is the question. And that question, whether this exercise that I’m doing is worth doing, is a question that travels with you all the way until you actually make the film. Doubt is something that a filmmaker has to learn to live with.
After a point, what starts happening is that the stress that this doubt brings also starts having physical manifestations. You start having lower back pain or migraine, all those sorts of things also happen.
I said ‘confess’ because asking for help really works. One of the most important abilities of a filmmaker is surrounding himself with the right people. It is a very understated ability. People don’t think about it much. But I think that’s one of the most important qualities of filmmakers. Who do you surround yourself with? Who are your crew and fellow travellers in the process of filmmaking? Once you do that correctly, choose your crew and your cast, then if you’re stuck, and you don’t know if this is right or not, don’t try to be a hero – confess, say that I don’t know if this is going to work or not. I have, in my experience, found that more often than not this really is a gift that keeps giving. Honesty really helps.
When I was younger, before I had made my first film, I was so taken with the idea of filmmaking being such a production heavy thing that we do, involving so many people, but it’s really one man’s vision. I was really taken with the idea. I think it was just my ego talking, that I’m going to be the boss of it. But what filmmaking has really taught me is that it’s genuinely collaborative. Yes, you are the captain of the ship, you are the skipper, but it is a machinery and it needs to be well-oiled for the cogs to keep working. Even if there’s a little problem, everything can go wrong.
Discuss with your teammates, get the problem out in the open, whether it’s a little small thing like blocking a particular scene or if it’s something more important than that, be flexible enough to change things if you have to, if you know that this is right. Filmmaking is not over until it’s over. So, you don’t have any shame. You can share your problems even at the nth hour, and it will help, for sure.
Smriti Kiran: In your filmmaking journey, you had to grapple with a few hiccups: For Ishqiya, you did not get the DOP you wanted; in a technical sort of a way Arshad (Warsi) and Vidya (Balan) were not first choices, although they worked out beautifully; there were logistical challenges like bad weather, a footbridge that your team had made for the characters to walk on kept on breaking. How does a first-time director deal with these things and also retain their focus?
Abhishek Chaubey: When you list them out like this, these problems seem very big. This is just ordinary filmmaking. I doubt if any film has had a completely smooth ride, where everything that you thought of has happened easily. This is nothing. I’ve been on film sets where it’s been much worse. What’s most important is for the filmmaker to know what he or she is really talking about.
The one thing that we always battle until we reach a certain position in our lives, even after you reach that place – suppose your last three films have made 150-200 crores, and you have every resource that’s available at your disposal – even then you’re not entirely in control, even then things are going to go out of hand because you can’t control certain things, and budget is not the only thing.
The important thing is, at that moment in time, to know what you’re really talking about. Filmmaking is as much an administrative and logistical challenge as it is a creative one. So, suppose you’re in a situation where you start shooting soon, you need certain things to be ready for you to be able to shoot the scene, the call that you take when you realise that any one of those things is not available is based on what your scene is really about. ‘Was what I wanted in this scene merely an embellishment or was it really a critical part of it?’ You’ll have to take that call in all honesty – you will have to be honest with yourself.
“Filmmaking is as much an administrative and logistical challenge as it is a creative one.”
It’s easier said than done. Then the choices are always going to be: Do I push the production to cancel today’s shoot and do this tomorrow, which means an increase in cost – is that going to be okay with the producer or not? Or, if that eventuality is not there, you don’t have that choice, is there a way I can think on my feet and turn this scene around a certain different way? That can only happen if you know what you’re really talking about, if you know what the essence of the scene really is, knowing what the scene in this moment of the film is saying and that your house of cards is not going to fall if it doesn’t take place. So, that is of the essence. Filmmaking is really knowing what you’re saying, what you’re really talking about.
Smriti Kiran: Location and milieu are cardinal to you. You said in an interview that only when I’m going completely local will I be able to say something completely global. What did you mean by that?
Abhishek Chaubey: It’s ironic that you talk about location now because we are in the middle of a pandemic, and locations are the one thing that aren’t available to us if we want to shoot something. I was supposed to shoot a short film in May, but because of the pandemic it got delayed, and I can’t delay it any further, and worst of all, I can’t shoot it on location. So, for the first time in my life – for a bloody short film – I’m putting up sets, and I am completely out of sorts.
I’m primarily a location person. I like to shoot in real spaces. I like the challenges that come with it. It keeps me in check. It actually makes the scene for me, where I’m shooting, like the blocking of it and the framing of it and the performances. I’ve been a big fan of that. It’s challenging for sure because you’ve got to shoot in real spaces where you have to manage the crowd and manage the elements. Things are not entirely in your control, but having done it for so many years, I have started thriving on it, and I enjoy it very much.
Coming to your question: context is very important to me as a filmmaker. If I were to set Sonchiriya in today’s time, then the story doesn’t hold any water. So, you go back to a time when the banditry was still active – there were these gangs – that’s the world that it was set in. That is what gives the story – the time and place – a context. Then I can talk about the specific issues that the film is dealing with. We spoke about misogyny, we spoke about caste discrimination. When we were researching, and when we went deep into the research, our impression was that daakus loot karte hai, dacaity karte hai, but we realised that their caste duty was their dharma – that’s what they lived for. It was very interesting because we are living in a world today where there is strife in our country because of caste discrimination, we are talking about misogyny in a way that we haven’t ever before, and we’re witnessing it every day.
So the deeper I went into 1975 and the culture of the daakus, the more relevant the story became for today. That’s what I really mean – I’m talking about a world that doesn’t exist today, but no matter how human beings are different, they are all the same; no matter how societies are different, they’re all the same.
We, as Indians, especially have this habit of thinking of ourselves as being in this exclusive club. ‘Oh, Indians are very emotional,’ as if Peruvians are not emotional. We are all the same. You go to any culture, dive deep into it and talk about what society is about, what people are about, you realise that your life is pretty much the same. That’s exactly what I mean.
When we talk about a film like The Godfather (by Francis Ford Coppola), which is so entrenched in the Italian mob culture and the Italian-American society, we realise it’s a story about family like any other. The Godfather Part 1 is a story about inheritance, about legacy. Therefore, I feel that it’s important to have a strong context.
Smriti Kiran: What is the first step for you when you decide that this is where I want to set my story, this is where it’s going to be? Because you need to get the milieu, language, mannerisms, behavioural patterns, topography, costumes, production design, all sorts of things, right. How do you begin this process?
Abhishek Chaubey: It all starts with the writing. Mostly, with the exception of Udta Punjab, all the stories that I have tackled as a director have come with the milieu. I mean, it’s not that I had an idea in my head and then I decided ki chalo isko U.P. mein likhte hain. It was always there – in Gorakhpur, or somewhere near Lucknow. All of that was there in place.
One of the traps that we as filmmakers encounter is that we tend to start getting into details of our story too quickly. We think about the kind of scenes that would be there in the film, the imagery – in general, the details: costumes, production design, or whatever goes into the world where your story is set – too quickly. I think you should hold your horses a little bit. This is regardless of whether you choose to shoot it in a real location or not.
“Context is very important to me as a filmmaker.”
Even a film like Saawariya (by Sanjay Leela Bhansali) has some context. It is derived from something real. It’s set in Neverland, sure, but it is, nonetheless, derived from something real. Even if you were to make an out and out fantasy, say, if you were to make a film like Brazil (by Terry Gilliam), which is set in a fantastical world, it would still be derived from something very real.
Get into that world and see the world for what it is, spend some time – go there, meet people, talk to people, soak in the details, get the essence, if you can. This process sounds harder than it is. The first steps are hard. If tomorrow I wanted to set a film in Sikkim, I don’t know anybody in Sikkim to do that. But there are ways and means of doing it – you go there, park yourself there, start meeting people, and you start getting a sense of it. Ordinarily, I would say, it has taken me anywhere between 15 days (when it was very quick) to six months to get a sense of the place. Let that start seeping into your story; let that start seeping into your world; let that start influencing how you think about your story. To do that is very, very important.
At this point, I’m only talking about writing. Typically, if you’re about to write, and you have an idea of where you want to set the story, say, you want to tell a story on terrorism, you decide on setting it in Kashmir, which is the one state that you don’t know jack about, you can’t depend on media telling us what is happening in Kashmir, so you go there and spend some time, and you’ll get the various points of view and explore the world not only for the big things but also for the little details. Then you let that influence your story. One obvious example of it would be dialect which people do catch up on a lot, but it is just one little thing – there are many other little things like that.
That’s the process which you go through while you’re writing. Once you finish writing and enter into production, you need to do that again, although your vision about things has changed – now you’re probably looking for more visual details, or for something else. You have to do that with your entire crew: your production designer, cameraman, assistants, all of them – you go with them and start looking. Then, something beautiful happens: you’ve already written it, you go there, and then things become known to you. I recce like a madman because I recce three times, four times, five times even. I tend to spend a lot of time; I tend to block with my crew during the recce.
Smriti Kiran: Could you explain your process and the pictures that you take during the recee?
Abhishek Chaubey: This picture is during the tech recce of Sonchiriya. This room is from a scene in the second half of the film, when they are at Beni Ram’s (played by Dev Chauhan) house and Lakhna (played by Sushant Singh Rajput) shows the little girl the magic trick when she’s really down. This was a room from that house. This is where Lakhna is supposed to stand. It’s that position. It’s from the scene where he shows her the magic trick and she figures out that it’s in his pocket.
This is the spot where Lakhna spots the camel when he has a vision of himself in his alternate life.
We have a Viewfinder app. Anuj (Rakesh Dhawan) and I did two-three trips to Chambal, and this is from the second trip. Now, the choices are many. Unlike 10 years ago, the choices for a director and DOP are many – what camera to choose, what lenses to choose, what style. We decided to shoot anamorphic in this film because the location itself was a character. So, we decided to do wide-screen cinematography – all the shots were going to be shot with a wide lens. We weren’t going to shoot with a long-nosed lens. We decided on shooting anamorphic because that way, even when we did a close-up, the location is always there. This was an outdoor, exterior film. Therefore, the choice of using Hawk C-Series Anamorphic, which are really old lenses.
Hawk C-Series lenses have been around for a long time. Since we were shooting on film, one of the problems I had, which I discussed with Anuj, was that the lenses which we use today are very sharp; when you watch movies on your HD TVs and Smart TVs, the sharpness brings a certain video-like quality to the image. We decided to shoot on lenses that are old because they are softer, the image is not as sharp, and it still gives you the cinematic feel.
So, the latitude and longitude is of the location that we are at; camera tilt and down bearing have something to do with direction. It’s not very important for us because it’s a GPS app, it takes the date and time of the mobile, which in this case is 8th December, at 8 o’clock in the morning; we are at that spot where Sushant’s (Singh Rajput) and Ranvir’s (Shorey) characters have a fight after the death of Manoj Bajpayee’s character. This is such a beautiful place.
Smriti Kiran: MAMI had a screening of Sonchiriya, and in the discussion post the screening, which Vasan Bala had moderated, you had said that it can be exacting to shoot in a location like that. Considering that the film is set during the Emergency, and Chambal being spread across three states, there used to be a task force that was given special permission to go between these three states to hunt down the bandits.
When you particularly know that you’re going to a terrain which is going to be difficult after you have written the script, after you’ve visited the place for research, how much does the writing get affected after you return from the tech recce?
Abhishek Chaubey: It is actually quite affected. We had been to Chambal a few times. I went there with Sudip for a short period, and we sat in Gwalior and wrote our second draft there. But Sudip had spent a lot more time there. We got the general vibe of the place, and now we had to write these elaborate set pieces. We have not gone and recced locations, we have written it on the basis of a general idea of a Chambal village. So, for example, we just wrote the scene where these bandits arrive in a village where there is a wedding and they are ambushed by cops, so they get on to the terrace to fend them off. The structures are very close to each other, and the cops are coming from all sides.
“Get into that world and see the world for what it is, spend some time – go there, meet people, talk to people, soak in the details, get the essence, if you can.”
It all depends on whether you’re going to find a place like that or not. So, you write with a general idea. If it’s a scene happening between two characters in a room, then it’s fine. But when you’re writing it with an elaborate set-piece in mind, you write with certain assumptions and then find locations which come close to it, because you know in your heart that you’re not going to find anything exactly like it. So, you find a spot which fulfils eight of the ten requirements that you have, and the remaining two you still have to figure out.
Then you go for the recce with your team, and because you know what the scene exactly means and why you had written it a certain way, that is in order to have this effect, and find out that while this exact thing is not available, you can cheat it. For example, we had earlier planned for Man Singh (played by Manoj Bajpayee) to order Lakhna (played by Sushant Singh Rajput) to stay put near a water tank, while the others went inside the wedding house in the village. His position was intended to give him a clear view of the house. We couldn’t find that spot. The village was quite good, otherwise. So, we changed his hiding spot to a haveli, and from Lakhna’s line of vision, we can barely see the building where the rest are at. I built a pandal for the wedding at the house that we could see from that spot and got some crowd to give you the sense that it was the wedding place. But in reality that wasn’t the wedding place, it was further towards the left of that.
Once we make these changes, come back to Bombay and sit with Sudip, and tell him what is working out and what isn’t, that’s when we make changes in the script to suit that location. The changes, more often than not, are of a prosaic nature. They are not so creative, as such. We just say, ‘Let’s do it this way because it’ll flow better ’.
A more important sequence is the shootout on the cluster of terraces of the houses, which were all in close proximity to one another. The police are coming from all directions, and they are carrying with them poles and ladders which they can simply hook to the parapet of the adjoining building and just walk over it to the other side. But that wasn’t possible, only one building was giving us that. As we realised that it was a very complicated procedure because actors were going to walk all over it, we had to nail them in place. For example, the place which was close to the camera, where Man Singh’s gang members are positioned, we put a ladder from under for the police officers to climb up to the spot. So, these are the little changes that you make. This is one of the changes that we had to make for this scene.
A scene where we had to make major changes was the one where they visit the doctor. We entirely rewrote that scene. Again, the basic essence was the same, but we had to change things around because it had more fire-fighting – there were very little dialogues. I realised two things: One, I couldn’t find the location, till the nth hour, because I just didn’t like anything. This was very close to shoot, almost a week before we started shooting. After another disappointing recce, while going back to the hotel, my art director, Rita (Ghosh), had a brain wave. We saw this house that was abandoned, and we created the location we needed for that scene there. We put up a small set around the house and shot there. Two, I wasn’t liking the idea of doing another big fire-fight after having done the previous one. So, we came down to Dholpur, about 10-15 days before the shoot, and rewrote the scene and got some dialogues in place.
It’s not over until it’s over. You don’t need to get stuck; you can always resume work – adapt and move forward.
Smriti Kiran: I feel that there is a misguided notion that creators have sometimes, which is that there are people who prepare and people who are spontaneous. But spontaneity doesn’t mean winging it – there is a fair amount of work that goes into creating what you create.
Abhishek Chaubey: Spontaneity is a specially abused word. It’s used as an excuse to not really work. The operative word should be ‘due diligence’ when you’re preparing. You need to prepare so that you can be spontaneous. That’s very important – preparation to a certain degree is very important.
Smriti Kiran: I was talking with your collaborator and business partner, Honey Trehan, and he said that nobody does this and that if one were to steal your script and storyboards, they’d be able to make your films. Do you storyboard the entire film or do you storyboard parts of it?
Abhishek Chaubey: It’s nice of Honey to say that! But I think a lot of people do what I’m doing. There’s nothing mysterious about it.
I storyboard anything that is going to take more than one day to shoot. If it’s going to involve a multi-camera set-up; if it’s not a dialogue-oriented sequence – it’s not a sequence where two characters sit across from each other at a table talking; actions sequences, goes without saying; anything that involves VFX – these are sequences that I storyboard for sure. I tend not to do it for drama scenes where I’m working with the actors because I need for them to be free. But usually, action and VFX sequences, anything that is going to take two-three days, multiple camera set-ups, all of these are storyboarded.
This is the scene where Mary Jane, Alia’s (Bhatt) character, has a hallucination that she goes underwater, sees a light at the end and goes towards it.
As for what is written on the card, you just check whichever is relevant to this scene – for example, if it’s an interior or exterior shot, you tick accordingly; and, most importantly, if it involves VFX or not. This entire sequence that we did was heavy on VFX. We were shooting inside a swimming pool, and swimming pools have a definite end. We had to green screen the edges of the swimming pool in order to create a sense of indefinable depth.
When you’re filming a drama scene, or working with actors, I personally feel that the way to do it is to see if the location that I’m shooting at has a stage, and I never do the shot division before I fill the actors.
So, we come to the stage with the cameraman and actors, and I tell them to do whatever the hell they want – let’s see what works for all of us here. We work and we arrive at the geography and the mood of the scene, and then I shoot it. I like to be free. Therefore, I don’t like to storyboard such sequences. I think it’s restrictive, you would hamstring the actors.
So as long as it’s not going to be between the actor and the director, if a fight master or a dance director is going to be involved, then you get the cues. If you have more than one camera involved, it’s always wiser to storyboard it. If you’ve got a complicated dramatic sequence, and storyboarding is not going to be possible because an actor might not feel that way, the image that you have created might be restricting them, then just do a mise-en-scene – make a top-angle view slide, and figure out the basic blocking and mise-en-scene through it. You can figure your way around it, and the actor also gets an image to work with.
Elaborate sequences, without a doubt, should be storyboarded. Our action sequences don’t look very good because we don’t do it.
Smriti Kiran: Crisis management and crew management is a big part of a director’s job, but so is artist management. You have worked with some of the biggest stars and some of the most accomplished actors: Kareena Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Naseeruddin Shah, Huma Qureshi, Madhuri Dixit, Shahid Kapoor, Ashutosh Rana and Bhumi Pednekar among others. What is your process of handling actors?
“You have to figure out the person that you’re working with.”
Abhishek Chaubey: Actors are the most difficult to control. They are very different from the rest of the crew that you work with, but they are of the essence. They are extremely important because they are the ones who are in the frame. When a film is not working, it’s through the actors that it is found out first. I remember, when I was growing up, if it would be a bad film, my mum would start abusing the actor, although it wouldn’t be the poor guy’s fault. They, along with many other things, are in the frame – for example, the bed, or the picture behind it, which are completely within your control. Actors are not completely in your control because they are living, breathing human beings. So they are given to emotions like all of us.
There is no one set way of working with actors. Instead of saying that you are working with an actor, just think of it as working with another human being, with whom you have to build an equation.
There are some actors who love to rehearse, some actors who love to prep, and that’s great because it really helps you. But there are some actors who don’t. It may be that they are naturally very good. So, your job begins at the stage of casting – casting is very important; I, for one, am a believer in having a certain image or vision of the character in your head – this is how she or he looks. While that is important, I’m not the one who will compromise on the acting capabilities for a certain kind of look. I’m never going to do that because I’m a film director, not an acting teacher. I will not be able to teach you the basic one-two-three of acting, I will only help and guide you to get where I want you to get.
Sometimes you have to deal with them with kid gloves; sometimes you have to come out strong with them; sometimes you have to play games. There is no set way of dealing with them. I think that’s true of all directors. There have been stories and legends made about directors – vo actors ke saath aisa karta tha, vo actors ke saath vaisa karta tha. These are good stories but the fact of the matter is that you have to figure out the person that you’re working with.
Udta Punjab is an interesting example because I was working with four very different types of people. Alia used to be in my office on a daily basis doing her lines. Pankaj Tripathi was training her in the dialect. We had a very nice session where we were discussing her character, and she went into this meditative space and had tears in her eyes. I was very happy because she had gotten the essence of the character that she was playing. On the other hand, Shahid (Kapoor) did not even learn how to hold a guitar, and he’s playing a musician. So, you’ve got to find a way to make it happen.
There are so many actors who, if you tell them to prepare for a film, start going to the gym. That’s all they do. Mera body kaise dikhna chahiye – that’s the beginning and end of their preparation for a film. But you have to find your way. You can’t have a bad performance at the end of it. Not that I have gotten all the performances right in my movies; there are certain performances that I see today and I cringe, my toes curl and I feel how I could have let this happen.
You figure it out. Even if they don’t want to do workshops, or whatever you ask for, they’ll at least do a costume trial, right? All you have to do is sit them down and have a clear chat with them. For example, during Ishqiya, Naseer and Arshad would just not give me time of day. They were like, ‘Nahin, nahin, ho jayega. Dialect ye hai na? Bas ho jayega.’ I was really nervous about how I was going to get them around to portray these characters the way I wanted. I finally got them around to come to Vishal’s office for a costume trial. I locked the room and sat them down. I told my crew to wait, and that I just wanted to sit with these guys for half an hour. But that really helped.
With Naseer, you could give him Shakespearean references and he would get it. Whereas Arshad would be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ You had a different approach with Arshad. With Naseer, you could say, ‘They are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,’ and he would get it. But to Arshad, I would say, ‘Soorma Bhopali karo,’ or whatever it is that you do. You find your way by getting to know the person that you’re working with.
Smriti Kiran: When it comes to handling actors, what would you tell someone who’s starting out? People get scared if there is an actor that is cast who wants to weigh in on how the film shapes. How do you handle those things at the beginning, where you essentially set the tone?
Abhishek Chaubey: I’ll tell you something about interfering actors: In my experience, unless the guy that you’re working with is a bit of an idiot, or he’s a bad guy, or if he’s simply not a good person, that’s different, but mostly, people are good; mostly when they have a reputation of interfering in the director’s work, it happens because they somehow lack confidence in the filmmaker. Experienced actors, who’ve been around for long, and even some inexperienced ones, who haven’t been around for too long, very quickly figure out ki ye banda ya bandi ko aata hai ki nahi – they see how the set is being run, they see if the director is in control, and they’re very quick to figure that out. So, what’s most important is to know who you are and what you are doing.
One of the problems that our industry faces is that we have three times the number of people on set than we actually need to make a film. That’s just the way our industry is. It’s a labour-intensive industry, where there are also five people who come with a camera. I mean, ek banda camera peti mein se nikalega aur dusra banda apni jeb mein se rumaal nikaal ke saaf karega. So, we have many more people which leads to a certain kind of chaos. Generally speaking, our sets are chaotic. But then there is a set with even more people that are needed, and you see that there is a method in the madness there. It’s very easy to spot.
Over all the shouting and the din, you can tell that the set is in control as opposed to certain other sets which are not in control. Actors are very quick to figure that out.
Actors need to feel that they are in good hands; they need to feel warm and secure. Then if they do, they’re going to give you what you want and they’re going to work with you. So, it’s very important to know your shit and know what you’re doing. It’s really not important to know where to place the camera or which lens to use – that’s not really it. What’s more important is to know what the film is really about. What are you trying to do here? Those things are more important than technical mastery. That’s especially obvious to the actors.
Smriti Kiran: You started out with Vishal sir, then you branched out on your own and became a mentor yourself. You’re a producer now. What kind of mindfulness has that experience given you now that you’re green-lighting projects of first-time filmmakers like Konkona Sensharma and Honey Trehan? What’s your mentor personality?
“When you give your feedback, you give your alternatives and show them the consequences of the path you take.”
Abhishek Chaubey: We (Honey and I) worked with Vishal for so many wonderful years. He was the older brother’s personality – although I always address him as Vishal sir, he was like an older brother. That was the thing. It was a very Indian kind of a system. The correct way to describe it is that the teaching, whatever he has taught, and definitely there’s a lot that I’ve imbibed from him, was not an obvious process where he’s sitting and giving me gyaan. It never happened like that. It was happening in the flow of things, and we were learning whatever we had to learn. These were also Vishal’s most interesting years as a filmmaker. When he started out – the first ten years of his life – he made some of his best films.
That’s key. It sounds simple, but it is not easy to be like that. That’s where his real generosity also lies – he never imposed his ideas on me. If I said something wrong, he never gave me gyaan about it. It was a free-flowing atmosphere. That’s the quality I try to bring when I work with my team and the people who are making films for me now. I’m more of a friend. That’s the relationship I have now.
Also, I don’t have the wherewithal to tell my director how to make the film. That’s not my space. In fact, as a producer, I try to get involved with the script as much as possible and give my feedback. Also, when you give your feedback, you give your alternatives: whether you want to go with route A or route B or route C, and show them the consequences of the path you take. I discuss it like that. I don’t try to get involved and hand-hold too much. I’m much rather interested in getting a drink together and having some fun. That has been my approach really. I don’t offer any advice unless it is asked for. At the same time, until things are going desperately wrong, I let them be however they have to be. It’s more important as a producer to choose who you want to make a film with, to choose the script that the filmmaker wants to make, rather than trying to influence the filmmaker on a day to day basis.
With Koko (Konkona), I never offered any advice. She knew what she was making. It was a world that she intimately knew, and I knew that she knew it. So, there was nothing much to say until she asked. That’s my approach. I’m more of a friend rather than a producer.
Smriti Kiran: When a filmmaker exists in an atmosphere, in a political atmosphere, which aims to suppress opinions and voices, what do you think becomes the role of the filmmaker at that point of time? As a creative person, what do you think a filmmaker can strive to do?
Abhishek Chaubey: Today, more than ever, this has become an important question. The fact of the matter is that we have never been an open society, even at the best of times. For example, for a mainstream filmmaker, censorship has always been there. It’s just that now social media trolling has come in as well. But filmmakers have been harangued by it for a long time. I remember Hansal Mehta had a protest outside his house against it. Things like that do happen.
Especially in our Indian context, this becomes very important because films are very popular. It’s a sad reality that as far as the arts go, films have an unnatural sort of superiority and popularity over other mediums. We don’t even have an independent music industry – the music industry is a part of the film industry. It’s kind of sad.
Be that as it may, now you’re in a high-profile medium, and that’s what they seek to control. They seek to control because they feel, people in power, that you may be able to influence opinion. I think they kind of overestimate your importance, but then, well, that’s the truth. They are scared of anybody who has millions of followers.
But if you think through this, you’ll realise that’s also your power – people are listening to you. Now use that power effectively. You don’t have the power or the authority of the State. You cannot break a law. You will have to get your film censored certified. You can raise a storm like we did in Udta Punjab. You can raise a storm and get away. But, frankly, if you ask me as a filmmaker, do I have the energy to raise a storm in every film and go to court? I don’t. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to make a political film. How did the Iranians survive for so long? The Iranian filmmakers have made some of the best films, and not only the children’s films that they have made, which are beautiful, but also films that are made by somebody like (Jafar) Panahi, who is making pretty combustible stuff. Or some films in China. These societies have been doing it. You’ve got to find a way to say your piece because otherwise, you’re going to live with regret, and that regret is really going to eat at you.
If that’s your space – that you’re apolitical. I don’t know who is apolitical. I don’t understand the term so much. As an artist, you can’t be apolitical. You may not make an overtly political piece, but no matter what you do it is going to talk about how you see the world, and that is problematic. In today’s world, even if you make a family drama about having a love child out of wedlock, you’ll be trolled; you will have people at your doorstep saying, ‘tumhari haaye-haaye’. But you’ve just got to go ahead and do it because if you don’t do it now, the regret that’s going to eat you is going to be much worse than some social media trolling.
Stay off social media, at any rate.
Smriti Kiran: What are the things you feel can change in the industry to make it a more humane space?
Abhishek Chaubey: Before we even start talking about making a humane space, what I would like to say is that there’s been a lot of focus on the film industry in today’s news media because it distracts people from the real issues. Our film industry definitely has its share of problems, but so does the automobile industry, so does the Lutyens industry, the political industry, where the problems are much more glaring. We are just hung out to dry because we are high-profile.
Having said that, I think the biggest issue that we have in our industry is that it’s not an organised sector. It’s got its advantages as well. It’s essentially, no matter how much you beat the drum of nepotism and camp-ism, it’s actually a meritocracy, because it is an unorganised sector. There is some sort of camp-ism and nepotism, all of that might be there, but the overwhelming fact of this industry is that if you’re good, chances are that you will make it. Let’s start believing in that. Let’s not lose heart ki mujhe chance nahi milega. You’ve got to keep a decent head on your shoulders, and you’ve got to be good at what you do, and sooner rather than later something will happen.
Of the problems that we face, one is that there’s a lot of exploitation of the vulnerable – some of the stories that have come out are just the tip of the iceberg, especially how young women have suffered, some of whom are close friends of mine. They have met people who have said certain things to them. So, that is a problem. It’s a problem that exists everywhere else, but it also exists in our industry. Is the problem going to go away completely? I don’t think it’s going to go away completely, but we need to have systems in place so that we can protect the vulnerable.
“No matter how much you beat the drum of nepotism and camp-ism, it’s actually a meritocracy, because it is an unorganised sector.”
I think that’s primarily been it. When I started, the problems were manifold. To be honest with you, I’ve seen the industry improve – basic standards of dealing with people have improved; I started out in an industry where assistants were not paid. Like, not paid at all. Because when we used to go and ask for money, we were told, ‘accha, paise chahiye tumhe?’ as if I had some secret funds lying somewhere. That has changed. People are paid much better.
The situation of writers has improved dramatically. The emphasis has come on coming up with good scripts, which was not important 20 years ago. So, things have improved.
I think we need to give more power to the creative people. The balance of power is a little uneven; it’s more on the studio-producer side as opposed to the creative side. For example, filmmakers don’t have copyright. They don’t have any power over how the material is used. That’s unfortunate. Writers in the West have really fought hard for that, and they have won it. I don’t see that sort of unity in our industry, so I don’t see it happening soon. We’ve seen lyricists getting those rights, but film writers and directors still don’t have it.
The powerful exploit the powerless – that’s the truth of life, and so it is in our industry as well.
Smriti Kiran: The one thing that I never got around to asking you about is that were you really named after Abhishek Bachchan?
Abhishek Chaubey: Well, the story goes that I was named by my nani – it’s my mother’s side of the family which is film crazy. I was told that Abhishek (Bachchan) was born a year or year and a half before me, so that name was all the rage back then. Unfortunately, wherever I have been, there have been at least eight other Abhisheks. So, I was Abhishek 3 when I was in class, in school at Ranchi.
But the good thing is my surname because that’s how I’m called in the industry – most people call me Chaubey. That’s a unique one.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Rishav Bhattacharya: You said that for a first-time writer and director it is crucial to figure out what to write. How much does the world view of the writer come into play here? Does a writer figure out what they think of the world as they go along making films or is it something one needs to have figured out before they start?
Abhishek Chaubey: There are two things here: one is the thematics of your film. What is it saying? Crime doesn’t pay, for example. There is no one way of arriving at that theme. Sometimes, as it happens, you’re fascinated by an idea – suppose the newspaper headline or the research article that you read or something that you came across somewhere and you find it very fascinating and interesting, and you want to explore it further. Once you start exploring it and start building the story and narrative, it could happen that in the process you figure out, voila, this is what I’m talking about, this is what I want to say.
It doesn’t mean that if I want to make a movie on the theme that crime doesn’t pay, I should now go and find the story. It doesn’t work like that. When I say make something that you want to make – that’s important to you, that’s personal to you – I don’t mean it axiomatically, or as some sort of a theory. What I mean is that I’m really fascinated by, say, Gond paintings. I really love the art world. I know somebody who is an artist, and I want to explore that world. I want to make a movie about being a painter today. You’re fascinated by it; it’s personal, and it’s something that interests you deeply. You go there, you start researching, you start meeting artists, you start doing all of that, and somewhere along the way you find the story.
Finding the theme of your film is a moment of enlightenment. It’s an epiphany. You don’t force yourself. Vo aa jayega kisi din, while you’re working on it.
Saahil Siddiqui: After you’ve had the germ of the idea, for how long do you mull over the idea before picking up the pen? How much time do you dedicate to pre-recce research?
Abhishek Chaubey: There is no set funda to do it really. It all depends on where you start. For example, in Sonchiriya’s case, it was ‘let’s make a Western’. We really didn’t have anything else to go with. From Western, we decided what looks like a Western set piece in terms of the location. So, Chambal looks like a Western, and we went there. That’s really how it was. Then, spend your time doing it.
On the other hand, say, I want to make a film that’s set in the early ‘90s in Ranchi. Now, I know that era and place – I grew up there; I was there when the ‘92 riots happened. So, if I want to make a movie about that time, then obviously the research process is going to be much quicker. In fact, I’m going to be taking my crew and my writer and say, ‘Look, this is how it happened.’ it really depends on what you’re talking about.
How long does one need to let the idea marinate? There are really two things here. There are a lot of ideas that I have as a filmmaker, which are there in my little diary, which I’ve noted down, but the circumstances have not aligned themselves in such a way that I could shoot it right now. On the other hand, you suddenly get an idea, or you are given a film, sometimes as a director you also get scripts and ideas, and for circumstantial reasons, you decide to go ahead with that.
An idea could be around for years. For example, the idea of Ishqiya had been around for a long time – I didn’t really have the plot as such, but the idea of the three characters was there with me for four years before I actually made that film.
Taahanafees Quadri: You mentioned that the early drafts of Sonchiriya were a lot more political but changes were made since it was becoming long-drawn and heavy-handed. Could you please elaborate more on the same? As a beginner filmmaker, how should one strive to imbibe political comments in an organic and layered way?
Abhishek Chaubey: While I was still working on Udta Punjab, I think I was still editing it, I went for a meeting with Ronnie Screwvala. He wanted to make a film together, and he, after much deliberation, said, ‘Action film banao. Make a Western sort of a film.’ I was like, ‘Yes, anytime. I would love to’. That’s how Sonchiriya started really. Then, Sudip and I got talking about it. The period of Emergency was already there, except we were setting it in Rajasthan, near Chambal – not in Chambal as we did later.
It was a more political film in the sense that we were really trying to take a big village, what you’d called a kasba, and do a microcosm of whatever was happening in the country. So, you do an Emergency story with characters who are at the national level, for example, the Gandhis and Jay Prakash Narayans, put them in that village and find representations of them there. It was about a royal family, and it was a woman who takes them on, who was the Jay Prakash Narayan character in the film. That woman was called Sonchiriya, at that point in time – it was a young, Dalit woman who takes on the establishment, due to which an Emergency is created in the village.
It was turning out to be a saga. There was just too much happening there, and too little action. It was getting into dramatic territory. It became more like a series. I needed eight hours to tell that story. At that point, I was also feeling slightly burdened by the story. The good thing was that by then we had spent six months on that material. We had spent a lot of time researching and spent some time writing and developing a story. We had almost reached halfway through the story in detail.
Then, Sudip and I met and decided to do something more muscular – leaner, sinewy – that’s nimble on its feet, like a story that happens in three days. We thought, ‘Let’s just do a film about a heist,’ or something like that, where we take all these ideas and put it there. That’s how the story of Sonchiriya started developing. And because we had spent so much time on it, and a lot of groundwork had been done already, we cracked the story fairly quickly – zero to draft took only three months.
Aryan Singh: You said in an interview that Maqbool is a completely fabricated world, where gangsters speak in chaste Urdu in Bombay. How do you distinguish between the Bombay Underworld and the world of Maqbool? In essence, how do you differentiate between basing it in the real world and keeping the world of the story intact?
Abhishek Chaubey: We don’t really understand realism. Our understanding of realism in movies is the amount of background score there is in them. Films that have less background score somehow seem more real to us. I personally think that I have not made one single realistic film in my life. I’m not a realistic filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination.
Maqbool was not a realistic film at all. Yes, you’re right that the characters are from Bombay, but we are shooting it in Bhopal, and they are speaking chaste Urdu as if they come from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s family. But it is effective, it works. It’s a self-contained world, which takes cues from the real world, but then creates its own identity, its own space. It’s an alternate reality. Within an alternate reality, the rules that you have created as the filmmaker need to be consistent. That’s all the audience needs from you: that you don’t break your own rules. Maqbool is a very sombre piece; the characters are speaking very high Urdu; they are speaking in a certain way; it’s very mannered acting – nobody is doing realistic acting in the film, everybody is doing high drama. If this is the world that you have created, then you need to be consistent; don’t make a mistake in the world that you have created. If you do break the rules, do it deliberately and do it smartly.
There are very few realistic films. Maqbool is not cinéma vérité or anything of that sort; neither is Sonchiriya. We take the cues – we go and shoot there, but I don’t imagine a daaku passionately turning away from the camera and saying, ‘Baaghi dharmi hota hai.’ I don’t think baaghis went around discussing their dharmas. It was just there.
Yugandhar Kakde: You don’t necessarily consider your films to be realistic but they undoubtedly seem to be so to the audience. I have had this conflict in my head since I saw Kaminey (by Vishal Bhardwaj). During the climax, we have a gangwar between the local criminals, drug dealers, a politician, the police and even a man from possibly an African country, with a barrage of cross-firing in a slum in Mumbai, possibly in the middle of the day.
As a writer, how do you go about writing scenes which might be too ambitious on your part while writing it and yet seem to translate into something so authentic on screen?
Abhishek Chaubey: Specifically about Kaminey’s climax: those of us who were involved in the writing of the film laboured over it for many months. It was not an easy thing to come by. I remember the way it happened. I was there for a part of the journey – I was there till we did the first or second draft, and I got busy with the prep of Ishqiya. So, Supratik (Sen) and Vishal went to the US to meet Sabrina, and then they worked on subsequent drafts.
The climax was something that we laboured with a lot. It was very tough. Now, the nature of Kaminey is that of a bleak caper. That’s what it is. By their very nature, capers have multiple characters and multiple threads, and all of them have their motivations. In a regular film, you have three-four characters, who you have to tie up in the end. In this case, you have 25, and you have to tie them all up. This is a trope that happens in caper films a lot: everybody gathers in one climactic location, and there is sometimes a firefight or a big scene, and somehow things get resolved.
In Kaminey’s case, because most of the characters happened to be gangsters, most of them had to be killed, for better or for worse. Therefore, it was a natural end to the film. That’s what we felt at that time. These things are always very hard to do. When you’re talking about multiple characters, multiple narratives, and all tracks have to be neatly ended, it’s very tricky to pull it off. It’s the sort of a thing where after having dug yourself a nice, deep hole, you now have to come out of it unscathed. That’s what happens in films like this.
Having said that, our effort was to give justification to all the characters and their stories nicely, and by the end, get to the meaning of the film, which was about the diamond.
As to the second part of your question, how not to get over-indulgent is often very hard to do. There is no cinematic trick to how not to get over-indulgent. There is no craft-wala trick here. You have to be a smarter human being is all I can say; more than smarter, actually, a wiser human being.
Getting indulgent is a very insidious process. You don’t realise when you’re getting indulgent. It’s not something you get an idea about. You often don’t realise it. It just happens.
What’s most important at the script stage, like I said earlier also, is to not surround yourself with people who say ‘yaar tu toh bada genius hai’. Surround yourself with people who can actually beat you down and say that you suck. That really helps. You might feel bad for a second when people tell you the truth, but if you go and act on it, it’ll help you a lot. So, always check with people around you – those who wouldn’t be shy to tell the truth to your face, no matter how big a filmmaker you become.
That’s one way of dealing with it. Also, be wiser. What can I say? Try some meditation or yoga if you have to. You can separate yourself from your creative side and say, ‘No, not going there’.
Pranav Joshi: How do you segue between different plot points and ensure thematic continuity in a film like Udta Punjab where there are multiple narratives going on simultaneously? How do you decide on the plot point order for a more linear film like Sonchiriya?
Abhishek Chaubey: The structure is extremely important. I cannot stress this enough. We tend to think of it as a very clerical thing to do – it’s very prosaic. But that’s where your creativity lies. Cinema is a juxtaposition of images and sound – what you juxtapose together is what’s going to tell the story of your film. The structure is very critical in that regard, I cannot overemphasise it, especially in narrative films like ours. I’m not talking about abstract films, although they too follow a structure.
In a film like Udta Punjab, where you have multiple narratives, multiple characters, that becomes of the essence. I remember Sudip and I, as opposed to Sonchiriya, just spent doing index cards for months during Udta Punjab, to the extent that when Sudip, because it was his first film, had to go to the shoot of NH10 (by Navdeep Singh), which was being shot in Delhi at the time, I took the index cards to Delhi, and we used to stay in the hotel and keep working on the cards. That was very important in order to have the right structure in place before we started doing the pages. In Sonchiriya, it was easier. If you look at the structure of Sonchiriya, it was just thick set pieces on a thread. It took us less time to develop it because it flowed very naturally.
A very underrated facet of filmmaking is transitions. They aren’t just ‘yahan dissolve maar do, achha lagta hai.’ It’s not just about finding a visual transition. It’s about finding the note at which to leave a scene and pick up the next one. It could be a technical thing that you do, but at what note do you leave a scene and go to the next one is something that directors have to think very hard about because that is where you take the audience’s hand and take them to a new space.
Films are rewritten on the editing table, which is quite hard to do. I have, in the past, made a grave mistake, which is having thought out the meaning of each scene beforehand and having overestimated the importance of each moment of my film even when the editor is clearly saying that nobody will watch it. You need to have the wherewithal and be dispassionate enough to separate yourself from what you have done and start looking at what it is objectively. It’s a cliché, again, but it’s true that editing is rewriting a film.
So, these three processes are extremely critical, and you have to be alert at all times.
Prashant Ramachandran: Do you involve your editor right from the writing process?
Abhishek Chaubey: It has happened both ways for me. For example, Ishqiya was edited by Namrata (Rao), and she got on board only after the film got shot. Ishqiya was all over the place.
There was a crew that I had worked with for so many years, and I wanted to work with them on my first film, and they all couldn’t do that film for some reason or the other. So, I had to crew up last minute and Namrata joined after I finished. She read the script after it had already been shot – not the ideal situation; I would never advise that. That’s never a good thing. But if that’s not the case, I definitely have editors read the script.
I also feel that bohot zyada nahin karna chahiye. You should not do multiple sessions. You read the script, you have a meeting and you thrash it out. Editors always have an eye for what is unnecessary or extra or overstated. So, discuss it, and make your choice on whether you agree with what she’s saying or not, and go ahead.
A meeting or two is important, but no more. It’s a different process altogether, and there’s a reason why they come in at a certain point during the making of a film. There’s a reason why they come in after it has been shot. We primarily tell the story through images and not through the written word.
Umang Agarwal: Your stories are so rich because of several characters who bring in different sides of the world that they inhabit, and at times they are not even from similar worlds. How do you maintain the balance without losing the integrity of the character?
Abhishek Chaubey: It’s hard, but filmmaking is not easy. You’re right: I tend to have many characters in the film. Most movies have lots of characters. At times our focus is so much on the hero and heroine that all the other characters basically become properties. They don’t have a life of their own. They just need to voice the plot and behave that way.
Your attempt while writing characters, and I’m sure I’ve made mistakes, should be to give them all a past. If someone walks by you in a mall, for you it’s just somebody who walked past, but the guy has his own life, his own history. So, you fill characters with history, you fill characters with purpose, and with their fears and desires.
Sure, it is a tightrope walk. You try to balance many things together. But in the end, it comes down to your skill as a storyteller, and the actors themselves. They understand who they are, and they understand their relationship to the other characters in the movie, so that every time they enact a particular scene, they are not just mouthing dialogues but also coming with the entire baggage of their history, and the history that is outside of the narrative. They come from there. It helps with creating more rounded and three-dimensional characters. A lot of credit also has to go to my actors and co-writers for trying to do that.
It’s always a battle. I don’t think I have succeeded all the time; I have failed as well, and I’m acutely aware of that.
Madhav Pradhan: Almost all your films are an ensemble of diverse characters and their stories converge during the climax. Do you start writing from the beginning and progress naturally from there, or do you start from the point of convergence and then branch out their stories, or do you keep both the beginning and the convergence of the characters in your mind beforehand and then write their journeys between those two points?
Abhishek Chaubey: It’s all there in the script itself. When you write the story, you have to think about it at a very primary level. Cinema is about conflict. It’s about the juxtaposition of opposing views, if I may say so. You have Sushant’s character and you have Ranvir’s (Shorey) character who have opposing views about things. That conflict leads to not only the sequences in the story but also lends itself to the meaning of the film.
Everything that you do in a film, you’re really doing it for the last scene or the last shot. That’s the point for which the film is made. It’s like the magician’s prestige. Everything you do until then is trying to arrive at that.
Look at it in this way: a film is almost like a debate. Through the story, you’re presenting arguments and counter-arguments, and at last, you come to the end where you understand what the entire shebang was about. It’s only natural that you will have characters whose points of view are different. It’s only natural – every story has that.
Niteesh Madithati: Raat Akeli Hai (by Honey Trehan) is restricted to the place where the murder happens but Sonchiriya is set across vast, deserted lands. Is it with the characters that I build the world, as a writer, or is it through the set design, as a director?
Abhishek Chaubey: To give you a very basic example: the script is the blueprint. I’m sure you’ve come across this example – if you’re trying to make a building, the script is your blueprint based on which you’re going to go ahead and make the structure. Yes, the script goes a long way in helping you create the world. It’s like the algorithm.
But the script is not going to have each and every detail. It’s not going to tell you everything. It’s just going to say, ‘A walks into a sparsely furnished living room and lights a cigarette.’ That’s all that is said. Now, you’ve got to take those clues that are there in the written material and give it flesh and blood – make it three dimensional. What does ‘a sparsely furnished room’ actually mean? How do you translate it? The job of a director is to fill in the details. I’m specifically talking about direction because even if the script is going to offer clues, it is primarily the director’s responsibility to really give it the essence. You can do little things that go a long way in creating the world.
Image is a very strong, potent tool because the ambiguity in an image is much less than that in the written word. It gives you less room for interpretation because an image tells you what it is. Not that it cannot be so, it can be beautifully ambiguous and mysterious. But not so much as compared to the written word, generally speaking.
In Raat Akeli Hai, the world that he creates, and I’m speaking quite literally, is that of a family. Their home is their world. It’s an interior film, in that sense. You see people inside their homes. You see this big joint family juxtaposed with the very small family of the cop and his mother. So, that’s the world in which the story is set in. Sonchiriya is an exterior, outdoor film where the ravines are a character unto themselves.
Pratham Khurana: When you write a screenplay, how do you make sure that the world which you have created translates well on screen for an audience that isn’t familiar with the world? How much of that is left for the direction and how much of that is present in the script itself?
Abhishek Chaubey: What I meant when I said that the more local you go, the more global you are is that the primary emotions that your story is talking about are universal. Emotions are universal. We laugh and cry the same anywhere in the world. I depend on the primary emotions that everybody is going to feel – that doesn’t change.
We, especially in India, really talk a lot about the diversity of our culture, but I have cheated Lucknow in Pune. Sometimes I feel that the diversity is slightly overstated. No matter how different we are, we are much the same.
If you were to go in the world of Dedh Ishqiya, where you’re talking about the decaying Muslim aristocracy, and the decaying mansions that it occupies, and the lonely begum who lives there, you’ll find that these archetypes exist everywhere. You find them in Bengal, you find them in South India – you find them everywhere. So, people relate to their own experience and attach themselves to this unique world.
Also, I have always felt that we need to make a little more effort in appreciating our own culture in various parts of India. I think people should start watching movies with subtitles. They should just get used to the idea rather than having a Tamil film dubbed in Hindi.
I deliberately do dialects, and my films are released with subtitles. We want to train people to do that. Audiences take time getting used to certain things, but then they do get used to it. So, in that sense, I’m just training people. Subtitles laga ke dekho, get used to dialects.
Divesh Mirchandani: As an actor, how does one familiarise themselves with the culture and geography of the world that the director wants to create?
Abhishek Chaubey: There are various tools that you have as an actor. Suppose that your character in a script speaks in a particular dialect. Just the simple process of learning the dialect and understanding that it’s not just about using words a certain way, you can delve a little deeper and understand why the language or dialect has the particular phonetics that it has. It’s really fascinating. In Sochiriya, we have a mix of Chambal ki boli and Bundelkhandi, which comes from Braj bhasha, which is the original language of that country. Braj bhasha and Awadhi are the original languages of North India. It’s very fascinating. This is how generations of our ancestors have spoken.
Going to the place where the story is set in always helps. In fact, anything and everything does. Doing a lot of physical things, for one, because acting is about using your body, so doing a lot of physical things really helps. For example, if you’re playing a daaku, then really learn how to hold a gun. I’ve seen so many films in the past where the guy’s supposed to be dreaded daaku and he is holding the gun like a child. Those things don’t work.
When you start doing these things, like learning how an experienced rifle holder will hold it, your body will automatically start adjusting to the character. If you hold the rifle in a certain position, your eyes have to be a certain way. So, you’re wiring the body language of the character. If you’re wearing canvas shoes or wearing rubber chappals and walking in very treacherous terrains, which is the bihad, you learn how to walk over days. Your body will set a certain way, and you’ll start walking like a baaghi. You will realise that you need to lose a lot of weight because if you’re walking 35 to 40 kilometres every day chances are that you are quite slim. You do things like that to get your body used to the character. Suddenly, if your body starts behaving like the character, you’ll realise that you’re closer to being him.
Also, understand the context and mood of your story, the characters and emotions – that goes without saying.
Yeshi Shah: Have there been moments where you’ve gone with your gut against all odds and it has turned out to be extremely fruitful for you?
Abhishek Chaubey: It has happened a few times, especially in the casting process, where I have really felt strongly about a particular actor, and the general consensus has been that it doesn’t work. Somehow I just stuck to my guns and it worked out well. So, it’s happened like that. I find it hard to recollect things like that. I’m sure it happens, but I find it hard to believe that they do. I don’t want to keep it in my head. I want to forget that such things have happened.
A film set is a hierarchical place. It is not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination. Leadership styles are different. The way I look at it is that I want to take everybody in confidence before I take a huge step, which would probably change the film drastically in some way. Even if everybody is against it, I do manage to convince a few people before I do something. So, by the time we go ahead with it, everybody is convinced, and it becomes everybody’s decision in that sense.
In Sonchiriya, the sequence at the doctor’s place was written in a different way. Then, Sudip and I changed it and wrote it in another way. The script was done very close to the shoot, especially that particular sequence. There were a lot of ideas. There were a lot of decisions that we took as writers, and a lot of people were against those decisions. One of those was regarding what happens to the guy who is injured. I just said that they simply forget about him and leave. There was a lot of opposition to the idea that they would seem foolish. ‘How could they do that?’ I said that they have a bloody battalion against them, and they are just trying to save their asses. I stuck to my guns, and it worked. So, it does happen a few times.
Akshay Kodala: Since most of your stories deal with real people, how do you see real-life experiences creatively?
Abhishek Chaubey: Imagination is of the essence here, otherwise I will never be able to make a movie about a serial killer. You don’t have to experience everything that you are making a movie about. Using your imagination is absolutely important. If I can be philosophical for a second, every kind of emotion and experiences are already there within us. We can tap into that wellspring and talk about something.
So, what you call preparation or research, you do that not just to get, and I repeat myself, prosaic details about the film. Iss scene mein piche ek painting laga leta hoon, or that they would use so and so things in that era. It’s not just about those details; those are the smaller parts of it. It’s more about going and experiencing that world, so you can understand a little better and then channelise that within you and tell a story about it.
I don’t need to be a daaku to make a movie about daakus. But I can go and experience them, and meet them and speak to them, and spend a lot of time with them to get what they are about from their own mouth to then use that to understand their emotions and use that emotion to tell the story – something that you do in acting as well. So, I think imagination is key. Otherwise, we’ll be making only one kind of film.
Siddhi Ghaisas: How important is it to be a writer as well as a director in any film?
Abhishek Chaubey: I feel it’s neither here nor there. You don’t always need to be the writer of the film that you’re going to direct. I don’t think it’s critical all the time. However, having said that, when the script comes, you still need to live it completely. You need to live each and every moment completely. Work with the writer and do a draft. It will happen. It’s not that you’re going to get the written word easily – score 23 pages of a script in one go, and then go ahead and shoot it exactly the way it is written. That’s very rare. What’s more likely to happen is that you read a script, you like it and then you offer to direct it – you’d be certainly happy to direct it – but then you would like to sit with the writer and go over the pages in detail, so that you not only live through every moment in the film but also make it your own because ultimately it’s going to be your voice. So, that’s very important
You also realise that even if you’ve not written the film, your own personality and style is going to be reflected naturally. Whether Martin Scorsese works with Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver or not, or with Terence Winter in The Wolf of Wall Street, we still know that it’s a Martin Scorsese film.
You don’t need to be a writer all the time. I don’t think it’s critical, although it has helped in my case. I’ve never done it, but I don’t have a problem if I get to direct material which I think is great. I would definitely take it.
Nikita Deshpande: What are the things that shape your storytelling – travelling, books, art, watching movies, etc? Can you share some of your favourites in books and movies?
Abhishek Chaubey: I’ve always been a movie-buff. I’ve not been formally trained – whatever I have learned has always been on the job, starting from when I was an assistant. My education about movies happened by watching movies. Being a film buff, like I said earlier, I’m not a genre freak. I don’t grudge filmmakers their choice of films. Perhaps, I would prefer to watch a movie with guns. When I was younger, I preferred action and thriller movies, but now it’s not like that. I’m pretty much okay with everything. It sometimes bothers me a little bit when while watching a movie I can see that something has been done for another reason other than the narrative or the story itself.
The kind of films that I get drawn towards are mostly from the ‘60s European cinema and ‘70s Hollywood. These two decades and these two places have really influenced me a lot. Talk about ‘70s Hollywood… I mean, something happened to American filmmakers. They could do no wrong. Some of the best films that we know have come from that era. I’m not only talking about the popular ones made by (Francis Ford) Coppola or (Martin) Scorsese, but even some of the lesser-known films have been phenomenal. One can just look and wonder at all that was made back then. ‘60s European films also have been a huge influence. Not that I’m making anything that even remotely resembles those films, but it does have a sort of subconscious influence, especially the new wave cinema. I’ve also been a big fan of (Ingmar) Bergman and (Michelangelo) Antonioni. I’ve loved watching their films. They have stayed with me. This is just broad because you’re talking to a film buff. If I tell you this is my favourite film, then I’m not talking about the 499 other favourite films. I always find it an unfair question. But broadly speaking, these two decades have had a huge influence on me.
I’ve come a long way with books because I mainly used to read pulp. In fact, I proudly announced during my interview to secure admission for the literature course at Hindu College that my favourite novel is by Jeffrey Archer. The teacher gave me a very, very sad look. But I had marks, so I got in. If he had his way, I wouldn’t have been admitted. I got into literature and started diligently reading whatever was prescribed in the course.
I am mostly bent towards police procedurals and noir, which was a huge thing for me earlier, but, again, in the last eight to ten years, I have read all sorts of material. Of late, I feel myself turning more towards non-fiction. As a matter of fact, I’m reading more history; because as you grow older, you want to know more about the world that you live in. Until then you’re just fine in your cocoon.
I have recently read Jonathan Franzen – Sudip and I are fans. But lately, I have been getting enamoured by a lot of non-fiction history books; in fact, even historical fiction – someday I’ll probably make one also.
Shubhankar Bhattacharya: At Macguffin Pictures, what kind of scripts are you looking to produce? Considering that Konkona and Honey are people whom you’ve known for ages, is it going to be a closed ecosystem or are you looking for new people?
Abhishek Chaubey: What’s most important to understand about our production is that we are a very small company. Honey and I run it; my wife, Chetna, is very deeply involved in the company as well. But it’s a very small company essentially run by the three of us, out of which Honey and I also happen to be directors, who, at any given point in time, are busy writing our own scripts or shooting our own films. There is only so much bandwidth we have. We cannot do a lot of work, naturally. Bhai-bhatija baat nahin hai, it’s not that you need to be a friend.
What we are very clear about is that we don’t want to make very big films when we produce. We are more interested in intimate stories, with a middle-of-the-road sort of budget. We are not genre freaks – anything goes, but it definitely needs to have something new to offer. You’ve seen the kind of work that Honey and I have done – that should be your clue.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Abhishek Chaubey in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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