DIAL M FOR FILMS | THE BATTLE INSIDE: KEEPING A CREATOR’S MIND AND SPIRIT STRONG
BY VIKRAMADITYA MOTWANE
Smriti Kiran: Writer, director, producer Vikramaditya Motwane’s work is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. He started working at the age of 17 with his mother Dipa Motwane on a television show called Teen Talk. Two years on the show and a 9-month course from Xaviers Institute of Communication (XIC) later, Vikram got his first job as an assistant director with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He worked on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas. After Sanjay Leela Bhansali he assisted Deepa Mehta on Water.
Vikram started working in 1994. He wrote his first film Udaan in 2003. Udaan world premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2010. It took Vikram 16 years to make his first film as director. Those 16 years were Vikram’s college, his learning ground; his journey to his first milestone as a director to even figuring out if he wanted to be a director. He met some of his key collaborators – starting with his wife, an exceptional photographer and now actress, Ishika Mohan Motwane, director Anurag Kashyap, sound designer Kunal Sharma, cinematographer Mahendra Shetty and a host of others – his tribe, as he fondly refers to them, during this time.
His roster as both director and producer is impressive and distinct. In his 26 years in the industry, Vikram has seen dizzying highs, numbing plateaus and crushing lows. Somehow, Vikram’s successes and failures all seem very personal because he feels like one of us made it. Vikram has a new production company, Andolan. He is working on multiple projects and is always plotting a revolution. Let us pull him in.
I was pleasantly surprised when you chose to speak about keeping a creator’s mind and spirit strong. Why did you pick this topic?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I think two things: one, because I’m generally thankful to a lot of people who have been by my side. Two, this pandemic. When it started off, so many of us were spending our time at home. It’s a joke, a meme right now: we are going through these amazing highs and these crushing lows.
As a filmmaker, it’s exactly that; What do I do with my time? How do I spend my time? How do I be productive? When we were talking, I realised that it took me back to the time one has spent trying to make it. I figured that this was actually the perfect thing that we should be talking about.
Smriti Kiran: You started working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali as an assistant director. How were the first six months?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It was actually pretty crazy. Just before I started working with Sanjay Bhansali, as you mentioned, I worked on Teen Talk, and then I jumped into this. Let me give you a little bit of history.
My parents got divorced in the late eighties. Mom’s first job was as a production manager. She had to learn on the job. She worked with this filmmaker called Shukla Das, who used to make corporate films and documentaries. He had an assistant called Sanjay Leela Bhansali. My mom and Bhansali became friends. They opened their own company together, which was a disaster because these two artist type characters were getting budgets for shooting on beta and pneumatic and they wanted to shoot 35-millimetre. So, all their money was getting wasted. She then had the idea of making a television talk show for teenagers. Maybe it was because my sister and I were at the age where it was time for those kinds of conversations but she also felt that there were larger things that needed to be said.
She started this talk show, and I started working on that as an assistant. The director was this gentleman called Manu Gargi, who today is a co-producer on Martin Scorsese’s Silence. He was actually launched as a Dev Anand hero when he first came to the industry. He was one of my first mentors and someone from whom I learned a lot.
I started in television and worked on Teen Talk. There were two seasons of it – one in English, with mom and Jalal Agha as the host; afterwards, we had Sagar Arya who came on board for the Hindi version. I also worked on this show called Disney Club.
From that world, I was jumping into the Sanjay Leela Bhansali world. In TV, back in 1995-96, I was getting paid 8,000 rupees a month, which was a lot of money. I was less than 20 years old at that point in time. Now, I’m working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and of course, we don’t know what the film is then, my salary is 2,500 rupees a month; for which I have to work 30+ days of the month.
In those six months, you were hit by this barrage of information that you didn’t know existed out there. Not only was it about learning the history of films but also learning about processes that have never been a part of your learning, ever. You were listening to music with a different ear. I was thinking about how to look at art direction with a different gaze, and also costume designing. It was at this rapid pace because, in order to learn about it, you had to go out and do multiple things. You’re running here and there, and doing pretty much everything.
Sanjay works with the first and second Assistant Director (AD) system, which Excel Entertainment brought into the fold. Earlier, being the assistant director meant you were everything – you would be the DA (Director’s Assistant), first as well as the second AD. You were doing everything.
It was perfect for learning. It was actually the best thing to learn because then you weren’t a producer’s person, you were a director’s person. You’ve got real responsibilities on the job. It’s not a school. The mistakes you make have real-world repercussions. I have made tons of mistakes. For example, you brought the wrong kind of kurtas for a song, and the next thing you know is that the director is blowing a fit. You missed the train to go to FTII to take a look at a particular film there. All these mistakes have been made. You quickly realise that there are repercussions to that. You learn how to listen, how to pay attention, and how to do the things that you shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
Smriti Kiran: What was the trajectory while working with Sanjay on two films? Once you came on set and started doing this, how did you find your feet? How did you get to know what you like and wanted to focus on, and began discovering things that you were naturally attracted to?
Vikramaditya Motwane: You kind of flow with it. When you come in, your main responsibility is your duty. Your first thing is: ‘I’m not the director. I’m an assistant director. My job is to do whatever the director wants.’ Most of the time, you’re not really thinking about what you like or dislike, what you’re learning or not learning. You think you’re not learning anything. All you’re doing is the work. You’re getting there, taking a look at your job list for the day, and trying to finish those things in the entire day.
There’s so much work at a high level of intensity that you’re just not thinking about learning. Six months later, you may realise, ‘Oh, now I know how to write a screenplay,’ or, ‘I know what that format is,’ or, ‘I know how to be able to sit through music sittings’ and understand what I actually need for that.
It was like this for two and a half years. I started in Jan. ‘97, and June ‘99 was the release of the film. We didn’t start shooting until December, so we had 11 months of prep on the film. We began from what story we are actually working on – Sanjay had three stories – so there was a lot of back and forth that went on. Then when we started the process of writing, we did a lot of research.
I had to spend a lot of time at this space called the Indian National Theatre (INT), which used to be in Fort, in a hidden gully. It did not exist for me until I went there. But the INT is a place which actually had a lot of recordings of grassroots theatre – Indian theatre at the village or town level. You went there to basically take a bunch of stuff and sit with all these really interesting people talking about that. It feels like a job, of course. Only a year later do you realise that you learned so much. But at that moment, you’re absolutely not thinking about learning. You’re just doing the job.
Then, the shooting started in December. You have been shooting with video cameras all your life and suddenly there are 35-millimetre film cameras, big lights and cranes. Anil Mehta was the cinematographer. He was the associate director on Mirch Masala, Bhavni Bhavai, and he had also shot Khamoshi. That was a big deal. They all seemed like goliaths at that point. I felt like this tiny little guy, and everybody else was a giant who had done a lot of work.
You’re coming from a time when there was a protocol of how to deal with certain people. Say, if I’m an assistant director, there is a certain way that I was supposed to speak to the cinematographer. So, I started to learn those things. It doesn’t exist now. I’m not sure if it was a good thing.
As I was saying, you do all these kinds of stuff. You’re doing your job, and you don’t know whether you’re learning or not. Eventually, two-three years later, you figure that you have learned it.
I didn’t know if I wanted to be a director. I had no idea. It was an opportunity. I had been an assistant director. I realised that I had an affinity for the editing room; that’s something I really liked. I enjoyed the challenge of the edit room, where you have the footage and you need to try to put it together. I took that challenge a little further with Sanjay. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do this film’. But I still didn’t know. I had this big desire to be a sports cinematographer. There were a lot more things that I wanted, but I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be a director.
A lot of it came from ‘Did I really have anything to say?’
Smriti Kiran: It was a time when you were doing relentless work. Like you said, being an assistant director you just follow instructions initially. You’re trying to grapple with deadlines and all the things that you have to do. It’s only later that you begin to realise that you’re learning something. That time is brutal because the stress is really high. You have to perform. There’s so much at stake that even a little mistake would mean a blow-up from the director.
How does a young person handle that? How did you keep yourself motivated? How did you keep yourself centred and keep working at it since that was your daily grind?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I’ve seen a lot of assistant directors, especially with Sanjay, who have come in thinking that since they are an AD now, they will make films, but realise in a month or month and a half later that ‘I’m just not cut out for this because this is really hard work’.
It can be soul-crushing in a sense because you’re going in there and you think that you’re working really hard. Of course, your experience is nowhere near the level of your seniors, so obviously you’re going to be at a disadvantage already. There is the work pressure, deadlines and, on top of it all, a fairly volatile boss who demands a hell of a lot out of you. You leave it be at that point, you’re like chal na yaar. But it’s only when you become a director that you realise what really drives directors to be the way they are and demand what they do from their assistants.
There are days when you come back home and you’re in tears. You’re like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I going through this entire grind?’. But, I had made up my mind that no matter what happens, I’m going to finish this. You have to jump in. I told myself that I’m going to have good days and I’m going to have bad days. Days when I would just like to wake up and quit my job and cry about why I am doing it for such little amount of money and so much work. But I had made up my mind before I started that whatever happens, I was going to finish it. Then you just put your head down and you’re like, ‘I have to do this because if I do nothing else, at least I’ve got this on my resume – that I was the assistant director of this film.’ Then you take it step by step. You slowly realise you’re going to take things a day at a time, then a week at a time and then a month at a time. You can’t presume that it’s 1997 and I have done nothing for two years. If you take that pressure, it’ll kill you. I took it a day at a time and looked at the larger picture, saying to myself that by the end of it, it will all be behind me and I would have learned a hell of a lot. It would also be a stepping stone to bigger things.
Smriti Kiran: You met some of your long time collaborators (“your tribe”) while you were an AD working on different films – Kunal Sharma; Ishika Mohan (whom you met in school), Mahendra Shetty, Anurag Kashyap, Arpan Gaglani, Deepika Kalra and Aditya Kanwar. How does one form a tribe, a circle of trust, when the competition is so high and stress levels are peaking?
Vikramaditya Motwane: That same element of trust comes from the fact that you end up loving the people that you collaborate with. I say loving in a far more platonic sort of way. There is a relationship of trust that builds between you and your collaborators where you are baring your soul in a sense. You are telling them the things that you would not normally tell everybody or anybody.
It’s like a relationship, right? You are going to go out there and trust people. You’re going to get your heart broken because somebody is going to be a jackass. The other side is that you will make fast friends for life who will be there with you throughout. You will have collaborators who will be there throughout.
You have to trust people. You have to be able to tell them stories. You have to be able to understand them and have them understand you when you’re working on something together. Especially with filmmakers, a lot of that comes from collective awe of the arts, of cinema, of things that move you, of music.
My relationship with all my collaborators whom I am working with today has always started with something that we’ve believed in together or have liked the same thing. For example, Ishika and I, our friendship is now 30 years old but it started with the fact that we both love the same music. It starts from there and then it transforms into something else once you have that connection with somebody. It’s the same with every collaborator I’ve known after that – be it Kuna, Mahendra, Siddharth Diwan, Swapnil (Sonwane), or even Anurag.
Smriti Kiran: You met Anurag on Water, right?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I met him on Water. Immediately after Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, I started working on Water. He was the dialogue writer. I was the executive assistant. I was actually his wrangler. I had to make sure that the dialogues were written. Aarti, who was his wife at that point in time, was with me at XIC. So, there’s already familiarity when you know someone, but that connection is made when you begin to discuss things – have you seen this film, have you seen that film. The next thing you know is that you’re building this relationship as you go along because there are things that you’ve seen and observed and you don’t know if anybody else has even seen those things that you can now communicate with the other person. That’s how those relationships start to get built. At the top of it all, they are built through a massive relationship of trust. It expands your relationships in general.
One of the things that I used to notice, especially with assistants with whom I had worked with earlier, was the misconception to not tell their story to anybody. Sanjay used to be very secretive about his work. Within his group, you are privy to a certain bunch of secrets. But outside of it, you’re not. A lot of assistants who wanted to make films would take that in the wrong way. They would come to you with a script, and when you’d ask them about the story, they’d wouldn’t say. I used to wonder if you can’t tell me the story, how you are going to tell it to the world. You have to be able to let go. That’s a part of filmmaking. That’s a small microcosm of what happens if you’re closed off.
Smriti Kiran: It happened with you too, right? You and Kunal had taken a trip to Kerala when you’d written Udaan. This was something you learned on the way from Venu. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that story?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Venu is this massively senior cinematographer. I had been working with him. I was the associate director on Barf, which was supposed to be Vishal Bhardwaj’s first film. This is before Hum Dil… and Devdas. Barf never happened, and Vishal went on to make Makdee. I came back to work with Sanjay on Devdas.
After the film finished, Kunal, my sound designer, and I wanted a break because Devdas had taken the lifeblood out of us. We decided that we were going to take a trip and we are going to stay with Venu sir. This was in the middle of the monsoon. We made sure we took a train down. We went to Munnar.
One day in Munnar, while drinking, Venu is like, ‘What’s the story of your film?’ I told him that I won’t tell him. Why would I? It’s my film. I can’t tell it. But he insisted. He said that I had to since there were only three of us sitting in the room. He told me the exact same thing that I’m telling you right now, he said: ‘If you can’t tell your story to me while living with me, how are you going to tell your story to an audience of potentially lakhs of people who are going to watch your film?’ I told him that it was different. He said that it wasn’t.
He got me drunk, and eventually, I did tell him the story. It was very scary. It was probably the scariest moment of my life, almost teeth chattering because you’re baring your soul and telling somebody your deepest thoughts. You think that this is absolute shit, what kind of a rubbish story is this. Then when you tell it, it’s liberating for the simple reason that it’s out of you now. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, you puked it out.
His feedback was fantastic. This was Udaan – the story of a father and son; it was a fairly dark and angry story about the two of them. He gave me some pointers about the events of the film. I took that very seriously. I realised then that you have to be able to trust people with your inner feelings.
I learnt that a lot from Anurag as well. If you know him, the kind of person that he is, he can’t keep a secret. He can now, but he’s the kind of person who is telling his stories to everybody. I have heard all his stories and he has heard all my stories. You realise that you have to be that kind of person because that’s how you do it. You have to tell people that you want to be trusted and you have to trust them. That bit with Venu was a big learning for me.
Smriti Kiran: When you get on set, as an assistant director or as somebody who has been hired at the onset at the point of time to just work and learn, how do you find what you want to do? People expect you to always choose the so-called more glamorous jobs like being the director or being the captain of the ship. Everybody cannot become a director. How do you get secure with the feeling of knowing that this is what I can do?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I don’t think you ever do that. At that moment, you don’t know if you can do that. You don’t even know if it’s for you because you suddenly realise that being a director is all these things. You don’t know if you have it in you, which is why so many of your best directors have actually had a big arc. It’s not like you can be an assistant one day and a director the next day. There are some rare people who have managed to do that. Most people that I know have had a much larger arc. When you want to tell the story, you also have to be technically proficient. You have to know where to place the cameras and know how to edit.
One of the most undervalued and under-spoken things about being a director is the fact that you are a people’s manager at the end of the day. Yes, there is the creative part of it, but you have to be able to write and tell your story and direct actors and also manage the entire day. Managing people is your biggest thing. How do you get the best out of actors? How do you get the best out of the cinematographer or the art director? When do you get angry? When do you not get angry? When do you show love? How many hugs do you give in a day? Usually, it comes down to that a lot of times. Especially with collaborators who are your close friends, you are giving a lot of hugs throughout the day. That is part of being a director.
When you’re an assistant, you’re grappling with so much information that you have no clue what is going to come out of it. I loved finishing Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and watching a beautiful moment towards the end when you see the magic unfurl in front your eyes; when you marvel at how gorgeous and lovely all of the two and a half years of work have been.
I took a break after that. My family has a house in Nashik, where my father used to work in a factory. I went there in the monsoon, and as I’m sitting there, I am just letting things drain out. That’s when I felt that I had an interesting story to tell, now can I even go out there and direct the story? At that moment, two-two and a half years later, with all the time spent and experiences you’ve had, you’re trying to put two and two together and ask yourself, ‘Can I tell this story knowing what I know about filmmaking, knowing what I know about what it’s going to take for me to be able to tell the story?’
That’s the seed of where it started. So, this was around 1999. I had sown the seed of wanting to tell a story then. I didn’t write that story until 2002 until I met Bhavani Iyer – that’s another tangent about self-worth and being able to write.
Smriti Kiran: You knew you wanted to tell a story, and the germ of the idea came to you, but you were diffident about putting pen to paper. What was that journey like?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It comes down to two things: One, is what I’m writing even worth the paper it is being written on? There are two parts to that. It is a self-esteem issue, where you don’t know if it’s any good. That’s where the next lesson – being able to share it with people – starts to come in. At that point in time, I didn’t know the way to do it. I wanted to write stories. Once you start writing, you build up to something bigger. But who are you going to tell it to?
One of the things that I know everybody used to keep saying, especially producers, was: Tera one line kya hai? I can laugh about it and say that my film is so much more than a one-line, how dare you ask me to encapsulate my film in a single line? But I’ve realised over the years that this is something which you should be able to do. You have to, in your head, be able to tell your film in one line. That’s the elevator pitch. That’s how you tell it to people. That’s a moment where all the thoughts in your head converge on ‘Okay, am I making it like this or that? Is it a comedy? Is it this? Is it that?’
You’re putting all those thoughts in and you don’t know if you’re supposed to tell anybody. The next thing you know is that you’ve gone and written so much stuff. It’s a big jumble in your head. Then finally you find somebody. I told Ishika about this and she told me that it sounds interesting. I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s one person who says it’s interesting.’ When I met Anurag, he asked me what is it that you want to say. I told him, again, a very vague thing which was my idea. It must have gone in from one ear and come out of the other. He told me to meet Bhavani – ‘vo bahut achi writer hai.’
She was the first person who heard me out. She listened patiently. She kept confirming what I was trying to say to ensure that she understood. When you find like-minded people who are willing to hear you out, who trust you and you end up trusting them, is when you sit together and have copious amounts of chai and just talk about books and movies. Everything that’s inside you is going to start coming out once you find a partner. Even later when I was writing Udaan, I always told Anurag that you write it because I thought that I couldn’t. He kept stalling. I think he did it to force me into a corner so that I would write it myself.
I remember Bhavani and me while writing Lootera, would write through the day and meet in the evening at her place to discuss what I had done throughout the entire day. That process made my script so much better because it would help me keep the story churning in my head. I would tell her that this is what I’ve done, and this is what I want to do.
Again, when you’re talking, you’re trusting, you don’t need to have a guard up. As a writer and a creator, it’s very important – in the long run, it’s not about being a better filmmaker but a better person – in order to keep your spirits up to just not keep your guard up. Let your guard down. Let people see who you are. Let people know you. It was a big lesson that I learned then.
Smriti Kiran: There was another film called Bombay Talkies, which you wanted to make, for which Mr Bachchan had said yes to but you couldn’t cast the other person in the film. So, it was shelved. You had already written Udaan. The process was already on. You also wrote Lootera. In 2007, because Bombay Talkies didn’t happen and Udaan wasn’t getting off the ground, you wrote seven or eight screenplays. But the two that stayed were Udaan and Lootera. How does a creator figure out the ideas that they need to stick with?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It is beyond the cerebral. It becomes your intimate relationship with that material. Is it going to kill you if that material and that script never gets made? If you feel that it is going to kill you if it doesn’t get made, then you have to make it, right? But if it’s sort of like, ‘I’ve written a script. It’s in a cupboard. Maybe I’ll make it one day. Maybe I’m looking for inspiration,’ or, ‘I don’t give a shit,’ then it’s fine.
There are two parts to this. One is that everything you write you’re going to spend a lot of quality time churning. I wrote those things, I wrote all those scripts in 2007 because nothing was happening. My film wasn’t happening. I was pretty determined not to get a job which would distract me from that. Yes, I’m lucky because I had a roof over my head that kept me sustained in a sense.
As a writer-filmmaker, how do you make your skills better? You make your skills better by actually practising, which means you have to keep writing to be able to learn and you have to keep making something to be able to learn.
That’s what I was doing at that time – I was constantly making these absurd documentaries with Ishika as my subject matter. I think the greatest gift that I got ever in my life has been a video camera as a wedding gift. It was funny because who asks for it as a wedding gift? Everybody says watch, a nice big cabinet or something. Ishika’s parents were like, ‘He wants what?’ We come from the generation where it was so expensive that I couldn’t afford it. Even back then it was 20-25 grand, which was a lot of money. But that was my big wedding gift.
I went to town with that thing. I shot everything I could shoot. We would do this thing where I would shoot a bunch of stuff, then I’d go on Photoshop and make these DVD covers, print them, put them in a DVD box, make a DVD and have a premiere night. All of it was learning skills and practising skills. It was the same with writing.
Smriti Kiran: Everybody doesn’t start out as a filmmaker. You put in the time, you put in the work and you put in the rigour. You spoke about sustenance and the fact that you did have a roof over your head. But if you had to go out there and stay connected with films till you were a director in waiting, your reputation that you built as a very sincere first AD, as a person who’s great to have on the set, held you in really good stead.
Vikramaditya Motwane: It did, and it’s the number one rule, when you’re being an assistant director, is that when you’re on set, you just have to work really hard. There are also sub-points to it. But the thing is that when you work hard and people know that you’re working really hard, you will get recognition. All the work that I’ve got after that and all the reputation that has built up, all the doors that opened for me to be able to walk into someone’s office and pitch my script in the first place, comes from the reputation that one has built by being an assistant director who people know works hard and is diligent – who gets the job done.
Working on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam got me the work on Deepa Mehta’s Water because Jhamu Sugand was the producer of both the films. Deepa was looking for an AD, he recommended me. On Water, I met Anurag. He too had heard of my work and asked me to work with him on Paanch. On Paanch, I met Sanjay Routray, who recently produced Andhadhun, who was the executive producer back then. He had seen me work. He was doing Barf with Vishal Bhardwaj, and so recommended me as an associate director to Vishal. That’s how I worked with Vishal.
You find your tribe through this. All the people that I’m going to eventually know and work with, build relationships with, is through this process. But it all starts when people know that you are 100% dedicated to your job. That’s where your reputation starts to come from.
That then helps you open that door and when you call up somebody and say, “My name is so-and-so and I want to pitch you a script and I have worked with so-and-so”, that door is one percent open. That comes from the work you’ve done. It’s not like you’ve got that much more of an advantage over somebody who is walking in blindly. It’s just the fact that you’ve done a little bit of work and have a certain amount of reputation helps you open doors. Now, all you have to do is basically kick the door. How do you kick the door is another journey.
Smriti Kiran: A lot of your peers started off like you, who were working hard and were traversing their own journeys. How do you keep the blinders on and not get affected by what’s happening to them? How do you keep yourself centred?
Vikramaditya Motwane: The number one thing that you have to do is going back to who you are as a person and what you are trying to say as a person. You have to find a certain amount of comfort level with the person you are and the stories you want to tell. It is hard. When you’ve worked super hard and you see somebody else, who started being an assistant five years after you, getting a break to do their film before you, it can be really disappointing because you really feel like ‘maine toh itna kiya hai’ so why is that person getting a chance before me. There’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done. Sometimes you’re like ‘itni commercial picture hai.’
You go through those processes. The question is going to come back to who you are. If you are in an industry where the box that has been created has been this sort of commercially one size fits all box, and if you want to be in that box, you have to struggle. You’re going to have to struggle. That struggle is going to be even harder than what it would be if you’re going to say, ‘No, I want to be in the box.’ You’re not going to be in the box. You’re choosing not to be in the box. Now you have to struggle. You want to get into the box, then you have to get in your own way, right? You have to climb over that wall and jump inside. So, be prepared for it. Be prepared for people making films before you, be prepared for people making successful films before you. Be prepared for a lot of rejections.
One of the things that I’ve learnt through my career, and one of the things that I always advise budding filmmakers is to be prepared for rejection. You’re going to get a lot of rejection. It’s going to happen. It’s so rare that people are going to embrace you right in the beginning and say that we love your script and we want you to do a film – here are 20 crores. It’s never going to happen. You’re always going to face rejection. People are not going to understand you.
At the same time, you will also grow as a filmmaker. You will also grow as a person. Your work would also get more and more refined. I have never seen a first-time filmmaker coming to me with a script where I’m like, ‘Oh my god! This is brilliant.’ and I want to jump into it. You have to be prepared for rejection, for people not getting you or pushing you.
You can’t let that get you down. You can’t let that self-doubt creep in, which won’t come anyway if you really know what you want to say. There are filmmakers I know even today who don’t know what they want to say and it makes them bitter and it makes them angry because they have the skills but they truly don’t know who they are. I think that’s something that you have to know right in the beginning. Once you know who you are, once you are secure in that, once you have found your tribe and once you have found your trust levels with people, now you’re in a place which is secure; now you’re mentally secure. Now you can push it and say that I really believe in this, I truly believe in this and I am going to push this no matter what people are going to say. You have to know that.
Smriti Kiran: You worked with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Deepa Mehta and Anurag Kashyap. How do you find your own path when the people that you’re working with have such defining voices because all your training is under them or everything that you’ve learned is under them? How does one begin to know what their voice is? And what did you take from them that has shaped you as a mentor?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It takes time. You’ll know it one day when you read something or listen to a piece of music or think about an idea.
Immediately after working with Sanjay, I was seeing it through his eyes. I was seeing a sort of filmmaking that came in through that eye. Then when I started working with Deepa Mehta, I started to see that ‘Okay, that’s the way of being able to do it – you write like this and you write like that’. With Anurag, it’s more about being able to see just the complete bravado that he has got. Then you instinctively start to say, ‘That’s what I’m going to take from Bhansali, that’s what I’m going to take from Deepa, that’s what I’m going to take from Anurag. These are the skills that I’ve learned from them’.
Here’s the danger: Don’t try and become exactly like your mentor. You have to be an individual and your own person. It’s easy saying that. It’s far more difficult to become your person.
I have learned and borrowed from my mentors. So, from Sanjay I have taken the art of prep; how to work on something beforehand; how to be able to structure a scene; how to be able to add background music. From Deepa, I learnt how to block. One thing that she used to do, which I follow till date, is getting the actors on set first thing in the morning and blocking with them. It’s a wonderful thing that very few people actually do, and it’s absolutely fantastic. I imbibed it. With Anurag, it was to not overprepare. Don’t cook it so much that you’ve ruined the meat of it. Just jump in sometimes. Be spontaneous. Work under budget. Trust your actors to be able to deliver. Don’t over direct them. It’s not just these three. Manu Gargi, who I’ve worked with before, it was to be able to see things in a very clean way, or to read your material in a certain way.
You pick up something from everybody. At that moment you don’t know it. You have to distance yourself from it. It goes into the vault at the back. That’s what I’ve learned. Then when you’re making something, it calls out to you. The other thing is to never stop reading books and watching movies. A lot of your skills and learnings are going to come from there. At some point, it’ll all come together. You’re never going to have a eureka moment. Even after Udaan and Lootera, there are still moments where I end up feeling insecure. You will keep finding yourself.
Smriti Kiran: You were determined to make Udaan as your first film because you wanted that to be your voice. You wanted to enter the world as a director with that voice. What did you mean by that?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It’s a story that I really wanted to tell. There was this one part of me saying that I wanted to make a coming of age but I want to be able to make this film. Why should I have to compromise? You’re naive, right, back then. I think I’m still naive even in a lot of ways today; even now I’m like, ‘Why can’t a certain kind of movie work?’ Back then, the innocence was pushing me to say, ‘No, I want to make this’. There were opportunities where you could go and end up making that film; you could end up going to that company because you’ve got the skills and you’re going to end up doing that.
Today, I have the objectivity to say that, as a filmmaker, at least in your first few films, you must have something to say about the story. It is back to the basics – what is it that you want to say as a filmmaker? Having the skillset is one thing, but having a story to tell is another thing altogether. When you put those two things together is when you actually want to do it.
With Udaan I wanted to tell the story. I could go somewhere and be a director and get a job and do another film. But my heart wasn’t in that. My heart was in saying that I wanted to tell this story. I could see it clearly. I could see the entire thing. I’d seen every scene in my head. I knew the moments, I knew everything in my head and it was so clear. Why would I want to do anything else?
Smriti Kiran: What happens when you start to envision your story with certain actors? I know you’ve said it in interviews that Udaan initially had a different cast, then it had to be changed, and it has worked out beautifully. But at the point that it was changing and you were not getting the people that you wanted to work with, what was it like? How did you rewire yourself?
Vikramaditya Motwane: In Udaan’s case what happened was that the film got a life of its own. It went beyond the cast. We were in the middle of the camera test. I had done my first test with Rajat (Barmecha). We were in the lab looking at the rushes – it was looking great, and we had tested all the stock; it was looking so beautiful – when I got the call that the actor wants to postpone the film for a month and a half. I was crushed. I asked Anurag what to do. He said that whatever comes, we are shooting. You realise that the film is so much more important than anything else, so you have to rewire yourself immediately and move on. We did all the calls that we had to, got all the people that we wanted. You learn over a period of time.
One of the big struggles that every filmmaker is going to face afterwards is: how do you keep that balance between keeping your innocence and not becoming too cynical and not letting go too much? There has to be a fine balance between them. Yes, today I’m not the same innocent filmmaker I was when I started 10 years ago. So, I can cheat this and I can cheat that; I shouldn’t be over-sensitive about this, over-sensitive about that. But you also can’t become so cold that you don’t have feelings left for a certain kind of way for doing that, a certain kind of emotion for that.
Finding that for me has been one of the balancing acts of sorts, saying: I care versus I don’t care, I’ll find a solution. That little bit in between – which is finding a great balancing act between caring and not caring, just about enough to not eat you up – is the right place, it’s a lovely place to be. That’s all we are trying to look for at some point in time.
Smriti Kiran: How did directing Udaan change you as a creator? What did it bring to the table as far as your internal process, internal insecurities, internal fears are concerned?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It validated a lot of what one actually put into it. That validation came a little later. Through the entire process, you are saying this is how I want to shoot it. One is that it is validating at the moment when it comes for you when you’re seeing it happen. One validation is that the material I wrote has actually got money behind it. So, you’re pinching yourself – someone is actually trusting me with their money to make it. What if it all goes down? There’s some amount of validation that you brought this money and some amount of trust, then you go out and you make it and then you put it together.
The very first screening that we had for more than like five people – it was just 50 people together watching it – when people were laughing at the jokes at that point, that’s your validation that comes back saying ‘Chalo what I’ve set out to do when I was writing that script back then those many years ago is validated right now’. It is something that gives you the confidence to say that ‘ek toh bana li, chalo dusri bhi bana lenge’. Every filmmaker makes a film to make another film. That’s what we’re always doing. You’re like, ‘I want to do better, and I want to do something different.’ You challenge a bit more, unshackle yourself a little bit more. It comes to just building your confidence as a creator. That’s what I think Udaan did for me.
Smriti Kiran: Yet while making Lootera, you went through crippling anxiety. There were things you wanted to fix that you couldn’t because you were frozen with fear or self-doubt. Looking back, would you have done things differently?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Looking back at that time, I would have gotten help on the actual script. I thought there was something wrong with it and I couldn’t put a finger on it. I remember waking up, one morning a month after the release and saying that’s what I should have done. Of course, it was by then two years too late. One part of it was being able to look at the material objectively and saying, ‘What is it here that is troubling me? What do I solve over here? What’s the problem?’
At that point in time, I didn’t have the tribe of writers in Skeptic Tank which I formed, where I could throw it to a group and say, ‘Tell me what’s wrong with this. What is it that you’re feeling, and let’s be honest about it?’ But at that point in time, I didn’t know that I could actually ask somebody.
I was also sleeping three hours a night. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know that back then you could actually go to a therapist and talk to them or someone about the fact that you’re having these things, and talk it through. It’s something that I learned much later, which helped me a lot. I didn’t know it back then. I didn’t know who I could talk to about this. Ishika was trying really hard to understand what’s going on. She was like, ‘Okay, what’s going on? Talk to me, what’s going on?’ I couldn’t really express myself about that kind of stuff. I didn’t want to tell Shetty or Aditya while they were working on the film. I didn’t want to burden them with my problems. So, I was like, let’s just keep it at that. They all knew something was wrong. But I said, ‘Let’s not burden people’. I tried talking to Anurag a couple of times but I realised that his process is entirely different from my process. I was going through that.
It went away eventually. What it did make me do is that it made me really look at everything that I was doing with a far more critical eye. You worked a little bit harder on making sure you have the perfect shot because you want to be completely satisfied before moving on to anything else. From a creative perspective, it helped in a certain sort of way.
Honestly, that anxiety was of course on a much higher level. I don’t think that kind of anxiety ever goes away on a shoot because you’re always biting your ears, always wondering ‘what’s my shot, what am I trying to say?’ Especially earlier in the process, before you jump into the shoot, there’s a lot of that. It still happens.
I’ve learned over a period of time that the best way to deal with that, the best way to deal with any of that stuff is making sure that your script is a thousand percent perfect before you’ve even walked in. Nothing is ever perfect, but a thousand percent perfect the way you want it to be.
Even after Lootera, I don’t think Bhavesh Joshi and Trapped were perfect scripts. At least, I knew what the issues were. I knew how to deal with them, how it was supposed to be, what the flaws were and how to work around the flaws. But during that time, the process was pretty bad.
Smriti Kiran: You formed a Sunday script club called the Skeptic Tank with Akshat Varma. It had Anvita Dutt, – who has just had a very successful step as a director with Bulbbul – Devashish Makhija, Neeraj Ghaywan, Navdeep Singh, Arpita Chatterjee and Abhishek Chaubey among others. They were all members of this particular tank. How does this kind of community building help?
Vikramaditya Motwane: One of the reasons why I started it was because while I was at Phantom Films as a producer, I had a lot of filmmakers coming to us with scripts and I often found myself saying that there are great ideas in them but there was something missing, which I wouldn’t be able to tell. But what if we workshopped it? An unofficial workshop, that’s how it started. Arpan Gaglani, the animator, also raised a very pertinent question about animation stories and how we can tell them. So, it was a bit of both.
We started it as an exercise – let’s throw some stories, let’s throw some ideas around and see what we end up creating. Also at the same point of time, let’s get a script. The very first script we got into it was from Dipika Kalra’s husband, Arun Sukumar, who had a script that he wanted to turn into a feature film. That came into the group and we discussed it.
We did it often. We did it with Masaan, with Atul Mongia, Gautam Kishanchandani, and Amit Masurkar. A lot of filmmakers came and a lot of them hated it also because they had to lay themselves bare in front of writers who went ‘This is wrong!’ We tried to be as constructive as possible. But it’s not always easy. It takes a lot. Afterwards, we all realised that we can understand the process of this, we appreciate the idea of someone being brutal with us and really tearing our script apart because that will help us build it up better. But with some writers, it doesn’t work. They can’t accept that fact.
It did help create a bit of a tribe. It helped us create a close friendship with a whole bunch of us, which still exists today. We still send material and show edits to everybody else. That’s what it was at that point in time. It became a Sunday therapy session, in a weird sort of way. We all looked forward to it. We’d meet at the old Phantom office. It had a backyard. We had two dogs. We had unlimited chai supply and we’d just sit there at the back after having read a script during the week. The remaining three hours would be venting about things or becoming a support system for someone in the group. I was making Lootera, Navdeep was trying to get NH10 made, Dev Makhija was writing a bunch of stuff; he still hadn’t gone into making his short films at that point; Anvita, I remember, was still finding herself. We kept telling her to make Bulbbul, to write it. It was also, in fact, among the first scripts that we got at the club. Chaubey put Dedh Ishqiya. Akshat put Kaalakaandi.
It worked as a beautiful place for us to throw ideas around. As filmmakers, you always feel you’re going one step forward and two steps back. That’s the journey of the filmmaker. You have an idea, you write a script, you go somewhere and a writer or producer rejects it. There’s always that self-doubt that creeps in – is there something wrong with the material, am I approaching the wrong people, should I even make this in the first place? The group helped in looking at these things objectively. One is that there’s a pat on the back and saying that it’s okay, everybody else is an idiot. It also really became a group where one could open up and really look at what actually is wrong with the situation. On a creative level, it helped us get better. It really built great friendships too.
Smriti Kiran: Does it still exist in any form?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Once everybody got busy, it disbanded slowly and gradually. I was actually shooting Lootera then, so the office became a natural place to come to. Once Navdeep started shooting NH10, he and Sudeep were busy. Then at one point or the other somebody was always shooting. It never became a situation where everybody was free to do this on a regular basis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. I wish it did.
Every filmmaker should find their own tribe. They should find the people that they trust – with whom they have no shame telling their stories to, no shame about baring your soul or asking for help. That trust level is what is going to help you do better things.
Smriti Kiran: Now that you are helming projects, not only as a director, but even as a producer, and you run a company, people come to you, who are working under you, with lots of problems. Because of the fact that you’ve possibly been in every possible shoe, every role has been tested, you’ve been there, are their insecurities and the empathy you have for them too much information or does that get you to do a better job of managing your team?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I think you become empathetic. What happens is that when you’ve been through every job – you’ve been the insecure assistant director who’s looking for validation from the boss, you know what’s wrong with it; you’ve been the filmmaker who has struggled; you have been the writer who has hit a wall; you’ve been the guy who has written a shitty script, you’ve been the guy who has written a good script; you’ve been a producer who has fucked up, a producer who has helped; you’ve been a producer in situations where you’ve done the right things and where there have been misunderstandings; you can be empathetic with every single person because I know what they are going through exactly. It’s not about saying, ‘I know the answer.’
A lot of times people come in saying that this person said this, this person said that and I’m always like be in their shoes, be in that position and understand what they’re going through because everybody has a problem unless someone is a complete asshole; in which case you will know it. Most of the time that’s not the case. Most of the time it’s just that they are in their shoes and only they can fill their shoes.
I know what they are going through because I’ve been through so many of those shoes, stood in so many of those shoes today that I am able to empathise with people. That experience today helps me with producers, with mom and Arya (Menon), people who work closely with me. I am able to do that. It does take up a lot of your time.
I do think that one of the struggles that I’m still struggling with today is being able to find the time. What is creative time? What is production time? What is somebody else’s time? What is family project time? Then what is actually family time? What tends to happen is that as creative people your mind is constantly occupied. I’m constantly told that I work a lot and that I spend a lot of time thinking about work.
Smriti Kiran: Phantom Films broke up under charges of sexual assault against Vikas Bahl. You have a new company now, Andolan Films. What was this period of destruction and rebuilding like?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It was really hard. It happened during a moment when there was a massive wave of articles, write-ups and cases, not just in India but all around the world of #MeToo, where men were being called out on their behaviour. A part of you is saying that it’s unfair to me; a part of you knows that it’s a purging that’s absolutely necessary and is absolutely required. But you’re suddenly thrown in the line of fire for a lot of stuff. There were a lot of accusations thrown at me, which started to affect me in a certain way. For the first couple of months, when the allegations came up, it was really hard. I thought my career was over. How do I bounce back from this?
The good thing again over there, and it comes from the reputation that you’ve built as a creator, as a person, is that it really helps you in those matters. People know that they trust you and you’re fine and they trust that you will do a good job. But it takes time to come back. For the first couple of months, I wondered where my friends were. You go through that process.
You have to, in your mind, know that what you’re doing is right. It’s not easy. After that, the main thing is to tell yourself to get back to work. Finding the energy, the mental space to come back to work is always very hard. For someone who has been working for so long, it’s also easy to slip back into work. It became a good distraction. Some of the stuff is still not over, there is still paperwork and stuff that needs to be sorted out. You learn to deal with it on a case by case basis as opposed to letting it become a massive part of your life. In the last year and a half that has been a massive learning for me. You have to focus on the positive. There are going to be negatives – don’t sweep them under the rug, don’t let it eat you up. It doesn’t help.
Smriti Kiran: You’ve formed a new company. This is your company. What is the creative vision that you have for Andolan Films?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I don’t have a boilerplate on this. The answer actually comes from where Phantom was formed. Phantom was formed as a collective where we started to say that we want to be able to make films that we wanted to make and also help other filmmakers make films that they want to make. We did succeed for a large time. To think that it existed only for seven years boggles my mind. It feels much longer because we made a ton of films in that period.
I realised that I was producing a lot more than I was directing. While that was lovely, and I’m proud to have gone and made films such as Udta Punjab, Masaan, and NH10 among so many others, it left me feeling that I should have done more myself. I’m a creative person, I’m not a producer.
Andolan was formed with the idea that taking my learnings from Sacred Games and the recent spate of things that we have made, I want to be able to create stuff which is future-proof, which would last forever. But let’s also make stuff that we care for and are passionate about.
At some point in time at Phantom, it felt a little bit like a job producing films. I didn’t want to do anything that felt like a job. One of the rules was that if we felt wary about investing two years of our lives in making something, then let’s not do it. It has come from a place where we want to invest ourselves passionately into what we are making and make it.
It is another tribe in a certain sense. Mom and Ishika are directors of the company. Abhay Korane, who I worked with on Bhavesh Joshi, someone who I really connected with, is a creative producer and development person there. Arya, who was my producer on Sacred Games, who is also the person with whom I am fighting the most in life, is there. So, it is a tribe. We feel the same way about the company.
Smriti Kiran: Vikram, best of luck with that tribe! I hope that there are lots of tables that you and your tribe create for lots of new people who want to break in and provide the kind of support that every person with a dream or ambition needs.
Q&A with Dial M For Film Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook
Honey Trehan: How did you come up with the name ‘Andolan’?
Vikramaditya Motwane: If anybody has seen these old pictures, they’ll see a thing called Chicago Radio. They used to make loudspeakers and stuff. Gandhi and Nehru would all be on Chicago Radio. My family was doing really well. So, my grandfather decided that he wanted to go and produce a film. This is 1949. He produced a film with Kishore Kumar called Andolan, which is about the freedom struggle. The film tanked very badly. So, the family said that we would never speak about it again. That film was buried somewhere, they never spoke about it and a film was never made again.
Much later, living in a joint family, my aunt or someone gave me a photo set. It says Andolan, and Motwane Limited has made the film. I thought it was cool. So, I went to uncles and aunts to speak to them about it. What was this movie? And they told me about it. I finally got a DVD and watched it.
Andolan was actually Atul Sabharwal’s idea. He and I are writing a show called Stardust together, which is about the film industry ‘47 onwards. One day, when I told him that I was forming a new company and asked what I could name it, he said Andolan. It suddenly hit me. It has a history to it, there is also a revolution that everybody feels they want to create. It just sat really well. There was a lovely emotional touch to the name, especially for me. So, that’s how it started.
Sayani Gupta: Do you think it takes a different temperament to be an AD before you become a director?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It depends.
In the old structure, Germany, for example, where you will have chief assistant directors and ADs who would be doing everything – from scheduling to being DAs to doing shot breakdowns to working on post-production to attending music sittings. Everything will be done by a team of three-four assistant directors. There would be one chief and everybody below that. There was no real hierarchy over there.
In today’s day and age, you have your first AD, second AD, third AD cast, and third AD extras. Then there’s a DA who is entirely separate. The ADs today are producers’ people. They are called assistant directors but they are actually producers’ people. Their job is to make sure that the film is made on time and within schedule.
Most first ADs and most assistant directors today will actually go on to become producers. They make really good producers. That’s what you see around the world: mostly that they’ll become associate producers and producers afterwards. The DAs are the ones who will go on to become directors. This is international. In India, it’s still a bit more fluid. Most ADs have gone on to become directors, whether it’s from the older system or the newer system.
I still believe that if you want to be a director, the older system was better in a certain way because you were far more involved in the creative process than you are as a first assistant director today. First ADs are hired for prep, and they are hired for the shoot, then they move on to another job. They are not there as part of the post, they are not part of creative pre-production. Those are very important places to be.
Post-production for me has actually been the creative learning place for me for anything that I have learned. Working on post-production through Hum Dil… and Devdas has been my greatest learning. I don’t think assistant directors get a chance to be a part of that. Today, instead of an AD, there’ll be a post supervisor or a DA who does that. If you know you want to be a director, then great. Be an assistant director because on set you’re doing a job but you’re also learning. If you don’t know what it is that you want to be afterwards, there’s a chance you’ll find that you actually want to be a producer or a showrunner, not specifically a director.
Being a director also means having a separate skillset. Yes, management of time is a major part of filmmaking; management of the day is a major part of filmmaking; knowing your budget; knowing how to work in a crisis – you have planned twenty shots and it has rained for three hours in a day, what are you going to do? You can’t be on the ground holding your heading and saying that I want these twenty shots. You have to work around that. That is a part of filmmaking. That is part of being a director. You have to know that. You also have to know how everything is going to fit together, how your post is going to come together, how you edit is going to come together. Those are very, very important things.
Swati Chugh: What are some of the pitfalls to avoid for a filmmaker working on his/her first feature?
Vikramaditya Motwane: You’ll never be able to get the perfect situation. It’s actually finding a producer who genuinely believes in the material that you’re trying to make. That’s number one. They’re not doing it only for the financial gains involved in it. Especially if you’re going out there and making something unique, something different, you need to find a producer who believes in it. Then, find a crew who comes in and don’t embroil themselves in ego tussles. Work with people who you trust, work with people who trust you.
Once you’ve done that, once you’ve found a producer who is doing it for the sake of it, then a lot of smaller pitfalls along the way are taken care of. Things such as casting right, getting the script right are a given. If you want to avoid major problems, the main thing is to find the right crew and the right people to work with – from your producer to your essential crew. That will leave you mentally free to not worry about egos or being heard properly.
When I was making Udaan, I wanted Venu to shoot the film. We tried to work on the dates, but we couldn’t. I spoke to Rajeev, even he couldn’t. Eventually, I was like, ‘What do I do?’ Then Venu himself put me in touch with a third cinematographer. But he called me back two days later and asked me who I was comfortable with most. I said that I was most comfortable with Mahendra Shetty as I have worked with him before. So, he told me to work with a guy that I was the most comfortable with because you don’t want to be in a situation where you are trying to communicate with a cinematographer on your first film and you’re wondering if you’re able to get through to him or not. Maybe the guy that you’re working with is giving you 20% less in terms of a creative vision, but at least your process will be seamless. You won’t have to deal with that. That’s some of the best advice that he gave me, and that’s the best advice I can give people: work with people you really want to.
Jinit Ghelani: It’s easy to lose grip and fall into the trap of rushing towards making your first film. How did you get towards understanding whether it was your thirst to tell a story or just a rush to make a film?
Vikramaditya Motwane: In my case, I had enough time. Part of this is what I tried to answer when Smriti asked that when you have all these scripts lying in your cupboard, what is it that you really know that you want to end up making. You have that material and that script calls out to you. So, when somebody calls and asks you if you want to make that film, you jump at it. You’re completely ready for it. You know you want to make this film. This is definitely one of those things that you will 100% make on any given day. That’s the kind of relationship you have with the film. That’s very hard to explain.
Honestly, you don’t know if you’re rushing into anything. One part of it is the actual, physical prep that is required, where, on an average, you will say that you need three months. Because that’s what you need. Mentally, I don’t think any director knows that they are actually ready to go out there and make their first film. You believe that you’re ready to do it as long as your script is in a space where you’re happy with it, as long as you have had enough time to physically prepare for it, then you have to go out there and do it. There is no such thing as knowing you’re mentally ready to make it because you will never be. I wasn’t ready to make Lootera after Udaan, I wasn’t in the mental space to make it. But you do it. If I had to look back, I’ll say that I have to fix the right things. Go out there and get your head sorted, but also fix your script. Those are things you need to do. Whether you’re ready or not, you will never have a definite answer.
Raghav Basu: From unique ideas to execution abilities, what steps can a first time writer-director take to make collaborators invest in your project and believe in you as the captain of the ship?
Vikramaditya Motwane: The short answer is that your vision is going to be on the page. In an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to convince anyone of your vision beyond your story. That’s pretty much the only thing that they need to know.
Of course, there is the question – can you direct? What’s your skillset? You’ll only be able to show them through your past work as to all that you have done before. Also, your personality. It’s one of those things where there are no pointers to it. There are no hard and fast rules. There are great filmmakers who are super friendly and there are great filmmakers who are complete dicks. That’s the range. But if your material is good, and people have faith in your material first, that’s what will get them to collaborate with you.
Coming back to one of the first things I said: writers have a tendency to be very insecure. They also have a tendency to be very opinionated about their work. You will need to find that balance. Again, I’ve been there. I’ve been the guy who thinks that he knows best about his work. People then think that you’re a stuck-up, a stickler or arrogant because of the way you end up supporting your work. Some people’s first opinion about me, who became friends of mine later, was kitna arrogant aadmi hai because I was opinionated. I had something to say about something.
Over time, two things will happen – either they’ll understand better and realise that’s not who you are or you’ll learn to shut up the first time and not say what’s exactly on your mind. You’ll navigate the situation. There’s nothing wrong with knowing how to navigate a certain situation, quite honestly. You are not compromising. You’re not taking a back seat. You’re just listening. That’s just being smart about situations. Do I open my mouth here or not?
Again, when it’s feedback, generally don’t try to defend yourself – whether it’s your film, your writing or your work – simple because you asked for it. Don’t defend. Listen. There’s a one percent chance that what they say will actually be useful to you. Don’t disallow them that chance to say the one percent. Sometimes when you’re defensive, they switch off from telling you even that one thing that could have been useful to you.
If you ask me today, I would say that I will gauge the room or the person before giving my opinion. Do I want to come across as the arrogant prick who wants to come across as strong-minded or just shut up and listen to what they have to say? Depends on who you want to be at the moment.
Dhananjay Khanna: Is there a particular industry-standard CV for a director?
Vikramaditya Motwane: When I was an assistant director, it was completely different than what it is today. Today, as a director, you’re always going to get shown. You can’t CV your work as a director. Your director’s work is the work that you are doing, whether it’s music videos or short films, that is your work. It’s a tough game to play. It’s a tough situation to be in today because there is so much content out there. Like one of the things that we would be screaming for 20 years ago is how do I showcase my films? I’m going to make a DVD of my short film, send it to people and hope that they see it. You send it to festivals and hope they see it. Today between YouTube, Vimeo and Instagram, you’ve actually got more than enough avenues to be able to go out there and showcase your work.
It is tougher to break through. Definitely. But the good part is that if your work is good, you will find their attention. I’m actually new on Instagram, but people are constantly sending me these super interesting mashups of my work with some other music. There are so many talented guys out there, and they have access. All you guys have access to the people who you really want to reach out to. Most of the time, we end up seeing that work because it’s cool to see. It’s so much fun to actually watch it. I’ve seen so many interesting, talented people who have got their work and put it up on YouTube or Vimeo.
Yes, it can be a bit daunting, but the short answer is: make work that is clutter-breaking, make work that gets noticed. The same rule applies here as well: you work hard enough, people hear about it; similarly, you make something clutter-breaking, people will see it. In today’s social media day and age, people will pass it on and somebody will see it.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: How do you take the critical analysis of your work that you’ve spent so much on? How do you handle it?
Vikramaditya Motwane: You have to be able to look at it constructively. A lot of it comes from the intention of the person who is either telling it to you or writing it. With a lot of critics, I’ll talk about the good ones – whether it’s Baddy (Baradwaj Rangan), Anu (Anupama Chopra) or Rajeev (Masand) – there’s a genuine love they have for cinema, for the arts. Their criticism is meant to be constructive, and you know it. In their hearts, they are taking your work, trying to make it better, and trying to give it a ‘what-if’ angle to it
There are critics who can’t have that empathy towards it. They’ll only point out all that is wrong and not be constructive. You have to know the fact that they are going to do that and this is the way they are going to be. There is nothing you can do to stop them from being that way. Again, empathy comes from the fact that I have also been a critic when it comes to bashing somebody’s film. Maybe the words that I’ve said have also hurt somebody in the past. You reap what you sow. It sounds fatalist while saying that. But I don’t hold it against people who are going to trash my film. You have to know that some people are going to want to trash it because that’s just the way they are or that the film caused an extreme reaction in them to do that or that’s their job. But, try and look at every criticism as something being constructive. Maybe there is a grain of truth in what people are saying. Maybe there is an issue. Maybe I should have seen it this way; maybe I should have done it that way. I’ve tried to start doing that.
Of course, immediately after the release of the film, I do not see reviews because you are too close to the material to have that sort of opinion. Today I can open and read a review that came one year ago or two years ago. The taut answer is: Always presume that something is going to be said, you can always read through the intention of the piece, and know that if this is something that you take seriously, or just turn the page and walk away from it.
Smriti Kiran: These are critics from whom the analysis is coming from. But what about the analysis from peers, analysis from people around you, criticism from people who are close to you, people who are contemporaries, how do you handle that?
Vikramaditya Motwane: If it is contemporaries and I trust them and there’s a friendship, I have no problem. Normally, I always show those people the film or material before it has come to a stage where I can’t do anything about it. That’s what we’ve always done – show your film to enough film where you can actually get feedback on it. Make people read the script before you can get feedback so that you’re not in a situation where someone says, ‘I wish you had told me this.’
That’s one of the things which I always find really strange about while going to people’s film trials. They ask you, ‘kaisi lagi?’ Then I wonder what I’m going to say because is anything that I say going to help you change your film? No. So, why would you even ask?
When you’re showing your film to people that you know or trust, or your friends or peers, you have to take their criticism knowing that they are being constructive. You have to allow them their point of view.
One of the things we used to talk about in the Skeptic Tank was the fact that when you’re listening to feedback, don’t defend yourself at the moment; never defend yourself at the moment. Just listen. Let people tell you what they feel. Imbibe it and listen to them. Then afterwards, if you need to, you can form a defence. But don’t defend your intention because if your intention is not on the paper, then your intention has not come through in your material. You have to be aware of it.
Nishi Doshi: You stressed greatly on the importance of self-belief and faith in your work, your writing and your process. What happens on the days when that takes a hit? Have there been scripts or material that you’ve passed up on a bad day and gone back to later? How do you have steady faith in your choices and decisions?
Vikramaditya Motwane: That’s true, Nishi. It does happen. It has happened to me. It has happened to a lot of us. I know all of us have been through such situations.
I find it very difficult to write multiple drafts of my work. I can’t do it because the creative process takes so much out of you. You can’t go back to it all the time and keep churning it. I could never go back to Udaan. I went back a year later. It’s because you feel like you’re entering a world and you’re inside, over there to be able to come up with things. You will go through days where you feel like I do not even want to see this. It is such crap.
You will have to find whatever’s comfortable for you in terms of how to deal with that. You can walk away from that, and if the work calls out to you again, if that script is sitting in that cupboard saying, ‘Please make me,’ then you’ll be making that. So, that’s a bond that you have created with the work, which is unshakeable. You’ll go out there and make it.
After a point when you have written so much, they just become words to you. They suddenly don’t have any meaning. One very useful thing to do then is to narrate your story to people. Let the words come out of your mouth. Try and say it in a different way. Try to be able to encapsulate it. Try saying it with a beginning, middle and end. Try saying it in different ways. Try saying it in ways that you have never before. Try to be objective.
You always hear actors saying, ‘Please narration de do’. And part of you is saying, ‘Just read the damn script. Itna kaam kiya hai, can’t you just read it? Why do I have to read it to you?’ But narrations are extremely useful when you want objectivity in your work. It doesn’t mean that you have to do it formally.
I have done all these things – I have called a friend and told him that I’m stuck, and I’ve just blurted it out over call. I have called five of my friends formally, sat them down, told them that I was going to take two hours of their time, and I have narrated my script beginning to end to them. I have worked on something else. It’s always good to walk away from that stuff for a while. Let your mind wander. Watch a bunch of stuff. Read a bunch of stuff. While writing – contrary to what people say, that you will be influenced – I actually find watching other things helpful. It helps me look at my work in a far more objective way and find solutions to it.
Then there is the obsession that you have with the material. I have been in places where I have been stuck on a script. I have a deadline: I have to deliver the script in a week, and I have only written twenty pages. But I am stuck and I don’t know what to do. You obsess about it. The worst feeling that I used to have in my life is hitting a wall. That wall used to feel impenetrable, where no solution would work. In that case, you can both walk away from this and say that this was an idea I should never have had; it’s useless. I’ve done that and I have regretted it. There are times when I have walked away from a script after 70 pages. I never found the energy to come back and finish it. Then when people read it, they say that it’s great but why don’t I finish it? I tell them that I came to a point where I had enough and so I walked away, which I shouldn’t have done.
My advice for that kind of thing is: always find your solution. You have to break through the wall. Go for walks; do whatever it takes, but find a solution. If you don’t find a solution, then maybe it’s not there. Maybe it’s something not worth expending your time and energy on. But never give up on something until you have actually found a solution for it, and gone and finished those hundred pages.
I feel that the biggest crime we commit on scripts is the fact that we abandon them at thirty or forty pages without completing it, without giving it that a hundred percent. We need to do that. For all you know, at the end of a hundred pages, you think that it is shit, ‘I want to burn this’, then it’s okay. Burn it. At least you’ll have the right to burn it as a completed thing and not as an incomplete thing.
Priyanka Shah: When you write a character, you are essentially giving birth to it. It goes through a series of feedback and you keep layering it. When you hand over this character to an actor, how much does their interpretation and perception influence the character on paper?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It does. Of course, it does because your character is playing the part that you have written. They have to bring in their interpretation to it. Nawazuddin (Siddiqui) actually said this to me that one of the things you do as an actor is that in your performance you always feel that you’ve left some of your blood, sweat, skin, whatever it is, behind on that screen, and gone on from there, right? You have to allow the actor to do that because if you don’t, you’ll feel that something wasn’t there yet.
If you’re asking this question from the point of view of saying that as a filmmaker, does it even belong to you anymore? If it’s coming from the point of view that someone’s interpretation is different from my interpretation, it’s okay, if it is because actors will bring that interpretation you have to respect that and embrace that.
Anisha Anand: As creators, we live and breathe life into our content and get attached to it. I feel when you’re a young creator, the process of elimination becomes a bit more difficult while writing. I’d like to know what one can do to make it easier. How do I kill my darlings and not feel too bad about it?
Vikramaditya Motwane: You will feel bad about it. The only way to do it is to do it. Here’s the thing: Nothing is permanent. Nothing is permanent until your film is released or until you’re getting into the shoot.
On a script, don’t overthink the fact if killing your darlings is going to ruin it. Just kill them, for the moment. Live with it for that much time. It’s the same thing in life. Time heals all injuries. It applies to your script and work as well. If you love a scene and don’t want to get rid of it, but one part of you is saying that if I do this, these are the things that will actually happen – it will clear up this path for me, but I will feel so bad. We’ve all been there. The only solution you have is: for the moment, kill them. A week or two later, only two things will happen: either you’ll miss them very badly and you’ll want them back, in which case, by then you’ll have already found a solution, or you won’t miss them; you’ll realise that it’s actually for the better. That’s when you know. That’s when you can go back to the situation where you say that I can live without it, I’m okay with it. Or you can say that I really want them, how do I bring them back?
Sometimes, I’ve done this too, you kill your darlings and regret it later.
In Lootera, Ranveer’s character (Varun) speaks about how he wants to go to Chandratal lake. The script actually had Pakhi (played by Sonakshi Sinha) going to Chandratal in the end. We actually did go to the lake, and shoot it. I had put the sequence at the beginning of the film. I actually found that putting it at the end of the film doesn’t work anymore. The end of the film in the final cut worked really well for me. I felt anything more I’m saying after that was overstating what I wanted to say.
Till the last minute, the beginning of the film had the same conversation that Pakhi and Varun have over the opening titles of the film, where you see this lake. Again, there was the insecurity I was facing at the point of time that the film is too slow. I felt that the beginning was making the film too slow. I felt that if I took it out, it’d make it faster. A couple of people told me then that it’s not about making the film faster, it’s about setting the right tone for your film; setting the right thing that you want to say. Back then, I said that I wouldn’t do it. Today I regret not putting that in.
Of course, only I know this. The world doesn’t know this because for them the film is what it is. You are never going to know the answer to whether what you’re doing is right or wrong. You’re going to do it with your instinct at that point in time. Hopefully, your script is in a place where you’re super happy with it, and your team is super happy with it. You’re confident about it, and having to do it without worrying about the baggage of am I doing what is right on a script level. Ideally, when you’re walking into shooting your film, you should not have to worry about the script. That’s where you should be. If you are worrying about it and whether each scene is going to count, then that’s a very bad place to be in. That’s my regret.
I am over it now. If I were to go back, that’s the one thing I would do. But that’s learning. How else do you learn and how else do you grow? These are only things that life will teach you – which you’ll learn from them. You’ll know what to do and what not to do next time. Just be careful and more aware of these things. Do I let emotion be the most important thing or do I make the film shorter? You’ll understand these things as you work.
Akarsh Hooda: How important is hierarchy in terms of collaborative writing?
Vikramaditya Motwane: It’s somebody’s vision that is going to lead the process. Some of the most difficult things that I’ve always ended up finding is that it’s hard to be able to stay objective when you’re doing it by yourself. You get so subjective that you can’t see the wood from the trees, and you’re therefore stuck to receive a bunch of feedback.
I’ve also found that sometimes it’s a lot easier and productive to be able to say that this is my vision, and I’m going to have somebody else write for that vision. Then I can stay objective about the process and guide it in the right way. I found that the older I’m getting, I actually find that to be a better process. In the beginning, it used to be that I’m going to write what I’m going to direct because it’s my word and my vision. Your vision is not compromised if somebody else is writing your vision. It’s still your vision. It’s a collaboration, and it also gives you the objectivity that you need to be able to look at your material and better it. I have now found that it’s actually better if there is a collaboration, and within that, there is a hierarchy that says I am the final word on this, but that shouldn’t stop other people from collaborating in the process.
One needs to keep that hierarchy because at the end of the day it’s always one person’s vision, especially if that person is also the director. In the case of a series, there will be a showrunner who will be the final word on it, then there might or might not be a head creative writer or a lead writer. So, it needs to be one person’s thing otherwise it’ll just break.
Aksh Calvan: How do you safeguard your creativity and maintain your enthusiasm for making films or telling stories?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Those feelings would only come when you think of an idea or when you’re writing an idea for the very first time through the intention that you actually write something with. Once you’ve written it, and it’s on the page, that enthusiasm coming from your head is on the page. Now it’s a matter of taking action.
You have written the script – you’ll get the money for it, you’ll get your cast for it. The cast is going to come on board based on the script material and your enthusiasm for it. They are going to sense it in you when you’re going to go out there and tell them. Actors will understand how you feel. You don’t have to be outward. You don’t have to be gregarious. You don’t have to be loud about it. They’ll sense your affinity towards your material by the way you talk about it. They’ll sense your clarity by the way you talk about it. That’s very important. You don’t have to be outgoing. You can be shy. I’m a very shy person except when it comes to talking about my work. I love it then. It’s something I can happily talk about. People will understand that.
Then you’ll get a cast on board, you’ll get a producer on board. Then the crew, who will come on board because they’ll either find an affinity with the material or an affinity with you. Now you’re going to start looking for locations. There’s no enthusiasm in that process. It’s a donkey process. You basically have to find locations, find this and find that. Then the shooting, where you plan the shots and so on and so forth. It’s very difficult to have that enthusiasm or that innocence of cinema to stay through the process. At some point, you’ll start focusing on the process and the work.
In your mind, you also have to constantly remember what is it that drove you here in the first place. What is it that you want to say in the first place? Keep that on top of your mind. I’ve seen it with many filmmakers that when they come on set after having written something, they are already tired of what they have written. They need to find a certain amount of freshness in their material. They say that it’s feeling stale. It’s actually not stale. You have to constantly go back to that moment of how you felt when you wrote this when you finalised this. How have you felt at that point in time? If you’re feeling that that’s wrong and this is right, then, by all means, change it. But always take yourself back to the moment when you wrote it, and always treat the script as a Bible. Again, this is from personal experience: Every time I have gone and ignored what’s in the script and done something else on set, I have regretted it afterwards. I’ve always felt that whatever it is, shoot what’s there. Do extra stuff if you want. Do whatever it is, but shoot what’s there.
So, that innocence and love for it is going to come across through your material. It’s going to come across through your energies. Beyond that, I don’t think you can look for it in everything. It’s not going to come if you’re going on a location recce or a tech recce. You will have to analyse what you need and find those things. Your energy on set directing how you want your actors to behave is going to come across. That’s not so much innocence than what you want out of your material. It’s only when you finish your film when you see the first cut and see if those intentions were there that you will know the answer.
Rohitendra Chatterjee: You have worked as a director on a multitude of films which span genres such as young adult to coming-of-age to the superhero genre. Do you think every director has his comfort zone, and if there are, how do you transcend genres and get out of comfort zones?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Every director definitely has their own comfort zone. So even within my genre-spanning, I have realised that my comfort zone lies in these quiet, silent scenes. Anything that is non-dialogue, I have no problem with that. I’ve also found that I like action a lot. So, I have started to do that.
One of the things I had to learn and analyse over a period of time is that there are things that I want to see and there are films that I think I would like to make. Finding the balance between that – to make films that you also want to see – is important. I’m still trying to find that balance.
Coming back to your question: Yes, every director has a comfort zone. You look at (Quentin) Tarantino’s work, you can see that there is a comfort zone. You look at Anurag’s work, there is a comfort zone. You look at Rajkumar Hirani, there’s a comfort zone right there. Don’t be afraid of embracing your comfort zone, if there is that. I think every director should know. You have to, first of all, find out what it is that you’re comfortable doing or have any affinity towards. Then do it. A long part of your career goes in finding it. I’m still finding what my true comfort zone is: Am I a genre buff? I like all kinds of movies, but, really, what’s the one movie that I’m going to run to the movie theatre to watch first? I’ve started to figure that it is, in fact, genre stuff. So, I am going in that direction slowly. I’m trying to find it.
After 26 years, I’ll still say that I haven’t found my comfort zone.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Vikramaditya Motwane in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here