Tigmanshu Dhulia is evidently good at multitasking. The director of critical favourites such as Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar and Sahib Biwi aur Gangster is helming two very different projects for television, marking his return to the medium since his popular 45-minute films for Star Bestsellers in the 1990s.
Dhulia is casting for a film on Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army for Rajya Sabha TV, which will also be shown as a four-part series on the channel. He has also directed a short film for Zee TV as a part of an Indo-Pak anthology on diverse themes. And even as you read this, he is prepping to cast for his much-delayed movie Milan Talkies, while winding up the post-production of Yaara, starring Irrfan Khan, Amit Sadh and Shruti Hassan.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Dhulia talks about his lessons in history, his disenchantment with the current cinema, and why television programming is staring at its biggest challenge yet.
Why did you choose the subject of the INA for your television comeback?
The team from Rajya Sabha approached me with several topics. But I was more interested in this because, as a student of history and being particularly interested in modern history, I was intrigued by Bose and the trails of INA and the mystery behind his death. No one really talks about what he did or what happened to the INA. The trials [during which several INA officers were tried for treason, torture, murder and abetment to murder during WWII in 1945-46] were symbolic because the INA had vowed to hoist the Indian flag at the Red Fort and the British had retaliated by trying the officers at the site. What also appealed to me was the fact that Rajya Sabha TV wanted to release it as a feature film first. They were also very generous with the budgets.
What was the research like?
I put together a team of four writers. Not just any film writers, but people with a keen sense of history and respect for this part of our history. They went about reading all available material on the subject, combed through all possible archives for five-six months. We now have the first draft of six episodes. Since the film is set in 1945, a lot of it will be shot on sets, and some of it at the Red Fort [where the trials were held], Parliament, places that haven’t changed.
The INA and its founder are topics that have now acquired tremendous political sub-text.
I did not pick up the subject because of the current ramifications. I did not anticipate any controversy. It was just a coincidence. Who talks about the past?
Before taking up the project, I knew very little about Bose or the INA. The process has reinforced some of the things I knew, armed me with more information and also changed my perception about a lot of things.
What are things about Bose’s life and disappearance that you changed your mind about?
I don’t want to talk about it now.
Are these ‘finds’ in the script?
Yes, they are. The script is backed by solid evidence. Nothing is fictionalised. Every plot point is backed by research from newspapers and books.
Tell us about your short film for Zee TV.
It is a contemporary romance called Baarishaur Chowmein, set in Mumbai, and starring Amit Sadh and Taapsee Pannu.
How has television changed since your first TV film in 1994?
I was lucky to be associated with television till the time it died. Rajdhani (1990) on Star Plus ended and the saas-bahu saga began. It was some sort of a divine intervention that I got promoted to films and did not have to go through the frustration of being involved with the degeneration.
Television is now about to change. With the arrival of web and television on the internet and Netflix, everything is changing. Now TV reaches out to a new audience – 30-plus males and educated and professional women who watch on computers, tablets and phones. Traditional TV sets are only for housewives and grannies. New audiences mean new eyeballs on these new platforms. So the programming has to be engaging because those consuming it are focused only on the screen. No one will chop vegetables while surfing the internet.
While shows like Nagin will still have its share of eyeballs, traditional television technicians are going to face a tough time. Concept, execution and packaging will have to change to adapt to the new platforms and audiences.
What about cinema – what is the next big thing? For instance, you pioneered the UP gangster cool genre, but it seems to have passed its sell-by date.
Somebody does it for the first time and people follow it blindly, diluting the colour and essence of the genre. God is in the details. They do not get into the details. I knew the hinterland well, I was well-versed with the politics and culture of Uttar Pradesh, I am aware of the details. Others are not. When they just try to appropriate the concept, it dies.
There is a new audience emerging and we must now start making content for a global audience, or else Hollywood will decimate us very soon. Fast & Furious did better business than some of our best films.
What kind of content are you talking about?
Rooted films that appeal to a global viewership. A film like Dil Chahta Hai was rooted in the urban Indian milieu. But the detailing was very nice, which is why even someone from Allahabad liked it. When you stick to the formula of hero, heroine and dream sequences, you make films that audiences outside India laugh at. Hollywood has survived because it reaches out to different worlds. We cannot ever hope to make Fast & Furious. But does that mean we do a “Shaava Shaava, Shaadi Byaah” instead? We have to think of something else. And if we don’t do it, who will?