When a friend suggested a movie based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, Sudhir Mishra thought that he should give the adaptation a shot. But when the director watched one of the many screen adaptations of the 1917 novel, he got “very bored”, in his words. However, the tragic journey of Devdas from aristocrat to alcoholic stayed with the veteran director even as another literary figure had begun to emerge in his mind.
“Shakespeare started intruding,” he told Scroll.in. “I saw similarities between Devdas and Hamlet – in some ways both are indecisive people. I thought, okay, what if Dev is an heir to a political dynasty? Many dynasts are brought in when their families are in trouble. When that happens, then Paro becomes the daughter of Dev’s father, a political secretary. Like in the original novel, her family lives in the outhouse of Dev’s larger feudal house. There is a rift that occurs and Paro soon becomes Dev’s political rival.”
Mishra’s version, titled Daas Dev, stars Rahul Bhat as Dev, Richa Chadha as Paro, and Aditi Rao Hydari as Chandramukhi. In his movie, Chandramukhi remains a seductress. “You know, these women politicians know but don’t admit to knowing – the ones that walk around the corridors of power, fixing deals and manipulating?” Mishra said. “She still retains the flaw, if you want to call it one, of being in love with Dev. She first conspires to bring him to power.”
Mishra’s titular character is addicted to power, besides alcohol. “The story became about Dev, Paro and Chandramukhi’s liberation from the addiction of power,” said the director of Is Raat Ki Subah Nahi (1996), Chameli (2003) and Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi (2005). “What’s the biggest obstacle to love? It is power. They are mutually contradictory. Love cannot exist amidst bullshit, corruption or this quagmire of deceit that politics is. It is actually a completely different story from Chattopadhyay’s. I don’t follow many of the tropes in the novel. There is as much Shakespeare in this film as Sarat Babu.”
Daas Dev is scheduled to be released in late April. The film has moved its release date around twice already – from February 16 to March 2 and then to March 23. “The film’s distributor, Shringar Films, feels it will be better if the film is released around April 20,” said Mishra. “They know the trade best and they say Baaghi is going to be released after us and Raid is being released before. I’ve finished the film and for me, it doesn’t matter if it comes 25 days later.”
Mishra began his career as a screen writer for Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) – one of the two main characters in the movie, played by Ravi Baswani, is named after him. Mishra then wrote the dialogue for Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho (1984) and co-wrote Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh (1985).
In more ways than one, these three filmmakers have defined Mishra’s approach to filmmaking. “I had always wanted to be a director,” Mishra said. “Even as I wrote, I co-wrote with the director. So I’ve been through the process of direction with Vinod, Saeed and Kundan and I kind of replaced them with myself, followed more or less the same process.”
Mirza, for instance, taught Mishra to submit himself to the creative process.
“I just tend to follow where the story leads me,” Mishra said. “You make a premise, a hypothesis of sorts. I’m a mathematician’s son, I just follow things. I don’t impose my viewpoint. Life escapes ideologies and preset notions. I’m not governed by ideologies. I’m governed by things as they happen.”
Writing a script, for instance, is a continuous process, one that changes even as the film is being shot. “I think we write the film as we make it,” Mishra said. “This is also what I’ve learnt from the three filmmakers I worked with initially and my brother Sudhanshu Mukherjee and my wife Renu Saluja, who was a great editor. They’ve all taught me that a film is a constant process of rewriting. I don’t believe in the artificial writer-director division. I think even a cameraman or the editor or the guy who does background music for your film is a co-writer. In fact, I think artificial divisions are changing films today and taking cinema’s cinematic quality away.”
A consistent and discernible thematic preoccupation in Mishra’s films is the chasm between reality and individual expectation. “Life kind of escapes any kind of control,” he observed. “It is very stupid to assume one is totally in control. And the surprises that life throws at you are what make it interesting.”
Another consistent endeavour has been to make films that respond to the times. “You can’t escape it if you are a conscious human being,” he explained. “Responding to the times doesn’t necessarily mean responding to the politics of the time. You are responding to different kinds of changes.”
Has Mishra’s approach to filmmaking also changed over the years? “You are conscious with every film,” Mishra said. “Sometimes, the first idea that will come to you will be a repetition of what you’ve already done. I try and put myself in new situations so that every film becomes like my first film. I don’t have those familiar tricks to play with. Otherwise, the same kind of background music will start coming into your head and basically you’ll end up making the same film, except maybe with different characters. I try and take away my crutches, so that I’m a little lost.”
Choosing the cast is also an organic process. “The faces slowly start emerging as you write the story,” Mishra said. “I like actors and I know even the newer ones. I keep in touch with new cinema. When that doesn’t happen, then like in the case of Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi, I do 500 tests across India. We went to six or seven cities to find new actors.”
Most people consider Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi, a tale about the aspirations of three young people in the India of the 1970s, as Mishra’s best work. The director said that he finds it fascinating to see that audiences still find the film appealing. “Every generation seems to respond to it,” he said. “I once saw it with the IAS Wives Association, and I was wondering why they liked it so much and then I understood that they all identified with Geeta [Chitrangada Singh’s character]. I also once saw the film in Bihar with some minister and his security personnel. I thought the security guys, like the cops in the film, might kill me or something after watching the film. But then I saw one of the cops crying. He told me about his experiences with politicians making them do things, even killing people. In the film, he saw his own tragedy. Sometimes films do more than you expect them to do.”
Mishra’s personal favourite is Khoya Khoya Chand (2007), about the Hindi film industry in the ’60s. “It is about the structure of cinema,” Mishra said about the movie that stars Soha Ali Khan as a movie star and Shiney Ahuja as a writer. “It is about how we slot people – the villain becomes heroic, the hero becomes kind of slimy, the friend wants the heroine and so on. The film is set in the ’60s but it is also about the ’60s structure and you break that. Everyone wants to be like somebody else and the film is actually about that and not actually about Bollywood in the ’60s. Nobody got that, though. Maybe that’s my mistake.”