In Vishal Bhardwaj’s films, the petty crook sings as eloquently as the brave splintered heart. Bhardwaj is one of the few Bollywood filmmakers who has bended genres to his advantage and avoided the strictly moral lens on heroism and greatness. He composes the music for his films himself; before he was a director, he was a music director. What also sing soaringly and look gorgeous in his films are human flaws and whimsies. Bhardwaj is a master of set pieces although the sum may not always hold up – be it luxuriant paranoia in Haider (2014) and Omkara (2006) or bovine hallucinations in Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola (2013).
Over 16 years since his directorial debut with Makdee in 2002, Bhardwaj has adapted Macbeth (Maqbool), Othello (Omkara) and Hamlet (Haider), and is set to adapt a trilogy of Shakespeare’s comedies starting with Twelfth Night. He still says with relish that he discovered Shakespeare by chance, through a brutally abridged version of Macbeth while on a train. With the comedy trilogy, he will be one of few filmmakers in the world who have adapted Shakespeare to non-English settings and tongues so consistently. In Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola, Bhardwaj for the first time stepped out of the immediate emotional universe of his characters to a political canvas. In Haider, which had Kashmir as its tragic centre, he took his politics further.
His next film, Pataakha, which is being released on September 28, is an adaptation of Charan Singh Pathik’s short story Do Behnein, about two sisters Genda (Sanya Malhotra) and Champa Kumari (Radhika Madan) or Chutki and Badki. It is also a story about India and Pakistan, which Bhardwaj infuses with his signature unrestrained North Indian bravura and playfulness. With Gulzar, his mentor, he collaborates again for the songs. “Network ke bheetar, WhatsApp ka teetar,” he says, was one result of this collaboration, their way of saying lovers don’t go to the terrace, beach or even cafes anymore.
So many of your stories are set in rural or small-town India. Having lived so many years in Mumbai and Delhi before that, what still draws you to that milieu?
Rural India will draw anybody who is interested in a good story. The conflicts there are primal. In our cities, conflicts are superficial because they are about wants, ambitions for things like who drives what car. In a village in India, it is still about basic things for survival.
I am drawn to rural characters probably because I also want to stay rooted by getting involved in that basic experience of living. I read Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Nights and felt that that story had to be told. He lived through insurgency, and the Muslim point of view had to come out. I can myself experience it by telling a story about it. I am interested in projecting the several realities that exist beyond cities, which I or you can’t live.
Have you ever thought of setting a story in another country?
No. The country outside of India where I have spent enough time is America. I know its cities, I have interacted with a lot of people there. If a diaspora story ever appeals to me, I will tell it. But so far, I haven’t found enough material or inspiration in the diaspora. You have to know the people. Once I get a story I invest in the place. Like I spent a lot of time in Kashmir after I got the story for Haider.
What drew you to ‘Pataakha’?
Sahitya Kala Academy brings out a bi-monthly journal, they publish stories from all over India. It was a hilarious short story. I called the author Charan Singh Pathik and together we developed the three-act structure we needed. I wrote the script while I was travelling with the Broadway adaptation of Monsoon Wedding in about two months. It is a very unusual story about two young sisters. Sibling rivalry has never been explored as a theme in our cinema. It gave me the opportunity to also shoot in Rajasthan.
In popular culture, Rajasthan has represented by the same colours and images. What kind of Rajasthan are we going to see in ‘Pataakha’?
I am very aware of the abuse that has been done to Rajasthan when it comes to visuals. I wanted to stay away from the turbans, the same bright colours and the sand – away from Jaisalmer and Pushkar Mela. The story is set in a hill station, we shot in Mount Abu. It is a barren, rocky landscape very different from the Rajasthan you have seen. The small village we got there was very exciting to shoot in, the mountains are layers of brown rocks.
How do you shape your visual language? Do you always have a template before you shoot?
First comes the story – it can be inside a house, a village, in a railway station or a sports ground. A story about two people or four people, and their relationships and exploring the extraordinary conflicts in their ordinary lives, which is the most difficult thing.
A superhero is fantasy, I don’t like superheroes. What is the story trying to say – is it going deeper than what it appears to be, and does it have a resolution which gives you a satisfaction that is more than just the end of a story?
The problem of dialects in India is fascinating. Dialects change every 100 kilometres. Very beautiful colours come out of dialects and go into the characterisation.
After the language of the words come the language of the camera and the language of sound, according to the story and the milieu and the location.
I usually work out the entire visual framework and the colour palette before – that is the easy part with all the technology that you have. A good cinematographer can give you the most beautiful visuals in locations that are ordinary.
Tell us a bit about your Shakespeare comedy trilogy.
I know where they are set, but I can’t reveal that now. The first will be Twelfth Night. What fascinated me most about it is the brother-sister twins. What’s most exciting is that the actor who plays the sister will also play the brother. It has the comedy of errors in them, besides being deep in many ways.
How do you deal with censorship? Bollywood writers and producers say they are conscious of it when they work. Won’t that kill originality?
It has been a problem for the last 70 years. Now offence is more vocal, more empowered. We still haven’t made a film about Operation Bluestar, for example, because it won’t go down well. The word ‘censorship’ itself is so oppressive.
The groups who target films are successful at many levels, otherwise they can’t go on. So, I don’t think censorship will really go away. The good part is that no film has been banned completely except films made with government money. I know that many NFDC [National Film Development Corporation] films were banned after they were made. But otherwise a film usually eventually gets a release.
You are right that self-censorship and fear are more dangerous. To keep your thoughts in check – and I guess that’s what the groups who protest against films want. And that has started happening to me too. Earlier, the freedom I felt to write or think about any idea I wanted and to say ‘Aage kya yoga dekha jayega’, that’s gone. Because I am aware that if I think of something ‘radical’, the journey may become very long and tough.
You have been political in your films: the Kashmir conflict in ‘Haider’, anti-capitalism in ‘Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola’. Bollywood is largely apolitical. Do you ever feel disconnected from it?
You have to be political if you are a filmmaker. You have to be political if you are a citizen, to vote and believe in one ideology is to be political, isn’t it?
Bollywood is not political because the state does not give us the liberty. We are the easiest, softest targets. Before a film releases, there are a hundred demands to ban it. You don’t have a choice, really.
How do you feel about the rise and empowerment of the Hindu Right in India?
I don’t agree with the Hindu Right or Hindu Rashtra ideology. How have we come this far since 1947 if we were to believe in one Hindu Rashtra? Then we might as well let go of the Constitution because our Constitution says there should be equal rights to people of all faiths. I think the seed of a monolithic society ended in 1947 itself. Generations of Muslims have been living here for centuries. They are us.
What kind of music is inspiring you these days?
I have been obsessively learning the piano. I am listening only to Western classical music, and trying to learn it as well. I don’t know where that will go.