Interview Hindi

Onir: Instead of web series, I'd rather walk the path of Iranian cinema

The filmmaker gets candid about his next, Shab, which he wanted to make 17 years ago. 

Keyur Seta

Director Onir is back with Shab. As far as he is concerned, Shab is not like any other film. The film is something he has been carrying ever since he got into direction. He had written the film 17 years ago but it kept getting delayed. In other words, it could have been his directorial debut.

In a chat with, Onir gets candid about the film, his journey and other interesting topics like web series and his independent cinema movement. 

You wrote the script 17 years ago. What caused the delay?

We decided to make this film quite a few times but due to some reason or the other, we couldn’t. But I am glad that I didn’t give up hope even after 17 years. If I hadn’t made it, I would have felt that I have lost. Your first script is like your first dream, which is getting fulfilled. Actually, when my journey started, I was editing Daman (2001). Right from that time, Raveena Tandon and Sanjay Suri have been an important part of my journey. They encouraged me to write my own script. This is how I wrote Shab and I had thought of casting both of them. After 17 years, I modified her role. Sanjay has a cameo in the film.

How would you describe Shab?

The film is about dreams, desires and destiny. When I had come to this city, even I had a dream of becoming a filmmaker. All my friends had different dreams who had come here from small places. Some of us were able to fulfil our dreams while others returned home. Maybe because of this the core of my first script is about different individuals who arrive from different places with some dreams and desires. But sometimes, destiny has some other plans. Raveena’s character is that of a fashion diva. Ashish (Bisht) plays a character from a small town who wants to become a model. Arpita’s (Chatterjee) character comes from a small town near Kolkata. She is a waitress at a coffee shop. There’s another character from France who is a French teacher.

A lot changes in 17 years, including people’s taste of cinema. Did you make any changes in the script?

In these 17 years, along with me, even the story has undergone a journey. I have re-written the script a lot of times. I developed the characters as well according to the milieu. The film has changed according to my own growth. If you read Ramayana, it is written long ago. But the core of jealousy and husband-wife relationship is still the same. So, the core of a relationship is same even in 17 years. Milieu, like clothes, changes. But the basic elements of storytelling remain the same. This is the reason why classic films, novels and plays are still relatable. There is still some relevance in them.

Why did you choose Delhi as the city to base your story?

Initially, the city was supposed to Bombay as I had come here only. But I have spent a lot of time in Delhi too. There is something about Delhi that I like. And Bombay has been over-exposed. So, I thought of adding some freshness to south Delhi. I stayed there for one year. I hired a flat. Plus, I love eating. The food of Delhi is very good. So, I included scenes of people eating some of my favourite dishes.

You know Raveena Tandon for many years. What changes have you seen in her as an actress?

From the ‘Tip Tip Barsa Paani’ till now, there obviously has been a change. I think she is more confident (now). I always feel actresses like her and Juhi Chawla are more beautiful now. With age, there is a certain beauty that comes, which I find very attractive. The kind of roles Raveena is doing now, there is certain power and strength. This is true also for Shab.

Arpita Chatterjee, Ashish Bisht and Raveena Tandon in Shab

You had once said Shab is a mainstream film. But the definition of mainstream is different in the industry.

I would like to differ a little. For example, isn’t Hindi Medium a mainstream film? It has received a wide audience. It has got a bigger audience than Raabta. Does that mean Raabta is non-mainstream? How can Dangal be mainstream? If you remove Aamir Khan, it won’t appear mainstream. It’s a beautiful film. The reason why I call my films mainstream is because my actors are mainstream.

For example, how is Juhi Chawla not mainstream? If Shah Rukh (Khan) is mainstream, even Juhi Chawla is. Just because her age has increased, she suddenly ceases to be mainstream? This is the discrimination in our industry. The minute an actress becomes a certain age, she becomes non-mainstream and so do her films. But Juhi Chawla has mostly done mainstream films.

And in my films, the narrative is simple, I use music and songs. Not normal arthouse songs; the music also becomes hit. The stories are not typical mainstream. But at the same time, today a Kapoor And Sons (2016) is also made. So, I think the definition is changing. Arthouse is like experimental cinema, but I have never done that. Whatever I have done in Shab is mainstream for me because it is my highest budget film. When I was making the film, I made sure it is sleek-looking and fast paced. The film’s duration is one hour and 38 minutes. Style-wise it is closer to ‘mainstream.’ If the film does well, it suddenly becomes mainstream.

What was the reason for casting newcomer Ashish Bisht?

I have been an outsider and I had a long struggle to become a filmmaker. From whatever little I have learnt, I want to provide a platform to others. I have already launched five music directors. And I can’t run after stars. So, why not try and train people and nurture actors who are talented? A year-and-a-half was spent in auditioning for the male lead in this film. Ashish had earlier auditioned for the role of sperm donor for I Am (2010). He got rejected. But I felt there is some spark in this guy. For two years he got trained and did workshops with Adil Hussain and Tannishtha Chatterjee. He auditioned 15-20 times.

Watch Shab trailer

These days, filmmakers have started making web series to save themselves from the wrath of censoring. Ram Gopal Varma is the latest who has done that. Would you like to do that since you too have had problems with the censors?

No, I can’t because I would rather take the path of Iranian cinema. Films are films. The pleasure is watching cinema on big screen. I am very very selfish; I want that. We can learn from Iranian filmmakers that despite so many restrictions, still they make such beautiful films. They don’t give up. Even I wouldn’t like to give up. And I feel there is always a way.

You had started an Indie cinema movement few years ago. What is its status now?

It was Save Indie Cinema movement where 67 filmmakers had signed up for it. This included 40 National Award winning directors from all over India, including Ashutosh Gowariker and Vishal Bhardwaj. Indie cinema flourishes outside in countries like Europe and China. They get a different exhibition too. Then we are such a big country. For example, you know you can watch good plays at Prithvi Theatre and people are paying to see them. Similarly, there should be such cinema theatres in big cities where good, National Award winning films should be shown, including dubbed films. Why can’t we watch good Tamil and Marathi films?

If we set up such theatres, we will easily get 100 such theatres. It is such a big country. This would become a different distribution chain. Keep the tickets as low as Rs50, keep a canteen and library too. Slowly a culture would start. I went to different states and met their chief ministers. But then the government got changed. So, whatever progress I had done was wasted and I got tired. I realised my task is only filmmaking (laughs).