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Interview Hindi

Investment in content will reap millions: Actor Ashwath Bhatt on the need to change attitudes

The actor emphasised on the need to invest in good content while advocating the creation of repertories that foster talent.

Ashwath Bhatt (R) in conversation with Riju Bajaj. Photo: LIFFT India

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Actor Ashwath Bhatt has been a part of several Indian and International films such as Moh Maya Money (2016), Raaz Reboot (2016), Haider (2014), and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012).

At the recently concluded LIFFT India festival, he presented the film Feast of Varanasi (2016) directed by Rajan Kumar Patel in which he plays the role of an aghori (ascetic). Set in Varanasi, the film takes us through the bylanes of Varanasi as the local police try to track down a serial killer, who has killed four women belonging to the lower caste.

Bhatt also produced the solo play Shaadi Kara Do Baba, as part of the Theatre Garage Project. Performed by Ashique Hussain, the hilarious comedy about the adventures of a bald man in search of a partner, was performed as part of the LIFFT India festival.  

More on LIFFT India 2017

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Bhatt talks about films, acting and the need for government investment in the arts.

In Feast of Varanasi (2016), the film that was screened at the festival, you play the role of an aghori. What was your experience of shooting for the film and how did you prepare for the role?

The film happened a couple of years ago. I got to know that it’s a British film that has been researched by director Rajan for 4-5 years and he asked me if I knew what aghoris are. I said that I knew a little bit about them and then quickly googled the term to learn more! I was concerned about the depiction of aghoris in the film, but Rajan said that he was going to do it very subtly, keeping it real. Rajan really understands Hindu culture even though he was born in Africa and moved to England, but his interest and knowledge of Hindu mythology is so amazing. So he really has an understanding and puts it in the right context.

After getting the part, I went to Varanasi for about three weeks and tried to understand what aghori is. At some point while preparing for the role, I identified with their philosophy that everything is God. Every place is God as every place is equally important. At the time of shooting in Varanasi, there was a flood so things were quite bad. The main place for the shooting was Varuna River, near Varuna bridge and that was so filthy but to be honest, I didn’t feel any of it. One gets into the mode and one just performs the role.

Feast of Varanasi mostly travelled through festivals and there are several films that do not get a theatrical release. How frustrating is it as an actor when there are films that you’ve worked on but they don’t get a release?

There are two parts to this — as an actor one does feel frustrated but I don’t think I’m really frustrated. My first film was a black comedy and I had the lead role in it and even though the film travelled to several festivals around the world, it never got released. But I just feel that it’s not in my hands. I have done around 20 films now and half of them have not released and they’ve only travelled to festivals.

As an actor, I feel that there is scope to showcase this kind of cinema so there need to be ways to encourage people to watch these films and showcase them atleast through satellite television.

Digital media companies argue that it is the stars who are reluctant for an online release and prefer a theatrical release instead. What are your thoughts on this?

Personally speaking, films which are different in content are not really done by the stars. Lately, Ayushmann (Khurrana) has become a sort of poster boy for alternative cinema but the bigger stars, perhaps Akshay (Kumar) or Aamir (Khan) may do different things but the other stars don’t. As an actor, what do we want? We want that films should reach the audience, whether that is through cinema halls or through the digital medium it doesn’t really matter. The digital medium is the medium of the next generation. Everybody is watching films on mobile phones now so as long as the films reach the audience, I don’t mind. 

There are hundreds of films lying in the homes of producers and directors waiting for a release. The clause that there should be at least one theatrical release for the film to be screened on television should be removed. And this will happen in time and nobody can stop it. Filmmakers will release their films directly online and the process will become more democratic. Earlier there were expensive cameras and one needed film stock so nobody could dream of making a film. Today, thanks to technology, anyone can make a film. The same will happen with distribution as well and nobody can stop it. If I want I can put my film on Youtube and I’ll get a million hits.

You’ve worked on several international and Indian projects. In the discussion following the screening of the film, you had talked about a difference in ‘ethics’ between the two industries. Could you elaborate.

I’ve worked with Danis Tanović (No Man’s Land), Mira Nair, Rajan, Ajitabh all of them are very professional. Vishal Bhardwaj, Kabir Khan, or right now I’m working with Meghna Gulzar, also Vikram Bhatt who is a completely commercial director, Mohnish (Moh Maya Money) so they are very professional. The script, the content is the main thing. How you develop that, execute it and how the production is organised, are the main things. One of the reasons we go over budget is because of the lack of organisation.

But things have changed drastically in the industry over the years. For example many stars have talked about the time when they were not even given any script and the dialogues would be written on set. Things have come a long way from there.

Yes, but just because you have a bound script doesn’t make it good content. Earlier there was no concept of content, it was just an idea in the director’s head. There have been a few directors whom I have met who just say that the film is in my head and then on the set the writer would write the lines and the actors would learn them! Of course there are so many wonderful new filmmakers who are crossing cultural barriers with their work also.

The thing is that there is huge audience for our films if we go beyond the conventional song and drama. I have nothing against song and dance as it is integral to our culture. And then there is the race for winning an Oscar as some sort of validation. I don’t want an Oscar affirmation. We need to put our own house in order instead. We are not in competition with Hollywood, that industry is creating a lot of trash. In fact they are having a moment when they want to get independent cinema out because they are fed up with the super hero flicks. And Hollywood has destroyed the film industry in many countries and that’s going to happen here as well if we don’t concentrate on content. 

The audience is changing fast and so is technology so if we do not concentrate on good content now, we will be wiped off. We will all be tubelights only, we will just be blinking. We need to spend money on developing scripts. The big production houses need to keep money aside for script development. Investment in content will reap millions. I don’t know why people cannot understand this. There is so much content one can find in books, newspapers, through travel. I have so many stories that I have collected through my travels and reading.

LIFFT India is a festival which has the amalgamation of the arts as its central theme. What are your views on this festival?

I am really amazed that Riju has managed to put together such a festival. The arts are all connected so even while there is a focus on one thing, they are all connected. The audience also attends the festivals for knowledge, so the overall lifting of the taste and aesthetics of the people is important. Unfortunately, the aesthetics of people is deteriorating. Look at the homes of people in villages or tribals. They make such beautiful paintings even in the simple mud houses and one can connect with it. Their aesthetics is different but not shallow.

Talking about aesthetics and taste, you also teach acting in universities. What are your thoughts on acting institutions in the country?

Really speaking, there are no institutes that teach acting here.

What about the National School of Drama (NSD)?

NSD takes about 26 people. Out of them 10 or 12 choose acting and just a handful join films. So NSD produces a variety of people but in the real sense, they produce very few actors. The Film and Television Institute of India is different because that is a proper acting course. 

England has 32- 40 acting schools but in our country there is no cultural policy for the arts. There is no proper direction regarding the modern arts. Here, we are still having a debate about the censor board, just imagine! The world has moved on. We are producing great actors out of talent, not just out of training. So we really need quality institutions. 

Every state can have a National State Repertory like they do in Germany. It’s not difficult to do because the infrastructure is already there. Halls and auditoria just need to be rejuvenated but the vision is sorely lacking. The government needs to stop giving grants and needs to invest in national and state repertories instead of just giving grants, which are like giving subsidies. The need to have that commitment.

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