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Interview Hindi

If we do not provide good content we will get wiped out: Avinash Das

In an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com, the director of the widely acclaimed Anaarkali of Aarah emphasizes on the need for good content and his desire to experiment with new technology.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Earlier this year, Avinash Das’s directorial debut made waves with its nuanced look at sexuality, desire, exploitation and consent.

Set in a small town in Bihar, Anaarkali of Aarah, starring Swara Bhaskar and Sanjay Mishra in the lead roles, takes a hard look at the way the life of a performer of raunchy songs, Anaarkali, is derailed when she refuses to be treated as a sex object. The film captures the small town of Aarah in minute detail as Anaarkali's fiesty rebellion exposes the hypocrisy of the powers that be and their deep rooted patriarchy. 

Cinestaan.com caught up with the director at the LIFFT India festival as he talked about the importance of film festivals in the country in fostering the growth of a cinema-literate audience and the constraints that bind the creativity of a filmmaker.       

What was your motivation for attending the festival?

I have come with some embarrassment as the festival wanted to screen Anaarkali of Aarah but for various reasons, we weren’t able to send them the film. So I felt that at least I should attend the festival, even if the film was not able to make it.

The other reason is that I have been interested in film festivals and I believe in them because the culture of cinema in India can reach the masses when we have such festivals in large numbers. The big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata have their film festivals but for a festival to take place in a small place like Lonavala, is a big thing. There are several national and international films being screened here and it is important for people like us to be with such a festival movement. This is our need and not the need of the festival. 

So, what was the reason for your film to not make it to the festival?

Cinema is a director’s medium but because it involves money; the copyright is with the producers. The creative right is mine but decisions regarding where the film will be screened and whom it will be sold to etc., this is all according to the will of the producers. Sometimes they defer to the director’s request but they also think about the benefits that a film will get if it is screened at a particular place. So, the film became entangled in all these issues.

I’m saddened by it but its fine, this is a market and these kinds of manoeuvrings are a part of this market.

Talking about the marketplace, there are several films that do not have the funds for a theatrical release and a digital release would ideally be very convenient but apparently, actors are not that keen on a digital release while directors are. What are your thoughts on this?

To some extent, I understand the point of view of actors but I differ from them as well. If one makes a film with stars, even mid-level stars, the stars feel that their future is secured when a film does well at the box-office. Their personal stardom and demand and fee also increases because of this.

But digitalization offers an avenue for films that are unable to get a release. This will also enable a faster process in terms of democratizing cinema. The masses will access films through the digital space because that is how the internet is being used. 

Think about it, when the mobile phone entered the market, it was so expensive that one would think several times before even picking up a call but now the masses have mobile phones. Phones have become a priority and are bought and sold like vegetables! So, internet will also go this way and when it does, think about the ways in which cinema will spread.

People who do not have the means to buy tickets for Rs250-300 will connect to films through their phones. So actors should understand this. That more than the platform of theatres, it is the digital platform that is increasing day by day. They haven’t really understood this because the investment in cinema is done as per theatre recovery. People are not very interested in giving money only for films that will be released online. 

You mentioned the democratisation of cinema, so do you think that cinema in its current form is not a democratic space?

No, it’s not. Because say I’ve thought of a story and I need to sell it to a producer. I could take loans and make films with my own efforts but that doesn’t really have a future, it doesn’t have a standing in the market. So we are dependent to make our films and as soon as producers come on board, they come with their demands and draw out boundaries within which we have to operate.

Democracy is possible when we are able to create something as per what we have thought of. This is not possible in the current format. Stars influence content, also every person tries to claim their stake, so it may seem democratic but it actually isn’t. 

How do you see the role of censorship in all this and what were your experiences with the censor board (Central Board of Film Certification)?

I have a very poor opinion of the censor board as I do not believe in censorship. While creating a story, we are completely immersed in it to bring it to the screen and the censor board officials in a single screening, and without any understanding, decide on what to cut and what will be offensive.

This happened with my film as well. I fought on this and spoke in the media against this as well. Pahlaj Nihalani called my producer and asked him to write a letter of apology and told him that if your director or any member of the film speaks against us, we will not give you a censor certificate. So the producer wrote the letter but that didn’t silence me, because it is my right to speak up against things that I disagree with.

We tried to not cut scenes and fight but the release date was near so we had to delete certain scenes, even though we didn’t want to. 

Given your experience, how do you see the shift in the CBFC Chairman from Pahlaj Nihalani to Prasoon Joshi?

So, it’s very good that he [Nihalani] left. Prasoon Joshi’s appointment is a good indication because he comes from the advertising world and there have been a lot of experiments in the ad world in terms of visuals and content so one can expect that his decisions will be undertaken with sensibility, but his position is not an independent one.

Nihalani also said that he received a phone call from the Ministry to stop Udta Punjab and to pass Indu Sarkar, etc. So it ultimately doesn’t depend on your inherent sensibility, it is thought that is guided by the State so whether it is Prasoon Joshi or anyone else, I am skeptical that their creative sensibility will have a bearing on the final decisions. 

What is your ideology as a film maker? What is the vision that guides your films?

Art forms, apart from being many things, are also a document of their time. If my understanding of society and politics does not permeate my art, my art has no meaning. This is my belief. Cinema is not just an aggregate for entertainment, there’s much more that lies beyond it. What you say should have the power to excite people far and wide.

Whom do you regard as being your influences?

Everyone, whoever has made films before me, be it Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Chetan Anand, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and in the current times, Anurag Kashyap, Aanand L Rai, Subhash Kapoor, Dibakar Banerjee, Imtiaz Ali, Hansal Mehta, there are so many, Shekhar Kapur who worked in the middle space between art and commercial films… So I feel that all these filmmakers have influenced me because if it wasn’t for them, this desire, the seed of wanting to become a film maker would not have been planted in me.

So in the current scenario, we’ve seen that very few big banner commercial films have done well. There’s also the looming threat of the growing popularity of Hollywood films. Several independent films have great content but not such a wide market. How much of this is due to the content of films?

Give me one example in independent cinema where the film was excellent but the film didn’t do well at the box-office, and the films with stars like Shahrukh and Salman haven’t done well so even the big films need to be mindful of good content. A film like Piku, such a simple film, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan — a film that explores a common problem in a natural manner while the society sees it in an unnatural way.

People are watching such films. Films like Bareilly ki Barfi, Masaan, Mukti Bhawan, a film like mine, will be seen as independent cinema only, as they are made with individual effort and an individual producer, even though it was released by PVR. So, where there is content, the audience will swarm around it like honeybees! 

And you’ve given a very good example of Hollywood because the market has opened up. If people are watching Hollywood films here then we have to compete with Hollywood films as well. I feel that this competition that will take our cinema in a very good direction.

So you are seeing this in a positive light while people have been largely despondent about this competition with Hollywood.

See, we are in a small place Lonavala, at a festival which has international films as well and 95% of the people speak in English here so there is no language barrier. It’s very easy for them to choose what they want to see and they will choose as per the content. We canno tell them that they need to be nationalistic and watch Hindi films! So, if we do not provide good content we will get wiped out.

So what is the subject of your next film?

I am in a bit of conundrum about what I want to do, but my next film is also a story of Bihar and I will tell you more when the project develops.

Okay so tell me, are you open to working with stars in the future?

Why not? If they want to work with me, why wouldn’t I work with them? We have come to cinema by seeing the stars and to tell the story. I have worked for newspapers and television. We have come to cinema because we want our story to reach the maximum audience possible. So if my story reaches 2 crore people instead of 2 lakhs because of a star, it’s fantastic for my story so I don’t really hold this distinction.

Would you be interested in making a web series in the future?

Filmmakers who have made films for the big screen start repeating themselves after a point. Very few people like Costa-Gavras who make a film like Le Capital (2012) after so many years of making films. He has made political films throughout his career.

A new medium enables new type of experimentation and evolves with people with new talent and brilliance. So, a web series is very good for giving space to new ways of thinking and experimentation and if I am given the opportunity, I will have a lot of fun with it.

Cinema has certain boundaries which a web series does not have so, every medium has its benefits and whichever medium allows me to tell my stories, I will work with that medium.