Siddharth is the story of a zip mender on the streets, searching for his lost son in India. You can read our review of the film here. On Canadian writer/director Richie Mehta’s first visit to Australia, Virat Nehru sat down to discuss the state of India cinema and whether there will be a time when the word ‘art house’ will not be seen as an insult by Indian film distributors.
This is your first time in Australia. How’s the experience been?
I’ve only seen the inside of a hotel but I keep telling myself – when I travel – I’ve always wanted to come here. Always. And I tell myself when I travel that I wanna see the place but then I get here and remember that really, you learn about a place from the people. I can see the landscape as much as I want, but that’s not as good as the people. So I think in four days, I’ll have a pretty strong reaction to this place.
Any plans to visit certain landmarks?
I would love to see the Opera House obviously. But also the basic things. I’m not a ‘beach’ guy, but just where the sea meets the city. I wish I could see the outback, I really wish I could.
Your first film Amal came out in 2007, almost six years ago. What’s that delay been like?
Is it the ‘second film dread’?
It’s funny. I’ve done a couple of things since then as experiments, which don’t count really. But actually, I was working like crazy after Amal. I worked on a Disney film. I was hired by Disney to do a film in India. It would’ve been their first live-action film, but they got shut down. So I worked on that for about a year. That got cancelled. It never got made. It doesn’t exist!
That’s great! How many people can say that I worked on a film that doesn’t exist!
Actually, quite a few. A lot of directors. It’s like a rite of passage, I found out. I was kind of heartbroken. And I needed a new film. It was already 2010 when this happened, May 2010. What am I going to do? And then, I met this rickshaw-wallah (rickshaw driver) when I was coming back from India. This rickshaw-wallah – we were talking – and he asked me for help in finding a place called Dongri. And I said, I’m sorry, I don’t know where Dongri is. And he said, I don’t know either, but that’s where my lost son is. I asked what happened. And he told me this story of sending his 12 year old boy to work and he never saw him again. He believes he’s been kidnapped and taken to a place called Dongri. And that’s the story.
Do you go back to India often?
I’m there about 5-6 months a year.
Yeah, I go 3-4 times. I spend a month and come back and go again.
So, you’re still very much connected to India, even though you were born and brought up in Canada. That’s really interesting. In Amal you had an autorickshaw driver, and now in Siddharth you’re telling the story of a zip mender. You’re telling the stories of people who exist but nobody cares about them. In India, everyone is almost desensitised to such things. These people take you from one place to the other. They are just perpetually there, but you don’t actually care about them. They are boring. But you’ve made their lives the focus, you’ve made them interesting, which is new.
I’m trying to. Were you born and raised here?
No. I came here when I was 16.
Right. So you would know this observation. You’re right. These people are not visible. They are almost part of the infrastructure. (Both laugh. He continues)
They are like the doors, right? Or the train tracks, the rails. But really, that’s actually what is the place. Our experience of it, especially as a Non Resident Indian (NRI), or as a ‘Non-Indian’- whatever you want to call it – is one where we are looking into it. Or as a wealthy Indian looking into it. But that perspective will not be what the thing actually is, which is, seven to nine hundred million people, which form the heart of that place. So, for me, what I’m interested in, is this idea that more of the world than not, is like that. So how can we this? You’re right – they are kind of invisible – but they’re not. More of the world than not, is like that. We are the small group.
It’s almost like we are the minority…
Yeah, we are the minority! But we’re acting like the majority. We play the majority. If we are in this world, let’s look at it.
What I find really ironic and funny, is the fact that there are some really big production houses in India, who basically target the broad Indian diaspora abroad – the NRI market – they almost make films exclusively for them.
It’s all about foreign locations, shooting, you know – blowing saris in the wind. Yet, there are people like you who don’t live in India, but are coming to India and making films about the common people. It’s almost a cruel inversion happening, where production houses in India aren’t making films about these things – who have the money, who have the resources. Rather, people like you – who probably are more in tune with Indians living abroad – are saying, no! We already have that. Let me go back and see what are the things these people aren’t making films about.
It’s so funny. A totally astute observation. I think a lot of it has to do with economics. Because in the past, if you look at the movies from – 1980s and prior – movies I grew up watching – lot of Amitabh movies – they were about the common man. Right? He played the coolie (porter), or the coal miner. That’s what they played. So they were playing labourers. Street guys and lower middle class. They were the common people and those were the people I believed in the movies. So, they were making movies for the audience to go and see the movies. Now, the Indian spending power is so strong abroad, that that’s who they are making movies for. So, it makes sense economically. Before, it just so happened, that the economics of the film-goers matched the economic reality of the majority of people. Now it doesn’t. So, to me – again – I’m trying to figure out, what is this place. If we can figure out what this place is, how India actually runs and operates, from the minute details of how people are, it’s almost a roadmap for governance in some way. Because there are so many people in India who have no connection to the country or the government, but are still part of the infrastructure. So, we need to understand how they relate to each other. It’s almost like a land of lawlessness where people are nice to each other. (Both laugh). Really! The majority of people are amazing. So, I’m trying to figure out – how does this place work?
Siddharth, you wrote with Rajesh Tailang –
Yeah, I did the screenplay in English, then he did the dialogues in Hindi.
You’ve also worked with Naseeruddin Shah, a National School of Drama, graduate. You seem to have an affinity towards theatre actors and graduates from there. What’s that affinity been like? Is there something particular that you want to focus on these actors especially, or…?
Yeah. I got turned on to that whole world by this actress called Seema Biswas, who was in my first film. And she connected me with Rajesh, who is a professor at National School of Drama. And he also did the Hindi dialogue for my first film. We worked very closely together. In fact, he had a small scene with Naseeruddin Shah in Amal. And then, they opened up the whole world. The casting director of my first film was from NSD as well. Same thing with this film. So, I got to see that whole world. And I got to see, that that’s the one institute, in one city , where they’ve got highly skilled, hyper-trained actors coming out of there. And they know how to play the people that they play. They know so well the common man. They know that world. They know the rickshaw-wallah, and they know the police constable, they know the fruit stand guy, and they know the dhaba-wallahs . They know that stuff. So, when they play these guys, they know them inside out. They are not playing caricatures. They are really playing them.
Because back in the day, you had Satyajit Ray, you had Bimal Roy, you had all these parallel cinema directors – even though I hate that word ‘parallel’ – who used to focus on those things. The whole parallel cinema movement really took off. And then, with commercialisation of cinema in India, it kind of died. Now, we’re seeing a sort of resurgence – with Naseeruddin Shah, you have Nawazuddin Siddique in Gangs of Wasseypur getting critical and commercial success. There’s almost a blurring of boundaries happening between ‘commercial’ and ‘parallel’ cinema. It’s almost suggesting that there is no such thing as ‘commercial’ anymore. You don’t have to stick to formulas.
So, it’s really interesting that we have that opportunity now. It’s suggesting that you can graduate from National School of Drama, but you don’t necessarily have to live your life based on theatre anymore.
And yet, when you say ‘parallel’ or ‘art house’, in India that’s almost an insult…
It is. It is! In fact it’s the only country I know, where, if your film goes to Cannes, it almost guarantees that you won’t get a release. (Both laugh) Really! I know several Indian films that have gone to Cannes in the last few years and they’ve not got released. The distributors say, ‘art house, forget it! I want nothing to do with it.’ I mean, every country in the world will play your own film, if it got to Cannes, except India!
Why do you think it’s like that? Is it an economic thing, like you mentioned?
It is. It is. Because they know that the people who go to see movies, you label it an ‘art’ film, they won’t go. Because they’re not interested. And I hate to say it, because it’s a cliché now, it’s a stereotype. It’s diversionary. The primary function of cinema in India is still diversion. Entertainment and diversion. So, when you label it ‘art house’, they say ‘Oh baap re! This is something which you’ve got to use your mind for.’
But surely, it’s just a semantic thing. This doesn’t mean that art house cinema doesn’t have entertainment…
Of course! Of course. That’s what I’m saying. It’s all clichés, marred with clichés. I think you can have art house as super entertaining and use as many genre conventions as you can, to get people enticed into the story. I think there’s something attractive, even in diversion – going somewhere and getting your mind completely taken over in the web of drama. But a lot of people in India contest it. They say it’s bakwaas! (Both laugh).
But is it because there no choice?
It’s not just a question of choice. It’s happening all over the world. The big distributor will put all his eggs in one basket. So you only think that that’s the only film that’s playing. There are many films playing, and some really interesting ones playing. Some of them are also really good once in a while. But you really know of only one or two films. So, then you go to see that. But, it’s not that they’re not there. There a lot of amazing films made in India.
That’s really interesting. Because, as soon as you come out of an out and out commercial film in India, most days, you say, ‘Well, that was a waste of my money. I went in there, I enjoyed it, but now I’ve come out, so what now?’
Yeah! Exactly! It’s like you had a chocolate bar, but you ate too much and you’re like, ‘oh shit! Now the whole experience is ruined.’ It kind of worked at the time, but then you realise after that it doesn’t even make sense. A lot of these movies don’t even make sense. And tonally, a lot of them are off. You still throw all the ‘masala’ and what comes out is khichdi. 1 Sometimes, it’s too violent as well, without understanding tone. I’m not talking about Gangs of Wasseypur which is about violence. I’m talking about a movie where the first half is a romantic comedy and the second half is a bloodbath. And you’re like, what the hell?
Is that because of the social context, where families generally go out to see movies, as opposed to people seeing movies alone, as is common in Western culture? You have an 18+ movie, here you can just watch it alone, whereas in India, ‘family entertainment’ is almost a genre.
Yeah. But you what the weird thing is – and I’m speaking out of a real love for Indian cinema – they really nailed it in the past. They had it. It’s got suddenly derailed now. Who’s calling the shots? How’s this happening? Bless Yash Chopra’s soul, but someone like him, figured it out so well – the recipe for commercial Indian cinema. And to not go off the rails. It’s not like his films are overtly violent or overtly sexual.
And he made both kinds of films. On one hand he made Dil to Pagal Hai, which is a completely over-the-top kind of experience –
But he also made Lamhe, which was so ahead of its times…
Yeah, indeed. The thing is, you had the mainstream. And this is the key for me – mainstream Hindi cinema that had – without stuffing it down your throat – social commentary. That was really important. More so than any other place in the world, in India you have so many people who love cinema. They’ll watch it, they’ll listen to what movies will say, and the movies are not taking the opportunity to say anything. You can really have a positive social impact in India through movies, and they’re not taking advantage like they used to.
Talking of social commentary, Siddharth has a lot of social commentary about child labour. What you do very well in the film is that you remove yourself, your own opinions, and you just show it as it is. Which I think has more of an impact, because you don’t have an overt directorial bias of ‘I’m showing it in this way.’ You just show what it is. That’s the beauty of it. You can’t say that it doesn’t or shouldn’t happen, it just happens…
Yeah, it just happens. Everything that I show in Siddharth – especially for an audience in a developed country watching this. They say, ‘Oh my God!’ But, everything’s related to economics, including trafficking. So, you have all these people, even doing simple things, for example, counting pennies for a bus fare – everything’s about economics. You have a problem of child labour, well it’s related to the fact that he doesn’t have enough money to take the bus. It’s all related. If you’re talking about economics, that’s relates to us – the developed world. There is a relationship between people who have and have not. So you can’t just judge one half. I talked to child traffickers, and they said that we wouldn’t do this if this wasn’t economically lucrative. If we’re losing money, we’ll stop.
It’s really interesting that you put it in such a pragmatic way. That’s it’s just about economics and making money. If there was money in something else, they would do that. So, the act almost becomes divorced from being a social evil and becomes more of an economic issue.
It’s totally an economic issue. Bacche want to play and parents want their bacche to play. But, if they’re gonna go to work, it’s because they have no choice. The same principle for anybody who’s a farmer outside Sydney. Putting his 12 year old son to work in the field, which is normal I’m sure. It happens all over the world. It makes pragmatic sense. The difference is, there they are sending them to factories and putting them near asbestos and carcinogens and this and that. You’ve been to Mayapuri and some of these places, where you’re like, ‘Oh my God!’ And how many thousands of people are working there, with no shoes?
Do you think – and I sort of think you do – that there is a space for art house and escapist cinema to co-exist in India?
Yes, there is.
How do you think that change will come about? Is it going to from people like you – who are going to rise up against convention, in an Amitabh Bacchan kind of way? These sorts of films are actually successful, so let’s make more of these?
I hope so. You can look at glass half empty, glass half full kind of thing. You can say that things are getting worse and more commercial and everything. Money has relegated the art house films. Or you can say that the art house is making a comeback and there is a melding happening – which I like to believe there is – and yeah, you will get directors who will say that we know the language of cinema. We can make super entertaining, but we can also make something that goes beyond that, I hope.
Where to after the Sydney Film Festival?
Well, Siddharth is getting released all over, including in Australia. And I have another film – science fiction. It’s called I’ll Follow You Down. It’s with Gillian Anderson and Haley Joel Osment. It just came out in the US, and next week in Canada.
Good luck for that! And I’ll be sure to look out for it when it comes out here in Australia.
Thank you. Thank you so much!