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An Interview with Sudhir Mishra: 50 Films that Changed Bollywood

Feb 2017

An Interview with Sudhir Mishra: 50 Films that Changed Bollywood

Sudhir Mishra is a film director and scriptwriter. His critically acclaimed, offbeat films, such as Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and Chameli, tell the story of both the narratives he creates and that of a man preoccupied with the many ways of ‘seeing’ in this world. His remarkably dry wit set the stage for our interaction. On a wintry evening at the Festival, he spoke about his favourite films, what he thinks make a good film, why he likes Kishore Kumar and more. Excerpts:

  • You mentioned during your session that your father established a film society when you were young. How did this society help your education as a filmmaker?

Not just films: it taught me about life, about countries, about culture, about ways of seeing. It was balanced out by my uncle showing me Dara Singh movies. It opened me up to many different kinds of cinema. This was an eclectic bunch of guys. My father was a mathematician. He watched everything: Hollywood, Bengali films, Hindi films. Watching films, whether Indian or, say, French, was a part of life- it wasn’t pretentious! These films often came from embassies, and sometimes they wouldn’t take them back. Closely Watched Trains, I remember, was one such film. The film was by Jiří Menzel and it remained with the society for ten or twelve years. It was not a film to be watched by a kid, but I don’t think it did me any harm!  I met Menzel in Montreal in ’88 and I told him, I must have seen your film some twenty times and he told me, ‘You should have found something better to do.’

  • You said that some stories choose their medium, and so some stories are made for cinema. What kind of stories, do you think, fit cinema the best?

Stories of longing, loss and life. Stories about the human condition.

  • Don’t you find those in literature as well?

Well, yes. But films are concrete. Literature is abstract. There, you move from an abstraction to a concrete. Here, you move from concrete to an abstract. This is why genres such as suspense and thrillers, with so much movement and physical activity, are so particularly suited for cinema. But, for example, it is difficult to make a film about sex. You shoot it from outside and thus almost immediately it descends into pornography. In literature, you can operate in the head of the people. In cinema, it can become only physical: a voyeuristic experience, almost. I find what Truffaut said, about sex being a difficult subject to film, somewhat right. That said, in the hands of a great artist, all these rules fade away. Somebody like Lars von Trier has proved that.

  • Has somebody’s ‘way of seeing’ affected you a lot in your filmmaking?

Many. Ghatak, Guru Dutt, Scorcese, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Robert Aldrich, Sam Peckinpah. Nowadays I like Sam Mendes a lot as well. Also Paul Anderson. There has been a recent wave of Chinese and Korean filmmaking that is also exceptional. But the last filmmaker who has really affected me deeply is Lars von Trier. His early works, such as Europa, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, were stunning.

  • You clearly like a very eclectic range of films. What is the one quality that immediately sets a film apart for you?

Emotion, especially people living with the certainty of losing in a way that is not unnecessarily optimistic but an acceptance of the futility of the world in a way that still causes you to act. It is the human condition, and there are many films which capture this, and those films are marvellous. Kishore Kumar does a great job of showing this. His films are like spoofs of the world, like he is asking, ‘What the hell is sll this about anyway?’ So you might put a finger up at it. There’s a great scene at the end of the Woody Allen film, Love and Death, where Diane Keaton looks out and sees Woody’s character literally dancing with death, after saying ‘I’ve been screwed.’ That’s cinema to me.

  • One label that is continuously attached to you is alternative. Are you comfortable with that label?

I don’t mind it. If you say that there is a formulaic mainstream Indian cinema, then I don’t fall in that. But I think there is a parallel stream. I am somewhere in the middle of a niche. There is no absence of an audience for me, there is a smaller audience. I don’t like the word ‘art films’ because all films aspire to be art. We’ll decide later whether they are or not!

  • Do you think mainstream Bollywood is becoming more accepting of indie filmmakers now?

Yes. Now, the world is more connected and people in Bollywood are more exposed to all kinds of cinema. They are more in touch with each other as well, so they frequently influence each other. Anurag Kashyap and Imtiaz Ali are good friends and this is bound to show in their work. They are becoming more independent minded. Smaller films do have trouble finding audiences, though. The indie space is always difficult and always will be.

  • Will we see you on Youtube one day, making a short film?

I’m going to make a short film now! Besides the work that I do with webseries and films, I have got a camera to make one. I’m going to be doing it for a company and I won’t be making any money on it, but after starting with that I’ll make my own. I think that there are many stories in India that can be told in experimental ways with good actors, and I would like to tell them.

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