Filmmaker, whose works include Leaving Home, documentary on the band Indian Ocean, writes on the making of his latest, Baavra Mann.The film’s free public screening will be held at Films Division auditorium in New Delhi (Mahadeo Road) at 6.15 pm on June 28
By Jaideep Varma
There is a widespread notion that making a documentary film on a person means that you are glorifying him or her. Sadly, even people connected to film and the media in our country tend to have this view. Most of them find it hard to grasp the idea that you may want to tell a story through someone’s eyes, for the story to be richer not for the person to be lionised.
“Baavra Mann – a film on Sudhir Mishra & Other Indian Realities” always pursued that intent of going beyond the person.
I had already known Sudhir Mishra for a few years before September 2010, which is when, after a particularly stimulating time at a film conference in Delhi, it seemed like an interesting idea to use his articulation to communicate something. There was no conscious clarity in what I wanted to communicate; in retrospect, I think it was just the desire to effect that same stimulation in other people. I wasn’t even clear then if I wanted to do it as a book or a film but the idea of using his worldview to explore something was perhaps the only thing defined in my mind.
It’s not that I did not admire his work – “Hazaaron Khwaaishein Aisi” was one of my all-time favourite Indian films, and all his films had something that I appreciated in some measure (especially “Khoya Khoya Chand” and “Dharavi”, both of which he considered amongst his 3 best films too). Having spent some time with him off and on in the last few years, I knew quite a bit about his interesting background too.
In the next few days, I made up my mind to do it as a film as, given the subject matter, it perhaps afforded the opportunity for greater exploration. But it would have to be a very low budget film as no one was obviously going to fund a film like that. I would have to make it with my own money – which meant it would have to be extremely cheap indeed. The challenge to make that kind of a low budget film which was every bit as engaging as a regular film that people see in theatres, especially since it was non fiction, was exciting and to be honest, one that was as much of a motivation as was the subject matter. Of course, it would appeal to a niche audience, and of course the low budget would sometimes show on screen, but my aesthetics have never been about gloss and look – so, in a perverse sort of way, I felt this was a project that would test my conviction that substance could make any form fly.
Back in Mumbai, I went to meet Sudhir Mishra at his office and spoke to him alone – expressing my desire to make a film on him. He was silent, and kept looking down, perhaps in embarrassment or perhaps at the mortification of having a low budget film made on him. It helped that he liked my previous documentary film – the one on the music band Indian Ocean, (called Leaving Home) so at least I knew he probably wasn’t pondering over my competence to make the film. Eventually, he said it was embarrassing for him to contemplate such a thing and perhaps it would be more interesting if I could use him as medium to explore something bigger. I found myself articulating the possibility of using his life to explore the milieus he had been in, with the Hindi film industry of course being the most prominent one – that would also enable a bigger canvas for the film, and a larger picture would possibly emerge. This also meant increasing the budget and going to the places of his past to shoot – namely, Delhi, Sagar and Lucknow. But it definitely seemed like a good idea.
In December 2010, we shot for two days at his home, office and his older home (where he had lived with Renu Saluja before she passed away). All we did was set up shots in these locations. I just conversed with him on camera (or more like he spoke and I nudged him on gently). From the beginning, he was much more candid than I had ever seen him – nothing was taboo. And he did not pull any punches either. We were a crew of primarily 4 people – one camera and sound guy, one assistant director and me; perhaps the intimacy and simplicity of the whole operation also eased him up and allowed conversations without distraction. For the most part, he kept his phones away too, which of course helped a great deal.
A couple of weeks later, we went to FTII Pune to shoot – that was with an even smaller crew (primarily thanks to Pankaj Rishi Kumar, a friend and also an accomplished documentary filmmaker himself). We even saw Sudhir Mishra’s first film (“Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin”, not available on DVD) at National Film Archives and it was interesting watching his reactions to a film he too was seeing after quite a while.
This was all in December 2010. The film went into a complete slump after that. Sudhir Mishra got busy with the release of “Yeh Saali Zindagi” and after that, I got busy with a World Cup video diary project for Cricinfo. Thereafter, I began concentrating full-time on Impact Index, my cricket statistics project, a commitment I had made to myself. There was no time to get back on the film and months went by…sometimes, I would absently nag myself to re-start the film but could never really find the energy.
Finally, it took a 21-year-old fresh graduate from Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication to effect just that. Dhruv Sehgal came to me for a job on the basis of my fiction feature Hulla which he had liked, and was disappointed to know that I wasn’t doing fiction then. He showed interest in the Sudhir Mishra project probably because he thought it would be a good way to make contacts, as I had expressed my intention of interviewing several industry stalwarts.
Dhruv’s energy and sharpness went a long way in re-starting the project. We would still shoot almost all the interviews over the next few months (primarily the last quarter of 2011) on Saturdays – I’d be busy with my Impact Index work over the week and Dhruv would make repeated calls to fix interviews and book equipment (very basic, but it still needed booking). On Saturday, soundman Jeet Singh and occasionally cinematographer Paramvir Singh (who had worked on my previous two films too) would join the two of us; besides equipment hire, we really only spent on lunch, as both Jeet and Param refused to take any money. When Param could not make the shoot, Dhruv would handle the camera.
We interviewed a lot of interesting people from the industry – people who had worked with him (actors, musicians, crew members) and also his peers, many of whom are stalwarts in the industry. All of them were generous with their time, particularly when they heard it was being individually produced with no hope of returns. It brought out a palpable generosity in them. Many of them spoke about the industry and the work they do with feeling and candour – it deserves a second DVD of just interviews when the film’s DVD eventually releases (which perhaps will happen). The interviews of Naseeruddin Shah, Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah, Swanand Kirkire, Pritish Nandy and Jaideep Sahni particularly stood out – the time and energy they gave this was touching. Also, the conversations we had with Sudhir Mishra’s parents and with Sushmita Mukherjee – his ex-wife, were wonderful. They went a long way in explaining many unsaid things.
In February 2012, the three of us (Pankaj, Dhruv and me) travelled with Sudhir Mishra to Delhi, Sagar and Lucknow and besides shooting interviews of him in those places and people he knew there, also explored the stories around him in those locations a little bit. Like the decline of NSD in Delhi. The decline of Sagar University. His origins in Lucknow. It promised to make the stories richer.
Then, there was a break of two months before the edit began. A first-time editor called Dintu George had joined us on the project too – he had never edited anything long-form yet, he couldn’t understand Hindi, nor had he seen a single Sudhir Mishra film till then. But he could handle FCP well and it was in this capacity that he contributed the most – while Dhruv and I gave shape to the narrative. We felt the need for an experienced editor sometimes, someone who would help us with structure and flow but the process of finding someone on our wavelength just seemed too time-consuming and intimidating. This was also the first time I was working full-time on this project and I wanted to finish it soon. Dhruv and I decided that we would do the first cut ourselves and then decide the way forward.
There was also the matter of budget – I could not have afforded an editor even if I’d identified one. I had no idea what I would do with the film – doing a few screenings and then putting it for free online was really the best plan I could come up with. All I was certain of was that the money wasn’t coming back – but since that was the premise I had started the film on, it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, in a strange way, it perhaps even set me free a bit – as no one else needed to be pleased with what we were doing. Sudhir Mishra, as pessimistic about its commercial prospects, actually suggested putting it for free as a special feature with his next film – not something that particularly excited me for obvious reasons.
We edited it in capsules – with a linear narrative, and it gradually began to get more and more coherent. The juxtaposition of the individual story and the larger story of his place in the world; the different environments he had been in, and their decline – the Hindi film industry itself and the many voices that complemented his – it all came together in a way that seemed as stimulating as the original moment that had inspired this film.
I particularly remember Dhruv’s occasional bewildered protestation – “But how can anyone not find this interesting?” as if its lack of commercial promise had already rendered it boring. That was easily the most exciting phase of the film – watching about 65 hours of footage get condensed to 6, then 4.5, then 3 hours (the length would eventually clock 2 hours, 7 minutes).