Why and when did you first think of becoming a writer?
I never thought of becoming a writer, I just loved movies. Normal middle-class people like me usually want to become doctors or engineers but I think those things require more intelligence. One day, I saw an ad from Mudra. I always wanted to be in films and I knew Mudra was a Ramesh Sippy company. But then I found out it was an advertising agency. I started working there. My first ad was for a shaving cream and I had a beard even then. I thought if anything can make me shave then I am home. So I wrote a song that plays in the ad while somebody is slowly applying shaving cream. This was for a brand called Willman, which was eventually bought over by Gillette. This was in 1991 or 92.
For somebody who has always wanted to be a filmmaker, wasn’t 30 years of working in advertising and becoming a legend in the trade too much of a digression?
See, in advertising, you get to work on films almost every day. I was sometimes making three-three films every day. When you do 5000 odd ads, each one is a story; each one is an idea; each one is a screenplay. So, in my head, I was always doing what I wanted. I was working with films; just that the format was different. In advertising, somebody gives you money to tell a story; in feature filmmaking, you tell a story and ask people for money. That’s the difference.
But you took a hard call and stopped working in advertising to focus entirely on films, didn’t you?
Yes, because I believe you should leave something when you’re still interested in it. I wasn’t tired of advertising; I loved it with all my heart when I left it. Besides, after a certain point, you realise that advertising is not just about my work. When you grow more, there are thousands of other responsibilities that you have to manage. And at some point, I thought, I just wanted to focus on my work and do exactly what I want. Feature films are not exactly a profession that I would advise anybody to get into. In a way, it’s not a profession. If I hadn’t worked in advertising for so long, it may have been difficult for me to come to terms with the unknown territory that feature films can be. It’s sort of difficult for a creative person to be continuously in the realm of the unknown. Even advertising involves some amount of the unknown but you still have protection – there are systems in place. Here, it’s fully unknown.
But then sometimes, you realise that you are not getting any younger so you try and do exactly what you’ve always wanted. Also, I wanted to test out being a filmmaker. I didn’t want to be distracted by a reason to tell a story – which advertising always gives you. Advertising can sometimes become like a slot machine where people are putting coins and out comes an idea. I didn’t want anybody to put a slot coin and I just wanted an idea to come out without any coin. So yes, it was good fun.
Was there a trigger – an event where you thought enough is enough and you’re going to focus only on films from there onwards?
Yes, actually there was one. I think it was Shamitabh. When Shamitabh didn’t do well, I could have gone back to advertising. But that’s when I thought, no, I want to give it all and test myself. Yes, of course, I had made Chini Kam and Pa, while I was still in advertising, but the failure of Shamitabh actually made me think and I said I really want to put myself out there without any protection. That’s where, in a way, I really began.
Do you see the advertising writer in you and the film writer in you as mutually exclusive entities?
They are neither mutually inclusive nor do they interact with each other. They’re the same. Because at the end of the day, you are telling a story. There is a logic pattern that’s formed by your creative thought. You are telling a story that has to be new and then you have to communicate it. “If I say this, they will get this”; you have to think like that. You form those algorithms right through your life. That really is beautiful for a screenwriter. In my view, the best way to learn screenwriting is to go through the process of advertising because there you have to get it right, you have to communicate. In screenwriting, sometimes, you might write something that people may not get at all but in advertising that’s not allowed. People have to understand the ad you write otherwise it’s a failure. So that communication practice you get in advertising is invaluable and that comes into play every time I write: “Can I say it with just one gesture? Can my character do this instead in this scene?” I think like that and look at communication exactly like that.
There are many advertising writers who have gone on to do very well in feature films. Nitesh Tiwari, for example, was very successful in advertising and then went on to write and make probably the most successful film of recent times (Dangal). Then there are advertising filmmakers, of course. Shoojit (Circar), Ram (Madhvani), Amit (Sharma). Amit Sharma is one of those guys who is hardcore advertising director and has gone on to make beautiful films. So there are examples aplenty and everywhere. Having said that, this industry, the film industry, is, I won’t say cruel but it is an illogical mess. Because you get rejected, you get appreciated, you get another chance – I don’t know how. You know, a lot of things that people take credit for in the industry have got to do a lot with divinity. Nobody knows why something works or what will end up working. I mean, I just made Chup. I think it’s a nice film and maybe others will think it’s a nice film but I have no idea what will happen to the film. Anything could happen.
The thrill of actually living in a business when you put in two years and its fate is going to be decided in two days is a very strange thing. It can actually psychologically damage you. And unless you’ve seen enough ups and downs in life it could be difficult. Ups and downs in advertising are common too. You make an ad, sometimes it works wonders and sometimes it bombs. But you learn from that and move on to the next one. So you become a kind of a thing from there and make sure that you don’t make the same mistakes. But here in feature films, you don’t learn from anything. There is nothing to learn from. Even if your last film was a smashing hit, there is no guarantee that your next one will work. Even for a star it is true. There is uncertainty all over. It’s quite a mythical industry, I must say. In this industry, skill is not enough. I think whoever succeeds is just luckier than others. The fate of your film might depend on the environment in the country, how the mood of the masses is, if there is a cricket match on your film release day… There are one thousand things that you have no control over that affect the film. I think luck is the only thing there is. Of course, you’ve got to work hard, write and think out of the box, those are the basics. But the second thing is luck and that often becomes the decision-maker.
What’s your writing process for both advertising and feature films?
There is a lot of laziness when I write a feature film. In advertising, there is no time for laziness. The idea for Chup is one that I had in 2008 after Chini Kam. I always toy around with my ideas and let them be for a while. Because I feel that you need a very good reason to spend two years of life doing something. And the idea must be the biggest motivator. You may get lots of money, you may get big stars and whatever you have always dreamt of but it’s only the idea, the core, that can keep you motivated for that long. The cruelty is the environment that I talked about. Someone is a pundit one day and a pauper the next day. Nobody knows anything here. So for one to survive this cruelty, it must be an idea that really, really motivates you. So I take my time with the ideas I have.
Once I am convinced of my idea, I open my laptop and start writing. I always write with dialogues. I like to get the grammar right, get all my thoughts right. That’s how you do it in advertising. Nobody writes just a concept. You write the whole script. So on Chup I had Rishi (Virmani) as a co-writer, who has been writing with me for a long time now, and then Raja Sen, a critic, because I wanted a critic’s perspective on this film. I can’t think when somebody else is writing. I have to type myself for me to be able to think. I don’t like going away to any corner or whatever. Only at the time of Pad Man, I went to the location where I shot but largely, I write here, where you are sitting. I write on my table.
Most of the ideas for your films are kind of wild. Could you tell me how and where you thought of them using a few examples?
I think this one again starts with luck. You don’t know where an idea is going to come to you. When I was sitting and doing a Lifebuoy ad, I was struggling to crack an idea that day. So I just went to the loo or something and then I came back and went, “I got it, I got it.” The person who was sitting with me said, “Oh brilliant!” I said, “No, I got a film idea. The ad, we’ll crack tomorrow!” And we cracked the ad the next day. That film idea, however, was Chini Kam. In the case of Shamitabh, I was going to Amitji’s (Amitabh Bachchan) house on his birthday. My driver had taken an off and I was in a taxi. Massive traffic jam. I spent two hours to go from my house in Breach Candy to his bungalow in Juhu. And I had not got him a gift. I was thinking, “What should I buy – flowers, champaign? (but I knew he is teetotaller so that wouldn’t fly)”.
So then suddenly I thought the best thing to give him is an idea. So then I started thinking. In that taxi, I thought about his voice and all that and the idea for Shamitabh was ready. I went to the party and whispered into his ears, “Amitji, I have a gift for you.” In a corner, I narrated the idea and he instinctively said, “Let’s do it!” That’s how Shamitabh happened. You see, again luck! Even Pa happened randomly. This was during the promotion of Chini Kam. Abhishek (Bachchan) came to meet Amitji. At that point, I didn’t know him. But I saw that Abhishek was behaving very wise that day and Amitji was playing the fool. It just struck me: “What about a film where the son plays the father and the father plays the son?” That’s how happened.
Do you think a sense of humour is an integral part of creativity?
Absolutely. I think a sense of humour is one thing. Another is the ability to see things differently. If you go to a funeral, for instance, you’re taught to feel sad. But let me tell you, a couple of years ago, when my dad passed away, I was smiling looking at him, “What a lucky guy! He’s seen more places in the world that I have. He is peaceful. Fortunately, he suffered very little towards the end of his life. I wanna go like this guy!” I didn’t have an ounce of thinking that, “Oh, my dad is not there anymore or whatever”. I think he was in a good space and I felt pleasant and nice, really. Because I felt he is happy and I was happy for the life he led. So why should I be sad?
Another things is, you know, marriage is supposed to be a happy occasion but whenever I see people getting married, I feel very sad. I look at the couple and think they’re imagining a hundred thousand things at the moment but little do they know about the problems to come. I have tears in my eyes when I see people getting married. Even at my own wedding, I had tears in my eyes and I am sure Gauri (his wife, the film director Gauri Shinde) had tears in her eyes. See, it’s all fun and it’s great companionship and all that but the fact of the matter is that a marriage is not an easy ride. Gauri and I both advise a lot of people not to get married. We even offer our condolences. So yes, it’s fun. I think as a person, somehow the trip has been to see things differently and also to try and connect things differently. Humour always connects things differently. So yes, I do see it as a natural part of the creative process.
Do you think creativity is necessarily an act of rebellion or wrong-footedness?
I won’t say rebellion. But creativity is questioning rules. There is a set of rules in society. You don’t have to break them for the sake of breaking them. But if you question them without harming anybody, it can be really funny. Like, for instance, somebody told you that left was left. But what if there is a vocabulary in the world where left is right? What would you do? I think that’s my trip in life. Always ask why. Who said anything is sacrosanct? And remember, you’re not doing it for any other reason than to have some fun. You question and break the rules because, at the end of the day, it’s fun to do so.
Where do you stand on the emergence of OTT?
I think every medium is an avenue for displaying creativity or entertainment. So I see OTT as another avenue, another screen. Somebody told me man was a cave animal. He ventured out of the cave to hunt for his meal. Would he have ever ventured out of the cave if the food came right in his cave? Now, a lot of things are coming home. Entertainment through OTT is one of them. But the funny thing is that I think man will still venture out of the cave even if the food came home. Why? Because sometimes, you want to see the open air. But how often is the question. Now, you can order anything from the food delivery apps but is the restaurant business dying? I say the same thing about the theatres.
Although people have to stand in the queue, buy tickets, spend money to get the popcorn and spend more money, they are still going to the theatres. What’s the difference? I think it’s the sound. I believe people go to the theatre for the sound; they don’t go to the theatre for the picture. And whichever home theatre system you may have, you can’t replicate the sound in a theatre. Theatre sound is huge, much bigger. Having said that, OTT is here to stay. It may well be the way of the future but at the same time, I don’t think theatres are going away in a hurry at least. Also, there is an OTT myth that it has changed storytelling and all that, But tell me something, look at Darlings, for example, do you think as many people would have watched it without Alia? Yes, it would have got its audience but the numbers would have been vastly different. Whether it is OTT or film, we have to evolve as storytellers; we have to continue to evolve. OTT changing the way of storytelling and all that are tall claims. We need to keep finding new ways to be interesting.
You’ve achieved a lot. Is there anything that you’ve wanted to do but couldn’t?
I don’t think I have achieved anything in life. I just want to earn my right to make my next film. And yes, I would love to have been a cricket commentator, which I never could become. Because I am very angry at some of the cricket commentators. I like only Harsha Bhogle. In a country so obsessed with cricket, we have somehow produced the worst commentators. There is one Harsha Bhogle and today there is one other person, Dinesh Karthik, who is a beautiful commentator. But besides these two, how can you not have good commentators in a 1 Billion cricket crazy country? I have always loved the BBC commentators. Why can’t we produce those kind of people? Our commentators are embarrassing to say the least. I don’t know how they were even allowed by the BCCI.
What are your favourite campaigns out of the ones you have done?
It’s always your first campaign. I think the shaving one I told you about is very dear to me. Then, I like Jago Re (for Tata Tea) only because we started this trend of social advertising at Lowe and then many people started doing any random stuff under the name of social advertising. Then, I like some of the things that we did for Bajaj. I liked Saint Gobain when I was doing it. I liked doing ads for Havells – Hawa Badlegi. I think the greatest joy of advertising is that you move on fast. You don’t dwell in the past too long. You don’t have time.
Most of your advertising work is fantastic brand strategy coupled with good creative. Though I’ve always wanted to understand how you arrived at one of your most famous campaigns – Hoodibabaa for Bajaj Caliber?
It was a very simple thing. I was sitting with an account planner. And he said that the brief was “Great Mileage. Great Power.” And he kept saying that was what the bike offered. I asked him what’s the strategy and he said it’s the first bike to offer great mileage and great power. I was like: “Why are you repeating the same thing? What do you mean first bike? It’s not so magical a thing. Who’s going to believe this? You think it’s like some hoodibabaa or something?” The planner said, “Balki, it’s just this much.” And I said, “Wait, hang on. What did I just say?” That’s how the campaign happened. When I pitched it to Rajiv (Bajaj), he was like, “We have spent some two years of RND and market research and you are telling me to run a campaign called Hoodibabaa?” But then he loved it and it became a huge success. That’s the story.
Tell me about the journey of Chup. A man killing film critics is a crazy idea.
It is about a serial killer who kills film critics is all I can tell you at the moment about the idea. How it all happened is, long ago, back in 2008, when Chini Kam came out, on one hand I saw people clapping for it. Then, on the other, I still remember it was a Wednesday, a very popular film critic at the time had written a review of it. I read it with great curiosity and excitement only to find out that he had slammed the film. I took the review so much to heart that I went into a depression. I didn’t answer anyone’s phone including Amitji’s. Amitji was trying to reach me saying that people are loving the film. Then he met me and explained to me that people have various agendas, it’s the public that matters. Only one persona had written bad things about the film and I happened to read only that one.
Eventually, I got over it, the film made its money and I thought why should just one person’s review matter? From that day till the time I wrote Chup, I did not read a single review. In some days, after the Chini Kam incident, I started thinking that he is holding me accountable for my film. Who is holding him accountable for his review? Where does a critic have a critic? I told Amitji around the time that I want to make a film about someone killing a film critic. Then eventually, it became what it became. So Chup is one of the most personal stories I have written. It actually comes from the anger and dejection I felt when someone thrashed, in two hours, a piece of work that I spent two years making. In a way Chup mocks the whole system of film criticism. I am not saying every critic has to like my film but expressing dislike requires sensitivity. Because it’s your profession. If you’re the audience then that’s fine. You can say anything because you are not responsible and you are paying for the film. But a film critic does this for a living and he must do his job with some sensitivity and responsibility because a lot of times a review influences people. Some critics mistakenly believe their job is a powerful one but it’s actually a job of responsibility. I think it’s a system that we have put up with for too long without correcting it. I am not expecting praise. Please go ahead and critique my films but don’t blast them.
As a film critic, you are nobody to blast me. And as a creative person you are taught to take everything on the chin. But I find the film critic deal quite unfair. I don’t have the media. If you blast me, how do I counter it? Do I have an avenue to blast you back? Not just in films but I have faced this in advertising as well. A very famous advertising magazine used to have this thing called Best & Bekaar. All my ads used to first be categorised as Bekaar. Why? Because they had not seen anything like that. Then it turns around and becomes a thing and at the end of the year they conduct a poll in which the same ad comes first. I was like, “You were the magazine that called it bekaar and now a year later, you are the one calling it number 1. Aren’t you ashamed?” Sometimes, I feel who is a magazine to tell me how to write an ad or who is a film critic to tell me how to make a film? I don’t tell them how to do journalism or how to write film reviews. I have spent the whole of my life doing what I do. I should know a little better than them, at least, right?
Having said this, I maintain that criticism is very important. You cannot have a world without critics. But I always say that in a publication you must put the most intellectual, the most well-rounded people as critics because they do influence a lot of people. But most publications don’t get it right.
The trailer of Chup made me sense some Guru Dutt influence on the film. Does the story of his life have a role to play?
We are talking of the most sensitive artist of our cinema, whose most beautiful film – Kagaz Khe Phool – was thrashed so much by film critics that he never made a film after that. Today, you call it a cult classic. I like the cheek of these people. There’s not even an apology from the Critics Guild of India. Isn’t that the least they could do? You have harmed an artist like Guru Dutt, for God’s sake!
Guru Dutt is not part of the plot of Chup but he is the biggest inspiration for the film.
What is your idea of success as a filmmaker?
The first aspect of it is that I call my film successful if I think I couldn’t have done a better job after watching it. That’s one aspect of it. The second point is it should be something that people haven’t seen before. The third and the most important thing is that people like it – at least to the point that nobody should say that it’s a loss-making venture. Also, I can never control how many people are going to see my film but those who happen to see it, if they like it and come out of the theatres praising it, I would be very, very happy.
Could you name your favourite films and filmmakers for me?
See, my favourite film has always been Moondram Pirai, which is the Tamil version of Sadma. It’s a classic for me beyond any Ray, beyond anything by anyone. Then I actually caught up recently with some of Bimal Roy’s films like Do Bheega Zameen and Madhumati and all of those and I really enjoyed them. All of Guru Dutt’s films are my favourite films. Kagaz Ke Phool is one of my favourite films. I would say one of my all-time favourite international films would be Blue Valentine. Then I am a huge fan of Woody Allen. I think Zelig is one of his best films. I think Woody Allen is the greatest thinker in our cinematic universe. Then I am also a huge of Clint Eastwood’s films. Then again, at the same time, I am a huge fan of Bachchan’s films – particularly those by Manmohan Desai. So I like all kinds of cinema. I even like Pushpa very much.
Then, as soon as a Mahesh Babu film or a Rajnikant film comes out, I watch it. Then Iranian films, of course, everyone knows of them. Who doesn’t like Majid Majidi’s films?Then, I am a huge fan of Marathi cinema. I really like the film Gabhricha Paus, which is the most underrated, under marketed film of our times, in my opinion. I think Marathi cinema explores some layers that are just fabulous. From Harishchandrachi Factory to Dool. Then ,I love Fandry and Sairat. I think Nagraj Manjule is a phenomenal filmmaker. I like anything he does. Then I also like Dhanush down south, as a filmmaker. Of course, I like him as an actor but I think he is very special as a filmmaker as well.
If you were to meet a 20-year-old self today, what would you differ with him on?
At 20, I thought I was intelligent and the system was bad. Today, at 58, I think I am foolish and the system is bad.
Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.
Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium
Subscribe Now to continue reading