“I think I am going back to being the filmmaker I started out to be,” says director Sudhir Mishra who has had an almost four-decade-long career.
“I am reconnecting to the kind of cinema I love, feeling that I still have something in me,” he adds.
Life in the margins
Take, for instance, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), a master class in social satire and a film Mishra had co-written. Or look at his multiple National Award-winning 1992 movie Dharavi, where we see the migrant protagonist living in the slums of Mumbai, wearing blinkers while embarking on a mad quest to better the social and financial status of his family. Who can forget Om Puri as Rajkaran Yadav, after all.
“I am drawn towards the lives of people living in the margins. In my films you see social ramifications and they are often political because that is intrinsic to who I am,” says Mishra.
“I am drawn towards the lives of people living in the margins. In my films you see social ramifications, often political, because that is intrinsic to who I am” —Sudhir Mishra
It is not the duty of a filmmaker to be a social commentator or to be political, he adds, but artists are often acutely aware of what is going on around them and they react through their work.
“If you are humane and an artist, you will be compassionate and therefore you will be political in some way. If you believe in the integrity of a story, you cannot escape being political,” says Mishra.
The politics of art
Mishra could never have escaped the political aspect of life. The grandson of Pandit Dwarka Prasad Mishra, a freedom fighter and the erstwhile chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, says politics is in his blood. “And that put me off power and politics forever,” says Mishra. “I came to Mumbai to escape politics. I was just 22 then. Also, I am more my father’s son. He is a teacher, a rationalist, a mathematician and a movie buff!”
Mishra’s dad ran the Lucknow film society, so the young Sudhir was exposed to world cinema from a very early age – and he grew up also with a healthy dose of Bollywood.
His street theatre days with Badal Sircar, known for his anti-establishment plays, helped shape his film aesthetic. The film that finally had him packing up for Mumbai was Martin Scorsese’s grim critique of the social, urban and moral decay of post-Vietnam America, Taxi Driver (1976).
But coming to Mumbai was an experiment. Mishra was not sure if he had it in him to actually become a filmmaker. “I gave myself three years and started working as a production assistant to Vidhu Vinod Chopra,” he says.
His accommodation was in Sion Koliwada, which exposed him to ways of life that became the raw material he would later use in his films.
“I have no problem with cinema as escapism. Cinema can also be a balm for distressed souls” —Sudhir Mishra
Mishra’s seminal work, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) was set against the Emergency of 1975. His previous film, the forgettable Daas Dev (2018), dealt with dynasty politics. With students directly confronting the government, his 1987 movie, Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin, his directorial debut, seems very contemporary today. Although Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin wasn’t political, the 1996 Bollywood noir that established Mishra as master of his craft was another socially aware film. Inkaar (2013) spoke about sexual harassment in the office space way before the #MeToo movement.
While his films are often social commentaries, Mishra reiterates that the first duty of a filmmaker is towards the craft of filmmaking. “It is important for artists to be artistic. When you are true to the art, you will be political also. It doesn’t matter what your political affiliations are. You can be on either side of the political divide,” he opines.
His new movie, Serious Men, an adaptation of Manu Joseph’s book of the same name on Netflix, is set in a fractured world divided by caste and class, where people are profiled by their pedigree. And the story hinges upon the Dalit identity of its protagonist.
Also, he revels in the freedom that collaborating with an OTT platform has given him as a filmmaker. “Because of their revenue model, you don’t need to recover your money in the first 15 days. That takes away a lot of pressure and it also gives you the liberty to tell different kinds of stories,” he says.
But issues should not be made into movies simply for effect, says Mishra. “I don’t like to sensationalise,” he says. “However, I have no problem with cinema as escapism. Cinema can also be a balm for distressed souls. But what I expect from fellow filmmakers is skill and artistry. If you want to do a song and dance, do it well, man! Write it well. Integrate it into the story. It should work as a scene. Realism is not the only form of art!”
Today, with writers, filmmakers and technicians who have come to Bollywood from the heartlands and smaller towns, filmmaking has changed, Mishra says. “The industry has been reclaimed by outsiders. And I am also talking about mainstream Bollywood. Vishal Bhardwaj, Imtiaz Ali, Kabir Khan, Ashutosh Gowarikar, all are outsiders with no links to the film industry. This is changing filmmaking,” he points out.
Stories will become more and more diverse and deeply rooted in society, says Mishra. “With filmmaking becoming cheaper, now you don’t need to come to Mumbai or get into the trappings of Bollywood and have a few entitled people instruct you how to tell your story. Now a filmmaker can coordinate with writers in Canada, make the film sitting in some town in Chhattisgarh and directly show it at Cannes. Slowly cinema will stop being Mumbai-centric. Cinema belongs to everyone and it will belong to everyone.”