I was actually at the foothills of the Himalayas. Where you can see several mountains and beyond these mountains is the plateau of Tibet. Pilgrims in the ancient times used to go to Kailash and Mansarovar from here. I’m interested in water issues. There are some glaciers that are active and provide water to the valley here. I wanted to photograph them because when you see pictures of glaciers 10 or 20 years later, it’ll be a big call to say what we’ve done to the greatest resource of water on the whole planet. I wanted to go and photograph those glaciers but then I got locked down there.
What was your routine during the lockdown?
When I woke up in the morning and looked out as the sun rose, I could see the farmers already ploughing, the women going out to collect firewood because during the lockdown there’s no gas. And I thought how do you lock down farmers? How do you stop them from ploughing their fields? How do you stop them from grazing their goats? How do you stop them from taking their cows to pastures? I also rediscovered my climbing skills. I had to be a bit slow and watch my steps. Your sense of balance has to be there. Climbing a mountain is easy. It really depends on your heart rate and your breathing rate and your stamina and I am quite happy with that. It’s coming down which is tough. I used to come down like a goat and I tried coming down like a goat this time too. And I went for a toss. My balance wasn’t good.
It was exciting. Dev uncle used to come to Delhi. And suddenly there would be a thousand people outside our house. I guess your question is why I left being a Chartered Account to become a filmmaker? While I was an accountant in London, I turned my whole apartment into a dark room and I would experiment with pictures. Then I fell in love with a girl who was a model. I used to get really jealous, because she used to go for hours to some photographer’s studio. Thus I decided that I would take her pictures. I started going to film festivals in London and I realised that I was attracted to storytelling on moving pictures.
I dropped the word called career from my life. So along the adventure of life,
I made films because it seemed like such an interesting thing to do. And I guess when people ask me between say Masoom and Mr. India and Bandit Queen and all the other films I have made, they don’t find the same director, it’s because I don’t take it as a career. I went off to Europe and I did a musical (Matterhorn). When I went for the casting to Vienna,
I found all the actors singing in German. And I asked them why is everyone singing in German and they said, because the musical is in German. And I
don’t speak German, I was like, here’s another challenge, here’s another adventure. So it really went well.
Guru Dutt’s brother Devi Dutt was the producer of Masoom. How did that happen?
Devi Dutt had made a film called Aakrosh, I watched it and loved the film. I was in Delhi. One day I stopped at the petrol pump and met a school friend who turned out to be a film distributor. I recommended Aakrosh to him. Devi Dutt was so grateful to me, he said, why don’t you be the director of my next? And that’s how it all started. I had a film called Bardaasht which I wanted to make with Naseeruddin Shah. So he took me to a financier who looked bored with my narrative. I saw a lot of pictures of children on his desk, so I quickly retold the story and he was like this is good, let’s make this and that’s how Masoom was made.
Tell us about your collaboration with RD Burman and Gulzar
During those days I had just come from London and couldn’t speak Hindi properly. So they were wondering who the f**k is this guy who is making this film. I still say that naivety is the greatest weapon when you are being a creator. I was naïve enough to tell Gulzar that he was wrong, I was naïve enough to tell Pancham that
I don’t like this note. I could see them kind of smiling at me and I mistook that smile for agreement, whereas they were probably thinking who the hell is this kid. It was my naivete that probably warmed them to me. Because I was naïve I wouldn’t budge, they’d try to persuade me and treated me like a child. I got sick when Lakdi ki kathi was being done, so we did it over the phone. I’d made a compilation of all the Hindi nursery rhymes that
I remembered from my school and gave it to Gulzar saab and said, let’s make a song on this. And he just looked at me and said, koi baat nahi kal milte hain (no problem, let’s meet tomorrow). And then he wrote his own nursery rhyme and that’s how Lakdi ki kathi was born.
How did Tujhse naraaz come about?
Singer Anup Ghoshal was Devi Dutt’s friend. And he said, iske saath ek gaana toh banana hi hoga (We have to make a song with Anup). I think it was his voice also that provoked the song. If you take that voice away, I don’t think that the song would have the same meaning.
How was it directing stalwarts like Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi?
Every one treated me like Shabana’s boyfriend back then. You know I’d never been inside an editing room, I’d never assisted anybody. I did not know that there was a sound positive and a sound negative and a picture positive… I knew nothing.
I had gone through lots of relationships, so I drew characters from the people I knew. The two daughters were based on my nieces. I used the food they ate, on screen.
I used their language, I used the uniform of Modern School, the school that I went to. Saeed Jaffrey’s character was based on the people I had seen. So all the characters were based on someone I knew or some relationship that I had seen. Naseer asked me to tell him about his character. I said look, he’s a human being and in that one line, it was understood that we cannot cage characters into one perspective. Naseer would come to my house and meet my father, he wore my clothes, he walked like me. He started to speak like me because he said, if Shekhar doesn’t want to define the character, obviously it is somewhere in his subconscious. And if you look back at Masoom now, one of the best things about it is that Naseer is human. It’s a completely human film, there was no attempt to make the actors very defined. We wove a plot around them. I think that is the beauty of Masoom and that is why it has lasted.
I have seen Bandit Queen once, because I had to do a commentary on it. And when I saw it, I cried. Because I realised I’m never going to be able to make a film like this again. Mr India, I have seen in patches. It was so much fun making the film. Boney Kapoor was like, I have never made a film like this before. I somehow invested in actors and they made the films for me. The rest is camera work, that’s all lighting and technique. You create a sense of love, you create a sense of trust and then words become insignificant.
I remember the Charlie Chaplin scene in Mr India,
I just said, Sri you’re going to look great with the moustache and she went back and she did the perfect modern over-the-top rendition of Charlie Chaplin.
You’ve developed the reputation of starting a project and leaving it half-way. Did you become mercurial, difficult to handle?
Why did I go overseas after making Bandit Queen? I went because I wanted to play with the A-team. I wanted to test myself against the A-team. I made Elizabeth in 60 days. Elizabeth wouldn’t be the same without Cate Blanchett, Four Feathers wouldn’t be the same without Heath Ledger. Both of them were new, nobody knew Cate Blanchett or Heath Ledger when I worked with them. I created magic with actors, pushed them, made them uncertain. When they are uncertain they are not defined and therefore their performance becomes subtextual. I’ll tell you a little story about Seema Biswas from Bandit Queen. I remember Tigmanshu Dhulia was my casting director and we went to see her play at the National School of Drama in New Delhi.
I thought she was right for the part. She asked me about the graph of her character. I looked at her gravely and said Seema why don’t you tell me. Go home and write a page or two about the character.
So she went and came back with a graph which was quite brilliant. And I said to her that this is not right − can you contain yourself in two pages? Here’s a woman who is alive and we are trying to contain her in two pages, we’re obviously going to make something really stupid. I said let’s open it out, let’s talk about the scenes but never contain the scenes, you are who you are on the set, I am who I am on the set. Let’s see what happens. That’s how I made Bandit Queen.