Planet Bollywood
"Cribbing about existing cinema and then not making an effort to see different films is like not voting in a democracy." -- Jaideep Varma
- Amanda Sodhi           Let us know what you think about this feature article

PlanetBollywood.com writer Amanda Sodhi interviews writer-director Jaideep Varma, whose extremely well-made dark comedy, Hulla released in 2008. The film contains sensible humor which films like Kammbakht Ishq and De Dana Dan lacked. Those of you who weren’t able to catch Hulla yet (due to film distribution issues), be sure to check the film out now on DVD. And, in the meantime, enjoy this rather candid interview!

How about you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself, and the transition from copywriting for O&M to writing a novel to writing a screenplay to turning director...

Got into advertising in 1988 because I didn’t want to study further…was genuinely, seriously planning to drop out of college, which I hated – was “studying” B.Com, and become a night-watchman as I saw no options – no jokes. Father was utterly mortified about my future; he had such great notions of my abilities – all gene-led notions, of course, there wasn’t much else to go by (smiles). Discovered copywriting, which seemed a good idea as I was always clear I wanted to be a writer. Thought I could do my writing on the side. Bad move to join advertising – as writing/fiction employs the same intellectual muscle you do as a copywriter. Could not write the novel I wanted to write despite having had the idea for years. Finally gave up my 12-year-old ad career in 2000, sat at home, and wrote the book called Local which was published in 2005. Meanwhile, a college friend who was studying filmmaking in New York as a diversion from his MBA corporate life wanted a script to make a film. He read a small humor piece I wrote for a magazine – the only one I’ve ever written, I think – and was enthused to make it into a film. So I did, wrote the script, he tried to raise the project in 2002, could not, got discouraged, lost interest, went back to the US corporate life, leaving me holding the script. There was another director who had the project for almost 2 years – Rajit Kapur, but did nothing with it. Then, I took it back from him in 2004 and took it to Rajat Kapoor (Raghu Romeo, Mixed Doubles, Mithya) and he read it, liked it but said he wasn’t sure if he could direct it and threw this bombshell at me – why don’t you direct it yourself? I had honestly never thought of it before. After the initial shock subsided, it seemed the right thing to do because I really badly wanted to tell the story of Hulla myself. It was partly my story too. It took me 2 years to find a serious producer – a few frogs got kissed along the way– but I did.

Those were a lot of career changes…Would it be safe to assume that you got into films by accident?

Absolutely. I can’t make a living writing the kind of real, urban stories that I want to tell, so film is a better option. And it is much better to yourself make the films you write to avoid the tremendous heartburn of not being understood by your so-called creative partner as well – that is, the director. Also, it’s fun to work with other people – all moving in the same direction, collectively. Writing can be pretty isolating.

You used to write a lot of in-depth pieces about music for Gentleman (magazine)…

Music has always been my first love, still is. That started off as a tribute series on singer-songwriters I loved, and gave me a lot of writing practice, which was handy when I sat down to write Local. 10,000 hours as Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers, which is kind of interesting when you think about it.

Tell us a bit about how you got in touch with Indian Ocean…You made a documentary film about them as well, Leaving Home—the Life and Music of Indian Ocean.

I had also started a series on Indian musicians in Gentleman in 1999, and discovered their album Kandisa in 2000 because of that, loved it, got in touch with them, wrote about the album, met them when I went to Delhi (where they are based), loved them as people, became friends, kept in touch. They were supposed to do the music for Hulla when my NY friend was director too – I’d introduced him to their music. In 2006, I was in a strange situation where I had a little money available from a new company I had started with my first boss to make a small film project. Hulla required much more money so I decided to do a low budget feature film on them, as I believed they were and still are India’s greatest music band by a mile. Not just for their music, which is timeless, but also their individual stories, which are very inspiring and interesting. And for their terrific sense of humor. It wasn’t very low budget eventually, but it started like that. I am very proud of that film – 114 mins film called Leaving Home. It will release in 2010.

How long did it take to write the screenplay for Hulla? How did you come up with the concept for the film? Could you take us through your writing process…

There were so many drafts. The first draft, which is always the crucial one, took about 3 months. It was based directly on my experiences of living in a building society where this utterly moronic practice of blowing the whistle and night or banging the stick is followed.

Writing process? There is none. I just tell a story to myself and hope someone else likes it. And I’m a sucker for trying to make people laugh so I try to do that, that’s all, really. I enjoy writing dialogues, so it was just a lot of fun.

Formally, I suppose I draw out a structure, like a roadmap to follow, which is really a left-brained process. Then, I try and have fun – the roadmap can change anytime, which is fine, which is also why I have to direct what I write because I probably can’t work on a brief.

And, then it took almost 7 years for you to find a producer…In fact, you approached over 40 producers…Any tid-bits about that process you want to share?

5 years, but not just me, the other two directors also, when I was a writer then on the project. I think the biggest lack of talent in this town is that of a producer with perspective. There are very few, if any. No film can be better than the money that makes it or the thought processes attached to that money. Our producers are loaded opportunists; most of them are not even fit to be called businessmen – as the fundamental quality of business is risk-taking. Had a disastrous interaction with an ad film company called Red Ice and its partner called Garry Grewal who wanted to make the film but couldn’t raise the budget for it so lied their way through the whole process till the project fell through – not once, but twice. Finally, low budget producer Sunil Doshi came into the picture in late 2006 and said if you make the film within a crore, I’ll do it.

Are there any words of wisdom regarding the script pitching and narrating process you want to share with aspiring screenwriters?

It’s just common sense really, not wisdom. Don’t bullshit and don’t waste time. Everybody’s very busy so get to the point fast and bring out the unique qualities of your project as soon as possible, I guess.

How many days did it take to shoot the film? How many days for editing?

28 days of shooting. About 3 weeks to edit. The worse part actually was just 45 days of pre-production, which was scary. The joys of low budget filmmaking. We must have been really desperate to make this.

Since the entire film was shot with a 1 crore budget, casting must have been difficult as a result…

No, actually casting wasn’t difficult. In fact, it took away the pressure of “names” for the project. One could cast anybody as long he or she fit the role. And since the quality of acting talent is excellent, we had a lot of options. The problem was time – we didn’t have enough time to hunt for the right people in 2-3 roles, though the small ones. So, some people were picked purely out of compulsion for that reason. Otherwise, acting talent in India is phenomenal and most of them are severely frustrated as they don’t get outlets to show their worth.

The low budget actually led to my working with a pretty inexperienced crew, which happened not by design – it just happened organically, as passion and commitment was the most important thing for me – all the key department heads were first-timers –cinematographer, the entire direction team, the audiographer was making his second film, art director had independent charge for the first time in his short career, many of the actors were in their first film in that capacity – it was rather bizarre. I’m most proud that we finished the film in schedule, on budget. No question that it is not a perfect film, there are places that could be better, but in the end I hope the imperfections don’t come in the way of overall enjoyment of the film, that’s what it is all about finally.

Hulla released a year ago, yet not many people outside of India were able to catch the film...Would you like to tell our readers why they should make an effort to see the film on DVD?

Why outside of India, I don’t think too many in India have seen in – the release was just a formality on paper – it was not designed to get people in the theatre. The show timings were bizarre and they were replacing listed shows of Hulla just the very NEXT day after the release in some places, Mumbai and Pune for sure.

Maybe you should tell them why they should see it – after all, you liked it enough to seek me out 15 months after its release to interview me.

I’ll just say one thing – if you guys in the audience crib about lack of originality in Hindi cinema, a lack of humor of the non-slapstick kind, then make a bloody effort when you get something which at least TRIES to do something about that. If you don’t like the film after you see it, then fine. Badmouth us, make sure no one you know sees it, never come for any of my films again, if I make any. But if you won’t even make the effort, based on the highly suspect reviews that appear in the Indian media, which most of you crib about too in another breath, then you really deserve the cinema that is foisted upon you by the industry and the system. Cribbing about existing cinema and then not making an effort to see different films is like not voting in a democracy.

You wanted to cast Pankaj Kapur but he wasn’t able to accept the role due to payment issues…did he eventually see the film? What were his reactions?

Yes, he was the sole drop-out. He was pissed off in the end, because he had been very enthusiastic about the film. I don’t know if he saw the film. I somehow doubt it.

Rajat Kapoor also did a terrific job…

He was completely bizarre casting for a middle-class loser, given his sophisticated image. Which was the main part of the fun in doing it. It was a challenge for both him and me.

Interestingly, Rajat later said that he felt his real life persona is closer to this guy than the sophisticates he plays!

Chandrachood Karnik made his debut in the film as the watchman Matthew…his enthusiasm is amazing…The scene towards the end with him wiping the taxi is really powerful…

He was the most enthusiastic cast member. His acting experience is actually limited and he wasn’t even doing this for the money, as people were being paid peanuts anyway in this project. He was 78 during the film’s shooting and a great role model for younger people – very committed, focused. Punctual – no one was on time every time like he was. Wonderful person.

Did you draw from your experiences with actual neighbors when writing various characters?

Not neighbors, just people I’d known over the years, and then built composites of various characters. Like all writers do, nothing unique about this. This particular story is perhaps very amenable for this.

Did you do extensive workshopping with the actors prior to shooting?

No, and this is one of my few regrets.

I really wanted to do this, but there was just no time. Rajat and Sushant were both very busy and had no time. The only people I spent some time rehearsing with were Mr. Karnik and Kartika as they had time, and that too was just discussions mostly rather than actual performance. It was a problem because on the sets, our low budget meant our schedules were really tight, so we could not do more than 4 takes per scene. And we had to work like that right through the film. The enthusiasm of a lot of the cast help overcome that, but there were a few false notes struck here and there – my mistake primarily, but also because there was just no scope to rehearse.

Dibyendu, Susheel, Kartika…pretty much everyone gives a very natural performance in Hulla…yet, for some reason Sushant’s performance doesn’t seem consistent…

Yes, absolutely right, and this is because we had zero rehearsals and no scope for thinking on our feet thanks to our ridiculously right schedule. Sushant’s role is by far the toughest – there’s a progression in his character, of a kind of madness due to lack of sleep. We were not shooting in sequence obviously, so it was not easy at all for him. It was also our bad luck that he was shooting for Virrudh simultaneously. I actually think Sushant is absolutely brilliant in 98% of the film, unfortunately a lot of people tend to remember the 2% where he was inconsistent and decide how he is in the film based on that, which is very sad. And that 2% is my fault more for not identifying the flaws, or the false notes, as I should have been the one to spot them. I excuse myself somewhat as it was my first film, without rehearsals, or scope for retakes, but I will never work in these circumstances again. I’d rather not make a film than make it like this. On the whole though, I’m proud of the performances in the film, and of all the actors.

Datta Sonawane (Pophale) was a genuine find. He was so good at the audition; I picked a bigger role to give him – this one.

Dibyendu, Mr Susheel Parashar, Vrajesh…they are acknowledged as fine actors and it was great working with them…they all enjoyed it despite doing such small roles because it was different from everything they do normally. Mandeep, who played Rajat Kapoor’s wife in the film, was also excellent.

A special word for Kartika – along with Mr, Karnik, she was the most committed member of the cast and crew – she did her own costumes, excellently, was her own AD, she was very well-organized and it was a pleasure to see her professionalism. I’m really pleased to see how many people notice her in the film – despite her having a really tough role, in that it is devoid of too many dramatic moments. It was mostly like a support act on paper, but she stole the show in more than a few scenes, simply because of her naturalness and soulful performance, especially at the end.

There were so many others – Mr. Balaji Deshpande, Mr. Dinesh Thakker, many others in small roles – like the taxi guy at the end who leches at Kartika from the rear-view mirror, I really hope to work with many of them again.

Some people expressed confusion with Matthew’s age changing…wasn’t that on purpose though? After all, even the bit about him having daughters was a lie.

Completely on purpose. It’s in the script. Which of course, a lot of media people just did not get. Like a lot of other things in the script, as is obvious from many of the “reviews.”

Do you think one of the reasons off-beat films don’t do as well is because of a lack of film education and film appreciation courses in India?

No. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. Storytelling is not rocket science.

The reason off-beat films don’t do well in India is because they are not supported by the system. They are released with very little publicity, for one. The producer just wants to move on – he’s made his money from the low budget film before it has been released, why risk more money? Second, the price of tickets, especially in multiplexes, is absurd – it actually encourages safe, star-led cinema rather than unknown quantity cinema. No-one wants to see something she or he is not sure of after spending so much money. Third, the film criticism culture in India is pathetic – it is dishonest, intellectually bankrupt and just plain moronic, really. 99% of these people, even many of the well-known ones, have no perspective of cinema or writing or music or culture, they are low IQ philistines having a field day in a time of dumbed-down media. The Bollywood media is its nadir actually, and I really wouldn’t be doing this interview with you if I wasn’t convinced that your standards are much higher.

Sadly, when it comes to low budget films with no stars and low publicity, their reviews actually have an impact on its viewership. Interestingly, people far more intelligent than these reviewers decide to not go and see the film because they have no other way to find out whether it is worth making time from their busy lives to see these films, often spending obscene amounts on mutiplex tickets.

What about marketing? The film wasn’t marketed very well…Film distribution was terrible…Even getting a hold of the DVD was difficult overseas…Do you wish you had at least demanded a bigger budget for marketing?

Demand? Can the beggar who taps your window at a traffic signal demand 5 rupees instead of the one-rupee coin thrown at him? Because that’s who a low budget filmmaker in Mumbai in this system is – a beggar, at least he is seen as one. Reliance Big Pictures, or Adlabs or whatever it was then, people did not have one proper meeting with me on how I wanted the film publicized, which is why such arbitrary promos happened. These people have contempt for such films, and their makers, at best they are amused. Sometimes they’re made for balance sheet reasons, with no support, fully expecting a flop. Sometimes they’re made for business reasons, connection reasons, not because of the film. I don’t think even the producer who made the film finally actually read the script. Nor did he ever tell me what he thought of the film. And once the film was made, I was out of the picture. I had no idea myself when the DVD was releasing. I am as much of an audience-member now as you are when it comes to my own film.

Do you think crying on public forums and media-bashing on the film’s blog, silenceonthefloor.com might have also back-fired?

Crying? Is that how you see it? Is talking frankly about the process, about the stresses involved on an everyday basis, about the ridiculous way the media and the producers and the PR machinery behaves, just crying for you? So, what would you rather the blog be – an extension of the vacuous PR machine?

I was asked to do a blog by my producer, and I agreed on the condition that no one censors me – that I write it honestly as a diary, with all my biases, warts and all. That was the only reason it would be worth the energy – if I could capture exactly how I felt at every stage. The producer agreed, in fact, was very enthusiastic about it. But the moment one of his decisions or someone from his office gets criticized – the rules change. I think the film media in India is a ridiculous, and often destructive, joke. So, people connected with the media thought that’s what it was - blowing off steam or sour grapes – that was their lack of imagination. Which is actually indicative of their understanding of the blog space worldwide, or their utter ignorance of it actually. I also find it rich that while these people in the media feel they have the right to comment about anything, criticize anybody, but they are above any kind of scrutiny, comment or criticism themselves. Moronity with attitude is a lethal combination – and that is what our media is today, most of it anyway.

Let’s move on to another subject—How helpful are film festivals for low-budget films?

I suppose some people who wouldn’t normally see the film get to see it, which is always good. Otherwise, I’m not a big fan of festivals necessarily because it reminds me of the publishing industry, with its own set of set parameters, biases and cultural expectations from film – exotica from the east, for example. A village film has a far greater chance to be selected than a city film, for example. And there is a lot of politicking and intellectually dishonest one-upmanship. A lot of people running some of these festivals are also not necessarily the brightest people on earth--of course there are exceptions--nor are they agenda-less. I make films or write to reach out to my audience wherever they may be, and I wish one had better ways to reach them than the multiplex culture in India and the festival culture internationally. I suspect the Internet will bring this change, something I look forward to.

Are there any actors you’d really like to work with in the future?

Oh, there are many. Irffan Khan is such a great actor, top of my list as of now. Like I said before I have a lot of respect for acting talent in India, but sadly most of them are not what is deemed “marketable.” But I hope to work with a lot of these people in the future.

And most of the stars are not people I would like to even interact with, let alone work with. Though someone like Aamir Khan, I respect a lot – because of his obvious intelligence and the courage to do something different, most of the time. There are a few of them who have a point-of-view but most of them are just into wealth-accumulation, power-grabbing and weight-throwing. Not that they’re exactly dying to work with a non-entity like me anyway.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Well, the rumor is that persistence pays. I’m still not 100% sure of that, but I guess it’s worth erring on that side than the other – which is just a fast-track to regret and bitterness.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Chandigarh…any plans of making a film set against a backdrop there?

It’s kind of my home-town as I grew up there in my formative years. Yes, I would love to set a film here – it is a most interesting town.

Tell us a bit about your upcoming projects…

There is a bigger film I’ve worked on, with three other writers, which I’ll probably try to raise next – a madcap whacko comedy film, also a scathing satire. Also trying to release my Indian Ocean film – will definitely happen in 2010.

I have an interest in a few other things – cricket being one of them. A device that I invented called Impact Index and developed with my colleagues from this website called HoldingWilley which is a better way to judge cricketers than batting and bowling averages – am trying to bring that to the mainstream, so recently I’ve been more occupied with that than anything else. But storytelling is my core interest – and so I guess I’ll hopefully get the new film underway soon, if and when I can find a producer I can work with. Hopefully, that’s not too ambitious a plan (laughs).


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