Yes, maybe, no

After a very long time we are renovating our home. It must be a good 7-8 year back when we went through the motions of spending money on painting and other usual wear and tear jobs. I had enough spare money then, for using it on such necessary luxuries…

Somehow the winds changed direction, as they always do; the flow of money got restricted and an unusually dense fog of lull enveloped my professional life. A string of projects that were lined up to roll any day- did not roll at all. In India we like blame the poor distant planets. So, for a true Indian the planets seemed to have turned their favorable face away. All this had started after my main employers downed their shutters under the demonic burden of their bad financial situation. For the next 18 months I was very busy doing some of my most high profile and better paying jobs. I did some serious ‘audio’ work for television in the United States and India. Then I was picked up and appointed as ‘general manager’ in the office of a high profile film maker.

Soon I had another offer from a ‘distance learning’ company. Here I was working in a very high technology area. This job gave me experiences of using VSAT and software used for online education. I enjoyed this job the most, since I have been looking to get away from the glaring lights of media related environment. Perhaps enjoying the work here seemed to have made the company run aground. I said ‘seemed to have’. I am a die-hard optimist. If I have to take cues from twists and turns of my life, then a massive surprise is waiting for me in the wings, about which I have no idea.

Well today I am in a mood of counting the chickens that did not hatch. It’s rather amusing to count that in last five years of my professional life how many high profile and exciting projects surfaced, but never swam ashore. So many films were conceived but never delivered; they remained on the idea and project levels only. The most important one was ‘Singularity’. It was a Hollywood film, being directed Oscar nominated Roland Joffé with Brandon Fraser and our own Aishvarya Rai. I had done documentaries with foreign teams, cinematographers and directors. But I was excited that this time I was going to experience the making of a pure Hollywood cinema, for the first time. I was on cloud nine; but treading cautiously. A very close old friend of mine was involved in the film as an executive. I visited him often, gave him my CV, kept in touch on phone, went to his office and read the script of the film twice over. I had asked to be a part of the direction team at any capacity. If there were going to be 12 assistants I was ready to be the twelfth. Desperately yours, but I was dying to be exposed to the experience of ‘Singularity’. I wanted to see how is it done in Hollywood, how does everyone gets ready, actors are given lines, makeup tested, lighting and sound levels checked, each shot being taken… After all Roland Joffé was going to be in Mumbai next week and he was to meet and interview the direction team. That next week hasn’t arrived for the past 2 years. As per the last update this project has been re-announced for Jan 2007.

Next in line was a friend of mine actor/director Dolly Jena, who was to shoot a film in Goa. It was a period film depicting Portuguese times. I was to be her associate on this project. I read her script too many times over and got involved in production process. Film was to roll in six months, so we were busy getting hotels rates and identifying old houses for shooting. The period of six months has over shot by three years.

Among all these dream productions, three films managed to break through and reach a stage of getting themselves (a) married print. And that’s where they too stopped. I was involved in them in various capacities like script, direction, production design and sound. Presently they all are far from getting a commercial release. Coincidently, my dues from all these films are also awaiting release.

Most interesting part of this long ‘touch and go’ sequence was when an unknown person phoned me to ask, if I would make a children’s film for him. ‘Of course’ was the best answer I could think of. He said he had seen my name on the IDPA festival brochure. That’s it! Soon a contract was signed on his official letterhead and a cheque equivalent to $20, was handed over to me. It thought things have got serious this time. I called up a scriptwriter, organized our meetings and started the work briskly. Producer was in a hurry. I struggled and finally handed over a fairly good version of hand written script to him in two weeks. The Gentleman went back to his hometown to organize adequate funds. After that he never made a call to me or sent any note. No not even to ask for the refund of his money. None of his telephones worked. I wonder why was he in hurry to lose his money on us if he had to do a Harry Houdini.

I was never approached by cheats. There was no fake person among all these. All of them had been well meaning people and serious filmmakers. They just did not have it in them, to finally swing it. Whenever someone has asked, ‘so what are you doing these days?’ I have formatted a humorous answer for this situation, ‘only serious job that I have been doing for years; is looking for it!’

Under these unavoidable circumstances, I decided to take a relaxing stance, instead of usual stance of struggling and worrying. I thought of changing gear as I step into the next stage of age in my life. I started reading and I started writing. I would never have read and written, so much satisfying and meaningful stuff, if I had been busy making small money from the mundane motions of making movies. Of course many do not agree. But I really feel very satisfied with my growth as a writer. I am not bothered if it has not been financially rewarding. This was the right time for me to start using my time doing un-ordinary things, things that gave me a chance of making my immortality a little longer. This would be the best thing to come out from all this nothingness.

Tidbits

I have been involved with nearly 30 feature films and about the same number of documentaries, in various capacities. I have worked mainly as sound recordist, production manager, script writer and director. I feel like sharing 35 years of my first hand professional experiences and information with as many like-minded people as, I possibly can. For this I will choose a few features and a few documentaries. I have already started writing and ultimately I would love it, if I am able to find a publisher to present it in the form of a book for masses to read. Film making is a very thrilling process to go through. It is a bit slow in parts but can move at break-neck speed at times. It may look a bit boring and mechanical at times, but is artistically very gratifying otherwise. There are loud explosions and tender words are whispered in ears. There is violence of ‘Loot Maar’ and deep emotional conflicts of ‘Kamla’.

I feel an honest and interesting form of writing down real stories of few productions will make good reading. After all this field has the most popular and sought after ingredients of the world – actors, writers, directors, location shootings, dances, tantrums, ego clashes, bloopers and of course goof-ups. I feel today there are not many people who have seen Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, V. Shantaram or Kidar Sharma working on the sets, or during song recordings, during dubbings, sound effects, mixing… How did these legends gave instructions, how did they speak, were they soft or had foul language? Were they funny or dead serious? How did they dress while directing? All this personal information may be getting lost slowly and surely, because we can not find such people. And if there may be some one, he/she may not find worth the trouble, putting those memory gems on paper.

I agree I am not that ancient to be talking about nostalgic experiences. But I have been around since 1972 and have seen real film life quarrels (real not filmy), developing and cracking relationships, drinking binges and flaring tempers. I do understand that it would be my version and some may think of it as my colored opinion. But if some one is getting to read and know about what was it like in Nepal during one of Dev Anand’s film shooting 30 years back or how the documentary on ‘Knit-India-March’ of Baba Amte was shot 20 years back; I recon it can provide some value to a reader. But as the time passes (it always does- take it from me), I am certain the value of this text will only grow, due to its historic values. I am certainly not claiming that film makers may get some production ideas from such compilations. In any case the movies are not made the same way as two or more decades back.

In today’s world there is so much to read, hear and see. Market leaders use expert writers, columnists, painters and film makers. Experts are of less value today than popular writers. You need to be good to be an expert; but you need to have a personality or charisma to be popular. I guess it is like the difference between a ‘performer’ and a ‘star’, like the difference between Dilip Kumar and Shahrukh Khan, Ashok Kumar and Govinda, Nutan and just anyone else. If you act well or write well you are in the same league as other experts. But to be popular, you need to have an aura, a personality or someone’s name behind you, for people to identify you. Om Puri may be working extra hard on his role in a film with Tom Hanks. He would be working to match his abilities with the best in the world. While other stars may be strategizing to improve box office collections; some may hire a team to help them propel upwards and outwards.

We are in the business of putting a smile across people’s faces. Some movies or books make X smile, while others make Y happy. Whose smile is more gratifying for us, is our target audience.

(From archive April 24, 2008)

Stress teaches calmness

‘Hello sir, the master (HDD of a TV episode) will leave office in 10 min.’
‘Ok, it is 3.30 pm right now so let us hope by 4.30 the work will start?.’
‘Yes surely.’
Ok, when your runner calls me, I will leave according to what he says.’
Runner called at 4.
‘Sir, I have given the disk to the studio on the first floor.’
‘Are they starting the mixing soon?’
‘Yes they will start now’
‘Ok then I will speak to someone and find out’

Gautam had planned to see a play at 9 pm. He knew the mixing takes about 4 hours, thus he will be able to make it to Prithvi just in time. He waited for runner’s call… but the phone did not ring for next one and a half hour! Tired of waiting, he called editor back.
‘What happen? The runner didn’t reach…’
‘No sir, actually the channel (TV channel) sent another set of feed backs, so we are stuck with them. We have informed the studio to wait until further signal.’
‘Oh god!… Ok fine.’
5 mins became 90 mins! He saw his play fading away into the oblivion. Gautam was getting waves of mild shocks of anxieties that were fading away as they were appearing. It became dark.
Gautam had an early dinner at 8, thinking the dinner time will definitely be when the mixing will be on and eating then will be not be practical. He any ways liked home food than to order snacks from restaurants. He is not young any more to eat outside stuff often.
Dinner over, gautam relaxed. He knew now, it was going to be well into the night, like any other tough day; err night. If it is inevitable it was no point worrying, he thought. he spoke once more to the editor and got a vague reply. Now he relaxed…
Call came at 10.30.
‘Sir, I have given the hard disk on the second floor.’
‘Ok’ gautam said, ‘but inform the office what time the work will start.’
Gautam reached the studio at 10.45. He calculated even if the work started at 11 it will be 3 am when it gets over. He entered the first floor first and asked who was going to mix it. They said it will happen on the second floor and the new engineer was going to mix. Gautam’s heart sank. His strategy has been to work with experienced people so that he does not have to be on high alert always. More over experienced people can contribute with their ideas to the episode much more than raw ones. He reached the second floor. The episode had been copied and tracks were in place. At 11, it rolled. The guy was doing fine. It fact he was quite alert about the dialogue quality and was very comfortable with software. After 13 mins of program was done, suddenly some guys barged in and started discussing another serial.
‘There is mistake and it has to be corrected. Telecast is tomorrow.’
‘How long will it take?’ Gautam asked.
‘Half an hour’
Gautam gave in. But it is always a problem to spend that spare time. In that sense that studio is a very boring place. he did not want to sit and watch another program. None of them were his type. He decided to take a walk in the long corridor. At 12 midnight he entered back in. But there was more bad news for him.
‘Sir the episode has to be remixed.’
‘Oh ok. and how long will that take?’
‘One hour’
Giving up gautam sat down on the sofa, then he put his feet up, soon he reclined and finally lied down.
‘Sir you can sleep for a while’
Gautam shut his eyes and mind from their conversations, program sounds and the discomfort that had fallen on him. He rested his head on his arm. Strangely today he was much more patient and relaxed…
And that helped him to take his ‘work seat’ at 2.30 am!
Now all the time was theirs. They put their heads down and worked till 6.15 am and did a decent job of it, in spite of being pushed around from 11 pm to 2.30 am. Stopping work for three and a half hours in the middle of the night! It was not funny.
Just about three months back gautam would not have taken this kind of incidence lightly. He would have made many calls and made a lot of noise at the unfair practice at the studio. But he knew it was nobody’s fault, except the channel to some extent.
In the end gautam thanked the engineer and left. In two minutes he was on his way home in an auto rickshaw. He was thinking that he was the worst sufferer in this case. He is also the oldest person in the team. But surely he got the maximum benefit from this night. He got a real practical lesson in how to keep cool.
Mulling over past few hours, he realized that no incidence in the night raised his heart beat or made him tense. He felt very good noticing his cool inner panorama. He needs it at this age and especially as he grows older – inevitably.

My Bumpy Beginning

On May 3, 1972, when I reached Bombay from Poona for good, I had no place to stay. First night in Bombay was a usual scene picked up from old Hindi movies. The hero lands in the city of dreams. He has no where to go, no place to stay and no one knows him. You are destined to keep your bag under your head and try to get a little sleep on a pavement. In my case it was a cement bench of a garden. Well, not exactly but almost; at 11.30pm I was quietly smuggled into a lodge by a friend, after the watchful manager had retired. I had been thrown out once with a curt, ‘no guests are allowed after 10pm.’ I had no idea how do I find a place to stay. After making quite a few calls next day, I managed to grab an iron cot in a room with three others at Khetwadi, in south Bombay. I got it on the recommendation of another Ftiian. So, instead of feeling that I was going from frying pan to the fire, I bounced back to a mini hostel. All four of us were from the same alma mater. Thank god so much for that. I was saved from getting lost in this mammoth city with unknown people. I may have lost my confidence entirely and perhaps even thought of going back to my parents for a while. And that would have changed my destiny completely. But finding old friends in the same room was a big stroke of luck.
After this I had no idea how to go about finding work. So, I started going to a restaurant called Sanman at Churchgate to sit with a few seniors and ask them casually if there was any clash work for me. Obviously everyone placated me with a ‘sure will let you know’. But I don’t remember doing more than 2 days of clash, that too without any money. What we call ‘clash’ in Bollywood-terms is a replacement for someone who can not attend his work due to two professional engagements at the same time. So he calls another available assistant who can attend the shoot who will get paid only the travel allowance of Rs.5! Those were the days.
Soon I realized that this was not right. It was no good a way to find work. No body was going to call me. So I decided that it was better to stay at home and save money rather than go to Churchgate too often. As if on cue, in a few days my finances fell dangerously low. I sent an SOS to my parents and in a few days I received a money order of Rs 500 from them. I promised myself that I will try to make this, as the last money order from home. After this I slept. I just slept day in and day out. People sometimes got worried as I was not waking up even to eat. One day, I dreamt, I was dying. The nightmare was so convincing that I woke up with a massive fright; thankfully only to realize that it was the hunger of a Kumbhkaran that had caused the nightmare. I knew going out costs money and eating costs money. So I did not stop sleeping. Remember ‘Forest Gump’? Tom Hanks starts running one day and he keeps running and running… for years. I too did not stop sleeping until after 15 days I heard a voice repeatedly overlapping on my dreams, ‘get up you got a phone call’. It was about a film shooting next day, which would fetch me Rs 25 per day. After this for the next 3 years I did not get time to rest or to sleep. I did even get time to come back to my room to change my clothes for days.
In the next 18 months I assisted in 6 films. I was given the break as chief recordist by Navketan, the most popular film company of that time, owned by star actor Dev Anand. This break broke the hearts of few who had been nourishing an ambition of being a Navketan person for ages.

Movie Marketing Trends

On 5th of March 2007, I was invited to attend a media event called Media Mantra at the S.N.D.T. Women’s University, Mumbai. It was organized by students of Post Graduate Diploma in Communication and Media. The theme of the discussion was ticklishly titled, “Minting moolahs…telling stories’. In the light of International Women’s Day, screening of film “Dor” was a part of the program too. I was keen to watch the film a second time within two weeks. May be it says something about quality of the film.
But what I learnt from all the “Minting moolahs…’ discussions was that a good film maker is going to be a looser in all this jungle of moolah making hyenas. At one point I felt so discouraged that I thought that Bollywood may not be a place for original, creative and clean film makers, any more. If stars are considered to be the only saviors of a movie and not the script and cinematic qualities of that film, then this may be the right time for me to quit this business. Here salaries of the top stars dictate terms. Bulk of production cost is spent on them and that has to be recovered, somehow. Examples of Don (I call it the first remix-movie) by producer/director Farhan Akhtar and Dhoom 2 by director Sanjay Gadhvi and producer, Aditya Chopra were taken up as case study. A very young Mr. Tarun Tripathi, marketing head YRF, enlightened us with kind of schemes he planned through the SMS campaigns and other ‘meet the stars’ lures to get the youth to spend their money. And thus a lot of money was recovered not from the box office of film, but indirectly from the cell phone wielding Indian youth. Another speaker (a PR person) told us that they were given the promotional campaign for Dhoom 2. She said they used the lure of Yamaha bikes as prize and other ‘products’ connected with film to excite and bring people in. As usual the winning prize was for a ‘randomly selected person by computer’. Right now it is difficult to fathom that when will the unsuspecting nouveau riche learn? They will; may be a bit slowly. Sadly the reactions of my friends, who watched Don and Dhoom2 were, not better than ‘OK, can be seen once, not good, fights are good, FX are good, earlier one was better, Hritik is good, I liked a song etc.’ Most of such films are recommended in fragments and not in totality.
Thankfully to take up the other side the panel took up cases of films like Iqbal, Maqbool and My Brother Nikhil. Mr. Tarun Tripathi agreed that these films constituted; what we call as good cinema. But in spite of that they did not make money. In fact the only film out of these three that ‘just about recovered its cost was Iqbal’, pointed out Mr. Tripathi. The audience reactions to all the three movies were totally positive. Everyone recommended all the three films in totality highlighting various points like acting, cinematography, dialogues, authenticity of scenes etc.
This gives a tragic turn to the Bollywood film production scene. Good films are not being backed by marketing agencies due to absence of big stars. Also these producers can not afford to hire a PR agency. The cost of the hiring a PR agency is not built-in, in the budget of such films. If it were, then the film becomes wholly unviable to start with. Cost of the film and the cost of marketing get too disproportionate. They don’t make sense. But they do make sense for high budget films like Dhoom2 or Don (remixed).
Too many complications and contradictions crop up in trying to untangle out of the haze of this maze. Some films are expensive due to the cost of just one or may be 3 stars in such a film. But this film is being produced, because everyone hopes that it will make money. They think it will make money because it has very popular stars, who are capable of attracting the audiences into the theatres. It is believed that because of stars the film is going to get a good ‘initial’ or the ‘opening’. In other words first week of its release will definitely go houseful. Now another grueling act that the production team gets into is to make nearly 600 or more prints for such a film’s release. Producers release that many prints with a belief that star’s gravitational attraction will pull the audiences into the theatre, making the film recover its cost faster. And why do you think that cost must be recovered fast? It is so because they are not sure of it really. In fact they are all white faced with fear. Suppose if someone says something about the film which does not go in its favor…?
Take a look at this reality: As the end credit roll starts, people turn away from the screen and start walking out from the packed cinema hall. As they step out into the brighter side, they are faced with a camera and a petite young girl holding out a microphone with a news channel insignia. PYT is finding it hard to balance herself due to pushes from the surge of crowd. But she is smiling because she is excited with her job. She extends the microphone towards your friendly face and asks ‘what do you think?’ and you blurt out something. A bunch of ‘blurts’ or ‘sound bites’ like this can be packed together and morphed into a very dangerous bomb on a editing table. Reputation and plans of entire production and distribution team of a 50 crore film can be wiped out clean by dropping this bomb through the loud mouth idiot sitting respectfully in every living room. Hmmm doesn’t the game look very scary now?
The film makers and friends of Iqbal, Maqbool and My Brother Nikhil were very positive about their product. These movies were made with good scripts and cinematic commitment, while in the other (bigger) case everyone was shivering in their pants right from take off. They were falling on branding– like bikes and other products in film scenes. Is that film making? Films are now products. They have to be viable. Not necessary that they have to be cinematic too. Now there are no more good old reliable film distributors left, who developed a lasting relationship with production houses. At some stage of completion the film would be shown to distributor to get any convincing feed backs from him. After sorting that, the film would be delivered to distributor, who would transfer the money to the producer and would start working on prints and publicity designs. But now to release a film the producer only has to shell out money for the prints as well as the publicity. So each film has to have the cost of prints and publicity included in its original budget.
Who is backing whom and why? Who is earning moolah and how? Why so much risk is being taken to back the horses whose perform is doubted (600 prints!) from the start? And why are people backing out from backing sturdy, strongly scripted and dependable horses?
Is it not lesser of a challenge and risk to back a good film costing 5 whatever; than to back a remix version costing 50 whatever? Does not take long to discover, does it?

IshkIshkIshk Prod Story 6

Next day we shot the part of climax near Shyangboche airport. After the 6 day shooting schedule at this hell of a location got over, we had to vacate as soon as possible.
A journalist from ‘Time’ visited us here. She stayed for 2 days interviewing and clicking a lot of pictures. In fact there had been a steady traffic of journalists from Mumbai on all our locations. Dev Saab has got a way with them. Other visitors were music director R D Burman, singer Bhupinder Singh and Gogi Anand.
It was nearly mid-December and the weather was getting worse. Soon flights would be prohibited here for a long period. Shyangboche airport was very unique too. A 250 meter air strip was like a steep incline, to help airplanes gain speed while flying away and to arrest their motion while landing. Higher end of the air strip touched the mountain side. But the other end was sharply and scarily clipped off at the edge of mountain and opened straight into void of the familiar deep valley. The airplane was a 6 seater Pilatus Porter. Our transportation from here took about 5 round trips between Shyangboche and Kathmandu. Hersh asked me to travel in the last flight with him. So, I waited. Slowly each and everyone boarded the small airplane that kept coming back after a gap of nearly 2 hours. Watching the airplane take off and land gave me necessary confidence of going through the experience of this flight. Frankly I did not mind waiting, because it gave me a longer chance to enjoy that place.
On our turn the pilot announced that this was going to be on the last flight of the season. That was a little scary, because any slip could have left us stranded here for months without any rescue. I with Hersh and some Nepali helpers took our seats, buckled the belts and the plane zoomed down to the edge of the short strip. This was the first time I was flying from here. As it left the edge of the mountain, it fell down about 50 ft like a rock. It felt as if there was not enough momentum for it to take off. But in about 5 seconds, it stabilized and turned right. It took its route in the middle of the valley. The engine kept groaning hard to keep above the white fog that had covered the entire panorama from down below. The pilot could not see anything, so to be safe he had to stay above those clouds. It seemed that airplane did not have enough power. The joy-stick was pressed to the last point. There was a horrifying tension. Sometimes the plane would be tossed from side to side and sometime lost height suddenly. When it fell like a rock, our heads would hit the ceiling. A Nepali boy got so scared that he left his seat and sat in my lap holding my legs in terror. The horror lasted for more than 30 min. Only after we had cleared the mountains, the plane steadied and we could see the ground below. The pilot too relaxed, looked back and tossed some oranges towards us. His smiling face was totally sweaty. Many years later in 1981, Shekhar Kapoor would tell me that the Italian pilot who flew us died in a crash in the same area.
Like many others Hersh too had become very friendly with me during this near 3 month shoot. This relationship would later culminate into me working for his own production company ‘Indu Pictures’ and ‘Aap Ki Khatir’ would be his first film with Vinod Khanna and Rekha. He also introduced me to his wife’s younger sister, who eventually became my wife and still is…
We returned to Mumbai totally exhausted and badly sun-burnt. But in a few days only Dev Saab started shooting on the sets in Mehboob studios. As a part of climax, a set of rocks was constructed, to do close work. Then we had two days schedule on real mountain-rocks of Mumbra, near Mumbai. We had real rock climbers duplicating for Zeenat, Dev Saab and others.
We also went to Narkanda near Simla, to shoot sequences of heavy snow and blizzard. It was so awfully cold. We were standing on snow, snow was all around and storm fan was throwing snow and thermocol balls at the actors. We shot in this, colder than Nepal location, for 6 days and returned to Mumbai.
Another part of the story which moved with Dev Saab’s childhood was shot in Dr Graham’s Homes School, Kalimpong. We were here for nearly ten days.
Soon after the film was edited we started dubbing in music recording facility of Mehboob studios. Robin Chatterji the recordist had not yet started recording songs here. The theatre had just been completed. So, Mehboob management gave it to Dev Saab willingly for dubbing. Mehboob Khan had tremendous respect for Dev Saab. He used to say ‘Yeh Studio Dev Ka Hai Aur Dev Ke Paise Se Bana Hai.’ The largest stage (#3) of Mehboob studios was believed to be financed by Dev Saab.
Song recording and processing of the film had been done at ‘Film Center’, at Tardeo. Being a musical, ‘Ishq Ishq Ishq’ had many songs, written by Anand Bakshi and composed by R D Burman. I met Navketan editor Babu Sheikh at their Khira Nagar office at S V Road, Santacruz. Babu has retired since long and the office too has shifted to Pali Hill, Bandra at the Anand recording studios. The mixing (Re-recording) of the film was done by unbeatable Mangesh Desai at V Shataram’s Raj Kamal studios at Parel. Mangesh Desai gave some suggestions as he watched the film over and over during mixing. So, a little patch work was done on the terrace of Raj Kamal. We also did some patch work on the hills of Lonavala.
The film finally completed and got the censor certificate in Nov, 1974. Its premier at the Metro cinema was a very glitzy affair. It was followed by a huge party at the top floor restaurant of the Oberoi hotel at the Marine Drive. My eyes were popping with the glare of publicity that actors were receiving. I felt good in knowing that I too had been a part of all this, may be on the outer periphery.
In the end, nothing succeeds like success. Being such an expensive film, ‘Ishq Ishq Ishq’ didn’t even run for two weeks in Metro. Nor did it get any good reviews. It was my first painful experience of seeing so much hard work and money going down the drain, so effortlessly.