Sudhir Mishra

On a day that I am still bemoaning a major work-related fuckup, this is comforting to post.

KHOYA KHOYA CHAND has all the trappings of an old-fashioned romance but when the lovers, Zafar and Nikhat, are in bed together for the first time, director Sudhir Mishra signals to us that he has no intention of overwhelming us with grand passion and baroque, blue landscapes. Instead a plain brown watchstrap peeks from beneath Nikhat’s pillow. He’s not going to send you home with the sense of popcorn wellspent. Sudhir Mishra is tall, shambling and famously laidback. “He is lazy! If there was 10 inches of space Sudhir would first lean against it, then he would slide downwards and five minutes later he would be lying down,” says Vinod Dua, political analyst and close friend.

Shahnabh Alam, producer of Mishra’s forthcoming Tera Kya Hoga Johnny came to Bollywood, yearning to produce a Sudhir Mishra film one day. The minimal budgets Mishra has worked on has enough scope for snafu but Alam says that Mishra only complains mildly. “He is so relaxed and makes filmmaking look so simple.” Unlike Om Shanti Om’s Rs 35 crore, gorgeously produced KKC cost only Rs 7 crores. Mishra is even amenable to being dragged around Delhi to pose for photographs. Hamming a bit for the camera, he mutters under his breath, “What is the motivation of my character?

” India’s most underrated director reserves his acerbic best for cinema. “Most films follow a cause and effect script. Five scenes, conflict, clean climax. Life is not like that. It is full of random moments. People want things underlined. They don’t want to understand the third scene in the 40th scene. Cinema has almost become like a onedollar guru. It is solace, a comfortable space where there is love, where nothing happens to children, it is a good world where god exists.” About all Mishra will say about his own filmmaking is that he learnt everything from his younger brother, Sudhanshu, who went to the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune and introduced him to his friends there.

Mishra began his career as Assistant Director in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. Shah says Mishra’s originality was evident even then. “People call my films black comedy but Sudhir is the one with the truly dark humour.” Mishra then worked with Saeed Mirza and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. His directorial debut Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin won the National Award for Best First Film. Films afterwards came few and far between. Eight long years after Main Zinda Hoon came Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, a deliciously funny gangster film that makes Satya look romantic. Mishra did not get any work for two years after that. Not as bad as Kundan Shah whose Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron ran 45 weeks, became a cult classic, but who didn’t get projects for a decade.

The lives and lifestyles of Mishra’s generation of left liberals is almost a cliché now. Spending days and nights in Mandi House, they drank thousands of cups of tea, read Fanon, talked of Vietnam and worried about the symbolic order. “Those were days when you could not romance a Miranda House girl if you could not quote from The Communist Manifesto,” says Dua. Imtiaz Ali, director of Socha Na Tha says, “Sudhir is a not a fake liberal. He’s the real thing.” Dua says Mishra could’ve had a much easier life. “Sudhir could’ve been running a transport corporation or been a political czar.” Mishra credits his father, a mathematician, for having introduced him to cinema. He never mentions his late grandfather DP Mishra, once Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and widely known as Indira Gandhi’s Chanakya or his uncle Brajesh Mishra, former national security adviser.

EVEN WHEN the glamour of the impecunious lifestyle, of scratching together 14 rupees to invite Badal Sircar to dinner at the Refugee Market in Delhi, of living in tiny rooms in Mumbai, faded for the rest of his generation, Mishra stuck on. He’s explored the zeitgeist of the 70s again and again. His first film Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin was the uneasy memory of lost radicalism. Harsher, angrier than Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, many critics says it’s Mishra’s best film. Khoya Khoya Chand is set in the 1950s and is about Zafar, a scriptwriter and Nikhat, an actress. Zafar suddenly see his dissipated father in himself just as Hazaaron’s Vikram finds his Gandhian father in him. As Zafar tells a director that Chandramukhi ought to interrogate Devdas, the scene prefigures Mishra’s forthcoming Aur Devdas, a tale of contemporary political intrigue. When we watch Zafar in KKC explore his own uneasy memories of his father in each movie he makes, we are reminded that Bollywood filmmakers do have idiosyncratic preoccupations. KKC has already begun to get the reviews Mishra is familiar with, reviews that castigate him for packing too much in, for having an abrupt ending, for Nikhat not being enough like Waheeda or Meena Kumari. Telling complaints because Bollywood has never seen anyone like Nikhat Bano or Geeta Rao of Hazaaron.

MISHRA’S FEMALE characters are intriguingly flawed. They’re not even what the business likes to call “strong women” roles (those often written with Tabu in mind). However much audiences are uncomfortable with ambiguity, his non-judgmental storytelling often brings even conservative viewers to lay down their pitchforks. “In Hazaaron,” says Mishra, “when Vikram goes to meet Geeta with a bottle of champagne, he says, ‘your husband Arun came to see me.’ She asks, ‘So what did he say?’ Vikram answers, ‘He asked if I was in love with his wife and I said, yes.’ She laughs, then says, ‘Thanks Vikram, I was just going to get horribly sentimental.’ Then she goes off to Siddharth. I was amazed men never reacted to her transgressions. No one ever said, ‘What a bitch!’” Mishra talks wistfully of doing funny women characters, “You can’t be funny unless you’re allowed to make mistakes. Our women characters are not allowed to be wrong, get drunk, to want to get laid. Imagine Dil Chahta Hai reversed. A scene where the girl goes to Goa, hooks up with a sexy stranger who steals her money. Then she sits with her girlfriends and they all laugh.”

Having made his movie and done his share to promote KKC, Mishra is retreating to private life. “We are in a time where artists talk too much, ossifying with every word, instead of working on their art. I sometimes want to make my films under the name of a 19-year-old girl,” he says. “I’ll make the films, she can do the talking to media. At the end of my life I’ll reveal that it was me making those movies. There are some filmmakers who have a childlike desire to be popular. They may even make great films while being popular. I would like that to happen but I can’t plan to do it. I may return to Hazaaron territory but not now, while people continue to be fond of me for being the director who made Hazaaron.” Mishra’s one dubious film Calcutta Mail happened, he says with a wide grin, “because of society’s fascist tendency to make sure everyone works.”Made two years after Is Raat the film has the strange air of two angry people in a donkey suit as the original Telugu thriller fights the Mishra sensibility. “Cinema was a low art when it was born. Now the moneybags want to batter it down again. In all this reverse snobbery, why don’t people say, “I only read trashy novels? They don’t expect this sort of simplistic commercialism from Arundhati Roy or Vikram Seth.” In the process of surviving the industry, only the tragic death of his talented younger brother Sudhanshu, his companion in his Bollywood adventures, is known to have provoked bitterness.

In 1995 when Sudhanshu died, Mishra said to Dua, “Bombay is a very cruel city. It makes you crawl for each penny.” Nobody will tell you how Sudhanshu died, except, the industry killed him. Mishra says he was protected from such a fate because he never had any compulsion to work. “Also Renu came into my life. She looked after me.” Ten years into a very happy marriage Mishra’s wife Renu Saluja, the award-winning editor of Bandit Queen and Parinda died of cancer. Mishra talksof her warmly and without sentimentality. “I like talking about her and Sudhanshu. These days I waste my time thinking about things that they would have sorted out in five minutes if I could consult them. I miss Renu but she is dead. You have to make films and meet other women. You have to do the best you can.”


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