The Lightening Rod Strikes Twice

A week ago, a beautiful young woman dining in a small Versova restaurant asked, “Who is Anurag Kashyap? Is he the director of Fashion?” Gasps rose from the crowded table. It was an exceptionally bad place to ask this question since Kashyap was sitting at the same table and all around were the fanatic Passion For Cinema (PFC) bloggers. Vasan Bala, Kashyap’s amiable assistant director from Dev D who had confessed with comic alarm that he had only got 8 out of 10 on a Dev D quiz, had come in for much teasing. For those at the table who saw no shame in knowing the running time of obscure movies, the young woman’s question put her beyond mere mockery, into the realm of legend.

At his quiet Andheri office that morning 36-year-old Kashyap had answered phone calls with demonic satisfaction and frequently hung up laughing. With the release of Gulaal the previous day the process of declaring him a success, a trend begun with Dev D, had taken on new heat and lubricant. Big stars who would earlier never take his calls sent messages asking to be in any new project. A producer called saying that he had taken friends to watch Gulaal to prove that a new Bollywood has arrived. Kashyap said, “I wait a decade for this film to be made and he is the one doing the proving?’” But as the calls kept coming in, even that trace of bitterness seemed to disappear.

Now Kashyap looked startled at the question and then guffawed with hand-rubbing enjoyment. “No, Anurag Kashyap is the director of the Fashion Statement.” The young woman remained serene, unaware of the decade that had passed for him to reach a point where his new-found success could also be mocked, not clawed at.

Kashyap had first exploded into our lives in 1998 when he (and Saurabh Shukla) wrote Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya. He was one of the first script-writers to write a non-Urdu based dialogue. But instead of using a deracinated, functional Hindi in his 20 odd scripts, his tongue was as informed by pulp-fiction superstar Surinder Mohan Pathak as by Prem Chand. When he went on to make films they were unpredictable, layered experiences. The result was cinema as fond of Bob Fosse as Majid Majidi, where the unabashed surrealism of No Smoking was cheek-to-cheek with one of the world’s best chase sequences (Black Friday). Kashyap’s films, are often accused of being dark or incomprehensible but with throwaway gags and rich situations, the comic rages through his work. With cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, a man as silent as Kashyap is loquacious, new visual styles were developed; passion was sniffed out in dingy chicken-coops and Paharganj rooms. In the newest movies, the soundtracks too have been addictive and intelligent.

But no one cared while the angry, whinging Kashyap seemed like bad luck that might rub off. Not in 2004 when Black Friday was stalled by a court order. Not in 2006 when Gulaal was canned after 80 percent of the work had been done. Not in 2003 when Paanch was held back by the censors. He was told he ought to stop making films. Only the most educated film buffs defended him. In the depths of despair in 2006 Kashyap shocked his friends by sending out a mass SMS to everyone in the industry asking for help. No one responded except John Abraham who sweetly bought him a ticket to LA so he could have a change of scene. There Kashyap wrote No Smoking a dark allegory about individualism. Critics laughed at it and called the festival favourite Black Friday (also released in 2007) a fluke. When UTV Spotboy’s Rucha Pathak wrote to Kashyap saying she was interested in his projects, he responded with an angry tirade, so used was he to rejection.

And now suddenly it was uncool to not have an informed opinion about Dev D. Aditya Chopra, whose iconic mustard fields were forever subverted by Paro and her rolled-up mattress, loved his work. Vishal Bhardwaj was so excited by Dev D he wanted to hold a press conference to just talk about it. The Twilight Players of Dev D were mobbed in Punjab. ‘Emotional atyachaar’, ‘Paro, do you touch yourself?’ and the Gulaal mujra have all entered pop culture. UTV Spotboy was inundated with scripts that declared themselves ‘small-budget and different’. But immediately after Dev D, Kashyap told his long-suffering friends that he understood failure, he was not sure what to do with success.

Kashyap has had practice in working past self-pity. His father, who worked for the UP state electricity board, thought he was doing the right thing by sending him to a ‘good’ boarding school. But his childhood is a dark, wide memory of being beaten by schoolmates and sexually abused by adult neighbours. “It made me sexually dysfunctional and frequently depressed,” he says. When he came to Delhi he built muscles and a reputation in college for being violent. “I had no intention of going through it all again.”

A few years ago he finally talked to his family about his abuse. Recently he forced himself to visit his abusers, look them in the eye and forgive them but as a father he is constantly reminded of them. He loves his ten-year-old Aaliya who bosses him around and courts him coyly in the manner of feisty little girls everywhere. “I am so careful about the way in which I touch her,” says Kashyap.

In college he was still insecure about being a Benaras boy. But all around him were magnificent examples of unapologetic living. One night a young woman scandalised the boys’ hostel with her presence. The next morning she wandered into the gossipy mess hall wearing her lover’s shirt and ate a large breakfast. Another woman told a casual letch that she would string his balls up on a tree. She and other women became his closest friends, participants in his quest to know What Women are Like. Bhikku Matre’s wife Pyaari, Paro, Chanda, the androgynous dancers of No Smoking, the women of Gulaal --- within an oeuvre of highly masculine movies Kashyap has given us some fascinating women. In a cinema most afflicted by moralising, Kashyap refuses to sit in judgment. (On everything but taste. He has been known to give his new actors books and movies to see their reactions.)

Though his parents have found it difficult to deal with their restless, casually outrageous son, Kashyap inspires strong familial loyalty in others. Rucha Pathak, Kashyap’s UTV Spotboy producer treats him like a brother, exhorting him to not talk so much, telling him that he should not behave like the world owes him everything, calls him a pain and a delight. Piyush Mishra, veteran theatre actor and creator of Gulaal’s astonishing soundtrack, is convinced that Kashyap is a son from another birth. Mishra was a hero admired from afar in Kashyap’s theatre days. “Some people don’t ask to be let in or knock. They come into your lives as if they have always been there.” In lieu of a fond parent, Mishra is the one who recites stories peppered with profanities and gleaned from Kashyap’s siblings, of the boy who pretended carom boards were movie theatres while other people played house-house, of his stubborn ability to keep saying no politely to the powerful, of his going out of his way to help someone, of his honesty, his loyalty.

Years ago, filmmaker Imtiaz Ali came to his Hindu College digs one evening and found a muscular, bespectacled young man at his door. Kashyap had come in search of Ali because he had heard he was helping cast actors for a television serial. (“He said, “I have a portfolio.” I said, “What is that?”) The serial never took off but they saw a lot of each other because they were theatre-mad. Ali says he remembers vaguely wondering whether he should emulate Kashyap’s focused approach to work. When Ali moved to Mumbai and pragmatically joined an advertising course he lost touch with Kashyap.One evening he came back to the Xavier’s hostel and found Kashyap waiting among the trees. He had moved to Mumbai hoping to join the Xavier’s filmmaking course but had been too late for admission. Kashyap had no roof over his head so Ali invited him to stay a while illegally in his hostel room.

In those years there were many days when Kashyap lived on the street. “I used to sleep on that traffic island,” Kashyap will point out for you near Lokhandwala, “between those two lamp posts to protect me from oncoming traffic. Even later when he was working for Zee he still had homeless days. “But my loo was in the Taj” says Kashyap with vicious pleasure. Kashyap smoothed Ali into his first well-paying job in Mumbai and rejoiced when in a couple of years Ali went from earning Rs 1,500 a month to Rs 40,000.

Ali’s life is fused forever with Kashyap but he gives Kashyap less leeway than most. Ali says bluntly, “Anurag has had trouble making his movies and has been depressed. It is not that uncommon. At least he has the chance to keep making movies.” And that is a blessing to be examined.

The Kashyap cult is currently feeling avenged for their years in the shadows. This tight net of loyalty and love is what can send the newly successful Kashyap meandering into Ram Gopal Varma territory, a world where everyone agrees with him. The sometimes insightful, sometimes incoherent PFC blogs (which he was instrumental in starting at a time when independent cinema was barely mentioned in the mainstream media) frequently run the danger of turning into a Passion for Anurag space. If his next film bears more than Dev D’s streaks of self-indulgence, would his fierce loyalists stop him?

Kashyap says he does not want to be steam-rolled into making movies now that he smells like success. He says, “I’m afraid of what kind of movies I will make on this high. That’s why I am not making anything for a while and I am deliberately scaling down our budgets and equipment.” This week he wrote testily on PFC exhorting people to put their money where their mouth is. “Where are the discussions on Firaaq and Barah Aana, both of which I saw in an empty theatre today? If none of these films work prepare yourself to go back to the cinema we have tried so hard to leave behind.”

Kashyap never gives up on projects. He lives with them for years in his head then writes them in a 36-hour flurry. On the sets he is a restless presence, redrafting dozens of times, talking continuously, a trail of paper and energy, convinced that this particular attack of acidity is a heart attack and he needs to go to hospital. He works intuitively, smelling out what an actor or a location would add to the film, sifting through a lifetime of literary and cinematic references. Sriram Raghavan, one of his oldest friends in Mumbai is convinced Kashyap single-handedly kept Mumbai’s Lotus Books in the black for years.

In his office, Kashyap is an optical illusion: sometimes just another writer typing away. At other times, his shoulders are too big, eyes too wicked for the small room. In one corner hangs an Allwyn Kalicharan poster that looks fresh though it is five years old. In a dystopic Delhi (renamed Hastinapur) Allwyn Kalicharan was to be a superhero for our times. When Anil Kapoor pulled out of the project, Kashyap was enraged by producers who said that no one would understand the film. Not as enraged as later, when the release of Sin City prompted lazy producers to show an interest in Allwyn. He is currently writing Doga a superhero film. He likes Doga, a Raj Comics superhero without superpowers, only emotional intensity. Doga’s warped mind creates the monsters he fights later. It will be interesting to see what Kashyap does with the metaphor since he is currently on a break from fighting his monsters.

Kalki Koechlin, his girlfriend, is credited with much of the new calm. It has been three years since he and his editor wife Aarti Bajaj split (‘she was sick of my drinking and depression but we still work together.’) His relationship with actor Ayesha Mohan probably did not help. Kashyap falls in love obsessively but Kalki came into his life unbidden and slowly.

The search for the perfect Chanda was taking on epic proportions. Audition tapes were crammed full of young actors writhing, moaning, faking orgasms unconvincingly for what was seen as a ‘sexy’ part. Kashyap rejected Kalki’s portfolio saying, “I don’t want any white-girl model types.” He didn’t even stay for her audition. But ten minutes later, when Kashyap saw her tapes, Kalki was summoned back. Kashyap had found his Chanda. Chanda of the full lips and schoolgirl rawness. Generous, vulnerable, alternately clowning and seductive, Kalki’s Chanda was flawed but luminous. Restless Kalki juggled on the sets so Chanda did too.

Kalki was interested in everything about filmmaking and soon became Kashyap’s Girl Friday.After the movie was done Kashyap flew to America, a country whose self-fashioning tragedy -- the 9/11 attacks -- he mocked blandly in Gulaal. (It is also a country he admires greatly for its creative license. He badly wanted to cite Narendra Modi’s excesses in Gulaal.) In America Kashyap discovered he had grown ‘accustomed to her face’. He called Kalki and bumbled his confession. Kalki only slightly suspicious of directors who come bearing gifts was ready to be wooed. “All the biriyani which he kept cooking for me then to impress me, I don’t see any of it now,” Kalki jokes.

In an industry where romantic relationships are rarely acknowledged openly they have been very open in their affection. Kashyap has declared himself a new man, someone who leaves parties early, shuttles between his hardworking office and book-strewn household. A diet chart is tacked prominently near his desk and Kalki’s theatrical collaborator, Prashant Prakash wanders in and out of his office with as much ease as Aamir’s young director Rajkumar Gupta.

In college Kashyap’s classmates used to mock him for hanging out almost exclusively with his juniors by calling him BKD, Bachchon Ka Dada. Kashyap today is surrounded by extremely ambitious young writer-directors jostling with ideas. This year he intends to produce four of their best scripts. Kashyap and his contemporaries Imtiaz Ali, Sriram and Sridhar Raghavan, Shivam Nair, Nishikant Kamat have broken industry conventions by sharing their scripts at every stage, showing their first cut to each other, critics and the public. They have made collaboration cool. And these collaborators are the most pleased with Kashyap’s success, happy that his restlessness may now be accompanied by contemplation.

We will forever have the grit and wit of Kashyap’s movies, if also its bouts of self-indulgence. Up ahead in the next few years are a Guru Dutt biopic and Bombay Velvet, a noir set in 1960s Mumbai, all jazz and newsprint. With luck we will also have the monster-baiting Kashyap.

(A shorter version of this piece has been published in this week's Tehelka)


The reporter also gets to meet some excellent people.

Thank you for this.

March 29, 2009 at 2:50 PM  

stunning piece..

March 29, 2009 at 9:07 PM  

Nisha, as always, I am just filled with envy. What a brilliant writer you are! Hugs.

March 30, 2009 at 1:22 PM  

Excellent excellent excellent.
You are fast becoming my favourite pop-culture source.

(Incidentally, that Gulaal mujra kills me. I cannot wait to be home and watch the film. Thanks for putting it, and keeping it, on my radar.)

March 30, 2009 at 2:03 PM  

Anil Kapoor was going to be in an Anurag Kashyap movie about a dystopian Delhi?!!!!



March 31, 2009 at 9:10 AM  

sajith, anon, sumana and devika: happy you liked it. I am kind of annoyed with my edit of the piece but too late!

PPCC: I know!!!! I should have shot a couple of pictures of the poster for you though,

April 1, 2009 at 9:38 AM  

Nisha, I am VERY annoyed with the edit of my review in this week's Tehelka (

Imagine inserting half-sentences which include words like "paraphernalia"! Re-writing and introducing grammatical errors and changing the rhythm of sentences - not done!
And not for once bothering to ask me for an okay!

April 1, 2009 at 11:12 AM  

Ms. Susan, most excellent. This Guru Dutt biopic should be good. Long overdue.

April 4, 2009 at 9:43 PM  

i will not hide the fact that this man's theatricla work does not outshine his other actions - he seduced an ignorant gori willing to have a shameful relationship with him, after he left his wife. his and this kalki's intentions are not pure. i hope that they break up and that he comes to his sneses soon.

April 12, 2009 at 9:34 AM  

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