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“The Punjabi audience is begging to be served the right stories”

During his career spanning two decades, he’s directed some of the biggest blockbusters of the ‘90s, with films like Dilwale, Imtihaan, Diljale and Qayamat. Last week, director Harry Baweja released his first animation film, Chaar Sahibzaade, which shines the spotlight on Sikh history. That’s not all. Baweja is also turning producer with his first Punjabi film, Happy Go Lucky. In a tete-a-tete with Sagorika Dasgupta, the producer-director speaks about his journey with his last two ventures

You have had a very successful run as a mainstream, commercial director. What prompted you to make an off-beat film like Chaar Sahibzaade?

A famous writer once said that, sometimes, when you have had a very successful run, you need to pause and look back at your journey and how kind God has been to you. That was the frame of mind I was in when I started the film. So, for me, this film was a spiritual journey more than anything else.

Has it been a smooth journey for you in the Hindi film industry?

So much has changed. There was a time when most directors came from outside and they would learn the jargon and the language of cinema, which was very evolved. In order to gain a strong foothold in the industry, one had to know about what went on in the West in terms of cinema, cultures and so on, so that one could borrow those ideas and implement them in filmmaking. It was very difficult for an outsider to penetrate the industry and there was hardly any space for newcomers. To find a job as an assistant director even, you had to butter up people and get into their good books.

Things have changed so much now. The industry is now run, ruled and conquered by newcomers in every department. These days, it’s hard to find a good AD even, because everyone is taking the leap towards direction. It’s both good and bad because you don’t need to suck up to someone to get your first break any more but the flipside is that due to inexperience, you sometimes end up making a really bad film. I am grateful to God that I managed to make good films from the very start and build a reputation. I knew I had to do a lot more than just visit the Gurudwara and thank him; I knew I had to make good cinema.

You last mainstream film was Love Story 2050, which was in 2008. Why did it take you six years to release your next?

That’s because I made this film against all odds. Love Story 2050 had a tremendous amount of VFX. I know the film didn’t click with the audience but the experience with technology enriched me. Plus, there was a tremendous amount of research that went into the film since it was a historical and a religious subject that you cannot mess around with. That took a lot of time to accomplish. If I had got even one detail wrong, I would have had to pay a very heavy price because it is a sensitive subject close to every Sikh’s heart. I took the plunge and decided to go all out. The research we did was immense and we also had to convince the heads of the religion to allow us to tell the story of Sikh history via the visual medium. That was quite a lengthy process.

Why have you attempted the film in animation, a genre which has not found takers in India?

We could not have made this a live action film since there are a lot of religious restrictions that we had to keep in mind. The film had already raised many eyebrows. Not only had I chosen a sensitive topic, for which I had to do some heavy-duty research, I also decided to take up an additional challenge to make the film in animation. And this was at a time when people were moving in the opposite direction of animation. Everyone around me told me I had gone crazy, that I was attempting an animation film and that too real-time motion capture, which is a slow and expensive process. Finding investors and distributors was also tough. It was targeted at a target audience that made recovering its money very difficult. I was aware that the film sounded impossible on paper. I mean, any corporate studio would have run a mile from this project but I had a lot of conviction in the film.

Did you expect a response of this kind?

Not at all! I am so humbled with the way people have reacted to the film. It is overwhelming. People had told me I was inviting trouble by making a film like this but I the idea of this film came to me even before I began filmmaking. I studied in a convent school and then a Sikh school, and when I was studying at Punjab University, Kirron Kher and Anupam Kher were my seniors and I grew interested in theatre. At the time, I was asked to direct a play on Jesus Christ and we realised that there was so much literature and historical evidence on about Christ but no play based on his life. So I penned a play on his life and it became very famous. It was then that I decided that since I am a Punjabi and we have such a deep religious history, that I would make a film on this subject one day. Finally, that dream has taken shape.

The film released in Punjabi too. Is that the reason it did so well internationally too, in places that have a huge Punjabi population?

Regardless of whether the film was in Punjabi, English or Hindi, people were shocked at the wealth of information the film had. I visited many cinemas to gauge the audience reaction, and people were so taken aback that they didn’t even leave their seats during the interval. Despite the fact that I studied in a Punjabi medium school, where we were made to chant the Gurbani every day, people are only aware of 30 per cent of what our religion is all about. Some people said on social media sites that I have portrayed the remaining 70 per cent through my film. Someone requested me to not switch on the lights after the film ended because most movie-goers were teary eyed. Some cinema halls in the West became like langars where free tickets were being sold by patrons and free popcorn and snacks were being distributed.

Was it during the filming of Chaar Sahibzaade that you decided to produce a Punjabi film, Happy Go Lucky?

Yes. During my research, I realised that Punjabi cinema is growing by leaps and bounds. Since I have diverted my attention towards my culture, my wife and I decided to produce a Punjabi film too.

Why didn’t you direct that film?

I had a lot on my plate so I had to hand over the reins to Prince (Amarpreet Chhabra). I was making this heavy-duty film, which was in animation and was time-consuming. So I asked one of my assistants to direct the Punjabi film. Of course, my wife has been an active producer. In fact, she and I were actively involved in the story, script and the casting because ultimately the film carries my name. I deliberately chose comedy so that it was entirely different from what I was directing and in a lighter space.

Since you have worked in the Hindi film industry for so many years, what was the experience like in the Punjabi film industry?

The Punjabi industry is still very immature. It functions in a very unprofessional manner and that is mainly because most filmmakers know very little about filmmaking. Everyone is learning from their mistakes, so I would say it is still evolving and is yet to bloom. It will take a long time before it gets to be anywhere close to Hindi cinema, unless someone from the Hindi industry decides to make Punjabi films. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. Corporate studios are investing money in Punjabi cinema and that is a good sign but there is a long way to go.

What, according to you, are the challenges that plague the Punjabi film industry?

Rustic comedies! The world has progressed and you need to look ahead. As filmmakers, your films should be a reflection of society. And, trust me, no one watches these rustic comedies. It’s like stringing together a bunch of jokes. That’s not a film but a collection of gags. Look at films like Jatt and Juliett and Carry On Jatta… These are comedies but not slapstick comedy. Or for that matter Punjab 1984, which did tremendous business. It was a very hard-hitting film. The audience has an appetite for good films; you just need to serve them the right stories.

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