He is one of the most sought-after directors with the highest success rate in the Punjabi film industry. Having churned out record-breaking commercial grossers in Jatt & Juliet 1 and 2, and Disco Singh, Anurag Singh took the plunge into hard-hitting cinema with his recent release Punjab 1984. Still running to packed houses in its fourth week, the movie has brought the filmmaker both, box-office victory as well as critical acclaim. In a tête-à-tête with Box Office India, he shares his journey and speaks about the state of the Punjabi film industry
Punjab 1984 has checked all the right boxes in terms of business as well as critical appreciation. Did you ever imagine the film would be so successful?
Not at all! In fact, I was very sceptical about the film’s success. My team and I were not concerned about the numbers, but it was the audience’s reaction that I was worried about. That was mainly because the film is based on a very sensitive subject, a time (1984-86) when the State was going through a terrible time of terrorism. That forms the backdrop of my film and that is something that Punjabis are very emotional about. I am glad that people have accepted it wholeheartedly. There has been a unanimous opinion from the audience. It is such a polarising subject as people have extreme reactions to it. But I am thrilled at the response it has received.
Jatt & Juliet 1 and 2 are two of the highest-grossing films in the history of Punjabi cinema, and they were both comedies. Wasn’t this film a big risk?
I didn’t care about the commercial viability of the film. This is a subject that is close to every Punjabi’s heart. As a filmmaker, it was my wish to dabble in this subject. Actually, I wanted to make this film even before Jatt & Juliet. It’s just that it is a period film, which required a certain budget, and I don’t think any producer would have backed the film at the time. It was only after I proved my mettle at the box office that producers began to have faith in me and decided to back the film.
I had written a script on a similar subject when I was in film school and, as part of my final project, we had to submit a fully developed script. So the concept had taken root back then. But, as you grow up you evolve and similarly the script too changed but everything fell into place. In fact, this film marks the Punjabi film debut of actors Kirron Kher and Pavan Malhotra.
Considering it is set in a bygone era and the fact that it is a sensitive topic, you must have done a lot of research.
We couldn’t have gone ahead without research. My writer Surmeet Maavi had a very good understanding of the subject. We did refer to the Internet too and frankly there are a lot of documentaries and other material available online on the matter. But it was not so much for writing the script but the look of the film and the art direction that research was important. We had to project our research in the detailing of the scenes. We also spoke to a lot of elders who actually witnessed what happened during that time. And all that was incorporated in the film.
Unlike your earlier films, which were shot overseas, you shot in the interiorsof Punjab for this film. What was that like?
It was quite tough. We shot in some real locations where these incidents took place. Besides, crowd management, the physicality of space was also challenging. So, unlike a set, where if you want a house in the frame, you just build one, we couldn’t do the same here. We were shooting in people’s homes, we couldn’t alter much. In fact, in one of the posters of the film, you will see Kirron Kher’s character holding the picture of her son framed along with an old ` 10 note. This was a common sight in most of the houses where we shot. It was considered auspicious to have the pictures of sons framed with a Rs 1, 5 or 10 note, something like a shagun. We decided to use that in the poster as we thought it would make the film look authentic.
Diljit Dosanjh, the actor with whom you have delivered a hat trick of hits, is known for a certain brand of comedy. Did you feel responsible for his role since you cast him in a completely new avatar?
This film was a huge risk for him. But risks are a part of evolution. I have always tried to push the envelope with all my films. I made my film Yaar Anmulle with newcomers when no one had done that before; then I made a sequel for the first time in Punjabi cinema, and so I wanted to do something after having done a string of comedies. The moment you stop taking risks, you stop growing as a creative person. I share a great rapport with Diljith, who is like a brother to me, and this film was a dream project for him too. He has won a lot of praise and appreciation for his role too, so it’s a relief.
How much has the audience evolved?
It’s not the audience but filmmakers who have to evolve. We had never thought of making such films in the past but the fact that the audience received the film with open arms proves that they were ready to watch a film like this. I can speak for the films I have made. Every risk I have taken has paid off and that’s only because I am catering to a smart audience. I would much rather fail at something that I am not good at rather than keep winning at something I am good at.
You began your career with a Hindi film, Raqeeb, with Sharman Joshi and Rahul Khanna. After that, you didn’t make another Hindi film.
The practical reason for that would be that Raqeeb didn’t work at the box office, so I decided to make Punjabi films. At that time, I was getting producers to back my films too. So I didn’t think twice before moving into Punjabi cinema because I am a Punjabi and I love watching Punjabi films. By God’s grace, I have delivered several hits, one after the other. But I plan to make a Hindi film soon. I am taking a break but I have a script in mind and a few producers have shown interest in backing me. I will make an announcement soon.
Having worked in both industries, how different are they from each other?
The Punjabi industry is much less professional. Most of our techincians are from the Hindi film industry who are assistants to directors here. They learn the basic craft and do Punjabi films thereafter. Budgets, of course, are smaller. But the one thing that worries me is that I think we have reached a glass ceiling in terms of collections in Punjabi films. No matter how good a film is, there is only so much it can make. I believe this is largely because we lack multiplexes and growth in the number of screens. Monies coming in for Punjabi films has stagnated. My film Jatt & Juliet 2, is still the highest grosser, and it worries me because I want our industry to grow.
The number of Punjabi films releasing every year has also increased, so business should ideally grow. But that is not happening. People think that the overseas business for Punjabi films is big, but the ratio of business from India to overseas is 60: 40, but the scenario is little different abroad. There is a trend of watching films only on weekends, so we lose out on the bulk of weekday business from the overseas markets. We really need more cinemas to help business grow. Otherwise, we may face some testing times ahead.