A week before the release of Milan Talkies, director-writer-actor Tigmanshu Dhulia and actor Ali Fazal talk to Team Box Office India about the world they have created in the film, the digital boom and the need to reinvent oneself
Box Office India (BOI): The trailer has so many fun moments. You must have had a gala time shooting this film.
Ali Fazal (AF): I wouldn’t say we had a gala time (Laughs). But, yes, we had fun. It was something we could all relate to, something we could just have fun with. You need that kind of atmosphere on the set. You cannot just walk into a grim atmosphere and shoot something which is so much fun. It depends on everybody on the set, every department, every crew member and the director leading it. The whole atmosphere was very Milan Talkies.
BOI: What is the significance of the period during which the film is set?
Tigmanshu Dhulia (TD): The film is set between the years of 2010 and 2013. If you look back, immediately after 2013, digitisation took over and movie prints completely vanished. It is set in that time period. The projection room inside Milan Talkies is a very important location and I wanted to have the old-world charm of the projector and the prints lying around. Otherwise, having one digital box is just boring.
BOI: What is it about the stories of the heartland that fascinates you?
TD: I have grown up and lived in that atmosphere and so I generally pick up my stories from there. Apart from Mumbai, every city in India is a small town. Small towns give you more stories and more confidence that a film doesn’t always have. I have picked up stories from where I have lived.
AF: What is ‘heartland’?
TD: Heartland refers to the region in the centre of the country.
AF: What about the South? Is there no heart there?
TD: Of course, there is!
AF: I have always wondered what ‘heartland’ is.
BOI: Is it a word for small towns?
TD: No, it means central India like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh etc.
AF: Oh, that is right, then.
BOI: Ali, you grew up in the North. Coming from there, does it help you to grasp the mentality, the diction and body language better?
AF: I was born in Delhi, grew up a little in Lucknow, studied in Dehradun and finished college in Bombay. But my hometown is Allahabad, where the film is based in. And, yes, maybe it did help me with the role. Also, sir knew that I was from there. I was at zero to begin with, and then I needed direction to gain more points.
BOI: Does it make a difference being directed by a filmmaker who is also an actor?
AF: There is empathy. And, I guess, he sometimes knows exactly what is going on in my mind when I am not able to do something or if there is any hesitation on my part. He was able to pinpoint it and say, ‘I get what you are thinking but that is wrong. Get out of that zone and do this, try this thought. This is the right thought.’ Because he knows the craft so well, things like that definitely helped. It is a treat for an actor to be directed by another actor.
BOI: Tigmanshu, when you are acting in a film that you are directing, do the actor and the director come in conflict with each other?
TD: This is the first time I have done that and I don’t think I am going to do it again. It is too much pressure. I am primarily a writer-director and acting is something I have just picked up a couple of years ago, since Gangs Of Wasseypur. I was not doing this role and was looking for someone else but all of them were busy. I was pushing the scene window, thinking I would shoot it when there is another actor on board. But we did not get anyone.
I play Ali’s father in the movie and only those scenes were left in the end. So, I eventually said okay, I will do it. But I was more worried about the camera space and whether or not the other person was performing well. The part of me that is the director was taking over. I was not looking at myself, thinking is my costume right, is my look fine, is the make-up good? It was quite dreadful. I would not like to go through that again (Laughs).
BOI: There were many names doing the rounds when you were casting for the film. How did you zero in on Ali for this role?
AF: Nobody else was left (Laughs).
TD: Yes, koi bacha hi nahi tha. Jokes apart, I started writing this film when I was shooting Paan Singh Tomar. This script took a very long time to write. Yes, there were a lot of names like Shahid (Kapoor) and Priyanka (Chopra) but, somehow, things were not coming together. I was doing other films in between too but I kept thinking about this script. Eventually, I said that I would do Milan Talkies. Ali and I had met before and so I called him. He had shown interest in the film before and liked the character.
The reason I zeroed in on him was because I had seen the first Fukrey and I really liked Ali in that film. I knew that since he is from the North, he would have no problem with the language because scripts like these need actors who know exactly what line they have to say next. They are just performing. Ali also looked physically right for that part and because he had the confidence to pull it off, I zeroed in on him.
AF: We can say that you ‘heroed’ in on me (Laughs).
BOI: That is a good way to put it. But coming to you, Ali, you had mentioned that Milan Talkies is a very unconventional love story. What elements make it unconventional?
AF: I think I said that for effect. It sounds really cool when you something is ‘unconventional’ (Laughs). But maybe it is so because it is from the heartland that we were talking about earlier. The premise is very different; it has some quirkiness. There are love stories everywhere. People fall in love all the time. It is the most underrated and overrated emotion of all time. This is just a sweet story which is in the middle of all that.
Films used to get made in single-screen projection rooms and they were edited there and we take you right into the heart of it. Then, of course, we explore the cultural underbelly of Allahabad and the families. So, it is not just a story about these two people but it is a whole cast that adds and subtracts to that, and that is what makes it so interesting and memorable. You won’t get bored with just mine and Shraddha’s (Srinath) faces throughout the film (Laughs). There are some pieces we have, some amazing actors and good surprises.
TD: I wouldn’t say it is unconventional because people have seen this world recently in films such as Bareilly Ki Barfi. But the part of that world which we have shown in this film is new. There are film buffs in small towns who make their own films and there are people who work in theatres and then move to Mumbai to try their luck in the film industry. I too did theatre at one point in Allahabad after which I went to National School of Drama.
In this day and age, people are making short films on their phones and video cameras and uploading them on YouTube. They enjoy a fan following and then send them to film festivals such as the Jabalpur film festival (Everyone laughs). They are happy in that world. In this film, Ali’s character and his friends are experts in helping kids who are unable to pass in their exams. They help them cheat.
AF: You made it sound so sweet (Laughs).
TD: They are experts in helping them cheat. They are also local filmmakers. I would say that this world has not been explored before.
BOI: Humour is a very essential element in most of your films. Do you think it helps to strike a chord with the audience?
TD: Yes, humour does that. But that is perhaps a part of my character. I always look for something funny even in an intense scene. Dark humour fascinates me, which is evident in my films.
BOI: Ali, most actors want to play the quintessential Bollywood hero. In this film, we see you romancing, doing action sequences and there is ample power-packed dialogue delivery. Do you feel you have finally stepped into that space?
AF: When you put it like that, Bollywood sounds like some colourful, larger-than-life canvas with superstars. Of course, this film it is a big step forward for me and we have done a lot of things in the film. The best part is the darkness of the humour and all those lines are actually a part of the films that our characters are shooting. But we have gone a little extra filmy. 70mm ka ishq hai, 70mm ki mohabat hai iss film mein. They are pretty dabangg in their own way. They are trying to make these local films with them acting in these films. That is why you see the action sequences.
They are impersonating (Amitabh) Bachchan saab because they are big fans of his. When his films used to release in single screens, people would go crazy. These are the things we have shown, but they are half a beat above and I like that. I think it’s great. These days, the larger-than-life image of a star has to be demolished to be able to create something new. I think this is a great line that I spoke (Laughs).
TD: There is a change today.
AF: Change is inevitable. But there are phases. Tomorrow, something not-so-nice will work and then again something good will come up again. It’s a constant battle, much like our lives.
TD: Today, you are talking like an evolved person (Everyone laughs).
BOI: At the trailer launch, you had said you got to hone your craft during the shoot of this film. What was your biggest learning?
AF: Ever since I started working in films, I have always been attracted to the camera department. You will see me chilling with the camera guys irrespective of the set I am on. I want to learn how lights work and how the technical team functions.
TD: Basically, he wants to be a director.
AF: True (Laughs). It has been validated further in this film because I am playing a ‘wannabe’ director. I got to handle the camera; I got to see the world from the other side.
TD: Now we will be unemployed!
AF: I will do everything. Do you think you are the only writer, director, actor and rock star?
TD: People want to be the director because a director is given respect. They don’t know how much work a director has to do.
AF: I don’t want to be a director right now but eventually I want to get there. It’s not an eventuality that I will leave acting and get into direction. The best part is we are all co-existing today. We can do so many things simultaneously.
TD: Make a short film.
AF: I already have made one and I am editing it right now (Laughs). Now let me answer the question, okay?
BOI: Next, it will go to the Jabalpur short film festival.
AF: It will. I will send it there. I will mention ‘PS: Love Milan Talkies’ in the credits. But, on a serious note, I have learnt a lot of other things. Even as an actor, I learnt to handle last-minute stress and see through the frame. A lot of actors who perform on stage act from the beginning of a sentence till the end. Sometimes you also have to understand how the camera is moving. There is a certain rhythm. You have to understand the place where the scene will get edited. That is cinematic acting.
I don’t want to make it sound technical, I am no expert. I am still learning the highs and the lows. Dilip (Kumar) saab was somebody who knew his edits very well. His acting was so good that many theatre artistes could not match up to him. It’s a thin line. Some are good, some are not. I am still trying to find my spot.
TD: What you mean is, people who do theatre are…
AF: (Cuts in) …are not bad actors on cinema and that’s why I am saying it’s a thin line. But some don’t get the hang of it. I have done stage. Don’t even go there (Laughs). Smart people will get it. If I belong to cinema and then do theatre, I might not be able to finish a script. Theatre is all about single takes. Half of them will not be able to perform on stage. I have done stage and so I know that I can pull it off.
TD: You will also figure out on stage whether it is working or not. There is no need for promotion.
AF: True. It’s like the old-school version of YouTube, where the comments are right there. You get feedback then and there. If the audience does not react, you do not know what to do. You ruin the next hour wondering why the audience is not reacting.
BOI: Tigmanshu, from the time you started up to now, what are some of the major changes you have seen in the industry?
TD: My first film released in 2003. It has been 18 years since. From the reactions I got after making my film, I could sense that the old, formula-based films were dying. After his first film, Hrithik Roshan became a superstar. After that, four or five of his films with big banners didn’t work. The formulaic films with a hero, a heroine, a vamp and a comedian, where the hero would be framed were waning.
A lot of filmmakers who were my contemporaries and were not from Mumbai, such as Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz (Ali), Sriram Raghavan and Vishal (Bhardwaj), released their films after 2000. With that, a new style of filmmaking was born. Some of them worked with a few big stars. The perception of these stars has changed. Humaari yeh jo jamaat aayi thi 2000 ke baad se, unhone yeh changes laaye.
AF: Jamaat (Laughs)!
TD: Technology also began changing. Due to digitisation, people had access to cameras. Because of platforms such as YouTube, they were exposed to foreign cinema and content outside India. That brought about a lot of change. Then came actors who were not star sons; they were ‘outsiders’. That affected the mainstream boys – actors and directors.
After that, actors started demanding scripts. Earlier, there were no scripts. Everything used to be done on the sets. The story used to be narrated to the actors and they would give a nod to the film. Now actors want bound scripts and they stress a narration. This kind of discipline came in after 2000.
The kind of films that we made started affecting mainstream cinema. Mainstream acting started changing. Earlier, heroes used to look at the sky and say their lines. After the change, actors like Shah Rukh (Khan), Salman (Khan) and Aamir (Khan) started engaging in realistic acting. Films like Dangal are not formulaic films and they still did excellent business.
Today, there is a co-existence. The compartmentalization of commercial and parallel cinema is no longer there. There is a blend of different kinds of films. The only difference is that there are big-budget films and small-budget films. Some films have stars and some of them have upcoming stars and newcomers. The basic style, however, for all films is similar.
BOI: The lines have blurred.
TD: Yes, films like Stree and Badhaai Ho have become huge hits. This would not have been possible before.
BOI: Since we are talking about latest trends, we have to talk about the web space. Ali, we saw you in Mirzapur and it drew many eyeballs. How do you look at the web space that is booming today?
AF: It is booming and it is going to take over, big time. In fact, we should be smart about it because we have a reference point. The same thing happened just a few years ago in Hollywood, with Netflix and Amazon coming in and cinema declining. People went to cinemas only to watch Avengers, other superhero films and big franchises. Otherwise, it became really hard to draw the audience to cinemas. There are barely one or two actors who can pull audiences to cinemas and enjoy a big opening.
The same thing is going to happen here. Or maybe it is already happening. When I started Mirzapur, I never thought about the outcome. We were only one web show down before Mirzapur began – Sacred Games. I was very iffy about doing a web show. It took a lot of patience. It was like shooting for three films, back-to-back. It was really hectic. But it was totally worth it. I followed my instincts. A lot of people told me not to do it. They were, like, what are you doing? They told me that they were not very familiar with the web space yet. You have to be smart about it.
BOI: It came out quite well.
AF: I would like to think so. I will binge watch it some day (Chuckles). I have seen it in bits and parts. It is very violent.
BOI: Tigmanshu, you have also forayed into the digital space with a short film that you directed called Baarish Aur Chowmein for Zee5. What is your take on the emergence of OTT platforms?
TD: Eventually, it came on Zee5 but it was an exercise we did with Zee Television. A few directors from India and a few from Pakistan were a part of it. This was in 2014-2015.
AF: You just did this BBC series also.
TD: I did that much later. It will be available on Hotstar.
AF: It is very good.
TD: It is called Criminal Justice. The web space is the future.
AF: It has opened up avenues for everybody. There is space for everybody to do something.
TD: And the discipline with which web shows are made is similar to filming a feature. It is not like television where you have to deliver one episode per day. You have a generous amount of time to work on a web show. Sometimes, some stories need that kind of time. The web gives you the space to stretch it.
BOI: Coming back to Milan Talkies, what do you want the audience to take away from the film?
AF: Everybody is going to find something or some character that they will get attached to. So it is not just one thing that they are going to take away from the film. Of course, there is a lot of love in it and there are a lot of concepts that we are exploring. There is the city also. Just like Tigmanshu sir was saying yesterday, people will come to know about Allahabad. The city has not been explored in our films yet. It is a nice, family film. It is a feel-good film. It is all heart. There is no quote or any social message at the end (Laughs). Smart people will be able to see the subtleties in the film. Others can just sit back and enjoy it.
TD: I agree with him. If you have seen Milan Talkies and you feel lonely in your life, you should think about the film to make you feel good. It is a love story between its central characters but the supporting cast is so good, including me (Everybody laughs)! Ashutosh Rana, Sanjay Mishra, Rajeev Gupta and Deep Raj Rana… they are all very good.
AF: (Pointing towards Dhulia) This man is so good in the film. He has four to five scenes in the film.
BOI: The second trailer shows a lot of him.
AF: Yeah. The second trailer is the first trailer.
TD: I am not to be blamed for the second trailer. I am being accused of being there in the second trailer!
AF: You told us that if we do not incorporate your scenes, you would not promote the film (Everybody laughs).