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Substance Over Style

If we could move past our blind spot and let these directors teach us what they know, Hindi cinema would look quite different

I would like to speak about some directors who are working in the film industry right now and some who aren’t. These filmmakers are not exactly on the radar any longer but their contribution to cinema is invaluable.

The problem is that we are so enamoured by glitz and glamour that we don’t care enough about substance in our films. We are also so obsessed with Fridays and weekend numbers that it sidetracks us from what is really important in our movies. It’s a blind spot that prevents us from looking at films in ways that the filmmakers I am going to talk about, viewed them.

JP Dutta

One of the people I would like to start talking about is a gentleman whose movie released last week, JP Dutta. The reason I shot my film Jab We Met and then Love Aaj Kal in Rajasthan is because of JP Dutta’s films. When I was a kid in Jamshedpur, I used to watch, again and again, this movie called Ghulami. It was his first film. I saw the film and I was moved by it and I still am. I remember every moment of the film very well. Because it screened in Jamshedpur Talkies which was owned by a relative, I used to go in and out of it so often. I watched several parts of the film, several times. It made an indelible impression on me.

After coming to Bombay, the first holiday I took was to the Mandawa region (in Rajasthan). I asked my friends from Rajasthan where Fatehpur Shekhawati was. This is the railway station whose name I had seen in Ghulami, the part where Dharmendra is being taken by the cops and Reena Roy comes to the railway station to drop him off. This is why I wanted to go to Fatehpur Shekhawati.

Shekhawati is a region that has places like Mandawa and Dundlod, which I visited on my first ever break from Bombay. Then I went back there to shoot for Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal, and went there repeatedly. My films and I both have a connection with Rajasthan. I shot in Rajasthan for Highway as well. If I have influenced anybody to shoot in Rajasthan, it is also because of JP Dutta.

There was a sense of authenticity of character that not only Ghulami but other films of JP Dutta also had. It was so rare and refreshing in a time when characters looked very artificial. More importantly, the settings of the scenes in a film were so realistic. They were real locations, outside the big cities of Bombay and Delhi. Most of the films were shot in Bombay those days, even if they were supposedly based in other places. Never before had anybody brought in a sense of contemporary history in terms of the settings as JP Dutta had done. When I used to watch his films, I used to feel that they were actually set in the real world. They were dramatic films but they were in a real world with real people. I could relate to them and I have always aspired to gain those qualities in my work. That is the contribution of people like JP Dutta. The fact is, he is still making movies but we should give him a little more credit than we do.

Mani Ratnam

Not only for me, but people like Anurag Kashyap and Anurag Basu, our generation of filmmakers, the way we have turned out to be, the most influential contemporary film director has been Mani Ratnam. I used to watch his films before I came into the film industry. According to me, his best films are not in Hindi. There was a time when I use to tease my South Indian cousin that their movies are loud and unromantic and our movies, like Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, are so real and so nice.

Then she showed me Geethanjali, a Telugu film made by Mani Ratnam. I watched that movie 25 times without subtitles and without knowing the language. I can still sing all the songs from that movie. I realised how beautiful cinema can be in terms of emotion, in terms of people and again places just like JP Dutta had showed.

I also learnt how by sheer dint of hard work and, of course, talent, filmmaking can make a story even better. Now I realise that if Geethanjali’s story had been made badly, how bad a film that could have been! But the fun or the art of making a movie, not only for me but a lot of us, has come from Mani Ratnam. We still regard him as a great director.

I remember, once AR Rahman sir had called me to a table in a party where all the directors he has worked with were sitting. I was the youngest director there. When I went across, I realised that I was only looking at Mani Ratnam. It was just for the brilliance of that man and the influence he has had on filmmakers of my generation. Some of us like Tigmanshu Dhulia, who has worked with him and Anurag Kashyap, who has associated with him, and also for someone like me who has nothing to do with him, we all are influenced by him. According to me, his Hindi films are not a patch on his South Indian films including some films that he made in Telugu. If you see Nayakan or one of his films in Tamil, they are profound.


Some of the best films I have seen in my youth are Gulzar’s films like Namkeen, Kinara, Mere Apne, Khushboo and Bechara Dil Kya Kare. What I liked about Gulzar saab’s films at that point was that they were very believable and the characters were very relatable. Remember, we are talking about a time when there were completely unrelatable characters, completely unrealistic settings and larger-than-life heroes. At that time, Gulzar made completely dramatic films.

I am not talking about the so-called art films. He made films for normal people, for the masses. Yet his films were realistic and they were also rooted in society. There was always a social aspect to his films; not necessarily a social message but they were entrenched in contemporary society. Those films give us great values. For example, in Khushboo, he showed us how we should look at a widowed bride. In Parichay, he showed how to look at society.

His best film, according to me, is Namkeen. It is such a story of travel, the state of mind for travel. I often feel there are certain songs or things from my movies that reflect that one song of his film, Raah pe rehte hain, yaadon pe basar karte hain, khush raho ahale vatan hum toh safar karte hain. Of course, Gulzar is a great lyricist but I believe he was a better director. In fact, I believe he is a much better director than people think. In fact, I think he should be remembered as a great director who, among others, made cinema relatable today. If characters and situations and story lines of today’s films are relatable, it is neither by accident nor is it sudden; it is due to the labour of a lot of directors including Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Shyam Benegal.

Shyam Benegal

Shyam Benegal’s films, like Junoon, did much better than art films used to do. But his other films never did the kind of business that Junoon and a few others did. They would have done that kind of business if they released today. And he kept making films like that. It was hard work. He even resorted to ‘crowd funding’ in the pre-internet age. He did that with his first film Ankur. Then, he associated with Amul to make Manthan. His films were superior to most others made in Hindi in those times.

The actors in his films were of a certain type. He used to brief every actor, down to the very last person. That’s why, even the smallest character in his films performed as if they really knew what they were doing, unlike other films of the time where the focus was only on the lead pair and the others were doing their own thing in the background. This was in the ‘80s, when casting was restricted to the hero and  the heroine.

We must salute people like Benegal, who paid close attention to details like this at a time when they did not have the infrastructure we now have.

I had the opportunity of working with him a long time ago. I was working for a company called Crest Communications and I had written a story which my company wanted to produce. I was around 21 years old at that time. I think the story was called Wrong Number and they said, ‘If we could approach any director, who would you like for this?’ My answer was ‘Shyam Benegal’.

I went to Shyam Benegal, to the Sahyadri Films office, and pitched the story to him. It was a 45-minute story and we were trying to look at a short story sort of format for television. And Shyam babu said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it, who will write the script?’

I had never written a script before but I said I would write it, if he didn’t mind. He agreed and asked who the executive producer would be. Again, I said I would be the EP, if he didn’t mind. Then, he said, ‘I will get one assistant from my side and I will need one from your side. So who will be the AD?’ And, once more, I said, ‘I will be your AD, if you don’t mind.’

I didn’t end up being the assistant but I did everything else. Although there wasn’t any reason for me to do it, I used to go from my house to his house, wait for him there, pick him up in a taxi and go to the shooting location at Juhu. The shoot lasted only two days. But I used the time I spent with him in the taxi to ask him questions I wanted to about his films. It was rewarding to see how he was so easy with his material, how he shoots. But, again, apart from my personal encounter with him, the impression that he has made on me and other filmmakers is huge.

I think that if the things that he did then, he was to do the exact same thing now, it would all be commercial cinema. Because now that division is gone. Shyam Benegal is a huge influence… never mind ‘influence’, you would have to watch his films to fully understand what I am saying.

Some time ago, at the MAMI Film Festival, I had hosted a special show for his film Junoon. It is perhaps one of the best Hindi films I have ever seen. I had invited all of them and interviewed them. I did this because I feel that we should give these great films, just the way they are, to the younger generation.

Raj Kapoor

We all know that Raj Kapoor saab was a great filmmaker. But there is one aspect about him in particular that I want to share. This man bought the first house he owned after Bobby released. It was one of the last movies he made. That is when he bought his house even though he had bought his studio earlier. Till then, he lived in a rented house, even though he had made big films like Shree 420, Mera Naam Joker, etc.

I also want to highlight his ability to collaborate. The fact that he would engage with people like Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, with intellectuals, with novelists and social thinkers and bring them into cinema is so amazing. Take a look at Shree 420… it talks about co-operative housing societies which actually came into existence decades after the film. And, here, the film was already talking about them in 1955! That kind of innovativeness is inspiring.

We should not become a sloppy, gossipy lot. Cinema is not only about what sells or how much skin we can show in our films or glitter and glamour; it is about substance. And Raj Kapoor and his films underlined that substance. There is a lot of social relevance in his films. Like in Satyam Shivam Sundaram, the kind of beginning that film has, he is talking about a patthar, he is talking about the kind of faith that turns a stone into a God. His other films, like Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Prem Rog and several others had so much substance, we don’t realise it.

From the very beginning, in films like Mera Naam Joker, Awaara, Aag all his films had substance. Right now, we are very obsessed with so much else. We are gossipy people who don’t read the newspapers, we don’t know what is happening in our country and are interested only in who is having an affair with whom. On the other hand, Raj Kapoor was a man of substance and one who operated in a spirit of collaboration. We should make movies like he did. There is a reason he was what he was. There were other more successful directors of his time but we don’t remember their names because they didn’t contribute to cinema as much as he did.

Kundan Shah

Kundan Shah’s contribution is not only the films he made but also the people he introduced to the film industry. He introduced Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sudhir Mishra and many others. Kundan Shah brought in a certain type of humour that was there in theatre but never in films. He brought it in with Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and in many other films including one of my favourites, Andaz Apna Apna. The film has nothing to do with Kundan Shah but it’s the same kind of farcical humour. So Kundan Shah introduced ‘farce’ into Indian cinema and I don’t think there is anything funnier and more tragic than Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.

Also, the actors he worked with were from theatre. These were actors who had spent so many years honing their skill. And Kundan Shah, in the few films he has made, created a great deal of refreshing cinema for all of us. The thing about his films is that you can watch them several times, like Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, which I can watch a million times. There is no film, including mine, in which Shah Rukh (Khan) has been so good.

Sai Paranjpye

Sai Paranjpye is another great film director who we must remember. I saw two films of hers that made a great impression on me and one of them is Disha. This film has such a wonderful storyline and scintillating performances by Nana Patekar and Raghu bhai, Raghuvir Yadav. The film addressed a very important issue back then. And my favourite performance from Naseer (Naseruddin Shah), who has done many great roles, the most heart-warming depiction of a character that he has played, was in her film Katha. Another film of hers, Sparsh… the kind of sensitivity with which she handled storytelling, the subtlety with which she could tell a big story, is something I admire about her.

Govind Nihalani

Govind Nihalani is one of the best filmmakers that India has ever seen. He started out as a cinematographer. My favourite film, Junoon had been shot by him. If you forget about his other films and only look at Tamas, and see the series that he made at that point, then believe me when I say that India has not seen something as raw and powerful as that.

I was old enough to register what was happening. Tamas created a wild fire in the country because of how accurately he depicted the scenes and situations. Accuracy of depiction is a big thing for a filmmaker. It means that the locations, casting, costumes, make-up, acting, dialogue and everything has to be accurate. That is how his films were.

Aashish (Vidyarthi) acted in his film called Droh Kaal. That too was a revolutionary film which projected a certain social point of view so nicely. Another film, Vijeta, was with Kunal Kapoor where he played an Air Force pilot. And Ardh Satya! Every person who has anything to do with movies, Bombay, policing and acting in India, has to watch it for its accuracy of depiction. It is the mother of all those films. It was about a frustrated cop who is a victim of a corrupt system. Millions of movies have been made on the same theme after that and it is all because of Ardh Satya. It was made so beautifully and at such a low cost because of how talented the director was.

Bimal Roy

Bimal Roy is my favourite Hindi film director because he was always telling his stories. Whenever he wanted it to be a popular story with a big budget, he made it that way. When he wanted it to be a personal story with a small budget, he did it that way. He came in as a cinematographer, yet he became the biggest director of his time.

His big contribution is that he encouraged talent. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Gulzar and many others were all his assistants. They used to work with him and they were trained because of the silent Bimal Roy. He won a Filmfare Award along with several other awards for his film Madhumati with Dilip Kumar. After that, he continued making films that he wanted to make. There was Bandini that he made with Ashok Kumar. He also made Sujata. So he made stories about real people. Women were a very, very important part of his cinema. Women in his cinema were always of a quality that was joyous, liberated and powerful.

If people did not recognise the power of a character, they did so at their own peril. In his films, women were always superior to men. Women were always passionate and powerful people. Each film of Bimal Roy is a masterpiece. The kind of music, the believability of characters, the tenderness and reality of emotions his films had were incredible.

Since he was from Bengal, he had a freshness of culture to offer. Madhumati and many of his films have nothing to do with Bengal per se and he had other influences. He came from a different place. So there was a certain freshness in Madhumati. It was perhaps set in a hill station near Shimla although that was not specified. There was freshness in the characters. People who had seen Bengali films before would find a resemblance but it was very refreshing for Hindi films.

I must also mention the use of music and the cinematic medium. He himself was a cinematographer. He always used to say that his real passion was not filmmaking but photography. He was passionate about still photography, not even moving photography. I think he was one of the greatest spirits of Indian cinema who has influenced it a lot, much more than we can ever know. Among the best films that have been made in this industry are Do Bigha Zamin, Sujata, Bandini and Madhumati.


In India, we tend to place our idols on a pedestal and then forget that they are human. This kind of adulation places an additional burden on our greats and it is unfair to them. This is not the case in the West and we should, perhaps, learn from them. In fact, I think that in India, filmmakers get too much attention. This attention is sometimes a difficult thing to deal with.

Another point I want to make is that we need to heal ourselves from the ‘attention deficiency syndrome’ that now plagues our industry. In the blink of an eye, we cannot forget the talent and the contribution of exceptional filmmakers and just go with the latest trends. Filmmakers should not have a Friday-to-Friday sort of mentality. If someone has made an amazing film, we should not write him off so quickly.

It is wrong, but it’s happening. The film industry today is narrow-minded. We do not care about cinema, we only care about bling. We have such a unique film industry and we have such a unique business. Humaara maal bikta pehle hai aur banta baad mein hai. We are being dominated by commercial considerations. A trailer is more important than the film is. We do not care about substance any longer, only about the sheen. It doesn’t matter if that’s what the audience and the media want; filmmakers should know better.

- Imtiaz Ali

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