Who wants to be a Millionaire? – Vinod Pandeby Vinta Nanda October 7 2019, 10:05 am Estimated Reading Time: 26 mins, 33 secs
We think we know them well. However, when you venture out to ask them questions you thought you had all the answers for, like I did, you discover depths that are yet unvisited. Here I have the pleasure to get into a long conversation with the filmmaker, auteur, storyteller, who brought piercing truths about relationships between two people, married or not, to contemporary and alternate Indian Cinema for the first time. I discover so much about him as we travel down the road together, from Ek Baar Phir, Yeh Nazdeekiyan, Star, Air Hostess and Reporter to Undertaker, his latest film, which he is all set to release soon.
Below are my questions to Vinod Pande and his answers…
Question: It's been a long time since you have been making films in the Indian Film Industry. What we don't know much about is your life prior to making Ek Baar Phir. Do tell us about your stint with radio in India, then BBC in London.
Answer: If I were to put it philosophically, perhaps the clichéd line would be appropriate, that I rowed many a boat in my life’s journey thus far. After doing my university with an M.A. (Social Work) from Udaipur, most of what I did by way of occupational steps, I was driven by my dreams for the silver screen. Frankly, I had already discovered my soil during the college days, through active participation in plays and stage shows. Beckoned by my calling, in the early sixties I had maneuverer my way to Mumbai –then Bombay, with a very temporary job of a market researcher. It is then that I forayed into radio in addition to participating in amateur theatre. Perhaps, it was my voice that I became a favourite for the plays presented by All India Radio, Bombay. I had also started picking up occasional small acting assignments in Hindi films. Thus, when the opportunity arose for me to migrate to London through the ‘Employment Voucher’ scheme of the British Government that I had tried just for a lark, at first I was hesitant, as my persistent efforts to secure a place as an actor in Hindi films had begun to seem fructifying. But then, being an executive in a travel agency owned by the Bajaj’s, I got a free air ticket for travel and I said to myself, why not? Within days, I secured for myself a job as a statics-clerk in a radio and television manufacturing company and armed with my experience with AIR, I soon landed a place as an outside broadcaster with the BBC. Gradually I climbed the ladder to being a fairly regular Hindi Newsreader and occasional presenter of ‘Current Affairs’ programs and was termed ‘casual staff’’. Soon I also enrolled myself at the British Film Institute to studying the works of some of the world’s most iconic directors. It was then that, despite performing and directing plays from time to time, my romance with acting lessened and I discovered my true love that was for calling the shots from behind the camera. Like many others before me, my first brush with film direction was also as the maker of a documentary. It was about Indian settlers in Southall, a western suburb of London, which is a pulsating ghetto of Indians; thus the film was aptly titled “London Mein Bharat”.
Question: Also while you're in that zone, tell us about your marriage... your children... how it worked for you and your family to come back to India to make your first film here?
Answer: Life in London half a century back, when British were famous for their insularity and racial prejudice, could be lonely, especially if you had already had your first heartbreak. Hence, also driven by the parental pressure, I was back in India within a year to get married to a Lucknow girl with modest dreams. On returning to the UK within a fortnight, barring the first couple of years, the discordance was beginning to get the better of us. There were periods of separations – shorter and longer, and then the real estrangement; the trigger was my quitting a secure job in the British Civil Service and taking a dive into uncertain skies. My daughters were born in London. Presently, my elder daughter lives there with her mother and my younger one lives in Sicily with her boyfriend. After my reverse migration to India on the sails of my London made first feature film, which had obtained huge love and affection here, I rediscovered my moorings in Mumbai in the early eighties. We were divorced in 1988, ushering me into several uncertain lanes for a good length of time. I found love again in the mid-nineties and have been living with my partner since the last 24 years. As I mentioned, Ek Baar Phir, my first creative baby, was not made in India, it became my passage to return to India.
Question: How did it feel to work in the Indian Film Industry, make alternate cinema, which was mature and intense and then market and distribute it in unknown territory?
Answer: When I made Ek Baar Phir in London, it was completely in a zone of uncertainty; a maddening foray of a passionate dreamer, who would listen to the advice of his well wishers, but would follow little. Among them were Raj Kapoorji and Rajendra Kumarji who had become quite fond of me, having met me as a BBC interviewer. When I look back, I feel, my crucible for cinema was my early struggle in finding my feet in London that had much to do in moulding me. After making my second documentary, “Doctors in Distress”, I was on a bit of a loose end. My parallel occupation of that of a broadcaster with BBC was barely enough for household support. Someone in my unit had suggested that cinema commercials could be made in as little as 150/- pounds. I jumped into it and made several commercials, initially for Asian businesses but soon also for mainline clients like British Airways and PYE products etc. on much higher scale. I also became the aggregator-presenter of the ad-films on the screen of most of the Asian cinema houses and soon found that almost un-knowingly I had become a small advertising agency as well, accruing much better financial returns. But, this toil also gave me the gumption of going for the real thing on my own. When, the promised support from many a friend proved to be elusive, I discovered that the best way of funding your first film is none else but yourself. Amusingly, I was at once the writer, producer, director, lyricist, choreographer, financier and the UK distributor of the film, which opened to a thumping response there. The real challenge, however, was yet to be faced and that was to get the film to the silver screen in India. These were the days of endless restrictions, cumbersome regulations and inequitable norms for bringing in any film. I had to face so much frustration and deliberate harassment at the hands of various governmental authorities and individuals that when despite all this my film became a huge hit, I thought it better to make more films in India only if my sanity had to be retained and I had to enjoy doing the creative things that I always aspired for, rather than relive the nightmare of importing back my film each time. What was especially painful was that on a silly and totally specious excuse that since the film was entirely made abroad, even if in Hindi and by an Indian passport holder, it had to be denied entry from participating both in National Awards as well as for the Filmfare Awards. The effect of EBP’s success was that the finance for my next film came quick and on its own. I was approached by one of the highly respected persons, Mr C.V.K. Sastry, the Production Controller of B.R. Films, inviting me to produce and direct a film on a subject of mutual choice with his financial support under a module of “World Rights Controllership”, that meant an assured money as the minimum guarantee for the cost coverage as well as the freedom from distribution hassles. I was in business. And, my 2nd film Yeh Nazdeekiyan was made, once again centring on intense man-woman relationships in extra-marital situations. The film obtained a lot of ovation. Suddenly I was the man to go to. But the fall was just around the corner. And it was written in my success itself.
Question: Share some memories from the films - working with the lead actors, why you chose them as your leads and working with you technical team, which was Indian?
Answer: When I look back at the days of making Ek Baar Phir, even I am amazed about the turn of events as they were happening; the seemingly insurmountable impediments suddenly melting away to give way to a new path opening up on almost every count. As if the gods were determined to bless me this time after the rigors of the preceding decade. First, the financial matter: I was almost at the dead end in mustering support from my business acquaintances that had shown initial interest, that one day, early in the morning my Bank Manager called. He surprised me by suggesting that we go and catch some Indian food, since he had not had a curry in a long-time. He requested me to book a table at the restaurant where I had taken him once; Gaylord. I had taken a small folder with me that I had prepared for soliciting funds from prospective financiers for the film. Hesitantly, I asked him whether he would please have a look at it. Curiously, he started browsing the proposal right there between sips of wine. I was in for a big surprise. Tim Knowles said, “Very good report…” and then after another sip of the red, came the clincher, “I don’t see why we can’t support you on this?” Rest is history. Later when giving visual poignancy to the words, “Veeranagi hai har su, har patta gir raha hai” in the song, “Jane yeh mujhko kya ho raha hai…” planned to be pictured in the Hyde Park, I had visualized a shroud of deep fog hanging over fallen leaves all over. Being autumn time, fallen leaves was no problem, but what about the fog? Three times the shooting had been cancelled and we were already at the last leg of the schedule. When my Production Manager fixed the shooting for the fourth day, I feebly asked him the previous evening, whether he had checked the forecast for the following day. Richard Green, just screamed out, “Look, I have cancelled the shooting three times for your bloody fog; I can’t do it anymore. If it doesn’t suit you then spend the money and I’ll get you the fog machines.” Now, that was a tall order for our shoestring budget. That night, I had a go at the gods. In the small apartment at the 3rd floor of my office, where I lived alone, I cursed the gods, screaming at the top of my tearful voice. The first call that I received in the morning was from Dickey, who simply said in almost a stunned whisper, “Just look out of the window.” Low and behold, the entire city of London was wrapped in a thick blanket of fog. Forthwith, in a devilish hurry, we were all rushing to Hyde Park, because now the other issue was that there will be diminishing visibility and the shooting time will be much less. After bringing a print on temporary basis to show it to the Censor Board to seek clearance for a possible India release, I had already returned to London and within a couple of days I was invited by Ms Pam Cullen, the Film Officer at the Indian High Commission to see her. “Darling, I don’t know what film you have made, but I&B Ministry has selected it for the ‘Indian Panorama’ section of the International Film Festival of India. Would you please go?” Same sort of experience was to follow for the Tashkent International Film Festival and several others. The greatest thrill used to be when I used to watch my actors, Deepti Naval, Suresh Oberai, Pradeep Varma turn instant celebrities on being presented on the stage. Reflecting about the cast; I had wanted to recruit all my cast and technicians in London only. But, after spending almost a year and testing many a local talent, I realized that no way could I assemble my main cast in London. In Mumbai, I put up with a friend in Worli where the pressure about the length of my stay did not hang. One day I was at the local dry-cleaning shop down the Worli Hill to collect some clothes and the shop-owner and I began talking casually. On learning that I aspired to make a film, he became very enthusiastic and suggested that I meet a friend of his, Farookh Sheikh, who had done a film Garm Hawa. My mouth fell open, because I had loved the film immensely and Farookh Shaikh was the perfect choice for the painter’s role. I was completely taken over by Farookh when he came to meet me. Though he was not able to come aboard due to his exclusive commitment with Mr Yash Chopra for Noori, he became my honorary consultant for casting. He introduced me to Deepti Naval and Smita Patil. Smita, who had met me first but we had not come round to do the reading, was to hold this against me all the time that I robbed her of the part. Among the many prospective actors who had come to meet me for the male lead, was Kanwaljit Singh. I had nearly made up mind on seeing him, but even before the audition, he told me that he might not be able to take the film because he was going to be launched by Salim Javed. He suggested that I should meet Suresh Oberoi who was a friend and a good actor, also trained at the FTII. When Suresh called me the timber of his voice gripped me. He had only done a tiny role in a Mohan Sehgal movie, which was not even released till then, yet he did the film star’s role with such nuanced élan in my film. For the painter’s role I was in a fix. I mentioned my predicament to Deepti who was going to arrive in London for shooting within two, three days. She brought pictures of Pradeep Varma, sure in her mind that I would love him. Being right against the wall, I agreed to do a reading test on ‘phone’. We took him on board and flew him to London within four days. My technical team was an eclectic mix. Except my cameraman Nadeem Khan, whose first film Gaman I had seen in Bombay, none other was Indian in terms of nationality.
Question: Tell us about the music of Ek Baar Phir?
Answer: Considering the kind of songs that I had (already) written along with the script, one thing was always clear to me that I was going to assign the charge for music to Late Pt. Raghunath Seth whom I had already met when he had come to UK with Lata Mangeshkarji some years ago as a part of her troupe and whose work I had already seen in a low budget film Phir Bhi. He was a senior composer with the Films Division of India. Would you believe that within two weeks of my arrival in Bombay, we had decided the tunes and recorded all five songs, including an English number “Baby, I have a crush on you...!” and, all of it in just about Rs. 25,000/- as the total cost?
Question: You made Yeh Nazdeekiyan and then what followed was Star. What was that phase like and how did you cope with failure after having experienced success and achieved high standards as well?
Answer: My Bombay Distributor Gul Anand, had become a buddy. He was planning an Indo-Soviet film with Russians and gave me a novel on a horse jockey’s life, which they felt called for my kind of sensibility. He even took me to the Tashkent Film Festival to firm up the matter but somehow F.C. Mehra saab beat him to it and made a film with Zeenat Aman. On our return, Shabana Azmi invited me to meet her at one of her shoots, where she mentioned the brief plot of a French film with Yeves Montand as hero, which was in my kind of a zone. Shabana gawked at me in disbelief when I presented her the detailed script with complete treatment and dialogue. She demanded at least a month to read. But much sooner, she again invited me to one of her shoots. She had a long stare at me for a good length of time and then, turning suddenly professional, she said calmly, “Vinodji, I’ll do your film only on the condition that I do all the three parts; of the hero, the wife and the girl friend. Promptly, the finance was in place for me to make my new film, this time in India. Sastriji was keen to engage a big star. He arranged a meeting with Dharmendraji, which resulted in full narration of the script by me in segments, on two subsequent days at one of his shoots. After the narration of the first half, he gave me a ride up to Juhu. In the car, very hesitantly he suggested a little addition to the dialogue when the hero mumbles his confession about the affair with the model to his wife who is on the lower birth of the train while he is on the upper birth. Shyly, he said it’d be nice if he were to say that he loves her (the wife) too. I was touched by his suggestion and it was incorporated with genuine gratitude in the dialogue. Dharmendraji liked the part very much but was able to give us dates only after nine months. During the search for another male lead, Shabana had mentioned the role to Shashi Kapoor also, who turned it down for personal reasons. At this stage, I had casually shown Marc Zubeir’s photographs to Shabana. I had slyly, already worked out with him that he’d take a stopover in Bombay on his way back from Sri Lanka where he was shooting a small part in some English film. Now my concern was to give him some kind of an image makeover. Nari Hira had briefly met Mark with me in London. He took it upon himself to do an exclusive feature on him for Society and Stardust. In no time every formidable actress wanted to work with him. Mohammed Shafi, my Production Manager, came up with the suggestion of Parveen Babi, who had returned to the industry recently after a long period of self-exile for the role of the second leading lady in the film. Mr. Ved Sharma walked in and insisted that I accompany him to meet Parveen, who was shooting for Ismayeel Shroff. After hearing the story, Parveen instantly said that she was doing the film on whatever terms I had in mind. She was such a charm; such a good friend all through the shooting. But, good days were too good to last endlessly; the fall came soon and it came with one of the biggest films of the time - Star. Kumar Gaurav was a heartthrob and his father Rajendra Kumarji had gotten me the film. Biddu, who was the Producer and the Music Composer as well, was a much bigger celebrity at the time for his song, “Aap jaisa koi…” and his 2nd album Disco Deewane released by the biggest record company EMI. Biddu’s idea of his film was a kind of visual assemblage of his new songs, somewhat in the form of a music video, strung together with a kind of quirky storyline. I tried to resign three times but Rajendraji wouldn’t let me do that. He would say to me, “Bachhe, there’s a saying ‘lade fauj, naam ho kaptan ka’. He believed that everything would work out. Well, it didn’t. Star was a very big disaster. Instantly, my career also sank with Star. At least, half a dozen projects collapsed just as they had started or were about to take off. One film ”Ek Naya Rishta” with Rekha and Raj Kiran, that was started with the support of Mr. Sastry also struggled badly and took some four years to complete. Murphy’s Law and I were face to face. But just about then a call came from Lintas Advertising.
Question: After Ek Naya Rishta and Sach you decided to do television. You did very well with Reporter. Do tell us about that phase of your life and where it led you?
Answer: I entered television not after Sach, but well before that; in fact it happened right in the middle of Ek Naya Rishta. But the representatives from Lintas who came to see me, had something up my street in mind. Initially, they proposed a comedy show in the format of “Tea, coffee or me…?” that Alyque Padamsee was keen on making. I was keen on something of substance, of play of emotions, about clashing moralities. We soon fell out. I developed my own show, “Airhostess” and took it to another company, Rediffusion. The serial was an instant hit. Kittu Gidwani, the lead character of the series became a star. Mrinal Pande called me from Delhi and requested me to do an interview with Kittu for her magazine, VAMA. Strangely, even on a progressive and hugely popular show, the controversies were not far as it was a bold series in those days. Once, during the days when the show was still on in 1986, I was on a Delhi to Mumbai Indian Airlines flight. An airhostess approached me and invited me to the flight deck for a few minutes and subjected me to a mock friendly trial, with almost serious accusations that my serial was disruptive and endangered family ties. Reporter, of course was the first of its kind on investigative journalism. Though its foil was that of a detective series, but underneath, it always had content of serious editorial integrity in each of its stories. Audiences loved it. They trusted the engaging stories for their painstakingly constructed research based narrative. They often wondered, as to how does an essentially fictionalized serial get to a fact-based story so fast? Being a former newsman with the BBC, I had been always very sensitive to current affairs, thus even a tiniest speck of dust about a social conflict coming my way had been enough of a hook for my antennae. Reporter also took me to the other side of the table for a short period of time. I was the creative head in my capacity as the Director of programs and the Chief Commissioning Editor for the Sahara TV, when it started in the year 2000. Aware of the huge responsibility that television has and that it is the oxygen we inhale and the water we drink as society, I worked out an ethics code in the form of Standards and Practices for Sahara TV. Programs on superstitions, religious exploitation, ghosts and super-natural mumbo jumbo, objectification or misogyny were all a strict ‘no-no’.
Question: In recent times you've been making short films and also authoring books. Can you tell us all about the three books you've written so far and the things that inspire you to write?
Answer: As I said earlier, lean periods were never far from me. I was to reach the familiar patch once again after leaving Sahara TV to return to my core field of making movies. Of course, the first film that I made after leaving the Sahara TV, not only came easy, it also put me back on the track so to say. It was an English language film Sins, financed by Yash Chopra that had gotten into huge controversies and had to even face the court two days before its theatrical release. All because, of a couple of important Christian bodies who had taken grave offence on our story about a Catholic priest having an exploitative sexual relationship with a parishioner. Then Red Swastik, that was made on my own money and was a perfectly commercial film being in the genre of a psycho-thriller with attendant erotica, lost big and the next a beautiful comedy titled Chaloo Movie, wasn’t released by my Co-Producer, Reliance Entertainment. Even Akeli, another film that I had made on my own with R. Madhvan in the lead (his first) was not released by Sahara. This to me meant either I reinvent myself or withdraw into a shell as a superannuated retiree. Bobby, a colleague of mine who had been one of my assistants and had later shifted to editing on account of a grave medical condition that mandated minimal external work became my inspiration. I saw him developing his entrepreneurial skills by starting a small editing training institute and turning it into a large multi-branched venture. Bobby suggested that I should first do a novel or two in popular genres to get recognition rather than waiting a long time for my debut as an author. That made sense because we were already witnessing a spurt in English fiction writing by Indians. I had been converting two of the television episodes of my serial Mera Humsafar into a full-fledged film script and had even registered the title as Don, Beevi and Bodyguard. But the finance was not forthcoming. I decided to abandon the project and develop the story as a novel. That’s how my first book Don’s Wife came about. While doing this, I discovered myself anew. There was no restrictiveness on account of space or thought. It was truly therapeutic. When I was towards the completion of my first novel, an offer came my way to make a film on the subject of a Rajastani nurse having been disposed of by her paramours – a minister and an MLA, in collusion with her husband. But, the promoters could not raise the money and the project collapsed. In these moments of frustration, I resolved to convert my script to my 2nd novel. Thus came, Saanvri: The Story of a Concubine, the book. Interestingly, the genesis of my 3rd novel was also in a film subject that I had wanted to make. I had even registered the title as Niyati in 1983. So Destiny, which sprung from the womb of the stillborn Niyati, is my most satisfying fiction work so far. My inspiration for writing invariably comes from conflicted man-woman relationships in the face of grave external challenges or threats. Discovering newer dimensions in a forbidden human situation becomes my poison. I enjoy it and find my creative juices really flowing.
Question: It would be interesting to know what your latest film, which is ready for release, is about? What made you want to make it now? How do you feel about it after having made it?
Answer: In 2012, Munmun Ghosh, a film journalist invited me for the launch of her novel, “Unhooked”. Then, she gave me her first book “Hushed Voices”, a collection of short stories to read. I was particularly touched by a simple story of a labourer who made a living by disposing off the bodies of the anonymous dead. After reading it, I had sent a note of appreciation to Munmun, saying that wonderful short films could be made based on some of her stories and if I had the money I’d do it. Then last year I was gripped by an urge to do at least a short film if not the full feature. At that I recalled Munmun’s book and decided to at least write the script before going any further. The script was immediately liked by Bobby and Amit both my trusted former colleagues. I took the rights from Munmun by paying a modest fee and proceeded with the production. We titled it Undertaker and completed it in a record time and within the budget too. Presently it has been entered into several notable film festivals before we tie up its release, which essentially will be on some OTT platform. Despite a tight budget we have cut no corners on quality; neither in production nor in the post-production, to achieve international standards. It’s is a very unpretentious narrative handled with sincerity and integrity. The grain of our film is essentially that of art house cinema; hence we have to be looking at the discerning niche viewer as our main target audience.
Question: What advise would you like to give young filmmakers of today
Answer: Go for it. That’s the precise mantra I’d say. Don’t hang about on the bank of the river in trying to determine the speed of the current; you’ll never know the strength of the flow till you step in. In 1971, when Mr. Raj Kapoor was monitoring the grading and final mixing of his film “Mera Naam Joker” at the Technicolor Lab in London, I had come very close to him. Once in a car journey he told me, “Papaji (his father) used to say to me, bete, bina aappe mare surag naeen milda (It can’t be that someone else dies on your behalf to enable you to go to heaven). So, if you have to do something of value, you have to take a plunge yourself.” But then, there is more to it. You can’t throw yourself in the river without knowing how to swim; or just sneak into the cockpit of an aircraft and say that you have the ambition and the confidence of flying a plane, so here you are. The 2nd mantra is persistence; ‘not giving up’…! For, whatever field you decide to enter in life; it’s never going to be smooth sailing. Develop the ant spirit. It picks up a big crumb of sugar, tries to climb the wall with it, falls. Undeterred it tries again and it falls. And, yet again it tries and maybe this time it succeeds because it has set its mind on that grain. Another thing I shall counsel for is to be willing to mutate or re-invent, as in that, one should be agreeable to alter one’s course a bit as a tactical move. Finally, I’d say, develop an ability to take shocks and setbacks. Let me recount an urdu couplet on this, “Girte hain sah-savar hee maidane jang mein, vo tifl kya girenge jo ghutnon ke bal chalein - (Only them who are astride a horse fall during war, not those who crawl on their knees)”.