Financing one’s Bollywood project through social networking instead of a big-banner production house is no mean feat. Onir, the director of critically acclaimed Bollywood film My Brother Nikhil, has been jetting to film festivals around the world with his new release I Am. The movie is inspired by four real life stories.
I Am has a terrific ensemble cast, including two actors who are themselves excellent directors—Anurag Basu and Anurag Kashyap. Who was the toughest one to direct?
Actually the most difficult to work with were the cats! (Laughs) I’ll never forget that experience. (Editors Note: The cats feature in the I Am Abhimanyu section.) The other thing which was very difficult for me was shooting with the children (also in the I Am Abhimanyu section). I didn’t want to tell the child actor the details of what we were shooting (sexual abuse). But he just wouldn’t look scared and traumatised. He kept smiling and grinning the minute the camera would roll. I was getting very frustrated with the repeat takes. Then we realized that his father had died in an accident. For him someone acting as his father, bathing him … he was so thrilled that he could not stop grinning. It was tough.
Tell us about your unique financing method.
I’d put up a post on Facebook saying that I was making a film called I Am Abhimanyu, and whoever contributed to Rs. 1,000 or more to it would be a co-owner. The first cheque that came in was for Rs 1,000. For me that was a sign that things would happen and, indeed, within one and a half months we were shooting the film. We have about 400 people from 47 cities across the world who either contributed financially, or in other ways; some people sent lunch during the shoot. The movie was made on a budget of about Rs. 3 crores ($750,000) of which about one crore ($250,000) came from the social networking platform.
What percentage of contributors came from the United States?
Thirty percent of the public financing came from the United States.
What did this mean to you?
You’re really encouraged as a filmmaker when people you think must never have heard of you—from Nigeria, Vienna, Spain—come forward for your film. You never realize how far your films reach. Even now, when I put up a post for Arabic subtitles, I get someone from Egypt who says “I’ll do it for you because I liked your movie.” All these things make you realise how fast the world is becoming smaller and how cinema is one medium for it.
The stories of Megha, Abhimanyu, Afia, and Omar are beautifully intertwined and, yet, all of them are very open ended. Why?
One is, I think, all the stories raise questions for me for which I don’t have easy answers. And secondly, it is so that each of us tries and finds our own answers. Otherwise it tends to get preachy.
I feel that to keep the shot of Jay (in I Am Omar) getting into the car and driving away alone is [to be true to] what his life is about. It’s a life where people are lonely, where people don’t get support from others around them.
Is it your point that life is messy?
That is the main point. I think at the end of the big fight, there are people who are bruised, irked, who have crossed all sorts of hurdles.
Was it deliberate to keep Sanjay Suri’s sexuality in I Am Abhimanyu section open to interpretation?
I have kept it ambiguous. You can say he is bisexual because of the dream.
How was the experience of casting the two Anurags?
Honestly, they were in the project because they are friends and, because of that, the rest became easier. Because they are directors they realise how difficult it is do a project like this. Both of them went out of their way to help and brought their own clothes, paid for their flight and hotels.
Being directors themselves, did they interfere?
No, never. When I was scripting Anurag (Kashyap) was not even a part of the film. Because he is a filmmaker and I respect him I’d sent him the script and asked how he felt about it. I like to interact with other fellow filmmakers. I don’t like working in isolation. So I got feedback from him.
Did you have a tough time co-editing the film with Irene Dhar Malik, given the scale of storyline and the sensitivity involved?
I started my career as an editor (Rahul, 2001). I am a person who edits at the script stage. Of course the film was made in a way that we were shooting as and when the funds came in. We shot all the stories separately, and then interlinked them without being overbearing or forceful about inclusion of bits everywhere.
Tell us about some reactions you’ve got from the viewers.
I’ve been getting messages on Twitter like, “I’ve been to this film and it’s been over a week— I think a little bit of me is Afia, and my father is a little bit of Megha. Thank you Onir.” People see whatever they want. For the first time, I’ve not had anyone say a single thing against it.
Despite the critical acclaim and festival awards, the movie did not fare well at the box office. Are you discouraged?
I never expected the first three days to be larger [than they were.] The growth has been there in the audience, but the exhibitors don’t want to keep it because there are new films coming in every week. Plus we have a section of the audience who’d rather watch Luv Ka The End rather than I Am, which is sad. Having said that, niche movies are very different from commercial films. They have a longer shelf life. Now we’re screening the movie all over India, then Nepal, then the Andamans. Home video sales are much higher for such films because people feel much more secure watching such films at home. Given our minimal budget there are a lot of possibilities for us with the film. We can take it to remote places like South Korea. I am not worried about the monetary part because it has got a really good response—it is one of the highest rated films in the recent past.
What’s next for the movie?
We have subtitled it in six languages—Spanish, Italian, German, French, Chinese, and now Arabic. We’re planning to take it ahead slowly. We are now in talks with Chinese distributors. Since you’re a small production house, these kind of films have the danger of huge piracy, and we are not just planning to explore the NRI market. We want to explore non-traditional markets like Brazil. At end of this month we’ll be screening it in California too, in the Bay Area.
What is your next project?
I don’t know yet. I feel like going back to Kolkata for a bit, absorb the city, and think I should be making a Bengali film. But it’s too early to say anything. I think fiction is inspired a lot by reality. If I do a Bengali film, it will be based on something true.n
Suchi Sargam is a journalist in India.