It’s 10 p.m., Saturday night. I attempt to reach director Jagmohan “Jag” Mundhra. Multiple tries. Failed calls. No answer. Try again later.
10 a.m., Sunday morning. The message light blinks on my phone. A soft-spoken voice speaking from 8,000 miles away. Something about missed calls from my number.
11 a.m., Sunday. I try again. Another missed call, but a few minutes later, at last, a connection. The respected director Mundhra (Bawander, Provoked) is in Malad, a far northern exurb of the sprawling Mumbai mega-city, where he is the midst of a nighttime scene for his upcoming film The Apartment. In between scenes—and sounding amazingly relaxed—he steals away for an interview.
How did Shoot on Sight come about?
I was in London when the 2005 bombings happened. Soon after, I was working on editing for Provoked, and I had to make multiple trips from my place to Leicester Square, where the editing studio was located. A strange thing happened. I would take taxis to get about in the city. I would hail a taxi, a cab would slow down, the driver, usually white, would get a look at me—I have a beard—and would quickly drive off without stopping. This happened several times. I began to think about how the horrific events of 2005 had suddenly created a chasm between two communities: the whites and anyone who looked different.
About that time, the London Police shot and killed a Brazilian man who was suspected of being a terrorist. The man turned out to be innocent. As I was right in London, I was very absorbed with all the news. Scotland Yard put Tarique Ghaffur (Uganda-born and Britain’s highest ranking Asian Muslim police officer) in front of the cameras, and there were some controversies.
I met with Ghaffur, talked to him, and I began to get an idea for the film. Incidentally, my film was going to include the officer (played by Naseerudin Shah) being fired from his job. Strangely, before the film was completed, Ghaffur was really fired from Scotland Yard.
Shoot on Sight was filmed inside the London subway. Foreign filmmakers are no longer allowed filming inside the Tube. How tricky was getting permission?
We had many problems. London Transport denied my request for filming. I appealed to the U.K. Film Council, and they appealed on my behalf on grounds of artistic freedom. It was very expensive—60,000 pounds a day—and I would have only one day to shoot. My producer agreed. We finished filming within 18 hours using 400 extras. Each extra had to be paid 400 pounds a day; and this was when the pound was at $2 U.S.!
You have made many movies outside of India. How has that come about?
I was based in Los Angeles before moving to London and then coming back to India. Most of my movies have therefore been made in L.A. I made five films in London. I returned to India for Bawander and Monsoon, which was made in Goa.
How is staging a film in India different than staging a film abroad?
I always work with a mixed, international crew. The equipment is essentially the same. The production technology is the same. Also, with changing economics and market segmentation, you no longer need to find the lowest common denominator in your audience. You can segment your market and still recoup your money.
Pakistani actor Mikaal Zulfikar (who plays Naseerudin Shah’s nephew in Shoot on Sight) was later denied permission to act in Hindi films. He was scheduled to appear in your film Roommates. How difficult is it to shift gears after something like that happens?
That was very unfortunate. After 26/11 [the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai], local political parties were very successful in raising objections. All Pakistani actors in the entertainment industry, film, and television were asked to leave. Raj Thackeray and the Shiv Shena were quite forceful. You can still film secretly; however, it is very risky for producers. You just have more problems when the film is released.
You are quite vocal in defending freedom of expression. Aren’t you afraid of antagonizing certain political elements?
There are always some hardliners you are going to upset. You just learn to walk a tightrope.
What is up next for you?
I am working on Begunaah with Sameer Kochar. Then there is The Apartment, with Tanushree Dutta, Neetu Chandra, Rohit Roy, and Anupam Kher. In fact, what started as Roommates is now called The Apartment, which is 90 percent finished. There is also Chase, with Udita Goswami, and Naughty@40 with Govinda.
A couple of your movies, especially Provoked (wth Aishwarya Rai) and Bawander (with Nandita Das) were quite provocative and feminist-leaning. On the other hand, you made Natasha, which, involves gratuitous sexual coupling. Is there a split personality at work?
(laughs) When I aim for eroticism, I never demean women. On the contrary, I always make sure that women are in charge of their sexuality. Nudity, when it is used, will also show the woman in charge of her surrounding. This is what I did in Natasha. Sharon Stone (in Basic Instinct) was not a victim. She used to her body to make men surrender to her will.
How has the worldwide economic downturn affected filmmaking?[The downturn] has definitely affected the business. Where the effect is most obvious is in those movies that have huge, Rs. 100 crore-plus (approx. $20 million), budgets. The salaries for some top names had gone out of control and you are seeing those come down a bit.
You have been making films for over 25 years. How has the business changed over the years?
The biggest difference is technology. With digital technology, you can edit an entire film in one day—something which used to take a long time. And the technology is essentially the same everywhere. We have in India pretty much what Hollywood studios use, except for the biggest Hollywood films. Also, there have been changes in how films are financed. Earlier, financing used to be erratic. You made a little bit of a film, went to the producer, asked for more money, and shooting would resume only after the producer agreed. Nowadays, there is less “black money” at work and far more transparency.
Looking to the future, what are some of your dream projects?
I am interested in a woman-oriented story about a married woman who cannot conceive. Her husband is all macho—into exercising and body building. He is pressured to continue the family line. His family subjects the woman to rigorous medical tests and strict (Hindu) austerities. She finds out that her in-laws are planning another marriage for their son. Before the in-laws can act, the woman packs her bags to leave. Just as she is about to leave, she finds a letter from her husband’s doctor addressed to her husband showing medical results that prove that his body building steroid use—and not her—were responsible for their problems. She leaves, remarries, and conceives soon after.
There’s also Midnight Rain, beautiful story from Shuchi Kothari from New Zealand. It has a gay theme and is based on a true story. Set during the early part of the 20th century, it is about a love affair between an older college math professor from Ferguson College in Pune and a young man who draws posters for movies at a time when all film posters were hand drawn. The younger fellow, of course, lives in Mumbai. It cuts across many boundaries: class, income, education, age, as well as the same-sex angle. It would be very controversial and finding a producer wiling to finance it would be quite difficult.
Your take on Slumdog Millionaire?
It is good entertainment and nothing more than that. I don’t read anything—any social context—into it. It’s amazing how things change. For six years when Frieda Pinto was struggling in Bollywood, no one paid attention to her. For being onscreen for about 20 minutes, she is suddenly one of the most highly sought after names in Bollywood.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.