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Onir speaks on <i>Bas Ek Pal</i>

Courtesy: IndiaFM

Friday, August 11, 2006

He started of as an editor with some of the most prominent filmmakers in Bollywood like RGV and Prakash Jha. His directorial debut happened last year with the film My Brother Nikhil. Though not a very big hit, the film touched the audiences. It strongly conveyed how life of a person takes a drastic turn when detected HIV positive. Onir definitely put his message across strongly.

And now, he is back with his second film Bas Ek Pal which deals with urban life.

Tell us about your upcoming film Bas Ek Pal

Bas Ek Pal is film which centers round one moment which changes the lives of five characters. It's about that one moment that changes the perception of the characters about other characters. The format is that of a thriller where you keep discovering new things about the other person though it's not a "who's done it?" kind of a thing. I would say that this film is about one illusive moment of happiness that these characters are looking for.

The tagline says the film it is about "urban relationships". What exactly do you mean by that?
This film is set in Bombay. The characters are modern, upper middle class, who lead a very independent today's life. So the characters, their personalities, their lives are very urban, very city centric and cosmopolitan. All the characters in my film are living on their own and not in joint families which is a very urban phenomena. In the rest of India, even smaller towns, people usually live in joint families. But here, the character of Urmila who is a civil engineer lives on her own. Juhi and Rehaan are a young couple who are living on their own. There is Jimmy's character who is a businessman who is also living by himself. So, all of them are individualistic. Also their lives revolve around themselves in a certain way; they are all very ambitious which is very urban again. Their life revolves around night clubs; they do sport activities and things like that. So it is very much a part of city life.

Is this story inspired by Jessica Lal case in any way?
No, not at all. Actually I myself wrote this story and it's been registered. That's the best proof. Also, the story is not about justice not done. It is about an incident that happens at a night club but similarities begin and end there.

The preview says that "revelations, passions, jealousies, insecurities, love and anger, as each character searches for that ever - elusive moment of happiness."
There are five main characters in the film. And the film is their travel through different kind of emotions a normal human being goes through. They are not super humans, they are not typical heroes and heroines like you see in a Hindi film. They are all people who go through emotions of jealousy, envy, greed, love, passion, insecurities. And they are all very grey that way. In a sense they are not very good or bad, they are all very real. What you will see is people going through different kinds of emotions, experiencing these emotions, without the film being judgmental about anyone. The film does not take position in terms of the story saying this boy is bad or good; it's just trying to understand what each character is going through, without being judgmental.

You have retained Juhi Chawla and Sanjay Suri in this film.
Sanjay Suri was always a part of this film, since I wrote this film. So though My Brother Nihkil happened earlier, this film was written before and since then Sanjay was a part of the film. And after having worked with Juhi in My Brother Nikhil, I thought it would be very interesting to cast her in the role of Ira that she is doing in the film, because it is a kind of role that no one would expect her to do. It has a lot of grey shades. It's a kind of role that no one has seen her in before. And I think she brings in something special to this character which I don't think anyone else could have brought in. Also, I enjoyed working with her because of her warmth as a person. So there is an actor and director chemistry that we share. It's a bonding that one forms that spills over to the next film. Hence, lot of directors repeat actors not only because they believe in the actors but also because of a certain comfort level.

Your experience of working with Urmila Matondkar...
With Urmila I was earlier a little apprehensive thinking she is a big star. But I think after a first few days itself there was this level of comfort because she is a brilliant actress. Secondly she likes to be very thorough with the script. She knows everything in and out. At times she would just call me up and talk about "scene number so and so...." and I'm trying to figure out what scene she is talking of. She is very particular about her clothes and everything that she is wearing, in detail. And that's my style of working as well. I like to be involved in everything. And I think that actresses like her try to understand what the directors want from them in terms of the character and then take it beyond. And through the process of the film, we have also becomes friends now. For me, so much time one spends working on a film; it's now one's family in a way. And I think it's better if the relationship between an actor and a director goes beyond professional one, because that means you have succeeded as human being also. That happened with Juhi and Sanjay during My Brother Nikhil and I'm glad that now I have Jimmy and Urmila as friends too.

How was it working with the actors this time, considering that you were working on a complex subject?
For me when I was casting I knew that I was having a strong script. Hence, I needed performers; I wanted actors who are not necessarily stars. And I needed people who'd believe in the script and believe in me and they should not be bigger than their characters. And I would say all my actors have given the best of performances in 2005. Jimmy in Yahaan, Urmila in Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, Juhi and Sanjay Suri in My Brother Nikhil had given performances which were most talked about in 2005. And performance level itself takes the film to another scale. It gives life to my script. It takes it beyond what the script was, which the plan is. Not just representing the film in the form of script but taking it beyond that. And I think all my actors have contributed in making it go beyond what I had imagined.

Tell us about the music of the film. You have three music directors doing music for it.
Music of the film is the integral part of the film but at the same time, it's not used like in most of the Hindi films, which is lip-sync song and dance. Most of the songs are used as background. There's one club song but then again here, this doesn't have actors singing it. When a song from a film is played in a pub everyone starts singing and people do certain steps, identifying to the film. No one is dancing to the camera. It is very important for me that it looks real. I love music but in a realistic way. I have three music directors for this film. Pritam is a very close friend of mine. I had produced his first music album, so here I wanted him to do one song for me which he did. Vivek Philip had done music for my previous film. He has done three of the songs. I like to introduce new people in my films and I had met Mithoon and really liked his songs. So I have two songs of his in my film too.

Each character in Bas Ek Pal has a color code. What's the concept behind that?
I think that all of us have our favorite color like my favorite color is black. And I think it has something to do with what one is as a person and that's why I thought let me try and experiment with it. That's why I thought giving each character a color code which has something to do with their personality and it does not mean that they are wearing those colors all the time. It could be very subtle sometimes in the background somewhere or in the props around them. For people who notice it, its good as they'll get additional layer to the film and who don't notice it, there is nothing that'll disturb them. So I was just trying out. It was an experiment for me.

How has the experience been with the producers?
Shailesh is a friend of mine whom I met 10 years ago. I had lost touch with him for a while but after My Brother Nikhil, we bumped into each other at Barista and he said listen I have to make your next film. I didn't take it seriously but somehow he was after me. I was traveling abroad with My Brother Nikhil when he kept emailing me. So I said that I am working on this script; he loved it and it just happened like that. So it happened really fast. Without even realizing, we were ready with the film in six months time.

You once said that you have certain scripts but the producers are apprehensive to back them...
Yes, this film was one of those as this was written in 2002 but it is being made now.

How does it feel after My Brother Nikhil won an award at the Milan Film Festival? Also Bas Ek Pal got screened at the Osian Cinefan festival.
It's nice. I feel really good over the past one and half years I've been traveling around the world with more than 25 festivals for My Brother Nikhil. The film won more than 10 awards and that was a very satisfying experience. Though in India it didn't get its due as people were more excited about Brokeback Mountain, despite the fact that My Brother Nikhil was done much before. But I realized that we always jump about things happening abroad rather than out here. It was also not nominated for any awards in India but in the rest of the world it was. So for me it was the world that compensated for the lack of it in India. Which I'm happy of because I think it connected with people all around the world and I could directly interact with audiences who were primarily not Indian. So it was interesting to see how people from other cultures reacted to the film. With Bas Ek Pal what's nice is that it starts of with a festival in India. I was absolutely surprised because for me Bas Ek Pal is not a festival but very mainstream film. But it was selected and opened at Osian and for me it's nice that this film starts in India because for me it's more important than the rest of the world.

Do you think My Brother Nikhil helped changed people's perspective towards HIV affected and also 'Homosexual' people? Do you think the film has helped improve their status in the society?
See I don't think it's that simple. I think it's a small step towards changing people's perception. Luckily what has happened is, NGOs all over the world have been using this film majorly and successfully for screening it to common people, students, HIV positive people and their families to change their perceptions and it has worked for them. The amount of emails we have received on our website is not funny. People say their lives have changed because of this film. Be it issues of sexuality or HIV- AIDS awareness. So it has definitely happened to an extent. Also, UN aides have officially put their site link on ours. So unless the film had certain importance it wouldn't have been.

About a week back I had a screening for NACO (National AIDS Control Organization) and they want to dub the film in other Indian languages because they think it needs to be shown in India in other languages so that people can benefit from it. Plus they are distributing DVDs in all schools. So for me, that means something. And not just in India, in Pakistan, it was the highest selling pirated DVD. So for me that means a lot. I have traveled around the world to raise funds for HIV-AIDS thing, especially US. We have done lots of screening for raising funds for HIV in India. So I do think it has done an impact. But it is a small step. A lot more needs to be done, a lot more could have been done with the film if there was more support from the industry; then I think much more could have happened.

Do you think your stories are more "urban" hence restricted to limited target audiences?
See in a country like India, the divide between urban and rural is so much that it's very difficult to have a film that will cater to the entire Indian audience. And the kind of Pan-India films that happens, I can't identify with most of them. I respect it for what it is but it isn't something I can identify with. I can do what I'm good at, which I can identify with, which I believe in. For me making a film is telling a story I want to tell. The purpose is not to necessarily go like mass hit, as along as it reaches the target audience. A film like My Brother Nikhil is a crossover because it was looked at as a multiplex film but it has been shown by NGOs in very remote areas. So for me it has crossed over from multiplex audience to other audience. I hope the same happens with Bas Ek Pal. I never try and negate the other audience. It's a step towards making my film understandable and people who are not the so-called multiplex audience should be able to relate, but provided they also have to take one more step, thinking this film will not have an item number and maybe still we will get something out of it.

It's a two way system. I'll give you a quote. Recently I was reading somewhere that a journalist had quoted that for Onir's films one has to use grey matters so I would rather not use it. So for me, if a journalist says that I would rather not use grey matters, I think it's a really sad state of the country, because then what all want is mindless films. The idea is the films, like any other form of art should be entertaining but at the same time fulfilling as a human being to take you forward in terms of some experience, something enriching. Otherwise, what is life all about?

Do you think the audiences here are now accepting reality based films?
I think to certain extend definitely or else why are they getting made. It's because of the demand. And if you think it's only a recent phenomena that realistic films (I would rather put them as "sensible films"), are happening so much, you are wrong. Earlier, about 15 years back, parallel cinema or sensible cinema existed with mainstream cinema because people were going for it. But what has happened that with multiplexes, the tickets are so expensive that middle class housewives are now only glued on to television. So, one has lost out largely on the middle class audience which used to watch sensible good cinema before.

That's a problem but I'm sure things are slowly changing. There's a huge urban educated audience who are looking for something else than just mindless comedies. But I think its going to take time to change, because mostly real bad comedies are unfortunately doing really well. So it will take time because unfortunately, we have huge illiterate population. Secondly, also because lives are so difficult, so we have people who love escapism. But we can't blame them because life generally is so difficult. But then I think sensible cinema packed with entertainment should appeal to everyone.

What kind of cinema do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy watching films which are sensible, intelligent and not regressive in terms of how they portray certain things, like the way women are portrayed. I really hate the films that have unnecessary item numbers. I don't like mindless comedy. But when you are told you keep your brains at home and come and watch the film, I would say sorry. I have this many years of life and god has given me brains and therefore I would like to use it and not keep it home.

Who are your favorite film makers?
Oh there are many. There is this Bengali film maker called Ritwik Ghatak whom I really like. I'm a fan of European cinema because I trained in Europe. I like film makers like Godard, Tarkovsky etc. I'm not that fond of Hollywood though I like Charlie Chaplin. And yea, I do like Spielberg as well.

Do you think you have grown as a film maker since your first film?
Absolutely! I think if one does not grow then that's the end of one. And for me with every film, I would like to try out different genre. Try and slowly discover a genre for myself. Try out new things and that is what I have tried in this film. I definitely see that there is a movement and therefore when I was making Bas Ek Pal it was important to see that it is a film which is totally different from My Brother Nikhil. So lot of people say 'oh this is totally different!' and I'm like 'yea of course'. Why should I do something which is the same? The idea is not to do My Brother Nikhil Part 2 but to do something else where I explore myself as a director. See my weakness and strengths and look forward to my third film. So I know it's a risk because people stereotype you but that's a risk I'm willing to take or else my growth will stop.

You have also edited some films...
Editing has always been a step towards reaching this goal. I worked with different filmmakers right from Vikram Bhatt to Sai Paranjpe to Ram Gopal Varma and Prakash Jha. And while editing I also used to be involved in other aspects of filmmaking because it was learning process. At the end when I finish my film in 30-35 days I think it's because I learnt as an editor what to edit while shooting.

Your future projects?
I have a couple of scripts. My Brother Nikhil was my fifth script, Bas Ek Pal was my third script so there are a whole lot of scripts that are lying which I want to slowly start making. But I'll concentrate on it after my release because right now I'm just full of Bas Ek Pal.

What would you call the USP of Bas Ek Pal?
Bas Ek Pal is an unusual story with really great performances.

What are your expectations from the film?
Expectations from the film... I'm trying to talk to people. I hope people will listen.

Read more about: onir
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