Which are the films that have most inspired you in your filmmaking journey? We posed that question to some of India’s top directors, cutting across generations and languages. Their answers are in this exclusive MAXIM feature.
by Anna M. M. Vetticad
“The sad part about watching a movie you truly love is that you can never get back that first time you saw it. If I could, I would return to the age of 12 or 13 when I first saw Singin’ In The Rain (1952). As a director and choreographer, it has been one of my greatest influences.
I love Gene Kelly. Oh my God, I love him! I’ve seen most of his musicals, from Anchors Aweigh to The Pirate, but what stood out for me in Singin’ In The Rain is that it had a great story. I was also really attracted to the fact that it was a movie on the movie business with a sweet love story at its centre. It showed us how movies were shot in the 1920s, the studio culture and so on.
And oh yes, it had a great vamp (Jean Hagen). I mean, as the heroine, Debbie Reynolds was the girl next door and became America’s sweetheart after this film, but the more interesting role was that of the silent movie star with the shrill voice who can’t sing.
Gene Kelly, of course, is a great dancer and master choreographer. I prefer him even to Fred Astaire because Kelly is a little more manly, acrobatic and energetic. He would do amazing things and that’s why down the decades, the songs of Singin’ In The Rain, the dance moves, the gimmicks have been copied worldwide, especially “Make ’em laugh” featuring Donald O’Connor that I think even Kamal Haasan has copied, or the title track from which has come Aamir Khan with an umbrella dancing in the rain.
I’m sure hundreds of scenes from my own films have been inspired by Singin’ In The Rain. None of this is literally copying because you can’t unthinkingly plonk the same thing in an Indian context. You can, however, see the influence, for instance in the scene in Om Shanti Om with the song “Main agar kahoon” where Shah Rukh Khan brings Deepika Padukone into an empty studio, or that song in Aishwarya Rai’s first movie Iruvar where we took the whole Cyd Charisse look with the green dress she wore in Singin’ In The Rain.
The film’s genius lay not just in the physical difficulties and technique involved in Kelly’s choreography but also the way it was shot. There’s a whole sequence with Charisse where her cloth train is flying 50 feet up to the ceiling. Can you imagine, they did that without the computer graphics and special effects we have at our disposal today? Generations of filmmakers have taken things from that scene, but we’ve still not managed to do it as well as they did back then.
That again is the feeling I get when I watch Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), which is the
Indian film that has inspired me the most. I was watching it last year with my son and marvelling at the way they shot the sequence where bandits rob that train. To have managed that kind of action in the 1970s without the equipment we are all now used to is amazing.
I’ve watched Sholay 40-50 times. The Sholay dialogue LP would play non-stop in our house when I was a child, so we knew every line in the film. If I watch it today, I can say every line by every character as if I’m having a karaoke session. It’s hard to analyse why every single element fell into place in this film—it has got to be felt. Even things you felt were stretched at that point, such as Soorma Bhopali, seem fine now. You remember every tiny character in the film, even Hari Ram Naai in the jail.
Like numerous other filmmakers, I too have been greatly influenced by Sholay. I watched it repeatedly before I made Main Hoon Na just to learn how the shots were broken down, to count the number of cuts in a scene, see how it was edited, how sound was used. It’s like a refresher course in filmmaking. Nobody has ever made a film better or bigger than that. Sholay is literally like a film school.”
“As a filmmaker I try not to be influenced by the works of others. If you get influenced, there is a danger that your own philosophy of filmmaking and your ideology will be disturbed; you may like a filmmaker so much that you may cross over into his arena. I am very conscious of that, but there are great films by great filmmakers who I love and respect that I can see a number of times. I learn from them and transfer the learning into my line of thinking.
I am always interested in the way a great film is crafted. In that sense, Amadeus (1984) is a film I show to students wherever I teach cinema. It has a brilliant script that provoked me to embark for the first time upon a study of the way a particular film had been written. So I went into its history and learnt that director Milos Forman got interested in making it after seeing the play Amadeus written by Peter Shaffer. Though Shaffer is credited with the screenplay, Forman was highly involved with it too.
There is so much to learn from this film that it is an institution in itself. Formwise, for instance, it is very unusual. At times it looks like an epic, at times it is two individual stories (of music legend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary Antonio Salieri). Yet, the juxtaposition of both is done in such a way that at no point do you forget either character.
When I first watched Amadeus, I was expecting a musical biography. I never expected such a beautiful drama. The film hits the nail on the head right from the start, when Salieri plays several compositions and the priest apologetically admits that he can’t recognise any of Salieri’s works. When he does recognise a piece, it turns out to be by Mozart, not Salieri. Cinematically that is a great identifying element.
Long before I saw Amadeus though, I had begun a study of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu as a student of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. That was when I discovered Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). It is based on traditional Japanese storytelling but was designed and dramatised in such a way as to become totally original as a film, so original that the world started copying it and didn’t mind saying, we have copied from Seven Samurai.
The film has seven primary characters, though the most important are the two played by Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura. It’s rare to find a film with so many characters in which you come away remembering each. Some characters appear only in segments, yet you don’t forget them.
Think of the story of a village which is in trouble and they’re looking for samurai to safeguard them. They find this fellow (Mifune’s character Kikuchiyo) who doesn’t fit into the rest of the group because each samurai has to be disciplined and organised, but this fellow is the opposite. So initially he’s rejected, but Kurosawa goes on to make him the most loveable character, the hero. This is not a straightforward script.
Even the action is so memorable. It’s easy to spot the choreographed scenes in today’s films, but the action in Seven Samurai is absolutely raw.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Seven Samurai and Amadeus. Sometimes when I’m taking a long flight, I carry these two films to watch on my laptop. There’s so much to learn from them, not just for myself but also to teach my students.”
“I was a student at London Film School when I watched Monsoon Wedding (2001) at the London Film Festival and, good heavens, I completely fell in love! I loved the ensemble idea, the notion of multiple worlds colliding and the energy thus created when family and friends from across the globe gather for a wedding.
I ended up making it the topic of my film school dissertation. The cherry on the cake was that I got to meet Mira (director Mira Nair) at a later film festival I was working with in the city. I told the organisers they did not have to pay me anything; my only request was to be introduced to Mira.
Every film has a certain syntax, a certain language which through cinematography, art direction, music and so on conveys the theme. Monsoon Wedding is wonderful because all those creative decisions blended perfectly to create that thrilling, confusing multi-layered world. I loved that canvas and what Mira did through it in a very unapologetic, colourful, Indian way.
Each tiny thing in the film has so much meaning. For instance, Naseeruddin Shah’s question to his son: “Tu khansaama banega (will you become a cook)?” For me, somewhere Usthad Hotel started there. That single dialogue gives you so much insight into a certain social set, a certain prejudice, a certain manner in which one would like to see one’s own.
That is what is wonderful about this film, that every little thing has so much depth. For instance, Declan Quinn’s photography is so understated that you barely notice it. When the film was released many people actually said, “What’s the big deal? This is a home video.” That is the finesse of the filmmaker, that you actually felt you were watching a home video.
I think the synergy between Sabrina Dhawan’s splendid screenplay and Mira’s background was crucial. Sabrina had written of a cultural milieu Mira was familiar with, so she obviously drew from there to give us such a real portrayal.
This is a fun film, but it also deals with serious issues such as paedophilia and class differences. I remember Mira saying that for the distribution, people had told her in India to cut out the end because they felt it was destroying a fun-filled film. She rejected the suggestion saying, “Nothing doing. That’s the film I want to make and that’s what it will be.” The adoration she got was her reward for listening to her gut. The lesson there for youngsters is that a filmmaker’s instinct can actually tell us much more than those with so-called knowledge of how the market works.
I also remember being inspired by the level of detail. There is a scene where they’re all sitting around the table and these crisscross conversations happen like they do in all families—you know, it’s a handheld camera and it literally walks around, but if you look at the art direction there is not a single thing that shouldn’t be in that kind of a house. It looks like a lived-in place.
When I say I was inspired, I mean some of it was at a conscious level and some at a sub-conscious level. For instance, I recall insisting on a top shot of the three cousins sleeping in bed in Bangalore Days. Now that I look back, maybe the thought came to me from a Monsoon Wedding poster with a top shot of the three girls—Shefali Chhaya, Vasundhara Das and Neha Dubey—lying on a bed. Posters of Monsoon Wedding have been hanging on my wall for years. In fact, my housemates in London gifted me one on my graduation because I had taken all of them to watch it and they knew it was my dream film, the kind I wanted to make.
Back when I interviewed Mira as a student, I had asked her if Monsoon Wedding was inspired by Robert Altman’s A Wedding because there was so much talk about it at the time. She simply said she hadn’t seen it, and that was that. Today if I meet her I will not ask that question because I so understand that this would be her take. Altman has a dry sense of humour and he’s very much a fly on the wall whereas the feelings are far more overpowering and overflowing in Monsoon Wedding. If Altman is a handshake, Monsoon Wedding is a big hug.”
“Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) is perhaps the movie that made me fully understand the power of this medium. The experience of watching it was overwhelming. I was working with television at the time, but I knew immediately that I wanted to make movies.
In that scene where the friends are all standing on the jeep and saluting India Gate, I had to get up from my seat and I wanted to hug everyone on screen. The way it’s shot, A.R. Rahman’s music, the lyrics, the way it was told, it was magical.
The film emotionally charges you. It made me realise you can actually make people feel for what you’re trying to say in a movie. The intertwining of the contemporary story with the stories of Azad, Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, Ashfaqullah Khan and Bismil, what was happening at India Gate with Jallianwala Bagh was just gorgeous, to say that the British Raj is gone but nothing’s changed in the country, that we still need a revolution.
I usually cry in happy moments in films, but when Waheeda Rahman’s character receives her son’s coffin and she goes weak in the knees, I wept. I thought to myself: How many times must this be happening and we’re not even aware of it? Or even the moment where Aamir Khan just walks in with a coffee cup at the radio station and they’re talking about how this will be their last few hours or even minutes together.
For me it was a film about how you could look at life beyond your personal goals, that there is something bigger than your own achievement and ambitions. In some small little way, when I made Chillar Party, that is what I was thinking about because these children were looking beyond themselves to start a movement to save that streetdog.
Queen, of course, is vastly different from Chillar Party, but I think somewhere I love films which make you find yourself or something inside you which you did not know existed. And the way that boy played by Siddharth found himself in Rang De Basanti is truly beautiful.
Khosla Ka Ghosla!—the other film that has greatly inspired me—was released in the same year. It appealed to me in a different way. You see, I too am from a middle-class family in Delhi and we actually faced a situation where some people were living in our house and we were trying to get them out for 20 years; finally we had to pay them to get them out. I come from the world of Khosla Ka Ghosla!, so I was surprised at the extent of detailing which I thought had not existed in Hindi cinema for years.
Dibakar (director Dibakar Banerjee) had got everything down to the last T. Whether it was the hairstyles or the father eating pizza and wanting a little achaar or the Rooh Afza bottle on the table, every small thing was thought through.
I’m a superficial film viewer, I watch films like any other viewer would. The experience of watching this film told me though that people will notice detailing if you have it in your film. Detailing in a film can surprise you. If it’s not there you might not even know, but if it’s there it will definitely get noticed.
If you would allow me a third film, then I would love to name Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004) starring Shah Rukh. The theme greatly resonated with me because I remember my schoolteacher saying that the biggest problem with our country is that we export our best resources, our students, free of cost to the world.
I was so moved that SRK’s character came back to India. I remember I walked out of the theatre, sat on the pavement and cried. To feel the point Swades was making so deeply that you can break down 10 minutes after it’s over, shows that there is truly something big about the movie.”
“There’s something spiritual about Shawshank Redemption (1994). I’ve watched it innumerable times, read the script, read the Stephen King short story on which it is based, and whenever I watch it I get something fresh from it. It’s not a crime film, yet it’s about crime. It’s not a typical prisoners and jail kind of film. For me what this film is about is that in the most adverse circumstances, a person can be alive. It’s about hope.
The film didn’t do well at the box office when it was released, but it has had a huge shelf life. That tells you that not every film is about weekend collections. There’s a terrific quote by Quentin Tarantino in this context, which is really important for our industry right now. He says: The first three days are the least important time in a film’s existence. Frank Darabont’s Shawshank is a great example of a film that didn’t do well upon release but has stayed with people for years.
I clearly remember every single scene in this film. My favourite is the one where Andy (Tim Robbins) finds a worm in his food in jail and an old man asks if he’s going to eat it. From the question I assumed that the old man was willing to eat even worm-infested food but actually he takes that worm and feeds his pet bird. That bird represents freedom, but later when that old man is released he commits suicide because he is unable to adjust to the outside world. His death has huge relevance in that earlier, very simple scene.
The scene in which Red (Morgan Freeman) plays “Marriage of Figaro” for everyone in jail is also terrific. While listening to it, I felt liberated and happy. It does something to you. I felt like I was one of those jail inmates and that there’s something out there. I can’t articulate what I felt while watching that scene and listening to that music, but that I guess is the thing about movies: If it’s all out there and in your face then that means you will like it at that point, but it gets out of your mind too; a scene like this, though, stays.
Perhaps that has helped me with the two films I have directed featuring jail sequences: Ek Hasina Thi and Badlapur. Whenever I’m doing a jail sequence, so many characters from Shawshank are with me, it’s almost like I know them and I’ve spent time in that jail.
I can’t remember another film where each character, major or minor, is so vividly etched in my head. That’s what happens when a film with a great screenplay is terrifically cast, and the film becomes much much more than the sum of its individual parts.
I’ve seen so many Morgan Freeman films after Shawshank Redemption; it’s not that he’s got a different look in the film but still Red is an individual we all know. In fact, there are seven-eight Morgan Freemans I know who are just characters from his movies.
Freeman’s voiceover also holds the film in a certain grip. In fact, Shawshank is one of the best uses of voiceover in any film.
Someone told me that Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt were all offered the role of Andy and that the initial plan was to cast Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Paul Newman or Robert Redford as Red. But Shawshank with them rather than Robbins and Freeman is unimaginable.
That is the best part about great movies—once it’s rightly cast you can’t imagine any other actor playing those roles. The others are all good actors, but I think if this film had been made with Pitt and Eastwood, for instance, I would have expected an Escape from Alcatraz or something like that. Eastwood and these other guys are such powerful personalities that I would not have been able to perhaps believe them as people who are in jail and are not doing anything proactive about it. Freeman makes Red a real person. He and Robbins made the film so real.”