Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Bard of darkness

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

Anurag Kashyap was once intensely inspired by Italian director Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist Bicycle Thieves. Now, he faces another Italian turning point. Come September, Anurag will be on the six-member international jury of the 66th Venice Film Festival, headed by Ang Lee of the Lust, Cau-tion and Brokeback Mountain fame.
“Anurag in his own films has pushed the boundaries, both in terms of its form and content,” says actor-director Nandita Das. “He is a big film buff and is exposed to cinema from around the world. So I am sure he will do full justice to his role as a juror.”

For 36-year-old Anurag, the journey from Mumbai to Venice was not easy. Born in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Anurag’s early days were spent in moving from one city to the other, including Varanasi and Saharanpur. Cinema fascinated him since the Kora Kaagaz and Aandhi days. During the early 1990s, when he was in Delhi studying to be a scientist, drugs and booze got the better of him. Soon he found himself doing plays with Safdar Hashmi’s left-wing street theatre group Jana Natya Manch.

It was the 1993 International Film Festival of India that changed his life. He saw 50-odd movies in 10 days, and one of them was the De Sica classic. Says Anurag: “I saw movies from all different perspectives and in a way you can say that these films changed my life and its meaning completely for me. Just that one movie festival [and that one film], and I decided that this is what I want to be a part of. In the next five months, I was in Mumbai.”
With Rs 5,000 in his pocket, Anurag landed in Mumbai that year only to spend several nights on the streets, on the beach and even under water tanks. Many failures later, which included ‘no’ for acting and aborted plays, he met Ram Gopal Varma, who asked him to script Satya. That led to more writing: Anurag penned dialogues for Mani Ratnam’s Yuva and Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated Water among others.

However, it was Black Friday that put him in the spotlight. For the wrong and the right reason. Based on the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings—believed to be a revenge for the earlier riots in the city where Muslims were butchered—the movie was based on facts and talked about the aftermath of the bloody incident. Anurag’s docu-style coupled with powerful performances by Kay Kay Menon as deputy commissioner Rakesh Maria and Pawan Malhotra as Tiger Memon—the movie was more than a reel experience. Black Friday remained in the cans for two years, because the Censor Board would not certify it. When it finally opened in 2004, it was rapturously applauded, and British helmer Danny Boyle was inspired to base a chase scene in Slumdog Millionaire on the one in Black Friday.
Anurag’s 2007 No Smoking, adapted from Stephen King’s 1978 short story Quitters, Inc., went over many heads. He told me just before I watched it that he had said a lot of things in it in a disguised, guarded fashion. He was obviously smarting from the two-year delay in getting Black Friday released. The movie about a man (John Abraham) being pushed into a strange rehab centre to get him out of nicotine addiction was too sophisticated for an audience hardly ever encouraged to think by writers and directors.

Dev.D, a contemporary account of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, beaten to pulp by masters and minors, catapulted Anurag to a new level. What was most notable about this movie was Anurag’s neat twist in the end that lifted the age-old story from tragedy and defeatism to a refreshingly new high. He neatly wove into it a strong woman character in Paro, sexually liberated and fearless in her commitment. Nobody could miss the messages, although some of them were hidden in suggestive actions. Here is one: frustrated Paro furiously pumping water! Says film-maker Sejho Singh: “There is at last someone who respects Indian audiences’ intelligence and presents real challenges to them. I hope he would continue to make great movies, such as No Smoking and Dev.D.”

Dev.D gave Anurag a new image and love in Kalki Koechlin, his Chandramukhi. Anurag has a daughter Aaliya with wife Aarti, whom he divorced.
Dev.D will be part of a sidebar at Venice. And so will Gulaal, his angriest, though not his best. Based in Rajasthan, it has far too many players ranging from nobles to students, all caught in a web of greed, arrogance and bravado. Some of the scenes are brutal: a young woman professor stripped naked by students and imprisoned in a room along with a naked boy. Exploring the dynamics of authoritarianism versus liberalism, Anurag tries placing India in a certain perspective that many may not agree with. Anurag may or may not have picked up this trait consciously, but his cameo appearances a la Hitchcock make it difficult not to draw a parallel between the two. He appears in most of his movies for a few minutes.

Says Anupama Chopra, consulting editor, film, NDTV 247: “Kashyap is Bollywood’s consummate poet of darkness. He is original and inventive and ambitious. He is not always successful, but you can never accuse him of not trying.” Anurag, whose works are not part of mainstream Bollywood cinema, has a long way to go and much more to prove.

Some of Anurag’s best

Gulaal (2009)
Dev.D (2009)
Return of Hanuman (2007)
No Smoking (2007)
Black Friday (2004)

Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007) (dialogue)
Water (2005) (dialogue)
Yuva (2004) (dialogue)
Kaun (1999)
Satya (1998)

Luck by Chance (2009) Writer (as himself)
Dev.D (2009) Cameo appearance
Gulaal (2009) Cameo appearance
No Smoking (2007) Cameo appearance
Black Friday (2004) ISI man

(Published August 9 2009 in The Week)