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May 27, 2000

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'My attitude has always been that of seeing the glass half-full...'

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With three of his films being shown at the Berlin Film Festival and one, Buena Vista Social Club, being nominated for an Oscar, filmmaker Deepak Nayyar has a lot to smile about. He is currently working on three comedies. In this interview with A James, the Indian filmmaker talks of his work and philosophy. Excerpts:

Isn't this a big year for you? Two of your films were at the Berlin festival and everyone thought Buena Vista Social Club would pick up the Oscar for best feature-length documentary.

Well, this is a big year. Two of my films are in Berlin, one for the Oscar, and two more are going to be released. Of these two new films, one, Harlem Aria, is about a black opera singer and the other, Seventeen Sips, is about a teenage pact suicide. It is a very social subject matter in the US where teenagers are committing suicide for no rhyme or reason. I felt very strongly about this issue, so I made the movie. It was at the Sundance festival this year.

As far as the Oscar is concerned, everybody was shocked that we did not win it. But the way the selection process works is very different, even strange. One had to see all the five movies to select the winner. Everybody had seen ours, but the other films were not released and not many people had seen them. It was as if you throw five balls up in the air and the one that lands first is the winner. It was rather disappointing both for us and for others that we did not win the Oscar.

At the Berlin Festival you had Million Dollar Hotel written by Bono of U2. It has a song by Salman Rushdie. How did that come about?

Million Dollar Hotel was conceived by Bono of U2. He got Nicholas Klein to write the script, Wim [Wenders] directed the film and that is how I came into the picture. It was decided that Bono would do the music for the movie. For the lead character, the song Ground Beneath Her Feet was very appropriate. So Bono called up Salman Rushdie and asked him to give the lyrics for the song. That is how this song came about. It is a fantastic song.

You have worked with Wim Wenders for a long time now. How is he to work with?

He is cool guy, very flexible and a good friend of mine. It was a great experience working with him, seeing how he turns his vision into reality and how he overcomes the many challenges while making a film. I did a film with him in 1987 called The End of Violence, which was at Cannes. In fact it was the fiftieth anniversary day when the President and all the Palm d'Or winners were there. Then I have done Buena Vista Social Club with him. Now we are talking about his next film as well.

Yes, I have a history of working with Wim. Another director I have worked a lot with is David Lynch. I have done Lost Highway, Twin Peaks and several television shows with David. I tend to work repeatedly with the same directors because you tend to get used to their style and they tend to get used to your style.

What do you think of the reception your Hindi film Bhopal Express got in India?

I must say that I was really disappointed. It did not get the reception it deserved. It was received far better abroad. It was written about in Time and Billboard. In fact it is the only Hindi movie to get a music review in Billboard. It is most unfortunate that given the subject matter, people in India were not able to embrace it and get behind it.

The whole idea of making such a movie was that it was based on a massive tragedy that occurred and we let it slip by. If such a tragedy had occurred anywhere else, a much bigger deal would have been made. But since it happened in a Third World country, it was forgotten.

The whole idea behind the movie was that we should create awareness about the tragedy and how we should look at things and make sure that such a tragedy does not happen again. Multinationals will always come to a country like ours because of cheap technical labour here. But we should make them realise that they can't get away with such things.

I had hoped people would get behind the cause, but I guess there is so much trouble and misery around in our daily lives that people want to see something else on the screen. I had hoped that at least the intelligentsia would embrace the film. We make movies and we don't know whether people will like them or not. When we finished Beuna Vista Social Club no one wanted to buy it. But today it's the highest grossing documentary of all times.

Why do you think Buena Vista... turned out to be such a huge hit?

If you see that movie you will realise that it is so life-affirming. It is about these old people who were such great musicians of their time, but have been forgotten over the years. One had become a boot polisher, another had stopped singing, and so on. But then Ry Cooder, who got the Grammy with our own Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, went there and got all of them together. They are all in their seventies and eighties, but so full of life. You say to yourself, 'God, if I could be as lively as they are when I grow old it would be wonderful'. Then they are so good and so talented that you root for them. You want to support them.

Are you going to release Buena Vista in India?

I did not think of doing so until you told me that during the International Film Festival in New Delhi the hall was packed. It suddenly occurred to me that you are right and I should release the film in India. I guess I was so disappointed by the performance of Bhopal Express that I discarded India and shut it out of my mind. But you are right, I should not do that. I am now going to release it in July or August.

What are your future plans? Which movies are you working on and with whom?

Well, currently Million Dollar Hotel is going to be released in the United States. Then I am working with Gurinder Chadha. She has an Indian background. She made a film called Bhaji On The Beach followed by What's Cooking which opened the Sundance festival. We are working on a film called Bend It Like Beckham. It is a story about a young Indian girl who has a dream and aspires to be a soccer player.

[David] Beckham is a famous soccer player and his speciality is that he makes his corner kicks bend into the goal. This Indian girl wants to adopt that style. It is a story of her growing up, a coming-of-age kind of story. It is a wonderful comedy, which we will start making in August.

Then there is another movie I am doing called Seriously. It is a comedy to be directed by Neal Israel who is famous for scripting Police Academy, Look Who's Talking and Bachelor Party, which he also directed. Seriously is about an undercover cop who is a very serious person, but he is given the gift of humour by his father as he is dying. This cop is actually a serious man, but he has these stand-up lines. So he is a reluctant comedian. It is a physical comedy.

Lastly, I promised to make a film in Hindi with this young, first-time Indian director. It is called Box and is also a comedy. It is about what happens to a small village when a colour television comes there. So I am doing three comedies.

Any particular reason why you are doing only comedies?

I think it is good to give people a reason to laugh. My last film, Bhopal Express, was a grim tragedy. So you can make films about subjects you feel you are socially responsible for, but on the other side you can also make films to make people laugh. I am not a morbid filmmaker. Perhaps I am more geared to comedies now because the films I have made so far are of the serious kind.

Are you not planning to make a film on your uncle Kuldip Nayar's book on Bhagat Singh?

Yes, yes, my uncle and I have been teasing each other about wanting to do a feature film together. Being the famous writer he is, I wondered how come I have not been able to benefit from him. The thing is that he has not written any book that can be converted into a movie. But the last time I was here for the release of Bhopal..., he told me that he is writing a book on Bhagat Singh and gave me a synopsis of the story. I read it. It is fantastic. So we are talking about doing it together. Right now we are negotiating. He is a tough negotiator. He wants his money's worth. No, I am just kidding [laughs].

What is it that makes you a successful producer?

One of the biggest things directors want is the faith that you will support them and give them what they want when they are shooting. They don't want constant bickering about money and costs. They have to believe in you. They want a friend when they are on the sets. It is also about getting together and being able to connect creatively. You have to share the director's vision. You have to be with them in sink-or-swim situations.

My attitude has always been that of seeing the glass half-full. This automatically helps solve a lot of problems. You have to support your director creatively because, after all, it is the director's vision that helps make a film. So you should not see each thing that he throws at you as a problem because then you may be cutting down a creative process.

Why is it that you have started working with first-time directors?

Well, they are the future, aren't they? I learnt that by working with Wim, David, Jane Campion, Mika Kurasmaki and some of the finest directors in the world. The younger generation has to come up and if I can impart something that I have learnt from these directors to the younger people, then why not do so? I can help them become better. One of the Indian directors I am talking to is Tarsem who is probably among the top three commercial directors in the world. We are talking about a project. The younger directors feel comfortable sharing their vision with me because they believe I can make it a reality for them.

You went to Bombay to be an actor. Now that you are also doing films in Hindi, do you ever think of being in front of the camera?

[Laughs] When I started out in 1980, after 13 days of being an actor I said, 'Oh my god, if I have to make a living I should give up acting.' Now I enjoy being behind the camera. I have been asked to play some cameo roles, but I never had the time. Producing takes so much time. We are always planning ahead for two to three films. And it takes so much energy that you cannot think of going in front of the camera. And directors appreciate that. So my acting days are over. But, but if there is really a major offer, I might think about it, but then I am losing all my hair, so I doubt that will happen.

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