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A new direction
Filmmaker Vijay Lalwani

Director Vijay Lalwani is going through the last few days of nail-biting tension. His first feature film Karthik Calling Karthik is scheduled to release on February 26 and the dapper 31-year-old director admits he has the jitters like never before. “Though I’ve made lots of ad films, directing my first feature film was a different sort of high,” says Lalwani who, at first glance, looks as if he belongs more to the boardroom than Bollywood.

Swivel the camera in a different direction and zoom in on Abhinay Deo, another ad filmmaker turned first-time director. Deo’s heading into relatively unknown territory by releasing an English film Delhi Belly, a comedy made under the Aamir Khan Films banner. He’s also currently working on a tight schedule because he’s just started shooting another film Crooked.

Deo’s a veteran of the advertising world and has shot over 400 ad films but he freely admits that making a feature film is an entirely different ballgame. “I always wanted to direct a full-fledged commercial film and today I have no regrets,” he says.

As Bollywood breaks free of the formulaic mould, there’s a flood of smart new directors with fresh ideas who can deliver hits in an increasingly competitive market. The new aces making their debut behind the lens include ad filmmakers, one-time assistant directors, journalists and even actors who can give a different twist to the New Age tales that are coming to the screen.

Abhinay Deo’s first movie is an English comedy called Delhi Belly, made under the Aamir Khan Films banner
Pix: Gajanan Dudhalkar

One man who isn’t afraid to experiment is actor-producer-director Farhan Akhtar. He’s the man who hired Lalwani and gave him a brief to come up with something different and he also hired Deo to make Crooked, a thriller starring Abhishek Bachchan. Says Akhtar: “Today, film-making is no longer about mindless entertainment. It is about breaking formulas and exploring new ground. As a producer I want to make a platform available for all these new faces who can tell exciting stories on a variety of topics.”

The new directors bring different styles and talents to the arena. Look at Abhishek Chaubey who’s basking in the success of his debut film Ishqiya, starring Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi. Chaubey worked with Vishal Bhardwaj and some of his mentor’s gritty style has rubbed off on him. He has several offers to direct new movies but is taking a break before making any final decisions.

At an entirely different level there’s theatre-person Amit Rai whose movie Road to Sangam (made on a shoe-string budget of Rs 6 crore) with Paresh Rawal has been critically acclaimed — though it didn’t do well at the box office partly because it opened in the same week of Amitabh Bachchan starrer Rann. Rai is undeterred. He says: “I am already working on my second script which is to do with spiritualism. My focus will now be on cinema because that’s what I was always passionate about.”

Abhishek Chaubey has hit the bull’s eye with his very first film, Ishqiya

These newcomers aren’t afraid to embrace any theme — even if it’s the very antithesis of the Bollywood all-singing and all-dancing formula. Take actor-turned-director Irfan Kamal whose film Thanks Maa (made on budget of Rs 3 crore) revolving around a grim tale of abandoned babies has won rave reviews on the international film festival circuit. The film’s child actor Shams Patel has also picked up the Best Child Artist at the 56th National Film Award. The film was premiered in India at the IFFI, 2008 in Goa and is set for commercial release in March.

Kamal initially tried his luck as an actor in several forgettable Hindi films but he decided to change track after realising that his career was going nowhere in a hurry. He took a sabbatical from acting and instead turned his attention to writing scripts. Finally, he settled on a story about abandoned babies but his idea received a lukewarm reception from the big production houses. It was one of the smaller houses, Quantum Films which finally agreed to back the movie. The film has, inevitably, been compared to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire but Kamal insists that, “the script was written much before Boyle’s Slumdog and the film was premiered in 2008.”

And it is not just Indian filmmakers who are making a foray into Bollywood. Take for instance, British filmmaker John Owen who’s ready with his debut film in Hindi called Peter Gaya Kaam Se, produced by UTV Motion Pictures. This fast-paced action adventure film has Rajeev Khandelwal and newcomer Lekha Washington in it and is scheduled for release on March 26.

Irfan Kamal’s Thanks Maa is based on the theme of abandoned babies

Owen worked as a promo producer for MTV in London and Hong Kong and later joined Channel V in Mumbai. After a couple of hectic years as creative director and executive producer of Channel V in the early 2000s he wanted to get back to directing. So he took six months off and went to south Goa to detox from corporate life. He explains, “I always fancied coming to India because the richness of commercial cinema in India was mesmerising.”

His break in Goa turned out to be inspirational. He came across many young locals who called themselves ‘taxi pilots’ and who had been corrupted by the drugs and alcohol culture that had become part of the scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Says Owen: “In 2005, I set out to write an out and out action adventure story with a dark film noir-cum-pulp fiction twist. Today, I’m happy and humbled to be given a chance to direct my first Hindi film.” Owen who’s an avid Hindi film fan lives in Mumbai with his Indian wife Ruchi, who’s an ad film-maker.

Anusha Rizvi, a former journalist, is set to release Peepli Live in mid 2010

Other rank outsiders too are getting breaks in Bollywood. Director Anusha Rizvi was a former journalist with NDTV whose debut film Peepli Live made on a medium budget under Aamir Khan Films will be released in mid-2010. The film was shown in January at the Sundance Film Festival in the US and also at the 60th Berlin Film Festival in February. Says an ecstatic Rizvi: “I got in touch with Aamir when he was shooting for The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey. I narrated the script to him and Aamir, who is known to be very choosy with scripts, immediately agreed. We eventually started shooting in 2009 because prior to that Aamir was busy with his other projects like Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots.”

The fact is that many of these new directors are making movies with a social theme. Peepli Live is on farmer suicides and it was shot in Badwai, a village 60km from Bhopal. Rizvi adds: “It is a contemporary Indian story depicting the rural and urban divide.” As for casting, Rizvi has used Dastangos (Urdu storytellers) and actors from rural India.

Most of these first-time directors are full of praise for their producers like Aamir Khan, Farhan Akhtar and Vishal Bhardwaj who’ve often been willing to take bets on relatively offbeat themes. Deo and Rizvi agree that Aamir Khan gave them a free hand in filmmaking.

British filmmaker John Owen is ready with his debut Hindi film Peter Gaya Kaam Se

And Lalwani too is full of praise for Farhan Akhtar who has also acted in Karthik Calling Karthik. “As a producer he understands what directors go through while making films and doesn’t talk like a businessman. As an actor, he was patient enough to understand each and every scene and has a certain sensibility towards acting,” says Lalwani.

Chaubey too has been inspired by Bhardwaj’s style of filmmaking since he was his assistant in films like Makdee, Maqbool and Kaminey. He says: “Vishal’s biggest USP is his dialogues and that worked wonders in Ishqiya. As a producer, he also advised me to work in controlled budgets to make it viable.”

Amit Rai’s Road to Sangam has won critical acclaim
Pix: Rashbehari Das

Almost everybody agrees that marketing the film effectively counts in a big way in super-competitive modern conditions. Says Rai: “Today, I have a bitter commercial experience because my film was not marketed well. Though it had great actors like Paresh Rawal, I feel that even today you need big names to make your film work. Next time, I will be more cautious.”

As for Rizvi’s film Peepli Live, Aamir Khan is already thinking out bigger strategies prior to its India release. For Delhi Belly too Aamir and his team are looking at different ways to publicise the film. Says Deo: “Aamir has an incredible marketing mind and so he will take a final call in marketing the film.”

But breaking into the industry is still a tough proposition — as even the luckier ones will agree. “There are so many new directors waiting to tell an exciting story but not lucky enough to get strong financial backing. But perseverance is the key to success and one needs to go on writing and always have three to four scripts ready,” says Lalwani who used to write through the night so that he always had something to offer prospective producers.

Vijay Lalwani considers himself lucky for having got Farhan Akhtar to back his first feature film, Karthik Calling Karthik

So what’s the future for these smart talented new directors? Lalwani has set up his own production company called Magic Beans and he aims to give a break to other new faces and also direct his next film under his own banner. Owen is focused on making a career in Bollywood. “I am ready to go to the next level. I am already developing a second screenplay,” he says.

Similarly, Deo who is already working on a few scripts will continue making ads under his own banner Ramesh Deo Productions. “Though it is too premature to comment but I want to make a feature film under my banner in future,” he says.

Director Anurag Kashyap sums up the situation: “Whether or not they will be able to bring in the big bucks rolling is not what is important. At least these new faces are ushering in a new Bollywood with more out-of-the-box ideas and filmmaking styles.”

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