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‘I grew up on Bengali films’

Tête à tête

Neeraj Pandey’s spiffy office is a film buff’s idea of paradise. Posters and slogans line the walls — with little-known quotations from cine masters. The secret to a film is that it is an illusion: George Lucas (says one). Every cut is a lie. But you are telling a lie in order to tell the truth: Wolf Koenig (says another). Even the reception area is full of references to films. Pandey, clearly, eats, breathes and sleeps cinema.

The 38-year-old director of the critically acclaimed A Wednesday is now working on his new film, Special Chhabees. If the last film centred on the theme of terrorism and came in the aftermath of the 2006 Mumbai bombings, the new venture is about a daring heist that took place in the city in 1987 when a man, posing as a Central Bureau of Investigation agent, recruited 26 people, entered a big jewellery store and left after pocketing jewels worth lakhs of rupees.

“I was caught by the sheer audacity of this man and the way he got away with it. It is an interesting and entertaining story,” says Pandey, comfortably attired in a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and sports shoes. “There is no message or anything like that — it just happens to be a great story.”

Pandey knows about stories because he is one of the few directors in Bollywood who work on their scripts without a battery of storywriters. “I don’t partner well when it comes to writing,” he says blandly. But there are not many like him, I point out. “I am sure there are others,” he replies. Asked to name a few, he looks lost.

That’s not surprising — the director is known in the industry as a modest man. Reticent by nature — though articulate — he likes to maintain a low profile. He rarely gives interviews — as he points out to me — but stresses that he has made an exception for The Telegraph. “I grew up with this paper,” says the Howrah boy, who studied at St Aloysius and St Thomas’s.

With his glasses, he looks like a serious student working on a PhD. But Pandey hastens to add that he was not academically inclined — a fact that was duly noted by his father, who originally came from Bihar and worked for Bosch in Calcutta. The senior Pandey pushed his son towards reading, instilling in him an everlasting love for books.

“My father’s office was on Park Street and there was this Oxford lending library there back then which was my haunt. So I would read all kinds of books, the corny ones and the thrillers. Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock, the Hardy Boys, everything. I was a huge fan of Asterix and Tintin comics too.”

By the time he was 14 or 15, he was into serious reading. Soon he was watching films with a passion too. “A friend got VHS cassettes from the West. We saw Jaws and the Spielberg films, Indiana Jones, classics such as Citizen Kane and Dr Zhivago — it was a weird mix of good stuff and commercial films,” he recalls.

Pandey, who went on to study English literature in Delhi, says that by the time he was in his early twenties he knew he wanted to be in the television and film business. “I discovered that I could write reasonably well. I was interested in writing something and then recreating it visually,” he says, explaining why he didn’t think of journalism as a career.

Like thousands of others with a dream in their hearts, he tried for a place in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune — but “didn’t qualify”. In hindsight, he says an FTII background is no longer an essential qualification for someone in the film business. “I am not saying this because I am not from FTII. But there are lots of filmmakers who have not studied filmmaking. Now with so many movies freely and easily available on the Internet and on DVDs, you can do your studying. I really believe learning on the job is great.”

Pandey went on to work on a telefilm for Doordarshan. Called Manush, it touched on the trouble brewing in Kashmir. After that came the telefilm Ittefaq, which he directed for Zee TV. Still, the journey from Manush to A Wednesday took close to a decade.

“It has been an exciting journey and I am still learning. There is so much to learn — new technology, new formats, new storytelling, new-age content.”

His first script, a love story, never got made. His second script was a romantic comedy that’s still to take shape. A Wednesday, which came after Ittefaq, was his fourth script. The name that he’d made for himself in the television circuit with Ittefaq helped Pandey get funding for A Wednesday. Produced by Anjum Rizvi and UTV, the film got him the Indira Gandhi national award for the best first film of a director. The 2008 thriller is still recalled for the sterling performances of Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher.

“I recall that night,” he now says, referring to the day of the blasts. “The blasts happened during peak hours and I reached home and saw the news.”

The film, he says, is not an “instructional” manual. But it has a cinematic climax that few can forget. “The climax actually triggered the movie. I worked backwards from the climax when I wrote the story.”

When he writes, Neeraj Pandey closets himself in a secluded location and prefers not to be in touch with anybody. He takes four to five days to write a script. And there is generally a twist in the tale. It is the germ and the DNA of an issue that makes him write a story, he says. “Stories excite me.”

The script for Special Chhabees — slated for release early next year — is ready, and shooting has begun. The film, he points out, was conceived four years ago as a television mini series. “But somehow all the television channels seemed to have scrapped the stand-alone slots. So I took the story to the large screen and revived the project.” He chose Akshay Kumar to play the lead role, he says, because “he is immensely disciplined. He is a great listener and he is a delight to work with.”

Pandey is now planning to make movies out of the first and second scripts that he wrote. His company, Friday Filmworks — which he runs with his partner, Shital Bhatia — has produced a Marathi film, Taryanche Bait, exploring the relationship between a father and his son. And the company is now looking at producing a Bengali film. “I grew up on Bengali films,” he says with a hint of nostalgia.

Does he think his new venture will be as much of a success as A Wednesday was? “I never thought about success,” he says.

Samuel Goldwyn’s words — up on a board — seem to second that. “If I were in this business only for the business, I wouldn’t be in this business,” he says.