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R Balki on George Orwell, humanitarian rights and the Bachchan connect in his films

t2 sat down with the director for a chat before the debate to talk about all things Orwell, cinema, and Amitabh Bachchan

Subhalakshmi Dey Published 25.06.24, 03:24 PM
R Balki chat before 2nd Tolly DebateJune 15 2024

R Balki chat before 2nd Tolly DebateJune 15 2024 Pictures: Pabitra Das

Filmmaker R Balki, the man behind films like Paa, Pad Man, Chup and, more recently, Ghoomer, touched down in Calcutta on June 15 to contribute as a speaker for the motion at the second annual Tolly Club debate, held in association with The Telegraph. The motion, which asked if George Orwell’s classic 1984 was 75 years too early, had Balki sharing his experiences perusing the book, its relevance in contemporary times, and the importance of the media in democracy.

t2 sat down with the director for a chat before the debate to talk about all things Orwell, cinema, and Amitabh Bachchan.


You’re here for the debate tonight. What are you looking forward to the most?

It’s going to be a lot of fun! I re-read the book recently, just to get a feel of it and it doesn’t feel like fiction or dystopia. It was based on the atrocities of Stalin at the time that it was written and what he was trying to say then is truer in many countries, including ours, now. Sometimes I wonder whether everybody’s not caught on to this book, and reading it and figuring out what he was trying to say!

How do you prepare for debates and public speaking engagements, especially on topics related to cinema and literature?

Well, you must be interested in the topic that you’re speaking about, firstly, especially if it’s a debate. And it must be relevant — it must be a topic that can fundamentally engage the audience by its very nature. Second, it’s about you just knowing a few things about the topic and if you’re interested in it, and if you don’t know enough then you have to read up about what it is. For example, today isn’t explicitly going to be Orwellian — it’s not about George Orwell’s novel exactly, it’s about what’s happening in society today. But still, it’s good to just reread the book, because we all read it a very long time ago. Re-reading it was so eerie…but then it’s always hit close to home. It’s very strange but that’s the kind of book it is. We always live in times when rulers try to subvert the people. That’s always been there, across the world, in every country. It’s just the degrees that differ.

The topic today is quite serious and deals with a book that is known to be satire against political propaganda. You will be speaking for the motion — how do you, as a filmmaker, navigate the line between artistic freedom and social responsibility?

See, this is a debate that has gone on for years, and we’ve always treated — in this country especially — people as not being ready to understand artistic freedom as artistic freedom. But I think artistic freedom is freedom in itself and the people don’t always understand or allow it but they should. Every country has to evolve that way. One cannot have barriers.

Like, when A Clockwork Orange was first done, there was an enormous hue and cry but people couldn’t stop it. They tried their best to ban it — it was banned in the US and the US bans are a lot more conservative than Indian ones! But I just feel that it’s time to stop putting barriers on everything. I think we should be allowed to speak, instead of just always feeling that our people are not ready. You must be allowed to speak anything that you want to, and you must trust people’s intelligence to figure things out for themselves. Not everyone is going to be influenced just because I’ve said something. Not everything can be inflammatory. You simply can’t have that in a country like ours.

And it’s a humanitarian freedom to speak, forget about artistes! Human beings can speak. That is a right you cannot take away from them. Because today we’re living in non-Orwellian times. You can’t get away with that kind of stuff anymore. There are just too many people.

A debate is a space for collaboration, creativity and the sharing of ideas. How do you encourage a similar environment on your sets?

What happens in a film is, you come together — it could be your idea, it could be your script, whatever — and you tell that story you’re interested in. The thing that binds all these people together is that one story or that one strip that they’re all working towards. So again, it’s like a mini country in itself, it’s a system. Now if suddenly people start misbehaving on set, then the film goes for a toss.

Now that we’re talking about films, I have to ask about the Ilaiyaraaja biopic, reportedly starring Dhanush. What is the status?

There’s no status! I’m not doing the Ilaiyaraaja biopic! It’s very difficult for me to do a film on somebody who for me is divine. I can’t turn him into a character or a story. I am interested in his music. I am not interested in the story of the person. I am interested in the story of his music. And that may not necessarily be cinematic. I don’t want to do that, I have too much reverence for his music because it has shaped me and my life. I didn’t have the guts to do his biopic!

Do you think it’s a story that ought to be told?

The story actually is genius. The thing is, I don’t know what that story is. He is a man who touches the harmonium or whatever he plays and churns out 10 tunes in five minutes. He’s actually an incredibly divine musician. For me, that’s the story. He is a product of something I don’t understand, and I can’t touch something I don’t understand. I am very close to it but I can’t understand it. It’s like all of us. Any one of us can do a biopic on the achievements of a person but the source of that achievement — unless that source can be a story, the achievement will never become big.

For example, I did Pad Man. I know what he (Arunachalam Muruganantham) did, the source was very easy for me. But here the source is divinity. How can I translate that? I can’t. I hope someone else can. I’m sure there are many good people working on it and I’ll be the first one to watch the film if and when it actually does happen but I don’t know. I could never see him as a film. I can only see him as music.

Would you consider the Amitabh Bachchan connect to be your lucky charm?

How can you say he’s my lucky charm, I am lucky to be working with Bachchan! I’m the lucky one in this scenario! Because, see, who doesn’t want to work with Bachchan? He’s the ultimate, cinema will never get a Bachchan again. I don’t know if there can be a character like Amitabh Bachchan ever again. I call him a character because he’s far bigger than a star. Because he’s Bachchan, he’s a character in himself. We all want to be like him, talk like him… men loved him, women loved him, everyone loved him, and people just went to the screen to see him. And that was special.

He’s transcended everything. Today I know the number of people that go on to make a film great, but while watching Bachchan on screen, I never see the filmmaker. I always just see Bachchan. That is the power of the man. We don’t know how lucky we are to share at least some part of our lives with his. People will write about him later, of course, but they will have missed, not the greatness of him, but the joy of an indescribable connect. I don’t know how many people are going to feel that joy again. I can’t even think of words to put it into.

How was it working with his son in Ghoomer?

Abhishek, to me, has always been one of the most understated actors and the power in his understated-ness is very rare. I keep saying this, he’s one of the most contemporary actors that we have. Unfortunately, a lot of the films that have come his way haven’t worked, or he may not have been right for those themes, but as an urban contemporary actor, he’s damn good. And I’ve worked with him for a long time, too.

Is there a subject you’re itching to make a film on?

If I’ve ever dreamed of doing something, then I’ve done it. Because at that point of time, that subject fascinates me. That’s all I do. So I’m not looking forward to doing anything in particular in that sense. Ideas stay with you and then you develop them, and that’s what I’ve always done.

Is there anything you’ve watched recently that you really liked?

Yes, I watched the Dune films back-to-back just recently, and I absolutely loved them. I never thought I’d like them, which is why I hadn’t watched them before and I waited a long time to finally watch them but I was just engrossed in that world. And I absolutely hated Furiosa (A Mad Max Saga)! I loathed it! Besides those, I watched some Mallu (Malayalam) films and quite liked them. I liked Aavesham very much. Come to think of it, I watched so many wonderful films that I can’t recall now — I’ll remember and tell you!

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