Filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey grew up on Hindi films but as he gravitated towards a life in the movies, he educated himself in the art form by discovering the best voices from across the globe. Here he lists some of the filmmakers he’s studied closely and been inspired by. There are films here that subconsciously inspired his own movies like Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya and Ishqiya. A lot of Chaubey’s picks are movies that took creative risks with its storytelling. “I don’t like filmmakers who don’t have ambition. It’s okay to make a mistake, but at least dream,” he says.
Chungking Express (1994)
Director: Wong Kar-wai
I must have seen this before my days in Mumbai. The first thing that I felt after watching this film was that this is the most romantic film I have seen in my life. This was also the first Wong Kar-wai film I saw. I was completely mesmerised. I had not seen something like that before. This film also had certain thriller and noir elements to it. And it has an amazing soundtrack.
A Man and a Woman (1966)
Director: Claude Lelouch
Again, this was a hardcore romantic film. There is a reason why I have written A Man And A Woman following Chungking Express – there is something about the rhythm and style of this film which reminds me of Wong Kar-wai’s style. It has some beautiful sequences and again, a great soundtrack. It is a deceptively simple story and you totally root for the couple and you want them to be together. It is a deeply emotional film without stating too much.
Director: Ingmar Bergman
I think this would be in many filmmakers’ lists. It is almost a cliché. Bergman is, according to me, a genius director and an unreachable talent. I love each one of his films. I must have seen this film about 20 years ago when I just started out in Bombay. I saw it with my friends late into the night and we kept talking about it. Everyone had a different take on the film. Nobody was right and nobody was wrong and that, I think, is a singular achievement. It has got some of the most iconic imagery I have seen in any film, especially the scene in which you feel like the characters have interchanged. I never went to a film school and watching films like these was my film school.
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Satya was the first film I saw in Mumbai. I was just fresh off the boat and as raw as you can be. I was an RGV fan even before that because I loved Rangeela. The style of Satya and the way the story is told is something that we can take for granted now but way back then, few filmmakers straddled the mainstream and the arthouse successfully. Satya was completely original. The long steadicam takes that the film had were things we had not seen anywhere and that edginess blew me away. I can still watch this film even today.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Director: David Lynch
When I was a few years younger, David Lynch was my favourite director. Lynch does this thing when he starts the scene – you get the essence of the film. I remember the opening scene of Blue Velvet. It starts with a perfect setting and you have a lovely song and then the guy has the heart attack and things start going a little bit the other way. Lynch set the scene so well because everything is beautiful, everything is perfect, then this lady is watching television and you see a gun in it and from that point, things start taking a turn. The guy has a heart attack, the dog starts going nuts and the camera goes under and under and reaches inside the grass and you see little trickles. It tells you what the film is about.
The Conversation (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
My go-to era of filmmaking is 70s Hollywood. I think something happened to the Americans in the 70s and they produced so many wonderful classics. Look at Coppola, he made four all-time great films. He made The Conversation in the middle of the two Godfathers which is a thriller and is so understated. It is a relevant film because it talks about surveillance and privacy being invaded.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Again, another romance. PTA is one of my most favourite directors of my time. I somehow miss his late 90s/early 2000s energy. He was a little more accessible back then. Punch-Drunk Love is special because after Boogie Nights, to follow it up with this sweet romance is incredible. This film has really good sequence designing. I love the sequence in which Adam Sandler is going completely nuts in the warehouse. The background score builds tension and the take is really long, the camera is running behind them, and then the accident happens, and the pianos come in. It is a beautifully constructed film with a great soundtrack.
Director: Woody Allen
I saw Zelig at a friend’s place and it was really amazing to see something like that. Zelig made me think: How can somebody even write something like this? How do you do this? What is this skill? I don’t know how to do this. I have not seen this film since then. Woody Allen has this crazy sense of humour and there are so many sequences in which you just literally fall off your chair. This is Woody Allen’s genius at its peak.
Straw Dogs (1971)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Straw Dogs was an immensely controversial picture when it came out. It has got a long rape scene and one could have a very misogynist reading of it. Peckinpah was a man’s man but his filmmaking sense was absolutely top-notch. His films were well-made and well-acted. A lot of people talked about the rights of manhood around this film, but for me the idea was about courage. For me, it was about what it would take to break a man. It poses a lot of questions.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Nicolas Roeg is a very under-watched and under-loved director. Don’t Look Now is a horror film. It is set in Venice and the main guy is an architect who restores old buildings. I am a big horror fan and hope to make a horror film soon. Grief invites a sense of horror or fear and this film does that really well. How Roeg builds his sequences and then smash cuts a few months into the future is brilliant. This film plays at a psychological level but is also an unabashed ghost story. Horror is a very maligned genre, it is relegated to the ‘B’ movie category. But I think it is a genre which can be best expressed through movies.
Director: Satyajit Ray
This was a very difficult choice because in that era of Satyajit Ray’s filmmaking, he could do no wrong. It had to be either Mahanagar or Pratidwandi because I really like his Calcutta films. But I chose Mahanagar because it was made even before Charulata and I think it’s one of Ray’s most feminist films, and he does it without any loud noise, very subtly, very gently, and with great empathy for the characters.
Director: Park Chan-wook
Oldboy blew my mind when I saw it. It is a bloody exciting film. It is a mix of genres – sometimes it becomes a pulpy comic book, which it is based on, and sometimes it can become really serious. What the antagonist and the protagonist are fighting for is serious and somewhere in between, it has a dose of humour. I like movies that are out there and break some rules and have fun. I, as a filmmaker, like to have fun too.
Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
Director: Andrzej Wajda
I saw this back when IFFI used to happen in Delhi, before it shifted to Goa. We were still in the second year of college and this was my first-ever film festival. I saw it there and knew nothing of Polish history. Despite having seen only Hindi films and five Hollywood films at that time, I was so moved and deeply engaged by this film. It is high melodrama but Wajda does it very well and it works as a very good thriller as well. Even without any context, you are completely engaged.
Morvern Callar (2002)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Morvern Callar is the name of the heroine in the film. My only grudge with Lynne Ramsey is that she’s made very few films. She is a phenomenal filmmaker. I am hungry for more films from her. The film is about grief as the story is about a girl dealing with the death of her boyfriend. I think the boyfriend kills himself and what she chooses to do is totally unexpected. I still remember being completely surprised by how this woman goes about it. Early on, the director sets up the film in such a way that you dislike this woman but when you go on that journey with her, you connect and it’s fascinating. I don’t know whether she is taking revenge on the boyfriend or dealing with his death, you can’t say.
The Piano Teacher (2001)
Director: Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke is arguably the greatest living director right now. Haneke’s preoccupation has been dark films. He has dealt with how we think of ourselves and he plays with the audience’s psychology. Apart from Amour, which is almost like a conventional romance, this film is also a sort of romance about this woman who really fancies this piano teacher. She has this other side to her personality – she is into bondage and practices self-mutilation. It is a great character study of this woman. Most of us have a private life but most of us don’t have such a secret life so it is really hard to relate. But this film can make you relate to this woman.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Obviously if we talk about Scorsese, it has to be about Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. I chose this film because it is a very special film. It is the only film he has made which has a female protagonist. Scorsese has spent his life making movies about deeply flawed people with a dark side. This is a very gentle film. It doesn’t have a very tight plot, it is very easygoing, and it has got its tongue in cheek. I kind of miss that side of his and he hasn’t done that enough. It has an easy vibe but is still not frivolous.
High And Low (1963)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
I love police procedural films as a genre. The moral conflict Kurosawa builds in this film is that a businessman’s driver’s son gets kidnapped by mistake and he has to sacrifice his company to free the child. Another thing that is special is that this is more of an interior film. There are many scenes with multiple characters in a room, but it is impeccably blocked. The blocking, framing and the compositions are fantastic. As directors we struggle to keep every actor in frame when we are shooting scenes with multiple characters in a scene. But in this film, just the positioning of the characters in the frame can tell you what their relationships are.
The French Connection (1971)
Director: William Friedkin
This is again 70s Hollywood. When you watch The French Connection from today’s perspective, what will surprise you is the technique. The way the film has been shot almost feels like it is today. Everything feels so real and ageless. It has got a classic hard-boiled action thriller plot. But just the telling of the story, the manner in which he does it feels so real and so visceral. Friedkin is one of the masters of set pieces.
The Passenger (1975)
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Antonioni and Bergman are two of my favourite European filmmakers from that era. This film deals with the issue of personal identity. Someone steals someone’s identity and then there is this beautiful love story which is abstract. The film comes together so beautifully in the end, somewhere in Africa. There is a famous last shot which goes on and on and on.
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
The Coen Brothers are filmmakers that I forever try to imitate. A lot of critics say a lot of filmmakers are inspired by Tarantino. I don’t think Tarantino inspires us as much as the Coen Brothers do. Fargo has a difficult mid-western dialect which is difficult for people to understand. More than the plot and theme, I think, when you give people a sense of time and space and characters in that world, you don’t need to say your film is about this or that. Fargo has some beautiful characters, beautiful writing, and you have so much evil lurking around in the film. I think it is their best.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Director: Brian De Palma
Dressed to Kill is a slasher film. The film doesn’t have artistic intentions. I love this movie especially because of the set piece sequences and impeccable design. I was really blown away by it. It’s very entertaining and very inspired by Hitchcock. In fact, Angie Dickinson’s death in the film will remind you of Psycho.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Don’t we all love this film? Any good film list will have a Kubrick in there. This is the only comedy he made in his life. It’s actually loosely based on a book called Red Alert, which is a serious book. It took Kubrick’s genius to see it as a satire. I hope to make a political film some day and the only genre I can think of is satire because it’s the most effective. Peter Sellers is fantastic in this film. He did three roles in the film and that was not by Kubrick’s choice, I believe. The studio put pressure on him and said that they will greenlight the film only if Sellers does 3-4 parts. He had done multiple roles before in movies.
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
This is a rite of passage, you just have to watch it. It’s also Godard’s most accessible film – it’s a romance and also a thriller – the rest are totally arthouse. What was so special about Godard and his contemporaries like Truffaut is that they took cinemas outside the studio. Before that, films were shot at these huge sets. Godard shot this film on the streets of Paris but without permission. Breathless is about 60 years old and it doesn’t feel dated. It’s a beautiful love story. And there is a trailer of this film which is one of the best-cut movie trailers you’ll ever see. It should be available online somewhere.
The Third Man (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
The way this film has been shot is beautiful. Some of the images are unforgettable. It’s very expressionistic. Orson Welles has acted in this film. His character is there throughout but we see him only in the third act of the film. There is a spectacular introduction shot in which he’s hiding in an alley. I jumped up in my seat.
Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)
Director: Sergio Leone
This is as Western as you can be. This is a film that my entire crew saw before we shot Sonchiriya. A lot of the images from this movie have inspired Sholay too. Action is an integral part of a Western, but a great action movie is one that builds up to the action scenes and this film gets that beautifully. Each and every shot has so much detail and designing. I saw it in 2004 with my friends. I remember we were up all night talking about it.
Director: Roman Polanski
It’s a neo-noir. It’s interesting that I instinctively listed this and the Sergio Leone film one after the other because they both have inspired Sonchiriya subconsciously. Chinatown is impeccably directed and it hasn’t dated.
Let The Right One In (2008)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
It’s so bloody well written that I can’t get it out of my head. Economy is something that is very important to writers and this is a great example of how you can tell the best possible story in the least amount of time. Usually, a film is over a couple of scenes before it actually ends. The last few scenes are these other loose ends we have to take care of. But this is one story in which the story doesn’t get over until the last shot.
Memories of Murder (2003)
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Now the whole world knows who Bong Joon Ho is. But if I had to pick one film by him it would be Memories of Murder. There are police procedurals and then there is this film. I think it is loosely based on a true story. The film talks a lot about how Korea changed in the 80s when the economic revolution hadn’t happened. Today it’s a much richer country. So this is not just a suspenseful film, it’s also a document of the times, and that’s why it is the best example of how procedurals can be done.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam has been a huge influence on me. There was a time when I just wanted to be like him. He’s a lateral thinking director, he doesn’t think straight. His imagination and the way he sees the world is very unique. He speaks about an autocratic society and it’s especially relevant now. The film has some crazy stuff and it’s meant to be a dystopia. There is this scene in which Jonathan Pryce is eating somewhere and across the street, there is a bomb blast. Everyone turns their head for a minute and then just goes back to their meal because such acts of violence are normal and commonplace. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, we are not far from it. So it’s a visionary film.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Director: Robert Altman
This is based on Raymond Chandler’s book of the same name. Altman is a great director and very inspirational to me because not only did he make great films, he made a lot of great films. It’s a great career. He started somewhere in the late 60s and his last film came out after he died. This is just one of the great films he’s made. I had to think really hard to pick one.
Le Samourai (1967)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville inspired masters like Truffaut and Chabrol. Le Samourai is arguably his best, and definitely the coolest of his filmography. It’s very stylish and very spare at the same time. Aesthetically of a very high standard, yet a genre film – the way I like it best.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
The main poster of this film has this girl staring out of a car. This inspired the first poster of Ishqiya which had Vidya Balan leaning out of a car. This is a film in which nothing really happens. The camera is put in just one place and the characters are just walking in and out of the frame. So in that way, it’s very different from the other films in this list. But the film has an ironic ending that keeps you thinking. You wonder if this is a romance or not.
Director: Buddhadeb Dasgupta
It’s an amazing film. I don’t know why it’s not talked about enough. It’s about these two wrestlers in Jharkhand and their lives. It touches upon various things like religious fundamentalists. It’s quite a thrilling film and it has a sense of danger to it, but because of the way it is shot, it’s got a fairytale kind of a feel. It’s extremely moving.
Director: Emir Kusturica
This is his masterpiece. In typical Kusturica style, everything in the film is heightened. It’s got great imagery, it’s funny in places, and gets farcical at times. What is most incredible about this film is its sheer ambition. I love that. I don’t like filmmakers who don’t have ambition. It’s okay to make a mistake, but at least dream. This man manages to tell the entire history of his country – in this case Yugoslavia – in nearly three hours.
Point of Order (1964)
Director: Emile de Antonio
It’s the most unique entry here. It’s not actually a film. It’s about the Senate Army – McCarthy hearings of 1954. This was the moment that led to McCarthy’s downfall. Emile took footage of the on-camera trial and just edited it. It’s as gripping as any thriller and tells you the power of editing because just by using the footage, he makes the point that he wants to make.
Sara Akash (1969)
Director: Basu Chatterjee
It’s an incredible film but very under watched. It is shot in Agra and there is an authenticity to the setting and the language they are speaking. I was quite taken with it because using local languages is something I’ve always done. I saw this film when I was in college and remember thinking, ‘This can also be done.’ It’s a funny film. It’s about this guy who has just finished class 12 and he’s an idealist. He wants to change the world, be a revolutionary, but under pressure from his family, he’s married off. This film has a lot of flash forward cuts and jump cuts, done really well.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
I don’t know what to say about this film! The less said the better. Everyone knows it’s phenomenal. All I can add is that the first time I saw it, I didn’t understand jack. Then a year later, I read the script, that’s when I got it and then I saw the film again.
Garm Hava (1974)
Director: MS Sathyu
This is another film that’s very true to its setting. Sathyu is relentless with the melodrama. He doesn’t go easy on it. But there’s a point to it and this film speaks a lot to what our country is dealing with today.
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Film buffs have all seen this. What’s so incredible about it is the style. It’s set in the late 50s and even when you watch it now, it feels like a film of today. Whatever rules of cinema were written until then, these guys just shredded them to pieces and reinvented storytelling.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Director: Terry Jones
I’m a huge Monty Python fan. When I’m feeling low or upset about something, I just watch Monty Python videos on YouTube. Some of the films that they made had serious cinematic chops, apart from being humorous. Apart from the fact that this film is uproariously funny, what I remember is how it makes fun of Christianity.