"Technically if I make a movie with Arjun Rampal, I'm no longer legit as an indie filmmaker", jokes Ashim Ahluwalia, the filmmaker most known for his debut fiction feature Miss Lovely (2012). Set in the C-grade horror-sex industry, Miss Lovely garnered ample festival buzz and screened at international festivals like Cannes, Toronto and Rotterdam. The National Award-winning film also gave Nawazuddin Siddiqui his first lead role.
Five years later, Ahluwalia is back with his second feature Daddy, based on the life of Mumbai gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli. Gawli, who turned to crime during the strikes and lock-outs in the mill industry in the 70s, was eventually convicted along with 11 others for the murder of Shiv Sena MLA Kamlakar Jamsandekar and sentenced to life imprisonment. Co-written and starring Arjun Rampal, the film will cover many aspects of Gawli's life from his ascent in the mafia world to his relationship with his family.
In a conversation with Film Companion, the filmmaker talks about his directing style, how he creates a tense environment on-set and why he likes taking time between projects. Excerpts:
Your films are known to oscillate between genre pieces. John and Jane (2005) had a blend of observational documentary and fiction. Miss Lovely (2012) was meant to be a documentary before it became a heavily-stylized fiction. Does Daddy follow in the same vein?
Very much. I'm very interested in auteur cinema. And I really like genre. They're two polar opposites. Here, I'm technically making a "Bollywood" film but I'm making it as a very aware director. I'm making Daddy in relation to films I saw as a kid – Parveen Babi, Mithun and early Bachchan films. But at the same time, Daddy has a Japanese crime vibe. It's a combination of all these creepy elements. And it's set in the Maharashtrian milieu. It has a lot of realism that comes from my documentary background. It is very stylized.
Biopics are tricky to pull off. In addition to that, your film is based on someone who is still living. How does that change things as a writer?
It is, to put it mildly, a very scary thought. On many levels. Not just because you may upset someone but because you're responsible to him (Arun Gawli) and his family. He opened himself up. You have to be really careful because there are a lot of cases that are still open.
I don't really like biopics because I've always felt that I get this fake portrayal of someone presented to me as authentic. I don't want to represent Gawli's point of view. There are many points of view and then the audience can make up their minds about him. You leave with a portrait of a real human being.
Real-life gangsters have been represented on-screen before in films like Mani Ratnam's Nayakan and Shootout At Wadala. How is Arun Gawli's story unique?
He's one of the biggest dons in India and was the first to actually be formally arrested. Yet we don't know much about him. We've seen him in a cap and a kurta and have an image of him as a politician. But he's had an incredibly complex life including relationships with Dawood (Ibrahim). He's a myth. He's a folk hero. He represented the interests of a lot of Maharashtrians from that area. His story is intrinsic to this city and how it operates. It's very rooted.
Arjun Rampal told us that every director has a rhythm and that yours is a 'rhythm of chaos'. He said that on-set you pay attention to the minutiae and can make the atmosphere magical. Talk to me about your process of working with actors.
I watch a lot of films and often get the sense that the filmmaker knows nothing about that world. It's just wallpaper. In the case of my work, I really want to feel like I know the environment before I can direct people in it.
The chaos begins with the fact that I don't work with a specifically bound script or traditional casting. I want to shoot in Kamathipura in a whorehouse and they've never had a film shoot there. There are real gangsters running it. I feel like this is perfect for a scene. The main actor is on edge because he's on a real location, in clothes locally bought from the bazaar, and aged, and he's in prosthetics. And now you have to perform! The environment brings the tension. It's group hypnosis!
Miss Lovely came out 7 years after John and Jane. And it's been 5 years since Miss Lovely. Why does it take you long to get projects off the ground?
I don't want to leave behind 60 films that nobody wants to watch. I make films for myself predominantly. Filmmaking is not my primary source of income. It's a love affair, not a job. I'm making a living because I direct commercials. It gives me a lot more freedom with the projects that I pick.
When you put yourself out there and create a space, what happens is when people come to you, they come knowing what you do. There's more respect for the kind of stuff I want to do now. In a way, we have to re-establish the culture of the director in this industry.