At a resto-bar in Andheri, Agneya Singh paces from one table to another. Days before his film M Cream releases on July 22, the writer-director juggles his time between journalists. A graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Agneya started working on the film in 2012. He was only 22 at the time. Starring Imaad Shah and Ira Dubey, M Cream has already won 10 awards and has been to 30 film festivals. Warm, affable and with a politeness that accentuates his American accent, Agneya talks about the making of his film, Udta Punjab and his own liberal stand on drug consumption.
Excerpts from his conversation with Film Companion –
You were 22 when you first started shooting. Where did the idea for this film stem from?
When I was in high school, I had heard of the urban legend of M Cream, a magical drug in the Himalayas. I thought it was an interesting premise for a larger story about the youth of India today.
How did the cast come on board?
We didn’t have a casting director. It was a very organic process. My sister knew Imaad and she was also the costume designer on the film. She read the script and said, “Have you thought of Imaad? I think he would be perfect for this role.” And I think similarly with Ira, someone had recommended her. We sent her the script and she was very encouraging. The character she plays is partly inspired by Joan Baez, someone with resolve and inner strength.
You’ve said in interviews that you believe cinema should be used as a weapon for revolution. What revolution are you aiming for with M Cream?
It’s a very subtle revolution. A lot of people are thinking it’s about legalisation [of cannabis] but I think that’s just a part of it. For me, it’s more about a generation of young people waking up to the world around them, realising that they have a voice, and finding the courage to express that voice. I think if there is going to be any change, it’s going to come from the youth.
You’ve said that doing this film meant taking a lot of risks. Could you elaborate more on that?
It was risky in the sense that we’re doing it without any ‘stars’. We have a lot of great actors but they’re all from the theatre and an independent film background. A lot of studios said, “You’re not doing it with any Khan. So how does that work?” And then there’s the subject. It’s controversial. This is probably the first film that is taking a new stand on drugs. Udta Punjab – a lot of people have been talking about that. But that was very much about heroin and cocaine. Those drugs are of course bad for you and the film was showing them to be a menace in Punjab. Our film is trying to show the experimental side of the youth. Personally, I think that marijuana should be decriminalised even though the film doesn’t take a position. But it shows it in a very neutral way.
So, Udta did show drugs to be a menace and there was a lot of controversy around it. How does that impact your film? I know you aren’t advocating the use of drugs but you also aren’t condemning it …
The fact of the matter is there are those two drugs – heroin and cocaine – and they are very dangerous and they WILL kill you. You can overdose on it. Marijuana? Not so much. People need to draw that distinction. It’s unfair to club all these drugs together. M Cream is a more controversial film because it’s neutral on the use of drugs.
What did you think of Udta Punjab? Did you like it?
I did. I think five to ten years ago, a film like Udta Punjab would never have been made. I think there’s a new audience in India today that wants to see films that are entertaining but also have some depth to them. And I think filmmakers are responding to that.
Do you smoke marijuana?
Of course! I have no qualms about it and I don’t feel that it should be clubbed in the same field as heroin or cocaine or anything like that. We had this graphic that we put out where we’ve shown that caffeine cause 5,000 deaths a year. Marijuana causes zero.
The stoner culture today is only gaining more momentum. Did you expect that when you wrote this film in 2012?
I think that a lot of filmmakers say, “Oh I wrote this a couple of years back and now it’s dated.” But for me, this is even more relevant today. It kind of foreshadowed something. I’m a clairvoyant perhaps. *laughs*
You’ve won accolades such as the Grand Jury Prize at the Rhode Island International Film festival among many others. How does that feel?
It’s been wonderful. Every time you show the film to a new audience, you see it from their perspective and that was very interesting. I remember a screening in Upstate New York at the Film Columbia Festival where we were the only Indian production. The audience was more of an older American audience in their ’50s and I really didn’t know how it was going to go. But they loved it.
The film has been passed without any cuts. How did that happen?
So what happened is that we began our festival circuit in 2014, so we got a censor certification at that time. The CBFC was under a different chairperson – Leela Samson. Then we actually had a longer cut that we wanted to release in India. But after the Udta controversy, we decided against it.