Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, a film about the waning romance with the revolutionary and violent Naxal movement, released in 2005. The same year, the Salwa Judum, a state sponsored vigilante group out to massacre the Naxals, was unleashed along the 'red corridor'- those states with Naxal presence.
Just about a year after the release of the film, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called ministers from these states to Delhi for a meeting where he called the Naxals "the single biggest security challenge ever faced by our country."
Of course a decade later the word Naxal would be liberally used to brand urban liberals. When Sudhir Mishra, the director of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, made this film, one that is deeply sympathetic to the Naxal cause- of villagers feeling alienated, of police brutality, and deep injustice- the word Naxal didn't have any such connotations. But this doesn't mean the film today feels dated. In fact, it is for that very reason the film still has such a huge following.
The film is set in the late 60s and travels through the early 70s to Indira Gandhi's Emergency. It has three principal characters. Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon), born to a rich family, who wants to shed his rich skin, and move to the villages, mounting the revolution he was promised would arrive. His lover, Geeta (Chitrangada Singh), a foreign return, understands this demand for justice, but is not convinced about the demand for violence. But love assuages doubt. There is also Vikram (Shiney Ahuja), a man from the lower echelons of the middle class who wants to emerge on top of the capitalist ladder that Nehru's socialist republic gave way to. His father is a Gandhian socialist, with round glasses, and an entitled air. Vikram is in love with Geeta, and Geeta knows but keeps him around anyways. (Many actresses turned down this part, dismissing Geeta as a 'slut')
To celebrate the fifteenth year since it's release I spoke to its co-writer and director Sudhir Mishra. Following are the edited excerpts.
Where did the idea come from? This is a largely English language film, very political, and it does not even have the pretense of being commercial. This must have been a difficult sell.
As filmmakers we are supposed to make the films only we can make. My background prepared me for this film. My father is a Nehruvian mathematician. I was always in love with that generation that walked away from a certain comfort. It is about the world that is handed by the post-independence generation to their children.
I was so upset by the fact that I was controlled by the industry that I didn't want to be controlled anymore. I was also very angry at art cinema. They show India as if there is no Indian intervention to Indian problems. So there is no civilization, only shit, crap, disease and pestilence.
It is to Pritish Nandy's (the film's producer) credit I was able to make the film. This is a film with no stars. The French gave me some money; the cinematographer, editor and sound recordist were all French. Pritish gave me the rest of the money.
The film was supposed to be called Twist With Destiny, a play on Nehru's famous speech, Tryst With Destiny. Why was it changed to the title of Ghalib's couplet?
Pritish said Twist With Destiny will give the impression that this is an English film. We wanted to create the impression of an Indian film.
You can ask what has Ghalib got to do with the revolt? He is not even seen as a revolutionary poet. He is not Faiz being read out in protests today. Ghalib is part of a wider point of view, not caught up in the immediacy of things, but seeing the flux of history as comedy and tragedy. The film cannot exist without Ghalib having existed and influenced some of us.
The film is about the 70s, the Naxalite rebellion and Indira Gandhi's emergency. It was released in the early 2000s, a time of hyper-globalization. But this is 2020. Why do you think this film is still so relevant when most of the mainstream has dismissed the Naxals entirely?
It's because it is not stuck in a particular time; it is about youth and rebellion. Rebellion is what young people do in every generation. It is about fathers and sons. There is a disagreement about the idea of India they all have; about India exploding in a thousand directions. In a sense it is also about encapsulating all of life in an ideology, but life has a habit of slipping away from ideology. If Hazaaron still has resonance it is because I wasn't caught up with the ideology.
What if you were caught up with the ideology?
Then it would have been a propaganda film.
These characters are so different- each representing something radically different, yet towards the end they have all intersected in this messy manner…
If somebody asks me who I am in the film I would say Geeta. I am not a Naxalite, and I am not a fixer. Geeta is a person who doesn't expect the world to change because she wishes it to. That's why she is the only one left sane and standing in the end. She is not ideologically savage. Even when Siddharth walks away in the end, she is still there, in the villages.
Maybe the people who are gentler and not ideologically rigid are the people who will finally survive and make a change, noh?
Tell me about that last image of the film, with Vikram, now without his mental faculties, resting on Geeta's shoulders by the river bank as Baawra Mann plays. She is in the village while Siddharth is now studying medicine unsure if he will ever return.
Somebody may say Siddharth has failed. I say he tried. How many people can stay for 10 years in the villages of Bihar with mosquitoes, while remaining underground running from cops?
See, it is about shreds of beauty we hold onto when the dream fades. In the end with Vikram on Geeta's shoulder, holding hands… they are trying their best to grapple with the failure of the ideology. I am just saying every time a rebellion fails, some things improve.
I am very clear about that which is why I have remained as a filmmaker. When the Berlin Wall broke, or when the elementary Marxist revolt failed, a lot of filmmakers lost their end, to make movies for money; parallel cinema was walking away into the sunset. For me, I am a mathematician's son. Whatever it is, if the experiment fails, you have a certain understanding of what it is and move on with that understanding.
But there is a clear anti-state voice here. Especially with images of the vasectomy camps and Indira Gandhi's Emergency.
Oppression is a fact. It is not like you shut your eyes to what happened, or the savagery. In the film, you see what happened to Geeta during the Emergency. You are not shutting your eyes. You are not a propagandist but merely, a filmmaker observing.
Of course the film is about the Emergency. But it doesn't take an elementary stand on it. This is very clear in that scene when Vikram gives a check to Randhir's character (who has now changed sides, swaying with the revolution) who says "Any revolution needs a check."
Tell me about the shooting of the film. Where did you shoot it, and what was it like?
I shot it more or less in the Madhya Pradesh border near Bihar. I tried to keep the authenticity of the location while keeping the safety of my unit in mind. Sometimes filmmakers just do these things and then wonder how we did it. Taking an 80 member unit across 4 states, shooting in MP, Bihar, Delhi, and Haryana. Everybody was new. I found all of them in screen tests; those were not the casting director days. We got Chitrangada and Shiney in an audition. I tried my best not to cast KK because I wanted somebody new. Swanand Kirkire was my assistant, it was his first film. It was also Shantanu's Moitra, (music director) first film. There is a certain discovery of things for the first time so there are no rules we were following.
Do you have any recollection of how the film did commercially when it released?
Not bad, ya. It ran for 8-10 weeks. It was the beginning of the multiplex, so it did find a certain audience. It didn't set the box office on fire. Most people discovered the film in pirated copies on the net. People made the film a success, somebody told somebody who liked Baawra Mann and told someone else. There was no publicity, Indian Express gave us some ads in the paper- that's all.
I remember Shekhar Kapur sitting in the theater and crying saying "Thank you" because it was about his generation. We wondered if the young people would get it.
Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is available on Netflix.