‘The humour was infectious. Along with it came an openness… There were no boundaries, no hierarchies’
I got off at the wrong station and arrived late to sign my first contract, for a film produced by Shashi Kapoor. His company Film-Valas was in an airy, open office, Prithvi Jhopda, designed by architect Ved Segan at Janki Kutir, Juhu.
I was introduced as a new assistant. He looked up and said, “Do all you arty filmmakers have to have a beard?” — his humour intact despite my tardiness.
Off went the beard.
On a humid Bombay day, off my khaki pants he quipped, “Now you’re Behramji Benegal.” The trousers stayed though. It was too humid in Bombay for denim. The humour was infectious. Along with it came an openness, like the architecture of Jhopda. There were no boundaries, no hierarchies.
Working on the film, the family was all in. This was a travelling theatre troupe. Except, we made films. Jennifer would send me off to Khilchi & Sons on Kemps Corner for samples for costumes and furnishing. On the sets, I met Karan with his Nikon cameras, the ebullient Sanjna, and later Kunal. At their home in Atlas Apartments, Kunal and I discovered our shared love for almost-burnt toasts.
Their doors were always open. Inclusion and equality were what set Shashi and Jennifer and Film-Valas apart. Right down to the food — everybody ate the same food, a practice I insist on in my productions.
My passion for calligraphy came in handy. I was tasked with handwriting dialogues in Hindi and handing them to the actors. Shashi would take the handwritten pages and put an enigmatic slash between some words.
When he asked for the pages back he’d glance at those slashes. That was my first clue that in those spaces between the words was where his performance would lie.
In Kalyug, the film I was working on, a complex top angle shot was set up in a cramped room for an intense moment on screen. On a film set, there is no sense of privacy. Just behind the wall, people are concerned with their chai and samosa, others impatient with the long wait quintessential to filmmaking. Amidst this an actor has to create an internal world — a bubble of privacy.
Shashi curled up, foetus-like, for the moment when his character discovers who his mother is. After the shot was over, he turned over to check if it was okay. We didn’t have monitors back then. I said it was brilliant and set the mood for that moment. He looked at me and smiled impishly. “You know what I was thinking about?” I stared blankly. “I hope my wife is not making baingan (brinjal) for dinner tonight. I hope there is something else to eat.” I smiled. Was this his charming way of getting back at “method actors”?
Whatever it was, it worked. For some reason, Shashi took it upon himself to talk to me about filmmaking. He disliked the lack of planning and the arbitrary way films were made. He had seen another world and was keen to share that. “In India, films are not made, films happen.” “True creativity comes from planning. You need planning and organisation if you want to make a good film.” My impressionable mind absorbed it all.
“Where’s the script?” I held up a brown file with a single piece of paper. He shook his head, “You need a proper script. The one thing you must learn is to write a screenplay.”
And on one of the days when everything seemed to be collapsing, he saw me and said, “Well, the good thing is you are learning from the ground up, so you know how this entire machine works. Whatever you do, you have to start at the bottom. You need to lug the lights, lift the weights, to really understand the nuts and bolts of creative work. You cannot come to me one fine day and assume you can take over as director.”
I was going to the finest film school in the world, and I didn’t even know that.
Shashi asked me to come to London to work on the English language version of one of their films. It was a heady time — working with the sound editor of Stanley Kubrick and David Lean — and I immersed myself in it. Until one day he turned up and asked, “Don’t you need money? Aren’t you going to ask me?” Kunal and I would grab a sandwich lunch, I had a subway card, what more could I want? He smiled, “Collect a weekly stipend, it’s not much but it’s better than nothing.”
It was the time of Jennifer’s illness. I did not see her then but a few days before I was leaving, Shashi asked if I could supervise the English subtitles for 36 Chowringhee Lane. I stayed on an extra month in London.
With them you were all in.
Jennifer’s memorial was the hardest time to go back to Prithvi and see the family. In all this, Sanjna still managed to smile. Things were never the same after. Later when I’d see Shashi at Prithvi Cafe, he would continue his refrain: “Scriptwriting, that’s what we don’t have. Good scriptwriting.”
He knew that we had to look beyond the template-driven style of screenwriting. That a movie lies in the white spaces between the words — those enigmatic slashes between the words finally made sense as a director.
At a recent screening of Shakespeare Wallah, all I could focus on was the performance of Jennifer and Shashi. It was subtle, nuanced, playful, and had all the depth without the accompanying weight.
When I stepped out on to the streets of New York, my new home, I realised that in my work, how I think, what I believe in, and the work that I’m drawn to, I was carrying a piece of Film-Valas, of Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor.
The New York-based film director made English, August and recently, Road, Movie. He is a script advisor at eQuinoxe Script Development Program, Europe.