This is the first part of an interview with Manish acharya, the director, co-writer and actor of his successful debut film Loins of Punjab Presents:
Tell me about your background, where you grew up, what you did before your first film, etc.
I was born in Bombay, to a middle class family. I was an only child. I never thought about cinema or films in any way as a career, because it wasn’t at all feasible. And so I did what every person in my situation does, which is try to get into some sort of professional career (either engineering or medicine). And at that time, an opportunity opened up to come and study in the US. I went to Cornell College in Iowa and majored in physics and computer science.
I worked for a year as a programmer in Des Moines and then I went to graduate school in industrial relations, so my trip to filmdom was very scenic actually. After that, I was one of the founding members of a software company based in Washington DC, and I was there for six years. The company grew a lot; we went up to 1000 employees. And then it suddenly hit me: “Is this really what I want to do with the rest of my life?” And the answer was “no”.
Also, I was kind of always doing things which seems like I was preparing but I really wasn’t, I was just following my interests. For example, as an undergrad, I acted in a lot of plays and took acting classes and a bunch of theater classes as my electives. I did an independent study course using two VCRs to make music videos that I went and shot on campus using this old camera that the theater department had. When I was working, in both my jobs as a programmer and in the software company, I would take evening classes at the colleges nearby, writing screenplays, photography class, basically anything that seemed interesting to me at the time. In hindsight, they were all great preparation, in the sense that I don’t think any of them prepared me to actually make a movie, but they prepared me to learn how to make movies.
Finally, when I applied to film school, I didn’t really expect to get in, so I only applied to one (NYU). I did get in, which I still attribute to some sort of clerical error, but I’m not telling them, and so I went there for three years and just immersed myself in cinematheque. That was when it went from being and interest to being “This is what I want to do. I’m finally in the right place.” Both in film school and in New York, because I never really lived in NY and when I moved here I just loved the city, and connected with it. It’s one of the true international cities of the world – as opposed to an American city – just like Paris must have been in the early 20th century, New York was that in the “˜90s. And even now, this incredible collection of talent from all over the world, this great creative energy, almost independent of the country it’s in, which London sometimes gets, but not always. That was my love affair with the city and films and Loins was my first film.
Are you Gujurati?
Yes. My Mom was born and brought up in Bombay, but her family’s originally from Gujurat, and my Dad was born in Gujurat.
How old are you?
And how old when you decided to go to film school?
Just before I turned 31.
And you’re married?
Yes, and we have two kids.
When you were a kid, was there any particular movie you saw that just blew you away?
I’m sure there must have been, because I have memories of a lot of movies. For me, somehow, films were like my friends. Summer vacation I would see an obscene number of movies. The reason I did well academically was I realized if I did well, no one could tell me not to see the movies. In summer breaks, I probably watched 50 movies over 30 days, and this was all in the theater, not on VCR or DVD. And I still feel the magic just when the movie starts and the hall gets dark, which is why I also like going to empty theaters. I don’t like to see movies on the first weekend as much, because people are always talking, and for me there’s this kind of holy silence that’s perfect before a launch into either a good or bad journey.
There are tons of movies that I remember. I think 90% of what I saw must have been Bollywood, so 90% of that must have been crap. But Shabana keeps talking about this to the papers, that was what she found interesting working with me: I actually love Bollywood. I don’t love Bollywood in the sense that “Oh my God, this movie’s great” and I think most of them are pretty bad, but somehow the emotions are in there and they way they try to do it is very attractive. It’s a kind of strange dichotomy. So it was mostly Bollywood in those years, then later when I moved to the US, I kinda gravitated mostly to Hollywood, not even indie cinema, and probably rarely, foreign films. So, in some way, I’ve kind of been eating at different buffets for a while. Finally, when I got to film school was when I really started watching international films and independent American cinema, which if one asked me today would be my favorite.
If someone said “You could only watch one type of cinema for the rest of your life,” I’d probably pick indie American cinema because I think it’s an interesting combination of technology and storytelling. And at the same time, it’s not like I find even though I do appreciate some of the European movies I sometimes find them too esoteric for my taste. I love Iranian cinema. I hope I never have to make this choice, because the moment I’m actually saying this I realize that if someone told me never to see an Iranian film again, or someone told me never to see a Bollywood film again, that would be the most depressing day of my life. But I realize that I’ve actually sampled from lots of different places, and I see my movie, this is what I think, but you can tell me if it’s right or wrong, I feel it synthesizes all of that. There’s Bollywood, but Bollywood in the sense that it’s like an old family member where you kind of laugh at him or her but also love him or her, and same thing with the kind of Hollywood moments, you know, the jumping off the stage and running through the theater, I feel are old Hollywood moments, and this Christopher Guest kind of stuff in there. Somehow I think most of my movies, most of my scripts are a synthesis of all these things, which is what I think makes them a little different.
What is it about independent American cinema, in terms of the technique that appeals to you?
I think maybe it’s the controlled experimentation that they do, in the sense that its not completely out there, which as I watch more cinema, for example, I just watched this movie a few months ago, this Norwegian film, Reprise, which I loved and think American cinema is doing something so brave, so maybe a couple of years from now I might not say what I’m saying right now. Even some of the movies I saw, things like Clerks and Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It and the Jarmusch films, I just felt like “Wow, there’s certainly cool stuff happening here,” but at the same time, they’re keeping it accessible.
In the next part of the interview, Manish discusses the making of Loins of Punjab Presents.