Manish Acharya interview

Manish as director 2

In the past three years, on December 4th, the day when director, writer and actor Manish Acharya died in a horse-riding accident outside of Bombay, I always remember him and his wonderful debut film Loins of Punjab Presents, and think what a shame it is that he’s gone so soon.  Manish was only 40 and had received much critical acclaim for Loins.  I think he had a long and promising career ahead of him, and I was so looking forward to decades of his creations to come.  Here’s a really lovely tribute that AVS aired back in December 2010 right after his passing.

Today I pulled out one of the audio files from an interview we did in September 2008, just a little while after I’d seen and loved Loins, wherein I got to ask him about some one the more mundane aspects of filmmaking as well as the more interesting ones, all of which he very gracefully and enthusiastically discussed.  It was one of those interviews you really enjoy doing, where you end up talking movies part of the time, and not just the interview subject’s own.  If you want to read the first part of the interview it’s here, though now I cringe at some of my questions five years ago, especially around budgets and the like, and in my head I hear the Dowager Countess saying “Oh, good. Let’s talk about money” as she opens her napkin with scorn for the speaker…

And here is the second part of that conversation:

So tell me about the making of Loins of Punjab Presents, how did it come about, how long to shoot and so on?

In October of 2003, is when we had….. we had a pretty decent draft of the script in six months.  And then my mother passed away and I completely took a break from all of this.

It’s the worst thing that can happen to you and I just wanted to be with my wife, my kids, my Dad – we actually came to America for a couple of months to kind of make sense of life and, not that I managed to make sense of life, I still can tear up at the most inopportune moment because something reminds me of her, but then finally I needed to get back to work.

So a few months after that is when I said “Ok, so let me raise financing for the film” and “Let me do some other drafts.”  By that time, the co-writer was around but he was really busy with other projects and he also was wondering if this film was going to go anywhere, how much time to spend on it, that kind of thing, so I basically was on my own as I wrote the last couple of drafts.  That must have been, hmm, let’s see, the end of 2004, and we shot in 2005 and early 2006.

We finished shooting in 2006 and we had the picture locked by about July/August 2006.  And then I started to wait for no apparent reason.  Roger Savage, this Oscar-nominated sound mixer, who’s done all of Zhang Zimou’s films, and I looked at the sound mixers of India and I thought “You know?  I just don’t think they’re gonna get it.”  They haven’t worked with a quiet film enough for them to understand room tones, and to me it was so essential that the sound sounded like America, that it didn’t sound like someone’s idea of America – like, what does a hotel room sound like in the US? When nothing’s going on, what kind of sounds do you hear in the background?  So Roger liked the movie, he wanted to do the sound thing, but the only time he was free was after he finished Curse of the Golden Flower, which he was working on.  So I decided to wait for him.  I’m really glad I did, because I would like him to mix all my movies, it was a great time, I went to Australia, he did it there, it was really amazing.  So then we got done, then we started applying to festivals, the movie showed in April 2007, first time at a festival, it released in India in September 2007, and now, releasing here.

Actually the last couple of years could have been compressed, and probably most producers would have compressed it into a three-month time frame, but I didn’t, partly because I was also writing and my financers weren’t really on my head about “Let’s get a return, let’s get a return!”  They just said “Listen, do what you think is right.  We trust you.”  And I’m very happy.  I told them “Don’t release it through an Indian distributor here because they’ll just put it in the Indian theaters, which is fine, our core audience will come, but I really think this is a movie that non-Indians can also relate to.  At least let’s give it a chance.  The odds of a non-desi person coming to North Bergen to a film is not that likely, while going to the Quad is more likely.”

And then of course we went to a bunch of festivals, won some awards, so that took its own sweet time, so now I’m quite ready at the end of this to start my next film.  Suddenly I look back and I think “Hey I need to get off Loins!”

What was your budget?

Actually, that’s the one thing my financers have asked me not to talk about.  The reason for them – which I agree with – is people keep categorizing the film based on that “Is this good for that amount of money?  Is it bad?”  They said “If they like it, they like it.”  They don’t want to get into that whole game.  But they’re happy with the results in terms of what’s happening.

But you yourself, from everything I’ve read, I think you did quite well in the tech sector….

Yes, I was one of the investors as well…

Would it be correct to say that you haven’t exactly had to go through the starving artist phase maybe that somebody who came to this business earlier would have?

That’s completely correct.  I didn’t go through the starving artist phase at all however I don’t know if that’s necessarily a positive or a negative, to be honest with you, because, you know, for some people it may be a positive.  I think that it’s positive in the sense that it gives you certain life experiences that you can tap into, I think it’s negative in the sense that it distracts you from the task at hand, which is creating.  So, I wasn’t starving but at the same time I don’t think the movie was just so much easier to make because of that.  The lesson I learned was that the toughest part of the process actually starts after your film is done, after you think you’re done and your first print is out, that’s when it gets tough for an indie film.

Who signed on first in terms of the actors?

I’d written the role for Ajay (Naidu), because I’d worked with him on my short films, so he was one of the first guys I contacted.  I think we’d already cast Bokade, then we talked to Ayesha (Dharker), and Ayesha recommended Shabana.  I’d been thinking about some other women for Mrs. Kapoor, but I wasn’t happy and then when she said Shabana, I said “Oh my God, she’d be so perfect, but she’d never agree to do it.”  Because it was also a kind of casting against type, and she read the script and said she’d love to do it.  Hers was the easiest casting.  From the time she read the script to the time she was on was, like, three days.

And how do you get hold of Shabana Azmi?  Do you call someone you know who also knows her…

I just got her number and she’s one of the few people in India who actually pick up her own phone.

For everybody else there’s always some assistant.  In Bombay there’s always this thing of someone’s either sleeping or having a bath.  I remember I joked about this once, I said “India must have the most cleanest and well rested actors in the world, with how much they sleep and how much they bathe.”

So you spoke to Shabana and in three days she was onboard….

Yeah, that bigger problem in terms of time and casting was very rarely the person waiting to give us an answer, it was always us wondering whether we should cast the person or not.  We were quite fortunate in that respect.  The approach we had, we didn’t have the usual suspects in terms of the crew, I really spent some time figuring out who are the crew members I want on this film, so they were all people who had both worked in India and worked overseas, and also the script had a certain kind of humor in it so I think any actor saw that the way we did the audition process was very kind of formal and efficient, we never wasted time, we always communicated to them where they were in the process.  Otherwise actors are so used to not hearing, they don’t hear for so long and they know they’re not cast, but we always called them up the next day and said “This happened, we’re looking at two or three people, you’re in the running” and a lot of people told me it was those little things that made them say “I want to work on this film.”

In fact Darshan Jariwala, who later played Sanjeev Patel, I initially cast him as Sanya’s father, and he had two scenes, which was later cut from the film, there was a monologue in the beginning and the parents at the contest at the hotel, but then he decided – he was doing Gandhi My Father and a bunch of other things as well – he decided to do it because he said “After meeting you for half an hour, I wan’t to work with you.”  Later, as we went further into the process, I realized that I’d miscast the Patels, and the day before we shot I recast all the Patel men which totally sent tremors through my crew and screaming and yelling from some people like “Oh my God, you’re sinking the movie!” and I said “No, if I leave these four people in these roles…,” then I said ”I have to do it.  We just have to do it.”  The reason I thought that was we had a reading, the full cast reading, two days before the first day of shoot, and I realized that I’d made a mistake.  Somehow the Patels weren’t jelling, and they were being played stereotypically and not with the empathy that I felt was in the characters and in the writing, and we went on and we recast.  So I grabbed Darshan from within the cast already because it’ll be easy to cast Sanya’s father, which it was, and then we went and got the other guys.  I cancelled all my meetings and started auditioning the day before shoot for those three roles.

The costume designed was saying “We’ve done all the stuff, we’ve got measurements!” and I said “Just chill, we’ve got to do it” and the four guys we kind of took out of those roles, we gave one a role somewhere else in the film, and two of the others were like “Look, whatever happened so far, we’d love to work together in the future,” and the fourth guy was totally pissed off, I don’t blame him.  It’s not his fault, it was my mistake, I should have seen it earlier.

How difficult was it to get Shaan to sign on for the film?

So Shaan was pretty easy.  We needed someone and Shabana said “Do you want me to call up Shaan?” and she did, he wanted to know how long, and we said if he could come for two days, he said “Fine” and that was it.

Where did you film the scenes in the hotel?

On the set, because we looked at what we wanted to do in a hotel and just realized that the flexibility I wanted in terms of moving the camera or having the amount of time to do more takes if I needed it, I just wouldn’t get in a real hotel, especially no one’s gonna take their lobby and give it to us, we had to construct it.

So that was all done over in India?

Yeah, we looked at it and realized it was cheaper to do it in India.  In hindsight I don’t know if I would have still done that, getting a set like that built in India and making it US-like … what was really rewarding was I went to a really early screening and someone in the audience said “I’ve been to that hotel in New Jersey!” and I thought “Oh my God, we did it!  We pulled it off!”

And so I’m assuming then that the auditorium scene too was filmed in India?

That was filmed in India for a simple reason: to get a thousand Indian extras outside of India would not have been possible.  They just wouldn’t come, or they’d come for a lark, show up and say “Oh, a shoot, a shoot!” and an hour later be like “This is really boring.”  And the ones who are professional extras, cost five times what you would pay in India, so when you have a thousand of them, and you have to feed a thousand of them and clothe a thousand of them, it really becomes expensive.  Very early we decided that the auditorium scene would have to be shot in India.

To close, here’s one of the happiest things to come out of this film, as far as I’m concerned: the Dhol Beat song composed by Samrat Chakrabarti and sung by he and Ajay Naidu.  The video was directed by Nina Paley and Manish Acharya.

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