Cinema notes: Masterclass by Ashutosh Gowarikar at British Film Institute, London
The London Indian Film festival, held in June-July earlier this year, has completed eight years and is only getting better every year. This is a film festival that Indians look forward to because it brings to London screens the kind of independent Indian films that we would not get a chance to see otherwise, and also because it has films from Pakistan and Bangladesh in the programme. There is also a competition for the best short film.
Spread over 10 days, which include a weekend, it has multiple screenings in a day at various venues scattered across the city, the most prestigious venue being the British Film Institute. Not only the film screenings, but also the talks and discussions are held at the BFI. The highpoint of this annual festival is a masterclass by a star filmmaker. A couple of years ago, it was Mani Ratnam, and last year it would have been Kamal Haasan, had he not broken his foot and cancelled his trip to London.
This year’s masterclass was by Ashutosh Gowariker, who will be known in the history of Indian cinema as the director who gave us Lagaan, the rare Indian film which received an Oscar nomination. Had his last film Mohenjo Daro been a success, this event would have been held at the main screening theatre at the BFI. But as it hadn’t, the number of tickets sold was low, and his onstage conversation with film historian Nasreen Munni Kabir was held in the smaller screening theatre.
The audience listened fascinated as Gowariker spoke about his life’s journey into the world of cinema. While he was still in college, he couldn’t make up his mind about what he wanted to do after he finished his studies. So, in order to increase his skills, he joined every extra-curricular activity that his college offered. This is how he got a taste of theatre, which he took up more seriously later. He was noticed by Ketan Mehta while he was acting on stage, who then cast him in his 1984 film Holi.
After getting a few more roles in films, he acted in television serials and also in commercials. No one remembers Ashutosh Gowarker in Holi, but this film was crucial to his career, as it was on the sets of that film that he met Aamir Khan, who was also a struggling actor then. Another struggling actor he befriended at that time was Shah Rukh Khan.
After being on stage and in front of the camera for a decade he decided to take up film direction and directed his first film Pehla Nasha in 1993. Lagaan was released in 2001, and put him in a different league altogether. It was his old friend Aamir Khan who made it all possible when he joined the team and decided to produce it. Once again when Ashutosh wanted to make Swades, he turned to his friend from his early days in cinema, Shah Rukh Khan, to be the lead actor.
During the Q and A session, which followed the conversation with the moderator, Ashutosh shared many details of his career that are not so well-known. Speaking of his less successful film, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, a film he made on the Chittagong armoury raid, he said that every film need not be a commercial success. “There are some stories that have to be told and this was one of them,” he said.
In answer to a question from the audience about how he made the transition from acting to direction, he said that he wanted to go through a formal training at the FTII, but the institution was on a long strike at that time. So he decided to start off with whatever knowledge he had gathered by observing the directors when he was working as an actor. Of course, it was through the influence of his actor friends like Deepak Tijori and Aamir Khan that he got to direct his first couple of film.
But now when he meets youngsters who ask him for advice on how to become a director he tells them to first get trained at a film school. He added, “It has many advantages and you come prepared to your field of work. Nowadays, every technical person on a film set comes with a degree in what he is doing.”
The inevitable question that is always lurking in such meetings with film directors popped up towards the end. “What should I do if I want to be a successful actor, other than going to an acting school?” a young medical student asked. Ashutosh gave an interesting reply, “Watch a lot of plays and films, but also read a lot of novels, because it is in literature that you can see how a character is created.”
Gowariker has put the failure of Mohenjo Daro behind him and he surprised his listeners when he announced that he had accepted an acting role in the new Marathi film Ventilator where he plays a film director. On his part, Gowariker was visibly astonished to see that most people who attended his masterclass in London had actually seen all his films since Lagaan. In the world of show business you may be only as good as your last film but for true lovers of cinema a good filmmaker remains where he stands in the eyes of his admirers.