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“The unit had breakfast, lunch and snacks amidst the garbage.†-- Pankaj Advani
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Hello fellow PBers! I’m back again with another in-depth interview, this time with the very talented writer and director Pankaj Advani (Sankat City, Cape Karma, Urf Professor, Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa). Enjoy this interview in which Pankaj talks about his experiences at FTII, working with Kundan Shah, shooting scenes at a garbage dump, directing Anupam Kher, and much, much more. Toh intezaar kis baat kaa hai ji? Read away!

First of all, congratulations for Sankat City! The film has received positive reviews and the word of mouth seems to be good. Unfortunately, though, the film hasn’t been distributed properly.

Your guess is as good as mine! (smiles) And, I agree to your observation that the film hasn’t been distributed properly. It has released in Dubai this week.

For those people who don’t live in a city where SC is releasing, could you tell us when the DVD will come out?

‘They’ seem to be in a hurry to release the DVD, seems like it’s going to come out soon. Let me take this opportunity to appeal to the viewers to be proactive and try to catch the film in theatres, if playing in their cities, even if in some far-flung hall.

Your film Sunday (1993) won two national awards, and Urf Professor was India’s first digital feature film. Still, neither film had a commercial release. Why do you think so many well-made films face such difficulty in getting released?

No false illusions here, we’re in the business of paving way for the cinema of future.

You sent “Moon Moon Sen” to the Children’s Film Society of India and then wanted to write something more “masaledaar” so wrote “Sunday.” Do you think it is important for writing to always be commercial and masaledaar?

Nothing wrong in sugarcoating some, as long as there are no compromises in the voice.

Tell us about your experience in making short films and programmes for Channel V…

Awesome! I could be myself. I could be anarchic. I could be adventurous. I was allowed to make mistakes. I had all the creative freedom in the world. There was no one breathing down my neck. I didn’t have any TRP daggers hanging over my head. Shashank Ghosh, Minty Tejpal, Arnab Chaudhary, Devi and many others, you guys lent me amazing support, thanks!

How was the experience at FTII? Did you find attending FTII helpful? Or, do you wish you had spent that time assisting other directors and editors, getting first-hand experience?

One had to be a graduate to join FTII, so I did my BA in painting at the faculty of Fine Arts M S University Baroda. Four of the best years of my life. Joined FTII after that, in editing, since it was a 2 year course and I thought it is easier to be broke for 2 years than 3. Now that I look back I think it is great to be able to edit one’s own film or be actively involved in the editing process, which is where one gets to put it all together, build rhythms, improve on the narrative, package it, present it etc. The experience at FTII was wonderful. If I hadn’t got in, I’m sure I would’ve assisted other directors.

Tell us about your experiences in working with Kundan Shah, whom you’ve co-written four scripts with, out of which only Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa released. Could you tell us a bit about the other three films?

Four? Few you mean? (smiles) Kundan Shah is a fantastic writer as well and it was a privilege to be able to work with him. Though I am credited as the co-writer story and screenplay of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, I firmly believe that it is his baby and has his directorial stamp all across. It feels great to have contributed in a fun musical comedy about young people, their lives and loves. This is one script that got written pretty quickly, the others took their own sweet time, some of them even got shelved at the writing stage. Loveria was one of the scripts that I had worked on along with few other writers, unfortunately it got shelved just before the film reached the finishing line.

Could you tell us about the director-writer relationship and how co-writing works?

The collaborators have to be in synch with each other and that’s something which either happens on its own or doesn’t. I guess it’s more of about trial and error ‘till one finds the right person who is on the same wavelength.

What was your favorite scene to write for Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa and what was your favorite scene to write for Sankat City?

The scene in which Anthony bhai becomes the band’s fan at Chinatown! As regards Sankat City, the garbage yard scene. This was the starting point of the film, the rest of the scripting was all about working backwards in order to be able to reach this point. In my opinion, the garbage dump of a city is where it all ends and what better place to have my desperate protagonists search desperately for their destiny? (laughs)

When writing a screenplay, how many details do you like to jot down? Or, do you think a writer should be very selective with how many words and how many details they get into when writing a screenplay?

To each his own, no hard and fast rules. Each script gets written differently.

How was it like directing Anupam Kher…Do you think established actors bring a certain amount of baggage with them compared to newcomers?

I must admit I was intimidated to begin with, but he loved the script, his character and was supportive all through the making of the film. He appears to be very casual before a shot, but when the camera starts rolling, he is magic. Haven’t told him this yet, but I would think up of ways to make his shots as challenging as I could, be it the length of the shot, the blocking, the camera movements and so on and so forth. He was always up for the challenge; he would first make a few digs at me and then go for the jugular (not mine). He is of the opinion that his first shots are the best, I agree. He is in top form as Faujdaar. In fact, while editing, after the exit of his character from the film, I felt that the pace of the film slackened a bit and had to trim the next 2 scenes to compensate. Mr. Kher’s involvement has continued even after the first print was out, not only him, all the other actors, be it Kay Kay, Rimi, Chunky, Rahul, Yashpal Sharma, Manoj Pahwa, Dilip Prabhawalkar, Jehangir etc, they have all performed well and have contributed a hell of a lot.

Coming to the ‘established’ actors bit, the ones I’ve worked with, the only baggage they’ve brought along to the sets are their vanity vans or SUVs. Jokes apart, I’ve had no complaints so far, but yes, I have heard few stories, the bizarre kinds and I hope they don’t happen to me.

Tell us a bit about how you approach casting…I think you mentioned in one of your blogs, that you had another role in mind for Anupam, not the role of Faujdar. Which role did you have in mind for him initially? SC has about 21 characters, I think…which character was the hardest to cast for?

Instincts, gut feeling and sometimes sheer luck! Nah, won’t reveal which role I had Mr. Kher in mind for. What I can reveal is, that he wanted to do only Faujdaar and he kind of bulldozed me into giving him that part. And I’m glad that he did. Guru and Fillip Fattu’s characters were hardest to cast.

How do you approach writing? How do you deal with writer’s block? Do you ever go through moments of doubt when you feel like deleting the entire draft? Do you first come up with characters and then the characters inspire the plot? Or, does the writing process vary from script to script?

Varies from script to script. I need a blank wall to stare at, some quiet, a whole load of passion and honesty. Doubts? None as yet.

You actually shot scenes for SC at a garbage dump. And, of course, you also shot at 59 other locations. Could you tell us about how you zoned-in on shooting locations?

Wanted to shoot the scene at Deonar Garbage dump. It’s huge, hundreds of trucks from all parts of the city awaiting their turn to dump their contents. It is divided into sectors and has the feel of a gigantic industrial complex. Sector 6 is where I had wanted to shoot, unfortunately the production couldn’t procure the necessary permissions. Shot the scene in Gorai dump, which is half the size but had all the necessary ingredients that the scene required. As regards the other locations, had a trying time getting the right ones on account of budgets and apathy. For example I wanted to shoot Sikandar Khan baraat scene against the backdrop of Gateway of India, finally ended up shooting it in a Filmcity corner. Had to add scratches and watermarks on the entire scene to give it the necessary film-within-film feel. Similarly I had to make compromises in locations for various scenes, but all in all, we—me and Chirantan Das, the cinematographer, — didn’t let those compromises show.

Any memorable moments from the film you’d like to share with us?

Has to be the shooting of the garbage yard sequence. The stench was unbearable, the heavy equipment had to be lugged across the swampy mounds, the scene required trucks and heavy machinery like bulldozers and also crowd, add to it some action, but we managed well. The unit had breakfast, lunch and snacks amidst the garbage, nobody will forget that in a hurry. And what is more, the moon appeared in the sky late afternoon, which gave me the topper for the scene. Tough shoot, frayed nerves, less time et all, but we did well.

You mentioned in an interview that Sankat City is a tribute to Mumbai…that the city is a character. We’ve seen several films in which the city is treated as a character, such as Mumbai Meri Jaan, Delhi-6, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, etc. What do you think constitutes treating a city as a character in a film…there are so many elements to choose from.

Mumbai – a city on the move… frenetic, energetic, chaotic, dramatic, even neurotic, a melting pot of cultures and languages, a city with a heart, a city that never sleeps, a city on the brink yet a city of hope and last but not the least, a city of contradictions--Guru’s voiceover in the beginning of the film says “kabhi dhobi ke ooper gadha baitha dekha hai? Aur bhagwaan ke peechche shaitan?” It is this city I wanted to make a film about. And I hope all that comes across in the film. Hey, it even has a sequence in the garbage yard ! By the way, my first draft was called Hungama Mumbai Ishtyle, the second Currytown and now Sankat City, all three mention the shehar.

How long did it take to write Sankat City? How many days were spent on shooting the film and how long did the editing process take?

A month and a half for the first draft. All in all, say 3 months or so. Around 30 days to shoot the film. Editing took another month and a half, maybe a little more.

How many times have you seen Sankat City so far?

I live in it since last 19 years or so! (smiles)

Is there anything you’d like to go back and re-do or change or edit out?

First convince me you’ve the power to reverse time, then we shall talk!

What was the most difficult scene to film and/or direct in Sankat City?

The most difficult thing was to keep hanging in there between schedules, to keep up the enthusiasm and the belief of the cast and the crew, which would dip at times, not for any other reason but due to unnecessary delays, long ones at that and lack of vision on the part of a few people.

Are you content with the way the film has performed at the box office so far?

I’m a perennial optimist. (smiles) By the way, I have seen many shows with the audience and they were having a ball.

What’s the best compliment you’ve received so far? What’s the biggest criticism you’ve received?

I’ve been lurking around in theatres gauging the audience response and when they burst out laughing at the gags, it feels great! Criticism… ummmm… well not exactly criticism, felt bad when I overheard one of the persons handling the release say, “I’m trying to get rid of Sankat City!”

How come the music was not promoted? In fact, to be honest, I didn’t even know there was a CD out of the music until recently.

Ask the producers.

You said in an interview that "It is very important that audiences see the film. Everyone works hard on a film so they want people to see it. When people will see it, money will be made. Only then will people make more films.” And, that is very true. But, Pankaj, if the goal is to make profit and as a result of making a profit getting producers to take a risk in making make more off-beat and innovative films, don’t you think one should spend more time and money on marketing. After all, the way to make a profit is to first inform the public that there is a film coming out and then to use marketing to make them want to see the film. The Wikipedia page for the film was so basic and even the FaceBook page wasn’t utilized properly…I just can’t understand why the marketing was so limited…

Beats me!! I’ve tried my level best to get things going, so also the well-wishers of the film.

You’re right, the full potential of the film hasn’t been tapped yet. Wake up ‘guys’, it’s a desi fillum, after all!

What are some of your favorite films? Are there any directors you really admire? Are there any actors you’d love to direct?

A very long list of favorite films! Admire all the directors who have broken new ground or have told engaging stories, be it any subject or genre, with honesty and integrity!! Actors whom I want to direct? Ummm, it would depend entirely on the script and the character. Though I would love to work with the entire cast of Sankat City again. In fact, over the years, I’ve formed a bond with the actors whom I’ve already worked with and I always go back to them whenever I have a role that suits them.

Are you working on any other projects? Would you like to tell our readers about them?

In good time. Though comedy is my favorite genre, I’m toying with the idea of thriller and horror as well.

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