Nila Madhab Panda is the first filmmaker from the state of Odisha to make a name for himself on a global platform. With a National Award, several acclaimed films, prestigious international projects and a Padma Shri title to his credit, his work and efforts towards bringing social issues to the forefront with his films have been duly recognised. In this interview, he talks about his journey from growing up in a small village in Odisha to becoming a filmmaker of international repute, his love towards his state, what makes him a socially-conscious person, why he chooses to live in Delhi and more.
You come from a small village called Dasharajpur in Odisha. Your family faced many difficulties, including financial constraints, while you were growing up. How does it feel to achieve so much after going through years of struggle?
When you keep walking in the pursuit of your dreams, you keep learning something new at every step. The only thing you need to remember is that you should not look around and compare yourself with others. Just focus on your journey. That is what I did. I was not a very ambitious person. I just made myself get into a habit of doing things that would help me grow as a person and take me ahead in life. Right from the time I was a child, I had this dream of doing something that would add value to other peoples’ lives apart from helping me grow as a person. Life is not easy for anyone and everybody is struggling in his or her own way. I was lucky that my results bore fruit and things worked out for me. That also gave me the motivation to work harder and keep moving forward. When I was leading a life filled with poverty, I thought I was an unfortunate soul. But, those days of struggle and hardship made me the kind of person I am today. That gave me the strength and the courage to face life.
Till fifth grade, you were studying in a school which did not even have a proper building. And then, there was a time you studied at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management.
I have never been a believer in formal education. I used to read a lot but was not a good student. I learnt a lot but never managed to have an impressive mark sheet to my name (laughs). When I went to IIM, it was almost looking like a new world. It definitely helped me in building my life. I believe practical education helps you more than the kind of education you receive in an educational institution.
After going through difficult times, you got to study in IIM. A stable job could have helped you get rid of many of your issues at that point of time. But, you chose to get into filmmaking.
It was not an overnight decision. As I told you, I had this dream of doing something that would impact lives. Even when I started earning money, I was not thinking about buying bungalows or cars. I invested that money in doing more productive things. When I saw the kind of impact television had in my village, it made me think. That was the time when Doordarshan used to telecast shows like ‘Mahabharat’. People would stop all their work and sit in front of the television set to watch these shows. Though I was fascinated by the medium, I had no knowledge about filmmaking. I had not even heard about basic terms like direction, cinematography etc. When I came to Delhi to study sales and marketing, I got in touch with some people who were into documentary filmmaking. I firmly believed television was a medium that could bring about a change in the society as it was reaching out so many people. I have always been an independent person and have worked on my own terms. It is not easy to do that but that is when the management skills I had acquired while studying in IIM came in handy.
Is there any particular filmmaker that has inspired you?
I am a self-inspired person. I get inspired from everything I see around me. I travel a lot. A lot of times, people ask me what do I observe when I am travelling. I tell them that I observe people. I am inspired by the people I work with, the teachers that taught me, the boatman I used to interact with when I was in my village and almost everybody I meet.
How much has Odisha inspired you?
Odisha is everything to me. I have stayed abroad for some time but even then, I would keep coming back to visit Odisha frequently. I cannot stay away from my motherland for long. Now, I have a lot of work here but back in the day, even when I had no professional assignments here, I would come here. If I cannot come to Odisha at least once in a month, I feel restless and cannot function properly.
Which was your first professional assignment as a filmmaker?
My first major professional assignment was a documentary I made for a Bhubaneswar based NGO called Ruchika. The NGO worked towards educating under-privileged children.
Your films talk about social issues. That makes one assume that you are a socially conscious person too.
I consider myself an entertainer. Yes, I am a socially conscious person. I think one of the reasons behind that is the fact that I have grown up in a village amidst a lot of difficulties. As far as films are concerned, I consider myself to be an entertainer. I make films that deal with social issues but entertainment value as well. No matter what kind of film you are making, you must engage the audience.
Do you think ‘I Am Kalam’ was a turning point for you as a filmmaker?
Yes, it was. The success of the film and the acclaim it received opened many doors for me and gave me the freedom to do a lot of things I wanted to do as a filmmaker.
You worked with producer Manish Mundra on ‘Kadvi Hawa’. He has backed some of the most important films made in the recent times. How was the experience of working with him?
Manish is a wonderful human being. His vision and conviction brought a revolution in the new wave Indian cinema. He has empowered many filmmakers and one must be grateful to him for that. When I started out, I was forced to become a producer as I did not find anybody who believed in the kind of stories I wanted to tell. When I met Manish, I was happy to see that here was a producer who believed in investing in good content. I hope to work with Manish again soon. A producer is supposed to be the father of the film. Manish is one of the very few producers who understand that. He stands by the film like a strong pillar of support but never interferes. It is a delight for any director to work with him.
You worked with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy on ‘Halkaa’.
Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy are wonderful people to work with. All three of them are extremely humble and always open to ideas from the director or other people around them. Apart from being hugely talented, they are great human beings. That is the reason they have been at the top for two decades now.
You mostly work in the Hindi film industry or in Odisha but you live with your family in Delhi. Why?
I am not somebody who can be attached to one thing for a long time. I want to explore the world and keep trying different things. If I was living in Mumbai, I would have been too filmy. I want to have my own voice. I do not want to follow anybody else’s path. When I start working on a new film, I do not read any books or films as I do not want to get influenced by anything.
You were one of the eleven directors that were chosen by the UN for an anthology film on climate change. That must have been an interesting experience.
Yes, it was a very interesting experience. They wanted to get filmmakers on board from eleven different countries who had made films on environmental issues. The issues pertaining to eleven different countries have been addressed in this anthology series. It was shot a while back and has been screened at different festivals across the globe.
You are one of the very few people from Odisha who has worked in the Hindi film industry. Why, do you think, more people from the state have not been able to make films at a national level?
To be honest, I have never pondered over it. I have always been busy with my work and have not been aware of what is happening outside. People do not have to look at me or anybody else for inspiration. Today, internet is there everywhere. Making a film is not as difficult as it is used to be. You have to be aggressive and once you decide to do something, you must find ways to do it. If you want to make films, get up and make films. Do not spend time analysing the market or thinking of ways to raise money. If you think you have a good story to tell, go ahead and make a film.