For actor and producer Sanjay Suri, shooting in Delhi is always a pleasure. But having done that all these years, he feels that it’s time for Delhi to move up from being just another location for filming, to an alternative film hub.
We met him when he was in town shooting for his next production venture with director and friend Onir, where he spoke about the challenges of being a member of the indie cinema community, the challenges particular to this community, which need to be heard, and what he’s looking forward to in 2015. Excerpts:
Delhi needs to be the alternative film hub- Sanjay has shot in Delhi for a variety of projects till now. While he continues to be enchanted by the beautiful landscapes the city has to offer, he raises the ‘what more?’ question for it. He says, “The good news is that a lot of films are now being set and shot in Delhi. So I am happy about that. But even then, most of them are restricted to the typical kind of setting, the Chandni Chowk or Delhi 6 setting, or has Vicky Donor type of characters.
There’s so much diversity in the city- The extended NCR has so much more to offer to filmmakers, which, I feel, hasn’t been utilised yet. Instead of just shooting, I think the supporting industries need to come here too. You have vendors, equipment and all of that, but studios are still missing. Why should anyone have to move to Bombay to be in films? You could be in Delhi and make films too. That’ll be the day when Delhi will cross over and really become a film hub. Abhi, it’s the political hub, docus banti hain yahaan, and lot of ad work happens too, but it’s still not close to being a film city. I am not saying that one place has to replace the other, but it can become strong, provide employment and survive successfully. It should be able to provide opportunities to young filmmakers and actors since there’s a lot of young talent here. Students shouldn’t have to run to Mumbai to be in films that are ultimately set in Delhi. This could probably be the hub for north. Another thing is that the environment also needs to be more conducive. To begin with, the government needs to recognise films in arts and culture and not just in information and broadcasting. There is no denying that the film culture here is growing, kyunki kaam aa raha hai toh sab khush hain, but it needs to be a little more systematic. A film city came up in Noida and we had hopes with that, but woh sab news offices hi ban ke reh gaye. There’s still a lot more that can be achieved. Look at the landscape it offers, on one side, there’s Rajasthan and Punjab and on the other side, there’s Uttarakhand – all of these areas are accessible from here. So, attitudes also need to change.”
Showing a love story in Kashmir, without the violence- Apart from his production projects, Sanjay is looking forward to shooting a film set in his homeland Kashmir with Lisa Ray, early this year. He explains, “The film is set in Kashmir and it’s the story of star-crossed lovers meeting after many years. It’s a two-character film – there’s literally nobody else. Two people deal with their past and also wonder where they’re heading. So it’s a beautiful, sort of an ‘untold story’. We’ll begin shooting in April, because I wanted to catch the spring in Kashmir and I’ve called it Heaven On Earth. I want to show a love story in Kashmir, without any of the violence and the like. I am from Kashmir, born and brought up there, so it’s very special for me. Lisa is also very excited about the project, this is the first film she’s doing after coming back and she’s looking lovely. The director, Vasu Vangala, is an Indian who’s settled in the US.”
Making the film’s easy, releasing it is difficult- Having been a member of both sides of Indian cinema – the commercially successful and the critically acclaimed – Sanjay doesn’t get why both can’t coexist. While the positive is that ‘festival films’ are now getting commercial releases, he tells us about the many challenges that still lie ahead. “All these films are in an independent space, where we get together to tell compelling stories. Till now, these films were created for the festival circuit and for a niche audience. Essentially, festivals are just a celebration of cinematic and creative expressions. But times are changing and there is more awareness about the ‘festival circuit’.” “Festival films are releasing commercially now. Films like The Lunchbox, Ship Of Theseus, Shahid, our films I Am and My Brother Nikhil, went to a lot of festivals and also released in theatres. They were not only critically acclaimed, but also found a certain audience that wanted to watch films like that. The challenge is bringing the film to the audience. The ticket prices are very high, if a family of four goes to watch a movie, they end up spending close to `3,000 on parking, popcorn and coffee. All of this connects to the whole issue of the opening business of big films. They muscle in and take over all the shows. So even if a festival film manages to release, they get ridiculous time slots in the morning. These films are for mature audiences, who only get time at night, after work etc. So all of these things together – ticket prices, programming and scheduling – are challenges still. The thing is that filmmaking has become much easier, but releasing films has become a very difficult and expensive process. The challenge is to create awareness about these films and find a way to show them. I refuse to believe that there is no audience for them. There is, in fact, a huge audience. We have such a huge population and there’s so much diversity. You can see the number of views independent films get online, so there has to be an audience. We’re a country where pao bhaji sells as well as a burger. So who says that only a PK can sell and a Shahid can’t.”
“Also, these films are not made in `50-60 crore. They’re `2-3 crore films. We need an alternate chain of theatres. Like Siri Fort in Delhi or Prithvi in Mumbai, where students can watch these films by paying affordable prices for tickets. Independent films go with the current governmental policy also. We make these films in India, but we get nothing in return. There’s no red carpet for filmmakers who’re working in India. We grew up on good films on Doordarshan, but now even Doordarshan only wants to play blockbusters. When I Am won the national award, we realised there was no place to show the film. We had started this support-indie-cinema campaign with the last government. One of the things that got passed was that they’ll give slots for indie films to be shown on the channel. A petition was signed by some 40 filmmakers to get Doordarshan to show these films. But it eventually died down.”
While working on a project in Delhi, Sanjay Suri talked to us about how Delhi could become the second film hub of the country, indie films becoming more popular with Indian audiences and shooting a love story in his homeland, Kashmir.