He was in the film industry for ten years before Onir Anirban realised his dream of becoming a director. Onir’s first film, My Brother Nikhil was critically acclaimed and introduced Bollywood to a new vision in cinema. One review said, “While analyzing My Brother Nikhil, one comes across many notions and nuances of filmmaking. Onir mesmerizes you with his filmmaking technique. Not much is known about him, but the people will want to know more about him once they see his movie.” Onir went on to make Bas Ek Pal and now his third film Sorry Bhai! opens this Friday. The film has an incredible cast including Sanjay Suri, Sharman Joshi, Boman Irani, Chitrangda Singh and Shabana Azmi. The story of the film is a romance but different than your average Bollywood fare but I will let him tell you more about that. Onir talked with me about Sorry Bhai! and many other topics in this exclusive interview.
What made you decide to direct Sorry Bhai!?
Actually the writer Ashwini Malik came to me with the screenplay. That was way back in 2005 and what I liked about the script when I read it, was that it was a genre I that I have not worked on; it is a fun romance kind of film, but at the same time it’s venturing into areas which would be in a way taboo in India. You know, at the end of the day it is a story about a younger brother falling in love with an elder brother’s bride-to-be. So it is going into areas which are taboo but at the same time, it is the kind of film I like doing where one pushes the envelope a little but you still see the format and language of mainstream Bollywood cinema.
How did you get such a great cast together? Were they all your first choice?
The good thing was the first person who said yes to the film was actually Shabana Azmi and that kind of really helped me a lot in terms of having much more confidence in the script. Somehow the entire cast, whoever I went to with the script, liked the script very much. It was just juggling the dates around and getting all that organized that took a little while but I think I have a dream cast. You know I think it is a really wonderful combination of good actors, very powerful performers.
How do you feel the film turned out?
I am very happy with the film but that doesn’t mean anything because I am usually happy with what I do (laughs). I make one film at a time and I put in a lot of love because I make the kind of films I want to make; I don’t make films that other people want me to make. So there is a difference. I don’t think about the box office a lot. I believe that if I make mistakes it has to be my mistake. When I watch this film I feel good about it. I feel proud that I made this film. I would not say that this is a path-breaking cinema. I feel, for me, this film is progressive and you know most of the films around are quite regressive with the kind of way they portray people, portray people of other communities, portray women and I feel that there are small, small things in the film which are progressive. For example, the actress of the film is Aliyah, which is a Muslim name. I mean you hardly ever get to see main characters that are Muslim unless they are a terrorist or going through some sort of turmoil. So, I though let me have my main protagonist, my female protagonist be a Muslim girl but never in the film is that an issue. She just happens to be Muslim, there is nothing which is stamped on her that look, she is a Muslim girl. So, I feel it is the small, small things that are very important for me.
Was directing the film a challenge?
Yes, in the way that I have not really worked in this genre and I was at times always worried that I didn’t want the comedy ever to get too over the top. So, I was constantly trying to underplay it because I wanted it to be a little subtle. At the same time, I had to be careful that it doesn’t get so subtle that it’s lost. I think this is a difficult genre that way. At the same time you are dealing with emotions that are quite on the edge. All the characters can’t decide about what is right and what is wrong and to look at your characters without being judgmental, especially the girl. I am thinking of the film in context of the Indian scenario; how the audience reacts to a girl who decides 5 days before her wedding, decides that no this is not working out and goes all out for what she believes in, being honest to herself. In a way it is selfish but for me that [it] is honesty and that is what fascinates me about these characters.
You have worked with Sanjay Suri in all your films and he is co-producing this one. What is your association like?
Actually right from my first film we have been producing together. Both of us produced My Brother Nikhil together. He has been very instrumental and supportive for me to become a director, to start off my career and has been a very big support even while doing this film. So, I think we believe in the same kind of cinema. We have just started our company where we will be making films that we believe in and enjoy watching. And not necessarily all the films will be directed by me. The next film we are doing is not a film I am directing; similarly there are films that he won’t be acting in. Just trying to do small budget films, which excite us.
Shabana Azmi told me that it was very hard to get a compliment out of you, is that true?
(Laughs) Yes, it is true. See the thing is when I am shooting I am very, very engrossed in what I am doing and also because we have a tight budget so I am trying to finish everything in time. So when a shot gets over and its good I’m busy planning the next, you know, and I just move on with my DOP (director of photography) and start planning the next. And I didn’t realise that I’m not telling my actors “wow”. I also felt that since they are all so good that if after every shot I keep saying you know “wow, fantastic” it just sounds so fake, you know. So, that is why I would never do it and later it became a joke that Onir just does not know how to say it has been a good shot.
Do you have any to give to the cast now? (Laughs)
I think they know my love is genuine, all of them are not just my actors, I think they are more like friends.
What is your favorite scene in the film?
Ooh that is difficult! But yea, there is this one sequence between Shabana and Chitraganda where they are sitting by the beach and Shabana looks out to the sea and suddenly she starts remembering her childhood. For me that is very special because I can see so much in her eyes and that scene was kind of inspired from my own mother’s stories. I can relate to it so much from the stories I hear from my mother about her childhood, swimming in the sea and I can see all that happening on Shabana’s face and I just feel very good when I watch that scene.
How often do scenes change from how you imagined them on paper and how they end up on film?
Not very often. I like the fact that when I start shooting for a scene I tell my actors this is how I imagine this scene and then I would like you to tell me what you would like to do with it. So, I am not very rigid but very often I think we see eye to eye because there is a lot of discussion before the shooting at the script level. Most of the scenes are close to the way I imagine but just better because I feel my actors bring in much more life to the characters, they bring an addition. I think that is what good actors are; they make it beyond what is there in the script. Also the visuals, everything comes together and so it goes one step beyond what is there in the script. I will give you a small example: there was this sequence I was trying to shoot with Sharman and Boman and after everything was set, suddenly Boman tells me don’t you think if we shot this at another location, like this, it would be better. And I didn’t even have to argue with him; I could just visually see what he was talking about. I just turned around and I left because I was just thinking a little bit quickly to stop them from lighting and go to the other location. So Boman thought, oh my God this guy is so upset that he’s just walks away. He didn’t get that I was just setting up for the next shot. He said, “You didn’t have anything to say you just walked away.” I said yea because I wanted not to waste time and get on with the thing and I liked your ideas. So, he was kind of shocked that he didn’t really have to convince, convince me. I said no if you are saying something, which makes sense, I’ll just do it.
How do you go about approaching starting a film?
I think the most important thing is the script for me. We really work on lots of drafts. I also like detail discussions with my DOP before I start shooting. I don’t like sitting and trying to decide what is my shot going to be at the shoot. So I like to be prepared so mostly at the shoot I am with my actors.
What are 3 things make a good film for you?
Good script, good script and good actors and a good captain of the ship (laughs).
How important is the music to you?
I feel especially for Indian films, music is a very integral part. As a person I enjoy music, but I don’t like it the way it is used in Bollywood where people just start singing and dancing and also to the camera. So, the way I use music is different. I mostly use it as background, almost like scenes of a montage that moves the story forward. But to me music is important because I enjoy singing; it is apart of my life.
So what is your favorite song or genre of music?
Favorite genre. I think what I enjoy about Hindi film songs, old Hindi film songs, is that the lyrics used to be so good, you know, that you could just sing those. Like in the evening, at the end of the day, if you have someone with guitar, you can just sing those and it feels so good. It releases so much negative energy and stress. I like that. I like oldies. I am maybe old fashioned. I like Pink Floyd and the Beatles and these kind-of songs.
After you make a film and see the final product, do you ever wish there were things you would have done different? If you could remake My Brother Nikhil or Bas Ek Pal, what would you change?
Yes, yes. In My Brother Nikhil, I don’t know what I would change. But there were a couple of places were we had a real, real constrain of money. So we didn’t have lights to do certain things. You know for some of the beach sequences we just didn’t have light to shoot it so we had to do it in full light. So those things I would have done, but otherwise I wouldn’t have changed anything for My Brother Nikhil.
For Bas Ek Pal, when I look at it now, I really feel I didn’t handle my climax well and I would have liked to do be able… I mean I can’t do it over but that is something I don’t feel good about.
And Sorry Bhai!?
Sorry Bhai!. What would I like to redo? I think I should have a shot a couple of more close-ups.
Are there any special memories from shooting My Brother Nikhil or Bas Ek Pal?
Special memories… You know My Brother Nikhil somehow will always remain the most special film for me because it was my first film. I realised after 10 years of being in the industry and having just one dream from my childhood to direct films, you know it was just something I was waiting for and that was a dream come true. So for me, after the last day of shooting, when I was leaving Goa, is probably the most memorable day for me. For me, it was that I should be able to have tried once and after that if I can’t respect myself then I would quit and do something else. But I thought I must be able to try one because I don’t come from a film family or film background. So it was important for me that somehow this is one thing I want to do and I will have to figure out a way to do it. So I think that for me was the most special memory.
Any special memories of shooting Sorry Bhai!?
You know for Sorry Bhai! it constantly brought back memories to me of My Brother Nikhil. Again we were by the sea, everyone staying together, constantly the sea forming backdrops of the sequences. One thing I remember is actually funny. I have this terrible habit of forgetting names and I remember once I was shooting with Sharman and at one point I have to tell him: Sharman, look at the camera. And when the camera was rolling, I just forgot his name, so I just looked to my cameraman and asked what’s his name. So he overhears it and he starts laughing and says the film shoot is not yet over and you have already forgotten my name (laughs).
It seems that smaller films are really making waves in Hindi cinema. What are your thoughts on that?
I feel it is too early to start celebrating but it is definitely a positive, positive sign. I am hopeful. I think it feels like the change is happening but it has not happened yet. It is actual a very difficult place when people are not sure, people are trying it out. So I feel that one is the in the middle of all this, which is exciting, but I don’t want to start celebrating yet.
What do you think of the films that are out now, or out in the last year?
I think there have been some interesting films coming out but also at the same time the biggest box office films are mostly such rubbish that I wonder is there a problem with my sensibilities that I can’t relate to these films. I don’t understand why everyone is saying it is a bad film, yet they are going to watch it. So that is depressing, that is depressing. The difference between what a good small film earns and what a bad big film does is just too much for one to feel good about.
Do you have any plans for your next film?
I am working on a couple of scripts but nothing is decided yet. I want to evaluate myself after the release, figure out after that where I want to go.
Have you seen any films this year that you wish you had directed?
No, you know I never watch a film and think of me directing it. I have films that I want to do anyway, too many of them! (Laughs). So I don’t want to do someone else’s film. I like to appreciate what I see without wanting to own it or be the owner of it.
Can you give us 3 reasons why audiences should go see Sorry Bhai!?
I think one is unusual original story. Great performances. It is something, which is pushing the envelope a little bit would just make them a little bit more accepting. You know I don’t like people being judgmental, so this film is not about being judgmental; it is about acceptance and I think that would probably make one a better human being.
Onir has a great artistic vision and I am really looking forward to seeing Sorry Bhai on the silver screen. I know we are going to see some fabulous work from this still young director and can’t wait to find out what he will present us with next. Be sure and check out Sorry Bhai! when it opens on Friday, November 28th! Check back for some exciting interviews with some of the cast of Sorry Bhai!!