Interview: Manish Acharya

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When the comedy Loins of Punjab Presents opened in India last year, it received tremendous critical acclaim and every person that saw the film loved it. The film was also screened at several film festivals including the LA Film Festival, where it won the ‘Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film’. The film was released on American shores in New York on September 12th. Once again the film garnered excellent reviews with the New York Times saying, “Loins of Punjab Presents, a witty musical comedy with a sharp political edge, is built on a satisfyingly simple premise. Directed with a cheerful touch by Manish Acharya from a warm insightful screenplay he wrote with Anuvab Pal, Loins of Punjab Presents joins show-time antics to sociocultural commentary without reducing its characters, colorful as they are to cartoon.” I had the opportunity to talk with the director Manish Acharya, and during our phone interview he told us a bit about the journey of making the film, what it’s like to work with Shabana Azmi and other filmi things.

First of all, how did you go from being a Physics/Industrial Relations graduate to getting a degree at NYU Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Film program? Was being part of the film industry always your dream?

I think in hindsight the answer would be yes, but if you would have asked me this before I had done it the answer would have been no, because it was something I loved doing. I mean, I always wanted to but it wasn’t kind of feasible. You know like you are twelve years old and you think you want to be an astronaut and in the back of your mind you know you are never really going to be an astronaut. So, it was that kind of a thing but then what happened was I actually caught myself looking at the clock one day, kind of wondering what time I could go home, and suddenly it hit me, wow, I am not even thirty and I am looking at the clock. By the time I am 50 I probably will be just not wanting to come into work. So I was discussing that with a friend of mine, and he said, ‘Oh you should do what you like. What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I would love to make movies. I don’t know how one does that.’ And he said, ‘Oh you should apply to film school.’ I never really thought you could go actually to graduate school for something you didn’t do your undergraduate in. When I found out you could apply to film schools without like having film undergrad that was when I was like, oh I am going to do this. That was when I applied to NYU, I got in, which is still surprising to me, I still think it was some sort of clerical error on their part. I went there for three years and this is my first film.

Tell me about the journey of making Loins of Punjab Presents? How did that all come about?

It actually started funnily in a Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan. A friend of mine, he is a playwright and I were discussing kind of this fascination that suddenly Bollywood kind of seemed to be everywhere. All this stuff going on and I said you know they are really missing what makes Bollywood movies so popular and that is the songs. And how Indians get so caught up with the songs. We just started about talking about singing contests and contests and how people sings all these songs and how everyone knows the words. And we started discussing characters that might actually be a part of a singing contest. And once we started doing that I just kind of knew that this was a movie I had to make because I wanted to see these characters on screen. That was the writing part, then financing, producing. We went through everything. I think the worst part of the journey, really is interesting, is after the movie gets made, because until then it’s this kind of creative fun you know, and all the obstacles are more creative than anything else. After that, the business kicks in and everything is about distribution and marketing and stuff. So I think while we did OK on that front as well, it’s the least fun of the whole process.

What was your favorite scene?

Actually it’s a scene where Turbanotorious BDG is dancing next to an elevator. I think part of the reason was we did it in the first take, and I loved it so much I said I’m done. Everyone kept looking at me like don’t you want to do close-ups? Don’t you want to do multiple takes? And I said, no, just watching it I was enjoying it so much, you know something, this is what I want to do. So til this day that remains my favorite scene, but on paper, when we wrote the script, my favorite scene was the first scene of the film, which is no longer in the film. It’s actually Bokade, the contest organizer, goes to the auditorium to decide whether they want to use the auditorium. It’s a scene between him and the guy who manages the auditorium and I still think it is the funniest thing we have written, except it was much funnier on the page than on the screen. I just couldn’t begin the movie with a scene I didn’t think kind of worked the way I intended it to, and there was no other place for it, so we just took it out. I’ll probably put it in the deleted scenes or something. Really, in terms of on paper, that was my favorite scene.

Does that happen a lot, where a scene works on paper but when you get to film it doesn’t work as well?

I think maybe after 10 movies I will be able to answer the question a little better, but in terms of this script in general, then yes. There is a certain difference, obviously, on screen vs on paper, and thankfully, knock heads, most of the time it was better. In some cases it wasn’t, but it was always different. It was very rarely exactly what we intended on paper. Part of the reason of course is the actors really flesh out the characters, so there is little non-verbal things that happen. Then of course costumes come into play, production design, lighting. I am actually glad, because in some ways in fact it was better; if the movie was realized at the script level then in some ways there would be no reason to make the movie. I am actually glad that it changes, and in most cases gets better, in that whole process.

Was it hard to be director and actor at same time?

You know I thought it would be and in some cases it was. I never really set out to do the role. We actually auditioned for Vikram, and we just did not find someone that worked for us. And finally I would keep acting out to the casting director kind of how I wanted this person to kind of be, and so finally they were like why don’t you do it? What tipped the scales was my assistant director who said listen, if we get one more actor in here whose schedule doesn’t match with our schedule we’re just not going to have a movie. And I said, well my schedule is pretty good I’m going to be there everyday. I feel two things, I think in some ways I am a better director for the other actors because I could empathize more with them because of how much you intellectualize when you are in front of the camera. And you realize this is what this crew is doing that may be bothering an actor, and this is what I may be doing that is bothering an actor, so that helped me be a better director to them. But I feel in some ways I missed having a director on set for myself.

How do you feel your performance turned out?

I think it is OK. I mean people have said they have really liked it. I think that if I was on set, if there was another me for example, I would have told me what to do differently. Like I would have said try this, try that. Of course, you don’t know how that would have worked in the final thing. But thankfully people have liked the character and they have not found it to be fake. But I look at and I keep thinking aah I should have done this, and stuff like that.

So your “directorness” comes out when you watch yourself?

Exactly. Funnily one would think that some sort of actor ego would come to the front but actually it’s not. It’s completely the director ego: oh no, this part isn’t directed as well. That is what comes out.

World-renowned actress Shabana Azmi played a role in the film. How did that come about? What was the experience like working with her?

Well,we all know that she has no talent. No, I’m just kidding. (Laughter) So tough to get that silly woman to act! No, she’s great. She is so amazing and one would expect with kind of the illustrious history behind her that she would almost deservedly be a diva, but she’s not. She is totally down to earth. In fact, she was one of the most trouble free actresses to work with and I almost wish she wasn’t, because it sounds as if I am just kind of being nice to someone who is important, but she actually was. If we had a scene where she had to walk by in the background, I know tons of people including lesser actors who would have said I am not going to do that. You don’t even see me. I am out of focus, just put someone else in my costume. Shabana never said any of that. She even joked about it, like here’s the director who wants to use Shabana Azmi as a extra, but she would be there. And she would wait for the call and if an actor in the foreground didn’t do something, she would be patient while I directed them, then kind of do her little walk behind them. I mean, just really cool, which you know is very rare. I was a fan of hers before I cast her but after this I am just like a total admirer.

Developing the characters, were any of the people in your film based on people you know?

I think so, in the sense I don’t think there was any one person that we necessarily tried to emulate. But yes, they’re definitely drawn from real life and then exaggerated in some ways. So yes, I think the inspiration for every single character comes from some real thing. Which is why I also think the movie works for most people, is because of that. Because the characters are rooted in reality without it becoming social realism. Like it is still a movie, it is still entertaining, but at the same time the characters come from a very real place.

So they can recognize sometimes some of the characters that they know maybe in their lives.

Exactly. The funny thing is that I’ve got these questions where someone asked me if I researched the Latino community, because all the characters are so much based on the Latino culture. When the movie was shown in Europe, one Polish gentleman came up to me and told me that, the Patel family was exactly like his family. So it is actually kind of funny, because I think we made them so specific [that] they have become universal. In some ways people see things in those characters that perhaps as filmmakers we don’t see.

Upon its release, the film garnered great critical acclaim. Did you anticipate this?

Actually, no. I say this thing to people and they always kind of wonder if I am kidding, but I am not. Which is that I never know what movie I am going to see in 2 weeks, so to try and predict what people will like two years away. So when we made it, we finished it and I saw it and I said OK, I think it works. The thing I said to someone was this is not a movie that would embarrass me. Which I think is kind of important. I mean if I go tell a friend, hey, you must see this film, I wouldn’t feel in the back of my mind, oh no, he is going to get really pissed off that I asked him to see it. So in that case I knew the film kind of worked at some level. I am actually very ruthless and critical of movies including my own. Even my own short films: I think one is totally rotten and two are OK. So I knew when I saw the film; OK, this is not just me being biased it actually probably does work. But the amount of critical acclaim we got did surprise me. I mean, people loved it. It wasn’t that they just thought it was alright, they were very effusive in their praise, which was actually very nice for both the crew, the cast, and me.

It is also getting great reviews in America. What does that mean to you?

I think the fact that the New York Times gave it a great review is great because I read the New York Times reviews. Even when I am India I go on the web and it’s one of those papers [where] I actually know all the reviewers’ names. I know which ones I agree with and which ones I don’t. So in some ways to have that particular paper review my movie, well, [it] was something that made me very happy. I try my best not to let any of this affect me too much. Partly because the reverse could happen to me when I worked just as hard on a movie with just as much sincerity, and have people hate it. And I don’t want to be in a situation where I get totally depressed about it so I’m just trying to be a little more even keeled. But I have to admit the New York TImes review was definitely a jolt of joy.

What prompted you to re-release the film in the USA?

The thing is we never really released the film in the US. We had played at a couple of festivals and we had offers from Indian distributors to release the movie in the US, but it would have mostly been in the Indian theatres. And I really wanted to release it more in kind of the mainstream art house theatres because I thought the movie was more accessible to a non-Indian audience as well. It was more the desire not to show up as an Indian film on this shore, but really more as an international film, that prompted us to wait. And thankfully that is what happened because at one point I wondered if I was making the wrong decision. But in the end I think it worked out.

Were you satisfied with how Loins of Punjab Presents did at the box office?

I am not thrilled about in the sense that I feel that because every person who sees it seems to love it and they tell their friends. And now we are getting a lot of repeats, not only are people coming to see it again but they are bringing their friends with them so that is great. It is just that people say word of mouth takes 4 weeks to build up and 4 weeks is just perhaps not as much time as we have in any given city. So part of me is just hoping that the word of mouth builds up a little faster. Overall it is doing well, but I wish it did better, but I think that is just me being a greedy filmmaker. I just want more people to see the film. I mean I would be more than happy for them to see it for free so its not the greed of box-office as much as the greed of viewers.

What do you hope audiences will take away with them after seeing the film?

I always think there are two main goals that any of my films should have: one, it should be entertaining, so at the end of the day more than anything I want them to feel like ‘I didn’t waste 90 minutes of my life.’ To me, that is really crucial because that is the one commodity that we can’t get back. If it was money, whatever, you can get money back, but not time. So that has always been a key thing. I feel we have achieved that with this film, because when people come out they don’t feel, oh god, I really should have spent my 90 minutes somewhere else. The second goal I have is that any movie I make should reward repeat viewings. And in that sense, I think this movie does that as well, because when you talk about the message as people see it once, there are some things put in, I mean there is a lot of political subtext in the film. Which I don’t like talking about partly because that is why it is subtext. In the q and a’s they say it is interesting that you did that, and I met someone yesterday who saw it for the 5th time, and she said you know, I didn’t even notice this thing. And that really kind of in some ways gladdens my heart because I like things, movies, that are dense and layered. Everything from great chocolate cake to good movies to good books. And I think anything really good like great wine, great whiskeys, whatever, everyone talks about oh, the aftertaste is this, and I see or get a scent of this, when you pay attention. And movies I love are like that. And I am glad that Loins of Punjab also has enough density in there to be like that, to kind of reward a repeat taste!

In your directors notes you wrote that “The film reflects my beliefs and my concerns. Issues of belonging, of defining ‘home,’ of self-image.” Can you give me some examples from the film that illustrate what you mean?

The first thing, of course, being the singing contest, the fact there is a Bollywood singing contest in the middle of New Jersey. I think that right away people are trying to create a sense of home in kind of an alien place, to the point where the white guy actually becomes a foreigner in his own country. I think it is really a question of how well who belongs, and who doesn’t. I mean there is Preeti Patel, who is someone who was born in this country, goes to school here, speaks with an American accent, but sings Hindi songs. Now where does she belong? Is she Indian? Is she American? Is she both? What does that mean? So I don’t think I am answering the questions, I think I am just raising them. And those are questions I kind of have and I think to myself. As we keep getting further, we talk about moving towards this melting pot global citizen thing and at the same time you have a terrorist attack, and suddenly a guy with a turban who is not even Muslim is chased by some guy on a street in Oklahoma. So you think to yourself, alright, well, that is this guy’s home, so where is his home because he can’t go back to India because that is not his home either. So I think it is those kinds of concerns that are in the film, that for me are reflective through, but in, a very comic sense. The same thing with the melange of the two old white people who think that every brown person is a terrorist. So that’s totally these people, their racism comes from ignorance. Now it’s your choice whether you forgive that or not, but I wanted to put that up there But it is put in a very comic way so when they keep overreacting people laugh. It is not ‘a oh my god see how good or bad they are’; it is not that at all. I mean I like to leave that open to interpretation.

Did you find directing comedy was harder or do you think directing a drama will be harder?

My short films have been very dramatic in that sense and I think comedy is much harder. It’s much, much harder. Two things – by the time you actually on set, by the time you are actually directing, you have read into the script so much. You have kind of broken it down, you’ve cast, things are just not funny any more to you, so you are kind of relying on your comic memory. You think to yourself, this, I think, was funny because of this timing. Part of it is that and part of it is that it is so much about timing. You could be off by like half a second and then it is not funny. Which is why for example, Jerry Seinfeld will say a joke, you will repeat it kind of verbatim to a friend of yours and they won’t find it funny. But if Jerry Seinfeld did it it would be totally funny because he’s got the timing exactly, the pause between the words. How do I arch my eyebrows just at this moment. I think one, that is hard, but on the flip side it is totally rewarding when you do it. There is nothing more rewarding than getting like 200 people to be laughing at something you created and you know that you have brought that joy into their lives. That is nice.

You have been a cameraman, actor, director and producer, which of these jobs is the hardest? Which do you like more?

The one I like best is directing. It is also perhaps the hardest in some ways. A lot of people think it is the hardest and I guess if I had to really break it down I would say it is the hardest, but I don’t feel it is hard. I feel that if someone told me I was to wake up every morning and go direct that would be like heaven. In terms for me what was the hardest, and that’s not because the job was hard but probably because I don’t enjoy it that much, is producing. It is caught up with the minutiae of things. It really in some ways is the bearer of bad news. All the discussions are about things that are not fun, so in that way I found that job to be the hardest. But again I don’t think it is because the tasks are hard, it is just because I did not like doing those tasks.

I started to ask what was it like to be the assistant cameraman on Ishq Vishk, and before I even got Ishq Vishk out of my mouth, Mr. Acharya said:

Actually I wasn’t, I keep trying to get that thing off of IMDB. I have never been on the set of Ishq Vishk. I have never been an assistant cameraman on a Bollywood film. I should actually should just call the director. I know Ken, I should be like, dude, get me off your IMDB listing! The funny thing I have actually shot films for other film students. I have never been assistant cameraman on that film, but I have been an assistant cameraman on short films.

What are your thoughts on the quality of movies, both Bollywood and Hollywood, that are being made today?

I think one thing about Hollywood, because it is the easier one to take, is that Hollywood has always churned out technically perfect movies. What I mean by that is their weakness tends to always be script and character, but given that particular script and character, it is the best realization of it. If Bruce Willis is playing someone, that character would wear those trousers, they would talk like that. So everything after that is actually done really, really well. I feel Bollywood still kind of lacks that. If you look at their movies, you still kind of like go, no way! Or, why is this unemployed guy wearing Armani? You are like the costume designer was like, let’s make this guy look good now, nothing to do with the character. So think I have an issue with that in Bollywood films. However, I think movies like Rang De Basanti, movies like Omkara, movies like Lage Raho Munnabhai, are just spectacular. I really enjoyed them, so I feel that the best way to put it is that more Bollywood movies disappoint me than make me happy, but those that make me happy, make me very happy.

Do you regularly watch Indian films? If so, which has been your recent favourite?

I do watch Bollywood movies, but much less than I used to, and partly that is because of the disappointment, I guess. It is a little old, it is almost 10 months old, but I still think one of my favorite movies over the last year has been Jab We Met. I really feel that after a long time, it was really amazingly well written dialog, everything we talked about, the reality of the characters. Even though there are these huge things that happen – coincidences, trains, and all that kind of stuff – even after all that you completely believe these characters exist and you root for them. I really, really enjoyed the film.

To you, what makes a great film?

I think a movie that transports you. That you enter their lives and when you come out you feel you met these people. I hate when people make excuses like, oh, but it’s a movie, but that’s the whole point. I mean, you read great literature or whatever, you get caught up in the world. If you read A Suitable Boy, at the end of those thousand pages you actually feel like you know these people. What is really funny, I must have read the book 10 years ago, I can’t remember whether it was actually in the book or whether some real person in my life did that thing. It is the power of great art that lets you makes it so real that you can’t even distinguish it from the real. And I feel that is the one thing that Bollywood movies seem to just kind of ignore and it really irritates me. Feels more like a business. Feels like they are packaging something and selling it to me and they don’t care about me knowing that. So that does irritate me, and the fact that people excuse it is even more irritating. In some ways I get more irritated with the audiences than I do with the filmmakers, because I am like, why are you accepting it? Why are you kind of saying, well it’s OK, you should go see it. Tell me it is OK and I should NOT go see it.

What is next for you? Will we see you in more acting roles? Do you have a script in mind for your next film as director?

I do, actually. I am working on finalizing it. That should go in production early next year. It’s a comic thriller, which is set in Tokyo and Bombay, and it has two American characters and two Indian characters. Its about a scam, it’s quite funny. But at the same time it is not funny in the Loins of Punjab way, it’s more of a thriller in terms of the way it is paced, the way it is shot and everything, the way it will be shot. So that’s that. And acting – I would like to. I mean that movie I am talking about, I don’t think has a role for me – I wouldn’t cast myself in any of those roles. But yeah, I would love it if someone else cast me in a film. I would actually love to act for a good director.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

If someone is reading this that hasn’t seen the movie they should. I guess that is what I keep pushing when I am here.

Loins of Punjab Presents is currently in theaters, so be sure to check out the film that Khalid Mohamed of the Hindustan Times said was, “the best laugh-out comedy in eons.” To find out if it is or will be playing in a theater near you check Theater Listings. Keep checking back if you don’t see your city because they are adding new dates all the time.

I would like to thank Mr. Acharya for taking the time to talk with me about his film, and for his wonderful and insightful answers. We here at BollySpice wish him the best of luck for all his future projects.

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