In Conversation with Piyush Mishra

Piyush Mishra doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t need to. In an in-length in conversation with Piyush Mishra where he talks about his days in National School of Drama (NSD) and hi life after it, the flippancy with which he dealt his early, formative years, his theatre days. The unending streak of not settling down and wandering that had people construe him both as a fool and as a genius. What is the final goal of his life and why does it still elude him? He talks about the perceived misconceptions of a genius, his views on censorship, the lyrics he wrote for Gulaal and the different approaches by the directors he has worked with in the past. He also talks on why writers are still denied their right, the parallel cinema movement of the ’70s and the ’80s, and the latest buzz word in the industry: ‘New Bollywood’. 

Excerpt from an interview carried over the phone:

What kind of roles you enjoy performing the most. The kind of roles where you have the independence to improvise or the kind of roles where you have to work under director’s controlled supervision.

It’s difficult to say what style suits me, as I am comfortable in both the domains. On the one hand there are people like Anurag Kashyap who want me to improvise a lot, because he knows that is something I am really good at and since I am a writer too, so there are 50 things running in my mind simultaneously and I can put that into my role. While on the other hand there is Vishal (Bhardwaj) who is very strict about the words and wants his actors to stick to the line. Earlier I had worked with Tigmanshu (Dhulia) before coming to Mumbai in Rajdhani and he used to make me improvise a lot, but he also knew where to cut. Sometimes, it so used to happen that there were such long takes and he didn’t cut. After that his editor used to advise him to cut on time. When I shifted to Mumbai at the end of 2002, I didn’t do Maqbool first, I did Matrabhoomi and the director used to make me improvise a lot. Also, for the movie the dialogues were written after the scenes were improvised upon. And after that when I acted in Maqbool, I faced a lot of difficulties, because at that time acting according to me meant “improvisation‟, so initially I had problems, but after working with Vishal in that kind of an environment, I can say that I am comfortable acting in both the ways.

What are your views on Censorship? Many people on PFC (Passion for Cinema), and even people in general, found the line from the Ranaji song Door des ke tower me ghus jaaye re Airplane insensitive. Do you think audience’s stringent morality and sensitivity at times interferes with an artist’s creativity?

That line “Door Des ke tower me ghus jaaye re airplane” was initially “America ke tower me ghus jaaye re Airplane” which was very direct and if there was someone who had a problem with that line, it was me. Barring me nobody had problems with that line. Not even Anurag. In fact no one. But, I had always thought that after all it was a tragedy, and I was so afraid that it might not become a mockery. So, till the last moment I was worried over this line and even tried to change it. And if a certain section of audience had problems with that line, I can totally understand their point of view and would not call their concerns misplaced. Because, when I write I get an idea about the things I am comfortable about and the things I am not. So, naturally, anything I am myself not comfortable with, it is not a big surprise that even my audience would not be comfortable with the same. So, I fretted over this line a lot and was even worried that there might be a problem associated with it. Now, 26/11 happened just before the release of Gulaal, and had 26/11 not happened, it would not have been a big surprise had this song would have got banned, and in that case I would not have been able to do anything had they (censor board) decided to ban it. Also, I am not a fan of that kind of creativity where people are allowed to express just about anything in its name. I personally do not endorse that kind of creativity. But, this kind of line gave the song the starting it needed and unfortunately a better substitute did not come to my mind. Also, I did not want the song to become anti-American because I do not have Anti-American feelings myself. So, in the end I believe censorship is important everywhere, because then there would be absolutely lack of control and that is something I am not very fond of.

Gulaal’s music was composed in a period of week’s time. Do you show such eagerness for all your projects or something special happened with Gulaal?

At the time I was doing theater, it used to happen that in every play we used to do musicals. I also want to clarify one thing that there is no information available about my work before 1995. My formative age was the Act I period, and we used to do so many musicals in that period. We used to do all the musicals with brand new script, we just used to take the idea and then make the musical with all together new lyrics and music. So, if you are practicing something for quite a long time then it stays with you, so when I shifted to Bombay, most of the songs in Gulal are my old theater songs. The song Ye Shahar humaara sota hai was improvised by me to be included in the movie. Yaara Maula was a theater song in entirety, and then some new songs were also written. But, in totality the music of Gulal was ready in 8 days because I can attain only that speed when I work regularly and continuously. If someone asks me now for that kind of work (in terms of pace and quality), then it would be a problem for me, because that period was something else. Those were the days of being both creative and wild. We used to question ourselves – Why can‟t we do this? Why can‟t we do that? Heck! I will do this at any cost. It‟s difficult to say, it was a much unreasoned life, it was much disorganized too. There are people who say ‘Genius goes with disorder’, but I do not agree with it anymore now. I think genius is someone who goes about his work in a very orderly fashion. Now, if I think of it, I am much calmer than what I used to be earlier. Also, coming back to those days, doing that kind of work was not a big deal for me, and at that time I had no idea that I had 250-300 songs written and composed with me. It didn‟t come to my mind that I could use those songs for cinema, if somebody would have told me I could have even used some of my songs for theater; in fact I can even do it today. As Gulaal was a different kind of movie so my songs fitted perfectly, but, the industry works in a different way. Right now, I am writing songs for the movie Arjun for which Vishal Shekhar are composing the music and I am facing a lot of problems in writing the songs because writing for somebody else’s music causes problems for me. Although Vishal Shekhar have been very supportive and they have been saying that you can do it easily, and it is a misconception amongst people of me being a perfectionist that kills me a lot. And my heart doesn’t allow me to just write anything for the heck of it, and I am not saying this just because I am getting paid. I did my best work when I was not getting paid. I have seen many renowned lyricists who do not want their words to be changed even a bit. And that is why music directors face a lot of problems while working with lyricists. And right now, if somebody asks me to compose music for a movie, then I will have to muster a lot of courage because it has been a long time since I composed any music.

A major influence for Gulaal’s music and lyrics has been your theater days where you needed an outlet to channelize your frustration which is quite evident in the song Aarambh hai Prachand, where there is a streak of unrestrained madness in that song. And as you say you have become quite stable and have also mellowed down a bit, so do you think would it be tough for you to recreate that magic and more importantly, would it be possible for you to create the same kind of unrestrained madness in your songs?

It won’t be a problem even now. In fact, I wrote Aarambh hai Prachand for Gulaal only. I can do it even now, but it would be a different from my old days where I used to compose songs spontaneously. For Black Friday‘s song Ruk ja re bandeh, these guys (Indian Ocean) were composing the song and I was sitting outside, and I wrote the lines for the song then and there. They were all taken aback, and at that time I didn’t even know that the song was extraordinary. Also, what these guys were thinking as ‘extraordinary work’, they were unaware that I have doing this kind of work since the last 25 years. The song went on to become a huge hit and it is Indian Ocean’s most popular song till now.

What has been your experience doing several one man plays ‘An evening with Piyush Mishra’ like? How do you look back at that? And according to you, what do you find more satisfying – your work in theater or in cinema?

First of all, I have been a very confused guy all my life. I have always been very restless, and I have been very different since my childhood. By different I do not mean there is something glorious and extraordinary about me. Right from my childhood to my married life, where my wife became close to me only after a very long time, and my elder son was born in a period where my mind was very unstable and used to vacillate quite a lot. Now, in fact all of my family members are very close to me. But, I am telling you honestly, I just could not figure out my whole life what I really wanted to do. Some people think used to think about me – Oh he can even do this, he can even do that. Before joining NSD in 83, I did a lot of things, I was a painter, sculptor, I even played Sitar for 5 years, and I have been singing and composing songs since my childhood. I did not receive training for any of these things. I used to pick a thing, do something related to it and then leave it, then again used to pick a thing, do something related to it and then leave it. That has been my personality trait. Why? Because I was not getting my peace of mind and that is something which still eludes me. Even today. When I was young, I used to think when I would go to NSD I would have my peace of mind, but it was not to be. In NSD, there was this professor who had come from Germany; the year was 1985, 1st January, and he cast me in Hamlet (co-incidentally it was also the first day of Rajiv Gandhi’s first day of government) and I gave quite a good performance. Interestingly, months before that performance he had also told me that you are a good for nothing actor and you are not fit for NSD. But, I do not know at that time why I was so coarse and undisciplined that I could not stay with anyone for more than 2 days. I was so wild those days. And it is due to this nature of mine that earned me different names ranging from Mad, Genius, Stupid and a lots of other things. Some people also called me intelligent. After that I came to Bombay in 1989, and I had no idea how one was supposed to struggle. In fact, I did not even know whether I wanted to struggle in the first place or not. There was no clear cut goal in my life at that moment. After a glorious career in NSD, I had almost thrown it away. Because, if you don‟t do any work, your name would diminish at some point of time. And I could see that. I could see everything losing in front of my eyes. So, I graduated in 1986 and everything had finished by 1990. I came back in 1990 in September when Act I started. But, after Act I, I never took a step backwards. The initial days of Act I were really beautiful, full of romance, full of work, full of satisfaction, everything was there. After doing substantial work with the group, I realized Act I was not my cup of tea and I left it in 1995 (it was the same year I got married). So, after leaving Act I, I did not have a stage neither had a group. Besides, the kind of disorganized guy I was, I could not have made a group on my own too. Mr M Sharma was responsible for forming and running a group. And I was really disillusioned at that point what I wanted to do. My wife used to do these small plays and we used to go to our friend’s house and just for fun I used to do some solo performances for my friends in their bedroom, roof.etc. So, from there I thought that I could do this. Thus, in 1996 I did a couple of solo performances. Gradually, I started doing three solo performances, and I must say it was very taxing and I used to get very tired. But, when I did it once, I thought it was possible, and it became a trilogy and was a huge hit. Before that I had enjoyed group theatre, campus theatre, street theatre, musical theatre. After that I gave a lot of solo performances and they were all very well received. But, after two years I got tired and bored of doing these solo performances too. So, as I told you this was my fourth stardom. In fact, in Act I, there were all stars, me, Manoj Bajpayi, Ashish Vidyarthi. These all were big stars of theatres. So, cinema in a way is my fourth tryst with stardom where people recognize my work in a different way. They think of me as a guy who can also do this, who can also do that, and he is not interested in these, which is a good thing. But, then again I started facing this predicament, because I think am not doing that work which I want to do. I don’t know; I am confused, really confused. In fact, there is nothing glorious about me. People heap praises on me just like that and I am not saying because I want to sound humble. I really mean it. Also, I don’t know what stability in life means. Because, throughout my life I have been very unstable on a mental level and even now. So, it is difficult for me to compare both the experiences (of theatre and of cinema) and pin point which performance of mine was the most satisfying.

Your play ‘Gagan Damam Bajyo’ on which the movie The Legend of Bhagat Singh was made for which you had also written the dialogues. There was a lot of controversy regarding the issue of credits. Also, recently there was a row between Chetan Bhagat and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. So, what do you make out of this recent controversy when you juxtapose it with your situation? Why does it happen like that in Bollywood?

I had written the complete screenplay for the movie and I wasn’t credited for that. Yes, I was credited for the dialogues, but they could have at least shared the credit of screenplay, but that is an old thing and I don’t think much about it now. I have read that novel of Chetan Bhagat, and they (Vidhu Vinod Chopra and co.) could have given the credit for the story had they wanted to, but not the entire screenplay, in my opinion. These guys have really worked hard over the screenplay and I personally don’t think the credit for screenplay should have been given to Chetan Bhagat. But, things of these sorts are not uncommon in Bollywood, I am not talking about 3 Idiots here specifically, but things of these sorts are very common here. People tamper with your scripts a lot and you can’t say anything. Moreover, there is no law and copyright actions to protect the writers, however, these days there are some work going on with respect to the copyright laws. Moreover, here people are not even concerned about these issues and they are not even bothered about what kind of movies you are going to make. For instance, nobody cares if you are making a movie on Bhagat Singh or not. Who is Bhagat Singh? All people care about is money. They made a movie on Bhagat Singh because prior to that Gadar was a big hit. Had Gadar not been a hit; people would not have bothered about it at all. That play (on which the movie Legend of Bhagat Singh was made) is still with me even now and many major scenes were taken from the play itself in a completely unaltered form. So, here it is not a big thing to steal someone else‟s idea or for that matter even the entire story. Plagiarism is something that will stay in Bollywood, filching people’s credit would continue. And after a couple of jolts people learn their lessons the hard way as to how to go about in protecting their works, for instance, getting educated on the importance of getting one‟s work registered and how can one be strict and attentive so that no one takes away the credit.

So, in this kind of situation when new writers come to Mumbai to capture their vision on celluloid, don’t you think it is a much unprotected environment for them? What do you have to say to budding writers in this regard?

Initially everyone has to face similar kind of obstacles (the ones with respect to plagiarism) and I want that new writers face this kind of struggle, because people learn from these experiences a lot. Because, this is a professional world and there will be a constant fight over credit. So, such kinds of things are bound to happen. There are very less fortunate people who have things going in their favour, right from the beginning. For instance, my friend Manu Rishi Chaddha who wrote dialogues for the movie Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. He was lucky because the team with which he worked had couple of people as his friends. The music director was his friend, Dibakar was a friend of his, and he has written such dialogues in the movie that he is protected now. But, not everyone is fortunate like him and it must also be noted that he has not written a single screenplay till now. When he will write a screenplay, he is bound to face similar problems. So, people generally tighten up after getting conned a couple of times and the people who don’t come on track even then, I have really no sympathies for them.

We have been seeing that, of late, there has been an increase in mainstream convention defying movies, and therefore a term ‘New Wave Bollywood’ has been coined and has been used often frequently. Do you think this trend is here to stay or will it fade away like the movement of 70’s? 

The movement of the 70’s and 80’s was more concerned with the movies of Manmohan Desai, where Amitabh Bachchan played the lead. That phase never came to stay. Before that there was a nice phase for cinema, but cinema had been distorted to a great extent in the 70’s and 80’s…

I am talking about the cinema of the 70’s and 80’s spearheaded by directors such as Govind Nihlani and Shyam Benegal where they were making different kinds of movies…

What different kind of movies were they making? Nobody used to come and see those movies. It was that phase whose permanence was not even justified. I am not a big fan of that phase. Although there were people like Saaed Akhtar Mirza who used to make some quality movies, and right now we have people like Vishal, Anurag, and even his assistant, Raj Kumar Gupta, there is Dibakar, and Imitiaz Ali who is although making commercial movies but at least there is something worth watching in his movies. These guys are making quality cinema and I am very hopeful that this phase is here to stay. Most importantly, these guys are original, although even Ketan and co. were original but I do not know what happened to them with time. Dibakar has made a movie called Love, Sex, Aur Dhokha in which there are no stars. In fact forget a star, there is not even a single guy whom you can recognize. But, let me tell you honestly cinema is not the major thing in my life. There is something else that is yet to come in my life, I don’t know what, but I have been made for something else too. And even now there is that same confusion in me; I am still a bit unstable. The cinema is there all right, but there is something else. I don’t know what that is. I am confused.

What is the role of movie critics in elevating the standard of cinema in our country?

Movie critics play a great role in elevating the standard of cinema in our country, but there are very few good movie critics around. All these critics somewhere down the line get profited by the stars in some capacity, so they tend to compromise somewhere and therefore can’t maintain an objective stance while critiquing a movie. I won’t take names, but I have seen even the best of critics being swayed. Everything has become commoditized now. Everything is sale-able in today’s time. There are many things with which you compromise.

In the late 80’s, you were considered for a lead role in Maine Pyaar Kiya, which somehow never materialized. More than 20 years down the line, how do you look back at that? Was it a conscious decision? Do you have any regrets about the same?

It was that phase of mine that I told you about where people used to call me names, and I was really unstable and confused as to what I needed from life. This happened in 1986 in the month of March-April and I was studying in third year of National School of Drama (NSD), slated to graduate in June. The director of NSD at that time was Mr. Mohan Bakshi, and he called me once when I was sitting in a class, and when I went to his room, Mr Raj Kumar Barjatya was sitting (Sooraj Barjatya’s father). And he said that he was launching his son, Sooraj Barjatya as a director and he had come here to look for male leads. Bhagyashri had already been decided as the female lead by then. So, he gave me his personal card and told me to report to their office. He also asked me when you will graduate, so I told him I would pass out from here in the next two months. Now, after that my mind was not in the right place, why it was not, I do not know all of that. I did not go for the next three years. 87, 88, 89, I did not go in for three years. I have no reason to say why I did not go. I was an aimless wanderer who just used to loiter around here and there. God knows. Three years later I got to know that the movie was Maine Pyaar Kiya, and I also came to know later that there was a very strong recommendation for me and had I tried I would have even got it. But, at that time I was not ready for cinema. In fact, why cinema, I was not ready for anything. I was a hopeless case. And then Act I came as a glorious phase in my career. I consider myself to be born in 1990. Everything before that is waste. I came to my senses in 1990. I think everything is destined and this thing was planned in this way to happen. When others see me now, they think that compared to my early years, I am very stable now. In fact, even I think that I have become a bit stable, that‟s true. But, the bigger question is what next? Do I visualize myself doing cinema all the while and being in Bombay all the time? My house is a bit far from Bombay, and I like to come back to my house by 7 or 8. If cinema is treated as a profession only then it‟s ok, but if you start eating, drinking and living cinema and you have no life beyond cinema, then those kinds of things disturb me. It used to disturb me a lot in the beginning so much, that I thought that there must be something beyond cinema. So, right now I am in constant search for that. The meaning of my life… beyond cinema.

As you were saying that your final destination in life is still uncertain, I would like to ask you something on the similar lines – whether you have plans to direct movies in future?

Yes, if I want to fulfil my ambition through cinema then it is through direction only. Because it‟s the only thing where you have all the command in your hand. Likewise, there is an actor in a theatre similarly there is a director in cinema. Of late, I have gone into a comfort zone and have started relaxing a bit and I often think that if one does not have money in life then there is an excitement to do so many things in life, but then there is a certain confusion too which I can’t explain. If somebody asks me what is that something which bothers you the most? Why are you worried? Then, I won‟t be having an answer to the question as to why am I so worried. Because I have no reason to be disturbed. In fact, even my fans out there would be wondering why I would be disturbed. In today‟s time I have the recognition, I hail from a small town, and I had huge expectations from my life, and I have even been successful in realizing them. Almost everything is correct as of now, but what is the reason for such a disturbance? But, I know that disturbance. There is something lurking around. So, for the time being I have submitted myself to almighty and I have stopped thinking so much. Let’s see what happens and what doesn’t.

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