Behind the scenes: Film professionals who left a mark in the last decade

When you think about a Bollywood romantic comedy, the usual trappings of the genre normally cross your mind—the chemistry between the leads, pleasant songs, love prevailing over different odds, and what not—but what won’t come to you is this: sperm donation. Juhi Chaturvedi made her screenwriting debut with the 2012 romcom Vicky Donor, centered on a young sperm donor, and threw the Bollywood rulebook out of the window. Off-kilter, funny, and endearing, Vicky Donor was one of the better films of the year. Three years later, Chaturvedi came up with another film and this one, too, was equally odd. If Vicky Donor primarily revolved around artificial insemination, the 2015 film Piku, at least on the surface, was about sluggish bowel movement. But beneath the layers of scatological gags lay a film that expertly dealt with the push-pull dynamics of familial relationships and posed uncomfortable questions about mortality. Chaturvedi’s only three years and two films old in Bollywood, but few screenwriters have been able to capture the taboos, inadequacies, and small joys of urban lives as well as her.

Aarti Bajaj’s career in films has coincided with the rise of ‘New Bollywood’ in the aughts—movies that eschew the hackneyed tropes of commercial Hindi cinema, and take chances with stories and storytelling. She landed on the filmmaking scene with Paanch, a movie that unfortunately never found a theatrical release. But since then, as a film editor, she’s breathed life into some of the most important films of the last decade: Black Friday, Jab We Met, Dev D., Paan Singh Tomar, Do Dooni Chaar and Highway. Bajaj’s been in the industry for quite some time, and yet her filmography doesn’t exhibit a hint of desperation; she hasn’t worked on one brain-dead film, hasn’t wasted her time on projects that didn’t challenge her. The landscape of Hindi cinema has markedly improved over the last few years—now, our films are regularly screened at prestigious film festivals abroad; some have also begun bagging important accolades—which suggests that Bajaj, who has embodied this movement for long, is here to stay for a while.

If you felt Abhay Deol’s character lose his bearings in Dev D., thanks to the movie’s principal camera that seemed on a trip of its own—rapidly swirling, unsteadily swaying—as if mimicking the drug-addled eponymous hero’s mindscape, then the credit for that immersive experience goes to the man behind the camera, cinematographer Rajeev Ravi. On the other hand, if Gangs of Wasseypur unfolded like a desi Western—with wide shots framing the rurban Jharkhand locales—then, again, it was Ravi who altered our perception of the film’s setting, morphed it into a character. Ravi has frequently collaborated with Anurag Kashyap (barring Paanch and Black Friday, he’s shot all other films made by the director), who thrives on the ‘guerrilla style of filmmaking’—furtively filming on locations, capturing the crowd and chaos at their disordered best—and this unique shooting methodology puts Ravi under pressure, but that anxiety never shows on screen; in fact, it shows us glimpses of India that may appear foreign to many Indians.

Amitabh Bhattacharya is perhaps the only Hindi film lyricist to have lent poetic eloquence to the ubiquitous urban phenomenon called ‘Friend Zone’. A line in the song Locha-e-Ulfat from the movie 2 States rolls thus: “Kya khaak dosti hai, daftar ki naukri hai, karne ko dil nahin hai magar kare jao (What pointless friendship is this/seems more like a mundane job/disinterested, you continue to persist).” But Bhattacharya is not just about the playful stuff—even though few lyricists today can beat him at that game when he’s at his finest—and his astonishing range is evident in songs of such films as Dev D., where angst, desperation, and longing danced together with fierce abandon; Udaan, which helped give suppressed aspirations new poetry; Lootera, which turned its ears to the liberating highs and crushing lows of love. For someone who struggled for eight years in the industry to make it as a singer and thought that his first song as a lyricist, Emotional Atyachaar, would derail his playback career, Bhattacharya’s come a long way, emerging as the new voice of young India that is irreverent, cheeky, and not afraid to sing its mind.

Before Namrata Rao entered the movies, she was settled in Delhi, enduring the rigour of a corporate job, living a tedious routine. Now, she shapes films in editing suites, imbuing them with qualities—mood, pace and tension—that subliminally affect the movie-watching audience, make them believe that the film wasn’t carefully assembled from many hours of raw footage. Less than a decade old in Bollywood, Rao’s now counted among the most promising film editors in the country, having cut around two-dozen films, including such notable ones as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Ishqiya, Kahaani, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, and Titli. It’s been a career that has seen some very impressive achievements. Her best work till date? Not the razor-sharp Kahaani, which won her the National Film Award for Best Editor in 2013, not the much-lauded triptych Love Sex aur Dhokha, where she seamlessly alternated between the mood and rhythm of three distinct stories, or the eccentric and delightful Ishqiya; it’s the documentary Katiyabaaz, where she culled 84 minutes from a nearly 300-hour footage, which thrummed with the immediacy of a fictional film.

It’s only fitting that someone like Resul Pookutty—a sound designer and mixer, who creates and manipulates the elements of sounds to compliment the visuals—hasn’t constrained himself to working on films in a particular language. After all, to what language does the sound of raindrops, which Pookutty mimics by “making sugar fall on a piece of plain paper”, belong? A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, in 1995, Pookutty has spent nearly two decades working on movies in such diverse languages as English, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam, making him a true representative of Indian cinema. From making the transition to big Bollywood films, with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2005 Black, to winning the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing, in 2009, for Slumdog Millionaire, Pookutty has come into his own in the last few years and has become one of the foremost film technicians in the country.

Art directors—responsible for creating the visual look of a film—can help filmmakers elicit an emotional response from the audience even before a particular scene has formally kicked in, even before the actors have begun performing. Marking his presence in Bollywood with the low-budget Paanch, where a shabby flat shared by the film’s leads came to life with absolute realism, art director Wasiq Khan made his forte clear: He could enliven the film’s world even with modest resources. After Paanch, Khan worked on several critically acclaimed small-budget films such as Black Friday, Dharm and Aamir. However, in the last few years, Khan’s diversified his filmography by gradually transitioning to popular mainstream movies—Dabangg, Tanu Weds Manu, Rowdy Rathore—but his impeccable attention to detail and allegiance towards the film’s world have remained intact. A little more than two years ago, Khan signed up for the ultimate test of a Bollywood art director: designing the look of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. The shooting locales of that film, Goliyon Ki Leela Ramlila, switched between the exteriors of a rugged hinterland and the interiors of opulent mansions. Khan alternated between those two distinct aesthetic senses with ease, as if acknowledging his own journey in the movies over the last many years.

In the last decade or so, a bunch of Bollywood filmmakers has become less dependent on stars. Their scripts don’t just revolve around a hero, but feature a slew of supporting characters who substantially affect the film. As a result, casting director Mukesh Chhabra, responsible for selecting appropriate actors to play such characters, has increasingly become helpful to a lot of productions. Take, for example, Anurag Kashyap’s sprawling 320-minute crime drama Gangs of Wasseypur that contained nearly a dozen side characters, replete with unique traits, whims and inner lives. Had it not been for Chhabra, who carefully picked the right actors to populate Wasseypur’s heady universe, the film could have turned out quite different, perhaps, even less credible. Over the last few years, Chhabra has handled the casting for many important Hindi films, such as Rockstar, Shahid, Kai Po Che!, Highway, Haider, and P.K. He’s also helped bring many well-deserving actors in the spotlight; he backed Rajkummar Rao to play the role of a self-centered, middle class businessman in Kai Po Che!, when the actor had just started out in the industry. But Chhabra’s most inspired casting choice, by far, remains the one where he roped in not an actor, but a director to play a rather tricky part. The character was a hinterland gangster, businessman, and politician all rolled in one, speaking with the calmness of a Zen master. Chhabra chose Tigmanshu Dhulia, who had not acted in a Hindi film before, to play the role of Ramadhir Singh in Gangs of Wasseypur. Dhulia owned that role, and “beta tumse na ho payega”—a line, in the movie’s second part, that the actor improvised on set—is still tossed around in light-hearted banters.

A line producer monitors the pulse of fluid money on set—allocating budgets for shooting locations, hiring crew members, acquiring necessary rental equipment—and regulates the cost of making a film. The responsibilities of a line producer increase, and become complicated, in case of a foreign production, as it involves helping the folks associated with the film file their visas, procuring permissions and clearances for shooting from the government, providing consultation on local taxation laws—the list goes on. When Hollywood films are shot in India, a local line producer is invariably required. That line producer is usually Tabrez Noorani. In the last decade, Noorani has worked on various renowned Hollywood films such as Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and Eat Pray Love. He shot to fame with the universally acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire—one of the few international films to have been completely shot in India—where he effectively managed the logistics of a challenging film and ensured that the scenes set in red light districts, slums, and train platforms, often involving thousands of extras, were filmed without hassle. On 11 January 2009, when director Danny Boyle went up on stage to collect the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, he thanked, in his acceptance speech, his “three musketeers”—unit production manager Sanjay Kumar, production supervisor Pravesh Sahni, and, one who made his way through murky Indian bureaucracy to make the film happen, Tabrez Noorani.

Public relations firms, rising to prominence in the last decade, have changed the way business is conducted in Bollywood. They work with both production houses and stars—handling corporate communications, managing actors’ public image, marketing films—acting as an interface between their clients and the news consuming public and, as a result, have also markedly altered the landscape of film journalism. In the rapidly flourishing pool of entertainment public relations agencies, Spice PR has emerged as an influential player, managing several well-known movies and film stars. Founded in 2004, Spice PR started out with Yash Raj Films’ Hum Tum, strategising an innovative marketing campaign for the film that helped its commercial success. Since then, the firm has worked on different kinds of films—both big and modest budget ones—including Dhoom:3, Chennai Express, Slumdog Millionaire, Udaan, Ship of Theseus, The Lunchbox, and 3 Idiots. It’s also handled image management for such stars as Deepika Padukone and Aamir Khan, when their public image needed desperate revamping. Supervising those who make the money talk in b-town, Spice PR has become a uniquely powerful entity in a relatively short period of time.

This piece was first published in Platform magazine. 

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