On Indie Films, Writing Scripts And His Upcoming Project - Shab: In Conversation With Onir

Posted on 4 May, 2017 by Team Wishberry


National Award winning filmmaker Onir is known for sparking conversations about uncomfortable but essential matters for the country. He is most known for his first feature My Brother Nikhil, a film that began a dialogue about same-sex relationships and covered the harsh treatment that AIDS patients dealt with. His latest project Shab is currently doing its rounds at major film festivals.


We got on a brief call a few days before his big release, and it resulted in an insightful conversation about independent films, scripting and finding your own style of capturing art. Here is an excerpt:


What should I know about Shab?

Onir: So, Shab is my first film. It is the first ever script I wrote. I began working on it while working as an editor and sound director for this film called Daman, starring Sanjay Suri and Raveena Tandon. At that time Sanjay and I were discussing some ideas, and he nudged me to write down the script as he thought it was a good idea.

And, that was the first script I ever wrote, this was back in the year 2000.


At that time I wanted to do the film with Sanjay only, but due to various circumstances we couldn’t perceive the project at the time, and it kept getting delayed. I just couldn’t let go of the script; I kept going back to it. Then, finally after 14 years in 2014 I decided to get it made.


And it might not seem so, but doing an independent project is really ambitious. The film was shot over one whole year, 4 seasons, and I don’t like cheating so 4 times I had to get all the actors (one even from France) to the shoot city i.e. Delhi.


Filmmakers tend to tell their own stories through their work. Are you guilty of doing so?

Onir: I have a little bit of a problem there!


So, when I made My Brother Nikhil, people though it was my story in a way, even though it was Dominic’s story. But just because the lead character was gay doesn’t mean that every gay story becomes mine.


And, when I made I Am, people again were like - the writing was so personal, the character is gay, abused as a child, is it your story? See now whether I write my own film or direct it, a lot of me is invested in the whole making of the character. There obviously will be a lot of me in it, but that doesn’t mean it is my story.


However, the experience of creating art and making a film is not outside you; it is your experience too. So in way all my stories are mine, but they’re not ‘my’ story either.


You’ve captured bizarre raw emotions with your characters in My Brother Nikhil. Are there such intense moments in Shab too?

Onir: I personally think that Shab is my best film. I am extremely proud of it, and I’m afraid people keep comparing my work to My Brother Nikhil and I Am. Shab doesn’t belong to the same genre, it is not an issue based film, it is a story of people’s lives in a city. Hence it doesn’t fall into that bracket.


And, My Brother Nikhil, I wish I had made it now. I’ve changed and grown so much as a person – I look at life differently, experience reality differently, emotions differently which makes Shab such a mature film. What I had written back in 2000 to what the film has turned out to be is so much bigger. It was challenging, but I’m glad that it is happening now.


Do you think India is doing well with its independent content, or are we still not creating great content?

Onir: No, I think we are not. We’re going through a bit of crisis. And it primarily is getting affected due to distribution and exhibition. That has always been a problem and it is getting worse by the day. Be it P&A, be it getting the film into a theatre, be it a Mukti Bhavan or any of these amazing indie films – despite receiving great reviews these films don’t make it big. Because in our theatres a 300 Crore film and a 3 Crore film have the same ticket prices, but the show timings of these small budget films will be on weekday at 3 p.m.


However, with the whole digitalisation happening with Netflix and Amazon, this issue won’t be faced by the next gen of filmmakers. This will change eventually.


Yes, after a film is made it suffers commercially. But low budget films like Nagraj Manjule’s or Chaitanya Tamhane’s Sairat or Court were rich on content.

Onir: Yes. But, Sairat is an exception, the formula and structure of the film is mainstream, also it wasn’t made on a shoestring budget. But here there is a whole other factor - these films are ‘regional’. With regional cinema the film is blessed with a strong connect for regional audiences. Plus when it comes to theatres, they aren’t competing on prices, tax-wise they’re in a benefit. Today a small film like Mukti Bhavan has to fight for its presence with numerous popular Hindi film stars. But, a Marathi film doesn’t have to do that.


Right. So, coming back to you. All the stories that you’ve written have one similar aspect; they all have multiple characters with the story narrated by each of them.

Onir: Correct. When I write I end up in this space or say a fascination about the different layers that all of us posses. And as you go through life you meet all these people and discover how so many people have so many different faces. Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise and sometimes it’s a shock. I try and bring that out, explore both shades without being judgemental.


Is that a style of storytelling something you’re willing to brand yourself by, or is just a coincidence?

Onir: One of my assistants told me that whenever there’s an intense scene being shot in any of my films, the characters shift their gaze to the rain, a sea, or any water body for that matter. And, I didn’t realise it till he pointed that out. This is something that happens naturally, everyone develops a style of his or her own.


How long does it take for you to write a script?

Onir: I am an untrained writer. That is why I put my scripts through script labs, because my very first draft has dialogues in them. I like to have my characters talk to me from the very beginning; it helps me write them better. I make it logical later on, the first draft is just getting the emotions right.


Hate to say this, but Sorry Bhai doesn’t quite seem like an original story. It reminded me of Dan In Real Life.

Onir: This is something that really makes me sad. One, because I wrote and registered the story way before Dan In Real Life was made.


That’s just… damn… unfortunate.

Onir: Yeah. The only project that I worked on that wasn’t original was Bas Ek Pal. It was a stupid thing that I did and I regret it.


What do you enjoy more, writing or directing, or editing for that matter?

Onir: Directing! Directing is a combination of everything; it is watching your stories come to life in front of you.


Do you change your stories on the go?

Onir: Yeah yeah, I keep it very open. Sometimes my actors share ideas about a particular scene. At times they convince me to change it, at times I convince them to stick to the script.


Which actor has been your all time favourite actor to work with?

Onir: Sanjay (Suri), he’s been the one who prompted me to try my hand at being a director, he’s always been a support. Also, initially when I used to write the script I used to imagine him as the lead, be it My Brother Nikhil, Bas Ek Pal.


And more or less, all creative artists have that shared equation, like the director-actor equation Rajkumar Hirani-Aamir Khan, Karan Johar-Shah Rukh, or Rohit Shetty-Ajay Devgn.


Okay, tell us which actor you’re dying to work with.

Onir: I want to work with Jude Law!


Woaah! Okay then. Name one film you watched in 2016 that you absolutely loved.

Onir: I loved The Salesman. The actors, the filming it was so, so beautiful.


Was there a film/story you thought you could better job at?

Onir: Ohhh! Umm, as a filmmaker I should not want to re-work someone else’s work. But, let me think. You know what, I’ll skip this.


Are you excited for NYIFF?

Onir: Nervous is the word.


Shab screened on the 1st of May at the 17th New York Indian Film Festival. The film follows the story of multiple characters struggling with unrequited love, unfulfilled desires and helplessness at the hands of destiny.


The first look of the film will be out next week, do follow the film on their social media pages - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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