Sudhir Mishra: The Enduring Storyteller

Sudhir Mishra is acknowledged as one of the leading filmmakers of the Indian new wave cinema movement of the Eighties to which his earliest award-winning films like, Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin, Main Zinda Hoon and Dharavi belong. His other and more recent works include the critically acclaimed, Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi, Khoya Khoya Chand, Chameli, and Yeh Saali Zindagi.

Sudhir Mishra: The Enduring Storyteller Sudhir Mishra: The Enduring Storyteller Source : Medium

"People often like cinema which is closer to their lives; when they feel that a film has helped them make sense of their own lives, something they often grapple with. It may give them a feeling that the filmmaker has put across their predicament better than what they themselves could have managed to do. They may not remember the stories so much. It's the experience, the moments and feelings that the film evoked in them, the characters and essentially the conflicts that remain in people's memories and not the story as much," Sudhir candidly opines on what is behind the lasting legacy of any film.

Sudhir Mishra has straddled vastly different eras and managed the transition from arthouse genre of the Eighties to mainstream cinema of contemporary times with finesse. He received the National Award from the late President Giani Zail Singh for his debut film, Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin, in 1988. He also received the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government.

Appreciation for the fine arts, literature and films was an integral part of Sudhir's childhood. Their large joint family in Lucknow would often get together in the sprawling verandah of their family home to watch films on a projector, and little Sudhir would find a place in the lap of either his father or one of his uncles. From a very young age, Sudhir was exposed to a variety of cinema. His grandmother chose to watch the works of Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray. She had watched Guru Dutt's Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam innumerable times and so had Sudhir as many times with her.

During the two interim years spent in Delhi for pursuing an M.Phil. in Psychology, he met with the renowned playwright and theatre director, the late Badal Sarkar and worked with him on various plays. Badal Sarkar's deep influence ended up changing the course of Sudhir's life and he chose theatre over a dissertation. After working with Vidhu for the first few years, Sudhir later teamed up with Kundan Shah who was making his directorial debut with a film that has now come to attain a cult classic status-Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron-and co-wrote it in 1983. "I owe a lot to the FTII. In the early Eighties, there was an open and liberal environment in the institute. One could walk into a class and nobody asked you any questions. It was an interesting place and helped me gain a lot of clarity on the technical aspects of filmmaking," Sudhir notes.

After co-writing a couple of screenplays, including Saeed Akhtar Mirza's Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho and Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Khamosh, Sudhir finally decided to direct his first film and made Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin in 1987, and won the National Film Award for Best Debut. A year later, he once again collected the National Award for Best Film On Other Social Issues for Main Zinda Hoon and yet again three years later for Dharavi.

However, a flurry of awards and critical acclaim did not translate into popular success for these films and the reasons were more systemic than anything else. So even though Sudhir's films were brilliantly crafted stories, they did not witness popular success enjoyed by some of the mainstream cinema.

Reflecting about the prevailing environment in his early years, Sudhir says, "The Eighties were tough times to be. It was tough to hang in. But then, those were our times. The alternative cinema of the 70s and 80s truly reflects the India of those days. You can see the concerns, despair, joys, and politics through movies like, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Dharavi, Manthan, Nishant, Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin, Ardh Satya, etc. These films played a significant role in influencing popular cinema as well. The poetry of an ordinary face, the sense of reality, strong women characters, all of that found an expression in our cinema. What is heartening is today the film community is more appreciative and accepting of that genre of cinema. The work that actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, etc., did in films like Mirch Masala, Bhumika, Mandi, Nishant, Aakrosh, have become iconic amongst most younger filmmakers."

Sudhir collective pain from passing of his brother and later his wife found expression in Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi, which is easily one of his finest films. Set in the backdrop of post-Emergency in Delhi University, the film beautifully dovetails the interplay of love, ambition, idealism and dreams of three protagonists essayed brilliantly by Kay Kay Menon, Chitrangada Singh and Shiney Ahuja. The film not only won Sudhir critical appreciation, it also travelled to several reputed film festivals.

In 2007, three years after Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi, Sudhir experimented yet again with a completely different genre and made a stylishly wonderful film called Khoya Khoya Chand. The film employed the poetic finesse of a bygone era in the Hindi film industry through the story of a young actress called Nikhat played by Soha Ali Khan. Vastly different in theme and detailing, Sudhir's next film, Yeh Saali Zindagi was a romantic thriller. Inkaar was also distinctly different and deftly explored the issue of sexual harassment at workplace. However, Sudhir's latest film, Daas Dev has come as a disappointment to even his most ardent fans.

Several of Sudhir's colleagues in the industry strongly believe that most of his films have been ahead of their times. For instance, way back in 1991, through the story of Rajkaran, who played the role of a taxi driver in Dharavi, Sudhir portrayed how the lives of the poor are impacted by corruption and crime in one of the world's largest slums. Yet another of Sudhir's films, Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin, which was inspired by a true incident in Sudhanshu's life, broke new ground as it not only captured the drama of a single night but also showcased gangsters as regular people with ordinary human emotions and relationships. It undoubtedly went on to inspire a generation of filmmakers who used the same approach to tell their stories about the Mumbai underworld.

Sudhir is honest while accepting the fact that it's the desire for success which remains at the heart of every filmmaker. "Filmmakers have the urge to tell stories and it's a sort of compulsion with them. In that sense, artists play by different rules. They could very well be doing something else but it's the strong inner compulsion to understand life and through the medium of films, tell their stories and connect with a large number of people. What's important for them is to be able to continue to tell stories and popular success helps in that," he states.

In so far as formal and academic training in shaping a director's work is concerned, Sudhir believes, like most practitioners of the craft, that no one can actually teach someone to be a director. "The imagination or gift for telling stories, connecting and adding the dots of life to create a story is something very personal and cannot be acquired. However, the technique can be taught and FTII has taught many who have made tremendous contribution to the industry. It is undoubtedly an interesting place that has added significant value to the industry. But as story tellers, I think we are living in interesting times. A lot of original work is happening in the industry. There are some extremely talented people who have an interesting take on life and it's a dynamic place to be in at the moment," he concludes on an optimistic note.

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Reference: Sonia Golani-Decoding Bollywood, Westland (2014)

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