Offering him a chance to graduate from directing on television, to debuting in films, producer Mukesh Bhatt asked Anurag Basu in the early 2000s how much he would charge. Mukesh, well-known in Bollywood to be frugal with expenses, suggested, “Rs 7 lakh?”
Basu agreed so instantly to the number that, taken aback, and in that split sentence, Bhatt revised that Rs 7 lakh into a two-film deal! “In just two seconds, huh,” Basu laughs. “But it was my stepping stone, I was just an outsider, getting to learn a lot; I would have done it for free,” he says; no complaints still.
This would’ve been for his forgotten debut Saaya (2003, starring John Abraham, Tara Sharma). Having delivered a box-office dud, the sets for Basu’s second film had also been mounted, when he had stopped showing up at the office of Vishesh Films (run by brothers Mukesh and Mahesh Bhatt). He told the producer, he’d “lost confidence” in the film they were about to shoot/start in a few days.
But there was a half-constructed set, paid for, while Vishesh Films were already reeling under a string of flops. “Ghuma phira ke”, Basu narrated an idea around what Mukesh had suggested. Driving back home, he found actor Kashmera Shah sitting at the Barista coffee shop in Lokhandwala. He stopped to ask if she’d dance for a song, which Anu Malik composed in a couple of days.
They utilised that set for a track, Dil ko hazaar baar roka, and carried on with another film altogether. Which was? Murder (2004). It gave Basu tremendous box-office cred. The film went on to collect R75 crore. And Basu received? R3.5 lakh – second tranche of his two-movie deal – making him perhaps the best directorial ROI for a producer, in the history of Hindi films!
Male audiences across North India lined up to catch the skin-fest Murder – evidently inspired by Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful (2002) – mainly to ogle at Mallika Sherawat. It’s Emraan Hashmi, the male lead, who became the single-screen sensation: “He became a rage!”
Every producer at the time, top ones included, had a DVD of a sleazy Hollywood film that they wanted Basu to convert into a Hindi movie! Murder itself belonged to a B-movie genre (that subsequently became a franchise).
How Basu elevated it still is with a certain level of soft lighting and warm aesthetics: “Aesthetics are in-built, you cannot change it. It’s the way you see things. I used to also shoot television like that,” he says.
In fact, you can notice even more of that – surely the film industry did – in Basu’s Gangster (2006), a musical drama, loosely based on underworld don Abu Salem and his moll, ’90s starlet Monica Bedi’s escapades. Who became the star from that movie? Debutant Kangana Ranaut.
“Of the 20-25 girls we auditioned for the part, her face just stuck in my head – there was something unique about her,” Basu recalls. Did he foresee her success? “In the beginning, she needed guidance for everything. But she is a really fast learner. I have seen her growth during the filming of Gangster itself.”
What about her public persona, as the relentless online troll, if you may? Did he see this coming? “Not really. We usually don’t meet, but whenever we do, this (public) persona is not the Kangana I (know) personally. So I think there are two Kanganas. Beech wali (the other one) I don’t understand.”
Basu, 46, Bengali boy from Bhilai, moved to Bombay to pursue a graduation degree in physics, and look around for work in the entertainment industry alongside. Lives of the young in the steel township he comes from are chiefly centred on cracking medical and engineering exams. He got exposed to story-telling and performance arts, because of the theatre group that his father ran as a hobby. And they’d travel with plays at amateur theatre competitions across India.
In the sense of Bollywood, Basu belongs to a productive class of the early ’90s actors/filmmakers, from various parts of India, looking to build a career in showbiz, and who gradually took over Bollywood’s reins later.
Entertainment editor Mayank Shekhar connects with the filmmaker over a video call
He started out as a 22-year-old assistant allowed to direct a scene in the popular television show Tara – putting his foot down among veteran actors, so they took him seriously, which was becoming an issue. He exited TV about a decade after, as the highest paid director: “I used to make as much from a month of TV, as I did from my first film.”
There are also the common stories of doing producers’ rounds, hanging around Prithvi in Juhu, approaching Shyam Benegal, Sriram Raghavan to assist. Also, accidentally, dancing behind Mithun Chakraborty, as the hero’s friend, in a film called Dalaal (1993) – because the director was Bengali (Partho Ghosh), and they were looking for a bilingual Bengali assistant to help communicate at an outdoor location!
There is a scene in Vikramaditya Motwane’s film AK vs AK (2020), where the self-referenced protagonist, director Anurag Kashyap, is casually referred to as Anurag Basu. This is partly true in the reverse as well, as it turns out, since Basu would get messages meant for Kashyap back when there were pagers for communication (or the lack of it).
In fact, they have a lot more in common, I discover, during this conversation, including Benegal, Raghavan, Prithvi, a play that both were meant to do for Makarand Deshpande. And, inevitably, stories around the adorable old miser Mukesh Bhatt!
Where similarities between Kashyap and Basu end is, of course, in their cinematic worldview. Even a gun-toting thriller with dames and dons, Ludo (2020), in Basu’s hands, turns into a joyously musical carnival of atrangi/colourful/shiny characters! His films are more fantastical in their approach, yet experimental in their own right. While it may not seem so, he says, they are actually drawn from reality.
The semi-silent musical Barfi, he reveals, is based on a real-life girl Razia (played by Priyanka Chopra, and who she actually met later), and a boy with hearing impairment called Murtaza (that was Ranbir Kapoor).
Basu knew these two from a special school in Goregaon, which had a branch near his Andheri office. He had locked Barfi’s script, the sleeper super-hit of 2012, at the same time as he’d finished writing Super 30, based on Bihari math wiz Anand Kumar, that later got made with Hrithik Roshan, directed by Vikas Bahl.
Likewise, the lead character (played by Ranbir) in the full-blast, theme-park adventure Jagga Jasoos (2017), of a young man who stammers, but not when he sings, is essentially Basu’s long-time music collaborator, Pritam!
Katrina Kaif’s character in the same movie, he says, is wholly modelled on his clumsy wife Tani: “Calamity Jane, that’s her. She could be holding a cup, and be left with just the handle. Lots of stuff that happens (to Katrina) in the film has actually happened before me in real life with Tani.”
Calamity is also how Jagga Jasoos got blasted as, by a wide section of the film industry, upon release – given how long it took to make it in the first place (roughly over four years). “Yeah, too long, actually,” Basu admits. “We could have finished a year before. There is not a single thing I can pinpoint (for what went wrong). Ranbir (the lead) was shooting and promoting four films (Besharam, Bombay Velvet, Roy, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil) during this time. I could have put my foot down and requested him not to. But then, Pritam also wanted time to make music. I didn’t know where to balance. Even after all this time, we were rushing with post-production, five months before release!”
Then there was the story from Jagga Jasoos sets about veteran actor Govinda being hired, he’d even shot, and then was fired: “Govindaji did come with us. With such delays already with the shoot, (there was confusion) if Govindaji is coming on the set, or is he cancelling the flight, or is he taking the fight, or are we cancelling shoot? It was so unpredictable. I couldn’t have taken that stress, yaar. We were shooting outdoor in South Africa, everything was lined up. I just had to (let go of him).”
Not that Basu isn’t used to this level of stress – more so, a barrage of take-downs, post the release of a film. The biggest case study in his career might well be Kites (2010), a hugely ambitious trans-Atlantic release, headlined by Hrithik Roshan, with the Mexican tele-novella star Barbara Mori in the female lead.
Kites opened to theatres in India with desis wondering what language the film they had walked into was in – English, Spanish; or Hindi? The budgets clearly didn’t match the public response to this immensely stylised romantic thriller.
Basu himself felt as lost during the making of Kites, he remembers, as the audiences did after its release: “Take a film like Gangster. I wanted to shoot in Korea. I asked my producer (Mukesh Bhatt) if I could. He’d be like, ‘Here’s R3 crore – finish the film within it. Now I don’t care if you go to Honolulu, or anywhere else.’ So, I knew my budget; production was in my hands. That’s what I was used to. With Kites, it wasn’t like that. I was just going there and directing. And we would discuss how we are going to execute (the scenes). I was not thinking of market, returns… It started out as a small, indie (film). It was taking its shape, with four or five people making decisions. Also my vision and (producer) Rakeshji’s (Roshan) were separate. Eventually, yeh naa idhar ka raha, naa udhar ka (it belonged to neither an international nor a local audience).”
Which isn’t to tone down Basu’s own reputation, mostly suggested warmly by his colleagues, of him revelling in the chaos of filmmaking – deriving magic from the spontaneity of a moment, rather than over-planning. While this may cause major heartburn, if the money involved is massive, it has surprisingly served him well in the mainstream.
Actors who’ve worked with him often speak about showing up on the set, with little idea of what they’re meant to do. The scene develops as they go along. This can be a scary process, yes. It hasn’t stopped him from attracting some of the top Bollywood stars around. Case in point is Ludo (2020), with more bona fide movie-industry leads (Rajkummar Rao, Abhishek Bachchan, Aditya Roy Kapur, Pankaj Tripathi, et al) than you can fit into two-and-half hours, without each seeming like cameos.
“I was not like this when doing television. This process of mine started somewhere during the making of Gangster. Kangana was new. Shiney (Ahuja) used to come over-prepared. There used to be a struggle to get the performance right. Too many retakes. Also, when I started wearing the hat of writer, director and producer (with Life In A Metro), I didn’t have to deliver a script to anyone.” The key reason for playing it by ear, he believes, is that “actors don’t usually get the full arc of a film.” It’s better if they live in the moment.
“Also, I don’t commit to a scene till the last moment. In (Life In A) Metro, for example, there is a scene where Kay Kay (Menon) and Shilpa (Shetty) confess about cheating on each other. She talks about Shiney (Ahuja). I was staging the scene, with Shilpa and an assistant, who’s also an actor. And there’s a dialogue that just slipped off the tongue; Kay Kay asks, ‘Bachcha toh mera hai na?’ (I’m the kid’s dad, right?) That wasn’t there in the script. It appeared in the heat of the moment on the set. I thrive on that actually.”
Which is also similar to how Basu winged it with Life In A Metro (2007) in the first place. He had only written the script until interval point, when he met (then) UTV’s head honcho Ronnie Screwvala for a narration. To adequately fill time, and keep Screwvala and others sufficiently entertained, he got composer-friend Pritam to tag along, and play music all through the narration. The script got sold, while he was halfway into fleshing it out!
Everybody calls Basu, Dada (for elder brother), in Bollywood. As Bengali adults are affectionately named – regardless of their age. Director Basu Chatterjee was Basu Da even to millennials; he died at 93. A well-known Bengali trait with Basu is actually his penchant for the adda (fun chat), as I can sense, while he generally eases into talking about his life, with a gentleness/lightness of touch that often eludes the successful/self-aware.
As a person/artiste, he finds himself connecting the most with the other great Bengali, Kishore Da – Kishore Kumar: “Every time I read about him, I realise, arre, he thinks like me – his madness, his world, it is fascinating.” Basu has been sitting on the draft of a Kishore Kumar biopic for years, determined to make it. It hasn’t worked out, yet. “It will be made by me, promise, very soon,” he says.
Like Kishore Da, Basu is also a polymath of sorts. You can gauge that from his last movie, the mad, mad Ludo, that dropped on Netflix in November. He was the film’s cinematographer, writer, director, producer, along with playing the role of the traditional sutradhar (narrator) on screen. This was one of the early movies to finish shoot while the pandemic was still on. Surely they would’ve taken adequate precautions shooting the final scenes. Although having sanitiser on set and shooting with a mask on isn’t novel for Basu.
Shortly after the success of Murder, he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Doctors gave him a few weeks, max: “It just happened too quickly. One day I just saw my reflection, and I didn’t know this is what I was looking like – the internal bleeding was happening, buckets of blood going out. I just wanted to breathe right, until I went on the ventilator for 17 days. It took a toll on my dad, actually. His health deteriorated after that. It was tough on my family.”
There is a scene in Life In A Metro, where Nafisa Ali’s character dies in an ambulance, in a traffic jam: “I thought this was going to happen to me, when I was being shifted from Lilavati (Hospital) to Tata (Memorial Centre).”
This was also the time Basu was in the midst of a film called Tumsa Nahin Dekha (2004, starring Hashmi, Dia Mirza). But the film, as he says, was all in his head. And he was struggling for life. Each day, he would relay instructions recorded into a dictaphone from his hospital bed, to keep the shoot going.
The treatment, of course, carried on for a couple of years: “I had become really thin; had my mask on. There were hospital bills to recover, with treatment in the ICU that had gone on for really long. There was a survival issue, with regard to money. I went to my old television colleagues at Zee and Sony, and they gave me shows to do. I had no film. So, it was back to square one. I did television for over a year.”
He got on a film-set finally with Gangster: “I also had Life In A Metro to make. But decided that I may as well be with Vishesh Films at the point. (Producer) Mukeshji used to carry a sanitiser in his bag, yell at me if I wasn’t being careful. They were not greedy; they were careful about my health. They asked me to wait, and I didn’t want to.”
A close brush with death, one presumes, changes man forever. I ask Basu if he sees it that way – a before and after, as it were: “My rights and wrongs are the same. But I have become less cynical about things, I’m more positive.”
On an observable plane, he concludes, “That is (also) when I decided to turn producer. (Life In A) Metro happened because of that. I thought, when I make movies, I should also make money. It is important to keep money for your family.”