"Morning Raga" shows a keen and refreshing reverence for classical culture and our heritage. What made you delve deep into this theme?
It all started with bharatanatyam actually. When I was in my early 20s, I changed from learning jazz ballet to bharatanatyam. I began to discover things about myself during that process. Of how caught up I was in imitating the West. How Eurocentric my worldview was. Over a period of six years I was totally shaken and confused. I wrote "Dance Like A Man" at that point.
Everyone sees "Dance Like A Man" as a gender battle (which it also is). Actually, it's a battle against society that prevents us from reaching out to our roots. What we call a 'modern India' is really a negation of the real India. It doesn't work that way.
Years later, while working on the post-production of my first directorial venture "Mango Souffle", music composer Amit Heri (the music director for both my films) was in the recording studio with me and he had called a traditional Carnatic singer for a background piece which was jazz-based.
The resultant interactions between the two - one a young jazz musician with a goatee and hippie kurta and the other a purist in a Kanjeevaram sari and temple jewellery. Cross generation, cross culture, cross gender...Enough for me to recall and draw from my own early experiences. That was the beginning of "Morning Raga".
"Morning Raga" is a huge leap ahead from your first directorial vehicle "Mango Souffle". Shouldn't you have done "Morning Raga" as your first film?
The reason why Sanjeev Shah (the producer of "Mango Souffle") and I chose my play for a movie adaptation was the budget. We had earlier thought of a bigger project involving an international star, but we felt we should start small for our first venture. I gave him a choice of "Final Solutions" and "On A Muggy Night in Mumbai". He chose the latter
Shabana is the backbone of "Morning Raga".
Shabana, Perizaad Zorabian and Prakash Rao are equally important to my story. The characters that are living under extreme circumstances are Shabana's and Perizaad's. All three characters have a common past.
Working with Shabana was like a roller coaster ride. She says she was nervous during the shoot because the role was demanding. I say I was terrified because I wasn't really sure whether the part was good enough for her. We lived through rehearsals and the shoot with that feeling.
Shabana and Prakash were the two people who shared my vision of the film right from the start. Both Perizaad and Prakash were my favorites for the part right from the start, although I had several auditions to prove myself wrong. I auditioned with Perizaad for two hours to make sure. At the end of it she was weeping and said she couldn't do it because my persistence made her feel she couldn't handle it!
Both Prakash and Perizaad have studied at Lee Strasberg and I strongly believe in method training for cinema actors. So four of us, my principal cast and myself, were on the same page as far as approach to acting was concerned.
I would also like to say that Lillete Dubey is another one of my favourites. She brings with her a certain easy energy and life to her performance. She's perfect as the city bred single parent overcoming marital hardships with the strength and wisdom that I would say is a tribute to modern Indian women who emerge victorious from such familial or marital conditions.
Interestingly, a film about the loss and redemption of classical heritage is in the English language, don't you see a contradiction there?
Not at all. The film is about the meeting of worlds. It questions the concept of purity. Our worlds today are interacting like they have never done before in the history of mankind. I do believe it mirrors our time and place. English is an Indian language today and we should acknowledge that.
How deeply do you think the present-day generations have been tainted by the 'MTV' culture that "Morning Raga" implicitly condemns?
I wouldn't use such a strong word as 'tainted'. But I do believe that in our haste to catch up with the developed world, we have lost our identity. Art can never be imitative. It comes from a realistic understanding of our worlds, past and present. In the film too, the meeting of past and present worlds is very evident.
How do you reconcile your two roles as a playwright and a filmmaker? Do you see them as compatible or separate vocations?
They are compatible up to a point, both tell stories through a dramatic structure but that is where the similarity ends. A film writer must learn to tell his story through pictures. The rhythm and flow of a film is created through transitions from one cut to another, whereas in theatre, the rhythm, flow and energy is created by the performers alone.
Where does "Morning Raga" fit into the swarming chaotic scheme of genre-snarled things?
A very tough question! I think the new mantra is to keep the costs low and make it look big. Exploring new genres is now the trend because the older paradigm doesn't always work. Nobody knows what the new paradigm is.
But one recent film that I really enjoyed is "Munnabhai M.B.B.S." It had a consistency in style and genre, a strong script, good acting and sensible direction that made everything real and credible in spite of the improbability of the situation.
Another one I liked is "Main Hoon Na" for similar reasons. I think just as earlier filmmakers discovered young love as a universal point of identity, filmmakers today are discovering humor and style.