The Sundance Film Festival began as a celebration of American independent cinema, but it has become a showcase for the best foreign independent films as well. "Peepli Live" has the distinction of being the first film from India to be accepted by the film festival. "Peepli Live" is a dark satire about life in rural India. Blast got a chance to talk with the film’s director Anusha Rizvi, the films producer Aamir Khan (India’s biggest movie star — think Tom Cruise and Will Smith combined) and the film’s star Omkar Das Manikpuri about their film.
Blast: How does it feel to have the first Indian Film to be accepted at Sundance?
Aamir Khan: It’s exciting.
Anusha Rizvi: I am excited to see what kind of response we will get.
Blast: Aamir, what drove you to get involved with the film?
AK: I was busy shooting a film, and I don’t usually read scripts in the middle of filming, but Anusha was very persistent and some instinct told me I should look at the script. And I loved it. Also, when I read the script, I felt it had the potential to entertain a world audience. Which is why right from the start we have been discussing how we need to take this film across the world, and I am really happy in that sense that Sundance has accepted it. We are trying to take the movie to people who otherwise would not experience the independent film coming out of India.
Blast: Anusha, what made you choose this story for your first feature?
AR: I never wanted to make films. I was not interested in having anything to do with films. I was just watching television and suddenly the story just struck me in its entirety, so I had to decide what to do with it. I could have explored it as a documentary, which is tough, because funding is practically nonexistent for documentaries. But funding for a film like this, which is about bureaucracy and government mentality and the state — a very political film — is almost impossible. So I started to write. I mean, I didn’t even know how to write a script. I just started to write something. And then I heard an interview with Aamir in which he said he was looking for scripts so I thought, “Okay.” That is why I got the idea. So I wrote him and I kept writing to him and he finally accepted it.
Blast: What was the challenge of balancing the satire with the serious subject matter?
AR: Indian humor has a tendency to deal with very serious issues in a peculiar way. So when you see the film, the humor is completely Indian. A lot of us actually deal with a lot of stuff in our lives like this. At times it can be cruel. But our job is to try to keep it rooted in Indian humor.
Blast: I read that most of the actors had not been on camera before. Anusha, how was the experience of learning along with the actors?
AR: It was fantastic. That was the most fascinating thing. It was an amazing experience. They brought so much to the movie and they created really beautiful characters. You feel completely humbled looking at so much talent.
Blast: Omkar, did you audtion for the film?
Omkar Das Manikpuri: I auditioned and Anusha and Aamir liked it, and I felt that I suited the character really well.
Blast: Omkar, while this is your first film, you have done a lot of acting on the stage. What were the challenges in moving from stage to film?
ODM: Theater is much easier because you rehearse it and then you do the whole thing in one night. Most of the time in front of the camera I was really nervous. All the lights and people made it a different experience. Finally, after the first couple of days I calmed down.
AR: The major problem for a lot of theater actors is that every performance is different. But when you are doing it for film you have to make sure the continuity is right. Make sure that each movement matches with the last one. In theater, you can move any way and change your performance spontaneously. Theater is an actor’s medium in that sense.
AK: For a lot of actors doing cinema, is very difficult because in cinema you have to have a mental graph to figure out in your head what you need to be doing in each shot. Because you don’t shoot a scene in sequence — you shoot depending on the light and depending on how the director wants to do it.
Blast: Aamir, I read that you have said you learned a lot from watching the actors like Omkar work in the film. What did you learn?
AK: When I saw the first cut, I was just blown away by the performances because I know that 80 percent of the cast was facing the camera for the first time. I don’t know how Anusha managed it.
Let me take a step back. When you see a scene that is shot well and feels real, as an audience you kind of sink into it. When you are dealing with two actors it is easier to create and make it real, but when you are dealing with 30 actors and an entire village is there, to make that moment real is very difficult. So it was very amazing for me to watch how Anusha had done that because this was her first film and to see how the actors had performed it. You feel like this is really happening — like hidden cameras are capturing it. That is almost the quality it has. It is almost like a documentary because it feels so real.
Blast: Anusha, you said that you had considered telling you story as a documentary, is that why you decided to tell your story in that realistic way?
AR: That was always in the back of my mind. And it was shot very much like a documentary. Having said that I have to add that I had absolutely no skills as a cinema person.
Blast: You just kind of did what felt natural?
AR: Yes, exactly.
AK: You know, that is the remarkable thing and I was discussing this with my wife Kiran who is also a filmmaker. I was discussing with her and one of the other producers how Anusha did it. She is off on her own. She doesn’t have any training in the tools that cinema has to tell a story, but it is because her urge or her need or desire to communicate is so strong that she finds a way, that it works wonderfully. You know what I mean
Blast: Well, it is almost like that because you didn’t go to film school Anusha you didn’t fall into the usual traps or clich©s because you didn’t learn them so you are able to follow your own direction.
AR: The actors were really supportive, and you just kind of pick up the technical stuff.
AK: I told her before shooting, because I was not on set with her, to look at the monitor. If you saw on the monitor what was in your head then you are doing right. If it feels right it’s right. If it doesn’t feel right, make sure you get it back to what you see in your head.
Blast: Anusha, were there any moments where you were just overwhelmed?
AR: Everyday. You should see some of the “making of” footage. Every single day there was something that was going on. At one time, our first director of photography quit.
AK: That was a very dramatic moment because I was working and I got a call from Anusha saying “I am having trouble with the DP.” He is someone who has shot a number of films. She is making her first film. The end result was that he was unhappy with Anusha and they couldn’t get along. So as a producer, I was being told that we had no DP. And the set was in this little village in Central India, so this is a small film with a small budget and cant afford delays or cancellations. I can send a new DP overnight, but I don’t know if Anusha will like him. And apart from the money, you lose the excitement
Blast: And the rhythm
AK: Yeah, exactly. But anyway, filmmaking is a crisis a day. In my 20 years as an actor, that is what I have realized, is that everyday, there is a crisis. Filmmaking is a lot about juggling different balls in the air. It is about creativity, but a good director is able to get the best out of what he or she has.
Blast: Aamir, I saw that you have begun to produce more films. Do you do it because it is material you want to be seen or as a learning exercise?
AK: You know I am not a “producer,” producer. You know someone who produces to earn money. My main profession is as an actor. While I am doing my work as an actor, when I come across something that interests me, I want to help. Because a film like this will never get made. I don’t know who would make this film. When I am not sure who is going to make it because it might not make a lot of money. I pick films that I find exciting and other people won’t touch.