Staying True to His Ideals – An Interview with Anurag Kashyap
Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has been making waves throughout the world as a maverick of Indian cinema. From his unreleased debut Paanch – objected by authorities for its violence, depiction of drug abuse, and language – to Sacred Games, Anurag is not one to shy away from controversy, always determined to depict his country in an honest light – even the grittiest parts of it.
As India does not censor Internet content, Anurag and series co-director Vikramaditya Motwane saw the opportunity with Sacred Games, Netflix’s first original series in India, to unflinchingly press on and craft a series based around Anurag’s three main preoccupations as a filmmaker – religion, politics and sexuality. While it was a smash hit in India, Sacred Games also had its share of controversy, particularly with how one of its characters insulted former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Even when this became a full-blown political issue, Anurag was steadfast in his ideals, telling India Today TV in an interview that “If anyone has any objection, it’s their problem.”
Anurag was recently in Singapore as the jury head of the Asian Feature Film Competition at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). Sinema had the pleasure to speak with the director about his thoughts on Asian films, Sacred Games, and how he continues to push onwards despite numerous setbacks:
What stands out to you about Asian films and TV series versus Western films and TV series?
I think Asian films feel very homegrown. When you see works from the Philippines or Malaysia or Indonesia, you get a sense of the place and of the way of life. That is what is so incredible about it.
Western series are general in the sense. Their ideas are not cultural specific – not always, but sometimes they are. For example, I love shows like The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, they are are genre-based such as about zombies or something supernatural. What is special about Asia is that it is cultural specific, which is what I like so much about it.
Throughout the series, Sacred Games tackles controversial themes. Were there any resistance from the crew or the team that they did not want to go ahead and be a part of the show any longer?
Not really. The main challenge for me was with how I wanted to address sexuality in the series. I was uncomfortable with the amount of sex, and I had to find the comfort zone with the actors to make it more real, believable and not titillating. There had to have purpose in those scenes.
But other than that, no, nothing. The show was an opportunity to address the three things I think are my preoccupations as a filmmaker – religion, politics, and sexuality. And we got to address them honestly. There was no resistance from the platform, no resistance internally from the production – nothing. There were a lot of protests that happened after it came out but that is part of anything that can be provocative. “Provocative” has become a bad word in my country.
Television essentially used to be a vehicle for advertisements while cinema was where the stories were. But now, it seems like the roles have been reversed…
For me, I do not even see it as “television”; I do not think Netflix treats it like television. They treat it like films. When I was shooting the series, I treat the process like how I would if I was shooting a movie. I am just telling a story. It is a platform that they are watching it on.
So for me, I am still creating cinema. I am still creating a story and I am telling a story. Actually, as a filmmaker today, I see the platform as a bigger opportunity to tell the stories that I want to tell. It is more possible with Netflix today than with cinema before. Cinema goes through censorship – a whole lot of people in India can feel offended by anything. That is something that is not seen as a bad thing in many parts of the world, but it is in India.
When you deal with a lot of easily offended people then in order to please everyone you cannot really say anything. Like you know what they say: if you do not want to offend anyone, say nothing.
In your previous interviews, you have been really frank about how you believe that Indians are ready for more mature themes and it is just the middle man that is preventing Indian cinema from changing. Do you think this has changed with streaming services?
Yes, that middle man is gone now. Like for me, the veil is lifted, and that people are addressing things. The world is more connected now, and we have a much more connected audience.
Do you think that shows and films like Sacred Games from such streaming platforms can be a catalyst for change in India politically?
I think India has been ready for a change for a long time. Actually, there has been a lot of change coming across from filmmakers from regional languages. Rituparno Ghosh was one of the earlier catalysts. There have been a lot of great films from all around India. Yes things are changing on its own, slowly. I am part of it but I do not see myself as someone who started it all.
During the production of Sacred Games was the team worried about the competition from other shows on Netflix?
No, not at all. We were just trying to do a great show. We did not want to let anyone down. We just knew that we were on the same platform that has Narcos. So we did not want others to look at India as doing a substandard Netflix show. We took the pressure on to make something that reaches out to as many people as we could. But we did not expect the kind of success that we got. The success was unprecedented, even for (the film) Lust Stories.
Now we know that we have such a reach and it gives us more courage to do more. Season Two of Sacred Games became more political because we found the courage from season one. Season one was still more populist. Season Two had more courage in addressing more issues.
You have had a rocky career critically and box office wise. How did you find the courage to continue making films?
I don’t think about it much because I much rather have a rocky career than something else. When you get too much success you become very complacent in not making any effort. You also become lazy. I think it is not about me finding courage, it is about me constantly having to work and recreate in order to stay relevant. One doesn’t need to find courage for that. I want to stay relevant.
I get very inspired by young filmmakers and the kind of stuff they are doing. There was this movie I saw by a young girl – fresh film graduate in Saudi Arabia. What am I complaining about it in India? I have much more freedom than she was given in Saudi. And she did the film so creatively in a way that it says everything she wants to say about patriarchy and how damaging it is – in such a creative way! And I am so inspired. I feel like I need to stop complaining and do more.
Check out our series review of Sacred Games here.