For a major chunk of his career as a movie director, Anubhav Sinha made some films that may have hit the bull’s eye but would not necessarily be viewed in a great light in terms of critical commentary. Be it his debut feature, the 2001 romantic drama Tum Bin, or even the big-budget superhero-esque Ra.One, which starred superstar Shah Rukh Khan in the lead role.
Then there were many movies in between that came and went (read Dus, Cash, Gulaab Gang, Tum Bin 2). But in 2018, a new version of Anubhav Sinha, the director, was born — his self-admitted 2.0 version where he churned out one impactful movie after the other. In 2018, Mulk was released, which was followed by the release of the Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Article 15 in 2019. The year 2020 saw a fruitful collaboration of Sinha and Taapsee Pannu, which resulted in the critically acclaimed Thappad. This year, Sinha released Ayushmann-led Anek to mixed results.
But the change began with Mulk, prior to which Anubhav had been getting some feedback from acquaintances who knew his personal preferences or sensibilities. Anubhav himself had realised that something was amiss, that not all parts of him as an artiste was reflecting in the creative choices he had been making. In an interview with indianexpress.com, the filmmaker said that he was ‘jealous’ of his close director buddies Sudhir Mishra, Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta and Vishal Bhardwaj who were ‘playing on a different pitch than he was at the time.’
What makes Anubhav Sinha so interesting, at least in this new phase of his career, is that no one is doing what he is currently doing in the mainstream Hindi cinema — making socio-political films, with a large chunk of his narrative veering in the obviously political territory. Mulk, Article 15 and Anek are good examples of this kind of filmmaking, where he was not afraid to call out what he perceived to be wrong or unjust in the system as we know it. Yes, it’s true that in Article 15 Anubhav called out the regressive caste system, but by putting in a hero in the mix who himself belonged to a privileged position, almost a parallel to the ‘white saviour complex.’ Anubhav had defended this in an earlier interview with Film Companion where he said, “An upper caste hero walking with a Dalit girl in his arms was a compromise I had to make, because creating that hero was allowing me to say a whole lot of other things,” referencing to the rescue scene in Article 15.
Of course, that gaze could be problematic, not only because it’s a man saving a womane who is presumed to be helpless, but also because of the caste angle. Our hero is not a Dalit man, he has had all the luxuries that his caste and family’s status in society could give him, if not by way of direct nepotism, then through a solid education which he could only afford to have because he belonged to a well-to-do family. That’s a point, and one which is hard to disagree with. But then, there’s also another case in Anubhav‘s defence, that he is at least making his hero the moral compass of the society, through him he’s prompting the audience to see themselves and their surroundings, letting them figure out what’s so problematic in the way we have been operating socially. The man is trying to push the envelope in a much-needed direction via the means available to him. It’s important to raise pertinent questions about how we see the movie, but it is also significant to realise that no other director has the conviction to make an out and out political film in current political scene without it being banned or heavily censored.
But how was this avatar of Anubhav Sinha formed? Speaking to indianexpress.com a while ago, Anubhav said, “It is not tangible, but I will tell you. I have finally figured it out. When I was making those films — Tum Bin, Cash, Ra.One — I was surrounded by a crowd of people then. I was not in touch with what was happening around me, and it was at that time that things were beginning to change. The studio system was in motion, and the film industry was going through a formative time. It was also at this point that people began to recognise my name because they came to know that I was making a film with Shah Rukh Khan. So when Ra.One released, it disappointed 50-70 per cent of those people, and they hated me because I had made this film with Shah Rukh. But they had never even met me. Post this incident, when I met new, intelligent people, they ‘complimented’ me saying you are not the person who made those films, you are someone else. This was heartbreaking to hear. Because if I don’t reflect in my own films then I am not a filmmaker. That was the discontentment I felt and recognised. And then Mulk happened. And ever since then I have been driven by that.”
Even in Thappad, which’s more in the territory of making a social commentary than a direct political one, Taapsee’s Amrita decided to file for divorce over a slap, which shocked her relatives (and I am guessing, a good chunk of the audience too). The general reaction to it, while even speaking with people around me who thought the feature was well-made, was: ‘Over a slap? Thoda zyada nahi ho gaya?’ But Anubhav went with his instinct and with the help of co-writer Mrunmayee Lagoo, fleshed out this lovely, believable and complex protagonist of Amrita.
So here’s to listening to that voice in our heads, and to watching more such films that are not afraid to go into the details, peel back the layers and show us the mirror.