‘I Sold Everything to Make This Film’: Anurag Kashyap on ‘Almost Pyaar’

The ace director talks to us about how his industry friends including Rajkumar Hirani and Vishal Bhardwaj helped bring his latest movie to life, how the lukewarm response to ‘Bombay Velvet’ hit him hard, and how he wants to make films about flawed love stories

This month I’ve run into Anurag Kashyap twice and both times he was in high spirits. 

I met him first at the four-day Dharamshala International Film Festival in early November where he was the unofficial chief guest. He seemed relaxed and happy to be among his ilk, independent filmmakers who were vying with each other to get him to watch their film. He obliged many, and promised others to watch their film whenever he got a chance. 

I ran into him again last week, at the Marrakech International Film Festival, where Kashyap’s new film, Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat (Almost Love in English), had its world preview at the city’s iconic Jemaa el Fna square.

Writer-director and sometimes actor Anurag Kashyap is an old friend of the Marrakech International Film Festival and its director, Melita Toscan du Plantier. She invited Kashyap to be part of the festival’s jury headed by Martin Scorsese in 2013, and two years later the two co-produced director Neeraj Ghaywan’s film, Massan (Crematorium), which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival’s sidebar competition section, Un Certain Regard. Since then Kashyap has been to the Marrakech Film Festival several times. 

This time he arrived in tow with Alaya F. and Karan Mehta, the stars of his film, for the 8.30 pm screening at the square.

In Morocco’s complex constitutional monarchy, the large triangular square, Jemaa el-Fna, which was once the venue for public executions and translates to “assembly of the dead,” is now a busy, bustling, loud, crazy, eccentric celebration of democracy lined with orange juice stalls, women offering intricate mehendi services, shops selling leather bags and babouche (colorful Moroccan slippers), ceramic tajines, snake charmers, tooth extractors and dancing monkeys wearing diapers. 

At the square, a large screen had been put up for the festival’s nine days and films were screened every day. Anyone could attend or watch the films, but while standing. 

The square’s sights and sound change every day as the sun goes down. The mehendi ladies and snake charmers give way to music bands. Men put up stalls selling intricate filigree lanterns, smoke rises from the large number of food stalls as men carrying laminated menus with photos of Morocco’s traditional food lure tourists and locals with the promise of the most authentic meal for less than Rs 300 to 400 a head.

Despite the jamboree, it was easy to gauge the crowd’s interest when Kashyap, along with the pretty and petite Alaya F. and young Karan Mehta who, from certain angles, looks like Ranveer Singh’s chhota bhai, were introduced. Their “Hello Marrakesh!” drowned in happy whistles and screams of “India, India.” But as the two young actors and Kashyap sat down to watch the film with his dear friend German director, Fatih Akin, in attendance, it was difficult to figure out how many people actually watched the film that had Arabic subtitles. 

Next morning, in the garden of the 99-year-old La Mamounia hotel, Kashyap met journalists for one-on-one interviews to discuss his film. He arrived looking a little flushed, breathless, his hair wet from a two-hour swim. His smart watch said he had burnt 787 calories.

“Since you saw me in Dharamsala is when I started changing my life… My sleep apnea machine has helped me a lot, and I am off alcohol,” he said holding a tall glass of mimosa. 

“I’ve had this for an hour,” he explained and didn’t touch it during our 25-minute conversation.

Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat tells two stories with the same actors – one story is set in Himachal Pradesh and the other in London. One is about a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, the other is about a Pakistani girl and an Indian boy. Linking these two stories is a DJ (Vicky Kaushal) and his Mohabbat podcast.  

The film has been bought by Zee and its theatrical release is scheduled for next year. Its OTT rights have been sold to Netflix. But, Kashyap tells Rolling Stone India, the journey from writing the film to shooting and releasing it wasn’t easy. Financially and emotionally, it has taken a toll. 

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Rolling Stone: So why this film? 

Anurag Kashyap: I wrote this film for Alia Bhatt when she was just starting out and was shooting for Student of the Year (2012). That was when I wanted to do this film with her… It didn’t happen because it was a scary idea for everyone… This film has changed over the years but it was always a film about the consequences of our patriarchal conditioning and parenting… Patriarchy is the invisible antagonist of the film.  

RS: Scary? This film?

AK: Haan, in the sense that… Jo last gana hai na picture ka, mohabbat se hi toh kranti aayegi. That’s the whole point of the film. That we need more love in this world instead of prejudices. The film was addressing all kinds of hate – homophobia, religious prejudices, Hindu-Muslim – and the idea was that it doesn’t matter whether we are in a small town in India, or in a city like London – patriarchy, conditioning has not left us. 

RS: Hmmm…

AK: Our parents may have moved there [London], but they are still back home, here [mentally, morally]… In fact that conditioning gets worse when people travel outside. That’s why the idea was to shoot the story about Indians and Pakistanis living abroad. When you go to London, Pakistanis and Indians are the same people. The second, third generation doesn’t separate themselves as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, nothing. It’s the older generation that went there – they’re much more conservative than people back here. 

RS: You mean, frozen in time?

AK: Ya, frozen in time… I wanted to do two love stories with the same actors in the same film, in different settings, and bring it together in the end. The idea was to address all kinds of prejudices.

But I wanted to make a very young film and for that I had to go to young people, bounce it off them. They are the ones who told me their stories [and] my daughter actively participated in this film. She sat down during songwriting, gave us the words that Gen Z uses, for the Ghanghor Connection song, words like ‘toxicity of love’… And if you really look at the film, it doesn’t actually have a love story, that’s why ‘Almost’ Pyaar… [One story is about] ek ladka-ladki concert dekhne bhaag rahe hain, aur ek jagah ek ladki obsessed hai ek ladke se…  

Initially it was supposed to be a film done through a podcast whose title is Almost Love with DJ Mohabbat. Initially it was just a voice, a mystery man whom we don’t see till the last song. But then we realized we needed a face for it because we need intercutting between the two stories. 

RS: So the film that you wrote earlier and what it is now, is it the same? 

AK: The essence is the same, what has gone out is my Twitter avatar.

RS: Kya?

AK: I mean that it should not sound like I’m talking, jabardasti. 

With changing times, the script kept changing. The first time when I wrote it, it was dealing with all the prejudices. Now suddenly we are in a time which has become even more conservative, prejudices have been empowered, have become stronger. The film had to change with that, but some chunks that I wrote in anger I had to take out. 

RS: Jaise ki?

AK: Jaise ki, bahut zayada tha… Love jihad and all these sort of things that everyone keeps talking about. I took it out simply because I said that’s not the film. The film is about these two boys and girls, it’s not about other things. They face the consequences, so let’s stick with the innocence of these two rather than focus on all the other shit.

RS: When did you start working on the film?

AK: We have made this film over four years, because we were in the middle of the shoot when the lockdown happened. 

RS: You were in the middle of the shoot where?

AK: In Dalhousie. And then suddenly things changed, everything changed after that.

RS: And I believe you struggled a lot with this film?

AK: I struggled a lot with this film because of the different stories, because the times are changing, and you lose objectivity with the film. So I called in my friends who helped me find objectivity. First it was Imtiaz Ali. He helped me structure the film, said, ‘Take out the unnecessary elements. The characters are not you, they don’t need to sound like you.’ So I took that out first. Then Vishalji [Vishal Bhardwaj] helped me with DJ Mohabbat for whom I wanted mohabbat ki language coming from Vishalji and Gulzarji. Varun Grover also helped me with that. And then Raju Hirani helped structure the film. All my filmmaker friends came and they were literally there, helping me, supporting this film. That’s why the long ‘Thank You’ list in the film to all those who helped me find the film.

Kashyap at the Marrakech International Film Festival. Photo: Karim Tibari
RS: You leave your chhaap on all your films. Your films are so your films. So was this a completely different, new experience, taking help from others?

AK: I think this is very my film because I really feel this is a part of me that keeps coming, surfacing… See, I don’t relate to love stories that we make otherwise. I want to make love stories which are flawed. Which is what Manmarziya, Dev D were – flawed love stories about people who are struggling to find themselves.

RS: Ya, the London wala story, she is flawed…

AK: And the other one, too. They’re just friends who don’t express love because that’s a small-town thing. You do everything for somebody you love, but they will not find out you love them.

RS: Because that word, ‘love,’ is so big at that age.

AK: At that age it’s a massive thing to say.

RS: So what exactly was your daughter’s contribution? 

AK: She contributed to the songs and gave feedback. She and her whole friends circle… I’ve only screened this film for young people to see how they respond to it and their responses gave us confidence, that’s why we are going all out to release it.

RS: The film’s music is very cool.

AK: We wanted to find young music. We wanted to do nice club music, DJ music, and Amit [Trivedi] ke liye bhi pehli baar tha… The first round of songs came in gibberish in 2017, when I was shooting Mukkabaaz. 

RS: Gibberish matlab?

AK: Gibberish matlab, words nahin thhe… It’s not like you’re trying to find new music, we were trying to find our younger selves in the songs… I got Alia [his daughter] to sit on the ‘Ghanghor’ song. She came and jammed with Amit and Shellee [lyricist Shailender Singh Sodhi], to give us words that this generation uses. 

RS: And financially you said this film was a big struggle?

AK: Ya, for this film we literally went the old-fashioned way – I sold everything to make this film.

RS: But why?

AK: Because, you know, what happens is when you make anything new, sab log darte hain. My whole life has been full of people being scared ki main kya kar raha hoon. Unko lagta hai ki, yaar, Wasseypur achchi hai, tu gangster film bana, keep making the same thing. I’m like, ‘Nooo. I’m not making a film just for that.’ Everybody loves Gangs of Wasseypur, so I should keep making Gangs of Wassyepur? Dev D ke baad sab ka pressure tha, waisi hi film banate hain.

Maine kaha, nahin karna hai mujhe. I need to find new stories to tell and new ways to tell stories. And if I fail, it will be my failure. I can’t live with that fact that film nahin work ki aur meri bhi nahin thi [laughs].

Apni marzi ki film banaao aur woh fail ho jaaye toh samajh mein aata hai… But sabne interfere kiya picture mein, film nahin work ki toh samajh mein nahin aata hai. Bahut jazaya confuse ho jaati hai [film], jaise Bombay Velvet ke saath hua tha – ki kya tha, kyun tha?

RS: Uska toh bahut dhakka laga tha… That really hit you, right? 

AK: Very hard, very hard.

RS: Why? 

AK: Why, because… I still look at the film, it’s not as if I don’t like the film… I still like that film, but the thing is jo actually banana chahte thhe, pressure mein aake [film] chhoti kar di. Ladna chahiye tha, (but) budget itna high tha, kar nahin sakte the, [aur] support system nahin tha. Sab log bol rahe the, sab ki baat sun lo, kaat do, ‘Tu sunta nahin hai kisi ki.’ 

Chhoti budget ki film ho aur kisi ki nahin suno toh kisi ko itna farak nahin padhta hai. But jab bade budget ki film hoti hai, toh sab ko bahut farak padhta hai.

RS: Toh sab ki sunne ke baad you shouldn’t have taken the failure of the film on yourself…

AK: Eventually toh sab mere kandhe pe aa jata hai, na. See, duniya ke liye toh I failed Ranbir Kapoor, I failed Anushka. I failed the studio. I failed everyone.

RS: Abhi bhi it rankles?

AK: It does. It still does.

RS: Jo aap keh rahe ho, ki pehle zamane jaisa kiya hai for Almost Pyaar – ghar girvi rakha and all that. Is that a metaphor, or is that a fact?

AK: That is a fact. Because literally waisa ho gaya hai. We had to complete the film, but lockdown tha, studios were shutting down, Phantom had shut down. It was like, kahan se aayenge paise film complete karne ke liye? Karna padha hum ko. 

RS: You said, ghar vagehra sab girvi…

AK: Jo kuch tha sab dal diya. Dekhte hain ab aage.

RS: So have you got it back [from Zee and Netflix]?

AK: Aa jaayega (smiles). Film toh apne mann ki bani hai na. That’s worth it. 

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