Three days before the release of his debut feature film Bangistan, film-critic-turned-filmmaker Karan Anshuman looks disconcertingly relaxed. It’s taken the film, which has been produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani’s Excel Entertainment, four years to make it from page to screen, but 34-year-old Anshuman is quite clear that this achievement is, for him, a distant second to the birth of his six-week-old daughter Zoë.
“Becoming a father has just changed everything instantly,” he says with a grin, as little Zoë sleeps soundly in a room nearby. We’re in his cosy two-bedroom apartment in Mumbai’s Oshiwara area, which is sparsely decorated save for the classic film posters on the wall. “Nothing can prepare you for the massive shift in priorities that comes along with this. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane. Even when she’s crying, I feel ridiculous joy.”
This is not to say that he is dispassionate about the release of Bangistan, a satire starring Riteish Deshmukh and Pulkit Samrat as two bumbling terrorists from different parts of a fictitious country called, well, Bangistan. “Of course I’m hoping for good things,” he says. “Obviously I want the movie to be liked and to make money so that I can keep making more films.”
(From left) Pulkit Samrat, Riteish Deshumukh, and Karan Anshuman from the shoot of 'Bangistan'
Anshuman didn’t always want to make films, despite having grown up with a filmmaker for a father — Manjul Sinha, who directed several episodes of iconic Hindi TV shows such as Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Nukkad, and Rishtey in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I would accompany my dad to shoots but I was never really fascinated with any of it,” he says. “I’d just be there to, y’know, have lunch.”
What truly stimulated his imagination were computers. At age 9, his father had bought a “state-of-the-art” computer for the time: a PC with an Intel 286 processor, 1 MB RAM, and a 40 MB hard-disk drive. So, unlike kids from other ‘industry families’, he’d spend his time learning how to code. Eventually, he got good enough at programming to start making games in Advanced BASIC that he’d sell to his friends in Jamnabai Narsee School, where he studied.
“The only aspect of filmmaking that I was taken in by was the computer animation used for titles and packaging, like I saw in my dad’s ad films; he made some 300-400 of those,” he says. “By the time I was 12, I was pretty sure that it’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
Six years later, he went to Denison University in Ohio, United States, to study computer science only to realise that this dream was doomed because of his weakness at mathematics, which was, unfortunately, a mandatory subject in his course. With his GPA (grade point average) getting affected, he had no choice but to drop the course after about a year.
It was then that all the years of being exposed to the world of films came in handy. After taking up a cinema course on a lark (“I really liked the building in which classes were held”), he found that he was instinctively better than everybody in his class. “People around me would be struggling with compositions and cutaways but it seemed to come quite naturally to me. I once actually scored 110 on 100 in one of my exams,” he says with a laugh.
He switched majors to filmmaking and spent three years there before returning to India but didn’t dive straight into the film industry. This, he says, was because of the lack of technology and distribution channels for the kind of films he was interested in making at the time. He could’ve easily joined the TV industry, but was convinced that it would have “destroyed” his craft and “ground it into dust”.
Instead, he co-founded a tech start-up called Dreamscape that would develop software for the web. Today, although he isn’t as deeply involved with it, it continues to make mobile and web apps and still pays some of his bills. Meanwhile, he also co-founded the movie portal UpperStall.com and wrote articles and film reviews for it. “Today, there are many avenues for first-time filmmakers,” he says. “But back then, the only way to make a film was to make a film. And I think it’s very important that you have some sort of steady income while you do that.”
In 2011, he became the film critic for Mumbai Mirror, a gig he kept for three years. His reviews were often searing and brutally honest — he once, famously, panned David Dhawan’s Rascals (2011) in a half-star review written in the form of a bad rap song. This, despite the fact that Dhawan was an old friend of his father’s and had even edited the latter’s diploma film at FTII, where they were batchmates.
Now that he has crossed over to the other side, Anshuman says there is no way he can ever review a film again. “I know half the industry now so there is no way I can write an unbiased review,” he says, adding that he felt “really bad” when he met Dhawan soon after Rascals because he turned out to be “the nicest and coolest guy”.
He plans to hold no grudges against similar reviews for Bangistan or any subsequent films, of course. “I’m still the same person,” he says. “I still have the same opinions and ideas about how a film should be. I have always respected good films and genuine efforts. It was always easy to see the ones that weren’t.”
For him, Bangistan is a genuine effort he hopes that audiences (and critics) appreciate the finer points of his debut film, which he says is a metaphor for any conflict zone in the world where two groups are warring on the basis of identities. “There is a certain calculated effort to the craft,” he says, describing the symmetry of the script, the framing of certain shots (“Not hardcore Wes Anderson, but with some organic elements to it”), and the colours used. He’s also very happy with Deshmukh’s and Samrat’s performances, adding, “It’s really hard to do a film with two lead actors in Bollywood, by the way.”
At this point, we're interrupted by the sound of Zoë crying from the other room. Anshuman excuses himself and leaves the room, returning with his infant daughter in his arms. "I'd never held a baby before, you know," he says, rocking her in his arms as she begins to quieten down. "But now, with her, it feels natural." If there were exams for fatherhood, it looks like he'd attempt to get a 110 out of 100 there too.