It's been over a year and a half since Bombay Velvet had its theatrical release to jeers from critics and empty theatre seats.
For its director Anurag Kashyap, the impending calamity was earth-shattering. He could see his world crumbling, his meticulously carved dream turning into his worst nightmare.
The maverick filmmaker had nursed the ambition of Bombay Velvet, his pet project for several years and witnessed it spiral out of his control, becoming what it eventually did — a gigantic mess, a disaster like no other in recent memory.
Sitting in his Andheri West office on an unusually blistering Saturday afternoon, Kashyap looks much more composed than the last time I saw him, more in his element. He has that vibe about him — the one you get when you've spent days reading the novels you promised yourself you'll finish, watching movies that you intended to complete, and generally spending time doing exactly what you wanted to as opposed to giving in to the pressures of a set routine.
When I bring up Velvet, Kashyap's face falls. "I've stopped thinking about it. I've moved on."
But the burden of carrying a colossal flop weighs on him, every single time he speaks about other things. For example, when he speaks about his negative role in AR Murugadoss' recently released Akira, he says, "I was just glad I didn't mess this up. For once, people were praising me for something I did. It's been a long time since that happened.
With a grin, he adds, "You know, my mother called me up and said that I've finally found my calling, one that will help me make money and not lose."
While he's full of praises for Murugadoss and the friendship he struck with the 'simple and humble' director, and also about Sonakshi Sinha, who is leading with what would have conventionally been a male star's role, you cannot miss Kashyap's underlying frustration that essentially stems from having being at the helm of a mega-budget film that tanked, both critically and commercially.
Probe him a little further and he admits, "I have suffered and I want to keep that suffering to myself. I don't want more people to lose anything because of me. It's a lot to carry."
I ask him about a theory that I have about the origins of Raman Raghav 2.0. The film comes from an unsettlingly dark space, devoid of any humanism, almost as if Kashyap wanted to slash and rip open the chests of everyone who slammed Bombay Velvet and celebrated its failure. Did that bottled-up anger find its way into Raman Raghav 2.0?
He pauses for a moment, his head suspended midair in a fixed position. Then he says "I'm tempted to agree. That film comes from a very personal place of anger. Yes, it is a reaction to Bombay Velvet and all that was said and written about it, it is my response to the hypocrisy that I experienced all around me. It definitely starts from there. The genesis of Raman Raghav is rooted in the failure of Bombay Velvet.
In hindsight, what would he have done differently with the film? "It takes a long time for you to get clarity of thought. I've now realised that I am a genre filmmaker. My films, where do they play very well?"
"Festivals?" I offer.
"Not even the mainstream festivals. Only the genre film festivals which are very niche and different than the regular ones but still widespread. Their audience is different and so are their tastes of consuming cinema," he says, adding that Raman Raghav 2.0 has been playing non-stop in a host of genre festivals, from L'Etrange Festival in France to the Bucheon International Fantastic Film festival in South Korea where it picked the Best Asian Genre Film award.
He's happy returning to his indie roots, having gone temporarily off-course during Velvet, but Kashyap says he isn't too satisfied with the response the Nawazuddin Siddiqui starrer generated in India.
He has an elaborately detailed explanation of how his films have self-sabotaged each other.
"I expected a lot more. But then people expect something else from me. The problem that I always faced is very interrelated. For the longest time, I had to deal with Black Friday battle that almost killed everything that followed. Then Dev D came and spelled the demise of Gulaal, which people have now discovered and they love it. Then came Gangs of Wasseypur and was universally loved, but it was followed by Ugly which nobody said much about then but love to call it a great film now. And then there's Raman Raghav – the film got completely sidelined because Udta Punjab became my own thing. It lost out on a chunk of audience who don't even know when it came and went," he says, finally stopping for a breath and quick sip of water.
"About Velvet, what I feel in hindsight is that sometimes you should keep your passions to yourself. Don't make something so close to you that public that they get the opportunity to rip it apart," he says thoughtfully, but you can detect that he's getting on an emotional train of thought.
He says, "Everything I do here plays out more publicly than it should. I'm so scared to singularly express my opinion for the fear of it getting misconstrued and offending someone. I've completely withdrawn from public life because I've come to realise that as a filmmaker, I need to preserve my sanity, man."
For the last two months, he's sat quietly and only written non-stop, finishing as many as three scripts.
But isn't withdrawing yourself for the fear of offending someone in itself a form of personal censorship that does a great disservice to the fight for freedom of expression? "My films will be my only form of expression. We're dealing with a system that doesn't want you to express, a society that doesn't want you to live freely, and a world where honesty is frowned upon. Nobody wants fingers pointed at them."
There was a fair amount of disappointment after the Shahid Kapoor-Alia Bhatt-starrer Shaandaar, which many felt wasn't a film which producers like Phantom Films — the production house he co-founded with Vikas Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane, and Madhu Mantena — should have associated themselves with.
However, Kashyap believes that Phantom's future is very 'bright though he won't say which project he'll start next (he's been signed up by Netflix to do an adaptation of Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games but that's still in the scripting stage.)
"I think when you screw up, the best thing to do is go back and make a better film. Honestly, it's nobody's birthright to claim to make a certain kind of films, everybody is free to do what they like. We want to continue doing whatever we believe in and learn from our mistakes. Soon, you'll see a slate of films that Phantom will announce. We've slogged our asses off and you'll know about it."
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