“I’M A MATHS TEACHER’S son,” says Sudhir Mishra often and proudly. “I love to surround myself with young people. It’s a trick I have, I learn from them as much as they supposedly learn from me.”
Mishra, 63, has aged well, like fine wine, says Sameer Nair, who has produced his latest work, Tanaav, a SonyLIV web series based on the Israeli hit, Fauda. Set in Kashmir in 2017, it looks at the face-off between the state and its citizens. There is a Special Task Group, which is waging war on those who are waging war on the state, and as usual ordinary citizens end up paying the price, whether it is in the streets or in the homes. The state intelligence operatives make mistakes, as do the militants. And yet as weddings turn into funerals, ordinary life goes on, men and women get married, have babies and dream of making jam for the world.
“When we decided to set Fauda in Kashmir, I knew only Sudhir Mishra could do justice to it,” says Nair, who heads Applause, the entertainment corporation that bought the rights to Fauda. It helped that Nair and Mishra had worked together on adapting another Israeli show, Hostages, for Disney+Hotstar. “Sudhir is extraordinarily well read,” says Nair.
He has an acute understanding of how the state works, as in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, 2003, considered by many to be his finest political work. He has a personal experience of how society has evolved, evident in Serious Men, 2020, his adaptation of Manu Joseph’s quirky bestseller about class wars. More than anything else, he has a wicked sense of humour that gets to the heart of every issue. He did, after all, co-write the story and screenplay of Kundan Shah’s iconic political satire, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).
But Mishra wears his honours lightly. He is seen not merely as a filmmaker but also as an informal film school. For the longest time in the 1990s, his parents’ home, 44, Aaram Nagar Part 2, Mumbai, was where newcomers congregated. Actors Manoj Bajpayee and Saurabh Shukla, directors Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, and Nikkhil Advani would be there for lunch or dinner or both. Recalls Advani, director, producer and creator of opportunities for others, something he learnt at Mishra’s feet, when he assisted him on Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996), an iconic film that hasn’t been seen enough. “You’d be assured of roti, sabzi, rice, dal, papad and pickle. In the evening, you could get your own quarter bottle of whatever liquor you preferred,” he says.
“If you follow the dharma of good storytelling you always understand all sides to the story, you empathise with everyone,” says Sudhir Mishra, filmmaker
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That was also when Mishra had moved in with fellow filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s wife, the genius editor Renu Saluja. Advani recalls, “They were like my foster parents. We would all be in the thrall of Sudhir, but she would always be the reality check.” It was an extraordinary time with a few outstanding solidarities. When Saluja became terminally ill with stomach cancer, it was Chopra who ensured the two were formally married so Mishra could perform her last rites. Quite justly the relationship between Mishra and Chopra is enshrined forever in the screen names of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s leads—the late Ravi Baswani was called Sudhir Mishra and Naseeruddin Shah was Vinod Chopra.
Mishra’s father could not afford to send both his sons to FTII so his brother Sudhanshu (who tragically passed away in 1995) signed up, Mishra hung around, after doing theatre with Badal Sircar. He then started working with his guru Saeed Akhtar Mirza (also the first door Advani knocked on when he wanted to become a filmmaker). It was a romantic time for Mishra, working with Mirza and Shah, befriending Javed Akhtar, falling in love with Saluja.
He also made films, Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin (1987), Main Zinda Hoon (1988) and Dharavi (1992) in quick succession. It’s a remarkable trifecta, underappreciated, and worth a re-watch.
There was a long fallow period after that, which lasted until Chameli (2003), the precursor to Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003). Pritish Nandy, the producer of both, says, “When Anant Balani who was making Chameli passed away after a week of shoot, Sudhir stepped in to help us rewrite and make the film for us almost from the beginning. It was the high point of Kareena Kapoor’s acting career. It was such a wonderful experience working with Sudhir that we shortly thereafter started work on Hazaaron, the script for which was ready and lying with Sudhir for a longish time in the absence of a producer ready to back the film.” The rest as they say is history, Nandy’s then “fledgling company” PNC backed the film and today “Hazaaron is widely held to be Bollywood’s finest political film and has won much acclaim and many awards.”
Nandy believes Mishra is one of the most remarkable filmmakers of our time and there are very few filmmakers who can stand shoulder to shoulder with him. “Sudhir deserves support to make the kind of films he is best at. For when it comes to talent, he is truly unparalleled,” he says.
Since then, he has done movies, which have always had something important to say, whether about art in Khoya Khoya Chand (2007), about love in Yeh Saali Zindagi (2011), about heartland politics in Daas Dev (2018) or about urban aspiration in Serious Men. Streaming has renewed him, with Hostages and now Fauda.
Mishra’s work is always provocative, even if it is a short film, like Life Support (2017), or the forthcoming Afwaah, with Bhumi Pednekar and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, about the toxic possibilities of rumours. He can quote Shakespeare and Ghalib, decry socialism and talk democracy, and be a Javed Akhtar fanboy as much as he is a writing guru to many younger men.
His storytelling is personal and political. He could write Hazaron because he lived through the Emergency, he wrote Daas Dev because he knows what politics can do to a family, and he has written Afwaah because he knows the tumultuous times we live in. He is also extremely emotional, says Advani, and can get hurt easily. His career is littered with many still-born scripts, which needed a strong producer, who never quite materialised. Advani recalls working on a film script Mehrunissa with him, along with Saurabh Shukla for a year, only for the film to never be made. “Yet the older I get,” says Advani, “the more I am becoming like him, in the opportunities he creates for others, the credit he gives, and the generosity he exudes.”
His voice remains unique as does his gravitas, which is why Nair wanted him to work on Tanaav. “No one flashes their religion on their sleeve in Tanaav. Their primary priority is their cause, whether it is the special task group or the militants. Yet there is a subtext to it, which we will explore in subsequent seasons where there is more to it than meets the eye,” he adds. “Sudhir makes you think but doesn’t tell you how to think.”
It is not about two countries or two religions. Says Mishra: “If you follow the dharma of good storytelling you always understand all sides to the story, you understand all the characters, you empathise with everyone though in the end it’s clear where we stand. I think it is a series of misunderstandings in Kashmir. If you take the question of Kashmiri Pandits, it is a genuine tragedy, there are five lakh people who are displaced. The ordinary Kashmiri Pandit has lost his home. There is a complex history of Kashmir and then political agendas take over. Border states have always suffered throughout history, whether it is Cyprus, or in Eastern Europe. Of course Pakistan’s industrial military complex can also not be ignored. But the ordinary Kashmiri has his own aspiration and must be listened to. Too many people have a stake in the state. But 90 per cent of Kashmiri lives are ordinary, with normal ups and downs.”
“The idea of rebellion is fascinating but as my favourite philosopher Slavoj Zizek says, what happens to the morning after? Most rebellions cannot handle that. What happens after the Arab Spring. They’ve not thought it through,” he adds.
So in Tanaav, we have Umar Riaz, played brilliantly by Sumit Kaul, who sees nothing wrong in destroying Kashmir to achieve his ends. And Kabir, played by Manav Vij, an Indian intelligence agent, who will stop at nothing, no matter the consequences. Mishra shot Tanaav in Kashmir and found the people there surprised him with their compassion. “I don’t think there is an anti-India feeling. It’s just that the young want respect and dignity. The majority don’t want violence,” he says.
His empathy clearly comes from his upbringing, as does his professorial manner, his slightly uncoordinated walk and habit of not always completing his sentences. “I am my father’s son,” he says. “I never had any confrontation with him. He was a lover of poetry, a teacher of maths and French, and founder of the Lucknow Film Society. My only regret is I didn’t learn enough from him.”