Amole Gupte, the chairperson of the Children's Film Society of India, the villain of the forthcoming Singham 2, the sensitive maker of two clutter breaking films (Stanley Ka Dabba and Hawa Hawai) and the heart and soul of Taare Zameen Par is a self-confessed fakir, a muflis, someone without the baggage of manufactured fame. Someone who never wanted a career but went to FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) to breathe in the greatness of all the cinematic spirits who had walked the grounds. Who cannot sometimes believe the paths he has walked but is grateful that he did.
From being a part of over a 100 films at FTII to assisting Ketan Mehta in Holi (1985) and Mirch Masala (1987), to doing a cameo in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992) to playing the lead in Asha Parekh's directorial debut Palaash Ke Phool on Doordarshan, and his delicious villainy in films like Kaminey (2009), he has tried everything without regret or fear.
Somewhere along the way, he also began to paint and became disillusioned with the propagandist marketing that goes into making art saleable. And then came the most important turning point. He took his art to children and began working with them. That is how Taare Zameen Par was born. After he and wife Deepa Bhatia (also an acclaimed film maker and editor) had spent years researching the script, the chance to direct the film was taken away from him but he has moved on from the loss. He has gone on to direct two critically acclaimed films since then. Is there any bitterness? "No,' he says, "Life is too short and am not in a hurry to prove anything. Things take time."
It has taken him two films to establish his credibility as a film-maker but he has done it. His films speak gently but insistently about children and their issues. After years of searching, this he believes is his calling- being their mouth-piece. And when he films them, they never lose their innocence, perhaps because he is still that young child who played in the grounds of an LIC colony in Mumbai and then occasionally went next door to Natraj Studio to see the big stars of the day. That is how he makes films as well. Playfully and with a sense of wonder even if he is tackling an issue like child labour (Stanley Ka Dabba) or the tragedy of the Vidarbha farmers (Hawa Hawai).
How did Hawa Hawai begin?
My wife Deepa was directing Nero's Guests, a documentary on the agrarian tragedy in Vidarbha which for most part remains unaddressed by the media. Nearly 2,00,000 farmers have committed suicide over the last 10 years but we seem oblivious to the crisis. Now imagine that an entire stadium full of IPL watchers suddenly goes empty...would that not create news? When Deepa was working on this story, the tragedy, the devastation came home. Our son Partho was learning to skate at that time and somehow the urban concerns that are so disconnected from rural realities hit me hard. In the Vidarbha homes, if you ask them, how much money they have..it is sometimes as little as `17. It is an agonising existence. I decided to weave the two disparate halves and the film was born. Though Nero's Guests tried to generate support and funds for the farmer's widows, Hawa Hawai tries to imagine the tragedy from a surviving child's perspective..what happens when he relocates to a city and tries to make something of his life.
This preoccupation with children's stories...
Like I told you once before, am not doing them a favour by making films on them. They give us so much more than we can ever reciprocate and they go unheard because no one has the time or the patience to listen. Look at the children working in TV shows. They are made to work like adults in multiple shifts. Parents are pushing their children to dance and perform like robots... for what? Fame?
As the chairperson of the Children's Film Society of India, I have campaigned for the legislation of children's rights. We cannot abuse animals at shoots anymore because it is against the law. But there are no laws to protect children. Our street children are invisible too because they can't vote, so have no rights even though they are the citizens of India like you and me. I hope children's rights are mainstreamed in the political agendas of our leaders.
After two films, do you feel like you now belong to the industry?
No. I am still working with the industry but with an outsider's perspective. As an independent film-maker, I know I cannot play by the rules in the industry if I don't want my work to be tampered with. We have to change certain paradigms to create good content and take chances that mainstream cinema won't let you take.
But you do work as an actor in the mainstream cinema..
(Laughs) That is my relaxation therapy..that is when I have fun. I am the lead villain of Singham 2!
You have worked with kids and for them for a very long time..
My work with children through Aseema, an educational centre for underprivileged kids is immensely satisfying. Ashish Gaikwad, one of the kids I have worked with has just made a 10-minute short-film titled Tahan (thirst) and has secured a two-year scholarship to learn filmmaking at Subhash Ghai's Whistling Woods film academy. I hope, many more kids are able to realise their dreams. (Amole doesn't share the fact that Ashish's mother is a cleaning lady and it was he who gave him the direction to create a life in purposeful cinema)
Your wife and son are a big part of your creative journey..
Deepa is my Saraswati. She completes my life at so many levels. There is no Amole without her. Partho is my biggest teacher, even on the sets. To us, life is about simplicity and contentment. As a child, I grew up listening to Bhimsen Joshi and Sawai Gandharva. My son has been attending workshops for disadvantaged kids from the time he was three. My life was never about reaching somewhere or teaching something to my son. I am just passing on what I learnt and am learning too all the time.
Compassion is very important. Not just token compassion but one that acts and protects and nurtures. In this era of selfies, people are disconnected from harsh realities that may be right before their eyes.
We all need reality checks and can't brush reality under the carpet anymore. The carpet is bulging and soggy. I am just one person but my camera will never stop focussing on children. Stanley Ka Dabba saw a modest release but with Hawa Hawai, we will hopefully reach a larger audience.