On the face of it, Ashim Ahluwalia fits the stereotype of the privileged Mumbai boy: the SoBo kid who went to Cathedral — one of the city’s oldest and poshest schools, with a reputation for producing young sophisticates with shades of brattiness. And then he studied abroad (film-making at Bard College, New York).
Yet, when you speak to him, you sense a deep-seated urge to cast off that tag. “I was probably one of the worst students at Cathedral. I hated it there,” he says. Instead, he sought out “rough bars such as Golden Crown and Blue Nile, one of the last cabaret joints in the city”. The characters from his films are polar opposites — trying to rise up in the world, battling the filth and committing a crime or two to get there: Miss Lovely’s porn film-maker Vicky, or gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli from his new release, Daddy. In the south Mumbai of the ’80s, Ahluwalia would have hung out with such characters at those “rough bars”.
That, along with his film school training and fascination for Japanese New Wave directors (he mentions Shohei Imamura’s 1979 film Vengeance Is Mine among his favourites) leads to a cinematic language that’s uncommon, at least to Indian films.
ELLE: You’re the Mumbai boy who’s now made two period films set in this city. How much has it changed?
Ashim Ahluwalia: In the ’80s, Colaba was scary after dark, Parel was a wasteland of empty mills; you couldn’t imagine the Lower Parel of today. There was crime, dance bars, cheap drinking places. It was also an era of smuggled goods. It was a different time, and it informs a lot of my cinema.
ELLE: Did you meet Gawli?
AA: He’s in a maximum-security prison, so I met him only at times he was out on parole. He’s a remarkably direct guy, and would often tell stories that would make my jaw drop.
ELLE: Biopics are tricky — they fall into the trap of redeeming its protagonist.
AA: Most [biopics] tend to be propaganda. You can never really know somebody, even somebody close to you. It’s just one version, but it’s always presented as ‘the only authentic version’. In Daddy, Gawli’s life is depicted through characters that knew him. Depending on who’s telling the story, he’s a hero, a violent gangster; sometimes frightening, sometimes frightened.
ELLE: How do you explain balanced opinions and points of view to a feared gangster?
AA: I’m sure Gawli was expecting a different kind of film, more heroic or larger than life, perhaps. But, somewhere, he was able to understand that we were staying true to his story. So, he trusted us and was open about his life. As a film-maker, you can’t exploit that. In one or two instances, I removed portions that felt unfair to him.
ELLE: From Miss Lovely to a film with Arjun Rampal [who plays Gawli and had the rights to the film]. That’s quite a shift.
AA: Yeah, it’s quite a ridiculous combination. I think he (Rampal) was at a stage where he wanted to do something substantial. And I was open to the idea of making a film that was local, but without compromising on the kind of film I’d like to make. We were both out of our depth.