Udaan to AK vs AK, Vikramaditya Motwane’s decade-long genre-hopping filmography is commendable

Udaan to AK vs AK, Vikramaditya Motwane’s decade-long genre-hopping filmography is commendable

Udaan to AK vs AK, Vikramaditya Motwane’s decade-long genre-hopping filmography is commendable

Director Vikramaditya Motwane’s earliest memory of being on a set is from the 80s when his mother Dipa De Motwane worked as a production manager. It was an ad for Nycil that was being directed by the legendary Shukla Das. “My sister and I had gone and I remember there was a stage where some kids were doing a play and there was a paper dragon,” the 44-year-old had shared in a previous interview to me. But it was much later when he turned 17 that Motwane began to enjoy being on a set. “I used to be very bored initially. Then my mother roped in my friends and I to help on a television chat show called Teen Talk. That’s when I realised that it was the best thing ever.”

Since those heady days of being a production assistant, Motwane has gone on to explore many genres as a director. His debut film Udaan (2010) was the first Indian film in seven years to be an official selection at Cannes. The coming-of-age film, starring Rajat Barmecha and Ronit Roy, is a deeply affecting story of a motherless teenager and his authoritarian and emotionally abusive father. Rohan (played by Barmecha) is thrown out of an expensive boarding school and packed off to live with his father in Jamshedpur, who he hasn’t seen in eight years. With seven wins, including Best Film (Critics) and Best Supporting Actor, the film went on to sweep the Filmfare Awards that year.

His second, the heartbreakingly beautiful Lootera (2013) was inspired from the O. Henry classic, The Last Leaf. The film opens in West Bengal of the ‘50s where Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) lives in an opulent bubble with her zamindar father. They are visited by Varun (Ranveer Singh), a socially awkward archeologist who wishes to excavate around the family temple. Pakhi and Varun are drawn to each other but he refuses to commit. A year later, when fate brings them back into each other’s lives, neither is in the same place, literally and figuratively. Motwane’s exquisite period love poem captured a specific kind of yearning so masterfully that the film found a place in most year-end‘ Best of’ lists.

Over the next four years, Motwane was plagued by a streak of bad luck because none of his directorial projects took off. Among the films that he was to direct were: Ahana Deol’s (Hema Malini and Dharmendra’s youngest daughter) debut film; AK vs SK starring Shahid Kapur; the vigilante drama Bhavesh Joshi (first starring Imran Khan and then Sidharth Malhotra); and a superhero film co-created by the late Stan Lee titled Chakra. Just because he wasn’t directing films didn’t mean that Motwane wasn’t making movies happen. As a part of the Phantom Films (along with Anurag Kashyap, Vikas Bahl, and Madhu Mantena), he produced 11 films including critical and commercial successes like Queen (2014), NH10(2015), Masaan (2015), and Udta Punjab (2016).

Still from Masaan. Image from Twitter

A chance meeting with first-time screenwriter Amit Joshi got Motwane out of the dry spell and we got the survival drama Trapped (2017), which the director described as his ‘most commercial film’ at the time. The urban nightmare revolves around a man who gets locked inside an apartment in a newly constructed, empty high-rise in the heart of Mumbai. He has no food or water but has a rat and a cockroach for company. One actor, one location and in 20 days of shooting, he gave us a layered story that’s both a thriller and an allegory of the concrete jungle that is Mumbai.

A self-confessed comic book fan, he next went back to a story that he had difficulty casting – Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018). The film starring Harshvardhan Kapoor emerged from Motwane’s love for the Angry Young Man films of the 70s, Sunny Deol’s films from the 80s, and ‘my love of Batman’. The same year he switched mediums as the show-runner of Netflix’s Sacred Games that is based on Vikram Chandra’s sprawling 2006 novel. The hardboiled noir followed a down-on-his-luck but honest cop (Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj Singh) and a notorious Mumbai gangster with a god complex named Ganesh Gaitonde (played brilliantly by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Motwane not only co-directed the show but as the show-runner was the constant creative voice on the project.

For his latest offering, Motwane once again went back to an idea that he had tried making once before – AK vs SK – only now it was changed to AK vs AK. An altercation between two industry heavyweights, Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap, triggers this meta-thriller-mockumentary. In retaliation to their spat, Kashyap kidnaps Kapoor’s daughter and he has until sunrise to find her as the former’s assistant Yogita (Yogita Bihani) follows him with a camera. This film within a film is also a portrait of the twisted relationship between fans and celebrities.

Anurag Kashyap and Anil Kapoor in AK vs AK

A few years ago, I had asked Motwane about his genre-hopping filmography and he said, “Maybe I just haven’t discovered my style yet. I like experimenting with different tones and films, and it’s possible I haven’t discovered a comfort zone yet; maybe it’ll come. While Alfred Hitchcock made the best suspense-thrillers, and Kurosawa was known for great Japanese battle films, I’ve always personally adored people like Billy Wilder and Kubrick. They made these great stories and as directors, the guy who made Dr. Strangelove wasn’t the same guy who made Full Metal Jacket; each film puts the film beyond the filmmaker and that’s important. I can’t approach Bhavesh... the same way I approached Trapped, and I couldn’t approach Trapped the way I approached Lootera”.

The diversity running through Motwane’s filmography is a possibly a reflection of the varying styles of the directors – Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Deepa Mehta and Anurag Kashyap – he trained under. In his own words, he wanted to become an engineer and would get bored watching shootings until he got involved himself as an assistant. “Sanjay Leela Bhansali used to assist Shukla Das while my mom was with him and so, I knew Sanjay. I was the assistant on the TV show for three years, after which I came to assist Sanjay on Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas. I then assisted Deepa Mehta on Water, where I met Anurag Kashyap, who was writing the dialogues for the film. I then assisted Anurag on Paanch after which I directed my first film, Udaan, in 2010.”

While his films are dissimilar on the surface, they do have something in common – protagonists who are trapped. There’s a scene in AK vs AK where Kapoor is forced to entertain an adoring but demanding crowd. He is in the middle of a gruelling search for his kidnapped daughter but he starts dancing to ‘My Name is Lakhan’. He might have fame and money but ultimately, he is trapped in the mould that the public wants to see him in – that of performing monkey. Rohan (in Udaan) is stuck in an industrial town with no friends, with an abusive father. In Lootera, Pakhi and Varun are confined by their positions in society; Siku (in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero) by the choices he makes and Shaurya (Trapped), of course is literally stuck in an empty building on his own.

Given we’ve just completed a year of being trapped in our own little worlds through no making of our own, his works feel more relevant than ever before. And, that’s reason enough to be excited about whatever Motwane does next.