October 17, 2000


The actors did more than justice, they lived the parts. They all came alive on the screen.

    No, it's not Hrithik. Nor Sanjay!

    It's award-winning novelist Vikram Chandra.

    Winning awards and acclaim for his Red Earth And Pouring Rain and Love And Longing In Bombay, are as natural as co-writing the script for his brother-in-laws's film.

    Only the film happens to be Mission Kashmir. And the brother-in-law happens to be Vidhu Vinod Chopra.


    The inspiration for Mission Kashmir, Chandra reveals, came when he was researching for his new novel in Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab. Now working on a new novel, Chandra divides his time between Bombay and Washington DC, where he teaches creative writing at George Washington University.

    In an exclusive interview, Runima Borah Tandon spoke to Vikram Chandra in the US. Excerpts:

    What really inspired you to write Mission Kashmir?

    Early in the summer of 1998, I had gone to Jammu & Kashmir and Punjab, to research for a novel. And while I was in Srinagar an Jammu,

    While I was in Srinagar, and Jammu, I heard many stories from people on all sides of the conflict -- amazing and heartbreaking stories of suffering, loss, brutality and heroism.

    When I got back to Bombay, I met Vinod Chopra. I told him some of these stories. Though I had spent a considerable amount of time in J&K when I was a kid, visiting relatives for long summers, Vinod had grown up in Srinagar.

    He had always wanted to make a film about contemporary Kashmir. He had many stories of his own that he shared with me.

    It was from those initial discussions that the seeds of a story and screenplay grew.

    How did you come to be involved in the scripting of this film?

    Actually, two other writers were also involved in the development of the film: Abhijat Joshi, a college professor and playwright from Ahmedabad, and Suketu Mehta, a New York-based writer who is working on a non-fiction book about Bombay.

    Abhijat had worked on Kareeb with Vinod. So the three of us, along with Vinod, wrote out the film. Atul Tiwari then joined us as dialogue-writer. For everyone involved, there was an urgency about making this film, a sense that we were dedicated to the project.

    Your mother, Kamna Chandra, is a scriptwriter herself. Were you inspired by her? If so, does scripting come naturally to you?

    Well, I wouldn't argue that the creative urge is 'natural', that it is passed down in the genes. But certainly, if you grow up in a household where the imagination is cultivated and nurtured, where books, film and art are valued, then your inclination finds a habitat that it can grow in.

    I don't think anybody but Vinod could have made Mission Kashmir.

    He's film-mad.
    A couple of days ago, he rang up and said,

    "So what is the next project?"

    And yes, I think all of us, my sisters and I, were inspired by my mother. We have watched her write ever since we were kids, so we know very well this excitement of creative work, this fever. But finally, writing is much more a matter of hard work than 'inspiration' -- even the most 'natural' writer has to develop a work ethic, a discipline and a certain amount of stamina.

    You have to get up in the morning and do it.

    That is one of the important lessons we learnt from Kamna Chandra.

    You studied filmmaking at Columbia University. How has that helped you in writing a script for a Bollywood film?

    Well, it is all about the film finally, isn't it? If you hone your alertness to drama, to the visual image, to narrative rhythms, it will help you work anywhere in the world.

    I grew up with Indian movies; I absorbed into my bones. They are a part of the world I grew up in and live in, and are a part of me. Watching foreign films at Columbia and learning their contours was doubly educational -- I learnt the structures of those conventions. And that made me very aware of the structures of the Indian film. To expose yourself to the alien is to become more aware of yourself. This is why artistes have always traveled, gone away from home.

    Were you present during the shooting of the film?

    Yes, a substantial part of it, in fact.

    Since I teach at George Washington University, I had to be away from India during my semesters. But as soon as classes were over, I would run back to Bombay. That way, I saw some of the shoot.

    Vidhu Vinod Chopra also is your brother-in-law. How was the experience, working with him?

    We share a good rapport, a comfort with each other.

    I think we learnt a lot about each other while working on this project together. We found a certain ease in communicating concepts to each other, a sense of what we were reaching for, the feelings and emotions we wanted in this film.

    That is a very happy thing, when you find that flow, back and forth, with another artiste.

    Have you seen the final rushes of the film? Has the film shaped up according to your expectations?

    I was absolutely blown away when I saw the first rough edits on an Avid editing machine earlier this summer.

    What Vinod has achieved is far better than we had imagined, or at least I had imagined.

    It is an incredible feat, given the constraints that we work under in the Bombay film industry -- the logistical and technical hurdles that you have to cross, the bureaucratic and organisational nightmares that you have to struggle through...

    And not to forget the very real dangers of shooting in Srinagar, and of making this film within the current political context.

    It is truly a wonderful film by any standards, more when you think of the context in which it was made.

    I don't think anybody but Vinod could have made Mission Kashmir.

    He's film-mad, though. A couple of days ago, he rang up and said to me, "So what is the next project?" No rest for the driven!

    What do you have to say about the cast of the film -- Hrithik Roshan, Preity Zinta, Sanjay Dutt and Jackie Shroff. Do you feel they have done justice to your script?

    This might sound like I'm hardselling a film I am involved in but I'll say it anyway. Each actor has done his career best work in this film. Go see it. You'll see what I mean.

    They did more than justice, they lived the parts. I think I can speak for the other writers as well: our Altaaf, our Sufi, our Inayat Khan, our Hilal Kohistani -- they all came alive on the screen.

    What is more, Binod Pradhan's cinematography is just amazing. The mood and texture that he has achieved gives the film its soul.

    What is the message of Mission Kashmir?

    The song in the film goes, Phir zarra zarra mehkega / khushboo ke mausam ayenge / phir chinar ki shaakhon pe / panchi apna ghar banayenge. (Again, flowers will sweetly scent the air / Again, the seasons of fragrance will come / Again, on the branches of the chinar tree, birds will build nests.)

    Despite all the sorrow, the loss, this is the hope that inspired us to work. And that is the hope that the film conveys.

    Which is more exciting -- writing for a book or for a film ?

    Writing fiction is what I do. It is what I am.

    I can't exist without writing fiction. Writing for films is 'exciting' in itself. But it is also pleasurable for me in that it is a diversion from my central pursuit.

    I am sure I will do it again. But I don't need to do it.

    But writing fiction is like breathing for me. It is necessary.

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