New York Indian Film Festival 2012

A Conversation With: Director Feroz Abbas Khan

The 13th annual New York Indian Film Festival will open on Tuesday evening in Manhattan with the premiere of “Dekh Tamasha Dekh,” which was directed by Feroz Abbas Khan. The five-day festival is a showcase of more than 40 features, short films and documentaries, presented by the Indo-American Arts Council, a Manhattan-based nonprofit.

“Dekh Tamasha Dekh,” held at the Skirball Center for Performing Arts, part of New York University, is a political and social satire based on a true story about finding out the religious identity of an impoverished deceased man.

The 54-year-old filmmaker behind this story is known for raising the quality of theater in India: he was the first festival director of the Prithvi Theater in Mumbai and has directed plays such as “Saalgirah,” “Tumhari Amrita” and “Salesman Ramlal.” Though he was a respected playwright for more than a decade, his fame rose a notch with his 2007 film “Gandhi, My Father,” about the troubled relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and his son.

The day before his Indian Film Festival debut, Mr. Khan spoke with India Ink about the event that led to his latest work, the state of Indian cinema today and why Bollywood stars won’t act in theater.

Q. What was your inspiration for “Dekh Tamasha Dekh”?
A. The former police commissioner of Mumbai, Mr. Satish Sawhney, narrated an anecdote to me about an unusual communal situation he had to handle in one of his first jobs as a police officer: A dispute broke out about the religious identity of a horse cart plier who was electrocuted by live wires of an uprooted electricity transmission pole.
While both families, poor and socially discriminated, reached an understanding, the religious bigots found an opportunity in the conflict to further their agenda of hatred and mayhem.
The revelation of his identity and unexpected religious rites left me stunned with the audacity and absurdity of identity politics. This incident encapsulated the fragile nature of social peace in India that can be shattered by a minor irrelevance, and I decided to share this farce as a political and social satire.
Q. Does your creative process differ when working on a play versus a movie?
A. The process of directing a play and film are two different mindsets. For a play you prepare yourself for a journey where you discover the meaning and power as you rehearse , improvise and stumble. It is always a work in progress, changing and transforming from rehearsals to performance and beyond.

A film needs days, weeks and maybe months of working alone to make aesthetic and practical choices that best realize the story you need to share. Every detail needs visualizing and then you pre-visualize the film with storyboards, photographs, painting, pieces of music or conversations.

Q. What are the major differences in making a movie versus producing a play?
A. The movie allows you to explore all possible spaces and people constrained only by time and finances available. A play needs very little money- there is quality rehearsal time but restricted by available spaces for performance.
Q. You’re known for bringing the quality of Indian theater to a high standard. Do you think the productions in India match those of the West End in London or Broadway in New York?
A. West End and Broadway are mostly celebrated for musicals — they are simply breathtaking.
In India we do not have any performance spaces to accommodate the technical wizardry of these musicals. Most of our big theaters are multipurpose auditoriums that host everything from plays to music and dance performances to marriage parties and shareholder meetings.
We do have the talent and stories but we need the infrastructure and finances to achieve the quality of Broadway productions.
Q. India is obviously famous for Bollywood, and it seems as though every aspiring actor wants to break into that industry. Do you find it a struggle to recruit high-caliber actors to theater?
A. Since we have a burgeoning film industry it will always remain a huge attraction. I tell my actors to work in all mediums but never abandon theater — it is in theater they realize their highest aspirations as actors.

Somehow I have been able to get the best talent to work with me for a sustained period of time, but I do admit we will need to have a training and financial program to get a regular flow of fine actors.

Q. Is there ever any crossover in India from actors taking part in both film and theater as there is in the U.S.? Would a Bollywood star, for example, act in a play?
A. In India the crossover from theater to film seems logical but from film to theater almost impossible. Most of the Bollywood stars aspire to become bigger stars not better actors. The discipline, dedication, hard work and skill needed to perform in theater will drive them insane.
Q. What project is next for you?
A. I am procrastinating and am undecided!

(The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)


New York Indian Film Festival
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