His most recent project, Amar Akbar, and Tony follows three young men trying to get their lives in order and find love. Set in and around Southall, a hub for Indian culture in London, the film deals with themes such as culture, love, marriage and more in this raunchy comedy.
It was time. I called Atul up. The phone rang. A moment later he picked up. He greeted himself cordially and, before I had a chance, asked how I was. I answered, relieved that he didn’t fit my vision of the unforgiving director. We spoke for a few moments before jumping into the interview proper.
So what do you watch in your spare time?
I have to confess that I am addicted to some of the amazing dramas coming out of the US. Narcos is the thing I’ve been watching recently on Netflix. I think it’s absolutely phenomenal, I couldn’t stop watching it one after another. I recommend it very highly. Otherwise, I tend to watch a lot of films. They range from pure entertainers to arthouse to, you know, Bollywood. So any film really
You mention Netflix. have you been watching Master Of None?
No, but I was reading about that very very recently and I am curious about it. Have you seen it?
I have seen a bunch of episodes and some of the themes and ideas reminded me of Amar Akbar and Tony quite a bit.
Yeah, you should give it a watch.
I should give it a watch. I do think Aziz Ansari is a very talented guy and doing some very interesting stuff, so I’m very curious to see it.
It’s great so far. So, in your film, what was the most difficult creative decision you had to make?
[Laughs] That’s a very challenging question because day by day there are a lot of challenging decisions to make and a lot, actually, if I’m completely honest, stem from a lack of money. I remember this one time where I approached an investor and tried to get some money out of him, essentially, and he said, “when you don’t have money to spend, you have to spend imagination.” I think he was onto something there because you really do have to start finding ways to achieve what you want to achieve without the financial resources to do so. Although I would say for some of our biggest scenes, like the big wedding scene where we needed lots of people, it was very challenging to get those things to play out. On the whole, the process of putting a film together can be quite demanding.
Your work so far has been in short films and TV documentaries, how was it breaking into feature length filmmaking?
When I set out to be a filmmaker, here in the UK, it's very difficult trying to get paid work in the film industry. Mainly because of the amount of films being made is limited and secondly, in terms of actually making a living out of it, it is quite challenging. So TV ends up being the mainstay for many, where you can go out and actually earn a living from it. The advantage of this gave me was that because I’ve had the opportunity to shoot in so many locations and be involved in so many different styles of production, automatically you take in things which you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do unless you are constantly filming. My natural inclination, personal passion and instincts are film lead anyway, and I was doing all this stuff on the side. I would read up and watch and I would make my own stuff on the side. TV was mostly my day job to go and pay the bills, basically.
So would that be what your advice to those starting out in the film industry to do?
You know what, one of the toughest things about the film industry and filmmaking is that, particularly if you want to be a director, that there is no clear direct route to becoming one. For example, if you want to be a lawyer, you have to do your degree, then you do an apprenticeship then you take a field and work your way up. Same with banks and such. There’s a very clear path which just isn’t there in the film industry. Like, first of all, if you don’t know anyone in the film industry you have to navigate a way of getting to know people in the industry. Then you have to try to learn the craft of the industry. Then you have to try and maneuver your way to get into the position you want to. So, one of the key things I’ve learned is, writing is a big, big thing to try to get to being a director because writers tend to get these opportunities. Editing is also another great way to develop in the industry, and so is camera work. So these are specific films which will help you on your way.
I couldn’t agree more on this. I’m currently a freelance this and a freelance that, not being paid of course.
Well, you know, that’s the right thing. It’s very frustrating isn’t it, because you’re trying to get in there and you know the first you jobs you do are as a favor or a freebie. Understandably, it is partially you learning your way as well, but what becomes difficult is, as you get further and further down the line is trying to do stuff you want to do and getting paid for it. I think that’s when it becomes challenging. But at the stage you’re at, I’m sure it’ll be fine.
You mention starting off, how did you start off?
Yeah, so I did a film and media course at Brunel where I made my own graduation film. At that point, I had written a few short film scripts as well. Off the back of that, I got into a training scheme at Granada television which was basically around 50 graduates to launch their satellite channels. They separated us, into the tech side and the producing side. So anyone who had made shorts suddenly found themselves on the technical team and those who did, like, history or English degree got themselves into the producing side. Then we got to work on a variety of different programs. So I did 6 months training as a cameraman and then another 9 months as an Avid editor. Then after finishing that up, I went out and freelanced as an editor and then started pitching my own directing ideas where I got permission to do a documentary about a dwarf rock band where I got a directing credit. So then I was balancing editing and directing until I got more directing credits under my belt.
Is this a path which a lot of young filmmakers are familiar with? Is it like there’s one big job and everything falls into place?
It’s not quite as straightforward as that. I think what you’ll find and what I found along the way was that people would go, “Oh, you’ve done something like this, so that means you can only do this kind of thing” and you go, “No, actually, I’m a director and I have skills and experience which allows me to do other stuff as well.” So people try and pigeon hole you all the time and try putting you into a certain box because it’s very comfortable to define a person in a particular way. So you constantly have to try challenging people and do different things so that you can get a broader range of work. Unless you do want to do only one kind of project, in which case TV is great for stereotyping you and putting you into a little place where you can keep doing that same thing with your life.
So was one of the reasons you made Amar Akbar and Tony to say that you are multi talented and have a large range?
It’s not about just that. It’s about that my interests have always been to do feature films. That’s what I started off looking to do, but the challenge in the UK is that there is only so much drama and film happening and the majority of paid work is in factual entertainment and documentary. So it’s finding that balancing act of surviving and pursuing something you want to do. For me, personally, features and drama are the things that really excite me, but that’s not to say I haven’t learned a lot from documentary. It’s still fun and very interesting to do, just not what I set out to do.
With Amar Akbar and Tony, what was the inception of the whole idea?
To be honest, I think it was because very rarely have I seen films representing a group of people that I knew or that grew up with or Asians that I recognized. For me to see these people on screen is a very rare thing. Quite often I see representations on the screen which I don’t believe or where I say, “I don’t know those people.” So, firstly, it’s my first feature so you kinda work within an area where you can get people and locations and I thought it was a great opportunity to put something out there that I wanted. It’s all good and well to say, “ooh, there aren’t enough Asians out there.” Well, then it’s up to me to try and put some of them up there in a way that is interesting. I hope I did.
I think so, for sure. This brings me back to Master Of None where they deal with the issue of Indian representation and I think it’s a great link to what you’re saying.
I’m definitely going to watch that. I’ll try and catch it this weekend.
It’s a great watch and good fun. Now, I want to ask, your film appears to be inspired by the 70’s Bollywood film Amar Akbar Anthony, so I wanted to ask how that film influenced the film.
The thing is, the film itself isn’t inspired so much by it, but I think the spirit of the film is. The story is of three brothers, separated at birth, brought up in different houses. One is brought up in a Hindu house, one is brought up in a Christian house and one is brought up in a Muslim house who are reunited later in life. This story really struck a chord with me because here we are, in multicultural Britain, growing up in these different households where we may not be brothers but we grow up together. I quite liked that connection. Also, the film is not a classical Bollywood narrative, nor is it a classic Hollywood narrative. It’s a hybrid of independent cinema and elements of Hindi cinema. So when I married them together I quite liked a title which acknowledges that it has a, kinda, warmth to Hindi cinema if you will.
Was the film itself inspired by other cross cultural films? Especially British- Asian ones like Bend It Like Beckham or, to a lesser extent, Four Lions?
I would say no. Because there just aren’t enough of those films out there to reach that point. So I wouldn’t say it’s inspired by those films. That said, it has characters from a similar world, so I can see why people make those comparisons and connections. These films are so few and far between in terms of depicting these characters and this world. There is only a handful, so there are these automatic, go-to connections which can be made.
Now, about twenty minutes into the film, it takes a dark turn and there is a big change in tone. How did that affect the way you had to direct people and make the film?
It is quite challenging because on one hand the film is a comedy- or has quite a few comedic elements- then you have these key dark moments in the film. I guess you know that you always have to balance the two. I guess it was quite a challenge balancing the comedy with the serious moments in the film. It was something we anticipated though because it was in the script, so I planned my shots accordingly. I hope I succeeded in making that balance work.
The film had a very refreshing take on race, I think because it wasn’t like a lot of stuff out there where it’s race against race. In this, however, there is no racial tension. It’s just that people are different. What is your take on the issue?
I think, of course, racial tension exists. You can’t ignore that. At the same time what we tend to ignore is that racial harmony exists. There are many places, many areas and many groups of people who actually genuinely get along. They’ve grown up together so, for them, race is no longer an issue within their friendship. I wanted to reflect on that because I think that’s something that gets ignored in favor of conflict, which does need to be spoken about, but I think a positive reflection is positive reflection is necessary to remind that, yes, we can all get along.
And finally, what’s next for you?
Well right now we’re focusing on Amar Akbar and Tony which has released on VOD, so that means it’s on iTunes, Google Play, and Virgin so it’s out there to be easily accessed in the UK. So we’re just putting it out there. Right now, for me, I’m developing a few other projects so I’ll be pushing forward with those and hopefully get a chance to film them late in 2016 or early 2017.