Sharp focus

As critics hail his latest film as the new Slumdog Millionaire, the director Sudhir Mishra talks about how his previous movies have taken an unblinking look at Mumbai.

For a while, Slumdog Millionaire turned attention away from the song and dance traditionally associated with Mumbai cinema. Around the world, media focused on the disenfranchised youth and the impoverished people who roam the streets of the Indian city. In all the excitement, it was easy to forget that many Indian filmmakers have been pushing this message for a number of years. Among them is Sudhir Mishra. The Lucknow-born director studied psychology at university before dropping the course to work in physical theatre. He made his first film, Yeh Woh Manzil to Nahin, in 1987, although it was only on the release of his third film, City of Dreams, in 1992 that he began to receive international recognition. Starring Om Puri as a taxi driver, the film was set in the Bombay slums and didn't shirk from showing the city at its most ugly.

It belongs to a body of work that includes Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Ram Gopal Varma's Satya (1998). The films showed Mumbai's underworld long before the Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle arrived on the scene. And yet Mishra's 10th and most recent film, Ride the Wave Johnny, is being marketed to an international audience as a home-grown Slumdog Millionaire rather than as part of a growing collection of films by Indian directors that examine issues that are normally swept under the carpet.

Despite the obvious break with conventional Bollywood cinema, Mishra doesn't believe his work is particularly provocative. "I kind of tend to do what I want to do," he says. "I don't know about pushing the boundaries. A story comes to you because of experience, because of the life lived. I try to connect with how I live, who I am, the city that I live in and interact with, the world that is India and the world in general. When you try to do that, then the story kind of tells you how to tell it."

In Ride the Wave Johnny, the title character is a typical Mishra anti-hero. A young boy from Mumbai with good intentions, he wants to move to Dubai, but instead deals drugs for the local mafia. His customers include a man having an affair with the wife of a dangerous and corrupt cop, and a young model who lives with an unscrupulous boyfriend who works in advertising. Robbery, violence and murder are part of Johnny's everyday experience.

Looking at the city from the perspective of a young, alienated boy was a key ingredient for the director. "People don't know this type of boy who is slinking in the corners of the city," Mishra says. "Most Mumbai girls walk past them and don't even notice them. Increasingly today we are seeing the growth of closed communities and a kind of person who is being marginalised and becoming anonymous. Nobody notices them. There is an old English limerick: 'Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today. I do wish he'd go away.' This film is about a guy who is not there and it's interesting to tell the story of that subculture and the life that exists. It's quite important for me to do that."

Mishra's 1996 film Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin portrayed a mafia don as a normal guy just trying to do his job, weighed down by a sense of loss, sadness and frustration. This type of flawed hero was again present in his 2003 hit Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, which told the story of political strife in West Bengal in 1969. Mishra operates on a middle ground between art house and the mainstream, and his sympathetic portrayal of gangsters have made him the closest thing that Indian cinema has to Jacques Audiard.

Johnny is another flawed hero. "People often make films about people being heroic, but I often make films about people who sometimes fail," Mishra says. "There is a real aspect to it and it's hard to be good. I think I connect more with them. I think you try and find some goodness and beauty in people who are failing - in normal people - rather than look for this in an extraordinary person. You find something extraordinary in a normal person. Then it's interesting."

In nearly all his films, Mishra uses Mumbai as a prominent backdrop. "I love Mumbai and want to tell tales about the city," he says. "I'm kind of a chronologer of the city as well. In a sense, that is what I do." Yet he does not see the city through rose-tinted glasses. He fears that consumerism is sapping its soul. "We are building a lot of oases in the desert, shopping malls and five-star hotels, and we are taking the city away from the people. You can alienate people like that. You start living in barbed wire fences, glorified cages that keep everyone out and push people to the boundaries. This will create problems. The city needs to look after its people instead of just building places for consumers and that kind of world. If you don't do that you're heading for trouble."

Another problem is the drug trade, which is growing as the city gets richer. This issue is a prominent component of his new film. "It is one of the attendant problems," Mishra says. "Some people find a way of making money out of it, and it causes a kind of corrosion in some people. That is what is interesting because that is what Johnny wants to escape. He wants to retain something. It's easy for Johnny to become what these other guys are, but he wants to get out of it. He wants to get out of Mumbai. He wants to get out of the situation he finds himself in and not become this evil monster."

Johnny dreams about moving to Dubai. The director sees the use of the Emirate in the movie as a metaphor for the characher's desire to escape. "It's just where he wants to go," he says. "Dubai is easy to get to, but so far away; you can go there by boat, so people often find their way there in a bid to change their lives. It could be Dubai or somewhere else. "Johnny is roughly based on a real story. There was a kid that I was talking to over the years and he did go to Dubai. He got sent back to India a couple of times and kept going back again until he finally disappeared. They say that he went with some people to Germany and they left him near the Black Forest. Then everyone lost contact with him. But the idea of Dubai is roughly based on a real aspiration."

The director also deals with the subject of the class divide in India, although he sees some light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to breaking down class barriers. "I think Mumbai is the kind of place where it will disappear the fastest," he says. "It's a more democratic city. I always say this it is a place where Indians can fully become better, where they're allowed to be who they are rather than where they come from or what their caste is. They are not constrained by the social culture they come from. You have this kind of myth about Mumbai, but myths are important. Anything could happen. There is a possibility for fairy stories."

Music plays a big role in the film, but Mishra has chosen to use more than just Bollywood numbers. There is a mix of styles, from the traditional to modern, and the director says the choices contain a criticism of the Bollywood film industry. "There is this facade," he says. "But behind this facade of Bollywood and everything there are these harsh things happening. There is a whole façade of India singing in the entertainment industry - movies, soap operas and television - but behind this is the story of dark things happening. So instead of putting music to dramatise a situation you put it as a counterpoint.

"Also, Bollywood music is always loud. It blares from every place. I sometimes want to live in Mumbai with earplugs because I can't escape the music. It's a kind of soundtrack to the city. Everything happens to the music of Bollywood song. It is behind everything that happens in India and it's become rather silly. So it's almost like a dirge for me now." Mishra's movies illustrate how a number of influences from the East as well as the West affect the director. Yet despite his desolate stories, he has a positive outlook on the city. It becomes clear through the look and tone of Ride the Wave Johnny. "I was trying to make it kitsch," he says.