Producer Shwetaabh Singh’s first two films, Eeb Allay Ooo and Aise Hee, have received awards and recognition at various national and international film festivals. Singh, 29, is an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and has acted in several advertisements and played cameos in films.
He spoke to Guardian 20 about the success of his first two films, the switch he made from acting to production, and his idea of good cinema.
Q. What sort of space do you want to create for your productions?
A. We want to create a space and follow a process where the filmmakers have complete freedom to express themselves uninhibitedly. We don’t just want to tell stories; we also want to tell them in a certain manner. The focus should be on making the best film possible according to us, irrespective of the commerce, stars or assumed audience expectations involved.
Q. Since you don’t like the terms “independent”, “art-house” and “masala”, how would you like to define your cinema?
A. Nothing could be more detrimental to a work of art than labelling it like a product. Why should we, while making the film define our own work? And why should someone watching the film go in with a preconceived idea? I need to just do my work with as much honesty as possible. Then let the people who watch it define it for themselves.
Q. For a young producer, getting the first two productions recognised at various reputed international film festivals—like the Pingyao International Film Festival in China and the Busan International Film Festival among others —must be overwhelming. But does it feel like an achievement?
A. The recognition and response we have received has really been overwhelming. It is an achievement for us to have reached this level with our first productions. But, honestly, even when we were making the film, I could sense that we will achieve something really big. When you have directors like Prateek [Vats, director of Eeb Allay Ooo] and Kislay [director of Aise Hee], who are so good at their craft—and are backed by cinematographers like Saumyananda Sahi and sound designers like Bigyna Dahal and Gautam Nair, who are just brilliant at their work—you are bound to have high confidence. No matter what resources you have, you should always believe in your work and expect the best things from it.
Q. Your productions have also bagged awards at MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. How important was that for you?
A. MAMI has been really instrumental in introducing alternative cinema to audiences for a long time. Their efforts have made sure that there is more acceptance to films coming from setups that are independent of the industry. Because we are exposed to cinema from all around the world with an easy access these days, it is changing the way we perceive content. Instead of outrightly rejecting them, we are putting in an effort to understand different forms. At least we are evolved enough now to move from banners and names to content. But there is still a long way to go.
Q. You started out as an actor. How did the shift to production happen?
A. I was not entirely satisfied creatively with the kind of work I was doing or even trying to do. I kept asking myself where this would take me as an artist. Then this opportunity came. Both the directors [of his two films] are my seniors from FTII. Once we started the discussions, I could feel the artistic excitement hitting me. There was a larger scope for experimentation as being first time filmmakers we hardly had any pressure on ourselves. I didn’t think twice before taking the plunge. Plus, I don’t have a godfather or any kind of backing. We should do the kind of work that excites us rather than limiting ourselves. And if I couldn’t get the work I wanted, then I might as well create something for myself.
Primarily, I still see myself as an actor. But there is no harm in exploring other aspects of your personality. No matter what work you do when it comes to art, it all adds to your overall personality as an artist. I hope that this experience of being a producer enriches me as an actor. I am already a trained actor who is still learning something new each and every day.
Q. What kind of scripts appeal to you?
A. To be honest, more than the script, what appeals to me is the way the director/scriptwriter is planning to tell the story. Film is a visual medium. So, how you treat your script is very important. I can’t do a film where you have a brilliant script but its treatment is mediocre. I would rather do a film where you make a simple story look brilliant by your style of filmmaking. We are a country of hundreds of languages, and that should reflect in our cinema. A filmmaker needs to have his own individual language and style. That is what will set us apart.
Q. What are your major areas of concern as far as production is concerned?
A. The biggest challenge is obviously investment. There are very few people who back new people and even then there are so many terms and conditions. Then, to get the people to believe in your project in the beginning also takes a while. Thankfully, we had a team which completely believed in what we were trying to achieve. Other than this I don’t see any concerns. This is our passion and we are fortunate enough to do what we love for a living. So, no complaints.
Q. What are your thoughts on the content-driven cinema of today?
A. Yes, the content has improved considerably from what we were being offered in the past, but how we treat it also needs to be talked about. What’s the point if your formula of a film with a strong content is similar to an out-and-out “masala” flick. That means you didn’t have the budget to go all out and just compromised. Content-driven cinema is not new to India. The ’70s and ’80s were full of content-driven cinema. But you could see the craft in it, which made it stand out. Even if they had a song sequence you could see why films like Golmaal, Chasme Baddoor andKatha among others were cult hits and have stood the test of time. So just having good content is not enough. The treatment is king and not the content.
Q. What changes would you like to see in Bollywood in the coming years?
A. I really want Bollywood to back the potential in people and not wait for them to become end products before supporting them. Everything starts from a piece of paper—the script. Please see what that says and not the guy holding it. Just give them the freedom to express themselves and you will be surprised. Also, let’s take the risk of giving the audience something we feel will not be accepted. You’ll be surprised with the reactions. And of course, more work for newcomers like us is also necessary.
Q. What are your upcoming projects?
A. There are some interesting voices that I have come across. Hopefully, I will be able to announce something soon.