Reema Kagti made her Bollywood debut with a quirky comedy, followed it up with a suspense drama and switched genres yet again in her third outing as director.
“Gold” (2018), a period film on India winning its first post-independence Olympic gold medal in field hockey, crossed the 1 billion rupee ($14.1 million) milestone at the domestic box office in August, but was panned by some critics for its slow pace and gratuitous nationalism.
Kagti spoke to Reuters in a rare post-film interview on “Gold”, why she wanted to make it and whether Bollywood is fuelling the debate on nationalism.
Q: “Gold” seems to be a departure from your earlier work. Do you agree?
A: That is a trend I have shown with my first and second film also. It is not planned, but when I look back, I see that I have not stuck to a genre. Different ideas grab me and I just follow them. “Honeymoon Travels” was a quirky comedy that was made for an alternative audience. “Talaash” was a film that explored grief and coming to terms with your own demons. When Zoya (Akhtar) and I were writing it, it organically became a suspense drama. And this (Gold), given the story it was, it turned out to be a historical sports drama. I am getting asked this question a lot, but what it says about me is that I am versatile. That’s all. (Laughs)
Q: What about this subject made you want to make the film?
A: I love sports movies. I wanted to do one, and I was talking to my friend Ankur Tewari. He suggested that I look at this match played between India and England in 1948, a year after independence. I am sorry to say that I was a bit ignorant. When I started researching, I got immersed in this world and realised what a glorious tradition of hockey we had. The material was so big that I felt like just focusing on the 1948 win in itself was not honouring the actual tradition we had. We were winning Olympic medals from the 20’s. In the 20’s and 30’s there was a nationalistic fervour in the squad. There so many legendary players in that team, like Dhyan Chand, but they never got to play for their flag. In the next decade, a generation that they had inspired was able to do it. That was the big story I wanted to tell.
I was lost and swimming around in all of this, unable to find a way out of it. Until I came across this snippet about a junior manager who pulled out the flag in the locker room during the final of the Berlin Olympics to inspire the team. The team apparently saluted in secret and eventually when they won the match, the flag that was raised was not their flag. More than anything I had read, this reached out and grabbed me. I went back and realized that this gentleman was the manager in 1948, when we won too. And I knew I had found my hero. Again, this is not a biopic, because I have manipulated and fictionalised to a point where you cannot say it is a biopic. But this part was inspired by a real-life person.
Q: How much of it did you have to fictionalise?
A: Like the flag was pulled out in Germany. For example, the part where players took off their shoes in the final. Those who have seen the match, say some players did take off their shoes, because they were slipping, but I showed it as the whole team having taken them off.
Q: When you are straddling between reality and fiction, how do you manage to keep a balance?
A: I was consciously not following reality. I know that there is a certain amount of criticism coming at me, saying why didn’t you show the real story. In spite of the fact that I am saying it is fiction, people are throwing facts. I was asked why I showed the score-line as 4-3 when it was in fact 4-0. Yes, because I don’t think there is any way for me to make an exciting 4-0 finish. I feel like if I had decided to tell the real story, there would have been more mayhem.
Q: What about conflating sporting victory with the movement against British rule, which is a running theme in “Gold”?
A: The era we are talking about, the nationalistic movement was going on, the freedom struggle was going on, and I wanted to reflect that through the sport of hockey. So yes, I think there was a need to link the two.
Q: A lot of people are probably looking at it in today’s context. Nationalism had a different connotation in those days...
A: Sure, but then the lack of context is your problem, not mine. You see what I am saying? Because you have to see my context. You cannot ignore my context and say that what I am saying about the 40’s is about 2018.
When I look at kids today, I think it is important to have some idea of what it took to become a free country. In some ways, I was trying to honour that, not trying to get pulled into any current debate.
Q: You said earlier that you are a knee-jerk liberal? Does your politics find its way in your cinema?
A: I think so.
Q: Did it find its way in “Gold”?
A: I think so, because like I said, it was really me trying to honour a legendary fact about my country’s history. If people cannot see that context, like I said earlier, I don’t know what I can do about that.
Q: We’ve seen a lot of films recently with themes of nationalism and patriotism. Do you think the film industry is trying to fuel the fire rather than add to it constructively?
A: There are all kinds of people with all kinds of sensibilities, but I think Bollywood is everybody’s soft target for all that’s wrong. We are constantly being accused of leading people astray, but on the other hand, when we make good films about good people, and not one person becomes better for it, no one talks about it.
Nationalism and patriotism is not a bad thing - in fact a lack of it is a bad thing. It’s what you do with that. If you are going to go totally rabid and force your views on everyone, that is not OK. But every time I go to the movies and the national anthem plays, I do choke up a bit. That’s the effect it has on me. But does that make me completely divisive and fascist right-wing? I don’t think so.
Editing by Tony Tharakan; This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.