Interview: “I’m Happy I Can Talk About Films Without Feeling Guilty” Says Aurangzeb Director Atul Sabharwal

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We’ve seen his work, including the mini-series Powder and the feature length film Aurangzeb, but not much is known about the quiet, bespectacled, bearded man who created them. A man of few words, writer-director Atul Sabharwal prefers reserving dialogues for his screenplays, but we managed to get him to chat with MumbaiMag about his journey from Agra to Mumbai and finally to Bollywood.

Back then I was craving for the mad rush of the city, just like now now I crave for those open spaces of my past.

Atul grew up in the laid-back cantonment area in Agra where his grandfather had a quaint, ancient bungalow bought in 1947. Life was simple, straight forward with emphasis on children’s education like any other middle class family in India. “Though I always loved films and my family is one big bunch of film buffs but when the time came for competitive education like chartered accountancy the whole idea of films and discussion about cinema became burdened with guilt. It was not even an extra curricular activity for me. Watching films could not help you clear your exams, only studying could – that was the unsaid ground rule those days.”

On the sets of Aurangzeb - Rishi Kapoor and Atul Sabharwal
On the sets of Aurangzeb – Rishi Kapoor and Atul Sabharwal

But Atul was restless. “Back then I was craving for the mad rush of the city, just like now now I crave for those open spaces of my past.” He did set off for New Delhi to pursue a career in Chartered Accountancy but knew well that he will surely not be happy taking it up as a profession. So once in Delhi, he decided to chase those celluloid dreams. Mumbai was calling!

“I think my family was secretly happy that someone was going to be a part of the world that they had always cherished discussing, the world of cinema. Of course, they were still concerned and worried for me because I was letting go of a so called secure career. No one knew whether I will able to find any work in Bombay let alone a break in films” Atul remembers. “My family is a family of film lovers and even some technicians, but none of them ever came to Mumbai. I guess that happened because unlike me they were very good at other things apart from being film lovers. I did not wait to find out, I needed to get into the movie world.”

About a decade ago, Bombay wasn’t as aggressive a city as it is now.

Finally reaching Mumbai, Atul felt liberated, free to pursue his dream. “I was happy that I could chat about films without feeling guilty of cheating on college. I was happy that I could discuss films with film professionals be it a spot boy or a film star and I remained in that happy stupor for a couple of years” he reveals.

Atul Sabharwal Photo by Mandar Deodhar for India Today
Atul Sabharwal Photo by Mandar Deodhar for India Today

Mumbai was love at first sight for Atul who reminisces how he fell in love with the local trains and cosmopolitan vibe that is the spirit of Mumbai, “I have made the maximum number of friends here in the shortest span of time than in any other place. I immediately fell in love with the fast beating pulse and the laid back attitude of this city. But things have changed over time. About a decade ago, Bombay wasn’t as aggressive a city as it is now.”

It was in Mumbai the filmmaker within Atul found life. “I was this outsider who knew this industry and its people inside out, from a distance” he says. “I have an almost photographic memory of all the opening film credits from 80s to late 90s, of all the film magazine gossip columns and facts from the same period, the chitrahaar songs and the Lehren video magazine’s reruns which I had memorised.”

So how difficult was it to break into the industry here? Not that difficult it turns out. “See it is never difficult to find work in Bombay as long as you are willing to take up what is offered—it is only when you start imposing your wish, as to what you want to do or what you deserve, that the battle starts,” he points out.

I was happy doing any film related job as long as I was allowed to be on a film set, or a dubbing studio, or an editing suite or a music recording. I did various small but important things to teach myself the craft.

After six years of breezing through assignments, including contributing as a writer to Darna Mana Hai, Phir Milenge, My Wife’s Murder and Via Darjeeling, the real struggle began—the struggle to break into film direction once Atul realized he taught himself enough to begin. Finally, Yash Raj happened.

Powder
Powder

“Yash Raj was venturing into television, and I had the script for pilot episode lying with me for almost seven years,” he recalls. “When YRF TV came I took up the assignment for money which I had none of and to finally complete the story that I had started writing seven years ago. The money, I thought, would buy me some more time to get my first film made.”

Aurangzeb
Aurangzeb poster

The experience with Yash Raj was a positive one. “There was no rush to meet any dates while writing the show. I took more than a year to write all the 26 episodes, and so did the writers of the other shows.” While Atul was writing Powder, he used the money he was earning from writing Powder to shoot a short film titled Midnight Lost and Found which premiered at Clermont-Ferrand Short Fest, France and then won the best short film award at IFFLA.

As destiny would have it Yash Raj Films TV asked Atul if he wanted to direct the mini-series he wrote, and that’s how he directed his first TV mini-series. Happy with the great job he did with Powder, Yash Raj decided to invest in him as a feature film director, and Aurangzeb happened. Atul was excited, which is a ‘rarity’ in his own words. “I barely get excited when there is a job at hand that has to be done well. I am mostly nervous.”

Now, there is no looking back for Atul who is busy writing his next script and is wrapping up on editing his first feature length documentary about the shoe industry in Agra. And, when he has some free time he enjoys being surrounded by books—his favorite book being Po Bronson’s Nudist On the Late Shift—and LPs or exploring South Mumbai from the Western to Eastern harbor.

Well, we wrapped up our conversation with Atul by asking him what he thinks makes for a great protagonist. Here’s what he said — “It’s someone who rises or at least tries to rise up from his/her circumstances that are far bigger than he/she can handle. Given this analysis, the circumstances would make a good story.” Given that definition, we’d have to say Atul, too, makes for an interesting protagonist, and his story certainly makes for a memorable one, don’t you agree? Well, go on, talk to us in the comments section below!

Post By Amanda Sodhi (10 Posts)

Born and brought up in Washington, DC, Amanda Sodhi moved to Mumbai from Los Angeles to pursue her passion for music and now fronts a pop-rock band called The Chudail & Demons. She is a vocalist-lyricist, VO artist, journalist, award-winning screenwriter & filmmaker and also runs a social media & online PR firm called Artist Handle.

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Amanda Sodhi

Amanda Sodhi
Born and brought up in Washington, DC, Amanda Sodhi moved to Mumbai from Los Angeles to pursue her passion for music and now fronts a pop-rock band called The Chudail & Demons. She is a vocalist-lyricist, VO artist, journalist, award-winning screenwriter & filmmaker and also runs a social media & online PR firm called Artist Handle.