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Navdeep Singh: ‘The late 1700s were very colourful’

  • The ‘Laal Kaptaan’ director on mining the late 18th century for material
  • The film stars Saif Ali Khan as a Naga sadhu bent on revenge

Navdeep Singh (left) and Saif Ali Khan on the sets of ‘Laal Kaptaan’.
Navdeep Singh (left) and Saif Ali Khan on the sets of ‘Laal Kaptaan’.

The original title of Navdeep Singh’s latest film was “The Hunter, The Tracker, The Widow And The Hanging Tree". This Indian Western, with a hint of noir, then took on a more local colour with the revised title Laal Kaptaan. Set 25 years after the Battle of Buxar of 1764, it follows a Naga sadhu on the path of vengeance.

Singh, who has previously directed Manorama Six Feet Under and NH10, says he was fascinated by the period between the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the English in India. “There were 100 years in between which were up for grabs. Those were interesting times which brought out the best and worst in people. It was a politically unstable time with changing alliances and wars, and the Naga sadhus were very prominent and active. This provided a rich backdrop for a film."

Saif Ali Khan plays the bounty hunter of the title, while the rest of the characters—the widow (Zoya Hussain), the tracker (Deepak Dobriyal), the antagonist (Manav Vij)—reflect the diversity and cosmopolitan nature of the time. “The late 1700s were very colourful, with European influence and characters from Central Asia roaming around. It was slightly anarchic, but very European, with the English, French, Dutch. I have tried to capture that vibrant and diverse period within historical fiction with myriad characters who don’t actually seem like they belong in one world. And, yes, there is a hanging tree in the film," he says.

A fan of Westerns and noir films, Singh singles out the work of Italian film-maker Sergio Leone and Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, besides Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, as his favourites. Since childhood, Singh has been attracted to the larger-than-life heroes of Westerns—the cowboy or the lone ranger in a stand-off against a stark backdrop. “Initially you are taken in by the hero, but over time you understand that thematically the Western is about the end of an era, with the arrival of the railroad, a changing landscape, the arrival of law and order, etc. The era of Laal Kaptaan reflects these themes—a time of change, a new era marked by the arrival of the Europeans," says Singh.

Casting Khan as a Naga sadhu is an unexpected choice but Singh felt Khan had the swagger to pull off the part. “I wanted this lone horseman, a lone bounty hunter. The role model in my head was Clint Eastwood. Of the slightly older generation of actors, Saif matched the image. Then the action training and the look, with the dreads, ash on the face, costumes, etc., helped. The thing about Saif is that he is very willing to try stuff."

Singh made his debut in feature film direction in 2007 with the neo-noir thriller Manorama Six Feet Under. At that time, he was counted among a slew of independent film-makers to watch out for. Remind him of that and he says: “Did I sound very hopeful about the future? It’s true that many who were considered independent film-makers left behind their indie start and moved on to making studio films with an independent spirit (in other words, the way films are made and how they are finished on tight budgets). As a film-maker, you want your films to be watched, otherwise you have to be clear that you are making films for a very special audience and you will travel the festival circuit and get a different creative satisfaction out of that."

Twelve years later, Laal Kaptaan is only his third film—a bafflingly modest count. Curiously, Singh has almost as many films that didn’t kick off—such as the zombie-themed Rock The Shaadi and spy thriller Basra—as ones that did. How did he overcome this disappointment? “You move on, with a lot of difficulty. My wife often tells me I should go for counselling because of all the heartbreak. I would love to revive Rock The Shaadi but that’s in some legal hell. The world of Basra has been done in a bunch of other movies, and anyway the environment has changed." He’s still hopeful of reviving Kaneda, a Punjabi gangster movie set in Canada.

Trying to find a pattern in his three works, Singh says he is attracted to thematic content. “If Manorama Six Feet Under was about personal corruption, which is what noir is about, it’s also very Hindu. Karmic retribution and corruption are important ideas for me. NH10 was about the clash of two different Indias and, thematically, Laal Kaptaan is about circles and cycles—not karmic as much as cycles of time."

Given the compact filmography, would he describe himself as a patient film-maker? Singh says: “I don’t know how to do anything else and it’s too late to change careers, so I have to be persistent. I don’t think I am particularly patient, though patience helps. I just keep myself creatively busy and keep writing stuff, including creating a web series."

Speaking on the ballooning OTT (over-the-top) space, Singh says, “There is so much work out there. I think working on this margin of Bollywood is the future." Like many film-makers and actors, Singh too is drawn to the glamour and thrill of a Friday big-screen release. Yet he’s pragmatic enough to punt on the OTT space. “The web space might not be so great for your ego—because you don’t get the excitement of a theatrical release—but it is better for your work. Having said that, it’s early days and it will take time for the language of episodic content to evolve."

So, with all the stops and starts and highs and disappointments, how does he keep himself motivated? “The respect of my peers and their opinion seems to matter," Singh says, adding: “I really enjoy the process of film-making and that is the main motivation. The movies I make are the movies I want to watch and hopefully I will make reasonably decent films that people will like."

Laal Kaptaan released on 18 October. Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.

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