Mrunal Manmay Dash

Award-winning filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri minced no words in speaking about secularism while speaking at OTV Foresight 2023 in Bhubaneswar on Saturday.

Comparing other countries with India, Agnihotri said, “In Germany, the refugees do not live together with the Germans. They do not know each other’s customs, language or anything. Americans talk a lot about secularism but they have almost no knowledge about Islam. India is the only country where people know about Islam and their traditions, perhaps better than some of the Islamic countries and vice versa.”

“There are Muslims in India who know a lot about Hinduism. It works in both ways. We interact so much with each other. The producer of The Kashmir Files is a Muslim, even the child who played little Krishna in the movie is a Muslim,” he said.

“In India, nobody treats Muslims in a different way. But the moment they set foot in Europe or the US, they are considered as terrorists. They suffer because people keep quite. This film, The Kashmir Files has opened a conversation. We never pretended. We always said this film is based on the interviews of the victims of the Kashmiri pandit genocide. We never claimed this film is about everybody, because we do not make secular films,” Agnihotri added.

Speaking about his foray into the films, he said, “My first encounter with film was a small movie called Arambh and we had signed Naseeruddin Shah and Rajit Kapoor for that. The film was about Bofors artillery guns. It was the 90’s and everybody wanted to know what happened behind the scenes. Journalists were telling two different kinds of stories. Nobody cared about it in film industry. However, I decided to make the movie. But at the last minute, the financers and the producers backed off saying this is a very daring and courageous subject. It can land us all in trouble. So they walked out.”

“It haunted me for a long time. Then a producer came and asked me to remake ‘The Usual Suspects’. I agreed and the Chocolate was made. It boasted a huge starcast with Emran Hashmi, Irrfan Khan, Suneil Shetty, Anil Kapoor and a lot of money. That was perhaps the first Bollywood film shot fully in London. It was easy for me to make that movie. After the release of Chocolate, Ronnie Screwvala called me and offered to make a film with me. I went to him with a very small idea to make a small film about some Indians living in Southall, England where they were struggling to retain their football club (Southhall FC) because they could not pay 90 pounds to the county. I wanted to make a small meaningful film about a community in Southall and their struggles. But then, everybody said let’s make it big with stars and then ‘Goal’ was made,” said Agnihotri.

“But I never intended to tell the story of all these big stars who wanted to tell their stories themselves. It did not pan out. I quit the film industry. I sat at home for 2 years and started delivering lectures as guest faculty in B-schools. When I was in running a small course in Indian School of Business in Hyderabad called I am Buddhha for global leadership, some students came to me and said we will make a documentary on Naxalism and they were glorifying Naxalism in it. Since I knew what Naxal politics actually is, I advised them to do a different documentary. And that documentary developed into a feature film, Buddhha In A Traffic Jam. When I tried to release it, there were so many resistance. It was stuck for six years. Then I realized this politics is real. Somebody has to fight it out to tell the real story and strike out the fake narrative that does not represent India,” he said.

“Then Pallavi advised me, in order to tell the truth, we will have to set up our own production house and we should stick to our kind of filmmaking without bowing to down to the pressure whatsoever. And the rest is history. We never compromised in telling the truth. Be it The Tashkent Files or The Kashmir Files, we never even once tried to dilute the truth. And that reflected on the box office. Who could imagine a non-starrer film like The Kashmir Files would do a business of Rs 350 crore. We are now making a movie, The Vaccine War. The Delhi Files is also on the cards. We are researching for 3-4 years for a film. We do not ask financers for funding. We put in our money, our research and make films about India which everybody else is scared to make,” he said.

Asked about not taking money from the industry to make films, Agnihotri said, “That is funny money. It will corrupt you. If you have given me money, you will dictate your terms. I have even cut down my needs and expenses so that I can save more for my films. If you look down my interviews, you will see me wearing only 2-3 shirts and a blazer.