Goodwill Hunting with Ankur Tewari
Hindi pop-rock singer Ankur Tewari’s resilience paid off and why his connections draw him to act in and script Hindi films but never to sing for one
Tewari left Mumbai for Delhi and stumbled upon filmmaking. “I bought the Screen Circle directory at the Bengali market and started calling people who would sign me on as a singer,” he says, “I called everybody listed under A through C until I reached Colonel RK Kapoor.” Kapoor, who made the TV series Fauji with Shah Rukh Khan, and Tewari hit it off at once. When Kapoor wanted to make a documentary on the Indian army in Roorkee, Tewari wanted to be a part of the project. “I became the production head without having ever done it before. I just learnt on the job using common logic and help from Kapoor.” Kapoor also introduced Tewari to producer Bobby Bedi. “I lied to Bobby saying I knew how to operate a computer, and became a production assistant on the TV serial Rajdhani,” say Tewari. When the entire art department quit to work on the Mira Nair film Monsoon Wedding, and Bedi was on the lookout for an art director, Tewari offered to step in. “I’d watched the team at work and was confident I could pull this off.” He struck up a rapport with film maker Shekhar Kapur who often visited Bedi’s office during the making of The Bandit Queen that Bedi produced. “I’ve never been shy of picking up a conversation with anybody,” he says.
The filmmaking bug bit and Tewari set out to direct Let’s Enjoy with Siddarth Anand Kumar, the cinematographer on Rajdhani. The debutants considered shooting the film on digital video format which had just been introduced in India. But before their debut came another adventure. “We realised that no film festival screened digital films in India so we made a pitch to the British Council on creating a digital film fest, where we could eventually show our film,” he says. The presentation resulted in meeting Kapur again. This time, Tewari hooked up with Kapur who had set up his own digital film company called Digital Talkies (now known as DT Cinema). “We pulled off Asia’s first digital film fest and commissioned India’s first digital film titled Urf Professor. I was the Executive Producer on that. Again, I learnt what no film school could have taught me on the sets.” A dark comedy, shot in 2001, Urf Professor was banned by the censors.
Interestingly, Tewari’s songwriting approach is also based on visuals. It’s the imagery and not the lyrics that first come to mind when he’s writing. ”˜Jannat,’ the title track of his debut was based on Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, a documentary shot in the Tihar jail. Tewari was part of its production crew. “We shot prisoners who had committed multiple murders being given another chance to reform through Vipassana. People judge you all the time. One mistake and you’re written off. Nobody’s over even after they are dead. ”˜Jannat’ is about being given a second chance,” says Tewari who found his second chance in Mumbai in 2003, after he completed shooting his directorial debut Let’s Enjoy set around a farmhouse party.
The making of the film sounds like quite a bash too. “Those were the days before laptops so we carted along a 486 PC to a friend’s farmhouse in Nathuakhan in Nainital and finished the script. We narrated the script to strangers when we went river rafting in Rishikesh,” says Tewari, who came back to Mumbai to look for his cast and producers. “I wanted to cast Yudi [Channel V’s VJ Yudi] who instead offered to help me find producers. We went to his house for a party, made a few friends. I remember I came to the city with no contacts on my phone.” In two days, his address book was full and he had found two producers willing to back the film. After he shot the film in Delhi, he returned to Mumbai to edit it and stayed on. “This time, things just fell into place,” says Tewari, who began writing screenplays alongside music. Two Emraan Hashmi films (Tum Mile and Crook) later, he turned script doctor on the impressive small budget comedy Tere Bin Laden starring Pakistani actor and singer Ali Zafar. Tewari, familiar with the fickle-minded industry especially when it came to payment, came up with a survival plan: “I wasn’t going to put word on paper until I was paid. I made good pitches and only did commissioned work and was paid for everything I wrote.”
Most recently, his underdog demeanour landed him a cameo in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Saat Khoon Maaf, but it was filmmaker Zoya Akhtar, a common friend who first cast him in the role of a writer in her debut Luck By Chance in 2009. Encouraged, Tewari auditioned for the lead role in Slumdog Millionaire, and went on to play a cameo in the Oscar-winning film as well.
As Tewari’s life unravels much like a Hindi film, he says he wouldn’t have come this far without help. “It’s always been unconditional. People have fed me, given me a place to stay – either they’ve given me an experience or the practical bandwidth to survive. I help whoever I can too. I believe in a barter system, a collaborative effort more than capitalism.”