Manjul Sinha saw his first movie when he was all of two days old. Films have since been an obsession for him. Born into a "filmi family",- they owned a cinema hall in Patna - Sinha always wanted to be a director. So after graduation in English Literature from the prestigious Hindu College, the first thing he did was take a train to Mumbai and start assisting his uncle, filmmaker Shivendra Sinha. He however soon came to the conclusion that training under someone could be no substitute to a specialised course. Hence, after "wasting a year" as he puts it, he joined the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. He passed out with a first in 1977 and returned to Mumbai to pursue his career.
For the next few years, there was not much heard from Sinha until Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi happened. The dawn of colour TV in India is synonymous with this serial. Such was its popularity that cinema halls would run empty on Friday nights. Seventeen years after YJHZ, Sinha is back with another comedy - Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan - on Zee TV, which is in its first weeks on air. In between YJHZ and YHMMJ, Sinha has to his credit several ad-films and a series of one-hour stories on Zee - Rishtey.
What drew you to direction?
Well, I was born into a film family. We were into exhibition of films and later ventured into distribution and even production of some Bhojpuri films. So, the interest in the medium was there right from the start. Then, in my formative years at Sainik School, Tilayia, we used to have regular screenings of movies and thankfully the principal there was a person who had a fair knowledge of the medium. He would brief us about the film before each screening and this facilitated an easy understanding and led to greater interest in movies. I think all these factors contributed towards my decision later to become a director.
But did you always want to be a director? After all, children are normally fascinated by the idea of being actors.
Always. This is because I realised that whenever I had to perform on stage, I was uncomfortable. But I was a good visualiser and would manage things quite well without actually coming into the picture. In fact I've recently found an old diary of mine from when I was in Std. 8 where I've written I wanted to be a director.
What are the natural instincts that a director needs to have?
Basically, a director needs to be a good observer, a thinker. He needs to be a leader of men without making it obvious to people working with him. He needs to be a people's man because filmmaking is all about teamwork.
How do you look back to Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi?
When YJHZ happened, TV was just about taking off in India and most people were apprehensive about entering the medium. In fact we ourselves weren't sure about how different the technicalities would be in shooting a serial as opposed to a film. I remember a lot of jokes about Kundan Shah and me were doing the rounds in those days. But yes, there was a freshness involved in the task. The entire crew - actors, writers and cameramen - were extremely committed and determined. They all worked with a lot of passion and the end result is there for everyone to see. In fact later - my assistants, the writer - all have tried to create something similar but the success of YJHZ remains unmatched.
How different is it making a serial now compared to back then with respect to work schedules, the actors, their availability and performances?
Those days can never come back. Then, we used to shoot one episode in approximately three and a half days. I still take two days to shoot one episode though there are directors who even try and complete two episodes a day. Sincerity and dedication is lacking now. Then actors would work on a single project, now they do half a dozen of them simultaneously. They fit in two to three shifts a day and are always in a hurry. When this happens, performances are bound to decline.
You've always been very selective about your work. Don't you feel you got left behind in the rat race?
No, I don't. Money has never been my top priority. In any case, do you think those directors who are supposedly directing three to four serials simultaneously are actually present during the shoot? I don't want to be a 'series' director. I am proud of all my work and am involved with it in every possible way. In fact the only reason I became a producer was because I realised that the product which was the result of my hard labour was not being handled well at the last stage. It was not being marketed the right way or given to the right channel. As a producer I have complete control over my product.
Any specific reason why you've specialised in comedy?
No. I would love to direct a soap. But not everybody can handle comedy well. The channels know it very well and hence after YJHZ everybody wanted me do a comedy. It wasn't a conscious choice.
How difficult or easy is it do direct a comedy compared to a soap?
Comedy is the toughest. The control required is immense and it has to be handled intelligently. A slight slip in control can make comedy appear inane.
Comedy is also tough simply because our culture is not steeped in humour except maybe to an extent Marathi culture. The psyche of Indian viewers is such that they enjoy watching emotional upheavels more than watching comedy. As a result, over here a comedy possibly cannot be a TRP chartbuster. Even the effort required in sustaining the interest of the audience is far more compared to a soap where the makers can get away with occasional low phases.
Do you need minute scripting for a comedy or do you normally improvise on the sets?
We do improvise but no improvisation will work unless there has been minute detailing with regard to the script. Minute scripting is quintessential and without it the director is not able to take the viewers into the zone of "willing suspension in disbelief".
What do you feel of the present trend of the dominance of slapstick?
Well, slapstick is the easier form vis-a vis situational comedy in the same way as overacting is easier compared to method acting. But over the years their success shows that there is definitely an audience for it and so long as there is an audience the channels are more than happy to provide it.
Given a choice between slapstick, situational and satire, which appeals to you the most?
I would always opt for satire. But in India, political satire always runs the risk of running into problems, especially on the national channels. A satire on human conditions is an interesting proposition but again needs to be handled in a very sensitive manner.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Do the comedians of yesteryears play a part?
The comedians of yesteryears - Charlie Chaplin, Marx brothers - are the biggest heroes cinema has ever seen. Even though I don't necessarily keep them in mind all the time, the fact is that in the subconscious mind their images and actions do exist and play a part when I conceive a scene. Otherwise the inspiration can come from so many sources. I used to keep a diary to note down the funny things that happened during the course of my daily schedule and still refer to it at times.
What distinguishes your genre of comedy from that of others?
My comedy is woven around our lives. It is an extension of life's pathos, an attempt to laugh at ourselves. Even my slapstick has smart punchlines that are laced with pathos and the aim is to make a telling statement in a subtle manner. See, even when Chaplin chewed his shoes in one of his movies, it reflected a grim reality of the times. I seek to create a similar effect through my comedy.
What are the things you would never compromise on as a director?
The script and performances. They are the backbone of any successful project
It is seen that many actors who are good in intense scenes falter doing comedy. How do you extract performances from them?
Well, I believe I am a good teacher. I use a lot of metaphors and similes to get the actor into the right emotions and to feel situations better. My background in English Literature helps me in doing this. Besides, I 'm very patient and always believe that the first shot or the first expression can never be the best or the conclusive one. I don't act out a scene though.
Some actors actually prefer not to have a script for comedy. How do you cope with this?
I would never allow this. An actor who insists on this is not serious about his job.
Do you write all your projects?
I used to. Now I don't get into the technicalities of writing, though I still monitor the writing very closely. I think that is imperative for a project to evolve the way it is conceived.
Any project which you would be averse to directing?
A quiz show. I would rather participate in it.
Who are your favourite actors on Television?
I haven't seen a better actor than Shefali Chayya on TV. I would love to have her on all my Rishtey stories. Shekhar Suman is versatile and I believe much of his potential remains untapped. I would love to work with him.
Which of your works are closest to you?
YJHZ, my ad-films and my stories on Rishtey. In fact I can safely say that my stories on Rishtey is the real me.
Anything you would like to take up in future?
I have a rough idea. I would love to work on a series that will loosely be a sitcom with a soapish theme. I will have satire and at times it will also be very grim and emotional. It is still at the conception stage and I'm yet to work out the minute details.
Who is you favourite director?
As a filmmaker what does Manjul Sinha stand for? For instance, if Yash Chopra's work can be characterised as passionate depiction of utopian love, what is your style of film-making all about?
It would be difficult for me to classify my work into a particular genre because I've directed diverse plots. But yes, my work is an attempt at reality. Let me put it this way. That even in creating fantasy, I present it as close to reality as I can. So that it may evoke the same emotional response from the audience.