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Ajayan Venugopalan: “Shiv Shastri Balboa is about re-tyring yourself”

This interview was first published in Cine Blitz by the same author.

Director Ajayan Venugopalan’s feature film Shiv Shastri Balboa has released in theatres on February 10. The film stars Anupam Kher, Neena Gupta, Sharib Hashmi, Jugal Hansraj, and Nargis Fakhri. In conversation with Cine Blitz, the director talks about making a film based on his personal experiences, filming in the US during covid, and what this ‘spice-of-life’ is all about.

What was the initial idea or visual that gave rise to Shiv Shastri Balboa?

I wanted to address the cultural stigma around old age, especially retirement. We consider it the sunset age. In India, the age of retirement is 60 years which actually is quite a young age. I had a rough idea for a film.

I drew a poster by hand and the poster had two old Indians dressed in traditional saree and kurta and driving with Harley-Davidson bikers. I didn’t have the title or the Rocky angle in my mind back then. I put up that poster on my wall and I started writing the script which eventually became Shiv Shastri Balboa.

The funniest thing was that the two Indians that I drew almost looked like Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta. So, that was the visual that gave rise to the film.

So, when did the Rocky angle come into the picture?

I wanted to put an element of finding a hero within. I was looking for an inspirational story of an underdog that connects east and west. And I couldn’t think of a better story than of Rocky. It is one of the longest-running franchises. That’s how the Rocky angle came in. The Rocky steps in Philadelphia are one of the most iconic tourist locations. People come from across the world. It’s almost like a pilgrimage. It’s a tribute from my side to the Rocky series.

Have you picked up elements for this film from your life?

Yes. I live in the US. When my parents came to visit me, initially, they were thrilled to come to the US. But soon they realized that they were stuck inside a house. In India, we have a nice social network of neighbors, friends, and relatives. We don’t realize the value of this support mechanism until we go to a foreign country and start a life there.

It’s challenging to find new friends. Our expectation from our parents is to find happiness sitting in a corner of the house when they had lived their life freely and created a world for themselves. So, it’s purely from my personal experiences.

This is a very serious issue and our film tackles more serious issues but not in a preachy way. There’s a study that says that after supposed retirement, people’s health suddenly drops because they don’t have a purpose in life. This is scientific data. We are taught to study and get a job. But we are not taught what to do after retirement. So, this film is about ‘Can you re-tyre yourself?’ Can you put on new tyres and get on a new journey?

What were the challenges of shooting the film in the US during covid?

Anupam Ji and Neena Ji have been friends for many years. But they haven’t done many movies together. The chemistry between them is amazing, so half of my job is done.

Of course, covid was a problem. But we were a small crew of 35-40. So, it was more like a family. We would have lunch together. Anupam Ji is one of the most popular faces of Indian cinema abroad. So, a lot of fans would come to visit him during the filming.

Although it was a road trip movie, and we were shooting on the go, it was a fun experience. Most of the filming happened in New Jersey. People opened their homes for us. They’d bring us food. We had a great time shooting this film and it is evident in the film as well.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, many Hindi films were made abroad. But for the last decade or so, we have mostly seen films based in small towns. You live in the US. Indians are living everywhere. Do you think Indian films set in foreign countries still have scope to be made?

My honest take on this is that it’s often the glitz and glamour of America that’s portrayed in films. And many times, filmmakers who are not from the US try to make movies about NRI lives. And they often tend to glamorize it.

Indian immigration to the west has been a success story. Yes. But it has come with a lot of pain, tears, and sacrifice. Looking at America while sitting in India, the picture might look very rosy. But there are many cultural issues that first-generation immigrants have to go through. Talk to any of those immigrants and you’ll notice that there’s a yearning in them to come back.

Shiv Shastri Balboa is set in the cold belt – as they call it – Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania. There are issues of unemployment and illegal immigration. Neena Ji plays one such character. She plays an undocumented worker. These characters are never really shown in mainstream Hindi films. So, yeah, there are many stories to be told there.

There are talks about slice-of-life films being ideal for OTT and not for a theatrical experience. But this one looks exciting to watch on the big screen. Your take?

Just like actors’ age, people have put genres also into categories. Had this film been about 25-year-olds, it would have suddenly been perceived as a theatrical film. But since this story is about senior citizens, they want to brand it like an OTT film or an NRI film. It is not. We are trying to break that perception. Hopefully, we will succeed.

What are your upcoming projects?

I am working on Metro Park Season 3 which will hopefully come out sometime this year. I’m also working on a couple of feature films. Hopefully, there will be an announcement on the same in the next couple of months.


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