A Historian on a Film SetRoundup: Historians' Take
Gyan Prakash teaches history at Princeton University and is the author of “Mumbai Fables.”
On July 28, I flew to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, to join the filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, the actors Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma, and a massive crew making the movie “Bombay Velvet.” In 2004, drawing on my research on the history of Mumbai, I had written the outline for a retro film noir aimed at capturing the momentous transformation of Mumbai’s milieu of jazz clubs and industrial society in the 1960s. I had seen and admired Mr. Kashyap’s first film, “Paanch,” a dark tale set in Mumbai that has never been released commercially but was screened at Princeton University. I told my story to him because he had a reputation as an independent-minded and talented scriptwriter and director. When I finished, he said, “Like James Ellroy! Great! We’ll make it.”
This initial burst of enthusiasm was what John le Carré, writing in The New Yorker about his experience with the filming of one of his novels, described as the “First Flush.” It was followed, as in the case of Mr. le Carré, with the “Big Unexplained Silence.” Year after year, month after month, I badgered Mr. Kashyap, but things never seemed to be falling into place. I was certain that only he had the sensibility to make a dark film of the kind that I had in mind, despite the fact that most of his own films — like “Black Friday,” on the 1993 bombings in Mumbai, then Bombay, — were not finding distribution. When I arrived in Mumbai in the summer of 2008, he suggested that I write a script to get things going. Write a screenplay? I immediately bought books on screenwriting and read and reread well-known screenplays. And I did write a script, several times over....
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