Film director, producer, screenwriter and now an author, Vivek Agnihotri wears several hats, along with being an activist. Best known for the critically-acclaimed Buddha in a Traffic Jam, the filmmaker minces no words when it comes to speaking his mind: Be it being vocal about his displeasure of the film industry or voicing his angst at society at large. In a candid interview, Vivek Agnihotri speaks about his book, Bollywood and his struggles.
Tell us more about your book, Urban Naxals: The Making of Buddha in a Traffic Jam.
After being canned for five years, Buddha in a Traffic Jam turned out to be a prophetic cult film. I almost lost hope to release the film in such a hostile industry, I decided to take it on a roadshow, screening it across India’s top 45 universities and institutes. It unfolded a new journey for me – that of resistance, opposition, humiliation, sabotage, threats and physical attacks. Urban Naxals, captures my journey with the film and what unfolded thereafter. I did not grasp the resistance at the outset, but as I set out on this journey, situations started emerging one after the other and I understood the crux of the problem much better. It’s my personal struggle and conviction, the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the award-winning film.
India’s Naxal ‘Maoists’ are listed among one of the top terror groups in the world. Earlier considered only active in jungles and remote places, through this book I have attempted to unmask the vast urban network, including leftist academia, media, NGOs and intellectuals, which supports and fuels this terror – starting from my own professor in college days.
You speak of the origin of Naxals in India and unmasking terror. What kind of research did you undertake for the book?
Buddha In A Traffic Jam was an outcome of a research which startled us. The intense research done by the students of Indian School of Business and later by our research team revealed that India’s biggest security threat doesn’t come from Pakistan, it actually comes from our own people who work for various terror groups and have formed a sinister nexus between the academia-NGOs-intelligentsia-politicians.
When the film was made, it faced intense resistance from the leftists. I was not just ridiculed and isolated, but also physically assaulted at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. A section of media boycotted the film. A huge section of universities refused to show it. But slowly, the youngsters of India understood and connected with it and me. In no time, the film gained a ‘cult status’. A gentleman, Hari Kiran, suggested that I write down my experiences. For the next two years, I travelled across India, its small towns and tried to rediscover New India, new aspirations, new challenges — in the context of Naxal threat. The book is not just my story, it’s every small town, middle-class boy’s or girl’s story.
What kind of support did you receive from the people in your life, while you were struggling to get your film released?
I was ideological, professionally and financially isolated by the friends in Bollywood, media and the establishment. But strangely, the support came from the underprivileged and forgotten middle-class students of India. They understand the real danger, unlike those who intellectualise and romanticise the enemies of India. The journey of this film leading up to the book is truly unique. Help came from the most unassuming quarters which is why it reached where it is today.
Like the film, did you face any problem in getting the book published?
Of course. Every single publisher refused. But I was adamant to tell the story and here we are. The entire journey was a test of persistence.
There is a lot being said about the lack of freedom of speech and expression today, with lynchings being the norm of the day. What’s your take on that?
I believe no other country enjoys the kind of ‘freedoms’ we enjoy. Not even USA. ‘Lynching’ is a criminal act and all must be punished. But ‘lynching’ has been going on since I opened my eyes. This happens when the law and order fails. We need radical reforms in law and order machinery and judiciary.
In so many years that India has faced troubles from Maoists, there hasn’t been a solution to the said problem -– nor from the previous government, nor the current. What’s your take on that?
No government can solve this until it destroys Urban Naxals who have infested the entire system, making it weak, corroding it from within. But the problem is, how do you identify them? They are invisible enemies of India.
We can’t speak about Bollywood without bringing up nepotism. Ever faced it?
I have mentally resigned from Bollywood so I don’t care what they do in their immoral world.
What next? What are you currently working on?
I have been running around non-stop, breathlessly for this cause. I am going to Chicago as a speaker on the 125th year of Vivekananda’s speech in Chicago. I will think only after that. Films will always be on the horizon as I’m a professional filmmaker. I have finished shooting for a short film while I was in UK on the book tour. A feature film with an ensemble cast is also in the making.