On the Set of the Burning Season

Interviews with Om Puri and Akesh Gill
By Sherazad Jamal and Zool Suleman

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These interviews with Om Puri and Akesh Gill were conducted in Vancouver, by Rungh editor Zool Suleman and Sherazad Jamal, during the filming of The Burning Season. The film, which is produced by Amarjeet Rattan, also stars Ayub Din Khan and Ronica Sajnani.
There are very few directors anywhere in the world who will say, 'I don't give a damn whether I am pleasing anybody or not. This is the truth.'

THE BURNING SEASON an interview with Om Puri

Zool: I was just looking through your biography and the work you've done and I wanted to focus on the styles of working in India and in the West. It's my understanding that in the Indian industry you might be shooting a comedy in the morning, a drama in the afternoon, and an action film in the evening. While in the West, the tendency tends to be to work on one project for a sustained period of time. As an actor, what sorts of challenges do you find working in India and in the West?

Om: I have largely been doing one film at a time. That's my preference. The reason why a lot of actors work in more than one film at a time is insecurity. If somebody feels insecure, how long will he sustain in the industry? I am a trained actor. I have been through drama school for three years and I was in film school for two years. So I don't feel that kind of insecurity. It's not that I'm going to lose my job.

Zool: Do you find you are very careful about choosing your film projects in the West?

Om: Well, not only in the West. But in general, in India as well. I do resist commercial cinema, though about 25% of my work is in commercial cinema.

Zool: What do you look for in projects? What excites you?

Om: I look for something which is not 'low' kind of entertainment. Either it is a tasteful kind of entertainer or it deals with today's problems. It could be of any community, of any nationality, but something which is based on real issues.

Zool: What attracted you to this particular movie project (The Burning Season)?

Om: This was what we would call 'better cinema' or 'off-beat cinema.' It is small, it doesn't have an epic size. It's a small film, small budget, a very compact kind of film.

Zool: And do you have a preference for those sorts of projects over, say a Gandhi type of project?

Om: No, certainly, Gandhi was an epic film which I did. No, I have done a lot of small films, tiny films like this. They also have a relevance in that they deal with today's problem of youngsters adjusting at home and adjusting outside.

Zool: What do you look for in your relationship with a director? What are you seeking? Are you looking for more of a sharing, where you bring something to the role and there is a dialogue?

Om: Well, that depends, you know, it varies from director to director. For example, I have now done 100 films and there could be a director who is absolutely young and this is his first or second film. So the relationship is bound to be different. It is a question of experience. But as a professional relationship, I look at it as a 'father-son' relationship.

Zool: Who's the father?

Om: Obviously the director. Because eventually it is his choice. The total vision is his. The actor is concentrating on his character. And that character is part of the total design, which a director visualizes. You are just playing one part. There may be twenty parts, there may be a hundred parts in the film. And the director has to design and gel those parts together.

Zool: So how do you as an actor then resolve your vision for a character, which may differ with a director's vision for that character?

Om: I give up. I don't let my views dominate.

Zool: Do you feel that takes away from your performance?

Om: I mean even if you lose 10% or 20%, I say, "Fine." I wouldn't argue. But if I feel differently, I will put it in front of him. I don't try and influence him. Let him see after that. Maybe he will say, "Oh, Om was right," or let me also discover that, "Oh, what I was saying was right." But you may be wrong. That fear is always there because you are thinking only from you character's point of view.

Zool: Do you find your rapport with directors differs based upon where they come from? For example, someone like Deepa (Mehta) who comes from a South Asian background. Do you find that sometimes you have a relationship with someone who shares the same heritage with you, that there is a certain agreement there about how to portray that character?

Om: Not necessarily. There could be an Indian filmmaker who is insensitive or there could be an outsider whose perception is much better than that of someone who has lived there. That purely depends on the individual and what kind of sensibility he comes from and what kind of intentions there are to make a particular film. Unfortunately there are very few directors anywhere in the world who make films like that, who will say, "I don't give a damn whether I am pleasing anybody or not. This is the truth."

Zool: Do you prefer to work with people like that?

Om: Oh, I love to!

Zool: So, you are not averse to tilting at a few windmills or rocking the boat if you feel the project is saying something?

Om: I am not saying you are being cynical or anything like that, but you are just being true. For example, we did this film on Partition in India. Now, fortunately, the director of the film had money coming from a source who said, "Look, don't worry about the money coming back. But you make the film you want to make." So, the director didn't have to put in sounds, he didn't have to pick up certain stars thrust upon the project, and things like that. He came out with a wonderful film which was liked by people, admired by people, which affected people, which changed people's lives to some little extent. Cinema involves big money and there is always fear of how that money will be recovered, which is understandable from a business point of view. But a decent working out makes you feel good that you have contributed something, that you have done something worthwhile.

Zool: Safdar Hashmi—any comments on that, any feelings about what happened to him? My understanding is that he was involved in street theatre and his views were not liked by those in power.

Om: Yes, he was an activist, involved with a lot of good work. I knew him and he was really doing wonderful work. So it was a political matter.

Zool: Was there an uprising by the creative community to this incident? [Safdar Hashmi was killed in India while performing in a piece of political street theatre].

Om: Yes, oh my God. Today a big trust has been established and there is so much activity. His death didn't go to waste. Poor fellow, he was really one of the jewels, you know. But it did arouse a lot of emotion. People who didn't even know him got involved.

Zool: It seems all too rare to get that kind of emotion these days, on any kind of project.

Om: Well, no. But the emotion in India was fairly on the surface in the sense that this was not just one incident. I remember this woman, Suhasini Mulay, had made a film (An Indian Story) on the Bhagalpur blindings when the police got hold of these dacoits and other antisocial elements and blinded them in the jail. She made a film on that which was initially banned. Then she went to court and the court gave its permission. So you know there is a lot of participation from social organizations all over the country, in every state. It is not as though excesses go without any voice.

Zool: Tell me about the theatre group Majmal?

Om: Majma...well, when I came to Bombay in 1976, I formed this theatre group. I and a couple of friends got together and we produced about 20 plays over a period of four to five years. Now it is sort of sleeping. I haven't done any theatre for the last couple of years.

Zool: Is there a guiding vision behind the group? How would you articulate what it is trying to achieve?

Om: What we were doing basically, we were doing plays which were socially relevant. Then I got involved in cinema of the same nature. So I didn't miss theatre, frankly. If I had to choose between theatre and cinema, I would choose cinema because it is a much more effective medium. If you have to reach out to people with a certain problem, if you want to communicate with them, cinema reaches much larger audiences compared to the theatre.

Zool: And that to you is an important factor, getting the word out to as many people as possible?

Om: I think that's important.

Zool: Do you see yourself doing more of theatre work in the future, going back to Majma?

Om: For personal growth, I always keep missing theatre. Theatre is wonderful. In one way I feel it is much deeper than cinema, but it is not necessarily wider. I feel that it is a 'man to man talk', it's a live contact. Your audience will believe you better in theatre than in cinema. In cinema they might think that, "Oh, this could be a trick, an external method used." But in theatre, there is nothing in between you and your audience.

Zool: Do you prefer that kind of immediate relationship?

Om: Yes, it is a wonderful feeling, because you instantly get feedback from your audience. But professionally, films are important. We did a film on Partition and a number of other socially relevant films, and it is important that those messages reach people and we are 800 million people. Imagine doing a play and reaching out to that many people? But you do an important series on television and overnight you reach out to so many people at the same time.

Zool: Video has made the production of work so much more accessible to younger filmmakers, and television makes the dissemination of that work so much quicker in comparison with film production. What impact has that battle between video/TV and film production had on the industry from when you started to now?

Om: Well, with any new innovation, human nature becomes like a child's nature. You want to forget the old and you are attracted by the new. But people generally have started feeling that it is not the same thing to watch a film on a small screen as it was on a big screen. It's like "old-fashioneds" going back, old designs coming back. In India still, the video hasn't effected it to that extent because of economics. It is not easily available in every family. Eighty per cent of India's population lives largely in villages. Now there is electricity, there may be two videos in a population of 8,000. There have been some kind of video libraries, but is hasn't really spread all over. Therefore, the number of films India produces has not reduced. It may happen in the future.

Zool: As someone who has now been in the industry for a while, what do you say to new people coming in as actors? What do you think are the important elements for them if they want to persevere? What would you say to them?

Om: I would really say that they should have proper professional training because then they will be able to guide themselves all their lives. The younger actors tend to ask, "Look, why should we spend four years in drama school when you have actors who didn't go to any drama school and they are good today?" The reason is that with education, choices will be available to them. They will not be dependant just on directors or on producers. They will have some kind of alternative. They may after five years, if they are good, if they know the job, find some viable media and start producing their own work. They can work in television, in radio, or they can teach in the university drama schools. That will make them much more independent. Because acting is like a free-lancing thing. You may get it, you may not. So you must have an alternative to be safe. At least it will give you a job. If you don't become a star, you won't starve.

I may sound philosophical, but it makes sense that you are on this earth for a few years—you only realize this when half your life is gone and you say, "Oh, Shit! I'm close to it! What have I achieved?" So what do you leave behind? What kind of a body of remembrance do you want to leave? Now that thought does give a balance to you as an individual in everything. You have a limited time on this earth, and as you are climbing up or moving ahead, see that you don't step on anybody, because that makes you feel uncomfortable. That's all.

In the industry there is this tendency to stereotype by race, rather than focus on talent and ability.

THE BURNING SEASON an interview with Akesh Gill

Zool: What do interviewers focus on when they talk to you?

Akesh: All the real serious questions tend to be asked of the male actors. I had one interviewer say to me, "Don't worry, we'll put in a nice, pretty picture of you." Others usually ask, "How do you relate to the character?" I guess they want to see if my life is as difficult as Sanda's (the female protagonist in The Burning Season), if I am personally going through all these problems?

Sherazad: How do you feel about that? Do you think that they're looking for grist for the stereotyping mill, some sort of evidence that South Asian women are so oppressed?

Akesh: Whenever they ask me that question I can't help but smile, because I think, "Oh, you're waiting for me to say that I came from an oppressive family and I'm breaking free, aren't you?" I can tell them I do not relate to Sanda, and that her home life is not my home life. And in a way I love it when they ask me that question because I can say, "No, sorry, I'm not being forced into an arranged marriage against my will. I am allowed to have free thought." Whenever I say that, though, they reply that my family must be very 'Westernized.' And I think that's so interesting. They seem to be saying that if your family understands you, relates to you, is supportive and trusts your judgement, then in some way they're less oriental or less Indian, and more Western.

My parents aren't Westernized. They're not really 'hip' and 'cool.' But they do support, understand and trust me. That's just the way it is. In my last interview, when I was asked if my family was traditional or Westernized, all I could say was, "They're normal."

Zool: Is there a fear that The Burning Season is going to be tagged as a sort of 'exotic' film, another Indo-Canadian film that portrays family problems? Are you concerned that the film is going to be taken as being realistic somehow? As opposed to a dramatization, a fictionalization?

Akesh: In a way, you can't say it's completely dramatized because that does happen. Right in the middle of pre-production I had a chance to go to an Indian wedding. I'd asked some of the women in their twenties there how school was and how married life was going? Suddenly they just looked at me and said things like, "Oh well, I guess it's okay." And I said, "Well you know I really don't have any interest in marriage at this point, just career and education." And they replied, "That's good, but what happens when your parents turn to you and tell you to either get married or your food and the roof over your head will not longer be paid for, then what would you do?" Oops, wrong question! There are girls out there like that.

As a professional, and as a person in the industry, I don't want the film to be seen that way. When I first got this part, the one thing I did wonder was, whether or not they thought of me only as an Indo-Canadian actor. Which is fine, because that's your heritage and that's what you are. But in the industry there is this tendency to stereotype by race, rather than focus on talent and ability. This is my first major part and what if they see me only as my ethnic background? That is a worry. I'm hoping they see that the film is not about typifying cultural oppression. That's kind of a cop out. It's about Sanda, her growth as a woman and how she is trying to overcome what she feels are her weaknesses.

Zool: So tell us a bit about that. Whatmade you want to become an actor and what work have you done to date?

Akesh: My family moved a lot when I was little. And I was lucky because at one of the elementary schools I was in, the teachers did not insult our intelligence. We read Greek tragedies in Grade 4, Animal Farm in Grade 5 and studied the beginning of art and architecture in Grade 6. It was such a great environment. One of my teachers was with the Vancouver Youth Theatre. And so we'd always be doing plays. It was the best opportunity to express what I was feeling. It gave me this great outlet, a chance to be somebody I couldn't be on my own. And it just seems like I was meant to do this because I'm always the sort of person that does things the hard way. Since I'm an ethnic minority, it's going to be harder for me to prove to people that I can do a particular role, and that it doesn't have to go to somebody who has green eyes and light brown hair.

Zool: When you got the role, what were your family's feelings? Were they happy for you when you got the role? Were they worried about you?

Akesh: Well always. They respect my decision, but they have to put in their two cents worth. I make my own decisions, but they are still a part of the decision making process. I still ask for their opinion, they're still a part of it. I guess that must be why they're so comfortable with it, because I'm not completely going out on my own, I'm not doing it as a rebellion kind of thing. I can't speak for other families, but maybe they just worry because in our culture, sometimes parents love their children so much that they try to control them. For some parents, the idea of kids individually making decisions is so alienating that they feel like they've almost lost their child. In this culture, children are everything.

Zool: How are you going to deal with the fact that people are going to look to you as a role model? People who start to work as pioneers, as the first people out of any community, they do it for whatever inspires them. But the social responsibility is a real factor.

Akesh: I think so. When I first started in the business, I was 15 or 16. I had to ask myself how far was I willing to go? If there's one thing I could tell them [future actors], it is that you have to be certain of who you are, and of what you are willing to do as a professional and as a person. Because as a professional, I want to do everything. I want to do every genre, every medium. But as a person, coming from my family—they trust me. They know I'm not just myself, but I'm also representing our family. So decisions I make are going to reflect on them, too. So really, be certain about the kind of roles you're going to take and how far you're willing to go in them. Nowadays, for example, it seems like in a lot of films, I get the feeling that actors are being told that they have to take their clothes off if they want to make it. That's not the kind of thing I want to bring out.

Sherazad: What do you think about how women are represented in films?

Akesh: I have to wonder about some of the roles that they're presenting now. It's odd because when Pretty Woman first came out, I thought wow, this is so neat. But then you look at what it was portraying and it was saying, "Don't worry if you're a woman in a tough spot, some man will come along and save you." It's not very believable. I'd like to think it's changing, because a lot of the female roles that are coming out right now, they're strong.

Sherazad: Does Sanda come to a place where she can be comfortable with who she is, or is she forced to take a Thelma and Louise type of way out? In that, their suicides at the end of the movie, in effect, reinforce their victimization by male oppression.

Akesh: I think you might think at first that the decisions that she makes might look that way. Just because she does run away from everything. But what is 'running away'? That almost seems inactive. Whereas Sanda is active. She's looking for something. She's actually searching for something. It's not just running away. She's actually thinking about her situation, where she's going and who she's going to be. She is on a journey of discovery. And I think that is what the film is about. What's great is that she's not just out there by herself. She has a child. So she has to think very hard about what she's going to do.

Sherazad: Do you have any comments about the tension that seems to be inherent in the film between individual and community? That tension is clearly something that people who grow up in this environment have to deal with. The individual may need to carve out a space or push at least a little bit of community obligation away, so that he or she can be focused on personal growth. Yet, the community clearly asks that certain duties and obligations be fulfiled for continuity and survival. What do you think about this, and do you think that the movie deals with the tension in a successful way?

Akesh: I don't know. It just seems that in our society—I'm thinking in terms of Canada—that we are more individual anyhow. So you can't help but focus on yourself, and how you are in the big picture. That's what you're bombarded with, right? The bad thing about growing more individualistic, losing ties with the community, is more loneliness, which can lead to other problems, like suicide. But in the end, the person you're going to have to face is yourself. No matter what the community is forcing on you, in the end, it's you who has to decide. My attitude is that the 'community' isn't a collection of individuals, it's more a cohesive gathering of people who are individuals. The focus should be the individual. How, then, do I deal with the issue of family? I'm representing myself, but I'm also representing my family. But in the end, if I am representing the whole family, it's me who has to decide how I'm going to behave.

Sherazad: But ultimately, even though you have to make that decision, it is completely informed by behaviour that the family expects to be represented by. So, one's choices are actually limited. It seems to be a delicate balance, to me, to keep between becoming so individualistic that you abdicate reponsibility to community or becoming so absorbed by community that you abdicate your responsibility to your self. Is there a place where balance can occur? Does Sanda find that place?

Akesh: Now how can I say this without giving away the whole plot? There is something that my father said regarding some of the choices made by Indian kids today. The older generation cannot relate to these choices, he says, and the younger generation need to wait for the older to catch up. The same can be true of community. Here we are making decisions, and the whole community is saying, "Wait a minute, what about this, what about what we are dealing with?" A lot of that is in the film. I'd like to think that they don't completely reconcile. But there is that thing where the Rajivs [Sanda's father-in-law played by Om Puri] and the Santoshes [Sanda's mother-in-law played by Ronica Sajnani] look at the Sandas and they know they can't relate. But they are trying. This movie encroaches on that grey area, where they are trying to understand each other. Because in the end, Sanda doesn't want to be where she is in the beginning of the film.

Zool: Write your own bio ten years from now. How would you like that bio to read?

Akesh: The word that comes to mind is 'strength.' I'm not the sort of person who likes to admire people for fear of trying to become that person, when I think you should be becoming your own person. But there are women in the industry that I do have a great deal of regard for like Sigourney Weaver. She can do something like Aliens and show that 'masculine' side and yet she does work where she is very 'feminine' yet strong. When I am working, if I don't feel it completely, feel it real, then I know I'm not doing it well. I want it to be so real otherwise I won't accept it. I'd like to think ten years later, I will still be going for something that is real.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Akesh Gill
Akesh Gill contributed to Rungh Volume 1, Number 3.
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Om Puri
Om Puri contributed to Rungh Volume 1, Number 3.
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Sherazad Jamal
Sherazad Jamal is one of the two co-founders of Rungh Magazine. Together, she and Zool Suleman produced the magazine from 1991 to 1997. Her contribution includes co-designing the Rungh look and feel with her design collaborative design team, editing, publishing, administration and distribution of Rungh Magazine.
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Zool Suleman
Zool Suleman is the Editor of Rungh and the Executive Director of the Rungh Cultural Society. He has been involved in a variety of capacities with the Canada Council for the Arts, Heritage Canada, Province of BC (arts and culture), and the City of Vancouver (immigration and arts/culture). His writing has been published in Ankur, Fuse, Parallelogram, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Observer, and National Observer.
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Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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