“I tell people that I am what I am today is because of two things — my family and Allahabad”

Did you know when he directed his first film, he didn't have a producer? In a 'Slow Interview' with Neelesh Misra, Tigmanshu Dhulia talks about his journey from Allahabad to Mumbai via Delhi

Neelesh Misra
| Updated: April 4th, 2020


We are on our way to my village. I call my village-home ‘Slow’. It’s not a name, it’s a state of mind. What’s going on in your mind?

Nothing. I don’t feel like thinking about anything. I am feeling very peaceful here.

What’s the meaning of your name?

The meaning of my name is Sun. The slanting rays of the Sun, to be precise. I have two elder brothers. Their names are Himanshu and Sudhanshu; both mean Moon. So, when I was born, they named me after the Sun.

Where were you born?

In Allahabad. My brothers were born in Dehradun. So, I tell people I am from Garhwal, Uttarakhand. Back then, it was Uttar Pradesh. My father pursued his BA, MA and law from Allahabad University. He stayed back in Allahabad and started practicing. My mother was teaching, so she stayed in Dehradun. When she went to Allahabad, my brothers were very young. I was born in Allahabad. So, by blood, I am a Pahari and by tevar I am an Allahabaadi.

You are a fake pahari!

Yes, kind of. I don’t speak pahari. I just understand the language.

I am a true pahari. I grew up in Nainital. When someone would ask me, I would tell them, I was from Lucknow, and nice-versa. So, how was your childhood like, in Allahabad?

I think I am fortunate that I was born in Allahabad. There is no other city like Allahabad. Now, of course, all cities look the same with the malls and cars. Allahabad had a cosmopolitan atmosphere when we were growing up. I graduated in 1986 and it was fairly cosmopolitan until then. It was a mix of both the worlds, traditional and western. There were big mansions, many judges lived there. People would talk in English. It was a politically active city. My father too was politically inclined. He was a Congressman, so people would call him marshal.

(After reaching ‘Slow’)

Wow, this reminds me of my university. I mean, there were no fields like these, there were girls! But this is how we would sit and have our cigarettes and tea.

So, you were talking about your father.

Yes. After the Congress party split, many people left then. My father left, too. They say if you haven’t joined the Congress at 18, and if you don’t quit by 30, you are the biggest fool! You get to read good books. It makes you compassionate. You talk very politely with those around you. And these things stay with you for life. You inherit good values. I also inherited these values. I got a lot from my family. I tell people that I am what I am today is because of two things — my family and Allahabad. I remember my father once fought a case for Amrit Rai, who is the son of Premchand. He asked my father how much would he charge him. My father said: “Don’t pay me anything. Just give me everything that Premchand has ever written. So, we had all these books when I grew up. We would go to his place often. Mahadevi Verma lived in the vicinity. We used to perform havan at our place for which we would need mango tweaks. We lived in a flat, so there were no trees around. So, I would go to her place to collect those tweaks. Just imagine how fortunate I am!

The professor who taught me English in university would come on a bicycle. He would wear while-coloured starched kurta and dhoti. He would speak immaculate English. So, this mix of both worlds was incredible. There were also many rock bands.

Were you a part of any band?

Yes, I had a band. It was called Paranoid. I would sing and was the lead guitarist. I did everything that my brothers did. They learnt how to strum the guitar; I did that too. They joined the theatre; I also did that.

Were you pampered?

I don’t know about pampering, but my father loved me a lot. But I was also the one who got beaten up a lot! Both, my father and my mother, would beat me up. But my father loved me. I watched many films with him. My father-mother were film buffs. They would watch a lot of films.

What kind of films?

All kinds of films. Any new film that released, they would watch. I have watched all the English classics like Gone with the Wind and Godfather in cinemas. I was young, so I didn’t understand much. But my father would make me understand the political climate in which these films were made. My mother was a Sanskrit teacher. So, it was a good mix at home.

You did theatres in Allahabad?

Yes. There was a theatre culture in Allahadbad. My elder brother would go. I got my first break when I was in the 11th. I performed in a play that was written by Nikhat Kazmi, the film critic, who passed away recently. A very strange thing happened. My father came to watch the play. I had started smoking by then. So, after the performance, I went to the Green Room and started smoking. I saw my father coming and he saw me smoking. He simply turned and went back. I feel very weird when I think about it now. He never mentioned it ever.

He respected that …

Yes. He was an unusual man. He would help others, even at odd hours. He became the Allahabad High Court judge. He didn’t work for long, not even a year. He suffered a heart attack and passed away.

How old were you then?

The first year of graduation. Because I was into theatres and played the guitar, I got through a very reputed college. You know, a day is fixed for ragging? Though I was into theatres and all, but I never stayed out the night. On my ragging day, my seniors asked me to stay the night. In the evening, I asked for my father’s permission and went. But at around 9:30, I started feeling very weird. So, I told my seniors, I wasn’t feeling too well and came back home. I changed and came to my room. Just then I heard my mother’s scream. My father had suffered a heart attack. It happened right in front of me.

How did this affect you?

You know, I have never cried my heart out. I tried a lot. I would go to his chamber, browse through his books, but I just couldn’t cry. When I see people cry after someone passes away, I could never cry like that.

After he passed away, did you become more attached to your mother?

I completed my graduation and applied at the National School of Drama (NSD) and got through in the first attempt. I moved to Delhi. It was a big deal back then if someone moved to Delhi. There was this train called Prayagraj. It ruined everything. It took you to Delhi overnight. People started sending their children to Delhi, people moved to Delhi to practice in the Supreme Court. Allahabad had better facilities, yet people started moving to Delhi. Because the commute time reduced, people started moving out and it ruined Allahadbad — a city that is known for its people. I feel, growth should be very organic, very step-by-step. It shouldn’t be sudden. People lose it then. That’s what happened to Allahabad. The city lost its charm. It was a rich city — culturally, politically, in terms of literature … and it was so secular.

Unlike what people might think …

Harivansh Rai Bachchan was a Hindi poet, but he would teach English. Firaq Gorakhpuri was an Urdu poet, but would teach English. Allahabad has given me a lot.

Did you fall in love while you were in Allahabad?

Yes. Very early in life. When I was in the 8th standard. She is my wife now! Her name is Tulika. I got married very young. I was only 19 when I moved to the NSD. I got married even before I passed out!

Tell me more, I am interested!

She is also from the same Dehradun-Allahabad belt. Where we lived, there was a park in front and there were a few houses on the other side. She lived in a building bang opposite my building; on the ground floor. A family lived just across; the Mohile family. They had two daughters. The younger one is now married to my elder brother! All the three brothers got married to girls who lived in the same neighbourhood! My mother was very upset! She wanted to go through the drill of choosing girls, looking at girls, inviting them, rejecting them!

So, Tulika was friends with this girl who married my brother. That’s how we became friends and then fell in love. We have done all those silly things; switching the lights on and off for each other, write love letters.

Were you good at writing love letters?

I would write the lyrics on English songs! She wrote better love letters. We couldn’t meet much. We would just look at each other. We could just exchange letters. Meeting a girl was a big deal back then.

I know! Why are you telling me all this? I belong to the same generation! Was Allahabad not that cosmopolitan back then that girls and boys could meet and have a cup of tea?

No, not back then. Her father got transferred to Noida. When I was in the third year, I came to know that her parents were thinking of getting her married as she was the eldest daughter in her house. I had completed my third year, but I didn’t go to Allahabad for the summer holidays. I lived with Sanjay (Sanjay Mishra, the actor) then. One day Tulika left her family and came to me! I had 40 bucks in my pocket. We all went to Sanjay’s place along with Tulika! I didn’t even have a birth certificate for court marriage, Tulika had one. Many people eloped and gotten married while they were studying at the NSD and they all, by default, got married at the Arya Samaaj. But since I didn’t have a birth certificate, I approached my uncle. He suggested that if I got an x-ray done of my hip bone, that could ascertain my age! So, I went to Safdarjung Hospital at night and got the x-ray done. That’s how I got married! We stayed in a cheap hotel and then wanted to come to Allahabad. But we didn’t take the Prayagraj train as her father was well connected. So, we took this other train that took us to Kanpur first and then from there we went to Allahabad.

One very interesting thing happened. We boarded the Unchahar Express, which is usually very packed. We didn’t have tickets, but, somehow, we got a coupe, which was enclosed. I was wearing a khadi kurta-payjama and she was wearing a saree. The ticket checker saw us and congratulated us and didn’t let anyone come in that coupe for the rest of the journey! This train stopped at all the stations and it was a full moon night. I love trains. When I see a train passing at night, I feel very emotional. So, that night it felt as if we were in Venice or Switzerland, and that was the best honeymoon!

So, then how did you convince your respective families?

The biggest issue was I wasn’t even working. I hadn’t even passed out of the college. I struggled for five-six months, but good thing was the film makers had started making films in Delhi. There was Ketan Mehta who was making Sardar Patel and I was the assistant art director for the film. So, I didn’t struggle much, but her family obviously didn’t like the fact that I was an actor.

Your father had passed away by the time you got married. He missed seeing you married. How were you as a son?

I was very bad at studies. I was pretty awful until I was in the 10th standard. In fact, I flunked. And then we had to go to Dehradun for the summer holidays. My father had a friend who suggested I join a school in Punjab, as back then, in Punjab, exams were conducted twice a year. So, I stayed back with my maternal grand-parents. That whole thing was a fraud. People from Thailand were also studying in that school! I even had to learn Gurumukhi, but I passed and secured 59%! This, despite the fact that I would watch three films in a week! I came back to Allahabad and joined by classmates who were in the 11th. I completed my 11th in six months, and that too in the first division! I was the History topper in my university.

What changed?

I think I couldn’t deal with the fact that I flunked. I was never a good student, but fluking was new to me. Now I am laughing about it, but back then it affected me.

What are the vices that you have?

I smoke, I drink. But I have never done anything wrong to anyone. I can be a very good friend. In fact, it doesn’t feel as if I am meeting you for the first time. You have a very familiar face.

What kind of films did you like?

Any action movie. Any poster that had guns in it, it would appeal to me. But I have watched all sorts of films. I would often tag along with my parents. I remember watching each of those films. I remember that journey.

You also mentioned about your musical journey …

Yes. The Paranoid band. We usually played western, but I have also played at Durga Puja pandals as they would pay! It was an incredible experience.

Were you not ambitious to take up music as a profession?

I think in 1986, Grammy was telecasted for the first time. That year, for the first time we got an opportunity to perform at the Cant on December 31. It was considered to be very prestigious. But, after I moved to NSD, the atmosphere changed and I stopped listening to music. It’s a different world altogether. My musical journey stopped then. It’s only recently that I started listening to music again after my daughter grew up and started listening to songs.

Tell me about your daughter.

Her name is Jansi. There is a story behind this. Initially we had named her Shreyasi. She was born in 1998. In the same year, I had written Dil Se. During the music launch, they had distributed CDs. I got one home. There was this song Ae Ajnabi. There was a line in it … ‘wo jaan si kaha hai’. My wife liked that word and we changed her name! She is 21. She is studying film-making at Srishti, Bangalore.

After you moved to Mumbai, were the initial days full of struggle?

No, not at all. I came to Mumbai in 1993 after wrapping up Bandit Queen. I was in Delhi until then. Luckily, my elder brother, who is into Navy, was posted in Mumbai. I stayed with him for a year, along with my wife. Luckily, the television influx happened after a year. BiTV happened, there was Zee TV. Shekhar Kapur was the creative head. He offered me a show to produce along with two others. We opened a company called ‘Shoot and Cut’. We produced a show called “Hum Bambai Nahi Jayenge”. It was a drama. Many actors were a part of that show … Irfan Khan, Manoj Bajpai. Sadly, BiTV never took off. So, we had to stop. But all these actors — the big names of today – who were struggling then, would show show-reels from this drama to get work. So, producers would ask about me. I started getting work because of them! I had to earn money, so I started with television. I made many shows for Star. There was a show called Star Bestsellers. I produced six episodes. All the big names of today — Imtiaz, Anurag, Vishal, Sriram, myself — who were instrumental in changing the Hindi cinema post 2000, had produced these star best sellers.

What was your big moment after you started making films?

I think when I wrote Dil Se and worked with Mani Ram sir then. I had watched Roja and Bombay. But I didn’t get it easily. He called me and one other writer, I would not like to name him, separately. There is a scene in the film just before the interval, when Manisha writes something on the sand for Shahrukh. He asked us to write that scene. We both wrote, but I was hired. My daughter was born around the same time. So, it was an important stage in life. There are many stages in life – you are born, you pass 10th, then 12th, and then you fall in love, you then get married, you get a job; these are the different stages. Bandit Queen was one such stage, Dil Se was another.

Bandit Queen, which was an unusual theme for that time. It had an unexpected casting. Dil se was based on terrorism. These are real, news-y issues. Did you always have an inclination to make these kinds of movies? That world fascinates you? The complexities of Chambal?

Yes. I am an educated person so these things interest me. I think, in my past life, I belonged to Chambal. When I go to Chambal, when I visit the Chambal river or the valley, I feel something. When we would go there, at the time the dacoits were still active. We didn’t know what would happen next. But I would go without any inhibitions. Everyone knew me in the Dhaulpur region. It was really challenging, but also very fascinating.

Weren’t you scared?

Never. This is why sometimes I feel I lived in Chambal in my past life.

Did you meet any dacoits? What was their thought process?

I met some surrendered dacoits. In a society, values keep changing with time. For dacoits, pran jaye par vachan na jaye was the mantra. Then they had to meet those commitments at any cost. As society kept getting meaner, these dacoits kept getting harsher. We met Malkhan Singh. He had then surrendered by then and had joined the BJP. We met him in Gwaliar. We met Phoolan. We met Mohar Singh, who is still alive.

What was your journey like after Dil Se?

After Dil Se, I started writing Haasil, which was my first film. Nobody wanted to make that film. I made things difficult for myself. I would tell them that the climax of the would be shot at the Kumbh mela in Allahabad. The 2,000 Kumbh was a big affair and a lot of people were expected. I was sorted with the casting, but I didn’t have the producer. The fair started and it was about to end, even then I didn’t have the producer. Only four days were left. There are a few friends of mine, like Amita Sehgal, he helped me a lot. He managed to give us Rs 4-5 lakh. With that money, we took the actors to the Kumbh, we took the shots, we edited them. And then I started showing it to people. Jindal saab, who eventually produced it, like those shots. So, basically, we shot the climax first and then worked on the rest of the film.

Tell me something about Irfan?

I met Irfan in the drama school. Back then, he wasn’t considered as one of the best actors in the class. I think meeting people is also a part of the destiny. There is a dialogue in Haasil, which says that friends are the only people who we choose. I didn’t choose my mother and father, but I chose you as my friend; that is my choice. There is always a reason behind why you meet people. I think Irfan and I chose each other for some reason. He has never failed me, till date. I think he is the best actor in the country. We became friends as we had similar taste in films. We have worked a lot together, even before Haasil and after Haasil.

How is he as a person?

He is a wonderful person. He is just like me. He is very connected to the roots. He doesn’t throw any tantrums. If he were to come here, he will go mad. If you hand him over a kite, he will not even give you any interview. He can fly kites all day. He is humorous guy. You can talk to him about anything. He has evolved as a person. He has worked so well in international films that he has done. No other actor has done so, until now.

Although he battled illness recently …

But he has emerged stronger. Yes, it’s been over a year. I think, there is no fear in him now.He sailed through this.

Are you religious?

I don’t visit temples. But since my mother has asked me to chant gayatri mantra thrice when the Sun rises, I do that. For me, I see the Sun as a lord. I can see it and it gives me energy. It doesn’t disappoint me. The deities in temples disappoint me.

Are you scared of losing?

A lot.

Because every artist comes with a shelf life?

It happens mostly in India, but not in other countries. Martin Scorsese made Irishman when he is so old.

What do you think about story tellers? For how long will we survive?

Like you?

Do you think we would survive for long?

As long as you have this voice.

So, I should keep gargling often … Maybe this holds true for actors.

It’s is not a problem for good actors. Look at Amit jee. He is a very good actor, this is why he doing a good job even now. Many actors of his age are not able to work now. After a certain point, they have to face rejections. Stars don’t survive, good actors do. For stars, their dressing sense, the way they speak or sing, their beauty, their style, all of this matters to them. But when they would grow old and when all this won’t matter much, what would they do?

There was a time when there was a demand for particular films particular kind of actors. Would you see a future for yourself then?

We strived because we could see future in this job. When I was making Haasil, I didn’t think it to be a parallel cinema. It had songs, it had a love story, just that I chose a different way to narrate it. That world was new for the people.

Cinema has changed and there is scope to tell different kind of stories. Do you think there are many new voices coming in?

Yes, I think. This happens everywhere. If I talk about cinema, then what is happening these days is we are producing more films than the annual plays that we used to in school. The films these days are concept-based. If there is concept, a film would not work. A pure love story won’t work.

We see excessive violence in web series. What do you think about that?

The films that I have made so far are not abusive. Although I have made many films on dacoits where the characters could have used abusive words. But there is not even a single abusive word in Haasil or Paan Singh Tomar.

If I am making a film on Bundelkhand, I will focus on the local dialect and not on the abusive words mouthed in that region. People who are not good in their writing often use abusive words in their films.

But do you think there should be a social responsibility on them?

Yes, they should be responsible.

Because our daughters might see these …

… but our daughters are growing up in such an atmosphere. They are not growing up at their homes, they are growing up in the society that we live in.

How do you stay connected with your roots as there is a chance of getting disconnected in a city like Mumbai?

This is a big problem. This is why I don’t like Mumbai. And this is why I often go to other places to shoot my films. I try to meet new people; just like I am meeting you now. We are humans. We make mistake and we evolve.

How are you feeling now?

I am feeling Slow now. I want to live with this feeling. I don’t feel like leaving this place. My mood will get spoiled that moment I will land in Mumbai. You are very lucky!

Are you self-critical?


Are you honest to yourself?


Mumbai can make you dishonest.

That’s why I attend parties. I like solitude.

Text: Swati Subhedar and Shivani Gupta