Sudhir Mishra talks like a poet. “This is the city of Dange, you know. The city of Bhimsen Joshi," he says about Mumbai. Mughal-e-Azam to him will always be the story of a woman who wanted to spend one last night with a prince, before his kingdom claimed him. Guru Dutt was a “practical idealist"—a poet on screen, and a studio owner who wrote cheques in real life.

Flashback: Jehan and Kapoor’s costumes were more sophisticated than the rest

So what happens when Mishra decides to make Khoya Khoya Chand, a film about the films and film-making of the 1950s (and the early 1960s actually), a world of practical idealists such as Dutt; a time of change, the discovery of cinema, a decade with few “pulp patriots", a musically-charged era when anything seemed possible? You get a deeply personal film, one where Mishra doesn’t “have recourse to my favourite bag of tricks. There are no hard scenes that display my directorial skills, no devastated landscapes".

Hindi films back then were brimming with genius: Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Sahir, Shailendra, Bimal Roy, Rehman, Balraj Sahni, Madan Mohan, Chitragupt, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Ismat Chughtai, Kaifi Azmi, Sardar Jafri, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Abrar Alvi, K. Asif and Mehboob Khan—and that’s only Page 1 of Mishra’s list. So, clearly, the film is about/inspired by all those people the 50-year-old director grew up adoring.

“In the 80s, when I came to Bombay we found out every detail of Guru Dutt’s life, we stood outside RK Studios and when Raj Kapoor came out, we stammered. In my early 20s, I found myself staring at Dilip Kumar at a party," he says.

Some members of Mishra’s team even have connections with that past—costume designer Niharika Khan is married to Dilip Kumar’s nephew Ayub Khan; associate director Sameer Sharma is singer Mukesh’s maternal grandson; veteran Oscar, who choreographed the number Yeh Nigahen, began his career in the 60s and has worked with Helen; actor Sonia Jehan is Noor Jehan’s granddaughter; and lead actor Soha Ali Khan is the daughter of Sharmila Tagore.

Of course, Mishra believes that while you can enter a film through a story of that time, and reference all the influences of that decade, ultimately all films are about the present. “You make a film about the idea. You’re not governed by the technique or morality of that time and your characters are from that time, but then you stretch it and they are not so different from us," he says.

So lead actor Shiney Ahuja plays Zafar, a director who could be like Guru Dutt, but who could also be like Mishra or any of his friends. Khoya Khoya Chand is the story of an 18-year-old actor (Soha Ali Khan) being peddled in the movies by her mother. A big star notices her, grooms her and she becomes his mistress. She meets Ahuja, who helps her understand she doesn’t have to be grateful to anyone for her success. “And then, it’s about their turbulent journey in the wild world of cinema," says the director whose last film, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, was critically acclaimed.

That wild world has been recreated in detail—the look, the sets, the music—right down to the slowly changing colour palette. “I didn’t want to do clichéd black and white, but there’s an absence of colour in the beginning and I keep adding it, so that towards the end it becomes somewhat like the Technicolor of the 60s," says Mishra.

The music was a tough one. “You can’t say compose like S.D. Burman, or write like Sahir or sing like Mohammad Rafi," says Mishra. So music director Shantanu Moitra and lyricist Swanand Kirkire just exposed themselves to the musical influences of that time and wrote/composed like themselves. While the cabaret song Khushboo Sa is bound to remind you of Helen and the piano song Yeh Nigahen is another very referential song from that time, the title track is a stunningly original work that combines qawwali and rap.

And since this is Mishra— remember in Hazaaron two men love the same woman and the film ends with one running away abroad and the other “getting" her but only after a serious injury that damages his brain—Khoya Khoya Chand is more than a film about any particular decade. “It’s about ambition versus work. What is love without work? Is love the same thing as work? Do you have to sacrifice one for the other?" It’s a subject that’s extremely personal—he spent more than a decade working with, and loving, national awardwinning film editor Renu Saluja until her death in 2000. “If Renu and I didn’t work together, could we have lived together? Because if you didn’t respect each other’s work, how can you be in the same medium? The idea of the film is that so what if your work kills you? Isn’t the high that it gives you enough?" he says.

Mishra says no one dies in the film and it has an “uplifting" ending. “If the film industry was such a terrible place then why would I be here? I adore a lot of those characters, it’s about people I love a lot." He follows that up by saying he’s not shy of endings. So now I don’t know what to believe.

The look

First-time costume designer Niharika Khan came on board two weeks before shooting began. Her research was done by collecting references from friends and family. Khan’s mother-in-law, Begum Para, the sexy 1950s actor, was the main source of information, as were Sharmila Tagore, Soha’s mother, and Waheeda Rehman. “Old movies such as Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Ganga Jamuna and Aan helped too," says Khan. Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt, as well as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, were her models for the male actors.

Khan and her partner Ashima Belapurkar had a small budget to work with, so Khan “begged and borrowed" from friends and raided her mother’s almirahs. “I took my mother’s saris, cut them up and sewed on old borders we found at Chor Bazaar. My mum’s out to kill me," she laughs. Tagore also lent her daughter two of her saris.

Khan’s main job was dressing the three actors—Soha, Sushmita Mukherjee and Sonia Jehan, as well as the male leads, Shiney Ahuja and Rajat Kapoor.

Instead of spending time on the sets, she went hunting through markets and stores to find authentic-looking costume jewellery and inexpensive fabrics such as brasso, from which she got local tailors to create looks she had designed.

She gave Soha saris in bright Indian tones of red, green and rust, while Sonia’s look was more sophisticated, with jewelled colours. “But we didn’t try to model their look around any one actor of the time, but let their own personality come through."

Make-up artist Panri Dada, who has worked with actors such as Nargis, was called in for a few days to demonstrate how make-up was done then.

For the men, small details such as higher-waisted trousers made the difference. “We didn’t work on Shiney much, because he was a writer from Lucknow, so we gave him mostly bandhgalas," Khan says. Kapoor’s character, however, required work, so three-piece suits, tuxedos and bow ties were created.

The sets Art director Gautam Sen, who has worked on films such as Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, took three months to conceptualize the 24 sets. His research included visiting libraries, exploring markets such as Chor Bazaar and watching Raj Kapoor and Bimal Roy films. “There were a lot of Bengali directors at the time, and I could understand that sensibility because I belong to the community," Sen says.

Sen’s team created sets at Film City, Mehboob Studios and shot on location at old bungalows in Goa and outside some Mumbai landmarks—the Jehangir Art Gallery and the General Post Office.

Sen used a lot of old carved, antique furniture borrowed from old families, or sourced from Chor Bazaar. “There were a lot of Chinese carpenters and workmen in India at the time and we managed to get some Made in China porcelain and furniture from markets," Sen says. Smaller props, which director Mishra wanted for adding authentic details, such as cigarette lighters and matchboxes, were also bought from bazaars.

Sen’s other big buy was lots of film posters. He bought more than 50 old film posters and made some himself by printing enlarged images from old books and adding on the name of the film.

But he got really creative when he realized that old film stars loved to have portraits of themselves in their homes. “Even Dilip Kumar has a large portrait of himself in his home," Sen says. So the art graduate set up a small room with canvas and oils and started painting the film’s actors, to adorn the walls of their on-set homes.


Saeed Mirza: The idea that you should not get lost in the quicksand of detail.

Kundan Shah: The value of looking at the flip side. How to turn around the same scene if you look at it from a different angle, flipping viewpoints. He’s the only one who gets the humour in my films.

Ketan Mehta:To tell a story more visually. I learned the idea of imagery.

Javed Akhtar: He kept me connected with Lucknow. I stayed on in Mumbai because of him. He used to listen to all my scripts.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra: The value of technique, the importance of sticking to your shot and not compromising it.

Shekhar Kapur: The idea of subtext. He can make you smell the place.

Anurag Kashyap: He has a brilliant directness; the ability to create a feeling out of nowhere.

Khoya Khoya Chand released in theatres on Friday.