Suresh Jindal
Suresh Jindal

Of cinema and Buddhism

Trained as an electronics engineer, Jindal was among the producers who made possible the dreams of film-makers working outside the mainstream

Producer Suresh Jindal’s name features in the credits of only a handful of films, but many of them are milestones for Indian arthouse cinema. These include Rajnigandha, Basu Chatterjee’s 1974 surprise hit about middle-class heartache. Jindal also backed Satyajit Ray’s only Hindi-language feature film, the period costume drama Shatranj Ke Khilari and Sai Paranjpye’s chawl-set comedy Katha, and was one of the producers of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Jindal has resurfaced with Vara: A Blessing, a Tamil Nadu-set romance directed by monk-turned-film-maker Khyentse Norbu.

Vara, which played at the International Film Festival of Kerala, that ends Friday, partially explains Jindal’s recent absence from the movie business. Norbu, a lama, is also Jindal’s spiritual guide. “I used to have two activities, making cinema and partying and then I started studying Buddhism," Jindal says.

Before Jindal embarked on the spiritual path some years ago, he was among the producers who made possible the dreams of film-makers working outside the mainstream. Apart from the state-funded National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), alternative directors depended on the commitment and resource-gathering capabilities of private players like Jindal, an electronics engineer by training who got interested in cinema while studying at the University of California, Berkeley, US, in the late 1960s. The resources cobbled together by these independent producers were often quite meagre—Rajnigandha cost 5 lakh, for instance.

Jindal had returned to Delhi from the US in the 1970s a cinephile, having spent some years haunting arthouse cinemas in Santa Monica in Los Angeles. “When I told people that I was an electronics engineer, they would go into their rooms and bring me their radio sets to repair," he says. That was the time when a home-grown arthouse movement, also known as the Indian New Wave, was beginning to take shape. Directors like Ray, Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul and Chatterjee had made films that defied mainstream narrative conventions and didn’t include the usual mix of stars, melodramatic excess, song-and-dance sequences and happy endings. A friend in the movie business advised Jindal to become a distributor, but he decided that he would rather produce films.

His Punjabi family, which didn’t have any tinsel town connections, was “horrified", he recalls (Jindal is not from the industrialist clan, although American politician Bobby Jindal is somewhere on the family tree). “I told my mother that if my first film doesn’t work, whichever girl you choose for me or whichever factory you want me to put up, I will do it," he says.

Fortunately for Jindal, he hit the ground running. Rajnigandha, based on Manu Bhandari’s story Yahi Sach Hai, is a romantic drama set in the genteel middle-class milieu that the film-maker came to own in subsequent years. The main star cast—Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha and Dinesh Thakur—wasn’t particularly well-known, so distributors baulked when Jindal approached them. “The film wasn’t sold for a year—the distributors said, Rajnigandha, kounsi gandha (what kind of smell)?" he recalls. Rajshri Productions, which had produced Chatterji’s Piya Ka Ghar in 1972, eventually picked up the movie. “It ran for 25 weeks in three theatres in Bombay, while in Chennai, it ran for 30 weeks," Jindal says.

His next project involved one of the giants of Indian arthouse cinema. Ray, who had rolled out a series of acclaimed films in Bengali, made his Hindi-language debut with an eponymous adaptation of Premchand’s short story Shatranj Ke Khilari. Jindal and his good friend, actor and film-maker Tinnu Anand, had heard Ray speak at an event in Pune, after which the producer called up Ray at his Kolkata home and arranged to meet him. Ray told Jindal that he had a project in mind, but it would cost money. “He said, let me warn you, it is an expensive film and you might not want to fund it," Jindal says. “The one commitment Ray wanted from me was that if I wasn’t going to do it, I shouldn’t tell anybody else about the meeting." Ray’s other condition was that the actor Saeed Jaffrey had to be in the movie. Shatranj Ke Khilari cost considerably more than Ray’s other shoestring projects. “It was a medium-budget film, at about 45 lakh," Jindal says. “We had trouble with distribution, but over time, I made back my money. The film is now a classic, and its rights keep getting sold all the time."

Ray was shocked by the poor reception to Shatranj Ke Khilari, says Jindal. The director made only one more non-Bengali film for television, Sadgati. “We were supposed to work on another film together, based on Mahasweta Devi’s novel Beej, but he had suffered a heart attack and wasn’t allowed to go on to the sets by his doctors," Jindal says. “It was not to be."

Although Jindal never worked with Ray again, Shatranj Ke Khilari helped him bag his next project. British actor and film-maker Attenborough, who appears in Shatranj Ke Khilari, shared his lifelong dream of making a biopic on Mahatma Gandhi with Jindal during the shoot. Attenborough had been unsuccessfully knocking on various doors to fund his dream project, and he shared his frustration and determination with Jindal over drinks. “He plied me with a large scotch and said, darling, I am going to make this film one day and when I do, I want you to be with me," Jindal says. Partly financed by the NFDC, Gandhi was a large-scale and expensive production, costing about $20 million (around 124 crore). Attenborough famously sold his belongings, including his Rolls-Royce and paintings, to get the movie off the ground. “He had his revenge when he sent two reels of the film to Columbia Pictures and the Hollywood studio agreed to distribute the movie," Jindal says. Gandhi went on to win eight Oscars and remains the definitive cinematic depiction of the life and times of the Mahatma.

Jindal also worked on Sturla Gunnarsson’s adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and Rajan Khosa’s Dance of the Wind, but his interest in film-making was beginning to wane. “Contemporary cinema had begun to go downhill, and a lot of film-makers had moved to television," he says. “I got interested in Buddhism, which requires a lot of study and practice." He returned to production at Norbu’s request. “I am fortunate to do a film with my teacher," he says. Vara, starring Shahana Goswami as a Hindu woman in love with a Muslim sculptor, has travelled to several film festivals, including Busan, London the International Film Festival of India. And for the first time, there was no struggle for money, given Norbu’s reputation after his acclaimed 1999 debut The Cup, about a bunch of football-crazy monks who devise a way to watch the 1998 World Cup. “With spiritual masters, it is a different kind of thing," Jindal says. “There wasn’t this huge tension and high pitch during the production. That is the effect of the lama."

Independent film production has never been easy, and despite the odd success story, it remains an uphill task for directors, producers and distributors. When Norbu approached a major studio in Mumbai for funds for Vara, he was told that his script would be considered only if he could “bring in the stars". It was that way before and it continues to be that way, 71-year-old Jindal observes. “Such films get made out of sheer passion—by the attitude that you will not be able to live if you can’t make the film."