Kabir Bhatia is the name of a man who is doing wonders in the Malaysian film scene. The 50-year-old filmmaker is a director, film producer, and scriptwriter of the Malaysian film industry. He is making films that are hiking up the standards of local cinema to the global stages. His recent films have all profited well with record-breaking blockbusters.
He started his life in the Malaysian film scene being a television drama director. Then Kabir ventured into the film world as a debut director for Love, where he worked with ten popular actors. Starting his Malaysian career in 1994, this inspiring director has not stopped entertaining the local filmgoers. With films like Gila Baby, Pulang, and Sangkar under his belt, this award-winning filmmaker is looking to extend his peak of success with his upcoming attempts.
We at Augustman had the opportunity to catch-up with the Kabir Bhatia as he shares about himself and his career as a successful filmmaker.
What made you pursue filmmaking as a career?
When it comes to the arts you know deep down if that’s your calling. I always knew. The first to tell a story, perform and that was my life in school. But after that growing up in the latter half of the 80’s in Mumbai, films were the last thing you wanted to pursue. I didn’t identify with Indian cinema till the mid 90’s. And that too a spattering of filmmakers who were crossing over to the west. On the other hand, I couldn’t get myself enthused by any other career apart from the army. But then teenage life derailed that too!
So, I found myself a young man in the early 90’s with not much direction. I drifted for a bit not knowing what I wanted to do. In those days the Indian film industry was at its lowest. But with the advent of sweeping economic changes in India from a socialist economy to a capitalist based one we saw the advent of cable TV. Something that happened a decade later with the advent of ASTRO in Malaysia. That exposure was what brought about a change in the approach to film making in India. I see the same happening in Malaysia and that’s the abundant access to film and knowledge, further solidified, thanks to the internet. So, it had to happen eventually.
Now I was very lucky. I grew up in the heart of Bollywood and grew up with a generation of Kids from filmmaking families and eventually when TV went big in India, with a little push from friends joined the industry. Not wanting to make films. They were still dancing about; well they still are, and I couldn’t get myself to take that seriously! TV on the other hand simply told stories and with the risks being lower and with entertainment finding a massive audience in their homes, young filmmakers could get a break. But again, you have it or you don’t.
I was lucky or perhaps someone saw something in me and within 2 years in the industry, I was part of India’s first daily soap. 520 episodes of learning as a Director and then as a Producer! That was it! This is a ride I haven’t got off and 28 years later still doing what I think I was born to do.
What roadblocks did you face when you were starting out?
Roberto Rodriguez (DESPERADO, SIN CITY) once famously once said in his book REBEL WITHOUT A CREW, ‘you are either a Director or you are not. It can’t be taught. So, go out there and print that card and convince people that you can be trusted with what is in your mind.’
Filmmaking cannot be taught. the tools are there, but it’s still a vision in someone’s head that has to be creatively and economically viable on one hand to a risk-taking Producer and connect with a paying public to trust you with that dollar. it’s risky and unpredictable. Roadblocks are part and parcel of every minute of the process. It’s a huge responsibility and as the Captain of the ship which is what a Director is you learn to enthuse people to trust your vision. This process never stops and keeps you grounded.
The roadblocks were mostly mental as I mention above. The rest is perseverance and hard work. It wasn’t easy, but not that hard either. I worked for the best company in India, UTV under perhaps one of the most brilliant producer’s Ronnie Screwala, a visionary producer to this very day and a straight shooter. I had a maverick creative genius Adi Pocha as a mentor who gave me my first break on the daily soap as a director with no prior knowledge or education, he plucked me out of obscurity and believed in me. But I had to prove myself to Ronnie who wasn’t going to hand me his most ambitious project and he told me why!
It made complete sense to me. So, I had to prove it to him, my mentor and myself that I was worthy of the trust. I believe that till today I always communicate my vision with clarity and inclusion. It’s not my baby, I’m there to nurture it on my shift!
What would you have been if you are not a film director?
Ha! good one. I always thought, the army. I did some searching recently into my background and it goes back to my clan in 12th century. we once were warriors, so I would like to romanticise that notion. Although in a scrap I would have my shit kicked in. So, it would be more mental I suppose. I think I more of a thinker and eventually drift towards a career in planning. I don’t know. I am glad I waited instead of following the herd.
Who is your all-time favourite director? How did he/she inspire you?
This is never an easy question. It’s like choosing between food. I have had inspirations and that has infused into my style. Visually I adopted bits and pieces from different directors, and I keep learning because this is not an exact science. on one hand, it’s a necessity born out of a market! I need to full fill my obligation to that market. on the other hand, it’s an insatiable desire to experiment. try things and at times make someone else’s style fit into my vision. But if we go down the list of masters that I must watch no matter what, I’m afraid I follow the long list of familiar directors.
Which film of yours is closest to you? and Why?
Tough question. they mostly have been box office disappointments (Laughs) You see, I have been in a unique position to have left India as a filmmaker and found a solid niche in the Malaysian film Industry and perhaps once again lucky or good enough to make 1000 of hours of programming on TV, and 12 films under my belt. But not all my ideas have been successful at the box office. I haven’t connected and that’s always devastating for a filmmaker. But I have got over it. I have understood the nature of how fragile the nature of my business is and now I rather follow a pessimistic attitude towards it and warning my producers about that the ride we are about to take.
Setem was my first script and only got greenlit after my first Cinta (2006) won the national award in Malaysia and gave birth to my career and I crossed over from TV to film. Setem was critically received but not a box office hit. I saw this with a few of my other films that had a different vision but rejected by the audience. As one colleague told me honestly. It’s too westernised in its approach and I am not connecting with the audience. I even went mainstream with Dollah Superstar another original idea that didn’t connect. Salon my series for VIU that garnered some awards recently didn’t do better. So, these have been learning lessons and I have suppressed that side of me. But no regrets. Ideas should always be developed and wait for the right time to find their audience.
What are your upcoming plans/projects in 2020?
I am finally going back to India to do n online series. An Erotic Sci-Fi. India is booming in terms of audience and ideas. So, this seems the right time. I will release a horror end of this year and hopefully find time to develop a film as well. Sangkar 2, there is talk of doing that. I am looking forward to that one.
Do you have any advice for young film makers out there?
Print that card!