'Job of a craft is only to stir the senses' : Rajat Nagpal
Tell us something about your early life, your childhood and education.
Born in Delhi and brought up in Kathmandu and Kolkata, I was a hardcore science geek. I learnt music from a very early age, with diploma in Indian Classical and Rabindra Sangeet. I was always keen on watching cinema and taking pictures but my parents were very strict about studies. Inter and Intra School Fests were a huge exposure to my creative bone. And sometime in class XII, I decided to pursue design and advertising. Being in the city that I grew up, it was a taboo to think beyond Science or Commerce, so it was a huge battle that I had to engage in with my folks and peers. I had started my first design firm when I was 18. It was called D’Zags. I had done a few graphic design and Interior projects.
With that money, I applied to various art and design colleges. And NID became my one point focus. I knew that it was one of the top design schools in the world, but the seats were very limited. And if I didn’t get through to that place, I would have to settle for an engineering college. Being good in studies suddenly seemed to be a curse rather than a boon. Six months, I worked really hard for the exams. And as luck would have it, I got through NID. My parents had mixed reactions since I also got through to IIT and BITS Pilani. And I chose to follow my passion and dreams instead. It has still been one of my greatest achievements till date.
You have been into cooking since the age of six. Who inspired you to try your hands on cooking?
My mom was a cook-o-holic. I loved her food and took to her passion of cooking. My dad, even though he was a trained pastry chef, did not inspire me to bake since it seemed too clinical. Later, when I went to college, I became in-charge of the mess. And since our canteen served some really bad food, I started cooking every Saturday for 300 odd students. Later, when my mom was detected with lymphoma, I was left with no option but to improve my skills on healthy cooking. That triggered my journey into profession culinary arts. Today, if anything brings me closest to myself, it’s cooking. My expression through food is the most honest and unpretentious.
How was your experience at the Masterchef 2? You seemed to gel pretty well with your co-contestants. Are you still in touch with any of them?
Masterchef was a 4-month long sabbatical after 10 years of working in the field of design and films. The experience was rather bitter-sweet. I was honestly there to cuss out my culinary skills and see how were they to be exploited professionally. But after sometime, I realized that the show was more about entertainment rather than food. So conflict of interest in more ways than one. But I must say that I made a lot of friends with some wonderful people outside the world of media. The show though has been an initiation in many ways both in the field of food as well as in performance arts. Strangely the world knows me more for my contribution to the show than for my contribution to the world of advertising and video art.
What kind of food you were raised on? You don't like to experiment with traditional recipes like 'gajar ka halwa'. Is Indian food more close to your heart?
I was raised on pure North Indian food with a little influence of Gujarati, south Indian, Sindhi and Bengali cuisine. But my true journey in exploring food began only after I joined college. I have traveled to many parts of Africa, South Asia and Europe and most of my journeys are driven by food.
Do you like Bengali food? Has it inspired your cooking in some way?
I love Bengali cuisine. Perhaps, it is one of my most favourite. What I love most about it is that it’s minimalistic and concentrates more on the flavour of the raw ingredients. Even though, the cuisine is better known for its fish preparations, I think no one has a more varied vegetarian fare than the Bengalis’. I also use a lot of mustard (Kasundi) in my food.
You have directed many award winning short films. Talk about your journey as a director of short films.
Short films happened purely as a part of my curriculum at NID. Slowly, I realized, my best communication and expression would happen if the duration of the film was kept within 5 to 6 min. I explored, thanks to NID, fiction, non-fiction, narrative, non-narrative structure etc. It helped me find my grammar and paradigm of expression. Shorts, also don’t come with any baggage of pleasing any audience or any commercial nuance. Hence my work has never been so free or honest.
My very first short film, “Elysium” traveled to over 15 festivals worldwide, also winning me my first award. But my favourite till date is “Without the Sun”, which was part of a documentary workshop conducted by an acclaimed filmmaker Sameera Jain. I still use it as a stencil for shot-taking.
In 2007, I got nominated amongst the top 12 video artists in the world, which then later helped me curate various short film festivals across Europe. I was fortunate to have the kind of exposure I got from various festivals globally. The amount of experimentation that happens within the world of short films is un-comparable. Sadly, India is struggling to find an audience for them.
'Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro' brought you international acclaim and was displayed at National Gallery of Modern Art, Paris. How did you arrive at the subject of this experimental work of yours?
“Halaal” has been my pet subject since college days. Most of my shorts, photography and essays have been around this old custom. “Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro” could either be called the initiation or the culmination of all my studies and inspiration. It is a cocky one minute account of a rooster before he gets halaal-ed. It was made for a one minute film festival which later was picked up by Orange in London. They helped it become a viral hit. In 2011, the film got invited to be showcased in National Gallery of Modern Art in Paris in the Video Art Section. I am currently on working its sequel “Jaane Bhi Do Dolly”.
When did advertising happen? Did it lead you to the world of feature films?
Advertising is in my blood. I flirted with the industry in the initial years of my career, then got married to it in 2006, divorced in 2012 and am currently in an open relationship with the industry. My career in advertising took a full swing when I was working with Nikhil Advani. I was his front face for all the ad work while he concentrated on his features. Later, the industry sucked me in, and in 2009-11, I saw a boom when I did most of my interesting work. With over 100 films now, its over 120 minutes of software.
With advertising, my craft in filmmaking bettered. I found my language and my strengths. I delved into spaces I was not comfortable in, and then strangely got known for them, eg., comedy. It has been fun but the advertising after a point is not an honest medium of communication and eats into the soul of filmmaking. Flings as they say, not true love. The films are more about the “hows” than the “Whys”.
How was the experience of working under the iconic names of the Hindi film industry like Rakesh Om Prakash Mehra, Nikhil Advani, Sujoy Ghosh, Bharat Bala and Sanjay Bhansali?
Each of these stalwarts has inspired me with their work. So, it was a privilege to get to work with them and understand their mindsets. As they are all very strong personalities, which reflects upon their creations, it was difficult to not be affected by them in multiple ways. But I must say that they all allowed me to breathe and grow as Rajat Nagpal and help me build my paradigm and ideologies. The most common binding factor with all was they all had a strong eye to form and design.
You are debuting as a film director. Tell us something about your debut.
From flinging to falling in love; From Immediate gratification to delayed gratification, from some sense of security to a journey for freedom, my desire to tell a few stories the way I want to. This is how I would summarise my journey into the realms of feature filmmaking uptil now. I have already written three bound scripts. Two more are under development. Atleast, one should go on floors this year. It’s equally exciting, as much the uncertainty can be over whelming at times. But it certainly is like giving birth to a child, bearing it for years before you let the world have a look at it. The joy is uncomparable. The anxiety too is killing at times. But it’s exciting. Would love to see my work finally on a big screen!
"An artist, musician, photographer, graphic designer, interior designer, amateur chef, and a filmmaker...," this is what your Facebook profile reads. How do you plan to merge all this and present in your art café?
An emotion does not get dictated by a medium for expression. Sometimes, it gets conveyed best through words, while sometimes it’s some soul stirring notes, while a similar emotion gets heightened with palette titillating cuisine. Expression knows no form. The job of a craft, be it any, is only to stir the senses. I want to build a space where free and honest expression of emotions is conveyed without worrying about the medium, audience response and most importantly financial implications. It will be a culmination of my life experiences and most importantly me!
You have spent your formative years in Kolkata. Do you still go there? Tell us something about your days spent in the city of joy.
I spent 18 years in the city. I know more about the Bengali culture and arts than my own. I read, write, speak and sing in this language far more proficiently than in Punjabi. My growing up in Kolkata was largely school and home, with very little exposure to the city. I have fond memories of the sunsets at the Rabindra Sarovar, which also became my source of inspiration for my first exhibition of photography and my first book. The last years in Kolkata were a little discomforting and I strangely did not feel connected to the city any more. So in 2012, we packed up for good, and my dad shifted with me to Mumbai. I visit the city for work once in a while, but my outlook to it is more objective today, and hence enjoy it more that way.
(Posted on 04-02-2014)