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  anuradha dutta catches up with Rajat Nagpal

MUSIC, designing, short films and even cooking, Rajat Nagpal has done it all and succeeded. After being among the last 12 contestants in Season 2 of reality show Masterchef , this ad man is behind the camera again, all set to direct his first feature film. Excerpts from and interview:

Tell us something about your early life, 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 a diploma in Indian Classical and Rabindrasangeet. 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 side. And sometime in Class XII I decided to pursue design and advertising. Being in the city that I grew up, it was 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 it was one of the top design schools in the world, but 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. For 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’ve been into cooking since the age of six. Who inspired you to try your hand at this?

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 was 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 the culinary arts profession. Today, if anything brings me closest to myself, it&’s cooking.

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 four-month sabbatical after 10 years of working in design and films. The experience was rather bittersweet. I was honestly there to cuss out my culinary skills and see how they were to be exploited professionally. But after some time I realised the show was more about entertainment rather than food. So, a 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.

Do you like Bengali food? Has it inspired your cooking in some way?

I love Bengali cuisine. Perhaps, it is my 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 Bengalis. I also use a lot of mustard (kasundi) in my food.

You have directed many award-winning short films. Talk about that journey.

Short films happened purely as a part of my curriculum at NID. Slowly, I realised, my best communication and expression would happen if the duration of the film was kept within five-six minutes. 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, travelled 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 was 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 incomparable. Sadly, India is struggling to find an audience for them.

Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro brought you international acclaim and was displayed at the 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 that 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 the National Gallery of Modern Art in Paris in the Video Art Section. I am currently working on 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, it&’s over 120 minutes of software.
With advertising, my craft in filmmaking improved. I found my language and my strengths. I delved into spaces I was not comfortable in, and then strangely got known for them, like 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 working under 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 for form and design.

Tell us something about your directorial 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 up till now. I have already written three bound scripts. Two more are under development. At least one should go on the floors this year. It&’s equally exciting, as much as the uncertainty can be overwhelming at times. But it certainly is like giving birth to a child, rearing it for years before you let the world have a look at it. The joy is incomparable. The anxiety, too, is killing at times. But it&’s exciting. Would love to see my work finally on a big screen!

You spent your formative years in Kolkata. Do you still go there?

I spent 18 years in the city. I know more about 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 Rabindra Sarobar, 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 I enjoy it more that way.