Nusrat Durrani, General Manager at MTV Networks, is a pioneering media executive, producer and award-winning creative with over 20 years of experience conceiving and executing transformative, multi-platform content and branded entertainment for both commercial and social impact.
His progressive and panoramic vision of the world is also clearly evoked in “Madly”, an omnibus film about love which he both conceived and executive produced, featuring works by top-notch talent including Mia Wasikowska (Australia), Gael Garcia Bernal (Argentina), Sion Sono (Japan), Natasha Khan (UK), Sebastian Silva (USA) and Anurag Kashyap (India). The film opened the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and won Best Actress in its category. “Madly” just premiered to packed audiences at the Mumbai Film Festival a few days ago and I met Nusrat to chat about the movie, creativity and what drives him.
Jhilmil Breckenridge (JB): You have always been a pathbreaker, from MTV World to your work with human rights, animal rights and more. I have been following your work from afar and am always blown away by the passion you put into each of your projects, your sometimes foolhardy bravado and how you always seem to pull off these seemingly impossible feats. Tell me a little about your journey, your foray into music and the areas that pull you, and then into the world of film.
Nusrat Durrani (ND): I’m an outsider, often an outcast who has developed deep empathy for the underrepresented of the world and stories that haven’t been told. My foolishness and ability to put myself on the line has made me willing to take risks, go places and do things sensible people won’t. This has resulted in some modest rewards, some dents I’ve made in the very strong armour of confirmatory and resistance to change. In India, I was a misfit and in the USA, I had to work ten times harder than everyone else to prove myself which has forced me to learn stuff and be more skilled. There’s nothing special about me other than that I have a thicker skin than most and I don’t go away easily.
JB: How did the idea of “Madly” come about? Tell me a little more about this decision to make six short films as opposed to a full length feature film? Will it ever be screened commercially or will it stay a festival film?
ND: I feel like as creators of content, we have done a disservice to love. In not covering it’s untold stories and always regurgitating the boy-meets-girl narrative, we have sadly ignored all the rest of us with more unusual love stories and we have pissed off the Gods of Love. “Madly” is an atonement for that, and a sort of “Global State of the Union” of love. It had to be many stories and not one. If I could, I would make it an unending series because there so many untold love stories. It will see commercial release because apparently people want to experience movies like this and are tired of cliches.
JB: “Madly” is very much a women-centric film, celebrating women, sexuality and perhaps a liberation. Was this deliberate? How do you think the male members of the audience feel while watching “Clean Shaven” for example, the Anurag Kashyap Indian film part of “Madly”?
ND: It was deliberate. Who are we to keep women in chains? There aren’t enough stories about women, especially those that treat them as equals and show them in empowering roles. We need to celebrate female sexuality and let women run the world. Run this country. Things will automatically improve because women have deeper empathy, are smarter, more resilient and less corrupt. There aren’t enough women directors either. With few exceptions, we as a collective global society, have treated women very poorly and we should be ashamed.
I think the evolved and confident male will cheer “Clean Shaven” or at least learn from it. I think most men would act differently about women if the terrifying weight of “society” and “tradition” and “conformity” was lifted and there was no pressure to be a certain way just because that’s how it’s been. That takes courage and men should be strong and let women shine. The men in the audiences for “Madly” I was with, loved and supported it, especially “Clean Shaven”. Most men aren’t monsters. We were taught to worship our mothers and goddesses and protect our sisters. Where did we go wrong?
JB: Where have these strong women emerged from? Were they a part of your childhood or did you yearn for such figures?
ND: My childhood was full of angst and rebellion and isolation which was strange because I was loved and adored by my mother and sisters. I’ve had a very strong role model in my mother and I’ve found many others in history and culture from Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi to Joan of Arc to Joan Baez and Patti Smith. I love Rekha and Smita Patil — strong, often misunderstood women going against the grain. But equally, I marvel at the unknown woman carrying bricks on her head to build that tall building the rich will live in while her infant plays in the dirt. I see myself as a feminist and seek inspiration from women of all persuasions — from rock stars to vagabonds to acid attack survivors.
JB: You always give your readers a strong sense of place, be it through imagery, scents, music, food. Tell me how you achieve this and why you think it is important to storytelling and film.
ND: Any good story or piece of art, or even food, is evocative. If you can’t set fire to the readers imagination with your story, then you have done a disservice to the muse. It’s harder with film because you are presenting a specific vision of the story so you better make it magical and let it arouse the audiences’ senses so they can play it back later in their heads with their own sensual additions. I don’t know how I achieve this or even if I do. I try to be specific with detail. I draw from experience. I don’t have a large vocabulary and didn’t go to writing school. But I create everything with my blood, sweat and tears so perhaps if it does evoke something, I have done an OK job.
JB: Please tell me what you were hoping to achieve with “Madly” and how you think you have done? What is the next film brewing in your mind as you enjoy the success of this one?
ND: With “Madly”, my small and tender hope was to expand people’s view of what love is and to allow for a much greater diversity of stories about it. I don’t know if I achieved that but damn, I tried.
I want to do another film. An explosive, audacious commercial film with strong female roles and characters you haven’t seen before. A love story set in India and meant for mass consumption. It is unspooling in my head as we speak. In fact, it’s devouring me.
JB: What has your experience in working for human rights, refugees and PETA been like?
ND: Much of the content I have created has been subliminally a work of activism of some sort. I’m interested in correcting inequities that exist in this world but also super-serving audiences and furthering the interests of my employers. It is possible to balance the two. I have partnered with Amnesty International and the White House on projects related to Rebel Music. Privately, I have volunteered in Lebanon to help Syrian refugees — this was probably the most profound experience of my recent life. It has changed me for the better. All of us should devote time in service of others.
I love animals so I don’t eat them. Human beings have a pathetic record of how we treat animals and our environment. Meat eating is harmful and generates unspeakable cruelty. Years from now, hopefully we will look back on these times as the barbaric ages when people still ate dead flesh. I support many animal rights organizations but have not done anything with PETA.