Nirpal is best known for writing and directing girl gang thriller Sket which premiered at the London Film Festival, where Nirpal and his leading actress were nominated for the coveted Best British Newcomer award. He was hailed for the film, with Little White Lies saying that “Bhogal’s style marks him as a name for the future” while TIME OUT called him “Britain’s new film talent.”
Since then, he has directed MisFits for E4 and his second feature film FirstBorn can be seen on Netflix worldwide. He wrote and voice directed an AAA Playstation 4 title, has written various commissioned screenplays as well as a virtual reality series for Google. He is currently in pre-production of Londonstani, an adaptation of Gautum Malkani’s cult novel with the BFI, is developing feature film Olddog with Slingshot productions and developing his television series Samsara.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
Like many, I was obsessed with film, television and books as a child. This obsession only strengthened in my early teens and I found myself drawn towards drama school, as a way in which I could recreate the stories I loved; as it never occurred to me that I could make my own. After a while, even a career as an actor seemed too far removed from my reality, so I focused my energy on aiming for a stable and fulfilling career. After much soul searching I, for some unfathomable reason, decided that my career should be in politics. Yes, I was going to forgo my love of cinema and become a Politician. I was lucky enough that a kindly teacher got me a work experience placement in the Houses of Commons; lucky because it totally put an end to any thoughts I had of this being my career. I remember walking those corridors of power on my first day, wearing a suit two sizes too big and a tie too small, determined to change the world. My first task was to sit in a windowless room and fill envelopes with campaign leaflets and attach a stamp. I did this for four days, my mouth and tongue chapped from stamp glue, until someone walked in and gave me a wet sponge that I was meant to use for this purpose. They forgot to give it to me on the first day because it was in the wrong stationary cupboard and they had to find the correct key from the correct person. I realised then, that this life might not be for me. So I was adrift again, not sure what to do until something happened that profoundly changed my life.
I became ill. Really, really ill. I’ll spare the details, but within a few years I had three surgeries and spent more time in hospital than I did at home, sometimes for stretches of up to four months. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much to do from a hospital bed, so I went back to watching movies. I watched as many as I possibly could to help me escape into another world. My mental and physical health was at rock bottom and if it wasn’t for the escapism cinema afforded me, I don’t think I would have found a way out. This is going to sound dramatic, and maybe it’s the writer in me, but I honestly feel that movies saved my life. So when I got better and started to rehabilitate, there was only one thing I wanted to do; make my own films.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
I grew up in East London and knew no one who had a clue what a director even did (in fact back then, neither did I.) I knew I should be making things but couldn’t afford a camera, so I decided to write, mainly because writing was free and still felt like a step towards my dream. I wrote screenplay after screenplay, most were sequels to films I already loved. When my confidence started to build I started to work on my own ideas. All were terrible and I was filled with anxiety because I had no idea how to make them good. Of course I know now that the secret is just to carry on writing, that to create great art you have to create lots of bad art. Luckily I did this anyway, then realised that I had no idea what to actually do with these scripts. I posted some to huge American studios and hoped for the best (Paramount has still never written me back.) Growing disillusioned, I managed to get my hands on a small Mini DV camera and started making short films, but again I had no idea what to do with these either. Then my sister suggested I apply for a foundation course in filmmaking, which is exactly what I did. I was still battling health issues so was nervous, but took the plunge and was suddenly in a world where for the first time, I was surrounded by people who had the same passion as me. I was overjoyed. I had found a place where I felt like I belonged. I moved onto a degree. Years passed and as my health got back to normal I got a job at a post production company as a runner, which I quit soon after as it was taking up too much of my time and creative energy. With no other option, I decided to throw myself into the film industry head first, while working in retail to survive. Of course I had a problem, apart from those I went to university with, I knew nobody within the British film industry. So I decided to do something about it.
I hate the word “networking” because it seems so formal and inauthentic to me, so I reframed it to make it palatable. I wasn’t “networking,” I was “talking film” and “building relationships.” I felt more at ease with this, as it meant that I knew the end goal wasn’t for a total stranger to give me a job, but to make, in very simplistic terms, friends who could join me on my journey. I attended everything I could. Film festivals, screenings, random meet-ups, I even got a job writing for a film blog so I could have press passes for events I couldn’t afford to attend or wouldn’t be allowed into otherwise. Through this I realised the power of having a peer group around you, people with the same goal who can lift you up when you’re feeling down and celebrate with you when things go well. This is incredibly important, because this industry can be very lonely. It’s hard for people on the outside to understand the mechanisms and emotions within, so having a supportive peer group is essential. I started to get a trickle of directing work, music videos mostly. I was still working in retail as I wasn’t making any actual money from directing, but I finally started to learn on the job and most importantly, I started to feel like a professional.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
I faced the same three major obstacles that I feel every director has to overcome, or at least come to peace with: Fear, ego and envy.
Fear is exactly what you think it is. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of being a bad filmmaker. The truth is of course, that at first you will be bad, you will be rejected and you will fail so many times that you’ll lose count. But that is the very essence of the artist’s journey and it makes the moments of success even more exhilarating. I had to learn not to take rejection personally, which is incredibly hard to do, as when we start out on this journey, it’s because we are trying to realise our passion, an inner drive to create that is so powerful that at times, it can be overwhelming. This isn’t a nine to five job; it’s a lifestyle, and that can be incredibly destructive because it means that if someone dismisses your work, your subconscious feels like they have dismissed you as a human being. I needed to find a way to separate myself from my work self in order to survive. It’s hard to do and takes a great deal of practise, but for me it was essential.
Ego is something I’ve seen ruin the career of many a talented artist and seems rife in young filmmakers who have the mistaken belief that the director is King. I of course suffered from this, but quickly realised that film is a collaborative art form and if your ego won’t let you speak with truth, show your vulnerability, and admit you need help, then you won’t get very far. You don’t need to know everything, but you do need to know what you don’t know, and be open with that fact. It’s incredibly liberating to realise that it’s not about you, it’s about the art you and many others are creating.
Envy fascinates me the most, because we all feel it, watching someone else make the movie we wanted to make or rise faster can be a great motivator, but at its core it’s creatively and emotionally destructive. For myself, I realised that envy came from a scarcity mindset. I saw the competition and felt that there wasn’t enough to go around. Which at its core meant that my self-esteem was telling me that my projects were not as good as others. Slowly I began to realise that not only is my work worthwhile, all stories are, but if other, similar projects are being green-lit then it means mine can be too. As they say, “A rising tide raises all ships” and this is especially true in our industry. The moment I started to root for my fellow filmmakers and celebrate their wins like they were my own, the happier I became. I believe that our industry is deeply symbiotic and my own success can only be fuelled and enhanced if everyone else is succeeding too.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
My first feature made me quickly realise that I can’t please everyone. The film had fanatical fans who adored it and people who despised it. There was no in-between, which at the time I found hard to deal with. In retrospect, I think I had an adolescent fantasy that I would make perfect movies that everyone in the whole world would adore; an impossible task as by its very nature art is subjective and great art often creates emotional conflict. I tried to please producers, audiences, financiers and each time the end result was something that I felt little affection for. In time, I realised that there is only one person who needs to be proud of the work I am making: Me. That isn’t to say that I should disregard everyone else, it is a business as much as it’s an art form, but the only response I am in control of is my own. So now I make things that I want to watch, stories that I am interested in and characters and worlds that I want to explore.
In essence, developing my voice meant realising the value of my own, authentic self. I spent a lot of time trying to “become” the type of filmmaker I had observed early on in my career and thought that I had to look and act a certain way to be taken seriously, but once I began to accept myself as my own person and celebrate my differences, everything started to change. My writing and directing became better and my work started to stand out that little bit more because my differences, the very thing I fought against early on, made me unique. As such I view my next feature film as my true debut, because it’s the first time I am making something for me, that doesn’t feel like an imitation of someone else’s work. Filmmakers have to find their differences, revel in them, celebrate them and remember that there are no original ideas, only original executions and the things that set a filmmaker apart, are key to that execution.
How did you get your first break?
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a first “break,” more a battle to be constantly “breaking” into the next stage. However, there are moments that define your career in the eyes of others.
My first came with a short film I was making to address knife crime, dedicated to an actor who very sadly was stabbed and killed. I felt a real sense of responsibility to make something powerful and evocative. Also, having made several short films, I really wanted this one to be watched by as many people as possible and felt that an A-List actor would help my cause. I got in touch with Ray Winstone’s agent, wrote an email pleading for his services and was told a polite “no.” I persisted, writing and calling until eventually Ray called me and couldn’t have been kinder. He had a day between shoots and that was all I needed, so he came on board. When the film was finished it was in the national press. For the first time I had some heat and found that producers and production companies wanted to meet me. I connected with one producer in particular who, in passing, mentioned an idea he had for a feature film. I went home that night and wrote a 10-page treatment within twenty-four hours, and sent it to him. The producer loved the treatment and I was hired to write and direct my first feature film. But there was a catch, they needed it complete and ready for release within twelve to fourteen months.
I was thrown in at the deep end, working all hours, writing and casting at the same time. The film was finished on time and had a red carpet premier at the London Film Festival. I was nominated for the Best British Newcomer Award, got an agent, did some television directing and continued developing my own projects with lots of extreme highs and lows. It’s a tough industry that at times can be devastating, but when it’s going well it brings pure joy and, if nothing else, the journey is never boring.
TV Credits: Misfits (2012)
Film Credits: Cold Kiss (2010), Sket (2011), FirstBorn (2016), Londonstani (2018).
Photograph: Matt Grayson