Ajay Devgn (AD): It’s been very good. We co-produced our first film in 1996 – Pyaar Toh Hona Hi Tha. Then we made an array of films like Hindustan Ki Kasam, Dil Kya Kare, Raju Chacha, All The Best, Bol Bachchan and Son Of Sardaar. So it’s been fabulous, touch wood. Except for Raju Chacha, where I got very ambitious. The film didn’t do badly but the budgets were too high. We were talking of a Rs 30-crore budget 13 years ago.
I had built a set and we were doing animation for the first time but I was happy that it was us who introduced CG in India. Apart from this film, all our other films have done well and made money. My intention is not to make just films but to only make good films. Otherwise, I would be making ten films a year! The idea is to make good films and to get the right scripts. In fact, currently we are working on four or five scripts, which will go on the floors in a few months. As always, they’re progressive cinema but also entertaining.
BOI: You were the first actor to get into production.
AD: (Cuts in) Yeah, I think so! Kuch scripts aisi hoti hain jinko padhke lagta hai ki yeh aapko bannani chahiye. And you always want to experiment with it. Like Dil Kya Kare was one of those films. It did very well overseas. There were some scripts that I really wanted to make and Raju Chacha was an ambitious one, where I wanted animation of that level. And which I didn’t think any other producer could have thought of at that level for me and could actually do it. That’s why I thought I might as well do it!
So, it’s all about belief in a film and if you rope in someone else, he or she would want to chip in with their ideas. You may want to make a particular film your way and the other person may not be on the same page. Some people approach you with their vision and if you believe in their vision, you team up with them. At the same time, when you come across a film and you think only you can justify it, you go with your gut feel.
BOI: You have a very lean, mean organisation.
AD: I believe that few people can do their job but it is very important that they know their job. Today, when we meet with corporates, Tees log aakar baith jaate hain, ussmein se 15 log kya kar rahe hain hamein pata hi nahi hota. Meeting kis baat ki ho rahi hai pata nahi hota. But that’s how they work and this is how we work. We know what we’re doing.
There are no chairs here, there are faces. This is the basic difference between a corporate studio and a production house. I don’t mean to criticise corporatisation but too many cooks can spoil the broth. A crowd only leads to confusion. But our company knows who’s doing what, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and each one of us gives our best.
Kumar Mangat (KM): Aisa kuch major difference nahi hai. Some make movies to make money and some make movies they believe in. There are filmmakers who make films for the audience, not for themselves.
AD: Pehle on principle agar sirf bolne per commitment kar diya toh the project is locked and nothing is going to change. Maine word de diya hai toh film kar raha hu, price is secondary.
Aaj 400 pages ka contract banana padta hai. So somebody asked me, ‘Is it good or is it bad?’ I said it’s good business but woh ek warmth chali gayi hai. So it is like global warming! You can’t stop your business because the earth is suffering. So it is like the industry is suffering from global warming but it is good for business, I guess.
BOI: Kitne changes aaye hain?
KM: Pehle family ke bande ki tarah kaam mil jul ke karte the. Ab ek structure ho gaya hai. There’s no feeling left. Earlier, a bunch of people would come under one roof and live happily. Today, we see more heads but none of us is happy. Unity doesn’t exist any more. Also, technology has changed, which is very good. The increase in the number of cinema halls has helped business grow, which again is a very good thing. There’s some amount of transparency in business today, which is also a welcome change. So I would say that the feeling and sentiment has changed but business is growing.
BOI: It was Ajay’s creative decision to become a producer. But many in the industry must have asked you why he was becoming a producer.
KM: Bolne wale toh bolte hi hai. Jo decision unhone lena tha woh le liya tha.
AD: Shuru shuru main log bolte the because yeh tab fashion nahi tha. Now everyone has become a producer. Today, as you mentioned, I’m told that I was the first to get into film production and it was a wise decision. What people felt then and what they feel now are two different things.
I have backed only those films that I felt that no one else would pay as much attention to as I did. Even today, I don’t produce every film I am a part of. If I believe in my instincts, I should also respect other people’s instincts. And if they approach me with a project and convince me, I will stick to their conviction.
KM: Jo transparency business mein shuru huyi hai woh hamaari wajah se shuru huyi hai. Usse pehle logon ko pata nahi tha ki business hota kya hai. We were also the first to get into film distribution. We take pride in saying that we introduced transparency into the system and it opened everyone’s eyes.
KM: I would not like to name a film or name the people behind that film, but I will say that we did a film many years ago and it turned out awesome. Although it was a well-made film, the people behind it and the distributors of the film didn’t promote it to the fullest. The film went unnoticed and we felt bad. That’s when we decided to go ahead with distribution, to give our best to deserving movies.
BOI: All the films you have produced feature you as the lead actor in them. Do you see that changing?
AD: Yes, that’s changing! Like I said, we are working on four to five films right now. Out of them, only two of them feature me in the cast.
BOI: Apart from being the first to get into production and distribution, you’ve always believed in budding talent and have worked with first-time directors.
AD: (Smiles) Anees Bazmi, Rohit Shetty and Bunty (Milan Luthria) started with us. When I worked with these guys, they were all new directors and now they are very big directors. I am going to do the same in future too.
AD: I heard the script of Dil Kya Kare and, yes, Prakashji was going through a lull phase. I told him I loved the script a lot. It was a unique script at the time and I wanted to promote films like that. So I asked him if he would let me produce it. He agreed immediately. Basically, I am the only commercial actor who started dabbling with films like Thakshak or Zakhm because I wanted to balance things. I have learnt a lot from Bhatt saab (Mahesh Bhatt), Prakashji (Prakash Jha) and Govindji (Govind Nihalani). My growth as a performer has come from their abilities.
BOI: After Dil Kya Kare, you worked with Prakash Jha again, on Gangaajal, which was like Jha-sir’s revival in commercial cinema.
AD: Because I believe in that kind of cinema. I feel Prakashji found a great balance between telling a story, engaging the audience and saying something more. You don’t expect films like these to do extraordinary business because they are also social-oriented. Somewhere, you should do films like these as well as long as they are not disasters. They are like oxygen to acting and the other films are oxygen to stardom.
BOI: You have stood by directors, regardless of their track record. Did you do that to create goodwill?
AD: It is not about goodwill! Rohit and Bunty started their careers with me as assistants. We shared a great rapport and I promised them that I would do a film with them whenever they were ready. And that’s what I did.
AD: One has to be very careful with what you are associating with. Now, I can’t name the film but I wouldn’t want to be associated with a vulgar film.
BOI: What type of films does Ajay Devgn Ffilms stand for?
AD: Commercial, good… everything! Where people like watching the film and where you can make something that is sensitive and nice, and which is still commercial.
KM: Woh har journey mein jaise hai waise hi rahein hain. Agar accha time aaya hai tab bhi koi change nahi hua aur major disaster aisa kuch hua nahi hai. And he’s always been level-headed. Success has not gone to his head. People who have been with him since Phool Aur Kaante, his debut film, are still with him. That speaks volumes. Never mind outsiders, he’s still the same with his own staff as he was when he started his career.
BOI: Kumarji, you were Ajay’s business manager and he let you grow as a producer. What do you have to say about that?
KM: Apna dekho kitna accha hai ki hum independently bhi kaam kar rahe hain aur saath main bhi kaam kar rahe hain. It’s not just films; we’re also working together in other businesses. He trusts me. He’s always believed in me and I am fortunate to work with him. I always ask him his permission before I embark on anything.
BOI: But were there times that you felt like stopping him when he decided to take up a non-commercial film like Thakshak?
KM: Woh film toh karni hi thi. Govindji ke saath kaam karna tha.
AD: My brand is not associated with films that a star would want to do. I have been very lucky that audiences have accepted me in all kinds of cinema, where they haven’t accepted everybody else. Sabhi karna chahte hain par sabhi kamyaab nahi hote.
And if acting is your passion, you want to do good cinema. I am not saying commercial cinema is bad cinema. I would say it is different cinema like Satyagraha. It has a different type of audience and they always come to watch films like this. I did Satyagaha because it had been seven to eight years since people had seen me do cinema like Zakhm and Company. They knew that Ajay Devgn but had not seen him for some time. It’s barely a week since the film released and people who usually do not go to cinemas have told me they watched Satyagraha and loved it.
AD: It was very important to do that. In fact, when I was asked to do Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai I was confused since Company ka performance itna appreciate hua tha ki I thought how could I better that? Once I thought it through, and sorted out the character ke isska graph of performance aise change karte hain so that it looks different. That’s when I decided to do the film. I am not doing a non-commercial and dry film for the next one and a half years. I might, after that, because I need to maintain a balance.
BOI: Ever since you started your career, the audience has accepted different kinds of cinema.
AD: Of course they do! Kitne chote scale ki pictures this year or last year came and they did well. I mean, look at films like Vicky Donor and Kai Po Che and even a dry film like Satyagrah, which opened so well. Yehi agar 15 saal pehle aati toh open bhi nahi hoti.
BOI: Will this reflect on the kind of films you will make? Will it involve small-budget films?
AD: I have always fought good battles. Small films toh I will definitely make, where there’s a limited but dedicated audience and there’s coverage.
BOI: That’s why you did a film like Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge?, without charging the market price?
AD: Yeah, exactly! I knew it was aimed at a limited audience and it was a hit.
BOI: How do you strike a balance between Ajay Devgn, the star and Ajay Devgn, the producer?
AD: I have fought those battles. I don’t compromise on anything and yet I never go overboard. My team, including Kumarji, does advise me when we are about to go overboard. But if I am confident of that, I always balance it elsewhere.
AD: (Cuts in) It is the new silver jubilee and golden jubilee or whatever you want to call it. Earlier, there used to be those trophies and you’ll see them lying around in my farmhouse because there’s no place for them here. The trophy system is over now!
BOI: Now even the audience discusses how much business a film has done.
AD: That is thanks to the media. The media writes about it and people have begun to understand it. Awareness only comes through the media. People get to know what is happening in the country and outside too through the media. And then there is social media that connects them, which works better.
BOI: When you look at the industry as a whole, what is that one great opportunity that we have and what is that one thing we lack?
AD: The biggest challenge we face is that we are divided. We always fight our own battles. There’s a multiplex problem, a piracy problem and a problem with division of screens. I had anticipated this problem and now other people are facing it. I tried to do something at the time because it wasn’t going to help me in my film only but everyone. But it is too late and no one listened. So now let them suffer! This is why we need to be united.
The one good thing is that the business is growing, the reach is growing, multiplexes are growing, there are new formats coming in apart from satellite. So with a growing business, you can have good budgets for the films you make and then you can make better films, hopefully at par with international standards because we miss the technicians and the kind of budgets that set films in the West apart.
BOI: You have directed one film, U Me Aur Hum, under your banner. Do you have any plans to direct again?
AD: I want to but you need at least a year or more to be able to do that. And I don’t have that kind of time right now.
AD: Because it was a beautiful story to tell. It came straight from my heart and if anyone else would have heard the narration, they would have said it was not very commercial. I made it in the right budget and I made money out of it too. Like I said, if the story and budgets are right, the film will make money and U Me Aur Hum made money.
BOI: Kumarji, Ajay made all these decisions to become a distributor, producer and director. Did you ever want to stop him and advise him to stick to acting?
KM: No, he discusses everything he does before he goes ahead. And I agree with it only when I am completely convinced. In fact, I have always voiced my opinion when I felt that the decision being taken would not be beneficial.
AD: He does tell me if he feels we are moving in the wrong direction. We discuss things and then take decisions.
KM: Hum usska plus kya hai minus kya hai sab dekhte hain aur phir call lete hain. Mujhe lagta hai ki 23 years mein hum ek ya do baar wrong huye hain, jahan humko laga hai ki galti ho gayi hai.
BOI: Jaise ki?
KM: (Laughs) Kuch films aisi kar li jo baad main laga ki nahi karni chahiye thi.
AD: Either on the first or second day of the shoot, I call and tell him if the film will do well or not.
AD: Ek commitment ho jati hai. Kitna paisa lag jata hai… yeh ho gaya, woh ho gaya… once I say yes to a project, I don’t believe in backing out.
BOI: But don’t you think that, in the long run, a bad film can affect your average of good films?
AD: Haan but bahut mushkil ho jata hai uss time.
KM: I always ask Ajayji if he’s absolutely sure before he says yes to a project because once he’s given his word, he will do a film even if he finds it going down the drain.
AD: That’s the difference between us and newcomers. Hum log emotion mein picture haan kar dete hai. We need to learn from newcomers.
Also, it depends on how you take it. If you view the film as a totally commercial project, the newcomers are absolutely right. It is a choice you make. I told you na about global warming… yehi hai woh!
BOI: Do you miss that apnapan?
AD: Of course you miss that warmth. Matlab agar ek ki film superhit hoti hai toh dusre ka phone nahi aata hai. (Laughs) Pehle hum ek dusre ko galiya de kar bolte the ki dekh teri picture hit ho gayi hai. Not any more!
AD: I make better cinema that way. Ajay, as an actor, has his upside also for a production house. In terms of a producer helping the actor, you realise that there’s a certain sincerity when you think ki yaar agar you’ll leave it and not do a good job then kitna nuksaan ho jayega.
As a child, I used to go on the sets with my dad. I won’t name the actor but woh aaram se 2:30 pm tak aate the aur sab dhoop main baithe rehte thhe. Tab na make-up vans hoti thi na umbrellas hote thhe. And that actor would come giving gaalis and throwing his weight around. And the entire unit would bad-mouth him behind his back. I never forgot that. That’s when I decided I would never arrive late for a shoot. Warna log mujhe bhi gaali denge!