He’s back with the genre he rules. In fact, many believe he’s the only filmmaker that can make a period film and keep the audience hooked till the credits begin to roll. The period-drama king is in the news for his latest endeavour, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey. Here he is talking about the film, his journey and more. Over to Ashutosh Gowariker
Are you aware that the trade is saying that this film of yours is shorter than usual?
(Laughs) Everyone must be relieved that I have made a short film this time. The length of a film depends on its drama and the expanse of its story. In Lagaan, the cricket match needed that much time and Jodhaa Akbar needed time to portray that tehzeeb, its durbar and court etiquette. In Swades, it was the rediscovery of the country. And this time, I am making a period thriller. When it’s a thriller, it needs to be snappy and short.
So the shorter run time is entirely your decision?
Of course. I never go according to what people think because I would go wrong if I start catering to other people’s demands. I did that with my first two movies (Pehla Nasha and Baazi) and I failed miserably.
Or is it because your last film What’s Your Raashee? was too long and didn’t do well?
Actually, I began work on Khelein Hum Jee Saan Sey at the same time that I started work on What’s You Raashee? right after Jodhaa Akbar. But I decided to make What’s Your Raashee? first.
I did not want to make a period film after a historical film. I thought I would do something contemporary. (Smiles)
Do you regret not making Khelein… before What’s Your Raashee?
It doesn’t mean What’s Your Raashee? would have clicked had I made it now. I don’t believe any film is ahead of its time… you know ek hota hai ki hum kehte hain ki yeh agar film paanch sal baad aati toh yeh bahut chalti. I don’t think so! It’s the film that works or doesn’t, not the time. Every film is a learning curve. Lagaan could have been my first film but I needed to do a Pehla Nasha and a Baazi before a Lagaan.
Can you share any experiences that would help aspiring filmmakers?
I don’t think people have to learn anything from me. My journey has been a learning experience for me, it is my own internal mechanism.
Since audiences are used to watching shorter, Hollywood movies, is it advisable to make a three-hour-plus Hindi movie?
It is a myth that Hollywood films are 90 minutes long. All three Lord Of The Rings films were three hours long. Avatar is long, Titanic is three hours long, Jurassic Park is two hours and 45 minutes long. If you are making a romantic comedy, two hours is just about right. If you’re making a murder mystery, 90 minutes is appropriate but if you’re making something dramatic, you need more time.
So the genre decides a film’s duration?
Have audience choices changed or have filmmakers forced audiences to choose differently?
It’s a good thing if audience tastes have changed. That change is what made Lagaan work… it makes Dev D work. And ultimately audience means it’s us. We want to see different things all the time. When we are given the same thing time and again, we reject it. So audience tastes changing and filmmakers’ thought processes changing are connected.
But most filmmakers believe we’ve reached the West module. What’s your take?
When we say we want to reach there, it means we are hungry for the world market, which means not just Indians abroad but a much wider audience. I would love Lagaan to be seen in Venezuela, I would love if Lagaan was seen in Romania. When, say, a French film is made, it releases at a film festival, it does not reach India. But if Hollywood takes the same film and remakes it, it reaches us here. That’s the power of Hollywood.
Like in India, Hindi movies reach farther than regional cinema. If you take a Bengali film and make it in Hindi, it reaches every part of the country. Our filmmakers are on the brink of internationalism in terms of our stories, in terms of our treatment, in terms of our ideas. So when we say “we are trying to get there”, it means we are trying to gain a world market.
But then the business of South movies like Robot and Magadheera runs into Rs 150-200 crore.
Yes, yes! But then again, that does not mean all of Tamil cinema is coming to India or to Mumbai. See Mumbai is different, but is Magadheera going to Lucknow?
But the dubbed version does reach most of the country.
Yes, but the dubbed version of a Rajinikant film is stardom of a different level. But coming back to your original question, I think we are going through a major upheaval in Hindi cinema by way of type of films – genre, subject matter, more and more novels and books are being adapted to the screen, songless films – it’s incredible. These films, made in the ‘70s and ‘80s, were called parallel cinema.
We used to call it parallel, now we call it crossover cinema.
At that time, films like these released in select cinemas and only special people went to see them. Now you have multiplexes showcasing a film that is realistic, a different format. Whether it crosses over to the international arena is a different topic of discussion. I am saying within India first, we are in a very blossoming phase.
Talking of Indian films on the world stage, though Lagaan made it to the Oscars, why didn’t you push the envelope further?
The moment you get an international distributor for your film, an international producer – I am talking about a Hollywood producer – then the reach obviously increases. But with Lagaan, we went to so many countries we had never gone to before. It was a great achievement but it’s still the first tier. The second tier is still far-away.
Translating books into movies has never gone down well as far as the box office is concerned, except with 3 Idiots. But then, Rajkumar Hirani says he did make many changes while filming it.
A book is a different medium. Khelein Hum Jee Saan Sey is an account, it is not a novel. Do And Die is an account of the Chittagong uprising. It is non-fiction. That’s why it helps me stay true to the details. We are depicting a revolution and I want all those details to be accurate. But details alone won’t help, I have to dramatise it. Manini Chatterjee, the author, who won the Rabindra Puraskar for this book, was on the film when all the changes were being made. Also, this is not the first time I have adapted a book. The first time, I adapted a book, even though indirectly, was Rajni Bakshi’s book called Bapu Kuti for Swades.
The film’s story was by Satyanarayana Rao but my research came from Bapu Kuti. In Jodhaa Akbar, I used Akbar Dhala but Akbar Dhala is in public domain written by Abdul Fazal. Still, I adapted it from Akbar Dhala. How else would I know all those details? And then there’s Kimball Ravenswood, which I adapted for What’s Your Raashee? So this is the fourth time for me.
Do you believe you have mastered the art of adaptation?
(Laughs) A writer spends two years writing before coming up with a book. He has thought a lot about it, he has worked out all the details, he has worked out the characterisation, he has done it in that one
medium. If I like it and if it is good, then I want to do it in another medium. That is when you take the copyright and adapt it.
Why can’t film writers too devote as much time as authors do when writing a movie so that they come up with flawless cinema?
They do but a director cannot do it. It took me two years just to work on Lagaan. But when I am writing, I’m writing cinematically.
But if I suddenly get excited about a news item in a newspaper, I will have to write it myself. I cannot commission a writer to write for two years. But if I come across a book which is fantastic, I will buy the rights. So there are two different ways of approaching it.
What will attract the audience to your upcoming film the most – children fighting for freedom; Abhishek Bachchan in a dhoti and urging his battalion to fight against the British; or Deepika Padukone, minus her glam look, taking up the freedom cause?
All three are USPs. It is unusual to watch 55 teenagers fighting for their country’s freedom. Surya Sen (Abhishek Bachchan) is a school teacher but in his heart he has a burning desire to do something for his country. Kalpana Dutta (Deepika Padukone) is at the right age to get married. She is a landlord’s daughter, extremely rich. She could easily have become a housewife and had a luxurious life. What makes her join the revolution with Surya Sen?
Did you miss A R Rahman in What’s Your Raashee? And Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey?
I miss A R Rahman every single time. I started on What’s Your Raashee? a month or two after Jodhaa Akbar. It had 13 songs and Rahman was already committed to Slumdog Millionaire. So he spent most of his time in London and LA. Rahman is such a highly evolved musician that when he is doing something internationally, you don’t want to disturb him.
I thought, “He’s taking Indian music places and we must support him.” So we decided to take a break and do another film. But then the Oscar march happened and wonderful things happened in his life and to our country. But I also met Sohail Sen, who I think is amazing. The 13 tracks he created for What’s Your Raashee? were outstanding because each track had to represent a particular girl
and her zodiac sign and her attributes. But of course Rahman and I will work together some day.
Did you miss UTV Motion Pictures while making this film? Or is it that PVR Pictures didn’t make you miss them?
(Laughs) I have had a great experience with UTV, with Ronnie and similarly with PVR. I have been very fortunate with my production tie-ups. It is also important that your production tie-ups happen with a team that shares your vision, passion and enthusiasm for cinema. Ronnie has been wonderful and so have been the Bijli brothers. Their passion comes across even though they are exhibitors. The experience of watching a movie at PVR is something else – joyous and wonderful from the moment you enter the cinema.
So nothing went wrong between UTV and your production house?
Nothing went wrong with UTV. In fact, we are looking forward to working together again. We took a pause because they didn’t expect me to go ahead with KHJJS so quickly. At that time, UTV’s production plan was already full.
Unlike other filmmakers, why don’t you allow other directors to make films for your banner?
I am the first generation of my family in the movie business. I think I need more experience in production though I have made some big-budget films but I still feel I need more experience before I can include other movies under my banner.
Initially, you worked with solo producers and later with corporate houses. What is the difference?
One big advantage of working with corporate houses is that they have a system in place. There is a need for systemisation. It comes from the corporate culture. That is very important for movies. Not that the independent producer is not good but he will ultimately have to make a product and sell it himself as opposed to a corporate, where because of their vastness they can have a bouquet of films and their business deals are more wholesome. They will spend better or there deals will be much more evolved in their favour.