After exactly a decade in the industry, director Rohit Shetty looks back on the highs and lows in his journey, turning points in his career and his upcoming film Chennai Express. Here’s Shetty in a free-wheeling chat with the Box Office India team
You have hit the 10-year mark in Hindi films. How does it feel to complete a decade as a director?
Really? 10 years? I had no idea. It’s been a good journey. When I look back at the directors that started out at the same time I did, I feel very fortunate. You have to be fortunate to work with the right people and luck also must favour you. It’s a combination of many things.
You had a shaky beginning but once you delivered a hit, there was no looking back.
Yes, but that’s the unpredictability of our industry. And it’s the same today. One film goes wrong and you’re back where you started 10 years ago. Two films go wrong and that sets you back 20 years. But that’s the fun part of our industry.
What was the turning point in your career? Was it Golmaal?
Yes, Golmaal, for sure. We had no idea whether the film would do well or not. We were all quite apprehensive. For us, it was like Ajay (Devgn) doing comedy. Tusshar’s over-the-top character was a big risk but thankfully it all worked out.
What has worked for you in the last 10 years?
People say massy and commercial films but I think it’s the family audience that has liked my films. I try to not make my films vulgar so that they are not uncomfortable to watch at home or in cinemas. Kids don’t need to watch these films separately; the whole family can watch them together. I think that’s the biggest plus point of my films. That has worked more than massy films.
I would get derailed! (Laughs)
So you want to play it safe?
Call it playing safe or call it doing what I am best at. I would never want to be someone else. There is a large number of people who watch this kind of cinema and very few people who make this kind of cinema.
In the last 10 years, there is a certain Rohit Shetty style that has evolved –comedy, action, cars being blown up. How did you find that voice?
It just happened. I just kept myself focused and didn’t get distracted by people’s opinions. I did what felt right for my audience and gradually it became a brand. It wasn’t something I had planned. It happened because I have been making films for a particular kind of audience, which is a large segment of the movie-going population.
The audience accepted you with Golmaal but it took a long time for the critics to accept you.
About 80 per cent of the critics don’t like my films but that’s OK. They are entitled to like or dislike a particular genre.
They don’t seem to mind Jim Carey and other Hollywood actors doing crazy stuff in their films but they are not OK with you doing it.
Because they are in awe of Hollywood. Even when they interview you or write about a film you have made, they compare you with Hollywood. They are more inclined towards that kind of cinema or that kind of audience but my kind of films are not easy to make. They imply that what we are making is outdated trash. You may criticise my work but you can’t humiliate me. And it’s not just me. They humiliate my colleagues and the actors who work with me, and they have no right to do that.
Just wait for Chennai Express. Floors will be blown in that. I will prove them wrong again!
You are perceived as a producer-friendly director. Your films are hits and you don’t stretch deadlines. Is that because you are from the industry?
At the end of the day, it’s a business, it’s a product, and someone is investing large sums of money. If you’re talking about making a film within its budget or on time, I would have to credit my team, who has been with me since my first film Zameen. We make a film every six months and they know their job like the back of their hand.
Everyone is talking about Chennai Express. How did that movie happen?
Chennai Express was an accident. Shah Rukh (Khan) watched Golmaal and told me he really liked it. We happened to be shooting at the same studio at the time and we met. I was planning to remake Angoor. So I narrated the basic idea to him. I said I would write the script, get back to him and let him take a call.
But after writing the film, I thought we needed a larger canvas for someone like Shah Rukh and myself to work on together. The script of Chennai Express was already with us, so we started working on that film, keeping Shah Rukh in mind.
When I approached Shah Rukh again, I thought he would kick me out and consider me a mad man. But I had gathered the courage to tell him that I planned to make this film, not Angoor. He said he wanted me to work on a film that would make me happy and if I thought that it should be Chennai Express, then so be it. I narrated the script to him and he loved it and he produced it happily.
I have a team of jokers including myself and we put up a three-hour circus in front of actors and technicians! I am not against an actor reading a script but when he reads a script, it’s like a novel and he becomes the director, he visualises the film. But when a script has to be narrated, it has to be narrated with the director’s vision.
If an actor has visualised something, the director can correct him, saying ‘no I have something else in mind’. And the whole scenario and film can change. The whole approach of a film can change. I think an actor can read a script but it is very important for a director and his writers to narrate a script to an actor.
How do you do it?
It’s like a full-fleged play. When I am narrating a film, all my writers and assistants perform with dialogue. Even with music tracks. This gives you the full feel of the film, which I don’t think anyone does, because they are not crazy like we are!
Where did you get the idea?
My writer Farhad, who is a very good actor, can perform any character, even a female role. That’s how it all began. It started with Golmaal Returns. Farhad started this and then we all gradually started doing it. Today, all of us perform for the actors so that they know exactly what we want from the scene. Sometimes, the actors enjoy watching someone else doing the scene and forget that they have to perform it. It’s fun!
What was it like to work with Shah Rukh Khan?
It was great. I am sad the film is over. Shah Rukh is a great guy. When you complete a film, you usually feel, ‘Oh! At last the film is over!’ But not with this one. We will soon be working together again. Either Shah Rukh will produce the film or act in it. When he is on the sets, there is so much joy all around. He is a very good captain and motivates the entire team. He knows just how to draw the best out of everyone.
As a producer, was he very helpful?
He had faith in me and told me to make the film exactly as I pleased. He said, ‘Forget about the budget, just make the film.’ He is a great producer.
Was he punctual?
(Laughs) He was, always. He has even shot with me at four in the morning. We have travelled at five o’clock in the morning, which was a surprise. When an actor has worked in the industry for a long time, they develop a routine and you have to adjust to that routine. It was fun working with him.
Was Deepika Padukone cast because she is South Indian and she would therefore have the accent down pat?
We didn’t cast her because she is South Indian but she does look like a proper South Indian girl vis-à-vis today’s lot. She is the highlight of the film. People still ask if someone had dubbed for her and can’t believe her accent. That’s why, during the promotions of the film, she says a few lines from the film, so that people believe that no one had dubbed for her. Of course, we had a tutor for her and it took some time for her to get comfortable with the character. She managed to pull if off only because she is very talented.
(Laughs) I didn’t know yaar. Ek film banayi then people speculate whether it’s a Rohit Shetty film or a Shah Rukh Khan film. It’s a marriage of both. The film will satisfy fans of Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and myself. But we have all worked as a team and it’s our film.
How difficult was it to bring the two together – Rohit Shetty and Shah Rukh Khan?
It was very difficult. My films have been very massy and Shah Rukh is very classy and preferred by the multiplex audience. It was very difficult to write a script that would relate to both types of audience. After watching Singham, Maharashtrians did not feel offended. In the same vein, Chennai Express should not offend the sensibilities of Tamilians. We have chosen Tamilians for even the junior artistes and small backdrop roles. We took them with us wherever we went to shoot.
When you watch the film, you will understand why we cast them. When they try to speak Hindi, that accent comes naturally to them. That’s just the way they speak. We travelled to places where they still don’t understand Hindi, like in Rameshwaram, even our interpreter didn’t knew much Hindi, and neither English! Imagine how difficult it was to work there. We have maintained authenticity in the film. Apart from Shah Rukh Khan and Niketan Dheer, every single character is South Indian.
Now that the film is complete, how happy are you with the outcome?
This is one film where each one of us has given more than a hundred per cent. We went above and beyond. I surprised even myself by carrying it off. After Singham, this is the film that is closest to my heart. Singham did not release with a good report. Everyone assumed it would be an action and dialoguebaazi film but they loved it. The same thing will happen with Chennai Express. You approach it with certain expectations but it will take you to another level.
Where does Chennai Express figure in your 10-year career?
This is one of the best films I have ever made because I pushed my boundaries; I challenged myself, knowing that this would be the best work I have done to date.
Chennai Express is getting a big window for release. How important is that?
It’s the first time after Golmaal 3 that I am getting a holiday to release my film. The film will release on August 9, which is a bank holiday. I think more than the industry, if the audience walks out feeling they got two and a half hour of happiness, that’s all that matters. And when it airs on television, they will sit back and watch it like Singham or like Bol Bachchan and I will still get messages of appreciation. So, no National Awards or Oscars, just two and a half hours of happiness for everyone.
The thought of receiving a ‘Best Entertainer’ award must have crossed your mind.
It was, like, ek hi mil jaye toh kaafi hai. But ab 12-15 awards hai toh you get confused ki kaunsa milna chahiye. The charm of receiving an award is fading because there are so many of them. You don’t even remember who won which award! It doesn’t matter.
For me, it’s all one big circus; it has become a joke. You know, '100 crore, 100 crore’ bolke, the whole charm of 100 crore has vanished. Who knows, two years down the line, there will probably be 30 to 40 films doing business worth 100 crore each. We earned 100 crore with 800 or 900 prints. The same is now happening with 3,000 to 3,500 prints. So, technically, there is a difference. It will become easier and faster to hit that mark. This year, ten films have hit the 100-crore milestone. Next year, it will be 20 and so on.
How important are first-day collections for you?
Business-wise, I don’t know. My experiences have been totally different. Golmaal opened well but Singham didn’t open all that well. All my films haven’t opened well so it doesn’t matter. I didn’t have a superhit song in Golmaal, All The Best or in Singham and no item song in either of these films. It doesn’t matter to me at all.
What kind of response have you received for the music of Chennai Express?
People like the songs and even the music is the best. So I tell them that there was no romantic track in any of my films except Singham. So there was not much scope for music whether it was Golmaal, Golmaal 2, Golmaal 3 or even All The Best. They were situational comedies and they were two-day films. But with Chennai Express, I got a chance and I got together with Vishal and Shekhar. The music feels good and it will grow.
What kind of response has the trailer received?
The humungous response we received in just two to three days was fabulous. I am very happy with the response.
Apart from Khan, Shetty and Padukone, what else can one look forward to in Chennai Express?
The romance. It is strange for me to talk of romance but I think it will work. It’s been a while since we revisited that old school romance. The youth will like it as it’s meant for those who haven’t watched old-school romance on screen. The film has that kind of treatment. We are not trying to do something extraordinary or being over-smart. It’s very basic and I think people will like that.
Because the story calls for it. Shah Rukh plays a 40-year-old and we have used a montage to summarise the things that have happened in his life. It was important for Rahul to be 40. When you watch the trailer and don’t know how old Rahul is, you might have been, like, haan ye ek role kar raha hai. But when you know that Rahul is 40, it becomes a new thing. It’s not like he is an immortal character and I didn’t want it to be like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, where he is running with a bag. Age brings a newness to the film.
What kind of changes have you seen in people as success came your way?
As I mentioned earlier, I was lucky my films were doing well in the beginning itself. I have done so many films with Ajay (Devgn) but delivered a flop to Abhishek Bachchan in Zameen. I told him I owed him a hit and kept that promise with Bol Bachchan. There is no baggage any more. I am happy with the way things are.
But people are still gossiping.
That will not change.
What can we look forward to from Rohit Shetty in the next 10 years?
All I want to do is keep working and making films, to grow as much as I can. I will be 55 years old then but I want to keep on making films.
Will you ever make a film overseas?
Are there critics over there too? Jokes apart, I would love to but I don’t see that happening. Pehle India mein toh pair jama loon. Half the people here don’t like my kind of films forget about making a film overseas. It will be more than enough if the people from Churchgate enjoy my films! Hollywood toh door ki baat hai. (Laughs)