Q. Your two very prominent movies, Delhi 6 and Rang De Basanti, are set in Delhi, and portray the city in its true essence and beauty. Do you share a special bond with the city?
A. I love Delhi. I am a Delhi-ite. Look at my journey from old Delhi to Aurangzeb Marg, which is Lutyen’s Delhi; to Lajpat Nagar, which is refugee Delhi; to Saket; and then I even got a place in Gurgaon. So I kept my journey in sync with Delhi as it was growing. I dream about Delhi. I find it the best city in the world. The best place in the world is where your heart is, and my heart is here.
Q. How do you look back at your 2016 film Mirzya, which didn’t quite do well at the box office?
A. I don’t look back at Mirzya. It is with me all the time. One of your children might be very good at Maths, one might fail but that doesn’t make you feel that it is not a special child. So as for me, I have always given myself permission to fail. I have never chased success. I have always chased my passion in anything I have done. There are huge lessons in whatever movies I make. And there is more to learn when films don’t do well at the box office. Delhi 6, Aks didn’t perform well, but Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Rang De Basanti performed in a very different way. The reason Bhaag Milkha Bhaag worked is because Delhi 6 didn’t work at the box office. But Delhi 6 is a very special film, not just for me but also for many others. So if Mirzya didn’t go out to the masses, maybe it was a film which was not meant for the masses. I didn’t cut through.
You are heart-broken when a film doesn’t do well. There are words for all this, like “hits” and “flops”, but there is also something beyond that. It’s the question whether I will be able to live with the film for the rest of my life. Yes, I will. After 25 years, if I am alive, will I disown Mirzya? I will not. It will be something I will always cherish.
I still learn from my mistakes. You can tell a story better every time. But what I can’t do is tell a story in a clichéd way. There was a concept I was chasing in Mirzya. Once again, in this film, I had a strong female protagonist. We were doing a lot of new things and also attempting a musical in a way where the music was telling a story. So it is a new grammar we were exploring. It did not have a normal beginning, middle, and end. We were playing with two eras.
Still, there is nothing like mistakes. It is either that you do things or that you don’t. If you keep thinking, you will never do anything.
Q. So in that case, you mean to say that as a writer, director and producer, box-office numbers don’t bother you?
A. I will be lying through my teeth if I say numbers don’t matter. Numbers matter. And for me, they empower me to tell more stories the way I want to tell them. So it is very important for the movies I make to do well. And I cannot get complacent about them not doing well. The problem is in me if a film has not worked. It is nobody else’s problem. So when my movies make money, they empower me to make more movies in the way I want to make them. Having said that, I can only do what I am capable of doing.
Q. Could you talk about your upcoming film, Mere Pyaare Prime Minister? What inspired you to take up this project?
A. All my stories are inspired by something or the other in my life. So Rang De Basanti is from my college days. I am from the Air Force School and back then MiG-21’s were crashing. Delhi 6 happened because I am from old Delhi. Milkha, because I have been a sportsman. Mirzya is again a folklore from North India. I saw the play based on that in Delhi during my college days, and it has been in my mind since then. Then I migrated to Bombay (that time it was Bombay, now it is Mumbai). Back then, there used to be one slum called Dharavi. I look around now and I see more than a hundred Dharavis. Slums have only grown and they are still growing. In fact, when your plane is landing in Mumbai, it feels like you are landing on a slum and suddenly a runway appears. So it has always affected me in a deep way, sub-consciously. At the same time, around four years ago I got associated with an NGO called YUVA Unstoppable, in Ahmedabad, and we started building toilets in municipal schools, especially meant for the girl child, because girls leave school at puberty, at age 12-13, and then they don’t come back because the toilets are very dirty. They are unsafe and unhygienic also… All this is now part of the national consciousness. It is not that I am the first one to think about this. It is not an invention. Mere Pyaare Prime Minister is a story of an 8-year-old boy who wants to make a toilet for his single mother, who is 25 years old. Her name is Sargam [played by Anjali Patil], and the boy’s name is Kanu (Kanhaiya). It’s about their journey. About the struggle of a woman who lives in a slum as a single mother. So already, she has a lot of eyes on her. Safety is an issue and then safety is a question here whenever you go out to defecate. Now I don’t say it is a problem, it is a way of life. It is the jungle, the urban jungle. So within this setting I am trying to look for inspiration, a story of hope, happiness.
The way we have been seeing slums in cinema since many years, especially the Western gaze, I want to change that. I want to say that these are places where there is so much life… The problem is in our mindset, the way we look at things. The moment you change your glasses, you start looking at the same thing differently.
You can do without having a meal but you can’t do without going to the toilet. So imagine not having a toilet at home. That’s how you have to start imagining things. So that’s how I started imagining. I even roamed around and stayed in the slums for 6-7 days. At the same time, I got a story idea from a young writer. The story was set in Delhi but the idea was very nice: that a boy wants to make a toilet for his mother and he writes a letter to the Prime Minister. So I thought it was a good idea, and decided to elaborate that story and make it into a screenplay based in Bombay.
Q. How was your experience shooting this movie?
A. We finished shooting on 4 July in Delhi. So our last schedule was: we took a train from Bombay, sat in a second-class compartment, because the boy travels by train, and shot with him for 32-hours and finished the film.
Q. The film has a child protagonist. Is working with child artistes more challenging as a director?
A. I have always enjoyed working with children because they always end up teaching you. They are the best actors in the world because they are not acting, they actually believe in what they are doing. So it becomes very natural. Also, they are very temperamental. Handling four kids on the sets with a single woman, Anjali Patil (she is also like quite mad and very talented), was a learning process. You have to be very honest with them because children immediately pick up on insincerity. They are not like grown-ups who keep manipulating each other. Though kids manipulate you in a big way, they do so with a very clean heart. I think I had the time of my life doing this movie. And it almost feels like I have reinvented myself. I can say that this is my interval. Whatever I will be doing next, I would be seeing it with a new perspective.
Q. Clashes have become common with big releases in Bollywood. Special seasonal slots, like the Friday closest to Diwali or Eid, are reserved only for films featuring certain big stars. How do you feel about it since two of your highly-anticipated movies (Mere Pyaare Prime Minister and Fanney Khan) will soon hit the big screen?
A. We need more screens. Maal zada hai dukane kum [there are a lot of goods, but few stores to sell them]. Imagine, you are making 400 movies in a year and you have just 52 weeks! Now you have to release 400 movies in 52 weeks. So there are some spans, like the summer holidays, Christmas, Eid, Diwali, that are sought-after, and if you are a bigger star, you reserve that slot. But I really don’t care for all that. For me, I don’t make movies so that they can come out on a specific date. First, you have to make the movie and then find the right date. But you need more theatres basically.
“For me, it is not about the star but the actor. It is about the right actor for the film. If that right actor turns out to be a star, then so much the better. Because then, my voice can reach out to so many more people. Like in the case of Rang De Basanti. It worked beautifully because it was a beautiful story, you had something very strong to say, and then you had a huge star, Aamir Khan, believing in that voice and amplifying it much more.”
Q. How important is star power to you when it comes to making films?
A. I am an insider. So, for me, it is not about the star but the actor. It is about the right actor for the film. If that right actor turns out to be a star, then so much the better. Because then, my voice can reach out to so many more people. Like in the case of Rang De Basanti. It worked beautifully because it was a beautiful story, you had something very strong to say, and then you had a huge star, Aamir Khan, believing in that voice and amplifying it much more. But you cannot make a movie only on the basis of having a star and his dates. I don’t subscribe to that part of it, and at times stars can work against your story. If in Mere Pyaare Prime Minister I had signed a star and shown him in a slum, it would have fallen flat. It would not have looked correct; and that’s when people stop believing your story.
Q. What’s your take on the censor board’s infamous chopping spree? Do you feel that there should be a body that should decide what movies we can or cannot watch?
A. Absolutely not. I think there should be no scissors. Scissors need to be abolished. I have just spent six months doing a report for the government and the Shyam Benegal committee. We were four people. There was Shyam Babu, myself, Kamal Hassan and Goutam Ghose. We were meeting twice a week. I became half a lawyer after that. And we have formulated an entire policy, and legally, with the help of High Court judges, and gave it to the then I & B Minster.
Q. Could you please talk about your other upcoming film, Fanney Khan, which you are producing and not directing?
A. It is a story I really liked six years ago. It is a remake of an Oscar-nominated film. I saw that and I really thought we can adapt it for India and since then, we were looking for the right director. I didn’t want to direct it because it didn’t come from inside me. So we found Atul Manjrekar. He did a lovely script and adaptation. And then we went out to cast for it. We signed Anil Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai. It is a father-daughter story. She [Aishwarya] is not playing the daughter. So it is about a 16-year-old girl and about her independence, it is about body-gazing, it is about wanting to be famous and how people want to see girls in a particular way when they are performers, and not for their talent. So that conflict is there. The music is by Irshad Kamil and Amit Tridevi, and I am the producer.
Q. Who are the filmmakers whose work you admire?
A. Specifically withing India, Chetan Anand and V. Shantaram, Vijay Goldie Anand. K. Balachander and Mani Ratnam from the south. Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak made a huge impression on me. Unfortunately, M.S. Sathyu just made one film, Garam Hawa, but it still resonates with me. K. Asif, and definitely Mehboob Khan. Mehboob Sahab’s movies were like crazy. They were very emotional and touching. And not just Mother India. Then, moving forward definitely Rishi Da (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) had a huge impact. The way Manmohan Desai would tell a story. He invented a certain masala. It is not easy to be an inventor. It is very easy to copy that and emulate that and say I make that kind of movies; but to be the inventor, it is the most beautiful feeling because you are giving birth to something you don’t know. I always feel his [Manmohan Desai’s] movies are classics and people fight with me when I say Amar Akbar Anthony is a classic. They say only serious films can be classics.
Q. Every filmmaker has their own kind of cinema. How would you define your kind of cinema?
A. If I define my cinema, it will be a problem. Let me explain. My cinema will evolve over a period of time with a collection of my work. Maybe, this would make more sense after I am dead and gone. Now, it is too early to say that. It’s only others who can tell me about how they see my cinema. At best, I see it as a flowing river. It is flowing with time. I define the time and try and be with the time, and try and tell stories that are important to be told in today’s time. May be they are relevant. May be Mere Pyaare Prime Minister will not be relevant 50 years from today because everyone will have toilets. So I am just passing through time and I keep it easy. My cinema is not that hectic for me. Style-wise, I have never analysed my work. I don’t even see the films I have made later on. It is made and you move on to dreaming another story.