Q. Your new film Poorna is directed as well as produced by you. Could you tell us why you chose to take up this project?
A. The story is about a 13-year-old mountaineer, Poorna Malavath, who became the youngest girl to have reached the summit of Everest in 2014. I heard the story as it was pitched to me to play the character of R.S. Praveen Kumar, her mentor. I could not believe that I had not heard this story before. It is such an extraordinary story. And then I got to know more about her — that she is a tribal girl. She is an adivasi, poor and uneducated. And she is a girl. And these are the four crosses against you in today’s India. And she broke through all these things and came up on top. It’s just amazing and also visually, what a film it would be from a hut in Pakala village to be at the top, on Everest. What really attracted me was the story of this girl and how she made it through. It is a story of India at its best, where a system works under the passionate, visionary officer like Praveen Kumar, and this girl has talent which needs to be explored. When you have such things aligned, India is glorious. But the tragedy is, these things happen very rarely. So, with this film, I wanted to say: why can’t we do it every day?
Q. But do you think Bollywood is not making enough films based on real-life stories?
A. It has just started. Last year was heavy on biopics – M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Budhia Singh: Born to Run. Then we had Mary Kom. So, when Bollywood started discovering biopics, they obviously went for famous people. Sporting biopics are always going to be more popular than political biopics because they are so inspirational. But then, they’ll go for lesser-known stories. This is the pattern — first finish the big stars. There is a documentary coming out on Sachin Tendulkar, and after that they will go for lesser-known stories. It’s very natural and I am very, very happy that the industry has discovered the genre of biopics. If the question is how good or bad they are, it depends on the filmmaker. How true or false they are, it depends on the integrity of the filmmaker. Some of them have been quite false, some of them have been quite bad, and some are quite good. So, it’s a mixed bag.
Q. You last worked as a director in 2001, on Everybody Says I’m Fine!. What took you so long to direct another film?
A. There were two reasons. First, the story was a great one. And secondly, the acting roles were drying up and I was not as busy as I used to be. So, like everybody says, I am fine. I had a great run for about 12-13 years, which had Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Jhankaar Beats, Chameli, Pyaar Ke Side Effects, Shaurya, Midnight’s Children, Vishwaroopam and all of that. And then just two years ago, I found it was drying up. So, I thought now is the time to start looking. And things fell on my lap.
“I took up this film because, first, the story was a great one. And secondly, the acting roles were drying up and I was not as busy as I used to be. I had a great run for about 12-13 years, which had Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Jhankaar Beats, Chameli, Pyaar Ke Side Effects, Shaurya, Midnight’s Children, Vishwaroopam and all of that. And then just two years ago, I found it was drying up. So, I thought now is the time to start looking.”
Q. What is your expectation from your latest film?
A. It’s not a money expectation. We had 400-500 people see this film. Focus groups like little kids, middle-aged men, women, urban housewives, rural people, a couple of villagers from down south have marked us very high. A 45-year-old American man, a Philippine woman in her mid-30s, and all kinds of people who don’t understand English or Hindi, they all have cried after watching this film. They could understand the soul of the film and it is such an inspirational film. It’s told in such an emotional way. Two very different people like Amitav Ghosh and Vipul Shah have loved this film, so you could make out how moving it is. It goes straight to the heart of India.
Q. So do you think there is now an urgent need for Bollywood to be pushing more content-driven films?
A. See, content-driven films will push themselves, the films which don’t have content need to be pushed out.
Q. You started your film career back in 1993 and have given remarkable performances ever since. But do you think on some level the Indian film industry has not given you your due, in terms of popularity and fame?
A. The fact that I have lasted for 23 years proves that they have been very generous to me. I feel very lucky and blessed. I can look at The Japanese Wife and then I can look at Thakshak, where I played a Rajput thug, a rich guy who kills nine people. The Japanese Wife was about a small, sweet school teacher from the Sundarbans. Then I look at Vishwaroopam where I am playing an Al-Qaeda mad, cancer-ridden terrorist and then I can look at Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, the epitome of secularism. I played the character of a gay person in I Am.And then, I can look at Dil Dhadakne Do. So, I have been very lucky. I can look at Sudhir Mishra, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Aparna Sen, Santosh Sivan, Kamal Haasan, Deepa Mehta — and know that I have been very, very lucky.
Q. Do you feel there are any major differences between being a star and being an actor in this industry?
A. It’s a clear difference and it’s everywhere in this world. A star is somebody whom you go to watch because he/she is a charismatic person. You don’t care what role Tom Cruise plays. You just see him. And an actor is somebody whom you go to watch because of the role he or she plays. It is also incredibly difficult to be a star and you have to be incredibly lucky.
Q. Could you talk about how you prepare for the different roles you’re offered? How do you explore and approach new on-screen characters?
A. See, you can be a dutiful daughter and disobedient girlfriend; you can be a free-spirited friend but you can be an obedient employee in office. So, you also play different roles. We all have different sides. What we have to do is to explore these. The Japanese Wife’s school teacher was nothing like me. So, I had to go to the Sunderbans and understand the work, understand the world, understand the way of school masters. I had to get into the psyche of this person. That’s what I do, that’s my job. And it’s great fun. You have to transform yourself and, for a while, only think about those preoccupations to become that person. If you start thinking about the political situation in Ghana, then how will you play the character of a villager in Kerala.
Q. Are there enough good roles being offered to supporting actors in Bollywood?
A. Of course. Look at the amount of films which have only supporting actors, like Dil Dhadakne Do had only supporting actors. And they were all good. Everyone’s work was good. If you see Chak De! India, they only had supporting actors. Everybody was good. It depends from subject to subject. There is lots of work being done in this area. You see so many new faces in films now. Watch Konkana Sen’s A Death in the Gunj — it’s awesome.
Q. What’s your opinion of regional cinema in India, which has been giving the mainstream industry a good run for its money, and winning countless awards internationally?
A. Regional cinema has always been strong. Bengali films and Malayalam cinema have always been very strong. Jahnu Barua in Assam is doing good. And the trend continues. It stays safe in the hands of people like Aparna Sen, Jahnu Barua and young filmmakers in Calcutta like Srijit Mukherji, Tony. So, regional films will always stay alive.