‘In my films, I explore the darkness within’

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Clinging to cinema as art, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is a romantic. Here he talks about childhood, his failed activism and how Ardh Satya ‘grabbed him by the balls’

Photo: Appurva Shah

ON GROWING UP WITH MOVIES
Like any other Indian, the filmi ‘keeda’ was always there in me. My father too loved movies. When he was young, he ran away from his house to become an actor. He did come to Bombay, but couldn’t make it. So he went back to Delhi and joined the hotel industry, which I suppose was the next best option (laughs).

Ready, set, go! A still from Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

We were a lower middle-class family. Despite the fact that everyone else in our circle had gone to government schools, my parents were clear about sending me to a convent school. This was perhaps because my father had joined The Claridges after coming back to Delhi, where he would often interact with people from various parts of the world. He wanted us to be equipped to handle that part of the world too, through our education. I remember once there was a New Year gala at the hotel, where my father won a Philips record player at a lucky draw. Excited at the prospect of acquiring a player, I went to Chor Bazaar and found a record of Mughal-e-Azam in four parts for less than Rs 10. I went back and told my father. It was his favourite film. We bought the record, along with some more of KL Saigal. For one year, I heard the Mughal-e-Azam record every night. I think that’s when my imagination lit up. I hadn’t seen the film yet, but all of us had learnt all the dialogues. Between my father, sister and I, we spoke inMughal-e-Azam dialogues.

ON STIFLED ACTIVISM
Delhi University of 1980 was volatile. We were a totally confused generation. We didn’t understand what a pair of jeans was; it was something rich people wore. We were also young, self-confessed activists wanting to change the world. There were debates and talks. A place called JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) would enter our lives and screw our minds further. We loved Indira Gandhi. We hated Indira Gandhi. This lady was mind-blowing, but she had no sense of nation-building. I belonged to a generation that talked a lot, but did nothing. We wanted to change the world, but instead went and found jobs. We had to contribute to our family incomes, but that’s an excuse people like me gave ourselves.

ON CINEMATIC DISAPPOINTMENTS
My brush with cinema began when I went back to Delhi during the anti Mandal agitation. I was writing a story called Aawaaz inspired by the Emergency and the banning of writers during that time. It was about two young garage boys, one of whom is a great singer while the other sustains himself by taking Hindi exams for other people. The singer’s father was a poet who was banned and later disappeared. I was through with my casting and even recorded a few songs, but the producers pulled back, saying, “Yeh kaisi kahani hai.” Sahir Ludhianvi has this sher, “Bahut dino se mashkala hai siyasat ka, jab jawaan ho bacche toh qatl ho jaaye”. We were killing our own kids, while some Raja saheb was painting, maybe using a lot of red colour. It was right out of the movies. That film never saw the light of day.

We are a scared nation. We cannot deal with issues headon. We like to skirt around the edges, hide behind saris. We don’t have a voice. Maybe the British put something in our water that made us lose our balls. We don’t have a voice. We’re swayed by anything. It’s all intellectual masturbation. I’m not angry at this — when I speak to people, industrialists for example, they say, “You seem very angry.” But it’s not true. I feel very positively about it. I have dreamt that one day I will wake up at my home in Pali Hill and there will be a mob outside, a mob that is angry at the way wealth has been distributed, a mob that is angry with the governance. It doesn’t terrify me — it worries me for my children. But I feel like at least I know this much, my eyes are open and I can do something about it. AfterAawaz was shelved, Samjhauta Express was to be my first film, and Abhishek (Bachchan) wanted it to be his first too. My hero was a Pakistani terrorist, who realises that one could not paint Hindus or Muslims in black or white. Abhishek even kept a diary for one year as the character of the terrorist Hassan Sarhadi whose father’s name was Liaqat. He still has my number saved as Liaqat and I have his as Hassan. When Samjhauta Express did not get made, I collected those four years of research, made a pile, took out petrol from my car and set the pile on fire. Only ashes of that story remain.

Things weren’t easy either when I was shooting Aks, which would be my first commercial film. I had done a 10-25 page document called ‘There’s a Stranger in My Mirror’. I’ve always believed that the person you see in the mirror is somebody else. He is doing some crazy things that you don’t want to, and is not doing the things you really want to. I was discussing Samjhauta with Abhishek, when Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan) popped in to the room to say goodbye. He was leaving for Delhi. I handed him the script for Aks, saying, “Here’s something for your inflight entertainment.” He landed in Delhi, called me, and said in a hushed tone, “What were you drinking when you wrote this?” I replied, “I think it was Old Monk, why?” He said, “This is crazy. Let’s do it.”

AB Corp, which was to finance the film, suddenly fell apart. I would shoot an ad, make some money and shoot a portion of the film. I convinced an agency to shoot an ad in Budapest so that I could take my film there. I cheated and did all these nefarious things to make this movie happen. Finally, the money dried up and the sharks came in. We had borrowed heavily and by the time it was finished, there was no money to make. In terms of grammar, I made the film with instinct. It will always be a special film because it gave birth to me as a filmmaker. With both Aks and Delhi-6, I began exploring the idea of a darkness that lies within.

‘You cannot make a good film with incomplete writing, even if you are the best filmmaker in the world’

ON THE MAKING OF RANG DE BASANTI
My initial draft of Rang De Basanti, ‘Young Guns of India’, was a story of revolutionaries and their lives, with no trace of the present. I had lost touch with the present generation and what they were saying. The kids I met were bored of Bhagat Singh. They had just seen a string of five films on him. They wanted to talk about pocket money and relationships and jobs, not about the country. It was then that I began to think of a way to alter this thinking.

I worked with Gulzar in my first film, and he means a lot to me. Prasoon is the voice of all my films. He is a close friend and a mentor. Him and Gulzar are extraordinary human beings. To me, music is poetry first and melody later. I narrated the script to AR Rahman. He loved it and started working on it as soon as I finished my narration.

I was living, sleeping, waking in self-doubt but something kept telling me that I couldn’t let the characters lip-sync. Producers freaked out. The music company went completely berserk. They tried to convince me to do promotional videos with lip-syncing. It was almost impossible to explain — but for me, the poetry of that film was also its voice.

With Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, I have got the courage to understand that it doesn’t need songs unless the story demands it, and even then it doesn’t need lip syncing. This courage lets me tell stories more universally. I can’t see a schoolteacher, a street walker, a gangster and a policeman sing and dance. However beautifully we have mastered this art where our characters break into songs, however mature our audience is to suspend their belief for those few minutes, it is only because humein aadat pad gayi hai, which justifies everything.

ON FINE-TUNING HIS ART
Cinema is never an agent of change. Gulzar saab always tells me, “Har cheez ka dayra hota hai.” Any work of art makes a dent. Cinema is art and commerce. Producers won’t like to hear this, but for me it’s 70 percent art. Commerce 30 percent, because it must pay for itself. Rang De Basanti was the highest grossing film of the decade, Delhi-6 was not a commercial success, but it made a net of Rs 44 crore at the box office. There are great films like Vicky Donor, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Dev D, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, which would not have been hits had their budgets been tripled.

My process of choosing a story is pretty organic. There are ideas floating in the universe. You catch hold of one of them and if they haunt you enough, you keep letting them grow. I co-wrote Aks, a lot of Rang De Basanti and Delhi-6. Between the writer and you there must be a valley where you find each other. It’s a romantic notion. In the more practical and straightforward way, your ideologies need to match. What you believe in and what he or she believes in must be one. When you’re writing and directing, you live in a state of strange schizophrenia, with all of these characters living inside you. You laugh at them and cry with them, feel their sorrows. If you don’t understand them well enough, they will be projected as shadows of themselves on screen. Even if you’re a bad filmmaker and the writing is complete, something will shine through and touch the audience. But you cannot make a good film with incomplete writing, even if you are the best filmmaker in the world.

Look at a film like Khosla Ka Ghosla. It has no stars, but has a great story and has made a packet for the producers. When people watch something that is new-wave, it’s not the maker that creates a new-wave but the audience that rides it. In Deewar, the script was already the hero. To me, Ardh Satya was the new wave. It caught us by the balls and shook us till we screamed. Filmmakers of 1950s and ’60s had a purpose. Every film had something definite to say. Tamas, when it came on television, turned me on my head, I couldn’t sleep. I still watch Bandit Queen every time it’s on television because it is the mother of any new-wave. I’ve bawled when I’ve seen it. Nothing has ever moved me as much. As a filmmaker, I get my courage from Bandit Queen, Garam Hawa, Do Bigha Zameen. In the history of cinema, 20-35 years mean nothing. We shine, we burn out. But these are the films that were consumed and absorbed by the people, that reflected their churning.

As told to Nishita Jha

Nishita Jha is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka. 
nishita@tehelka.com

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