How did you come up the idea the for Kissa Kutte Ka? Why the new casting method?
You hear of India as a fast-rising country and yet there are still paradoxes. In a Madhya Pradesh village, there was a real-life case of a Rajput (upper caste ethnic group) man who owned a dog. The dog would wander all over the village. A Dalit (India’s scheduled caste) woman was seen feeding the dog some roti (bread). That created an uproar in the village. The dog’s owner actually sued the woman. The village council sided with the man and the woman was ordered to pay the dog’s owner Rs. 15,000 (about $330) as compensation for “polluting” the dog’s status. And then the dog was ostracized—the dog, in affect, became a Dalit! The dog was adopted by a (predominantly) Dalit political party, went on to became the symbol of the party, and was invited to party events. I used this absurdity as a springboard of sorts for Kissa Kutte Ka.
The traditional way to make a Hindi movie is to go through a producer, offer an idea and then wait for a year until an actor makes up his mind. I get calls just about every hour from someone wanting to get into movies. I kept thinking to myself—there has to be a more dignified way to do this. I had also previously done some online casting in London when I made Provoked: A True Story(2006). Since I wanted to focus on political satire, I wanted to avoid becoming distracted by using established stars, so I decided to use fresh faces.
Won’t the title Kissa Kutte Ka offend some people?
It’s not going to be easy. Some political elements may be upset. I am making a satire. Ultimately, I guess I don’t care.
Hindi movies appear to be taking a neo-realistic turn with recent entries like Peepli Live and Udaan, perhaps to a level not seen since the 1970s. Where does Kissa Kutte Ka fit in?
I think that is great. There was also Subhash Kapoor’s Phas Gaye Re Obama(2010), Dibakar Bannerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) which all aimed for something new. I hope to make something different as well.
You saw Sholay on a badly projected, shoddy print in LA in the 1970s. That experience left a lasting impression on you. Can you talk about that evolution?
After finishing graduate school (Ph.D. in Marketing from Michigan State), I took a teaching job in L.A. At that time, Hindi movies were shown in rented high school auditoriums with foldout chairs. The ticket price was $5 and most of the shows—when there were shows—were houseful! I saw a business opportunity. Remember that this was before the era of home video.
I rented the Miralta Theater in Culver City from a nice Jewish couple and opened the first cinema featuring only Hindi movies. I was teaching by day and showing movies at night. Finally, LA had an all-Hindi movie theater all the time. At the time, most movies available outside of India were 16mm prints. There was a struggle trying to get 35mm prints—there were only two distributors of Hindi movies in the United States at the time and you were pretty much at their mercy.
After getting 35mm prints, we got larger crowds. When we showed Julie (1975), there was a long line for tickets, stretching around the block. The Los Angeles Examiner picked up the story when a reporter came asking why all these Indian people were standing in a line (laughs). There was a write up in the paper. At $5 per ticket, we grossed $15,000 from just one film! I was very excited about this kind of revenue. The theater provided a social connection. On weekends, we served chai and samosa—which sold very well.
On a trip to India, I got a call from Dev Anand—out of the blue, it was a big surprise. He was looking for a venue for an overseas premiere for Des Pardes and wanted to it in L.A. I agreed, on the condition that he appear at the premiere, to which he agreed. There were huge crowds to see Dev Anand and, of course, Des Pardes went on to become a big hit. That got me in connection with some names in Mumbai. I later met Raj Kapoor (Satyam Shivam Sunderam), B. R. Chopra (Pati Patni Aur Woh) and Yash Chopra (Kabhie Kabhie) [through the screening of their movies.]
You have directed about three dozen movies. Which ones are you most proud of?
There are three or four that I consider special. There is Kamal (1985), which was nominated for an [Indian] National Award. I also liked Bawander (2000). It was my first Hindi movie after a long time. Up until then I had mostly made movies for HBO and Showtime —so a Hindi movie with a reality-inspired story was quite different. A few years later, I was in London and was contacted by Aishwarya Rai, who had been impressed with Bawander and expressed interest in a female-centered script. That eventually led to Provoked. Working with her, I must admit that I finally realized the power of star presence. The minute Aishwarya’s name became connected with the movie, so many things changed instantly. Then there is Shoot On Sight, which actually was pushed along by my own post-9/11 experience in London when, as a fully-bearded guy, I could not get any taxicabs to pull over for me. Finally, I also liked Night Eyes (1990), a thriller I made in LA with producers Andrew Stevens and Ashok Amritraj. We made it for about $1 million and it went on to gross about $40 million.
What is next for you?
I was at a hotel in London where Bhagam Bhag (2006) was being filmed. I met Akshay Kumar and Govinda.
Govinda asked if I would work on a film with him. I didn’t think anything would come of it. However, about eight months later, I was in London the same time as Govinda. He called me and showed me the script for Naughty@40, which is a comedy—a little different for me. It is releasing in April.