What is your assessment of Naach, now that the box office has had its say?
I don’t normally like to differentiate between what people call the classes and masses. But I think Naach appealed only to people of a certain sensibility. Others didn’t like it, didn’t catch the film … perhaps it went overhead for them.
When you look back at a film, you ask yourself, if you had a chance to make it again, what would you do?
I think one of the fundamental mistakes I made with Naach is the way I promoted it. I should have gone completely easy on the glamour and songs and focused just on the differences between the two characters, the way they perceive and question their values of life. Then it would have been true to what the film represents. This does not mean it would then have appealed to everyone. But I would at least have been honest and true to what I set out to do. I should have sold the point that it is a very philosophical, serious film. I should have prepared the audience for that. Let only five people come, those five who get the point.
Are five people enough for you as a filmmaker?
Yes. I want to spend quality time talking to intelligent people. Why should I waste my time and spread myself thin talking to 70 people whose intelligence is lower than mine? I’m not living my life for them; I want someone equal to, or better, than me. I will always find enough people to be able to make the films I want to. I didn’t become a filmmaker to make loads of money and be called the most successful director ever. Or for awards.
Money is not a motivating factor for you?
No, absolutely not. I need money to make films; I don’t make films to make money.
Naach was about the creative artiste vs. the pull of the marketplace. Abhi chooses to compromise, Rewa not to.
Are you at a stage today where you don’t have to make any compromises?
I have definitely reached a point where I don’t have to make any compromises. But I don’t think I’m entirely like Rewa. I have a bit of her soul within me (it keeps coming and going) but I’m more like Abhi. I know it isn’t practical to have an attitude like Rewa’s in a realistic world. I have two sides; I split myself in two and I made Abhi and Rewa.
But the fear was that if I stuck to their philosophies, the film would not be able to hold attention as a cinematic experience. So I bunged in a love story. That is where I think I lost my grip and focus. Another problem was that the songs by themselves are very good to hear and see, but could be a distraction in such an intense drama.
But that’s something you’ve always maintained. How come you made that mistake?
I think there was some confusion in my mind. I wanted to make a musical and I wanted to make a film that was my take on The Fountainhead philosophy. Somewhere, I got all jumbled up. Each film should focus on one point and everything should be true to that. In Naach I lost my focus and the screenplay became slack. It was a mistake. Completely my mistake.
Do you see Naach as a failure?
No. First, because the film was done at a very, very low cost. Second, I think I’ve matured a lot with Naach. It was very true and honest to what I wanted to say. It might not have been of interest to some people. But everything I did in Naach I felt from my heart. For the first time, I didn’t try to shock people or exhibit my talent. In terms of the performances, shot-taking style, background score, sound design and editing patterns, I think I’ve moved ahead. And to employ that kind of technique in a love-story format, I think, is unique. Naach will have a considerable effect on my thinking, on my future films.
So all is not lost …
Not at all. I’m personally very proud of the film. But it is still a mistake. Because it’s my job as a director to predict audience reactions. If I had known the audience was going to react in this manner and went ahead anyway, I wouldn’t call it a mistake. But I didn’t foresee the reactions; that’s why it’s a mistake.
Why do you keep taking potshots at mainstream filmmakers in your films and at Karan Johar in particular? What’s with the broadsides?
First of all, I disagree that I take potshots. When I make a film about the film industry, I will obviously take characters that are prototypes that represent that system. I never mean a particular person. Till today, I can’t understand why people thought I meant Karan Johar in Company. Karan Johar is an A-grade, highly successful filmmaker, whereas the man in Company is a B-grade one, making a film called … I forget the name now …
It’s all about loving your loving.
Yes. The point is, most B-grade filmmakers imitate the A-grade ones. They have titles like theirs, taglines like theirs, songs like theirs. Which is what I was trying to represent in Company. I have to use a reference like that to connect to reality, because 95 percent of the people imitate the successful 5 percent. Obviously, people connected to the most successful man in that genre, which happens to be Karan Johar.
And the Kal rahe na raho swipe in Naach?
See, if a person wants to make a realistic film, it’s natural that he will look at the negative aspects of other films; it’s human nature. In the industry, we’re gossiping, pulling people down, making fun of them all the time. That’s what I was trying to project. It wasn’t a potshot.
If you say so. Last question about Naach, the same old one. Why Antara? Why don’t you cast your net wider when it comes to your heroines? Don’t other actresses approach you for roles?
No actor approaches me. I approach them when I want them.
But we hear so many of them raving about you and your kind of films.
(dismissively) I think they rave about everybody in general, whoever suits them at that point of time. That’s okay.
Now if you ask me, why Antara, there are two points. One, there is no actor like Antara. I have not seen an actress with a capacity like Antara’s in terms of becoming a character. I couldn’t have made Naach without that capacity of hers.
In terms of working with her repeatedly, I’ve always done that. I’ve worked with Manoj Bajpai in five films, Nagarjuna in four or five films, Chakravarthy in many Telugu and Hindi films. I do that with technicians too. I’ve worked with Sandeep Chowta in seven-to-eight films. So I keep working with anybody who I believe has a certain versatility, with whom I have a working relationship, a certain comfort. It’s just that the media focuses only on the women.
Let’s move to your next film—Sarkar. Is it inspired by The Godfather, as we hear? Are you returning to your old theme of the underworld?
Let me put it this way: If The Godfather had not been made, I wouldn’t have made this film. I was extremely impressed by The Godfather and all my movies have shades of it, whatever their genre. Sarkar will also pay homage to a number of scenes, though you may not be able to tell which. Only an expert on The Godfather (I consider myself one) will be able to.
My wish is to be as close as possible to The Godfather. But my film is set in Mumbai, in our tradition, our culture. The underworld does feature in it, but it’s not the principal theme. We have these powerful men who can run parallel governments, do things the government can’t. They could be political leaders, kings, and dictators, extremely rich industrialist families, who, in their own conflicts, can influence the lives of people who believe in them or work against them. That is the spirit I took from The Godfather, but I created my own characters.
What is Amitabh Bachchan’s role like?
He’s the head of a family. He’s not a politician in the sense that he does not hold any post, but he has a fantastic influence on people and he does things from his heart, things he believes are right. So it’s almost like a feudal setup in a cosmopolitan city.
He’s an extra-constitutional power center. And (smiles) he’s not inspired by anybody. Abhishek and Kay Kay play his two sons.
In conflict with the father?
I can’t tell you any more now.
How do you see Amitabh Bachchan as a star or an actor? And how are you using him?
I believe anybody who has sustained such super-popularity for so long, like Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan, is a real star. And this is not to say they can’t act. I think Shah Rukh does the same thing in every film. Amitabh Bachchan too. But that is what I want to see. And what millions of people would like to see. So their clothes might change, the stories they are put in might change, but what they are really good at and what I would like to see is for them to be themselves. When Mr. Bachchan tries to do something different, I don’t like him.
You, of all people, Ramu, are saying that!
Yeah … I told Mr. Bachchan, I just want Amitabh Bachchan. I have no intention of changing you as an actor, of getting a different side of you. I’m just trying to capture the Amitabh Bachchan we all loved during his Angry-Young-Man days. I’m just trying to recreate the same high.
The Amitabh Bachchan we loved?
Yes, I don’t like most of his films now. Because I feel he’s being used just for his name. Not because of his star quality or the high he can generate in people’s minds. When filmmakers don’t exploit that, it bothers me.
Every second filmmaker who works with him says, nobody has done justice to his talent, nobody has tapped it fully.
I believe Amitabh Bachchan’s talent has been tapped to God-knows-what-degree and every director who’s used him for what he is has done justice to him. So I’m not attempting to create anything new. I’m just trying to recapture the high that I felt for the old Amitabh Bachchan in my frames and compositions.
Are you in awe of him, as many in the industry confess they are?
Not as a person. But when I look at him through the camera, I’m in awe of him.
What kind of personal rapport do you share with him? Do you interact at all off the sets?
If you mean, do I keep going to his house for Divali and Holi, I don’t. We just interact on the film, we talk about cinema. Nothing beyond that. In fact, (grins) he doesn’t even invite me to his Holi and Divali parties.
Do you interact with any of your stars off the sets?
No, for the simple reason that I don’t have the time. I’m busy working and working on my projects all the time and I don’t have the time for parties and functions and making social calls.
Forget parties. Who’re the friends you have a drink with in the evening?
I like to have a drink in the evening, but most often I’m sitting with the writers or actors I’m currently working with, discussing the next day’s scenes. I’m immersed in my work all the time. And I don’t have any friends.
No friends at all inside or outside the industry?
No, I don’t feel the need for friends or emotional support. My relationships are only with people I’m working with at a given time. When that film is over and I move on to the next film, I don’t have a relationship with them if they’re not in that film. But I will again if I call them for another film.
The point is, I have no personal life. I choose not to have a personal life.
No Ramu the person? Just Ramu the filmmaker?
No Ramu the person, that’s it. I think I’ve always been a filmmaker. After all, cinema is just a medium at the end of the day. I’m collecting data about people and incidents and events and stories and characters, adding my observations and just amalgamating all of it into a whole so that it creates an emotional impact in a specified direction.
That has to be the most rational, non-emotional definition of filmmaking ever!
Actually, I live in a state of film. Even when I’m speaking about something, I sometimes mentally cut to my own reactions in close-up, visualizing how I would look to the other person.
Let me tell you a story. I have an L-shaped bedroom and one night, during the period I was shooting Bhoot, when I was lying on my bed, I was convinced Manjit (the ghost in Bhoot) was just behind the wall. I laughed to myself and turned the other side, away from that wall. Then I felt someone breathing next to me but I resisted turning around. I was still laughing at myself when the breathing became heavier and heavier. And I thought, does this mean Manjit’s breathing is rising or that she has come closer to me? And then for a second, I wondered, is this working in silence or should there be some background music? And I thought, in reality, if a ghost came along with a background score (as it does in a film), it would be very funny. Even when I was so scared, my mind as a filmmaker was thinking about the background score.
So what happened finally?
I turned around and there was nothing (laughs).
You know, something similar happened when the Gujarat earthquake occurred. I live on the eighth floor and woke up to find the entire building swaying. I saw a clock and some other things had fallen off the wall and I realized it was an earthquake. I contemplated: should I run out or stay inside? The building was swaying and I thought it would collapse any minute. But I was curious to see what kind of sound it would make when it collapsed. So I stayed because I was curious about the sound effect. Sounds mad even to me (chuckles).
Ramu, do you realize this is the most you’ve ever revealed voluntarily about your personal domain? This is a first of sorts!
Yes, I think so (smiles warily).
So let me make the most of the mood. The second half of the Abhishek-Antara story in Naach had strong undercurrents of sexual jealousy. Is that an emotion you’ve felt strongly, is it part of your mental make-up?
I don’t know where the sexual jealousy was. It was not in my mind. If it came across, it was not intended. On a personal level, I don’t feel jealousy at all. I think every person has the right to do what he or she wants to do, so I disagree with emotions like jealousy.
So which emotion do you feel strongly?
I study emotions, I understand them better than anyone else but I don’t feel them. I’m like a biologist who studies animals, their habitat, and behavioral patterns, but doesn’t think like them.
I’m very sensitive to catching emotions. If an actor is disappointed when I don’t give him a role, I can understand that and capture it in the best way possible. But I won’t say, “Arre, poor guy, yaar … what do I do now.” His disappointment will not affect me. Because I feel that’s what life is all about. All the time, people are in fear, in hatred, happiness, whatever. It’s just an emotional journey and there’s nothing unique about it. To take your emotions very seriously is, I think, very selfish.
You think it’s selfish to say, my emotions matter.
Yes. If you tell me, “I’m feeling sad,” fine, I recognize that. But don’t expect to draw any sympathy from me. Everyone feels sad, it’s all relative. For example, if you see a cheetah chasing a deer, you feel sorry for the deer. Then he catches the deer and kills it and you feel even sorrier for the deer. Then a lion arrives and chases the cheetah away. And you feel sorry for the cheetah. That’s how ironical life is.
So what makes you sad? What moves you? Touches you? Makes you angry?
Nothing. Nothing really. Let’s say I live in zoom-out mode. I just don’t zoom into anything. The moment you zoom out, nothing seems so important any more. That’s my problem or whatever you want to call it.
What else do I do but zoom out at this point?