After insisting on working on one film at a time and taking time to get going with the next, how come you’re onto Black and Bajirao Mastani back-to-back?
I’m not capable of shooting two films simultaneously and I’ll never attempt it. I’ve planned two films consecutively because the vacuum between two films was proving too traumatic for me. It’s the most difficult period of my life. I feel extremely lonely when the film is over and my assistants all depart. I go to pieces.
No holidays for me. My work is my recreation. I enjoy every moment of creating the film—right from music sittings to the choreographer working out the steps. I even dance along. That’s why I’ve decided to move from one project to the next. No gaps from now on. Black will release in August and I start shooting for Bajirao Mastani the same month.
Black is radically different from your earlier sensitive, romantic films. What made you choose such a subject?
It was important for me to move away from the style of Devdas. That film left such an impact. It toured the world, saw box-office success, and won all the Indian awards. So what was left to gain? A saturation point was reached. That’s when I knew I had to do something very different.
Besides, I didn’t want people saying that I was repeating myself. That would also stall my cinematic growth and I’d get stale. I enjoy working with different characters; I find that challenging. It’s interesting to visit new areas and then return to what people have started to expect from you. Bajirao is again a romance but Black …
What is Black all about? Some say it’s a thriller, others that it’s about black magic, and there’s also a buzz that it’s a remake of Sanjeev Kumar-Jaya Bachchan’s Koshish.
(Laughs loudly) Keep guessing. I won’t reveal anything. It’s a film to be seen and not spoken about. The film deals with one simple area of life: the darkest phase every human being goes through. It’s a tribute to man’s instinct for survival. A very uplifting film which is devoid of negative energy. I’m not making this film to prove any point. I’m making it solely for my growth as a filmmaker.
For example, every human being dreams of building a Taj Mahal. This is my humble tribute to those who dare to dream. The script is after my heart, more than those of any of my first three films. I’ve never done so much homework for my three earlier films. And I haven’t paid any attention to the commercial aspects of the film. I’m making it with total conviction and straight from the heart. So I’m confident it’ll strike a chord in the audience.
Black is a very hard-hitting and committed film. The content is dramatic and solid. If the film works, it will open up a new genre of filmmaking.
Any inspiration behind this film?
It’s a real-life story based on a real character, a legend in her own right. I came to know of her, read up about her and her life. That inspired me. I realized that compared to them my gham was negligible. Despite all that they’ve been through, their zest for life is amazing. It’s a hardcore, performance-based film. Rani (Mukerji) has been living the role for the past six months.
What made you cast Amitabh Bachchan?
I choose artists to fit my characters. The only time I made a compromise was during Khamoshi. I wanted to cast Madhuri Dixit in the role played by Manisha Koirala. But I have no regrets because Manisha proved she was the right choice for the role. I always cast people I feel are perfect for the role and not because they happen to be big names and their presence will add a commercial value to my project.
For Black I needed someone who had experienced life and can generate power through his eyes. I wanted to capture all that the man has gone through. And I’ve always wanted to work with him since his range is fascinating. Whenever I watched his films I always wondered when I would work with him. So when I wrote the right script, he immediately came to mind. He’s very excited about the film and I’m extremely nervous. But both Rani and Amitji are a little wary. They have gone beyond what the audience normally expects from them. Their characters are that demanding.
Reports say that when you went to Nasik to hand over the script to Mr Bachchan, you were thrown off the sets of Khakee.
(Laughs) Nonsense. Why should I go on anyone else’s set? I met Amitji in his van, and handed over the script and a short brief about the role. That’s it. I should have been on the set to be thrown off. Right?
He called me up from Ladakh to tell me that he had liked the script and that it would be a first for him. He said the script had moved him. Every artist yearns to try out something new. After reading the script, he understood just why I wanted him in my film.
Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerji are an unusual combination.
I don’t think so. I look on them as Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri both physically and temperamentally. Rani has the same quality Jayaji had in her younger days. She’s very restrained, never over the top. I like her voice too; it has depth. Similarly, Jayaji, Meena Kumari, Rekhaji, and Shabana Azmi’s voices too were different from the sweet, crystal clear voices of our heroines. Their voices add to their performances.
Your banner seems to have become a training ground for star sons and daughters. Anupam Kher’s son Sikander assisted you during Devdas and now Rishi Kapoor’s son Ranbir and Anil Kapoor’s daughter Sonam are assisting you on Black.
Oh, I love working with stars’ kids because they come with the legacy of films. They grow up in households that live and breathe films. And if even after that one of them wants to work with me, they must like my kind of cinema. And please, there’s no star treatment for them. Ranbir and Sonam arrive in rickshas for the shooting. They’re all wonderful, cracked, and full of idiosyncrasies, but that’s the way I like it. Without that, the magic is not possible.
I love working with them since they already know films and catch nuances very fast. Another thing they do at jet speed is move out. Life has a way of turning full circle. During Parinda, which had Anil Kapoor, I assisted Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Now Sonam is assisting me.
When Ranbir and Sonam came to my house, I gave them the scripts and specifically told them that only if they liked what they read should they work on this project and that if they didn’t, there would be a next time. But they were both very positive about the film. I’m testing out different age groups. For me it’s a learning process because they dominate the market.
You’ve never gone out of your way to promote your films, yet they constantly make news.
When you work hard with conviction and dedication, your efforts are bound to reach the audience. It’s not that every film has to appeal to all. Some are bound to dislike the film and I’m all for constructive criticism. I’m not afraid of failure. Or trying to reach people through mediocrity, that’s pointless. Devdas was the talk of the town. I poured so much energy into the film that I was exhausted when it was completed. I had no stamina left to talk about the film. I went through so many arduous experiences but I couldn’t talk about them. I prefer to let the audience voice an opinion.
I’m not a hard-seller. I still feel that if Devdas hadn’t been touted as a Rs 50 crore-film, it would have done even better business. When you market a film well, a week’s business is assured. The rest depends on the product. Some directors are good at marketing; they can orchestrate the reviews to their advantage. I have never done that. Critics can write what they want. Good reviews don’t guarantee a hit nor bad reviews stop the audience from coming to the theater.
I didn’t even know that Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai had gone to the U.S. to promote the film. I’m that daft about marketing. Not many know that Aishwarya Rai did nothing to promote Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, she didn’t give one interview; whether this was intentional or she was bound by a contract to Taal, I don’t know. A good film doesn’t need promotion by its stars. It sells itself. So it’s wrong if stars feel they help publicize a film. At best, their interviews can help the film 10 percent.
But don’t you think that these are the requirements of show business?
My content is what showbiz is all about. When I make Black I have the audacity and guts to say that I’m doing something completely different. Is there any guarantee that lengthy interviews in the media will guarantee success?
Whenever a director has crossed his convictions, he has ended up falling flat on his face. No one can guarantee a hit. But yes, honest intentions always come through. When you’re making a formula film you’re being manipulative. You can either make good films or make money. All I want to say is, make a good product and don’t think of commercial gains. If your product is good, it will automatically generate money. When money is of prime importance, the product always suffers.
People tell me that since I’m on a high I should cash in to make money but I tell them it’s my time to make the kind of films that excite me. The audience has granted me the right to make films that they would like to see. And even if they don’t like what I make, they will give me another chance.
You’re termed an expensive director, yet Black has a budget of only Rs. 15 crores.
Judge a film by its content, not its budget. A poet sums up life in one single line. Recently, when I heard Amitji read his father’s lines and Shabana read Kaifi saab’s poems, I understood that short, simple words can also have an impact. It’s not always necessary to have a long narrative. Big budgets sometimes end up as publicity gimmicks. I don’t need gimmicks; Black will be completed within the given budget.
Finally, have you patched up with Aishwarya Rai?
I will, I will. The day I become the kind of good human being she wants me to be. That day I’ll call and tell her to come and meet me since I’ll be a good human being. I’ll say, “Aaiye, saath saath baith kar bhajan gayenge,” because she’s a saint. What else can one do with a saint?