Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is among those contemporary film-makers who love to buck the prevailing trends in Bollywood. From his debut-making directorial venture, Aks (2001) to his latest production, Fanney Khan, he has made movies with a difference in the past 17 years, including the iconic Rang De Basanti. In an interview with Outlook, Mehra says that he wants his films to reach the maximum audience regardless of their immediate fate at the box office. Excerpts:
I believe you had seen the Oscar-nominated Belgian movie, Everybody’s Famous (2000), about 10 years ago and wanted ever since to make a movie based on it. What took you so long to come up with Fanney Khan? Do you think Indian audiences are more receptive to such movies now than ever before?
It is not as though the audience has changed. We pursued the rights of the film for the first three-and-a-half years since I saw it. Its makers who owned the rights were very particular and did not want their baby to get distorted in another language. It was only after we showed them some of our movies that they were convinced to give us the rights. Then the process to select the right director and the writer, who could adapt it appropriately for the Indian audiences, took the next three-and-a-half years. Finally, Atul Manjrekar’s take on it convinced us that he is the right person to be the captain of the ship. He kept the soul of the original movie alive. Adapting a movie is not just translating its English subtitles into Hindi. It has to be relevant to the idiom that works for our audiences. Atul took two years to finish the script and then the process of getting resources, casting stars, shooting, editing got underway.
Why do think the theme of an 18-year-old film is still relevant for the Indian audiences?
The subject works at various levels. On the face of it, it is about a common man -- a failed singer who did not make it big in his life despite having some talent. He used to sing at street bands, etc. He idolises Mohammed Rafi and other great singers. When his daughter is born, he names her Lata after Lata Mangeshkar. He wants to fulfil his dreams through his child. All parents have their dreams but it is not necessary that they are all fulfilled. They want their dreams to be fulfilled through their children but the beauty is that the children have their own dreams and that becomes the conflict in the story.
The other thing that the film addresses, and which attracted me, is the whole idea of body-shaming, especially involving the female gender. I read a figure somewhere that 92 per cent of girls around the world have been subject to body-shaming. I thought this story needs to be told, especially in India and South Asia, where the concept of gender equality and balance is still superficial for many reasons. Fanney Khan does address this point in a very entertaining manner -- not simplistically but in a simple way.
You are among the top directors today. Why did not you direct the film yourself?
More than once the idea did cross my mind, but I was busy with my own calendar, making Bhaag Mikha Bhaag (2013) andMirzya (2016). Last year, I was also busy shooting my next, Mere Pyaare Prime Minister, a film I wanted to make for a very long time. Besides, our company ROM Movies was growing. It has come a long way since we made our first film. And when you are growing you need to give space and expression to the talents from outside. It is good for the company.
In retrospect, what Fanney Khan’s director (Atul Manjrekar), has done feels so correct. Everybody has his own way of interpreting a story and he has done a tremendous job. It does not look like the work of a debutant director. Atul and we go back 22 years when he began his career with us in an ad agency. From Aks toRang De Basanti, he grew with us till he went out to become one of the top five ad film directors in the country. It was like a homecoming for him when we offered Fanney Khan to him. There was so much understanding between us.
Why did you choose Anil Kapoor for the eponymous role in Fanney Khan?
Since it is a father-daughter story, we were looking for a 55-60 years old actor to play his true age. Anil fitted the bill very well. His character is a very passionate, positive, extrovert and exuberant. As a person and an actor, Anil has these qualities. Divya Dutta, who is playing his wife, also portrays an important character – an Indian mother who has to balance many balls in her life like a juggler. And then, there is Aishwarya Rai, the most beautiful diva who becomes the voice of the story. She has everything except for friends and peace of mind. When she heard the story, she immediately grasped what we are trying to say and agreed to do it in ten minutes. There is also a beautiful part done by Rajkummar Rao, who brings bring innocence of a common man who shows how one can stay happy with whatever he has. He has done a fabulous work with his natural flair for acting. But the surprise package is Pihu Sand who plays an overweight girl. The whole story revolves around her.
What was the reason for keeping Aishwarya low profile in the run-up to the film’s promotion? She is such a huge star...
Fanney Khan is the story of a common man. We did not want that to get distorted, so we kept her role limited during publicity. Though she becomes the voice of the film, we thought the audience should not enter the theatres because of any different reason. They should not feel cheated. I have done the mistakes in life and I did want to repeat them. The audiences are very trusting people, who save money to watch your film. You have to keep that trust.
One song, Achchhe din kicked up a row prior to the release of the film with some people attributing a political motive behind it.
The entire story revolves around music and Amit Trivedi (composer) and Irshad Kamil (lyricist) are the real heroes of this film if you ask me. Atul has extracted amazing music from them. For a story like this to work, music plays a very important role. The lyrics of Achchhe din talk about the struggle of common man.
But it was alleged that another version of the song was interpolated at the eleventh hours in the wake of the controversy...
Our job is to compose a good song and it is the job of the media to create controversies. The second version of the song is just an extension because the dreams that the protagonist has seen in the beginning are finally fulfilled with the acceptance of his daughter by the public despite her looks. The film was ready for the past 15-20 days and that song was released only a week before its release. How could one shoot and interpolate anything new in such a short time?
You are making another offbeat movie, Mere Pyaare Prime Minister. Tell us about it.
I came to Bombay (now Mumbai), from Delhi around 30 years ago. Dharavi used to be its only slum at that time. Now, the city has about 120 slums, which have no sanitation. The hands of government agencies are also tied because they are all on unauthorised land. I think the problem of defecation nowadays is more relevant in urban than rural India. In villages, going to the fields is a lifestyle of sorts but in the urban space, it is a compulsion and a tragedy, especially for women. According to a report, 50 per cent of women who get raped in India are the ones who go out to defecate in the open.
About five-six years ago, once I was returning from a shoot in the wee hours when we spotted half-a-dozen odd women along the highway. They were there to relieve themselves under the cover of darkness. A movie on their predicament was born in my mind then and there. Later, when I became part of an NGO called Yuva Unstoppable in Ahmedabad, I advised them to build toilets at the municipal girls’ schools. We have planned to cover 10,000 schools by 2020 under this programme. I am spearheading that campaign in my other life, where I am not a film-maker. I spend five-seven days on it every month. I wanted to tell the story of an eight-year-old boy who wants to get a toilet built for his 25-year-old single mother to ensure some dignity to her life.
Has Prime minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, Swacch Bharat Abhiyan influenced your film in any way?
Our story is essentially inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. There is a slum called Gandhinagar in my film. We went to Sabarmati Ashram, took a picture of Gandhiji’s statue there and replicated it for our shoot. I think the person who has to be credited with the idea of cleanliness is Gandhiji. The film begins with a line dedicated to him and also ends saying it is inspired by him. We will release this film on the Gandhi Jayanti this year. But then, if you ask me, Swachh Bharat campaign is a great beginning which has miles to go. At least there is awareness now.
Looking back, when you debuted with Aks, it seemed so different a movie in an era dominated by romantic musicals. Why did you choose to buck the trend?
I am actually a writer and a director at heart. What happens around me moves me emotionally a lot, both good and bad things. I express my feelings through my work and there is no better platform than the cinema to do that. Life has brought me here. Had I been only a writer, I would have written fiction and if I were a businessman I would have contributed my bit to society through CSR (corporate social responsibility). But movie-making has empowered me to tell the stories I feel strongly about. I can reach out to people. Whether agents of change or not, movies can and do influence people in a good or bad way. We use and misuse them. It must have been there in my subconscious. Your thoughts would get reflected in your work.
One thing I have noticed that you have never repeated your lead actors, including those who have delivered hits with you? A majority of film-makers believe in being part of a particular camp, have their own comfort zones.
I don’t think the tail can wag the dog. You can rope in actor only after a character evolves. It has not been done consciously. It all depends on the scripts. I have worked with Waheeda Rahman, Gulzar, Om Puri, A. R. Rahman, Shankar Ehsan Loy and Prasoon more than once. I cannot talk about other people but a comfort level is certainly created when you work within a particular set-up. But I go by the script first. I approach an actor with a story and if he or she likes it, we go ahead to do a film together.
At a commercial level, you have had a roller-coaster ride. How do you handle the success and the failure which have come intermittently in your career?
They handle me, I don’t handle them. I think Aamir Khan puts it very well for me. Every time he sees a film, he tells me, “Mehra, tu hamesha tedhi ghodi par baitha hai, jo kabhi kaabu mein aayegi, kabhi tere ko girayegi (Mehra, you are always astride a quirky horse, which will remain under your control at times but can throw also you off once in a while.)”
He is a true friend and understands me well. That’s is the best description for me. People still refer to Rang De Basanti as a milestone movie but Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has done business three times more than that film. It is not as if Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is a lesser movie but Rang De Basanti had a bigger impact. Movies grow with times. Take Delhi-6 (2009), for instance. It is among the top five Indian movies shown on Channel 4 and its album is also among the top 10 ever sold in the history of Indian cinema. Our cinema has had many a great musical, from Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and Mughal-e-Azam(1960) to Guide (1965) and Pakeezah (1972). My film may not have clicked at the box office but what more do you want if it finally made it to such a club. Nothing else. On a philosophically level, I give myself for the mission to fail. Everybody wants the so-called immediate success, but I always look for the long-term success. Cinema is something that should never die. Shivaji Sawant wrote a Marathi novel, Mrityunjay in 1967, which did not create any buzz when it was published for the first time. But it has since become a classic and a best-seller. Ayn Rand’s books had no takers when they were released. Now, everybody reads them. I, for one, can either do business or make movies; I have chosen the second option.
Are you contemplating any other biopic after Bhaag Milkha Bhaag?
To be honest, I did not approach Bhaag Milkha Bhaag as a biopic. Since it had to be slotted under a genre, it was labelled as a biopic. But it was a story about the pain of Partition. In Milkha Singh, I found the story of a 12-year-old -- how he suffered Partition and coped with it with a positive frame of mind to emerge a world champion. That was the story I wanted to tell. That was also the first film that started the trend of the biopics. Besides, it was the first film where the hero and heroine were the brother (Farhan Akhtar) and the sister (Divya Dutta). Sonam Kapoor’s was merely a guest appearance. There are many relationships which you can depict in a film. In Fanney Khan, for example, the father and the daughter are the real hero and the heroine.
How do you look back at your last project, Mirzya, which failed at the box office last? How do you judge it?
Let the history judge it. The other day somebody was telling me that it was his favourite movie. I told him that the wound is still fresh and he need not put salt into it.