Is Ram-Leela’s red palette an indication that you are done with the blues and the blacks?
Jo daba ke rakha tha itne time se, it’s all come out in this one. I’ve been fearless while making this film. For Ram-Leela, I looked at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The colour palette is red because after the Catholic colours of Black and Guzaarish and the Muslim green of Saawariya, I wanted to move into a new zone. So I went back to my Gujarati roots. I went back to my Bhuleshwar childhood which was replete with achaar and theplas. It’s the first time I’ve named a heroine after my mother. Ram is like my father. This is a tribute to a love story that I wanted to see as a child — the one I hoped existed. I’ve given my all to Ram-Leela and couldn’t make it better if given another chance.
Is there a film that you feel would become better if you made it again?
'Khamoshi'. I feel that film was a dishonest moment in my career because somewhere, I compromised. I was forced to change the ending. I was told that the audience would stop watching the film midway, so I gave in. Since it was my first film, I didn’t know any better.
No other film? What about Saawariya?
Not even Saawariya. Yes, it failed, but I won’t change anything about it. It is the film that I wanted to make. I’m proud of it.
But how do you react to a failure? How do you get it out of your system?
The moment the first trailer of the film goes out, a part of me goes out with it and when the film releases, in a way, I get released from it. Within 10 days, I’m onto the next film. I’ve never taken a break of more than two-three days after a film. I want to quickly get onto the new story with a new team because that’s the way I get rejuvenated.
The tagline of Ram-Leela is ‘Goliyon ki raas leela’. We’ve seen you handle raas leela in your films, but the golis are surprising.
I can’t live in my comfort zone forever. It’s really funny because till date, action in my movies hasn’t gone beyond a slap. Whenever I used to call (action director) Shyam Kaushal, he would get very irritated and tell me, ‘Kya, thappad hi maarne ka hai na, iss ke liye mujhe kyun bulate ho (There’s only going to be a slap, why do you call me for it)?” But this time, he had his work cut out. Violence is now a part of our lives. Violence is intertwined in Ram and Leela’s love story.
You manage to draw out special performances from your heroines. What can we expect from Deepika Padukone?
Deepika is like my mom. She’s graceful, outspoken yet very teekhi. Deepika has a lovely swan-like neck but her head is firmly on her shoulders. I connect to an actor, then I give a part of myself to that actor. They also surrender to me. But it’s an unconscious process. You realise this only when you see it on screen. Ash is so special in Devdas. Rani is so special in Black. It just happens. As a filmmaker, I live for that moment when actors see themselves on the monitor and tell me that I never knew I could do this or look like this. The joy on their face when they say this, I live for that.
You’ve attempted a lot of romances on screen. Do you feel the pressure of doing another one? On how to make the first meeting as beautiful as in Khamoshi, how to make monuments out of moments like in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam?
Over the years, I’ve learnt that the best approach is to just follow the flow of the character. You can’t analyse a moment of love. My films are in strange spaces. The characters I write are anyway unpredictable, so their chemistries are also “off”. They can’t meet in a predictable way, like in a college campus. The impossibility of making it is what excites me. Taj Mahal, Lata Mangeshkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Mughal-e-Azam kaise ban sakte hain, that’s the endeavour. To make films, characters, music that stand the test of time. On paper, none of my films seem possible.
Now that you mention your characters, if you could invite any three to dinner with you, who would you choose?
Hum Dil...’s Sameer (played by Salman Khan), Black’s Michelle (Rani Mukerji), Guzaarish’s Ethan (Hrithik Roshan). All three are so whacked out that they’ll be great fun. Sameer is the most sunshine-y character I’ve ever written. It was not how I wrote it, it was how Salman played it. He improvises so much. His spontaneity is what makes him who he is. Michelle is very dear to me. She’s very gritty, very angry. She’s very teekhi and has not even an iota of self-sympathy. Ethan, because he’s just so magical. His eyes still twinkle in spite of living in a lifeless body.
The analysis of your cinema is not complete without an analysis of its economics. Do you feel you have to always keep justifying your budget?
How can I value my idea with budget? When you are creating something, you cannot be burdened by how much a film will make, or will it run for 100 days or not. An idea is pure. I’ve been blessed to make films completely my way. During Khamoshi, Salman told me if this film doesn’t work, nobody will even give you money to make a documentary on cows, yet he stood by me and let me make the film I wanted to make. Since then, budget has never been an issue. All my films have made money. Maybe Guzaarish was a little bit more expensive, but that’s okay.
But how comfortable are you working with corporates, being answerable to them, looking at balance sheets?
I just told you, I’m blessed. Nobody has ever doubted my ability or intention. If your conviction reaches the corporates, they don’t bother you so much.
Is filmmaking still about getting the curtain that you want and the candles to burn in the way you want them to just to get that perfect frame?
Beauty is not just about frames. Beauty is in the paintings, literature, architecture — all these come together to make a beautiful film. Guzaarish is a beautiful film. It has an uncomfortable thought, but it’s beautiful. Pakeezah evokes so many memories. It evokes a fragrance in you, the sound of a distant whistling train, of a beautiful Meena Kumari sleeping in a train compartment with only her feet visible. A good work lingers on. It’s like a Madan Mohan song. It’s a moment of magic and that’s what I aspire for.
So what do you give more value to — a beautiful film or a hit film?
Always a beautiful film. No question about it. A film has to have a resonance and bring a smile on your face when you think about it.
In your entire filmography, which has been the most agonising scene you’ve ever had to shoot?
It would probably be the scene in Khamoshi when Nana Patekar throws Manisha (Koirala) out of the house when he realises she’s pregnant — the gair zimmedar scene. It was tough to pull that off as a first timer. I remember thinking, extra mushkil likh liya hai, will it happen? It did.
Which film are you most happy with?
(Laughs) Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali; Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah; 36 Chowringhee Lane by Aparna Sen. The day I make one of these films, I’ll jump off the cliff in happiness.
Favourites out of your own?
I feel Black is my most precise work. But I can’t bear to watch my old work. I might pick up a song or a scene ki aaj ‘Nimbooda’ dekhne ka mann hai but I get suicidal while watching my own work. There are so many mistakes that I’m like zehar kahan hai (where’s the poison?).
Do you have a favourite filmmaker amongst your contemporaries?
Everyone’s doing good work and attempting new things. If I have to pick a favourite, it would be Anurag Basu. He’s a very good filmmaker. Tigmanshu Dhulia is an exceptional writer and Paan Singh Tomar is brilliant.
I always ask you this question and you never agree, but as a viewer of your films, I still think that your films give ‘depressive highs’. Will you agree this time?
No, I’m a fun-loving person. My work is not my depression. It’s not the personality that I want to show to the audience. My work has angst in it. If I don’t have anything to express, then why should I make a film? I can’t just eat laddoo, peda all the time. I need teekhi mirch also. I talk of difficult moments in my characters’ lives, but they overcome it. It’s not depression. People have this perception that I make mad, sad films but my films are about love. Even Saawariya, where the girl goes away, I made the boy like a puppy — the kind you want to take home. My characters may encounter difficult circumstances but they don’t leave their goodness behind.
Why did you pull out of your TV show Saraswatichandra?
I found television to be very different. The channel has its own say, TRPs come in the way. As it is, too much was happening with Ram-Leela, so it was becoming tough to keep up the everyday churning required of a TV show. Also, my vision is too large to be captured in a small box.
Finally, tell me how many cellphones did you break during Ram-Leela?
Not a single one. I just changed a set — from my previous phone to the iPhone 5. I’ve evolved with time. I’ve learnt how to handle anger now. People take great pleasure in calling me temperamental but they don’t realise that a filmmaker has to connect to so many people at the same time and answer so many questions so that everyone performs to their best at the same time. So, of course, I get worked up.