IT’S ODD THAT 44-year-old Sriram Raghavan’s better-known movies have been tales of wickedness that could not wait, people who snatched and were burnt. Raghavan’s best stories about himself are about lost opportunities and of waiting; but in noir — the last bastion of the morality tale — he cuts a stylish swathe. His 2007 film Johnny Gaddar did not do well at the box-office but the vivid, energetic heist film boosted his cachet instantly, with a rare acknowledgement that ‘the market knows not what it does.’ His current projects include a fantasy starring Aishwarya Rai and John Abraham whose working title is Dreamgirl and a spy thriller called Agent Vinod with Saif Ali Khan in the eponymous role. But this high standing has been a long time coming.
“A long while ago I read Ira Levin’s A Kiss before Dying and thought I wanted to turn it into a movie. So I worked for a year on the script. In the meanwhile, the original Hollywood adaptation was remade badly with Matt Dillon and Sean Young. Then I took the script to Tinu Anand who had been encouraging me to make a movie. He took one look at the script and said, ‘But Abbas-Mustan is making this right now.’ That was Baazigar.”
Raghavan grew up in Pune, the son of a botanist father and a movie-loving mother. A third-generation Tamilian in Maharashtra, he thinks of South India in terms of the new auteur films that he must catch up with at festivals. Barely out of his teens he went to Mumbai to work in Stardust. “They threw me out after three months. I was a terrible film journalist. I had a terrible stammer that made me tense all the time. When they asked me to leave I was relieved. I then joined a trade guide and was very happy. When I met Mukul Anand, I told him I wanted to make movies and worked with him for a little while. He told me that it would take me six or seven years to make a film if I continued as an assistant. I went to FTII thinking that would be a quicker route. It took me 17 years,” says a hugely amused Raghavan.
Raghavan’s good friend and batchmate Raju Hirani shared his love for cinema and edited his diploma film The Eight Column Affair. A love story set in an newspaper, it won a National Award in 1987. But in FTII it was Raghavan’s shyness that was legendary. “He had an adorable stammer. He would call at the hostel about some protest or the other and you just knew that was the best and only excuse he could think of to call a girl,” says a woman filmmaker who was his junior at FTII.
The shyness and stammer are both long gone but one would have to be a monster of brashness to probe Raghavan’s love life. From behind a veil of politeness he looks out curiously at you and plies you with tea. Perhaps you will tell him a story that intrigues or you will recommend a good book. Do you cry in movies, he wants to know. He does. “Usually I can just wipe the tears away but during Taare Zameen Par, the tears were spilling off my face,” he says calmly. It is probably with this benign air that Raghavan once made television shows for ISRO, preaching good health practices for children in rural Uttar Pradesh.
IT IS certainly with the same detachment that he wrote and directed a film in 2003 which transformed Saif Ali Khan’s persona of the amiable fool in love. In Ek Hasina Thi, Raghavan tapped into Khan’s now alltoo- apparent air of sexually-charged ruthlessness, a role that preceded Khan’s Cyrus (Being Cyrus) and Langda Tyagi (Omkara). In Johnny Gaddar, he gave Neil Nitin Mukesh’s well-cut features the sharpness of an ice-pick. Raghavan has a separate fan following for his short film on Raman Raghav, the serial killer who terrified Mumbai in the 1960s. His love of noir is something of a family hobby. His brother Sridhar Raghavan has made a career of writing cops-and-robbers shows for television and cinema (including 2005 hit Bluffmaster.)
There have never been too many FTII trained directors in Bollywood. When Raghavan went to FTII, that particular patch of Pune badlands housed cineastes who would have picked any Hungarian film over Hindi cinema. “Not just the bad Hindi cinema of that decade but any Hindi movie. But I loved Hindi films.” Johnny Gaddar is littered with clues of this love affair, from the title that pays tribute to Johnny Tera Naam to the short clip from Parwana that two characters watch at different points in the film. His flat is equally littered with cinema memorabilia. In a corner rests a framed collage of thumbnail posters of all of Dharmendra’s movies, a replica of a gift that Dharmendra was given by the crew of Johnny Gaddar.
“If I had realised there were so many movie references in Johnny I would have been worried. Afterwards I saw that a reviewer had counted all the references. I just thought it would be fun to see a young Amitabh on screen. The Parwana clip had not been there in the original script but when we started thinking about it, we loved the idea. We paid an extra 20 lakhs for it, but I was sure that five years down the line, if I watched the film I’d think it is too bad to have not included it. That’s what I mean by not having a bound script. It does not mean not having a script at all!” Raghavan says, slightly horrified at the idea of not being immaculately prepared. In March this year, Dreamgirl was scheduled to begin production. But, unhappy with the “final thirty per cent of the film”, he delayed it. In the process, he has had to wait for his stars to give him a fresh set of dates.
Raghavan has a crossword fanatic’s attitude to his work. “With each film you learn how to crack something new. This new one is not a thriller. I have never shot a conversation with two people just talking casually before.” He is visibly nervous but simultaneously looking forward to the idea of shooting full-fledged songs for Dreamgirl. He feels that with a main character who is a musician he cannot avoid songs in the script, something he did entirely in Hasina. Johnny Gaddar had a limited but very memorable soundtrack that Raghavan had picked track by track. “I have no issues with songs. If you look at Guide the movie would not have made any sense without its 7 songs. I think one song is actually four whole scenes together. I just have to take the plunge, lose my inhibitions and figure out of a way of doing it inventively.”
Like everyone else in Bollywood he bemoans the lack of scriptwriters, “People go and bind their terrible scripts. You feel like saying why bind this? Why didn’t you just use a clip? And now anyone who has a decent script wants to direct. My brother is one of the few people who says “It’s a pain, why can’t I just sit in the comfort of my own home without dealing with other people?” Raghavan believes firmly in collaboration. Pinned prominently on a corkboard in his living room is veteran set designer Sabu Cyril’s sharp, acerbic comments on Raghavan’s next script. Some are comments on the character and turns in plot but one simply exhorts, “Keep it simple!”
He is watching the molten state of Bollywood’s finances with great interest. “There’s almost too much money. No one is worried about the budget. Forget the actors, there is too much money for movies, too much fees for directors. Also, the single producer as a breed is dying out. He might have had terrible ideas for movies but he was still a man gripped by a vision. Now when you go to a corporate producer what you meet is a conference room. They are willing and smart but not necessarily people who know movies. What they are deciding on is the director’s clout to make a successful movie.”
He agrees that it’s a good time to make movies. “We still don’t have enough actors to choose from but there is finally an audience for odd movies. No subject is taboo anymore. But movies like No Smoking needs a certain approach, maybe a DVD release. If they run in halls when people are not expecting something unusual they get tagged as a flop. No Smoking got jacked by its economics not its content. What we need to learn is to get people into the hall in the first few days.”Amitabh Bachchan Baazigar Ek Hasina Thi Interviews Johnny Gaddar Johnny Tera Naam Mukul Anand National Award Neil Nitin Mukesh Parwana Raju Hirani Raman Raghav Sabu Cyril Saif Ali Khan Sridhar Raghavan Sriram Raghavan Taare Zameen Par Tehelka The Eight Column Affair Tinu Anand