That 70s Showman

Inevitably, he grew up on Zanjeer, Don, Trishul, Deewaar and Sholay Even as The Dirty Picture was taking the box office by storm and its Even as The Dirty Picture was taking the box office by storm and its ‘hero’, Vidya Balan, was being propelled to the league of the Khans, director Milan Luthria, like a wallflower, was watching all the action from the sidelines. He was down with typhoid for nearly a month and couldn’t join the celebrations of the success of his career’s biggest blockbuster. In any case, he tells Open, he has an “overall aversion” to the process of marketing. He would much rather indulge in his equestrian passion and spend time with horses at the race course than be photographed at a success bash or other post-release blitzkriegs.

“I think it’s overrated, this marketing business,” he says, “It’s more self-gratifying than anything else. I don’t focus much on it—on how I am projected. I am not a narcissist who only wants to talk about how good a director I am and what a wonderful guy I am and look, what great things I am doing. It’s my job to make films and I am just going to get on with it.” This is in sharp contrast to the sell-yourself ideology of his mentor, Mahesh Bhatt, under whom Luthria has learnt everything he knows about filmmaking.

“We are totally different people,” he says promptly, adding, “And our films are not similar in any way. I will say Bhattsaab is a clever businessman. He knows that he needs to present himself as a brand because his films work on his name.” That, however, doesn’t deter Luthria from doing the rounds of theatres with Bhatt and checking out first-day reactions. And it is Bhatt’s blunt opinions that the protégé usually counts on. “He knows his craft inside out. That’s why he is such a good storyteller. If he points out something, you’d better take it seriously.”

Good storytelling, Luthria emphasises, is at the core of his films. “Script and storytelling is king. Everything else [revolves] around it,” he says. When he conceptualises a new movie, mostly with writer Rajat Aroraa, he slams the door shut and begins the game of “throwing ideas at each other”. It’s not that you sit through the day and you get a story at dusk, he says. “There are no sudden Eureka moments,” he declares. “Sometimes it takes six months to finish a script. Sometimes more. But throughout the exercise, you need to retain your passion and dedication.”

There are times when he gets stuck, as he did during a particular portion in The Dirty Picture, but the key to keep one’s head above water in such situations is to let the writer’s, or in his case director’s block pass. “With experience you realise that if it’s a block, it will open up in a few days’ time. Sometimes, the simplest shot or idea can give you the most trouble. For instance, we just couldn’t get Ishq sufiyana right. When you look at the song, you will say, ‘What’s difficult in that?’ We went through six, seven tunes and struggled with it until one day someone came up with an idea and then it took us less than half an hour to crack it.”

Every time Luthria is about to start a new movie, he is gripped by terror. “Sheer fright, my God,” he exclaims. “The phase when I am about to start something new is the most difficult, the most dreadful. You have to start all over again and you begin digging into your resources. Ask any writer how scary it is to stare at a blank page for hours and hours on end.” Similarly, when he is done with a film, he rarely revisits it. “You have to make sure you don’t take it with you. It does cling to you, but you have to brush it off and move on and wipe the slate completely clean.” That’s why, he reasons, each of his films are dissimilar. “It took me a few months to get The Dirty Picture out of my head, and once you achieve that, you can focus on your next.”

Before Luthria gets into production, he ensures a fully bound script. “Always,” he asserts, “I am usually much slower during the writing of a film than later. Taking baby steps at scripting helps because then you make fewer mistakes. It’s like romance; first you resist and then you meet a few times and finally you get involved and fall in love. The same goes for a script. You build characters little by little and then you start caring for them and giving them attributes.”

In the last 13 years, Luthria has made seven films, one every two years. His reputation rests firmly on his last two, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai and The Dirty Picture. What’s common between them—one, a gritty portrait of the Mumbai underworld and the other, about an actress’ rise and fall—is that they are both set in a previous time and age. Much of Luthria’s inspiration comes from the 1970s, an era in which writers Salim-Javed were the real stars, directors Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Ramesh Sippy and Yash Chopra at their inspired best, and Amitabh Bachchan, the explosive screen representative of an angry India reeling under the Emergency.

Inevitably, he grew up on Zanjeer, Don, Trishul, Deewaar and Sholay, which were a “great blend of romance, humour, action and one-liners”. He never had any doubts of what kind of cinema he would champion when he became a filmmaker. “The decade in which you are raised defines your taste. From the age of 10 to 17, for me, that was the late 1970s. This was a time when not only Mr Bachchan but Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna and Rishi Kapoor were firing on all cylinders. The filmmakers of that time and their styles left an impression on me, just the same way as Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra or Karan Johar must have on some of the younger filmmakers working today.”

But why do Luthria’s films attempt to capture the mood and setting and of the 1970s and 1980s as a backdrop? “A lot goes into creating mood and ambience—the right location, costumes, dialogue, casting, and eventually, what we call the sur of the movie. Once you catch that sur, it’s a space in my head which brings all these elements together in a particular way, and, therefore, this mood that you point out, whether in Taxi No 9211, or The Dirty Picture, is more intuitive and instinctive than something planned.” He admits that his films are dark and offer a pessimistic worldview, at times; for instance, Silk’s doomed fate or gangster Shoaib’s unscrupulous, devious plans for the future. “It comes from my love for Salim-Javed,” he answers. “If you look at their work, they were not afraid of dark characters. In Sholay, except for Veeru and Basanti, everyone is dark or has a dark side to them, whether it is Jai, Gabbar or Thakur. In Don, one of their heroes is dark. That’s because each one of us has a dark aspect to one’s personality. What one must keep in mind is that however dark a film is, it must be entertaining and worth your money.”

He remembers with fondness what one critic wrote about him in a review of his first film, Kachche Dhaage (1999). “This writer had mentioned that here is a ‘truly turn-of-the-century director who mixes the old and the new’ and that stuck in my mind somewhere. That’s who I am and that’s exactly what my films are. I will give you both in every film. No matter what.”

Fleshing out the script of his new film, a sequel to Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Luthria is given to exercising the same level of care that he undertakes in film after film. “There were certain aspects of the first film that went down well—like dialogue, mood, music and the fact that it wasn’t very gory. It was a refreshing new take on the underworld and we are keeping those elements in mind. We know what our strengths were and we will remain focused on that. Entertaining. That’s what it will be for sure.”



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