As filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra completes 30 years in Indian cinema, he speaks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7 about his journey in films
I am at Bombay’s Mehboob Studio and my guest today is a very unusual filmmaker. Unusual, not because he is so talented but he has such an eye for talent. He has discovered some of the most talented people that you now see on the screen, whose voice you hear and whose words you hear sung in Hindi cinema. He’s remarkable because he is not afraid of putting up for critical scrutiny what he has done in 30 short years. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, you have done something which nobody does in Hindi cinema, which is put up your past for critical scrutiny.
I guess I’m foolish enough to believe that my past can be scrutinised. I think most people would rather hide it.
Yes, everything changes with time. I think most creative people think, ‘If I had made Parinda now, I would have made it so differently’.
I’ll tell you one thing. I saw Parinda in 5.1 digital sound. There is only one extremely stupid thing in the film. There is the song in the end that Anil (Kapoor) and Jackie (Shroff) sing. Apart from that silly mistake, most of it for me was as good as 25 years ago. The film has not aged. But for me, the critical thing was to go back and preserve our heritage. You probably don’t know that we are doing a book on Guru Dutt’s Chaudhvin ka Chand and Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam. I really think that the important thing for us now is to look back and not only look back in terms of retrospective but also preserve our culture, our heritage, our cinema.
Your retrospective is unusual for a living filmmaker. Usually retrospectives are done in India for people who are dead and gone, then somebody collects some money and usually Films Division gets involved.
It’s because of the whole idea that I have towards movies and cinemas. I believe right from the film institute that it is extremely important for us to be self sufficient, to be able to do things we believe we want to do ourselves rather than waiting for some organisation to come and do it.
In your early days, even some of your hits were made like that, like on daily wages.
Literally. Nana Patekar used to walk off the sets (of Parinda) because we used to get water from home and he would ask for bottled water and I would say, ‘Arre, what do you mean paani ki bottle, ghar se nahin laaya?’ That’s how we made those films.
Even during 1942 A Love Story, I believe you struggled for money.
Totally. You’ll not believe, in Khamosh, we had this chita (pyre) scene. We didn’t have money to buy the wood. So we hired some axes and cut a tree from the forest.
I thought you might go to a shamshan ghat and take pictures of a funeral.
But the funny thing is, we were having so much fun that we didn’t realise we were so poor. We would get rajma for 8 annas at Bandra station and for 12 annas at Neelam Linking Road. Without any problem, Renu Saluja, who was then my wife, and I would walk for aath aane wale rajma. It never struck us that we could eat 12 anna wala rajma.
But I believe that poverty continued till 1942 A Love Story. You took a punt on some new actors and a very old music maker (Pancham).
The reason I did 1942 A Love Story was because the music of Hindi cinema was down in the dumps. I grew up in Kashmir. I still remember, the first time I fell in love, I sang, “Tu Ganga ki mauj mein Jamuna ka dhara” for the girl. So my whole life was full of songs and I thought my culture was corrupted by the music of that time. So I went to RD Burman.
It was the worst phase in Hindi cinema—mid 80s to mid 90s—underworld, bad acting, piracy.
Not only that, the talent itself had accepted mediocrity as a standard. When Dada (RD) composed the music for Kuch na kaho and I went to him, he was really down and out. He played the music and he asked, ‘kaisa laga’? He was going through a really bad time and I didn’t want to tell him. I said let me think about it. Then, my real personality took over and I said this is totally bullshit and I lost it. Right behind him was a photograph of SD Burman, who was no longer alive and I said that I was looking for him. Then he said, ‘Bikta nahin hai, Vinod (it doesn’t sell), you don’t understand’.
And the movie was set in 1942.
His worry was that it won’t sell. Then he told me and I remember it clearly: ‘Am I doing the film’? I said, Dada, don’t give me emotional thing, give me the music. He said give me one week. I said take one year, but give me the music I want. He had tears in his eyes. And when I went next week, he had nothing. After a month, I go there, his musicians were sitting, my eyes were shut and he played the first note—“rongeela, rongeela re”. I raised my finger, my eyes were shut and he stopped the harmonium and said, ‘The song has not started and you are raising your finger.’ This was an SD Burman note. I said, first note ye hai, gaana kahin nahin jayega. And if you remember, Kuch na kaho, kuch bhi na kaho…
…became an evergreen song.
Yes, but the insecurity of a talent like R D Burman, it’s painful.
It was because those times were like that.
That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Great talent was destroyed.
Was it a challenge for you to make movies in those times—25 years back in time?
When distributors saw Parinda, because Jackie Shroff doesn’t have a heroine, they said this is an art picture, Jackie doesn’t have a heroine. In today’s times, nobody talks like that. Then the rumour went around that Jackie Shroff is in a dhoti in the film and I couldn’t sell the movie. The striving for excellence in all fields, including cinema, it was at its lowest position. People were not striving.
Were you scared doing it?
You know I have been kind of fearless about it. I don’t think I have ever been really scared. After 3 Idiots, I have made Ferrari ki Sawaari in which Sharman Joshi is the lead. Any producer after 3 Idiots can take any big star. Somebody asked me yesterday, ‘Are you afraid?’ Sharman is perfect for the role. I don’t think I have fear in me. I think it’s not a character. I come from a small town. I don’t think I have fear. I don’t know what fear is in terms of my work.
I believe you pioneered the idea of a focus group—you call a bunch of people, show your films to them.
Yes, Ferrari ki Sawaari has been seen by 500 people already. 3 Idiots was seen by over a thousand. I’m the only guy who shows the movie because I’m willing to listen to them.
How does it work?
I’m open to criticism. That’s the big thing. Let’s say you have written an article. You are running this newspaper. I read it and I tell you I don’t agree. There are two ways you can look at it. One is, let me listen to him, I may or may not agree with him. The other is, what does he know about newspapers?
So do you make changes after listening to them? Have you made many changes with Ferrari ki Sawaari?
Yes. When you make a movie, you are so close to it that you think that everybody is figuring out what you know, but the viewer sometimes doesn’t know.
Tell me about 3 Idiots. What did you change as a result of what you heard from the focus group?
Well, the climax. We had a very long climax of the childbirth. And everyone hated it. And that nine minutes were cut to almost three-and-a-half minutes. Even now many people don’t like it. If they had seen a longer version, they would have hated it. That was the main thing. Not many people liked it.
And Munnabhai films?
In Lage Raho Munnabhai, most people said that there was no Mahatma Gandhi in the second part and yes, there was no Mahatma Gandhi in the second part. And I panicked, we couldn’t write a fresh scene. So if you see Lage Raho, we came up with a song—bande me tha dum, vande mataram. So in the second half, we just played the song and because you heard the song, you felt the presence of Mahatma Gandhi without Mahatma Gandhi being there. It all happened because of people telling us that it was not working.
Tell me about your Kashmir connection.
I grew up in Wazir bagh. I went to DAV school in Kashmir where my father paid two bucks for the whole month.
HMT—Hindi medium type.
That’s true. I learnt ABC when I was 16 years old. That is how I grew up. It was wonderful. I grew up in an environment where for me honesty, truth, all these values were very critical. And we were poor. I’ll tell you something completely crazy, something I don’t think I have told many people. Before we ate breakfast, we used to go to the verandah to wait because my father used to go and feed the dogs in the street and then the birds in the garden. Once they were fed, he would give us a signal and we would eat our breakfast. The idea was that they are dependent on us so we should take care of them before taking care of ourselves. Now, if I did that in Bombay city, everyone would think I’ve gone cuckoo. But the fact is those are the values I grew up with and I think those values have stuck. Also, because I come from a small place, the most important thing for me is not the bucks. There was not a single ad saying ‘100 million’ during the success of 3 Idiots. The critical thing is the joy I get from the cinema I create. Money beyond a point means nothing. Also, I’m not the kind of guy who gets along with very big stars. They don’t like me so much. And I don’t like them so much.
Is discovering talent a special joy?
It’s great fun…Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Raju Hirani, Pradeep Sircar.
You and Aamir Khan dealt with each other.
I don’t look at Aamir as a big star. He is a good guy.
We talked about 30 years in the past. What happens 30 years from now?
I don’t know. I have a friend who keeps asking me what’s your five-year plan. He said that to me in Africa and I said I think I’ll be dead. He said, ‘you never told me. Are you okay?’ I said no, there is a possibility. The point is that I want to literally live every movie.
But what are the new frontiers?
I’m going out of India. I need to do more things that excite me. I’m doing films outside India, I’m doing two or three films in India.
Films outside India? English language films?
Yes, called Broken Horses. Hopefully, in a year or two, I’ll shoot. I’m still writing the screenplay.
3 Idiots has made the kind of money that Hollywood hits do.
It may sound very strange but it (money) has never been the driving force. I have nothing against money but money has never driven me— from Parinda to Parineeta. Parineeta has been made three times and it flopped three times. Hrishikesh Mukherjee told me, ‘Don’t make Parineeta. Bimal Roy made it, I edited it and it flopped’. But I made that movie. It defies logic. Why would I do that? Just because I loved it. I haven’t yet done my third Munnabhai. It defies logic. Why? The reason is I’m not happy with the script. Even if I make shit, Friday, Saturday, Sunday will be full. On Monday you can abuse me but I’ll run away with Rs 200 crore.
So what is there beyond movies? Are you politically inclined?
My family, my children. I’m not so political.
Do you feel strongly about something?
When I do, I just go and fight for it. I spend my time with my kids a lot, my family, with my brother. I have very few friends.
What gets you exercised, agitated? I asked your wife this question and she said everything. Is it true?
It’s mediocrity that annoys me. You know, a lack of striving for excellence makes me angry. In whatever field. The striving is important, not whether you achieve success or not. Let me make it clear. I made some rubbish movies. What was my intention when I did that? Was my intention to go through a short cut? But if I strive and I fail, that’s okay.