As a producer, you’ve said earlier that you want to release a film every Friday. In the spirit of being prolific, could you have begun to take your audiences for granted?
Coming out with a new film every week was a hope, a wish. To achieve that, you need to put adequate systems in place. In the recent past, I’ve been directing, as well as producing. I’ve decided to take a backseat and set everything in order first. So far as the audience is concerned, their loss is about a couple of hours or Rs 100; for me, at a personal level, the loss is much more.
If news reports are to be believed, you seem to have taken a financial hit.
Not true. I just moved out of my old office, which may have fuelled the supposed rumours. But that’s only because the tie-up (with K Sera Sera) was over, and they owned the premises.
On your film-front, we could run a daily bulletin on the latest on Ram Gopal Varma Ke Sholay; this when you haven’t even shot a reel.
The media is so hungry, and it’s got people all over the place. By the time I even think about something, it appears in the news… And then it’s about who’s Samba, who’s Basanti, copyright issues over Sholay, criticisms on casting decisions, constantly changing names… I may or may not choose to explain at times.
As a film, Sholay was considered a take on the Wild West, what came to be called the ‘curry western’. You take the western out of the curry; what’s left?
The coinage ‘curry western’ came up at the time because Sholay was believed to be an adaptation of Wild West films, like the Magnificent Seven, hence Seven Samurai: the scenic terrain, dacoits, horses… For me Sholay was a revenge story, which is pretty much possible in a city like Mumbai. There is nothing uniquely Western about it as a genre. The question is about its treatment as a remake in a new setting. This is different from Shiva, where taking the same premise (of Shiva; 1990), my object was to intentionally recreate the unintellectual formula film of the ‘70s: hero, villain, song, comedy scenes, fights… In the days of ramping and high-speed shots, I wanted to take a break from gun-shots and get back to raw fist-fighting; in reality, nobody fist-fights. But to see if one can transport those same feelings again was my purpose.
Once Amitabh Bachchan told me about how at the time Zanjeer came out, there was a lot of repression and anger in the country. My point was that’s not why Zanjeer worked. I came from a happy family; I had no clue about what the country was going through at the time; I saw Zanjeer seven times. I liked the way he kicked the chair when Pran was about to sit, or the nightmare he kept having of the horse.
This kind of cinema works on moments. I learnt the ropes, the understanding of characters through films of that genre, more than thinking them up myself. Since nobody seemed to be making movies of that genre, I thought may be I should do it for effect.
The blockbuster primarily survives in public memory and pop culture due to the caricatured characters, right down to Soorma Bhopali; Angrezon ke zamaane ka jailor… Those aspects can never be recaptured. Could you be caricaturing what’s been repeatedly caricatured in any case?
Having a direct comparison with an original, you take a greater risk with respect to audience or critical acclaim. I don’t think anybody reacts to the content of Sanjay Bhansali’s version of Devdas; they just see the splendour of it—the same story with new actors and settings and thereby a new experience. As a filmmaker, I believe I understand and respect Sholay more than anybody else I know.
When I take a favourite moment of mine from a film, lending my own sensibility to redo it today; it just becomes an interesting interpretation from an artistic point of view. To take up this exercise for an entire film, I thought there could be no better example than Sholay, which is like a friend of the audience; it’s the huge commercial success that makes anyone look up to it.
In the original, there is no police, it’s a village. Walking on a cliff, Gabbar says, ‘Kitne Aadmi The… Suwar ke bachhon’, but he is a rural dacoit. A man in a city would look odd speaking like that. But to not lose out on what those two lines stood for, yet to not use them; to do it in a way that it would be acceptable, yet not change it… It gives me a high as a filmmaker to capture the same content in the manner I understood it.
‘Kitne Aadmi The’ isn’t exactly a most profound line though.
One-liners of Sholay have less to do with the content than how they work as commercial tag-lines, which is pretty much what one-liners are about. ‘Mere Paas Maa Hai’ from Deewar: I still can’t understand what the line means. It belongs to Shashi Kapoor and it made Mr Bachchan a star.
The holding power (of a film) could be of an image, a moment, a line by Gabbar, who was a villain, but over the years became the hero. I studied the traits of Gabbar in the original and applied them on a gangster who exists in Mumbai and takes great pride in not operating from outside the city. The essential nature of Gabbar in Sholay is that of a megalomaniac, bored with his power, which you can tell from him constantly staring at an ant crawling (on his hand). He is always seen lazing around, because he never feels challenged, no one’s there to challenge him.
Talking of your films, every director portrays a distinct idea of how they view their women on screen. Yash Chopra has his chiffon-saree temptress; Mani Ratnam has his believable, naturally beautiful woman; your women, never mind the actors, seem straight out of a cartoon strip/ graphic novel, accentuated breasts and buttocks, a very Blondie-like demeanour.
Forget me as a filmmaker, on a personal level; I like men to be heroes and women to be sexy. Sexiness is also oriented around perspectives. What I find sexy, you may not. Eventually, since I am the filmmaker, the film would be my personal expression of how I want to see someone. The way you’re putting the question, it seems you mean my attitude is demeaning toward women.
I’m merely interested to know your world-view on women.
What you’re talking about might be obvious to the eye, but if you look at it from a larger perspective, the way I shy away from getting into problems of simple people or families, reveals how I am by nature. I am a loner. I live in an overawed, child-like dream world. And I love to see a woman as sexy. Many heroines feel that I shoot women the best, so I have no complaints.
You’re completely an alpha-male director. I want to know how you perceive women.
I’d love women to be still images.
That sounds sexist.
I think I am… And I think women should feel great about their sexiness.
So, in your world, men should go out and work, and women should dance.
Yes. When they come back from work, they should dance for their husbands.
Given that you call yourself a “lone person”, do you see the portrayal of this insularity, especially in big cities, a common theme running through your works—Satya, Kaun, Bhoot…
I think it’s got more to do with my interest in the study of the human mind. What comes across from a character or person when he’s alone, I feel, is his true self. Most times when you’re with people, you’re interacting and doing things for them. I’m not a social guy. I never go to functions. I hate birthday parties. I hate being with children.
You hate children.
I hate being with children.
So you hate children.
I started thinking about why I dislike children and realised that’s because they take the attention away from me. Sitting with three people, I want all their attention. But if the kid is there, I can’t compete—the kid won’t listen to me. So the people listening get distracted and seem more interested in the kid.
Movie-stars take attention away from you as well. Is that why you dislike them?
That’s not true at all. No one believes in stardom as much I do. For me, a ‘non-star’ can be a star, and vice versa. I feel half the stars have no business to be there. And a lot of others who deserve to be stars are not. I just don’t go by the box-office status of the previous week, or someone’s previous film. I go by what attracts me.
Stardom, however amorphous an idea, is directly related to the box-office though.
I love films too much to have a motive to make money from it. I need money to make films; I don’t make films to make money. Eventually everything boils to the director’s reason for making a film. If I have Ajay Devgan for Malik’s role in Company, from the first shot, the audience will take him seriously; they will take it for granted that it’s an important character. If I make Satya with newcomers, it’s because I want to capture the giddiness of the underworld. So I need to see to it that the protagonists look believable in the kind of location I’m shooting. I use them as devices to get to that point. I’m not trying to promote a Manoj or a Chekravarthy, on some kind of a trip. Similarly, a movie like Sarkar is not possible without Amitabh Bachchan. If the close-up comes, it must arrest the audience. It has to have certain information, a larger-than-life quality pre-built into the character. It’s not that I’m always right either.
What about Shah Rukh Khan?
The whole nation knows that Shah Rukh Khan is a super-star. By nature, I make dark, larger-than-life heroic films, which is pretty much against the image that Shah Rukh has with his audience. Kids and my own family members love him. I don’t ever watch those kinds of films. I thought it would be injustice to the image of Shah Rukh Khan and everyone else, if my heart was not in the film (that we were meant to do together). I had doubts over whether I could capture him in a certain way. That’s not to say that Shah Rukh can’t act in the films I make, but why take Shah Rukh Khan if you don’t use him for what he’s good at.
The film, Time Machine, was supposed to be a sci-fi.
It’s a highly entertaining sort of a film; not really my cup of tea. Whenever I’d look at the subject, I’d feel like I was going to school. And I hate school. I was a bad student. I felt stifled thinking about the film and I thought it wasn’t fair for anyone concerned.
Another thing you hate is writing, or what they call in ‘new Bollywood’, the ‘bound script’. With changing times, does that become a handicap, especially when you have to enlist leading names?
I don’t know of any actor who works on bound scripts; they work on trust. I also go by instinct. For instance, for Nishabd and Sarkar I had a bound script, for Company and Satya I didn’t. Rangeela, I had about half a story. I’m not priding the fact that Satya didn’t have a bound script, but because it didn’t have a script, it worked out a certain way. You need to have an understanding of characters. I’d rather go into a story with that, and see how it shapes up. Stories are about incidences, and incidences occur because of characters’ reactions.
I only get into the character after about two days of shooting. Unless I see the person perform, and see his body language, I probably may not understand before-hand what I’m dealing with. I do have a script. I just don’t have it on paper; I can narrate it. Eventually, my prerogative is to change what I want depending on what I think is right for a film. My films may have gone wrong in terms of creative content, but there has rarely been a case where an actor has been criticised. Over a period of time, actors develop that trust.
This sort of instinctual style of filmmaking may rattle off people who deal with the commercial side of films though.
About 90 per cent of the films that the intelligentsia or critics will like may probably collect the least amount of money in the business. In spite of my temperament and attitude towards filmmaking, I’ve probably lasted the longest. Mathematically, a flop and hit depends upon the cost of making a film, and the amount that gets recovered: that’s the business side. Otherwise, filmmaking is about an idea.
That’s something you initially set out to do, turn Hindi movies rightfully into a director’s medium.
In today’s times with serious technological advancement, Avid machines, DI, special effects… I sometimes really don’t know what a director does. It’s coming to that gradually. You see a fantastic opening title sequence that creates an impression on you, you credit the director, but he may have nothing to do with it. So I don’t entirely buy the ‘auteur theory’. Fair enough, it’s the director taking decisions; to that extent he may be in a position of power. But the creation of the emotional impact of a particular sequence might not have anything to do with the director, which is why I find the whole point of directing or acting institutes outdated.
Over the past many years, you’ve been taking pot-shots at your peers through your films: Vidhu Vinod Chopra / Shekhar Kapur (Rangeela), Karan Johar (Company), Subhash Ghai (Main Madhuri…), Farah Khan (Naach)… Have the concerned people taken those jokes well?
I take pot-shots at myself; I did that in Darna Zaroori Hai. All jokes on newspaper cartoons are on famous people; how else would jokes work?
In fact, both Vinod Chopra and Shekhar Kapur had an argument over who the character in Rangeela was modeled on. The ones about Farah Khan and Subhash Ghai you refer to, I don’t remember them being intended at all. If I show a choreographer in Bollywood, you could automatically think it’s Farah Khan. All B-grade films emulate A-grade filmmakers. In Company, referring to a film with the tag-line, “It’s all about loving your lovings” or whatever, my point was to capture a reality. I wasn’t taking a pot-shot.
Everybody may not buy your sense of humour. Your joke on Johar’s Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna wasn’t taken well by him at the least.
Well, I’ve learnt. I swore on my mother and sister in Siddhivinyak, and pledged, may I burn in hell, if I ever say anything about Karan Johar. Now ask me if I believe in God. Ask, ask…
Do you believe in God?
As a director:
Sarkar (2005): With the two Bachchans steering it, the film had slim chances of failing.
Bhoot (2003): Urmila played a convincing possessed woman.
Company (2002): Slick underworld action, intense performances by Ajay Devgan and Vivek Oberoi; well-received.
Jungle (2000): Urmila, Fardeen Khan and the creamy Kashmira in a forest of terror. Average.
Mast (1999): Aftab Shivdasani’s big break, with Urmila again, not really top-of-the line, but average performance.
Satya (1998): A de-glammed Urmila and a stellar performance by Chakrevarthy, Manoj Bajpai, Paresh Rawal and Co, catapulted it to heights.
Rangeela (1995): With Urmila cavorting on the beach in a shredded slip, and Aamir at his tapori best, it rocked the BO.
Shiva (1990): Starring Nagarjuna and Amala, Varma’s first feature film was a huge hit.
As a producer/co-producer:
Shiva (2006) and D (2005): Two films for Mohit Ahlawat that did not quite do for him what they were supposed to.
Naach (2004): All the world’s weirdest body contortions by Antara Mali could not change the fortunes of the film
Vaastu Shastra (2004): Successful in scaring the audience away from the theatres.
Ab Tak Chhappan (2004): Nana Patekar doing what he does best. The gritty film did reasonably.
Ek Hasina Thi (2004): Talked about for Saif’s superlative performance in a negative role.
Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon!: Sincere performance by Rajpal Yadav and Antara Mali kept the film in the reckoning.
Shool (1999): Directed by E Niwas, Manoj Bajpai and Raveena Tandon put in credible performances.
Dil Se.. (1998): With Mani Ratnam as director, the film’s superhit music and unusual lead pair: Shah Rukh and Monisha Koirala, made it one of the most talked about films that year.
Whenever Ram Gopal Varma airs his views on women, you want to tell him what to do with those views.
He has said it all. From “I hate intelligent women. If I want intelligence, I’ll read a book” to “I have always looked at women as sex symbols”; from “ I like to see women getting drenched in the rain” to “My cinema is all about heroes, for me, men should be powerful, women should be sexy”. He has gone on record to say that he doesn’t like simple women. “My perception about a woman has changed over the years—she has to be sensual and have the oomph factor,” he has said.
No doubt sometimes he may have been misquoted, sometimes quoted out of context. But the essence that emerges, of his ideal woman, remains consistent: he likes his woman to ooze oomph, pout and make soft, teasing noises. And, yes, if they must talk, they should let their cleavage do the bulk of the talking.
No wonder his metier lies in turning relatively simple young girls into oomph queens. From Urmila Matondkar to Jiah Khan, his heroines have been meticulously tutored in the art of pouting and panting. In fact, over the years, and ever since he made Rangeela in ‘95, all of Ramu’s heroines seem to have set up the chorus, ‘Main bhi Urmila Matondkar banna chahti hoon’. Urmila held the fort for several years, tossing her mane and thrashing her body, in turns, to heat-inducing music, exactly as Ramu wanted. Later, she passed on the baton to Antara Mali and company.
On the face of it, Ramu’s heroines have been modern, urban. They’ve been professionals rather than housewives, they’ve expressed their sexuality rather than hiding it behind filmi coyness. But that’s on the face of it. The ultra cool exterior hasn’t too often been backed by ultra cool thought. Finally his women have crawled (sometimes literally) back to conventionality.
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