You must have been aware that the theme of "Phir Milenge" prevents it from acquiring a mass appeal?
Yes. I was fortunate. I found a producer who wasn't only supportive but also encouraging about doing something totally unconventional. He had seen my first film "Mitr" and he wanted me to make a sensitive film. He suggested I make a film on AIDS.
But the film is very optimistic in tone.
I wanted it to be that way. So far AIDS has been associated with sex workers, truck drivers, etc. No film links the HIV virus with so-called respectable people when in fact it has now filtered into middle class homes.
With stars in the film, I knew audiences would come along to see how the issue was addressed. We didn't accommodate stars in the script. They kind of found their way into the project.
Salman supported you because you were his co-star in one of his earliest films "Love"?
No, I think it goes a little deeper than that. He respects me for what I am. During the making of their previous film together "Garv", Shilpa spoke to Salman about my project. She suggested I speak to him about the film.
I hadn't been in touch with him for 13 years. Before I could say anything, he asked who was playing the AIDS victim Rohit in my film. I told him half of Bollwood had rejected it, and that no one wanted to do that role.
"Am I not part of Bollywood?" he turned around to ask. Being a huge star I was hesitant to ask. When he agreed, I thought he was half-joking. I had to call him back to confirm. I believe a visit to an institute for HIV positive kids affected him deeply. He didn't think of his star image, remuneration... Nothing!
He's such a wonderful human being. He didn't want money. But I insisted on a token sum. He made me write the cheque to a charitable institution.
But do you think the Salman factor deflected attention from the issue?
No. Salman always was integral to the project. The only thing he said was, "This is my first film with you and I wish I had a bigger role." It's a kind of guest appearance. Salman wasn't the issue and he knew it.
In "Phir Milenge" I wanted to show that HIV positive doesn't mean death. Yes, there was the fear that this would be taken as a normal Salman film. But in every interview he made it clear he dies of AIDS and that this wasn't a normal love story.
In comparison with other Salman starrers my film was sold to distributors at a very low price. We needed the audience and for that we needed the stars. Otherwise "Phir Milenge" would've become just another propaganda film about AIDS.
Your film is inspired by Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia"?
Yes. I was a little worried about getting unduly inspired by "Philadelphia". It's a perfect film. While talking to various AIDS organizations I came to know that the biggest problem with such patients is the issue of discrimination.
We don't have laws to protect AIDS victims against such discrimination. I wanted to make my film about the struggle to fight prejudices. I'd like "Phir Milenge" to get tax exemption. But to convince each state government isn't easy. We're at it.
It's gutsy to make a film with a woman as the central character.
Why do you say that? My first film "Mitr" also had a female protagonist played by Shobana. "Phir Milenge" couldn't be possible without Shilpa. We hardly get woman-oriented films and Shilpa carried it off so beautifully.
I've to admit there're large bits of me in Shilpa's character. Will she get awards? I hope so. They're amazing, inspiring. But I learnt very young as an actress that you shouldn't work towards them.
Do you feel like a fish out of water in Bollywood?
Not quite. But I think I am a very Chennai person. I can't keep awake late and attend parties. Rekha sleeps early? Ah, she's still a Chennai person. I was never glamorous enough for Bollywood.
Have you given up your acting career?
Not at all! When I sketched Shilpa's role in "Phir Milenge" I said, "Wow! I wish someone had done this for me!" But I've accepted my age, and I'll only do what suits me. I'll go back to acting provided I get something worthwhile.
But I won't direct myself, never! I get very tense while making a film. I can't remain as cool as my friend Ram Gopal Varma... No, it isn't because it's tougher for a woman to make a film. It's more to do with my penchant for perfection. I hope it shows on screen (laughs).
I think I've been lucky because people have really supported me. But, yes, whenever a woman makes a film she's expected to make the film in a particular way. That needn't be so. Every filmmaker male or female, have the yin and yang elements in them. Look at Farah Khan. She has made exactly the kind of film she wanted to. Among the female directors of this country Aparna Sen had always been my biggest inspiration. She is a beautiful actress and a wonderful director.
Interestingly, "Phir Milenge" stresses the guru-shishya tradition.
That's because there have been major influences in my life, whether it was during my growing years, or when I took up dancing, and then as an actress and director. Hardly any one can function in isolation. There're people who make you a better or worse human being.
My cinematic influences include Bharathi Raja who introduced me to acting and helped me choose the right assignments. The people who encouraged me to direct films were cinematographers Madhu Ambat, P.C. Sreeram, then Mani Rathnam... It took me a long time to actually take the plunge into direction. It's a huge responsibility. The one who finally pushed me into it is my husband Suresh.
Will your next film also be in Hindi?
I've a couple of ideas. It may not be woman-oriented but it will be relationship-based. Every film of mine will address an issue though it may not be as all encompassing as "Phir Milenge".
I'd definitely like to make a fun film. And yes it would be in Hindi. I need a wide audience. A Tamil film would be too small to accommodate my ideas. One of my scripts looks at the lighter side of life. You know those things that we say when we sit around with friends? Those moments are hardly looked at in films.