Are you excited about the release of Raincoat?
Why? Because it's in Hindi? Frankly to me it's like any release. I know I'm leaping into a different kind of market. But I never allowed that to color my judgement. Just because I've done another film with Aishwarya Rai before there's curiosity about "Raincoat". I find that very flattering. "Raincoat" is an intimate and delicate film. Just because it features Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya the mood shouldn't be misconstrued. It's a very tender film.
It seems like a chamber piece.
I disagree with that. I'll tell you why. After a point the setting is immaterial. It's the human interaction that matters. The encounter between Ajay and Ash could've happened in a park. It just happens in a drawing room. It doesn't convey indoor but intimate emotions. "Raincoat" talks about separation and reunion. It's a celebration of a relationship-revisited.
Did you plan a different mood for your first Hindi film?
No, "Raincoat" could be in Bengali. I did it in Hindi because after "Chokher Bali", where Ash had the disadvantage of working in an alien tongue, I wanted to give her the space of acting in a familiar language. I understand Hindi better than she understands Bengali.
If I had done "Raincoat" in Bengali I wouldn't have been able to work with fascinating actors like Ajay Devgan and Anu Kapoor. Hindi is important because the protagonists are both out-of-towners in Kolkata bonding in their own language. It's the story of two uprooted human beings. That makes it a global issue. Had it been in Bengali the setting wouldn't have been poignant enough.
Will the audience come with certain expectations from Aishwarya and Ajay?
Audiences have seen Dharmendra and Hema Malini in blockbusters like "Charas", "Jugnu" and "Sita Aur Geeta". But they also did unconventional parts in "Kinara" and "Dillagi". Were it not for these films we wouldn't have known the more subtle aspect of their talent at all. Or Sanjeev Kumar and Sharmila Tagore... they did both "Faraar" and "Mausam". I'm accused of using stars in "Raincoat". But Ajay and Ash are also actors.
But they're being used to get audiences interested!
They have to be used that way. Otherwise no one would come to watch my film. But I'm not using them only as stars. I could've approached other stars. But from day one I knew Ajay could deliver. He plays a character totally different from what he has done before.
Mild soft spoken, completely ordinary... He was mellow in "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam". But there he was a successful person. Here he plays a defeated soul. I think there's an innately gentle quality about him that only Sanjay Bhansali has used. I'm very indebted to Sanjay. I discovered Ash and Ajay in Sanjay's "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam". But I've used them in "Raincoat" in my own way. I know we can't brush away the comparisons.
Have you caught two aspects of Aishwarya's personality in "Chokher Bali" and "Raincoat"?
Completely! "Chokher Bali" was difficult for her because she was trying to capture the feelings underlining a different language. In "Raincoat" in spite of the comfort of a familiar language she had a far tougher role to play.
In "Choker Bali" she played a heroine. In "Raincoat" she's an ordinary housewife. I've worked with a lot of very beautiful women including Aparna Sen, Sharmila Tagore, Raakhee and Nandita Das. None of them played a character as ordinary as Aishwarya.
Did you try to diminish her beauty for the role?
There was no effort to de-glamorise her. Between "Chokher Bali" and "Raincoat" the whole year she was doing films that were in sync sound. Suddenly she was doing another film, mine, with dubbed sound.
I personally believe an actor can improve on her performance during dubbing. Ash hadn't dubbed her lines in "Chokher Bali". She dubbed for me for the first time. There was a sequence where she had to drink water and say her lines. It was very difficult. And she did it. Her performance improved during the dubbing.
How did you get Gulzar Saab to come into the project?
I needed a poem for the narrative. I had a Bangla poem which I wanted him to translate. He quietly translated it and then asked me about the film. I told him the story and he offered to write a fresh poem... completely free of money! When I mentioned money he scolded me, 'Tumi maar khabe?'
Then I wanted him to record it in his beautiful baritone. He did the scratch recording. Ajay was supposed to follow his voice. But Gulzar Bhai's version was too good to be discarded.
So which is better, Aishwarya's performance or Gulzar Saab's poetry?
laughs) I'd go with Ash. Gulzar Saab can create poems any time. But for Ash to come up with such a performance is an event. She played the part with great dignity and charm.
The title "Raincoat" is curious.
Yes, to the extent that people think it's a thriller. But "Raincoat" falls into the genre of Gulzar Bhai's "Aandhi". Every film finds its own viewers. Some people who enjoyed "Masti" and "Dhoom" will enjoy this one too. "Raincoat" isn't a dry film. It has lots of emotional moments.
"Swades" hasn't opened that well.
The film hasn't yet got the audience it is meant to. The fact that it's a little different and even the promotional clippings suggested nothing else could've something to do with this. Yes, the film is a little bit slow paced. That's because the dramatic thrust has a lot of gravity in it.
Such films do need more time to develop. We need the audience to accept the languorous pace. In today's times films are paced like the Frontier Mail. I want audiences to watch "Swades" more compassionately than the usual and go beyond the pace.
"Swades" is being seen as a propagandist cinema.
Propaganda is generally associated with political parties. I wouldn't like to see the ideas in "Swades" as propagandist. But it definitely projects nationalism. It begins as a story of an individual's growing consciousness and then gets more societal.
Problems like drinking water and enough food below the poverty line are alien to metropolitan audiences. Is that why you brought in Shah Rukh Khan?
I never thought of him as a ploy to get in audiences. In fact I never got into a particular audience profile, tailoring my script accordingly. I wanted the audience to share my social consciousness. Even I've thought in the past, 'Iss desh ka kuch nahin ho sakta' (This country is beyond redemption!).
We need to break away from such cynicism. Thoughts on the decline in moral and living standards in our country were with me from before the time I wrote "Lagaan". In fact I started writing "Swades" at the same time. To get into something as realistic as "Swades" I needed to do extensive research. And I didn't want a research panel to do it for me. I preferred to do my own research. I discovered things about our country that I wasn't aware of earlier.
So like your protagonist Mohan Bhargava you too went through a process of self-discovery?
Yes. And the poverty that I discovered isn't restricted to rural India. Even at the traffic signal in the city when a child comes with outstretched hands, it's an image that affects your conscience if you allow it to. We should stop believing that a change in the social order is someone else's problem.
The film gets progressively polemical in tone?
The era of looking back in anger at social problems is over. We need to look back emotionally. That's the need of the hour. That's what "Swades" does. There's mass scale migration from the villages to cities and from cities to abroad. We say that's because there're no job opportunities. But these opportunities need to be created.
In "Swades" I wanted all of us to revisit old-world values. So no... I'm not preaching. I'm reminding you of what we've lost. I want the audiences' conscience to be pricked.
"Swades" harks back to Bimal Roy's "Do Bigha Zameen".
I'm deeply moved by the cinema of the 1950s, be it Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy or V. Shantaram. They made films about the grass roots when our society was optimistic. Today there's complete despair. But we need to regain our positive outlook. It might take us another 50 years to regain our optimism.
But let's start somewhere. Every time I leave the theatre after a movie, there're questions in my mind. I don't want questions any longer. Let's have some solutions. Each one of us is an expert on the problems faced by our country. But where are the solutions? To me the country's main issue should be education. And it should be pushed as hard as possible.
Why Shah Rukh?
I needed someone who isn't cynical and yet when he thinks the West is where the action is... contrasting qualities rolled into one. I needed an actor with an unpredictable quality about him. Shah Rukh has it. That Shah Rukh Khan could ride a train, bus or boat as he does in "Swades" is unheard of. People said: how could I make him do all this? But Shah Rukh is basically from the grass roots. Thanks to his screen image, he could look an outsider in the situations given in my film. I needed that look. Shah Rukh could be the outsider looking into social issues with a sense of dismay and wonderment.
And I had hoped his angst would affect the audience. All this wasn't done to be clever as a filmmaker. Shah Rukh and I bonded so well we never realised when the film started. We had done three films together as actors. In "Swades" we had a ball together. Neither of us was trying to impress the other. I had a script reading with him before shooting. He had never done that before in a movie. But because of the preparation no actor looks in awe of Shah Rukh in screen.
Both "Lagaan" and "Swades" were about rural exploitation.
After "Lagaan" I could've easily made a happy fantasy film like "Goopi Gayen Bagan Bayen" (Satyajit Ray's Bengali film). But social issues started worrying me. So I thought, why not use my clout as the director of "Lagaan" to make a film that would otherwise find it hard to find an audience.
"Swades" is a much tougher film than "Lagaan". I couldn't make it with Aamir Khan. He became too big after "Lagaan". We had a heart-to-heart chat. It would have been perfectly natural to cast him in my next. But I couldn't tailor my script for him. He understood what I was saying.
Did you make a concerted effort to cast untried faces?
Absolutely. It was about the protagonist coming into a new world. So everyone had to be new. The leading lady Gayatri Joshi... I met her at a party. I needed an intelligent city girl.
Will "Swades" make as much difference as "Lagaan"?
Before making a difference it will have to find acceptance. I haven't done anything for effect in "Swades". "Lagaan" was a formula film. "Swades" flies at one altitude. That's tough to do. I hope "Swades" will get an audience in rural areas.
I've kept the narrative deliberately simplistic. I see "Swades" as more than a film. For me entertainment ends in the theatre. Then there's the carry-home. I want that aspect to be strong. "Swades" cost more than 200 million rupees ($4.5 million). I could've made it in Rs.60 million. But then the mountains and the boat ride would have been shot in Film City in Mumbai. NASA would've been an office in Nariman Point in Mumbai. Let's see how it goes. I haven't made it for money. But the distributors should get back their money.
I've got two scripts ready. I'm going to announce it within the next three days. It won't be a rural film. And, yes, it will have established stars.