How is India?
Wonderful! My wife and I are having a blast. We've been here for ten days, and we're already thinking of coming back with our kids.
"Sweet Home Albama", "Ever After", "Hitch" - You seem to specialize in romantic comedies?
Yes. But my favourite film "Anna And The King" wasn't a comedy. We didn't just remake the old Yul Brynner-Deborah Kerr musical "The King And I". We actually re-conceived it. We took the opportunity to get historical facts right, to tell a story that hadn't been told before. We thought the idea of a white woman taming the noble savage in "The King And I" was a little outdated.
Are you against musical films?
Oh no! I love musicals. In fact, I might be making a musical soon. I believe much of Bollywood cinema is in the musical format. I want to see "Bride and Prejudice". I want to see Aishwarya Rai because she was almost in my film.
That's right. There was a time when she was going to play the college girlfriend, which was originally a much bigger part. I think we were all keen she do it. But we had a demanding schedule, which she couldn't work out. That was the hitch in "Hitch".
Hitch is about a 'date doctor'. Is that the film's USP?
One of them. The other was, we wanted to make a romantic comedy from a guy's point of view. Most of the time, men don't want to go and see a romantic comedy.
I think most of them put a woman up as the protagonist. Romantic comedies like the story to be more emotional. With a male as the protagonist, audiences don't want to see much emotion. The way to get the men into a romantic comedy is to let them enjoy the comic aspect. Let the women weep and enjoy the comedy.
Is that the ploy you used in "Hitch"?
I think we made a romantic comedy masquerading as a buddy comedy. The chemistry between Will Smith and his screen-buddy Kevin James is as strong as the chemistry between Will and his romantic lead Eva Mendes.
Do you think there's a writing crisis in Hollywood?
Oh yeah! During "Hitch" we had many, many writers coming in. It's difficult to find a coherent voice with so many around. I myself collaborated on the writing. Often the films find themselves a good concept but no good script.
We in Hollywood tend to bring in multiple writers. Lots of doctoring goes on and it gets a bit chaotic. We end up making a film like a relay race - where every writer contributes his lap, so to speak.
We had a lot of funny people writing "Hitch". I had to be the ultimate arbitrator. I unified all the voices and tuned all the instruments so that we were all playing at the same key.
How was it working with Will Smith?
Part of the reason I wanted to do "Hitch" was because my other films had female protagonists. I wanted to do something with a male protagonist. To have a guy of his stature is a whole different ballgame. It was like a good time around a pool table. With female stars, it was more like a nice candle-lit dinner. With Will, there were lots of laughs.
You did one of Reese Witherspoon's earlier comedies "Sweet Home Alabama". Now she's done "Vanity Fair" with Mira Nair...
Which I saw.
I won't embarrass you by asking what you thought of it.
So do you want to move to other challenges?
I don't know. Making "Hitch" was harder than "Anna And The King", which wasn't a romantic comedy. Historically, during stressful times people turn to comedies. Frankly with all the sadness around me the last thing I wanted to do was to see "Million Dollar Baby". I admire the "Million Dollar Baby" kind of films more than I enjoy them.
At the end of the day the Oscars go to those films?
I don't care. I'd rather fill up the theatre with people who are laughing. Did you see "Sullivan's Travel"? It's a film about a director making comedies who suddenly decided to make dramas to be taken more seriously. There's no greater pleasure than to go to the theatre and see the audience howling with delight at your humour. But I would like to write a drama.
It's far more difficult to make a funny film?
Doing comedy is like writing music. The timing has to be perfect. The effort shouldn't show up. When "Anna And The King" didn't work, it drove me away from comedy for a while. I was disappointed by the criticism. I felt I had let my producers down. It took me a couple of years to get out of the disappointment. Today I look back at "Anna..." as my favourite.
You know my father gave me a quote from Rudyard Kipling which I carry around as my philosophy of life: 'Treat success and failure equally as the impostors that they are'.
Now that I've had both, I still have to do what I have to do.
I'm trying to do another comedy with Nicole Kidman. I've been her fan for years. Right now she's in Australia and I'm in India. Let's hope it happens. Otherwise, I'd probably write a drama.
Would you like to do a film in India?
I've come to know that Hollywood films make up only five percent of the movie-going public in India. Maybe I can do an "Anna And The King" as a musical in India. One of the things Will Smith has taught me is to open new markets with every movie. When I came to India, I didn't know "Hitch" hadn't opened. I took the initiative to promote the film here.
Would you like to see "Hitch" dubbed in Hindi?
I've seen it in German and it's still funny. There's an awful lot of slapstick in "Hitch". You don't need to know English or Hindi to see Will Smith's face blow up. Will and I are talking about a sequel.