In terms of canvas, budget and scope "Mangal Pandey - The Rising" seems like your most ambitious film.
It is a film that I've wanted to make for the last 17 years. The idea for "Mangal Pandey" went dormant and then kept surfacing over and over again. It was first to be made (with Amitabh Bachchan and later Sanjay Dutt) in the 1980s, then dropped for being too ambitious and risky. Now I think the time is right. There is a certain international curiosity about Indian cinema. At the same time, the Berlin wall between so-called art cinema and commercial cinema has dissolved. I think a whole new generation of filmgoers has come in.
So you think waiting so long to make the film was actually beneficial for you?
That is true. Even the script and the scale of presentation have grown over the years. "Mangal Pandey" is a big project. But then the reach of cinema has also expanded.
But historical films don't have a happy history in Hindi cinema...
I really believe the audience is ready for a change. If a film is made well they are ready for it.
But weren't Raj Kumar Santoshi's "Bhagat Singh" and Shyam Benegal's "Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose" well-made historicals?
There were five "Bhagat Singhs" that came out at the same time. But that is not the issue. It is time to not be timid any more. It is time to get ambitious and move ahead. "Mangal Pandey" is an extremely well made film, and I'm sure there is an audience waiting to see it.
Doesn't Aamir Khan's presence eclipse your own presence as the creator of "Mangal Pandey"?
This is a film where everyone, from producer Bobby Bedi to composer A.R. Rahman to Aamir has contributed more than ever. The project is far more important than its components. It is a dream come true for me.
How much of Mangal Pandey is there in Aamir Khan?
Take a look. He has taken a leap as an actor. Show me one other actor who can give two-and-a-half years to one project at the peak of his career.
Show me one other actor who gets Rs. 70 million per film. Even charging that money, who is so committed? Without Aamir's dedication this project wouldn't have been possible. This isn't my first film with Aamir. Please remember I had worked with him in "Holi".
But does Aamir resemble the real Mangal Pandey?
There is no reference to the real Mangal Pandey's looks in text books. But we have gone by what he must have looked like.
And did the real Mangal Pandey have a relationship with a prostitute, as shown in your film?
There is very little that is tangibly clear about the character. At least four villages claim to be his birthplace, 20 families claim to have his descendents. Historical accounts are vague about everything except the central event in his life, namely the 1857 rebellion against the cartridge, the court-martial and execution. Beyond that my film isn't a biography of Mangal Pandey. What we have done is a mix of folklore and history. So it is a ballad on Mangal Pandey.
Hardcore academicians would take umbrage...
I hope not. I hope they judge the film for what it is. I understand the risks. There are people out there waiting to rake up unnecessary controversies. I think we have captured the spirit of the time and the central incident, and the authenticity of characterizations. Yes, there were prostitutes and brothels during colonial India, meant specially for British soldiers and yes, there were Brahmin sepoys in the British army. Each character is representative. Mangal isn't just a character. He symbolizes the mood of the times. I have tried to arrive at a form of expression that is a mixture of the oral oriental and the written Western tradition.
Your other historical "Sardar", on Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, just died!
Yes, because the producer H.M. Patel died before the film's release. "Sardar" became an orphan.
How do you look at the future of Hindi cinema?
I think this is the most optimistic time for our cinema. On one hand Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Black" works at the box office. On the other hand Sudhir Mishra's "Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi" also works. That is a large spectrum. It is time for movie makers to be bold and skilful. It is time to give your best.
Even your other films like "Mirch Masala" and "Maya Memsaab" were huge projects to your fans.
Perhaps...but "Mangal Pandey" is special. I am looking forward to it more than any of my films. Wherever it has been screened there has been an enthusiastic and overwhelming response. And since it is in English and Hindi it is bound to have a comprehensive impact.
The response at Locarno wasn't that favorable?
Well... we saw the response of 8,000 people. They gave the film a standing ovation. The critics there also wrote well. Now the film is going to be evaluated by our audience.