First the question everyone’s asking you. Why did you think of remaking Sholay?
Sholay is the reason I became a director, in a sense, it is the catalyst for everything I am today. I have watchedSholay 25 times. This was my tribute to it.
But why risk something like this?
Your own first film Shiva was a big hit. You remade it in Hindi recently, it flopped badly. I made a lot of mistakes with Shiva. I didn’t think seriously about it. When I had made it almost 20 years ago, it rang true. But times have changed. I changed the look of the film, but didn’t think enough about how the psychology and scale of crime has shifted since then. With Aag, that is not the case.
You had no affinities with your parents. They did not understand your desire to work in films. Was that a source of stress?
No, they had good reason. I was a very bad student, I used to bunk school, and fail quite frequently. My father was concerned about my future — we weren’t from a rich family. So when out of the blue I said, I want to be director, it seemed like just another mad idea. He wasn’t in my top hundred stumbling blocks though. Even when my first filmShiva was a huge hit, my father wasn’t happy. He was convinced the next would flop. It did. He was very happy that at least he was right — this guy can’t do anything. I’m not saying this as a defence, but ever since I’ve been conscious, the only thing I’ve wanted is to just live life the way I want to. I didn’t like norms — go to school, get a degree, etc. We educate ourselves because our parents tell us; we by-heart things rather than learn. I find this fundamentally very stupid. The whole concept of education goes for a toss. So I just did what I felt like doing. Want to watch a film, watch a film. Go to school — but just have a conversation with friends.
From my parents’ perspective, I looked like a useless bum. It was the truth. I had no objective. I was just fascinated by people, so I used to study their behaviour. I was most fascinated by the bullies in my classroom. They were like gangsters for me. They had the guts to push around people, do things I couldn’t— perhaps did not even want to do myself. But I’d want a friend like that (laughs). I used to adulate them like heroes. That was my first touch with anti-socialism. Over a period of time, I developed a low-angle fascination for larger than life people. I was always a loner — not because I was unhappy, but because I live away from myself, not just others. I like to study myself — the way I am talking, behaving. My constant obsession with studying myself and other people is perhaps the primary motivation for me to be a filmmaker.
You seem to have an almost schizophrenic approach to cinema. On the one hand, there’s great passion and drive. You create sheer magic like Satya. On the other hand, you call your production house The Factory, and it really has a factory approach. It churns out films that do not bear your stamp. What explains this?
There are two reasons. One, basically I am anideas guy. That does not mean I can’t execute my ideas, but what contradicts the passion or intensity I feel for things is my casualness towards life. I think it’s no big deal if something goes wrong, let’s just try it out. See, films take a long time. There are various factors that might be influencing you at each point in time. Your interest can wane, you get diverted to something else, or maybe you didn’t think of the right way of doing something, and you realise the mistake when you can’t do anything about it. At times like that, I have an attitude that says, okay, it’s a mistake, let the mistake go. I don’t want to spend time repairing the mistake because my time is valuable, or my interest has gone off to something else. I don’t mind people ridiculing me about this because I live slightly away from myself in every sense of the word. Having said this, I want to say that I know this is wrong. The very fact that you are making a film says you are doing it for someone else to enjoy. That has to be your primary target. If you don’t take it seriously, you might as well not make a film. Don’t waste so many people’s energy and time and money.
If you are so aware, why don’t you change?
I am changing. I need to change my approach to cinema. I think I went a little haywire in the past. I am conscious about it now.
What would your new approach be?
The only thing limited in life is time. Money and talent come and go. Time is the only thing that is definitely going away. I want to spend every minute of my energy or talent to tell quality stories. That’s what I want to do. I don’t want to get into the business aspects. I just want to come up with as many ideas as possible, and get others to execute it in a systematic way. I want various quality checks — is something being completely destroyed en route by me or others concerned?
A lot of young people have trusted you. But few ever come back to you. Why? Is it that you’ve not been a guardian to their work? Will your new approach change that?
Yes. I have a daredevil attitude. Some will call it madness, some call it my courage. Because I’m willing to — see, success for me is basically getting up in the morning and being able to do exactly what you want to do all day, and even more than that, to bear the consequences when things go wrong. That for me is success. But when I take an actor who’s not of the same mindset, they’re scared. They are constantly worried about making a living, being secure. I’m not like that. So when they come to the Factory without understanding my mindset, and a film fails, they feel betrayed. In all this, I am at fault. My mistake is in not understanding that what applies to me doesn’t apply for everybody else. So they speak against me with good reason. But that,I think, will change. I have a primary responsibility toward people who put in time and money into my projects. I’ll serve ever – yone’s purpose, including mine, better, if I take my responsibility more seriously.
What’s triggered this change of heart?
The failure of my remake, Shiva. It shook me up. I felt I had just not thought about it enough. I didn’t take it seriously.
There is a common perception that you have no space for emotion. You have functional relationships. You use and throw people. How fair is this view?
I really think I am a very non-emotional person, but I understand emotions more than anyone else I know. I study emotions like a biologist studies species. Emotions almost are like drugs — they make you feel high or low — they come from a certain source you cannot identify, so they control you. The moment you understand the source, you can’t let it affect you. In that sense, I’m very non-emotional. People who are close to me are scared to believe this.
That you are so detached —
Yeah. To give you a bad example, it’s like sometimes on National Geographic, you see this leopard chasing a deer. You feel so concerned for the deer, you wish it will escape and then the leopard kills it and you feel really sad for the deer. Minutes later, a pack of hyenas comes and drives the leopard away, then you feel sad for the leopard. When you understand everything in that zoom out mode, nothing seems very important. There is a counterpoint to everything. So I think for people to feel hurt or low is highly egoistical. The world doesn’t owe anything to anyone. It’s up to you to just go forward. So anybody with a negative emotion — no matter how justified — doesn’t interest me. If an employee tells me his mother is not well, I tell him, “How much money do you want? I don’t want to know about your mother because I’m in no way connected to her. I’m doing it for you. You want the money for your mother or a party, it’s immaterial.” I speak like that. To an outsider it might appear I’m a really cruel guy, and that might be true.
If you are always so ironically aware of yourself, how do you have relationships?
We do not live in a realm of knowledge or intelligence. In a sense, what can make you truly happy is a feeling. What goes wrong is when there’s a non co-ordination between two people. That’s when you start designing or editing the person in your mind. But in real life, people are unedited rushes; they are not edited films.
You’ve been associated with many women. What draws you to women?
Basically I love someone who has a strong — see, everyone has a wish. Very few people have a will. The wish to be successful, become something, do something, is the nature of every human being. But most stop at a wish, they don’t have the will. They don’t go ahead, practically applying all the things that should be done with it. So most of the women I get attracted to, I feel there is a will there. But the point is, even in the application of will, you have to have understanding and intelligence. You can’t take it for granted, because every human being has limitations. So when people complain – that turns me off completely. I never do that. It’s worse with people I’m close to. I feel very strongly that the onus is on us to make something out of life.
No one knows who your friends are.
I have no friends. I find it very strange when anybody says, this is a friend of mine. I can’t understand the word. I don’t have a need to open myself up, talk about problems — I don’t feel vulnerable at all, I don’t feel a sense of weakness at all. My relationships with people are only with those who interest me, entertain me, can hold a conversation. Beyond that, I don’t have a need. With every film, the people I interact with change. I don’t remember them — not in the sense of memory loss, just that they don’t matter in the scheme of things.
So have you ever met someone who challenged and matched you?
I would have imagined it — I think imagination is the right word. I think I imagined I’d met someone and because of that you psyche yourself into believing you can’t be in a relationship with someone lesser. When you are telling someone something and she nods her head, you think she understands. Much later, you realise she never understood anything, or never heard anything. She was enamoured by the way you talk — it had nothing to do with what you were talking about. When that initial high goes away, and you actually start to listen, you are bored. The moment she stops listening it defeats my purpose. But I think, they were never wrong, I think it was I who was wrong. I imagined them. They never said, this is me. We keep drawing pictures in our head — about everything in life, actually.
To return to your films, you said sometimes you don’t figure the right way of doing something; there are creative riddles. In which films did you face this?
Every film starts off with one basic idea. For example, the origin of Rangeela was this guy I knew in college. He was a street tough who was in love with a girl. But she was seeing another guy who had a car and better looks. We used to provoke him to do something. One day, he said, Ramu she deserves someone better than me. I thought it an incredible sacrifice, and that was the birth of Rangeela in a way. After that, I saw Mani Ratnam’s Roja. I was fascinated by the way he shot songs; for the first time, I wanted to shoot songs well. Then one day, I was watchingSinging in the Rain with my mom. She’s quite conservative, so I thought the girls dancing with naked thighs would turn her off, but she was super-thrilled. I realised that because the girls were so proud and happy doing what they were doing, they looked completely natural. Because of that, my mother could connect. In those days, in the David Dhawan brand of films, the heroines never liked doing the songs the way they were done. Because they had no choice, a certain hardness came into their expression. Rangeela was created out of a combination of all this — agali ka dada, Roja, and my analysis of my mother enjoying Singing in the Rain.
In the worst of my films, things don’t fall together like this. I may not have a strong enough idea driving the film. After the success of Rangeela, for example, I began to put too much emphasis on just shooting songs — thinking that would land me hits. Obviously it didn’t. In a film like Mast, I think I fell between two stools. I didn’t know whether to approach it as a caper or a dream sequence. In Naach also, I made mistakes. But something like Drohi, which was a huge flop, is in many ways my most important film. I met Urmila in that; I also learnt from its mistakes, and remade it later as Company. But a lot of things happen by pure chance. Satya, for instance — a very famous man had been shot dead by the underworld. I was in a producer’s office and he was recounting the details of what had happened. He woke up at 7, called me at 8, at nine he went out… Funnily enough, because I think cinematically all the time, I began to wonder what the killer was doing in the inter-cuts. What time did he wake up? Did he tell his mother or sister to wake him? Did he have breakfast before killing or after killing? Then it came to me with a shock. We always hear about gangsters only when they kill or die. What do they do in between? That became the seed ofSatya.
What about Nishabd? You’re never coy about sexuality. If it wasn’t for Bachchan, if it was a new actor, would you have pushed the boundaries more?
Nishabd was a big flop, but there is something about the film which is personal and which I do not regret. But to answer your question, yes, I’m not shy about sexuality, but an overtly sexual image would’ve eaten into the primary intention of the film. Mr Bachchan’s character has nothing to complain about, he’s just bored. Suddenly someone came into their life who made him feel silly, happy, made him laugh, feel emotion. He got confused at that the time and said, yes, I love you. I’m not very sure he meant it. If the sexual angle had been too overt, it would’ve killed this primary mood.
Sarkar was rivetting. But you created a scary empathy for the character based on Thackeray. How do you view him?
I don’t know politics but I understand the psychology of politics. The Godfather was a defining book in my life. When I read it, I’d never heard the word mafia, never heard of the American underworld. But the reason it struck a huge resonance across the world is that a godfather exists everywhere — be it a Thakur in UP, a big industrialist, a dictator or a political leader. They might use violence to get their way, but how did they reach that position? Obviously there are x number of people who trust him and think he’s good. The closest example I had for an adaptation was Bal Thackeray — a man who seems almost feudal, existing in the middle of a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai, in a democratic country like India. He has a huge say in how the city should run its life, some people want to kill him, at the same time, the people who love him are willing to die for him. This phenomenon became the basis of my film. But I don’t have a direct knowledge of him. My film avoids presenting Sarkar’s men as a political party, which the Shiv Sena is.
You say you’re a careful observer of life. But your films are mostly about crime. What else catches your eye?
I don’t understand politics at all, I have no interest in it. But one thing I find extremely fascinating are news channels — their ability to make something out of nothing, make your emotion rush. It’s the height of manipulation. I saw this story on one of the channels about somebody claiming Aishwarya would bring bad luck to Amitabh Bachchan’s house. They had this very worried looking picture of Amitabh and a smiling one of Aishwarya. And they put horror music on it. I find that genius. I know them both, I know it’s all humbug, but in spite of that, for one second they made me scared of Aishwarya. Two video clips, and one piece of music. If they can do it to me who has first hand knowledge, what effect will it have on others? So news channels catch my eye.
You’re often accused of objectifying women’s bodies. Is that fair?
No, for me there are various aspects. When I am having a conversation — for example, just now with you — whether it’s a woman or man makes no difference. But sex is a strong aspect. As a man I’m attracted to a woman’s sexuality, which as a normal man I should be. So I love to show her sexuality openly. Because I talk so openly, people laugh and joke about me. They say, oh, Ramu likes to show women’s butts. But if you look at my women characters, they’re much stronger than any other director’s. I never make them bubbly, cute, jumping around and giggling like the others. I feel sexuality is one of the strongest things about a woman. I like to capture it in the best way I can. It may be demeaning for others, for me it’s an art form. I take it very seriously.
You present yourself as a hard man. Would you admit to any crises of confidence?
No. And I think the reason for this is that I truly believe nothing and nobody owes anything to you. Thousands of people and animals keep on perishing. You should feel lucky to be in any state of life. It’s up to you and you alone to do something about it. I’ll give you an extreme example. Some people will call it mad. When the Gujarat earthquake happened, even Mumbai shook. I used to live on the 9th floor on Yari Road. I woke up, the building was swaying. My first thought was to run, but by the time I got down, the building would’ve collapsed. That’s what it felt like. So I just sat down. I was curious to know what kind of sound the building would make when it broke. I waited for that without fear. I got scared of myself at that moment, to tell you the truth, but that’s how I am basically.