Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ram Gopal Varma, Unplugged -- Part I

Ram Gopal Varma, Unplugged -- Part I

Raja Sen | November 10, 2004

When met Ram Gopal Varma for what was slated as a brief interview, the maverick director started things off with a simple, ice-breaking "Just call me Ramu." Then, unexpectedly, a tremendous conversation unravelled as the filmmaker vocally let fly.

Here's the first in a short series of interviews with Raja Sen, which we will simply call Ramu Unplugged.

What about Naach should we watch out for?

Naach I would describe as an intense love story. We're used to seeing very light-hearted romances, and bubbly affairs, with family functions and Karva Chauts and birthday parties. Naach doesn't have any of the traditional, conventional ingredients of a love story.

It's about two very strong, very independent-minded people: the characterisations are larger than life, designed to intimidate the audience, so they warm up to them. The emotions work on a higher plane than what one is usually used to seeing in such films. This is as far as the subject matter, in terms of the idea, is concerned.

As for the treatment: I have done, as a director, some extremely radical work in terms of taking shots and the sound design, the background score. Also, in terms of performance styles -- very unrehearsed, which is what my intention was.

It's understandably obvious, when I was making Company, of the underworld genre, people would compare it to Satya. While making Naach people will naturally compare it to Rangeela, the only love story I've made. But the difference, primarily, is that Rangeela was a light-hearted entertainer, the characters were very identifiable...

It was a fairy tale: very unrealistic, very filmi.

Correct. It was very filmi. But Naach is radically opposite, in that sense. More like the realistic cinema that Hrishikesh Mukherjee used to make. Like Abhimaan: They were raw; they were real, those characters. I think it's a very contemporary version of that kind of cinema. But packaged very stylishly, with a lot of sleekness, with what is available today for contemporary filmmakers.

Your first experience with Abhishek. I've heard you describe him in glowing terms earlier. So how is it working with him?

I think Abhishek is a terrific actor. In fact, he quite took even me by surprise. I haven't seen any of his films. I saw some portions of Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon -- I just liked his demeanor, I liked the fact that he had some dignity.

It's quite unreal -- you watching Main Prem Ki Diwani Hoon and then casting Abhishek based on it!

(Bursts out laughing) It's true, I assure you. I just thought, in a film that was, by nature, so boisterous and loud -- I just liked the way he was standing there, doing nothing. There was something about it; it worked for me.

I just came out during the interval, called him and said 'I want to make a film, I want to make a love story with you' (laughs). Amitji grew on us over the years: Deewar, Zanjeer, and all that. Abhishek didn't have a choice -- he was already Amitabh Bachchan's son. At the time Abhishek came into the industry, the whole industry was geared towards making these NRI romances; they were the most successful films.

Even Hrithik, with his dance and his body and all that. I think they tried to force-fit Abhishek into that mould, which is not his natural self. The only thing I did was I put him as Abhishek: just do what you want to do. That is the only thing I tried to do in Naach, and so I think he found his bearings there, and he's turned out a fantastic performance.

Antara, of course, is a favourite of yours. You seem to go through these phases with your heroines, almost like muses. Or maybe, less idealistically, its just a comfort-level thing.

No, I wouldn't even say that. When I believe in an actor, I believe there is something in that actor. See, I don't believe in Fridays, I don't believe in the box office. The industry has a standard way of judging actors: they do ten films, they get X price, and they get this number of awards, seen at page three parties and all that -- that is how they measure success. I don't do it like that.

I just look for what is there in a person, and if that person can work in some film, cannot work in some film. I, as a maker, will know exactly what is it that worked, and what didn't work.

Right from Mast onwards, I believed there was something in that girl, a highly talented person. So in Company I explored another facet of it. In terms of her dedication and her passion, and the amount of work she'll put in for a role is something I've not ever seen in anybody.

The role she's playing in Naach demands that kind of effort. I don't think it's about the comfort level alone. Especially, as far as Naach is concerned, I can't imagine anyone except Antara playing that role.

One thing about your films is your plots have always been very simplistic -- very A-to-B plotlines, but you take a lot more interest in the screenplay -- the characters are a lot more fleshed out, it's all about the screenplay, the dialogues and things like that. Is there a particular reason to this? Don't you want to tell a bizarrely unique story?

I somehow don't believe films are about stories. Films create an effect, an emotional experience that forms what you take home. In fact, looking back from the day I was watching films, I don't remember any of the stories of the films. I just remember shots, I remember moments, I remember songs, I remember a dialogue somewhere.

Now, take the greatest Amitabh Bachchan films: I don't remember a single story from the films. I don't think anyone else would either. If I asked you what is the story of Amar Akbar Anthony, you won't be able to tell me.

The emphasis on 'story' is basically highly exaggerated. Because I think the primary purpose of the story is to abet and make the next moment work. I'll give you an example: Take the biggest hit of all time, Sholay. It's about a guy who hires these two guys to take revenge on a man who massacred his family so brutally -- this is the plotline of Sholay. The story demands you to hate the villain, and the audience comes out loving him. Which means the story had failed, technically, the story has not worked.

But that is the same story which gave rise to those unforgettable moments, from 'kitne aadmi the?' to Helen's Mehbooba song to Dharmendra-Amitabh Bachchan's comedy track -- everything you remember from Sholay is a selection of great, but isolated moments. It's not as if you're emotionally connected with the script of Sholay. If you were, you wouldn't have loved Gabbar Singh (laughs). That's my ultimate proof of what it's about!

'I hate being ignored'

The Rediff Interview / Ram Gopal Varma

'I hate being ignored'

Raja Sen | November 18, 2004

The Ram Gopal Varma chronicles continue, as seen in the first part of the interview with Raja Sen. Here, the filmmaker talks about making bizarre cinema and why his surreal Daud didn't work.

Okay, now I'm going to ask about Daud. It stands apart from all the other films you've made, it's the most bizarre of the lot. What were you really trying to say with Daud?

A film, I feel, is a state of mind. A film eventually comes from an idea: based on an idea, you make a decision, and once you make the decision, you keep comparing everything to that, but don't question the decision itself. That's why most of the time you make mistakes in life. Even in personal life.

With Daud, basically, I wanted to make a very Mad Max kind of a film: that was my original intention. But there were too many things conflicting, contrary to that: the success of Rangeela, Sanjay Dutt's star status, Urmila's sex-symbol image, the success of Rahman's music in Rangeela, the well-shot songs.

When a film does not have a strong emotional hook, which acts as a guideline, it's very hard to maintain the balance. You are likely to make more mistakes with a light-hearted film than a serious one.

People understood only halfway through the film that it was a comedy! (Laughs) The title, Sanjay Dutt's image, and my reputation with films like Shiva, prepared the audience to expect a very intense action film. So they got confused with what was happening: the film starts with high intensity and suddenly takes on another turn, some comedy happens, and suddenly it jumps back to something serious.

If I had trained the audience's mind in the campaign, even before they stepped into the theatre, to expect a bizarre and offbeat film, it could have been different. I don't know.

Another major aspect is that, I don't think I went all-out! In fact, in the opening scene of Daud – a friend of mine in Hyderabad suggested, in the film It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the guy talks about treasure and kicks the bucket before he dies. He said if you had one shot like that in the opening sequence of Daud, I wouldn't have taken the film seriously, leaned back, and enjoyed whatever insanity is happening!

But I confused them. I keep telling Manoj (Bajpai), 'You screwed up Daud. You did it so sincerely, the film took a serious turn. None of the actors, or me, we didn't take the film seriously. You just acted so seriously in that beginning scene, it set the tone. Then it confused them. So it looks bizarre.'

Yes, it's hard to find a track to settle down in the movie with. I think it's actually enjoying a decent run on TV. A lot of people watch it now and have a good laugh.

(Laughs) Yes, because they don't see it with the same intensity with which they came into the theatres. When you're watching TV, you're doing other things: talking to someone on the phone, going into the kitchen, coming back. So the expectations and emotional connectivity are not as intense as the theatrical audience. That's the reason they work on TV.

But I still feel with Daud, I'd decided to completely make a wacko film by intention, but I didn't have a conscious design. I was just having fun on the locations everyday.

Are you going to go all-out and bizarre in a film ever? A surreal film with something incredibly risky, which you haven't been averse to earlier. Something possibly with killer robots and zombies and the like? Just pushing the envelope as a filmmaker to the complete, insane extreme.

I'm not so sure I'll make that kind of film again. Maybe I will, I don't know. First of all, I don't think I take risks. People think I do, but I don't. In fact, I think conventional formula-filmmakers take more risks than me (laughs). Why I try things differently is because I don't think the previous film will work again (laughs). That's the truth.

Coming to pushing the envelope, I'd like to do anything that interests me. I get an idea, and it excites me, and I maybe call a couple of writers and say this is my idea, let's do something about it. I'm busy, am doing several other things, so whenever this guy comes up with what I feel is a reasonable position in the script for me to start, I get so excited I want to start off with that! Immediately!

So they could be killer robots, as you said. Sounds interesting. Suddenly, someone tells me let's make a monster film: I don't know what the monster is, but it sounded nice. Could be like The Predator maybe (laughs). Let's do it.

So you don't limit yourself to anything?

(Smiles) No, I don't limit myself to anything. It should just be startling; it should be shocking. I don't mind making a bad film, an ugly film, I just don't want to make an okay film. I don't mind being hated, but I hate being ignored. I want an extreme reaction. 'Kya bakwaas film banaata hai!' – I don't mind that. But I don't want them being indifferent.

Films, today, are a medium of entertainment. I don't think it's really so much about business and risk.

Ever wanted to be part of the film industry?

Ever wanted to direct a film?

Ever thought what producers are looking for, in first-timers?

Well, how about getting your questions answered from one of India's most prolific filmmakers in the last decade?

One who has been credited with introducing an army of young directors to mainstream cinema?

Because, for Ram Gopal Varma and his production house, The Factory, films are to be churned out on the double!

Raja Sen spoke to Varma, about the filmmaker's thoughts on films as a career, choosing first-time directors and formal training and the lack of it, to make it in the industry.

Who is a film for?

I don't believe films cater to the same things.

Sometimes you want to have a snack. Sometimes popcorn to pass the time. Or a full-blown meal. Or you have food at home.

All of it is food. But they differ according to your mood, your state of mind.

Films are exactly the same.

You might take a movie like Satya very seriously. While you might take Vaastu Shastra in a very tongue-in-cheek manner: You are startled if somebody yells 'Boo', do-teen baar from behind the door.

In that moment, it worked. Now don't get into why he said 'Boo,' what is he doing behind the door. (laughs)

It is not necessary that everyone likes a film.

Films are like people. I might be liked by five people; I might be hated by five people.

[But it is okay] As long as I am myself. So I'm very clear about that aspect.

If a guy starts from VT Central [Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station in south Mumbai] in a taxi and travels to Andheri [the northwestern Mumbai suburb], you can make a film on that.

Provided what happens en route is interesting.

[What is important is] To take the audience into his [the director's] mind, and the way he perceives things.

If you can capture it, that is a story for me.

Anything, anything is possible! The conversation must be interesting: The whole point is about holding the audience's interest. [Through] Conversation, action, love, anything.

In the picture: Aamir Khan and Urmila Matondkar, who starred in Ram Gopal Varma's Hindi hit, Rangeela.

There are some, at least superficial, parallels between you and Quentin Tarantino: Both ran video stores. Both have no formal training. Both with instinctive cult-spawning work.

It is funny, but I have never seen his films (laughs).

My whole film-watching has decreased ever since I became a director. That's because, obviously, I am very busy.

In fact, [while] starting the video library, I got very busy: I started it because I had this encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema. I knew which cassettes to recommend because I had seen them all.

Tarantino came after that. Even when I saw -- I didn't watch the full film -- Pulp Fiction, I feel it's very (raises eyebrows)...

I don't think I make films like Tarantino.

In the picture: Vivek Oberoi in the crime thriller Company, said to be one of Varma's best films.

No, you have distinctly different styles! This is about more personal terms. The coincidences -- the video stores, the lack of formal training...

Actually, I don't think the video store was the point for him or me.

The video store was there because I love movies and I know the subject, so I can make a business of it. It wasn't about the creative aspect.

And formal training: I believe having no formal training would be the greatest asset for a director, because his expression becomes much more raw and original.

The moment you are trained, you are taught to think in a certain way. That is when you fall into the rut, into formula.

[I mean] Not necessarily the way we think of 'formula', but in terms of grammar [of filmmaking].

I think anything that is grammatically right is not original. It might have form and depth, but a film's intention I think is to startle.

In the picture: Ajay Devgan with Ram Gopal Varma on the sets of Company

As a producer, you also seem to originate the very basic ideas for your next projects, and hand them out to your directors. Direction is a very individualised art: What if their vision differs from yours, and changes the way you imagined the film?

Differences in opinion might happen during the making of the film.

But if I am releasing the film, I have financed it. It means I have bought into his [the director's] vision.

It is possible that once you are involved in a film, your judgement might be less than objective. [That is] From the time you had the idea, to see it grow, to see it coming together as a film -- it is highly possible that you might lose your objectivity.

That happens to me as well as my director.

So if I say my director has botched it up - which I have done as well, I've made some terrible films in my career (laughs) -- both of us are in the same boat.

I can't complain.

In the picture: Ram Gopal Varma on the sets of Bhoot, with veteran actor Victor Banerjee.

While working with a first-time director, what do you look for? How do you invest faith in someone without a formal training benchmark?

I don't invest faith [in directors].

I look for sparks like what I had when I started off.

I look for the intensity of his desire.

I want to see the sincerity in what he wants to say. His energy levels. His willingness to change his mind constantly when things are not working out. His openness.

I just look for four-five qualities like this and then I cast according to the subject.

If I were to make a very frivolous film, I wouldn't hand it to someone very serious. He would be a problem for that picture.

Similarly, I wouldn't give a serious subject to someone who is looking out to have fun.

So it is all about casting: Every human being is different.

In the picture: Nana Patekar (right), in Ab Tak Chhappan, which Ram Gopal Varma produced. The critically acclaimed film was directed by first-timer Shimit Amin.