IIM Calcutta

Interview with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

Inteview By Priyanka on the occasion of Mr.Mehra’s visit to IIM-C campus for delivering a lecture as part of Intaglio
  1. Which are your 5 favourite films and why?

Why is the number always 5? All around the world I am asked the same number. You can’t stop at 5. There are so many films. Cinema caters to different states of mind. The appeal changes with age.  As you change as a person, your cinema changes. I’ve always found this a challenging question. The child in me loves ‘Jungle Book’. I like ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’ for taking up such a serious subject and converting it into Nautanki style of storytelling. I love Meghe Dhaka Tara. It’s my all-time favourite film. It does something to me that I cannot explain. ‘Guide’ , ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ in India, so much of Italian cinema. Fellini- all his movies as a director. Polish film-maker called Krzysztof Kieślowski. He’s done incredible films. This series called Decalogue – a series of ten short films based on the ten commandments – absolutely delectable. The American art-house films. The era where the Rat Pack of America changed cinema – Scorcese, Coppola, Oliver Stone, all these guys has been very inspiring in my life. Before them, there were musicals and big dramas and they brought realism into movies and turned it on its head. And they brought in imagination – people like Spielberg and George Lucas. They took us to space. If you look eastwards, there are masters like Kurosawa and his cinema. Closer home there were ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ , ‘Garam Hawa’, ‘ Meghe Dhaka Tara’, ‘Sarange Holi’, ‘Guide’ , ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ these were some of the movies that made an impact on me. Not that there aren’t other films. ‘Bandit Queen’ was one of my favourites

2. What is your take on contemporary Indian film-makers?

I am slightly disappointed in them. That’s a negative way to put it. I am one of the contemporary film-makers in India and I am slightly disappointed in myself too. We are not able to choose. The character of any nation or any community depends on the choices they make and it seems like we are not able to choose. We are living by other people’s choices. We are always scared of putting our foot forward and make the cinema that we want to make. We are not able to sever ties from the whole folk theatre, nautanki, song-and-dance musicals. Yet we have one foot in the other boat and we want to get into this whole new wave. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You have to make a choice. This is my take on contemporary film-makers including myself from a third person point of view. I think that is what the world also feels . They are looking at us and they are hoping for a change. But its so far-and-wide and spaced out that you are not noticing any change. We are still stagnated.

3. Do you think Aks was made too early? Now would have been a better time for the movie, perhaps?

It was dated for me the day I made it. People say it was ahead of its time. I think its one of those clichés that get picked up. Indians love these labels, we love idols, we love Gods. Einstein defined time by saying that time is essential, otherwise everything had to happen at the same time. For me, it’s not an absolute, it’s a relative question. If I look at the world, Aks was as good or as bad as any other film made in the world at that time. If you make India or Hindi films as your reference, you are confining your thought process. I never thought it was ahead of it time. I’d like to believe I am part of the international community as far as cinema is concerned.

4. The malayalam/bengali film industry actually had a niché for themselves, but weren’t the ‘big’ thing in the world at any time. What do you think was the reason?

The world wants to know your stories but you have to translate your stories into world language. And cinema is a very dynamic language. Just by sub-titling your films, it doesn’t become a world film. The whole grammar of the film has to change, while at heart the story remains  a Bengali story or a Malayalam story and so on. It can be a story of the land, the aspirations, trials and tribulations of the people , their conflicts. For instance, for the world screenplay has evolved from playwrights. It’s a three-act structure – the beginning, the middle and the end. Indian cinema is a two- act structure – before interval and after interval. It could be one of the reasons. People can’t deal with the interval. It’s exotic for them. There are many factors like that. There is a bigger question here. As we become world citizens, cinema will become world cinema.

5. You have experimented with many styles in your films (eg theatrical light-and-shadow in Aks, film within a film in RDB), what are your major stylistic influences? Are you still looking for your own style?

I am focusing on being formless – not to confine myself to one style. It’s a conscious effort from my end to break away from whatever I have done the last time. Especially if I have achieved success, then I don’t want to repeat that. I want to move on to the next chapter, learn more and take the next step and raise the bar for myself. I am trying not to fall into this whole style mantra.

6. Your own college days at Delhi University seem to have influenced you considerably (as in RDB).

All my work has come out of my own personal life so far, till the whole thing becomes empty and I have to take a break and refill it. I feel as a director and a film-maker, you should have something to say. Otherwise how can you make movies? We had just gotten out of Emergency. There was this whole thing about the new India and kill the corruption and all that. We used to do nothing about it – just talk about it. Actually the boys from Rang De Basanti are each inspired from a different friend of mine – they have the same traits. Except their names , they are all there. I saw the Mandal commission later on in life. The younger brothers of my friends were a part of it. I even spent a night with them in Sarojini Nagar and sang songs all night. Then I saw this horrific video of the establishment coming down on them- shooting their own children. That got reflected in RDB. And my air force school , I used to see a MIG plane everyday. There was a showpiece outside, with empty shells. And later I saw this NDTV documentary “Coffins in Tricolour’ – that the MIGs were going down because there was a 2000 crore scam that had happened. I had an attachment to air force pilots and MIGs because I am from an air force school. Cinema remains personal for me. It doesn’t have to be a literal translation. Cinema is a vibrant modern-day commercial art form. In cinema, there is always a conflict between commerce and art form. And the challenge is to bring them together. The convergence of both is beauty.

7. The wave of public activity in the aftermath of RDB has faded. Is the public already jaded by films depicting social phenomenon?

There is nothing called movies about social issues. There are only good movies and bad movies. If you make a good movie, it is going to strike a chord with the audience. Good and bad may sound childish. If your work gets across and communicates to the people, it will strike a chord.At times your work could be lacking. Then it will not get across. There’s been great political cinema attempted in the country. There have been  movies like ‘Mere Anjaane’, ‘Aandhi’. ‘Mere Anjaane’ more extrovert, ‘Aandhi’ more subtle and lateral. ‘Rang De Basanti’ also, definitely. This kind of cinema has done well and has been remembered for long. Even ‘Garam Hawa and ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ are all socio-political films.

8. If we look at the past, the number of quality movies about Indian politics are few and far in between. Hindi movies rarely make a direct attack on contemporary politics (baring the odd Aandhi). What do you make of it?

Because the harsh reality of living is so tough. We are constantly slipping into a black hole as a country and a community. We  try and escape from the black hole by hiding ourselves in the dark theatre and escape from reality. As a nation, we are escapists. That reflects in our choice of cinema. We don’t want to confront our fears ever. We let the British walk over us. 33,000 people came and ruled our country. Then they became 3 lakh and ruled over 33 million. We love to be enslaved by our own thoughts and mindsets. Right now, our mindset is  ‘Kya chalta hai? Kya nahi chalta hai?’. We don’t believe in action. We believe in words. As the nation changes, you’ll see the movies change. There are no aliens coming here and making movies. There are people among us who are writing them and making them and acting them out. These are my views on politics as well. People say ‘They are like that. They are corrupt’. Who are ‘they’? They are our brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts. They are from among us. We are ‘they’.

9. The same year that RDB was released, Lage Raho Munnabhai was released. One was about Bhagat Singh’s philosophy, the other Gandhi’s philosophy. Both were well received. Do you think that youth today is moving towards the Bhagat Singh school of thought? More aggressive and confrontational?

I’m a communist at heart, if I were to align myself to anything. I think there is a huge battle going on inside ourselves. I do not subscribe to violence. But Bhagat singh was an agent of change. So was Gandhi. For me, they were two sides of the same coin. They were not different at all. The same year both movies were well received. The same people liked both movies.  They made RDB the second largest blockbuster of the decade. They were both agents of change. They had different routes to go about it. Bhagat Singh said ‘We don’t want to negotiate freedom. It’s our birth right’. Gandhi said ‘We will negotiate freedom’. Because he was a lawyer. He was taught like that. Bhagat Singh was not a lawyer. He was a farmer’s son from Punjab. Obviously, their characters were different, their consciousness and training were different. But they were both saying the same. Bhagat Singh also said “I don’t want freedom from the whites to be enslaved by the browns”. And that is exactly what happened sixty years hence. We got enslaved by our own system. He was a visionary. Gandhi always felt that if you get freedom of the spirit, then the physical will follow. As a nation, our spirit is enslaved. We are always scared. We choose weird politicians, whom we don’t even vote for. On the day of voting, we hide at home and watch some voting day movie. There needs to be a change. Change has to be faster as we are running out of time. Otherwise the youngest nation will become the oldest nation. If you see the demographics of Iran, Thailand, Middle-East, Indonesia – they have been the youngest nations over the last twenty years and they have gone over the hill. They could not capitalize. We should not miss the bus here, we are right in the middle of it. We should grab the opportunity. Opportunities are very illusive. They are there one moment and then they are gone. Right now, everyone feels they are in middle of it. There will be huge disillusionment, if we do not work hard. We should get into nation-building right now and make it a greater nation in the world.

10. Why do two out of three films of yours have NRI/non Indian protagonists and an outsider’s window-view of India ? Be it Sue in RDB or AB Jr in Dilli 6 – both are more intelligent, rational, sensible who correct the mistakes of the locals (the college boys in RDB or the purani Dilli gang in Dilli 6) and preach them how to lead a good life and make it better. Is it because you feel the west will feel comforted that their notions on India are assured/confirmed and your films strike it big abroad ? (akin to the NRI Popcorn films’ mentality) ?

It’s a point of view, an outside, objective point of view. There is no western audience for our films. We don’t distribute our films to the western circuit. The western audience don’t understand intervals in between. If I wanted to make a film for the western audience, I would have designed it like that. The NRIs are a hugely confused lot. I met some second-generation NRIs who don’t know where their loyalties are, which nation they belong to. I also met some exceptionally young NRIs who have embraced the nation they are in, the nation that gave them so much. They are working for that community, they are not hoarding money to bring back home. To me ‘NRI’ is a defunct term. It was invented for tax benefits so that we could bring in lot of foreign money. Now that FDI is coming from corporations, these terms are useless. We can’t say NRI and then say ‘global’ at the same time. There has to a choice – one absolute reality. If you have an American passport, you’re American. And if you still have some emotional connect with your nation, bring about a change. There’s always this umbilical cord that cannot be cut off. That was the story of Delhi-6. Second-generation NRI is genetically attracted to this country. He never sees the people here as doing wrong.  He has a point of view on God and religion. Religion itself is defunct nowadays. Religion is confused with fascism and fundamentalism.

11. What is your dream project? Are there any Storyline or Actors you want in this dream project?

I don’t have dream actors in my mind. They get old and get wrinkles on their faces. For me, stories are timeless. I may have a project in mind. I might only be able to execute it ten years later. So I don’t attach actors to projects. I want to tell the story of Karna in Mahabharata. But there is no actor in mind. I love his character and conflicts. He had the great virtue of giving and sacrifice. Maybe through the film, I’ll learn to sacrifice. Each film is a journey for me, not just a project. It’s a way of life. I cannot separate cinema from my life. Each film I do is a dream film. I am eating, living, drinking, sleeping, dreaming my next film , mostly dreaming. It’s called Bhag Milkha Bhag – it’s inspired by the life and times of the great athlete Milkha Singh. His story is extremely inspiring to me and I want to make a film about the undying spirit of the man. We are looking for a boy to play the part.

12. Could you tell us a bit about your films in the pipeline

After Bhag Milkha Bhag, I want to go into this film ‘Raja and the legend of the flute’ which was originally called Paanch Kaurav. After that I have a choice between two films – ‘Casual Kamasutra’ which is an Indo-American film and ‘Mirza Sahiban’ which is a folk lore. There is this story I had in mind, ‘Bhairavi’, not developed yet as a screenplay. It was very exciting five years ago. I need to re-invent it. Besides that, we have a milieu of new directors who are attached to the company. The first is ‘Teen The Bhai’ which will be out in April, which I have produced but not directed. There is this script called ‘Kuch Karte hai yaar’ ,we are looking a director. A story of three kids from IIM who are brilliant but have no money for foreign education. There are many more scripts under development. The film company is bigger than me. New writers, directors and producers are coming in. The face of the company is changing altogether. There are no absolute answers ever, there are only questions. That’s the beauty of experiment or research. With every movie, we raise the bar and we know it’s not going to work, for reasons we don’t know yet. But they will reveal themselves. The next time, we would have cleared that and we would be looking for something else. That’s the beauty of research.

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