“This Is The First Time In My Career That Aamir Khan Has Said Yes To A Film After The First Narration” – Nitesh Tiwari
Nitesh Tiwari carries in his skeletal frame a formidable reputation. In another lifetime, he was a creative director in ad agency Leo Burnett, and was highly respected as a writer. Today, he sits in Bandra, sun-kissed, greying and fragile, two successful careers behind him. He has co-written and co-directed Chillar Party (with film-maker Vikas Bahl) and co-written and directed the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Bhoothnath Returns.
Married to film-maker Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari (Nil Battey Sannata) and father to twins (a boy and a girl), Tiwari is now preparing for the last leg of a dream project — the Aamir Khanstarrer Dangal. Based on Mahavir Singh Phogat who taught wrestling to his daughters Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, Tiwari gave four years of his life to the film. As it gets ready to release, Tiwari takes us through the film’s journey.
How did Chillar Party come about? What did the experience teach you?
Vikas was my client, and he had this germ of an idea. Once we had the screenplay ready, we took it to a few directors. But, no one was interested in doing it because it had ten kids, one dog and no stars. So, Vikas and I decided to direct it together. If we hadn’t directed it, no one else would have directed it.
The key to any film is to do a lot of rehearsal before it goes on the floor. With kids, you always need to have Plan B, C and D, because they’re so unpredictable. A six-year-old doesn’t care about money. If he’s not in the mood to give a shot, he will not do it. Kids aren’t so evolved that they care about continuity. They will do ten different actions for ten different shots. And, if you have ten kids in one row, you’ve had it. There will be fights in the groups. ‘He pulled my chair so I fell down, sir.’ ‘This guy calls me Maggi, sir.’ In group shots, we could see one kid elbowing the other. We used to have nightly sessions with the kids, and talk about teamwork. Vikas was like, ‘Let’s treat them like adults.’
Are you a full-time filmmaker now?
I like advertising too much to shun it completely. It was only after Bhoothnath Returns that I felt like I was pushing myself too much. If I had continued both advertising and feature films, I would have had no time for my kids.
Tell us about Dangal.
The kind of homework that’s gone into Dangal has been immense. We have gone though nine months of preproduction. This film needed that kind of preparation. The authenticity had to be maintained because it spans over a period of time. The most difficult was the wrestling. It’s one of the most difficult sports. Imagine you’re fighting a 55-kg opponent; imagine lifting the person against their body weight, and putting it down on the mat — it’s not easy.
The girls [Fatima Shaikh; Sanya Malhotra] were trained for almost a year. They were pretty girls who we have transformed into wrestlers. The kind of pain we have taken just to cast them. We didn’t compromise on any front — even choosing the locations. We shot in sync sound. We used to have one guy who was standing with a walkie near a gurdwara; one guy who was standing at the railway station. If a train was coming or a prayer was about to start, they would inform us.
How often did you meet Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari?
I went to meet them only once in Patiala, where they were training. I saw wrestling for the first time on the mat. I couldn’t even sustain 30 seconds of that training, and these girls were doing it for 45 minutes. We are very quick in judging people’s failures, but we don’t think about what has gone into reaching that stage. I realised this is something people should know. From there, we went to Balali, and met Mahavir Singhji. I came back and got my team together, and we started writing.
Did you have Aamir Khan in mind all along?
When we wrote Dangal, we had no one in mind. We were so much in love with the characters of Mahavir and Geeta-Babita to even think of any actor at that point of time. When I narrated the screenplay to Sid [Siddharth Roy Kapur] and Ronnie [Screwvala], they asked me, ‘If we were to give you the liberty of choosing anybody, who would you choose?’ I took five seconds and said, ‘Aamir Khan.’ What’s the harm in asking? When we narrated to Aamir sir, he liked the script instantly. Sid said to me later, ‘This is the first time in my career that Aamir has said yes to a film after the first narration.’ But, Aamir also said, ‘I want to do it, but I don’t know when. If you guys are willing to wait, please wait, or please feel free to go ahead and make it with someone else.’
I was willing to wait because scripts like these don’t get written every day. Dangal should get the actor it deserves. After the second narration [a year later], he said, ‘I want to make it.’ We went into a celebratory mode for five days, and then got into pre-production.
Didn’t you want well-known faces for the roles of Geeta and Babita?
It did cross my mind, but it wouldn’t have happened. Aamir Khan is an exception as an actor, and he has gone to unimaginable lengths to portray Mahavir Singh — even risking his health. I didn’t see any young girl in the industry who would have given two years of her life. I didn’t see anyone who would have bulked up for the role, chopped her hair, looked like a boy, gone through excruciating training and pain and learnt wrestling for one year. It just seemed too improbable.
Were you always interested in athletics?
I have been a sportsman my entire life. I used to represent IIT-Bombay in cricket. I represented my hostel in five sports at the time. So, I have been extremely active in extra-curricular activities, whether it was dramatics or sports. I’ve started watching wrestling now. I’ve realised most of my stories impact my life. I used to be indifferent to dogs. But, after Chillar Party, I’ve become more affectionate towards them. After Bhoothnath Returns, I’ve become more interested in elections and politics. After Dangal, I’ve become more interested in wrestling.
Are any of the problems in Haryana addressed in the film?
As you would have seen in the trailer, Mahavir Singh wants a boy. That’s a bias that does exist in our society. Despite having so many women achievers, this mindset exists. The girls are doing fabulously well in every field. Still the desire to have a boy supersedes everything. The film says, ‘If you give equal opportunity to a girl, if you have faith in her also, and if you push her to her limits, she can also be an achiever.’ A girl can also bring glory to the nation — all she needs is someone to believe in her. Which everyone needs. How many of us are self-made? All of us have had someone in our lives who pushed us in a particular direction. There’s always a coach, a guiding light. Whether, it’s a boy or a girl, everyone needs that. If a girl gets it, too, there’s no stopping her.