Rang Rasiya is finally releasing this month, after a 7-year wait. You must be a happy man. What caused this long delay?
The film was ready in 2008, but the Censor Board was not ready to pass the film, because it was too sensitive. So, we took it to the Revising Committee and they, fortunately, appreciated the film and passed it without a single cut. And this was when the market crashed and we went through a massive financial crunch. See, the film is extremely lavish in its production, with a huge international cast and hence, it had been an expensive film to make. So, all of that had to be sorted out, debts had to be paid, but we stood by the film and finally we are able to release it today.
Why Raja Ravi Varma?
He is one of the most fascinating characters I have come across. He gave a face to Hindu gods and goddesses and pulled art out of the confines of palaces and temples…he was a people’s artist, in the truest sense of the term. Along with that, he revolutionisedcolour printing, changed fashion trends and is definitely India’s first advertising man. He became so popular that the British postal service had to start a separate office, to cater to his fan mail! His paintings adorn soap boxes to fire cracker packages even today. He truly is the Renaissance Man of modern India. Even DadasahebPhalke, who was one of his apprentices, derived so much from his imageries. In that sense, Raja Ravi Varma is the grandfather of Indian cinema.
But don’t you think religion and sex is a risky cocktail for a film in this country?
I read Ranjit Desai’s novel, Raja Ravi Varma, and got to know another aspect of his life. This man, who literally created most of the Hindu gods as we know today, also painted beautiful nudes. And for that, a hundred years ago, he was dragged to court and accused of obscenity. But, instead of succumbing, he decided to fight his own case at a huge personal cost. He fought it and won it. The film is about censorship and freedom of expression, and that debate is still relevant.
What made you choose RandeepHooda and NandanaSen? Back then,Randeep was not the star he is now. And Rang Rasiya was Nandana’s last film…
Exactly the reason why I chose them. Raja Ravi Varma is such a star himself that I needed an actor who did not bear that burden to portray him on screen. I needed to focus on the theme, rather than a superstar. A MangalPandey, for example, could not have been made without an Aamir Khan. But with Rang Rasiya, I could not let star power overwhelm the subject.
Randeep is quite popular today, though
Yes, and I am glad to see him succeed — he is such a dedicated actor. He lent himself completely to the character. Both he and Nandana gave 200 per cent to the film. For Nandana, it was a courageous decision to do this film. In a Raja Ravi Varma film, nudity will play a central part.
Your next film is ready as well
Yes! It’s called Maajhi – the mountain man, starring NawazuddinSiddiqui. It is about a man who bore a tunnel through a mountain for 22 years, with just a hammer and a chisel, for love. In cynical times like now, we need inspirational stories like this one. It is based on the real story of Dashrath Maajhi from Gehlor, in the Gaya district of Bihar, who lived by a mountain range. Once, his wife fell really ill and as the city was on the other side of the mountain, he couldn’t get her medical attention in time. Hence, he vowed that no one should go through what he did. We shot at real locations, and it was an exceptional journey making this film. And Nawaz was fantastic to work with.
Other than him, which are the other young actors whose work you really like?
Ranbir Kapoor is fantastic. ShahidKapoor is brilliant. They are modern, in tune with what is happening in the world around them, and they’re exposed to world cinema. I recently saw Haider, and loved Shahid’s performance in the film.
How do you choose your subjects for your films?
I believe that ideas are live entities. They float through the ether, capture your imagination, infect your mind… and if they are strong enough, they will take over your mind and soul. You are suddenly driven by that idea. That is creative energy.
And do you have any other projects in mind?
I have stories to last five lifetimes. But yes, I am going to announce another film very soon.
If we had to talk about your best work, Mirch Masala is definitely one of modern Indian cinema’s most powerful feminist texts. Have we become more regressive towards women since the film, or has there been an improvement in our outlook?
We have been amidst a churning, as a society. I see extremes. On the one hand, there is almost a hysterical media focus on violence on women and on the other, completely perverse attitudes exist which dehumanise both genders. But we should be glad that there is a churning, there is discussion. We don’t know where this will lead, but at least we should be glad that we are in the middle of some movement.
From the ‘Indian New Wave’, you must be the only film maker who has tried to balance art and commerce in cinema…
(Interrupts) You media guys, or rather your ancestors, are to be blamed for this Berlin Wall between art and commercial films. Film is such a powerful medium and can reach out to so many people. We all wanted that. Therefore, to be marginalised as this art house and niche genre was not something we expected.
I am sure some of your contemporaries were interested in remaining niche, and did not be want to be a part of mainstream Bollywood. That fuelled this divide too.
Yes, some film makers want to remain exclusive, while others want to be massy. But striking that balance was what most of us wanted to achieve. And I am still struggling with that. Kurosawa, Fellini and Scorcese achieved that. Closer home, RajuHirani. He is an absolute rock star.
Talking about contemporaries, did you find the time to read Naseeruddin Shah’s autobiography?
No, I am looking forward to it. After the film releases!
Other than Naseersaab, who are the other colleagues you share a bond with?
Sudhir Mishra and Deepti Naval have been long associations. Deepa Sahi continues to be a friend despite the fact that we are married. Om Puri… we continue to remain close friends. We are connected at birth.
Do you remember your first day at your first film, Bhavni Bhavai?
It was crazy. We were shooting in a small hamlet in Gujarat, and I had landed up at the location before the cast and crew. When their bus came in, I rushed forward to greet them. Out of nowhere, a dog ran over and bit me on the right calf. And it turned out to be rabid. So, for the next 14 days, I had to first go to the hospital in the morning for a shot before landing up for shoot. That’s why, till today, Naseer and Om joke that Ketan Mehta makes films because a mad dog bit him!
Of all the films you’ve made, which is the one you’d remake?
Oh Darling, Yeh Hai India. It was too long. It could be tighter, for a sharper focus on the subject.
Which is the last film that blew your mind?
And, to wind up, which is the line that has stayed with you through life?
Life is what passes by when you are thinking about the future.