“Expect the unexpected” is how I would introduce Aanand L Rai’s films. After his first two films failed, no one expected his next one, Tanu Weds Manu, to be a roaring success. Post that, he cast Dhanush as a lead in a Hindi film, and that became an even bigger success. Tanu Weds Manu Returns was expected to be a hit, but the film turned out to be a major blockbuster. From there, he cast superstar Shah Rukh Khan for the character of Bauua Singh. With all his films, he’s mastered the art of weaving romantic tales mixed with conflicting and complicated emotions.

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My interview with Rai was around lunchtime, and given that he’s a foodie, the first thing we spoke about was food. I shared an anecdote with him that Dhanush shared with me in 2013 during the shooting of Raanjhanaa. He told me that he spotted Rai conversing with bhindi (okra) during lunch. Rai told the bhindi, ‘I love you, but I will have to eat you now.’

Rai breaks into laughter. “It must not have been bhindi, but yes, people have witnessed me having full-blown conversations with my food. I get very emotional when I eat good food. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it is an overwhelming, teary-eyed situation for me. Food is also my way of expressing love,” he adds.

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The director’s latest offering, Atrangi Re with Sara Ali Khan, Akshay Kumar,  and Dhanush, was an OTT release — a Christmas offering for his audience, who were waiting for his new film since 2019. By the first week of 2022, the film has garnered more than two crore views.  

Without revealing much about the plot, in case you haven’t watched it yet, the story has a mental health issue at its root, for which Rai has been criticised as people feel it lacked the required depth. “Atrangi Re is from Rinku’s perspective, from the perspective of a girl who has suffered trauma. It was possible to tell this story only from her perspective. If I had chosen any other character’s perspective, I would have dealt with the mental illness differently, and it would have been a different film. But as a director, I chose to go with this approach: I wanted the audience to see it from Rinku’s perspective.”

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Amid other such points raised was the discussion on if we can finally address age gaps between actors and their female co-stars and if we need to reevaluate how we carry the mental health dialogue, Rai takes all feedback in his stride, and says, “It’s a big problem for the film-maker if everyone agrees with the film and loves it. If your film can’t raise questions, then the maker’s perspective isn’t conveyed. If there is a perspective, there will be opposition. I’m not making a statement. I’m presenting a perspective. Perspective leads to conversations, and I want to strike a conversation with my audience.”

“For instance, take Tanuja Trivedi from Kanpur, who sports tattoos and smokes. Anyone can fall in love with a girl sporting tattoos who drinks and smokes. So, let’s debate if a girl like Tanuja existed in Kanpur in 2011 or not. We can talk about an actor with the ability to get lost in the crowd and make his love story in Raanjhanaa. With Zero, we took the biggest superstar in the country and made him vertically challenged. I might fail or succeed, but with my films, I will always give you something to ponder on,” he adds.

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Rai has shown all kinds of love in his films, be it Tanu Weds Manu, Raanjhanaa, or Zero. How does he define love? “The moment I will be able to define love, I’ll have to take sanyaas (renouncement). It is such a pure and beautiful thing. You can only feel it. It is something that keeps you discovering throughout the entirety of your life,” he poetically adds.

Aanand L Rai began his career as a film director 14 years ago. Success came his way with Tanu Weds Manu in 2011, and he hasn’t looked back. With every film, the fan base for his movies increases. “I think what they are appreciating is my fearlessness. It comes from the thought that you should know exactly what you want from life. For half of my life as a middle-class boy, I was never fearless. I pretty much lived my life by the book. Study hard: check, pursue Science: check, engineering: check. And then I realised it is not my calling. At that time, the creator inside me came to the forefront, and decided to give my creative side a try.”

He continues, “I never wanted to tell a story as a scared individual. I was done being scared in life. You struggle, move, and see success. I found my strength. I have been an outstanding student with every film I have directed and produced. I understood my craft. I can’t promise a successful film, but my intentions are clear. I could have become a rom-com director, but I, very selfishly, ask myself what I learned. The best part of all my films was not the success, but the fearlessness that we approached it with. I never wanted to leave that. After Zero, I’m thrilled that I attempted Atrangi Re because I wanted to tell myself that I hadn’t stopped dreaming big. I make films to satisfy my audience, but not through an easy route. I will put my heart and soul to entertain my audience for those two hours and more.”

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He brought many stories on the big screen for many other directors, some new and some old. “I always wanted an excellent producer to help me, so I could direct without any hassle, focus on my creativity, and be in the world I created. There are so many directors like me who need this kind of opportunity. I thought I should create a production house where a director gets respect, space, creative freedom, and understanding. I want to be a director’s producer. So, Colour Yellow was born. It is clear that I want my space as a director, and I extend the same courtesy to my directors. Over the years, I’ve been able to keep the producer and director separate even when I’m producing and directing my own films. The director is far stronger than the producer,” he laughs.

Himanshu Sharma, his writer, has been a constant collaborator for most of his films. In 2013-2014, it was jokingly put out that Rai had hidden Himanshu Sharma somewhere so that no one else could work with him. On hearing this now, Rai said, “Where will I hide him? In fact, he wants to remain that way.”

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Their relationship began with a mutual love for film-making — both were struggling, and no one was willing to give them a chance. So, they gave each other a chance and started their own adventure. “When happy people come together, creative work is bound to happen. We respected each other’s creativity, and it paid off. In those times, I wanted him to direct. He would say yes but then say, let’s make one more film as a writer. The inner agenda was that he wanted to become a producer. After a couple of films, we realised that ab late ho gaya hai, ab ek doosre ka haath nahi chhodenge (Now it’s too late to let go of each other).”

Rai adds that he had faith in Sharma’s writing abilities from the first day. “Even failures haven’t been able to shake my faith in him. I was able to read beyond the words he had written. Now, when we discuss stories, we know each other so well that I know what he’s going to write, he knows how I’m going to direct. Actually, after every film, you have to sit and analyse. We analysed what worked for Tanu Weds Manu Returns as it was not a formula. We never knew that it would be a blockbuster. We did the same when Zero didn’t work. We were learning, and learning never stops,” he explains.

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Another facet of Rai’s career has been his relationship with his actors, be it R. Madhavan, Jimmy Sheirgill, Dhanush or Kangana Ranaut. Of late, you can see a similar association brewing with Akshay Kumar. Besides Atrangi Re, they have two more films coming, titled Raksha Bandhan and Gorkha. Rai says that since they began working together, they have changed a bit. “The two of us haven’t made life-changing promises to each other — we just take our jobs seriously, but we do not take ourselves seriously. Our easygoing attitude forged this bond between us. Our middle-class mentality is also something that ties us together. He’s more middle class than I am, and I mean that as a compliment,” he adds.

The director also brought about a change through the credits of Atrangi Re. The end credits roll as ‘A film by’ followed by the name of the person, and then their contribution to the film in a bracket. In fact, the credits start  with ‘A film by A R Rahman (Music Director)’, before his own name or that of Sharma’s. It truly speaks of the fact that every team, every person can call this their film. This move drew a lot of praise for Rai. “Even the end credits in Raanjhanaa read music by A R Rahman, before my name. It feels difficult to go over the legend that is A R Rahman. I believe that he doesn’t just give music for the film, but he makes films with you. So, I wanted to do this for him. Then I realised that my core team was not just editing or writing etc., they were making the film with me. So, I wanted to give them the ‘A film by’ credit. This is not a strategy; it’s pure emotion and love. I could sense the warmth in their eyes when they saw their names out there,” Rai recalls.

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After a certain point, everyone worries about their legacy. Everyone wants the world to think about themselves in a certain way. Today, when we see Raj Kapoor, we see him as ‘The Showman,’ or see Satyajit Ray as a man who put India on the world map. Aanand L Rai is just getting started, and he expresses, “I just want people to think about me as an honest director, who made stories with honesty.”