We don’t get to hear about you unless there is a film. Why are you so media shy?
I’m not media shy but when there is no film, I really don’t have anything to talk about. And, I do not enjoy the Bollywood party circuit. It is something I personally don’t like being a part of. Though, there is nothing wrong with them and I am not judging anyone.
You have a cryptically titled film called Baby releasing this month.
[Laughs] No, we are not trying to keep anything under wraps. Baby happens to be the nickname of a black-ops unit, which is on a test run for only five years. As nobody knows its future and fate and it has such a short lifespan, it is called ‘baby’. There is no mystery to it. The film is a contemporary espionage action thriller and deals with the realities of the socio-geopolitics of our region.
Why this subject?
Why not? The story got me hooked. It is always the story that clinches the deal for me. You live with it for some time and decide whether to pursue it or not. You discard some ideas; you chase some ideas and see how it pans out. Baby was one of those ideas I decided to chase.
Both the audiences and critics loved A Wednesday. Everyone started talking about you. Was the experience ever unsettling?
I was actually not in Mumbai when the film released. I was holidaying with my family in and around Igatpuri, and the cell reception was horrible. The first ten days after the release, I was completely cut off. I would get some network for a few minutes if I walked up a hill for half an hour and that was when some of the messages or reviews would get through to me. So, there was nothing unsettling about the whole first-film-release experience because I was kind of detached from it. I also don’t believe I became a celebrity and burst on to the scene or anything. I arrived maybe.
You come across as extremely self-assured and confident. Directors are generally a mess before a release.
[Laughs] I have no idea how that is coming across. I have never analysed myself enough to answer that.
What kind of a film-maker are you — meticulous or spontaneous?
I believe in a mix of both. I try to be as prepared as possible because film-making is not an individual contribution. It is a collaborative effort in which you are essentially working with about 250-300 people at any point of time. And, you must not waste anyone’s time. I am cognizant of that fact and that is where the preparedness comes from. As for spontaneity, you have had readings with your actors and they are also cued in to what you are doing, and they can chip in too. Sometimes, even external factors such as locations change the course. Even an added line might make a scene work better. I am aware of all those improvisations.
What is your script writing process?
That is the only part when I am working with myself. It is extremely critical. There is no process as such. Someone asked this same question to me once and I said that I spend the maximum amount of time on deciding upon the font I want to use. The process is very organic. Earlier, I used to travel out of town to write. Now, that’s not possible anymore. I find time between work to sit down and write scripts. As a storyteller, it is all about the subject. It has to ignite a spark in me. Then you chew on it, and you pursue that.
While writing your debut novel, Ghalib Danger, was the process any different?
It was more challenging and I thoroughly enjoyed the process because the format was different. Even though, organically, I am tuned to approach a subject like a scriptwriter. The idea was to do justice to that format. Ghalib was a poet I deeply admired when I didn’t even understand what he had written. I liked his works phonetically. Then, I purchased an English-to-Urdu dictionary and started understanding his works. I thought it would be interesting to bring together the two contrasting worlds of Ghalib’s poetry and the Mumbai underworld.
Anupam Kher has been in all your films. Akshay Kumar is in Baby and Special 26. Is it just the comfort factor?
Comfort is obviously an important factor. But, having said that, if the actors are miscast, I will not stand for that either just for the pure joy of coming together. I believe in practicality because you don’t want to do injustice to the material based on an equation or relationship. Also, I leave the final decision to the actors, whether they want to be a part of the film or not. Like in A Wednesday, I cast Jimmy [Shergill]. I had known Jimmy for quite some time but I told him, ‘Don’t do me a favour. Do the film only if you like the subject.’ I don’t know whether I am going to work with Akshay again but he was the right fit for the role in Special 26 and Baby. And, both the roles have been away from his comfort zone. I wanted him for these films. He took the final call. A lot also depends on the kind of greed or hunger that the actor has at that point of time in his career. As for MrKher, we bond over work. We only meet when we are talking work and pick up from where we have left.
You are one of the few film-makers who balance sensible cinema and commercial viability. Have you ever had to dumb things down?
I don’t understand this difference between art and commerce. I believe that the audience is extremely intelligent and it chooses what it wants to watch. I’ve got nothing against commercial films. If there is an audience that opts for street food and not fine-dining, I cannot judge them.
See, you made that classification yourself.
Yes, sometimes even I watch some of those commercial films and I might even enjoy them, but I cannot make one of them. I am not the kind of film-maker who can create something like that even thought I understand the importance of commerce in cinema.
Then, what is the role of cinema today?
Cinema should bear some social responsibility. It is, after all, a platform from which you can convey something that is residual and people can take home with them and think about. People who want to think about it, that is. But, that does not mean we will all start making the same kind of films. What we have today is a strange mix, which is also giving way to new voices. That is exciting too.
Who are your film inspirations?
Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Vijay Anand and Gulzar saab. Billy Wilder is the one whose writing and work I have studied closely. Most of his films are amazing.
Last film you saw that absolutely blew your mind?
Gone Girl by David Fincher. I thought it was a black comedy. I was laughing my head off at parts and I saw people staring at me.
To wrap up, which line has stayed with you?
Create like a god, command like a king and work like a slave.