AANAND L RAI recently completed 11 years in the Hindi film industry, as a director and producer. He delivered three back-to-back hits as a director with Tanu Weds Manu, Raanjhanaa and Tanu Weds Manu Returns. He is back after a gap of three years with his most ambitious film, Zero, starring Shah Rukh Khan. Given the detailing and the research required for the film, sources tell us three years was the fastest time in which Rai could have wrapped up the project.
As we sit down to chat about the film and his career as a director and producer, the first thing I notice is his weight loss. I ask him if it is the result of working with Shah Rukh Khan, as I know Rai loves his food. He breaks into a big laugh and says, “No, I enjoy my food. I even talk to my food. My only reason to lose weight was so that I could eat, otherwise, people around me were worried. So I thought let me do something that all my loved ones are comfortable with, so they don’t worry that my health will be affected, and I can eat in peace.”
It is said that you always wanted to work with Shah Rukh Khan.
One of the first promises I ever made was that whenever I make a film, I get to tell the story I want to tell. Secondly, I need to reach out to my actor, whom I feel is the best path to take me to my destination. For me, it started with R.Madhavan and Kangana Ranaut, and today I’m with Shah Rukh Khan. Zero asked for Shah Rukh Khan, in that sense. I always say, I’m a very good struggler, I’m very loyal to my stories, so if my stories demand Shah Rukh Khan, wherever he is, I will reach out to him. The best part is, he teaches you things even from his mistakes. It is not that everything he does is right – the thing is if you know what you’ve done wrong, then you are learning, which is such a good thing.
Do you remember your first day of shooting with Shah Rukh Khan?
I don’t remember, yaar – we had become friends even before the shoot. I remember shooting a test shoot with him and he asked me why, and I told him let’s do it, I don’t know how the emotion will flow if I change the height (of the main character). It is a great thing on his part that he made it look so normal that I never realised that it was my first day with a superstar. So he actually deprived me of that feeling of a superstar, since he came in as a friend. I think we have spoilt each other for the future in one way or the other – there is this love story between us.
Shah Rukh Khan is vertically challenged in the film, and you had to use a lot of VFX for that. What was it like to deal with the technological aspects of it?
I never considered this VFX as an outsider, I’m very loyal to my story and to tell my story, I had to own the VFX. What was exciting to see was a change in relationships with a change in height. The same sentence, same dialogues, same emotion, when somebody says it from 4 feet, it’s different from someone who says it from 5 feet 10 inches or 6 feet. ‘I love you’ from 4 feet and from 6 feet is received differently. It was new for me as a director, and if it is new for me, then it is new for the audience as well.
After working with Kangana Ranaut and Sonam Kapoor in your last three films, you now have Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma in one film.
With Katrina and Anushka, I knew I wasn’t cheating them with a setup. I reached out to them with a story and I can say with the utmost confidence that both are playing the toughest characters they’ve ever played in their careers till now. The film is incomplete without these two characters. Khan Saab, Katrina and Anushka are the three hearts of the film.
How do you describe the roles played by Katrina and Anushka in the film?
I’m talking about something called incompleteness in the film – somebody is physically incomplete and somebody is emotionally incomplete. Anushka is physically incomplete and Katrina is incomplete emotionally.
What did you learn from Katrina and Anushka?
Trust me when I say I’ve learned a lot from them. Both are very honest – Anushka is more proper, more disciplined, Katrina is more heart. With Anushka, I can say she is very precise with her emotions. She’s great at translating an emotion onto her character and expressing it on the screen. Katrina thinks a lot, she doubts herself a lot, but once she is there, she tries her best to live that character. I believe that since she asks so many questions of herself, everyone believes she is confused, but actually, she is searching for something.
How did you narrow down on Anushka’s speech and behavioral pattern, given she plays a cerebral palsy patient in the film?
It is all Anushka’s hard work. Himanshu Sharma (the film’s writer) and I kept on talking to her about the role and let her decide what she wants to do with her character. So it is more about her research, with us as support. We spent a couple of months on this.
Zero is the biggest budget film in your filmography. Was mounting it a big challenge?
Zero is an emotionally big film. It is not about grandeur, looks or the canvas. Yes, it is a tough film, not because of VFX but because of emotions. It deals with tough emotions, and it is difficult to mount these emotions. Yes, I’m doing the toughest job of my career… I’m not worried about the budget.
You also have special appearances by the late Sridevi, Kajol, Rani Mukherji, Juhi Chawla, Alia Bhatt, Karisma Kapoor and Salman Khan in Zero.
Everyone loves Khan Saab so much that they agreed to be part of the film, they are definitely not there as a gimmick. This was Sridevi ma’am’s last screen appearance. I’ve seen so much of her work and I’m a big fan of hers. I was hoping to do a full-fledged role with her in the future but…I’m lucky at least I got to do some work with her in Zero.
What do you want the audience to take away from Zero?
Nobody is complete, nobody is perfect and there is a beauty to this. Imperfect and incomplete have got their own charm. Zero is more about celebrating your incompleteness.
Your first two films weren’t a success, and then Tanu Weds Manu happened. What changes did TWM bring for you as a director?
It changed a lot of things. I felt now I can tell my stories, I’ll be more fearless. I will take care of my creative mind, It is not important to make a lot of money. I began the journey where a director becomes a film-maker and Raanjhanaa was my first baby step towards that, which was a risk. TWM gave me and the director in me a lot of strength to tell gutsy stories.
Do you fear that one day you won’t be successful?
No, I have seen the phase where I had no work, and I was still smiling, I was very comfortable even then. I had done my bit of struggle, but I was never restless. It is not about success, it is about achieving something in life. I know there will be waves, things will go up and down. Do I get a good night’s sleep? I do, and that is important. The only thing I don’t want to be taken away from me is the choice of which story to tell. I’m the son of a teacher, there is no legacy behind me. Making a film in itself is an achievement for me, so I’m already a winner. What will you take away from me? Nothing.