You were supposed to start another film with Ranbir Kapoor straightaway after Rockstar. Why Highway then?
Highway has been a story that has stayed with me for 15 years. There was something in it that didn’t die. Usually you lose interest in a story beyond a certain point. But with Highway, there was something very subtle, yet something very influential. I intended Highway to be the first film that I ever made. Didn’t happen. It’s happening now. Highway is about this one journey inside and this one journey outside. It’s also a reflection on society that you can only get by being outside of it. When you are out of society, the description you have for yourself changes. You tend to become more of what you are. The real you comes out when you are out of a society which defines what you are.... I like what happens in the story.
Did you consciously want to follow up a grandiose musical like Rockstar with something edgy and stark like Highway?
It was not a conscious decision. All the conscious decisions that I have taken in my life have never borne fruit. Not even come close! So, I am just very happy not planning. And be instinctive about the big decisions in life. This was like “let’s do it”! It just seemed right. I was very unprepared for this but it suddenly started taking momentum. So there came a point when I was like do I get out of its way or do I jump on it? I thought, let’s jump and see what happens.
You are shooting the film in a strange way… getting down wherever you feel like and starting to roll. And that too across six states!
I am very excited about that. What I am trying to achieve is that as the tone of the story changes, the look and feel of the vista changes too. From the roughness of the exterior of Delhi and Haryana, it comes to a certain rough but intriguing land that is Rajasthan and then you move into a certain heartfelt greener plain which is Punjab. The story is like that… something is blooming, something is blossoming. And then you are getting into a more pronounced romantic space… the hills of Himachal. And finally into an idyllic world that is Kashmir. So, I don’t need a dialogue in the film which goes: “Dekhte hi dekhte yeh safar kya ban gaya!” or “Yeh kahaan se shuru hua tha aur kahaan khatam ho raha hai”. (Laughs out loud) The change of the terrain says it all.
You had also written Rockstar long before it got made. When you pull out an old story, how do you approach it?
I don’t ever read back the scripts I had written earlier. I had written certain versions of Highway, which I don’t even have with me anymore. It’s only about what has remained in the head. I don’t refer back to anything. And that was the same for Rockstar. Here in Highway, it’s only the germ of the idea that has remained. All the trappings are gone.
All your films have certain motifs. People falling in love with each other at different times, travelling in pursuit of love, changing each other in the process. How do they find their way into all your scripts?
Intriguing question. I don’t have an answer for it. But it’s true that these are subjects, themes and motifs that I am interested in and constantly trying to get into! I don’t have a conclusive answer for your question but I do agree with what you’re saying.
Do you sometimes read your scripts or watch your films and go: “Oh man, I have made the same film again!”?
Yes! Yes! In fact, sometimes I see the rough cut of my film and I am like: “This is the same shot!” There was this girl named Sunayna who assisted me in three films. I asked her during the making of Rockstar to make an email id for the direction team. So she created the id standingbelowthebalcony@gmail. com. I asked her why. And she said, because all your films have someone standing below the balcony and that’s a motif which keeps getting repeated in every film.
The first time it happened in Socha Na Tha I had felt, “Oh shit, this is Romeo and Juliet!” And I had been involved with theatre productions of Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t know how it crept into the script. And then it happened again and again and again.
There are many of these things. I spot them during writing or during the rough cut. In fact, I have had to change many scenes of Highway because I felt they were becoming too similar to Jab We Met. I try not to do it because that takes away the purity of the film. So what if it’s similar to some other film? If it’s organically going in some direction, let it go. If this girl is sitting on some train, let her. But I have to constantly look at things from both perspectives — the audience and the film — and strike a balance.
How do you look back at Rockstar now?
I think Rockstar is more dear to me than any of my other films. When I look back at it now, I find it to be very flawed. There are many things in the film which are not good. There are many things I have done as a writer that are not good in the film. But I feel there was something special in that film, at some points. There was purity. There was depth. I haven’t watched Rockstar for a long time. I start it. I like the beginning of the movie. Once he gets slapped and he starts talking in the canteen, I stop. Baad mein dekhenge. I strangely feel ki khatam ho gayee picture. But that starting montage I like. And at many times in the film I feel I know what these characters are saying.
A lot of people had problems with Nargis Fakhri. You still stand by that casting?
I feel that yes, I have to accept the verdict of the people. It didn’t work. At the same time I feel that she as a performer was par excellence. Extremely pure. Sometimes if you are too pure, you do not understand the trappings of performance. The fact is that she is a phirangi and her body language… her mouth, it moves in a certain way which doesn’t look organic when she is speaking in Hindi. We got used to it while making the film but it wasn’t fine. During the making of the film she was in that space, she was Heer but then again she was who she was. I don’t think it was wrong casting but yes, more work could have been done on her.
Your casting has always been under the scanner. Saif wanted Kareena in Love Aaj Kal but you stuck to Deepika Padukone. Now this strange casting of Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt. Do you think your chosen actors have an impact on how your film turns out?
Yes. Like Ranbir had a lot of influence on Rockstar. Actors tend to take your writing and vision to another level because they are flesh and blood. If you have a good actor and an honest person, you can let go. Ranbir is like that. Randeep is like that. I hope to work with more and more people like that.
The Highway casting sounds really weird. Sure about this one?
(Laughs) I know it sounds weird on paper but sometimes you have to listen to the dictates of the story. These two characters are completely not matched in terms of age, education, social strata, language, look, aesthetic… nothing at all. Even the purpose in life doesn’t match. He is the oppressor.... It had to be like this. It would be difficult for even them to conceive of themselves together. The difference is the fodder for the film.
Randeep is a very pure actor. I have only seen him in two things… Monsoon Wedding and a theatre play… and I saw that purity and I also found something very arrogant about it. Which now I know comes from honesty. Alia plays a young city girl. I have seen her in Student of the Year and for what the film was, she was extremely good in it. Then I met her, I realised that she is not as bachcha as I thought she was. And extremely suitable for my film. I was looking at someone older but after I met her I felt that with her it’s becoming even more of what I am trying to say. Casting her has had an effect on the script.
Has A.R. Rahman become a habit after Rockstar?
He’s not a habit. Initially I wasn’t even thinking of Rahman Sir for this one. I have been talking to him about the next project, the one with Ranbir. So I have been in touch with him. I told him about Highway and when he heard the story, he said that ‘I’m on, if you want me’. And I was like ‘I definitely want you’! Now I feel this film needs Rahman in a bigger way than Rockstar. There it was performance music and with him, you know he would do something different. But here this is so internal that to even grasp it and then bring it out in a bigger, entertaining manner is something that Rahman can do better than I can even ask him to do.
How do the two of you work on a soundtrack or a score?
I talk to him about the story of the film. And then we start talking about the specific music points. Irshad (Kamil, the lyricist) is also there. And we keep trying to explore the world, the reference we are trying to get at. What are we trying to say? Are we trying to say Nadaan parindey ghar aaja? We were in Kashmir and we were driving in the middle of the night and he suddenly said: “When will the bird come home?” That became the song! It’s usually a phrase first and then it follows. Thereafter I would brief them about the situation and Irshad would write a few lines and Rahman Sir would come up with the tune. A to-and-fro happens. Sometimes the visuals are leading the music and sometimes the music leads the visuals. I have also cut off scenes from the script because his music has been enough.
Like Rahman, you are working with Anil Mehta again after Rockstar…
He is very organic. He is a sufi cameraman! He does his own planning and doesn’t even let you know what he has planned. And I have realised that in this second film with him, I have almost taken the work for granted. He is working this time with very little light, very little time but there’s a certain aesthetic value which is there. I never look at the monitor. I don’t even know what lens he is using. I am not even bothering. That kind of trust I have in him.
Highway is your first digital movie. Are you happy with the switch from film to digital?
I am a film fan. But I am trying not to be hard-nosed about this. The world is moving very fast. I was that guy who didn’t use mobile phones for a long time. But sometimes I don’t know whether a movie has been shot on film or in digital when I watch it in the theatres. I mean not even one per cent of the difference will come out in Payal Talkies, Jamshedpur! Also, digital gives you the practical ability to roll more footage and that will help us in this film. We can let the character be in a space and keep the camera rolling.
You wrote Homi Adajania’s Cocktail last year. You had also written Ahista Ahista at the start of your career. How is it writing for another director?
I have never really written for another director. I was supposed to direct Ahista Ahista. And even when I wrote Cocktail, I was supposed to direct it. But I made Jab We Met at that time. Then I made Love Aaj Kal and then Rockstar and there came a point when I felt I didn’t want to make Cocktail at all anymore. Both Dinu (Dinesh Vijan) and Saif are friends and they wanted to make it. So I was okay in Homi making the film. I explained to him that this is what it means and this is what I had in mind but you can do what the f**k you want with it.
When you watched Cocktail, did you feel that you would have made it differently?
Oh, 100 per cent. When I watched it, I could see that if I had made it, it would have been very different. Very different. I am not saying good or bad. Certain things would have been better and there are certain things that Homi has done which I didn’t have in mind. Finally the film takes the character of the director… what he is thinking at that point of time. Cocktail would have been more personal if I had made it. He has made it more spectacular. Homi has brought out the dark side of Cocktail really well because generally I am a more pleasant person than he is! And he knows darkness much better because he can see it inside himself. (Laughs out loud)