How did Aatma (releasing on March 22) happen?
For me, horror is a favourite genre and (horror fiction writer) Stephen King is my god! With Aatma, I really wanted to redefine this genre and hopefully I have achieved that. We have a great story and good actors who have all done a fabulous job. We have a very interesting casting line-up. The story is also very emotional at the core and that sets it apart from many horror films.
I didn’t want to set it in a remote bungalow in the middle of nowhere and alienate my audience; Aatma happens in an apartment building in the middle of the city… that’s where most people like you and me live. The drama in the film has a very next-door feel… it could happen to you or me.
My film is about the relationship between a mother and a daughter and how the dead father tries to take his daughter with him to his world. Apart from the horror bit of it, it’s also about the love for a child that drives a parent. A lot of actors and filmmakers as well as the audience have been very upbeat. The promo is one of the most viewed on YouTube.
If you are such a horror fan, why wait till your third film to make one?
Yes, my first two films (Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena and Acid Factory) were thrillers, but that’s a genre I love as well. Aatma is a story that is very close to me… it’s a script that I have written over years. There have been times in my career in the beginning when I have made compromises, but I was always very sure that I would make Aatma the way I wanted to make it, without any compromises. Besides, making a film does take time; it’s a lot like life… you make your plans, while someone is always around to dispose them! (Laughs)
Is Aatma inspired by a real-life incident or taken from anything you have read or watched?
Not really… it’s completely my brainchild. I believe that horror is much more than just ghosts… I can scare you with a ghost for a little while, but what’s more scary is how fearful your own normal life could get… how the people you are probably closest to could be the ones to ruin you. The best films that we hold as cult in the genre are actually very real supernatural dramas. Beyond the ugly and scary faces, The Exorcist is actually a supernatural drama that could happen to anyone. Omen is a supernatural drama, but there’s no ghost in there. Take any of Stephen King’s books… he gets you very human characters in very real situations and adds something that isn’t natural.
Your casting of Bipasha Basu and Nawazuddin Siddique is also quite novel…
Bipasha is someone I have always wanted to work with… she was supposed to do both my earlier films, but things didn’t work out. Finally, Aatma happened to be the right one to bring us together. With Nawaz, I asked him directly: ‘Tell me who would you cast as this character?’ He said: ‘As an actor myself, I can’t tell you anyone else’s name.’ And I told him: ‘So play it!’. My rules for casting for this film were simple — I needed really good actors to make the whole drama seem very believable. I have a strong ensemble in Jaideep Ahlawat, Shernaz Patel, Shiv Subramanium, Darshan Jariwala. These are the kind of actors who will take you into the zone so easily, that suspension of disbelief will not be required at all.
Even a thriller like Special 26 had to push in songs, but you have bucked the trend…
As I said, I have compromised in the past, but this time I wanted to make a film on my own terms. I chose not to have any songs and at an hour and 45 minutes, I believe that I have a film that’s fairly tight. Luckily, I had producers (Kumar Mangat and Abhishek Pathak) who allowed me to do it my way. But I also believe that today, you have a chance to cater to both the multiplex and the mass audience with a story that is pan-Indian. Now more than ever in Bollywood, a filmmaker has the chance to experiment.
You have also not used 3D, unlike horror films like Raaz 3, Dangerous Ishhq and Haunted…
To be honest, my producer had offered that I could make it in 3D, saying that money was not a problem. But I didn’t feel that 3D would have added anything. 3D did wonders for a film like Avatar because that’s what it demanded. Aatma is such an intimate story that I want the audience to be sucked in. And if my film is emotional enough to make them cry at the end, why get impeded by those 3D glasses (laughs)?
How do you think Aatma will redefine the horror genre here?
The kind of horror films that were being made a decade or so ago had such low production values that they became synonymous with B-grade films. I loved Purana Mandir by the Ramsays and I really loved Samri (the monster-demon in Purana Mandir). They were pretty campy, but they were good fun to watch with a gang of friends and a drink in hand (laughs). Earlier, we did have good horror films in Woh Kaun Thi? and Gumnaam. Today, horror films in Bollywood definitely have better production values, but it eventually comes down to the story. Abroad, horror is not only supernatural, it also delves into morality. Our films have some time to reach there, but they are definitely coming into their own and I want Aatma to give this genre that push where it doesn’t necessarily have to be about a haunted house or spirit possession. The best thing about horror is that you can consistently keep pushing the boundaries in terms of story and form.
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