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Vidhu Vinod Chopra & Abhijat Joshi talk about how Shikara is more a personal journey than a mere movie

The film raked in Rs 1.2 crore at the box office on Day I on February 7

By Aniruddha Biswas
  • Published 14.02.20, 6:43 PM
  • Updated 14.02.20, 6:43 PM
  • 8 mins read
"I condemn all kind of brutality. If I condemn it, how can I glorify it? I can’t," says filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra Rashbehari Das

Filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra is no stranger to massive films, the ones that churn multi-crores at the box office, and boast of the biggest stars in the country. His latest film, Shikara, raked in Rs 1.2 crore at the box office on Day I on February 7 — a far cry from the numbers this man is associated with. Talking to The Telegraph over Darjeeling tea, mishti doi and rosogolla at The Oberoi Grand’s Gharana recently, the filmmaker tells us why this movie means more than box-office success for him.

You are aware that the timing of Shikara has been so much in the news. Your comments...

I started this film in 2008. Initially, the release was on November 7 but it was delayed. I delayed it because I didn’t want people to say that I am taking advantage of the undergoing crisis. The sad thing is that now the same people are saying I am exploiting the CAA and the NRC issues. What do I do? And the timing is not something we planned but I am happy it has released because the film has a message that will help the youth of today.

Isn’t it natural that people will link the film now to the ongoing crisis?

It’s the media’s job to tell them the truth. It is not connected to the issues. When people see the film they will realise that the way forward is through dialogue and not through vivaad (conflict). Violence will only lead to more violence.

You have dedicated the film to your mother. Tell us a bit about her.

You should watch this documentary called Shikara: Tribute to a Mother. It’s there on YouTube. My mom came to the premiere of Parinda in 1989 and she couldn’t go back to Kashmir. She had come for one week I think... she had come on a Friday and was scheduled to go back on Monday or Tuesday. My brother was attacked on Saturday. My house was attacked that Sunday. I took her back to the Valley only after 10 years.

You have always talked of Kashmir... be it in your films or in interviews. Why haven’t we had more Kashmir-centric movies from you?

See, this is my last film on Kashmir. Because, for me, I am very hurt. I have given 11 years of my life to this film. All my films have made close to Rs 300-400 crore. This film we were expecting to open at Rs 30 lakh. My films open at Rs 30-40 crore. And people are raising questions on my integrity that I didn’t make that kind of a film that would open at Rs 40 crore. I believed in my film and money was never on my mind. People are questioning me but the answer is there... it’s common sense. Do you think I would use my mother to make Rs 30 lakh a day when I can make a Munna Bhai to make Rs 40 crore a day? It’s not even a joke. Look at the absurdity of the accusations.

Talking of accusations, there’s one that the film sacrifices its hard-hitting stance at the altar of the love story. What would you say to it?

The film is very realistic. It’s about real people. Maybe they meant it could have been more brutal. In every film there’s a message. The Pandits can only go back through understanding and dialogue and that is what I want. And brutality cannot be an answer. I condemn all kind of brutality. If I condemn it, how can I glorify it? I can’t. Everything is there in the film exactly as it happened. Maybe it’s not gory enough.

Is it a balanced narrative then?

It’s not balanced at all. It’s real... it’s my vision. It’s how you see the world. I am a very hopeful person. I see the world in a very different way. The events are real... see the January 19 sequence of the film and address me. It’s as real as it could be.

So do you think there should be more films on the Hindu Pandit exodus from the Valley?

As far as I am concerned, there should be films not only on the Hindu Pandit exodus but also films that change lives. Like in 3 Idiots, the line which says, ‘Kabil bano, kamyabi jhak marke pichhe aayegi’ — how many kids’ lives changed with that thought. How many lives changed with Gandhigiri (from Lage Raho Munna Bhai)? With this film, lives are changing already. Our first show (first day) was empty, on the last show my cameraman didn’t get a ticket at PVR Premiere, Juhu... it was packed.

What gives you the courage to come out with a film like this in this politically charged scenario?

Basically, my belief system is very strong. And it comes from Ritwik Ghatak, who taught me in Calcutta. When you say courage, you are either born with it or you don’t have it. I am fortunate enough to be born with it. It’s not something I have cultivated. And you need to have courage to make a film like this and you need courage to face people questioning your integrity over this film. That needs more courage than making this film. They are questioning a man who could have made any film that could have opened to Rs 40 crore. I could have made the film with any of the biggest stars.

What were the locations for your shoot?

Primarily Kashmir, except the refugee camp that do not exist in Jammu. I was in Kashmir for one year. We shot the tent sequence exactly as they were earlier. We also had a set in Mumbai.

There was this controversy in Delhi (on February 8) where a woman alleged that you commercialised the issue and did not show the actual brutality.

There were 300 people there and I believe 288 people clapped. They were moved enough to come and hug us and say ‘thank you’. And one or two people behaved that way. I respect it, it’s okay. How can all 100 people, for example, be the same? Some will digress. I am okay with 99 people clapping for me out of 100. And I have to say this that social media creates perceptions about the truth than the truth itself. It has to be used responsibly... it’s being misused.

What are the films coming up?

We are working on a Munna Bhai film. Hopefully we will have a film that will open to Rs 40 crore... and nobody will question our integrity (laughs).

What do you like about Calcutta? Anything that you must do when here?

Of all the places in India, Calcutta is my fave. Because I was taught by the great Ritwik Ghatak. He used to talk to me in Bengali for three years at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). He never called me Vidhu... always Bidhu. I remember that he once slapped me for not having read Hamlet. Later, I remember taking him to hospital when he fell sick. We were his students then. All my sound crew is from Bengal in this film. Bengal I relate to, because I grew up with Bengali cinema. At the institute, I watched all Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen films. There’s a huge connect with Calcutta and Bengal. When I made Parineeta, I got all my actors here. I look forward to coming here. I love it here. I like to go to the Kalighat temple. I like Bengali food as well. And I want to go the the iconic Indian Coffee House on College Street.

"On one hand there’s this epic saga of the exodus and on the other there’s this lyrical story that is in the O. Henry genre. When these two came together, we felt we had a great story" said screenwriter Abhijat Joshi Rashbehari Das

Screenwriter Abhijat Joshi, who has penned several blockbusters in the past such as Sanju, PK, 3 Idiots and many more takes through his emotional upheaval during the making of Shikara.

You have been working with Vidhu Vinod Chopra for years now. What’s the best thing about collaborating with him?

It’s his unbelievable passion and commitment for good cinema. When I first met him in 1994, he showed me three commandments of good cinema... the first is that, ‘You will entertain because that is the bottomline’. He said, ‘Make a film for Bertrand Russell but for God’s sake, don’t bore him’. That was beautiful. So no matter how worthy the subject is, you have to entertain... of course not frivolously.There can be entertainment with depth. Second is, ‘You will not sell your soul while entertaining’. So your commitment as a citizen will not be compromised. Your cinema has to reflect your belief. The last commandment was, ‘Treat each film as if its your last film’. I see these in him. Any film that he has made... the way he would throw himself into it was amazing. Also his craft of cinema.

How much of material did you have to use from Our Moon has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita?

All of it. Because when I met him (Vidhu Vinod Chopra), he was keen to make this film on the Hindu Pandit exodus... right from 1994. And then after his mother passed away, he took it up in earnest. So this was an old project. He wanted to make this film and I wanted to support him all through but I felt I was not qualified to do that. Because how could I get that authenticity? We had a broad story to work on but I believed I couldn’t give it that touch of originality that it deserved. When Rahul’s book came along, I felt confident of embarking on the film. So we requested Rahul to come on board and he actually made several drafts of the screenplay. My job was to make sure that all the elements of the story — the craft, the drama, any humour that is possible within the framework — were there. So I had to weave it all in.

Take us through the process of writing the screenplay.

For several years before the book, we had a story... of two people. We had two different strands of stories — one was about Kashmir and the other was a kind of an O. Henry-esque tale. And I thought I can combine both and magic can happen. On one hand there’s this epic saga of the exodus and on the other there’s this lyrical story that is in the O. Henry genre. When these two came together, we felt we had a great story but I lacked the confidence. It was a unique process this time.

For 3 Idiots, for example, I was a teacher myself so I knew about the environment and the anecdotes, the inputs. We struggled with the story only. In 1996, Renu Saluja introduced me to a man on the set of Kareeb who she knew by another name. Somebody from his village had got admission and in those days, there were no IDs. That guy passsed out of the film institute using another person’s name from his village. That’s how Rancho was born. Twelve years later, when I was writing this film, I told Raju (Rajkumar Hirani) about this man... and Raju went and met this man.

But I had no connection to this world (Shikara). But Rahul’s book made it easy, he was a part of the exodus.

The filmmakers are saying Shikara is more than a film, it’s a movement. So what’s next from here?

The dialogue, the conversation that it will start is precious. I find it incredible that the story was not told all these years. I admired his (Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s) zest to really go for it. He said no to a lot of tempting projects for this one.

Could there be a Kashmir series in the offing?

I don’t know whether he would feel like doing another... at least not right away, but I have a feeling this will start a conversation.

You taught English literature at Otterbein University, Ohio. How did you manage time between academics and screenplays?

At the time of Lage Raho Munna Bhai and 3 Idiots, I was teaching full-time. It was a module and I had to teach three times a week. And that actually helped connect with young minds. My writing was informing my teaching and vice versa. But it got taxing. As I started ageing, I found it hard to juggle both the things plus the travel. After 3 Idiots, I started teaching just one semester... then the shortest semester and then I gave up. And started writing full-time.

Your fave films...

All of Chaplin, especially Modern Times, The Gold Rush and City Lights... I worship him. Am a big fan of Billy Wilder so I like Sunset Boulevard. Like everyone, I love The Godfather... those have been the mother films in so many ways... a certain kind of modernism started after that. I like Martin Scorsese. I am a big fan of Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai, also Saaransh, Ankush. But am an eternal fan of Salim-Javed so it has to be Deewaar and Sholay. Every time I start a script, I make sure I see these two (laughs).

Is there a definitive difference between Indian and US films?

Right now, I struggle to find the kind of cinema that they were once making, the likes of Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder. The writing used to be gorgeous. Now, it’s all about superheroes and all... I regret that technology has taken over the skill, the writing, the content. And some of these films are very good.

Any Calcutta connect for you?

I worship Satyajit Ray... who can forget Pather Panchali? or even The Apu Trilogy. I am also a huge fan of Jana Aranya and Jalsaghar. Of course, you have Sourav Ganguly. I plan to go to the Eden Gardens.