Shah Rukh is so strong and vulnerable at the same time: Aanand L. Rai

Aanand L. Rai gears up for his most ambitious film, Zero

By Karishma Upadhyay
  • Published 20.12.18, 11:49 PM
  • Updated 21.12.18, 12:58 AM
  • 6 mins read
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Shah Rukh Khan and Anushka Sharma in Zero, which releases today A still from the film

Tanu Weds Manu was the first film where Aanand L. Rai told the story he wanted to tell, in the way he wanted to tell it. And, he hasn’t looked back since; neither has Bollywood. Aanand reintroduced to Bollywood strong female characters in a small-town setting.

Born to teacher parents, Aanand grew up in a government housing colony in Delhi and saw India on the annual LTA holidays of his parents. He was on track to becoming an engineer when he decided that a 9-to-5 job wasn’t for him and moved to Mumbai to assist his brother Ravi Rai on television production. His first two films — Strangers and Thodi Life Thoda Magic sank without a trace. It was Tanu Weds Manu, about a mismatched couple, their maddening families and perennially eavesdropping friends, that established Aanand’s voice.

It’s been three years since his last directorial outing and during this period, Aanand as a producer has added a diverse range of films to his filmography. From Mukkabaaz and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, the one common thread in the films he’s backed is the distinct and fearless voice of their makers.

Zero, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif, is not only one of the most anticipated films of the year but also Aanand’s most ambitious as a director. t2 sat down with the director in his trailer van at Mehboob Studio in Mumbai to understand what makes him tick, his journey and what he’s discovered about Shah Rukh.

Karishma Upadhyay:

In a recent interview you said that you fear that people won’t know that you know how to direct!

Aanand L. Rai:

(Laughs) Let me explain what I meant. I think of my films as being very organic. I never wanted to think the way I make films is a craft, or there is any technique to it. Maybe I didn’t want to tell myself that there is a craft involved, for fear of getting exposed. If I start thinking of my technique, I’ll probably start taking myself very seriously. That might change the kind of stories I tell. I take my stories very seriously and not myself; it’s what keeps me alive. I’d much rather take pride in being original with my stories than be known as a filmmaker who has great technique. When the audience walks out of the theatre, they remember the story and how it made them feel and not the kind of framing or how a camera panned in a certain scene.

Karishma Upadhyay:

It’s an interesting perspective, because your job is twofold. One is the craft of it, and the other is as a storyteller. You’d rather give more importance to the storyteller?

Aanand L. Rai:

Absolutely! What I would really like is for someone watching any of my films, to not feel the camera at all. They should feel like they’re part of the story, with all its flaws. It’s never a perfect-looking shot, and one should feel that it’s as imperfect as they or their lives are; not everything comes with a great filter and Photoshop. 

Karishma Upadhyay:

You’ve often said that the world that you set your films in is the world that you grew up in.

Aanand L. Rai:

To be more precise, it’s the middle- class world we’re talking about. Whether I set it in Kanpur, Haryana, Meerut or Benaras hardly matters. The middle-class boy in me actually starts living in those stories and I enjoy that. As an actor or director, a part of your life should shine through. So, whether it’s Tanu Weds Manu, Raanjhanaa, or Zero, all have the realism of the middle-class alive in them. They reflect my growing years rather than the physical world they’re set in; it’s more to do with the thinking of a middle-class man. 

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Karishma Upadhyay:

When you are one of the most successful directors in an industry that has so much glitter and glamour, how do you keep that middle-class man in you alive?

Aanand L. Rai:

Maybe it’s because that kind of success never came very early to me. What keeps me rooted as well is the kind of background I come from, being the son of a teacher and growing up in a government colony. You just can’t take that out of a person and it’s got nothing to do with one’s financial position. Even today, when I enter my house, it’s a middle- class world. I definitely don’t need to book myself train tickets today and settle for RAC, I’ll catch a flight and travel business class. But the middle- class person in me still thinks the same way — give me two extra dishes of vegetables and I am a very confused person! (Laughs) I’m very proud of my middle-class ethos and it’s what I want to pass on to my daughter.

Karishma Upadhyay:

You were studying to be a computer engineer when you decided to switch careers. What was your biggest learning from that period?

Aanand L. Rai:

I remember I came home after completing seven semesters with only the last one to go and I already felt like I was stuck in a rut. By then I had realised that I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer. I just wanted to tell stories and that’s what I told my dad. He was like a friend to me, and he told me not to waste another six months just because I’ll get a degree at the end of it. It was he who suggested that I immediately go to Mumbai.

It’s why I say that your core comes from your parents, and what I got from them and this experience was the importance of decision-making. You decide for yourself, whatever it is you want to do. They can tell you what they think is right or wrong, but the decision should always be your own. Even now, I might ask people for advice but the decision is always mine. 

Karishma Upadhyay:

You started off with television. When did you realise that it wasn’t what you wanted to do?

Aanand L. Rai:

I enjoyed television till a certain point. Then with the daily soaps, it began to feel like a 9-to-5 job, and that’s what I definitely didn’t sign up for. Everything started feeling mechanical. The one word that really scares me is boredom. Bad films are fine, boring films aren’t.

Karishma Upadhyay:

You stopped making TV shows in 2001 and it was a decade before you found success with Tanu Weds Manu. That must have been a tough period...

Aanand L. Rai:

There was a struggle, but I never took it like that. It was quite a journey. I did Strangers and Thodi Life Thoda Magic in between, but I was still trying to discover the maker in me. Those years were never boring or frustrating for me. Like a good student, I was learning from my mistakes. I eventually realised that what I was doing wrong was trying to prove to people that I know the craft and can make films. It wasn’t important to impress people. I realised that I needed to keep the craft and direction aside and fall in love with my story. Tanu Weds Manu was my first step in that direction.

Karishma Upadhyay:

You’ve always spoken about having a deep connect with your actors. Why is it so important?

Aanand L. Rai:

I think that’s my strength and weakness, both. I can only survive by falling in love with my actors and the entire direction of the film hides behind that connect; what you want is their soul and not just their craft. Without it, I become mediocre because then, it becomes just mathematics and calculations and it starts showing. The kind of stories I’m telling are so layered that I can’t do justice unless I know them very well as humans. 

Karishma Upadhyay:

Is there a process to that bonding? Is it the same for everyone, or does it differ? 

Aanand L. Rai:

It has never been a technical process for me, it has always been an emotional journey. Whether it’s Dhanush, (Shah Rukh) Khan saab, Sonam (K. Ahuja), Kangana (Ranaut), Maddy (R. Madhavan) or Abhay (Deol), they all know me very well. I never hide who I am from them; they know my strengths and weaknesses. It’s very easy for me to express what I want and extract emotions from them. They love me so much that they won’t see me as a great director; they only see me as a person. And while the film is being made, we’re all so much in love that nobody can objectively see what’s good direction or acting. It’s only later that we all realise what was a great performance.

Karishma Upadhyay:

Is this a relationship that starts with narration and ends with release, or is it something that carries on?

Aanand L. Rai:

I’ve always been scared that the relationship would get over. Am I a manipulator who can start things and finish relationships like this? The answer, thankfully, is no. I love Dhanush, I like Sonam a lot and I miss Maddy. If I don’t speak to them for a while, I get restless. So, it’s not just about films. Those relationships continue.

Karishma Upadhyay:

Is there something you discovered about Shah Rukh through the process of making Zero and your friendship that’s surprised you?

Aanand L. Rai:

I was surprised that he found it so easy to understand this film. I’m talking about the man; he’s so strong and vulnerable at the same time. What actually worked for me was that he’s very honest and transparent, which made it very easy for me to express myself. This was my toughest film, and with just a few days to the release, I’m so relaxed. It’s not because I know the box office, it’s because I know myself and I now know him very well.