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'It's so much fun to raise the bar'

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By Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra on Rang De Basanti. By Subhash K. Jha
  • Published 3.02.06

Q: What’s Rang De Basanti about?

It’s a film about today’s generations, their likes and dislikes. What they stand for and what they believe in. This one takes me as far away from Aks as possible. Of course, there’s a certain style ? good or bad ? that I’m bound to follow. I realised that while shooting this film.

Q: Was Aamir Khan your first choice?

No, he wasn’t. But when he heard Rang De Basanti he said ‘yes’ there and then. He said he had never done anything like this. He believed in the script so much. It’s an entirely new character for him?If the cast suggests a different kind of film, then it is.

Q: Did you consciously move away from the style of Aks?

Not really. Out of the three scripts that I had in mind, Rang De was a drama, Paanch Kaurav was a caper about five thieves and Dilli 6 is autobiographical. Delhi 6 is the pincode for the place where I grew up.

Q: Will you play yourself?

You must be joking. You’ve to see how stiff I get in front of the camera.

Q: And Aamir?

He has been a lifetime’s experience. I’ve grown with him. It’s great fun to direct an actor who has a mind of his own.

Q: Wasn’t there supposed to be an English version?

Yes, we toyed with the idea of making Paint Me Yellow, then dropped it. It was the wrong title, anyway. Good it didn’t happen. I even tried to do an English draft of my script. It felt alien. I realised you can tell a film in just one language.

Q: How does Aks compare with Rang De Basanti?

How does one compare two of one’s children? One is good in Maths, the other in Geography. Rang De Basanti is a younger film. But I didn’t consciously choose a subject that would be more accessible to audiences than Aks. I knew I had to make this film. Since Aks, my storytelling technique has improved. You learn from your past mistakes and new experiences. This time it’ll be a slightly better story. This time I had the luxury of living with my script for four years. So many people have joined me on this journey to the completion of Rang De Basanti. It’s no longer my film. After release, it will become the audiences’ film. It’s very important to communicate what’s in my head to the viewers. I hope I’ve done that.

Q: Who are your influences?

I’ve been highly influenced by films, not filmmakers. I haven’t assisted anybody.

Q: How’s the commercial prospect of Rang De Basanti looking to you?

I’ve been told it’s gone through the roof. The numbers are filtering in. The opening, I’m told, is the highest ever for a Hindi film.

Q: How did you break the mould and still remain so entertaining in your film?

Yesterday, the film got a standing ovation in New York and the UK. In New Jersey the police had to be called in because the people wanted another show. Someone just called me from Jaipur. In a small locality in a theatre which was on the brink of closing down, people are thronging to see the film. From theatres with audiences in suits and perfumes to this guy in a lungi in Jaipur. A dear friend from Delhi who plays a small part (the guy who gets hit by the police)?he’s in his mid-40s. He told me you made Aks, you didn’t win the race, but you stuck to your convictions and you’ve won the race. How do we explain it? It’s too early. We’ll be wiser later. Instinctively, I feel people are enjoying watching what I enjoyed making.

Q: There was a cloak of secrecy over the project.

There were four or five Bhagat Singh films that didn’t connect with the audience. Then there was Mangal Pandey. That too failed. And my film starred Aamir Khan. So any sign of patriotism in my film was read as a danger sign.

Q: It’s ingeniously original.

It’s a collection of many circumstances. In school I wanted to join the Air Force. It didn’t work out for me. In college in Delhi I was predominantly a sportsman. It didn’t work out because I was from a lower middleclass family. And the first priority was to bring money back into the family?. As kids in Delhi on August 15, when we flew kites, we could hear Indira Gandhi speaking?On the other side there were the patriotic songs on the loudspeaker?. Ae mere watan, Mere desh ki dharti?We were looking at the idea of our country through a kite?.Films like Mother India, Do Bigha Zamin, Naya Daur which came on TV, touched all of us. This was the era when escapism hadn’t seeped into cinema or real life.

Q: So how did Range De happen?

Seven years ago even before Aks I wanted to do Awaaz. You’ll find shades of Awaaz in Rang De Basanti?.It was about a bunch of boys working in a garage, the haves and have-nots. I wanted to make it with Abhishek. Then seven years ago I wanted to make a film on the life of the revolutionaries. What I didn’t want to do was to shoot them with halos?.I wanted to shoot them as normal youngsters. I wanted to call it The Young Guns Of India.

Q: Then what happened?

The race for Bhagat Singh started. Initially, I wanted to enter the race. Then I realised we were all insulting his memory. Attention was diverted by who would get into theatres first. I moved on?I did a focus group in Delhi and Mumbai. I took a new story idea to youngsters between 17 and 23. Our survey showed that for our generation a relationship meant, ‘Let’s get married and make babies together.’ Not to this generation. The youngsters we spoke to were driven by ambition. And I didn’t even know how to get on the Internet! Anyway, we then moved into surveying them about the country and the tricolour. The borders of patriotism had blurred. Pagdi sambhaal Jatta was no more relevant. Not too many kids knew who Chandrashekhar Azad was.

Q: Then what?

I told my writer Kamlesh Pandey there was no point in making a film about the freedom fighters. He insisted, reminded me of the passion that Manoj Kumar’s films used to incite. But that was a different era. I sadly abandoned the original idea and hit on another idea of a British documentary filmmaker coming to India to make a film on the Indian armed revolution. She finds kids who are more Western than her. Two lines?the past and present run together. They intersect. There’re sparks. Then the rooftop scene where the line between past and present blurs when Soha asks her friends to kill the rakshamantri. Suddenly the original idea was replaced by this new idea. Aks had happened. Samjhauta Express featuring Abhishek as a Pakistani terrorist who infiltrates to India to rescue his father, was abandoned. That was inspired by The Devil’s Own.

Q: Thank God you gave it up. You are an original voice.

You know, Aamir today spoke to me at three in the morning. He said, make only original films. Rang De Basanti’s first draft was done by Kamlesh Pandey. Then we took it off his hands. I worked on it with Rensil D’Silva?We never thought about whether it would work or not. It’s so much fun to raise the bar?.Someone has to believe in you if you give two years of your life completely. UTV did. My kids forgot my face. I’m a 50 per cent producer in Rang De Basanti. But the film wasn’t going on the floors until UTV stepped in.

Q: You had another producer earlier?

I had another producer. He didn’t put in a single penny. We were borrowing money from the sharks until two months before shooting. I freaked out. I was shattered. But the minute Aamir said ‘yes’ ? in five minutes!? everything fell into place. He then went into Mangal Pandey. I wasn’t threatened because I knew what people didn’t ? that my film wasn’t a historical. I wanted to name it Awaaz. But that was the name of another child. I decided to behave like a star and name my film Rang De Basanti. I gave the script to UTV’s Ronnie Screwvala. He backed me all the way. I went over-budget. He didn’t say anything. We went beyond recovery. He still didn’t back out. I got executive producers from the UK. We had to shell out Rs 1.5 crore extra for them.

Q: What was your budget?

Rs 25 crore. Everything except the jail scenes were shot on location. We shot the first 56 days without interruption. We shot between February and June.

Q: The cast and characters are impeccable.

Yes, Aamir hasn’t dominated the film. And yet he has brought in every thing required?The whole Punjabi accent for his Mona Sardar character was his idea. There was an attraction between Siddharth and Soha. We couldn’t bring it into the forefront because of lack of space. In any case, love stories don’t have to have a happy ending. Today’s generation is very mature about love and its end.

Q: What about the controversial ending?

What about it? The rakshamantri’s murder is the pre-climax. After that we’ve 45 minutes of story. At the end my heroes realise how futile it was to kill the home minister. Every story has to follow its own course. When heroes in a mythology enter the caves to fight the demons, they have to perish. Mani Ratnam’s Yuva didn’t work for me after the heroes went into Parliament?.What’s jolting the audience is, they love my heroes and they don’t want them to die. Too bad. You love and lose the best people in your lives. It isn’t a heroic but a poetic ending. But they become heroes because they die.

Q: Your historifying of headlines culminates in the rakshamantri being likened to General Dyer.

What I’m trying to say is, we got independence from the goras. But we got enslaved by our own. Now we’re killing each other. Take any government from the Congress’ Emergency to the Americans in Vietnam. Look at Bihar. There can be no neat solution to the problems we face. My film is a conversation with the masses.

Q: The MIG planecrash was tricky. Were you ready for the controversies?

I was ready for a long fight. Surprisingly, the censors gave us a certificate subject to clearance from the defence ministry. When defence personnel saw it they were a little apprehensive about the sensitive issue. But the film was cleared in three days. The rakshamantri loved it. The release got pushed forward by a week. That was tricky. Theatres all over the world were booked and had to be cancelled. There were 550 screens to explain to.

Q: Who’s the real hero?

You mean besides Aamir and the other characters? Binod Pradhan’s camerawork is comparable with the best in the world. But the real hero is the screenplay. I got so possessed by it, every day I was on the laptop at 4:30 am either creating or destroying.