'Mughal-e-Azam took me by surprise'
Q: There?s a controversy in Tamil Nadu about the title of your new Hindi-Tamil bilingual, again.
Yes, they think Mumbai Express is an anglo-centric title. By calling my film, Mumbai Express, I?m practising cultural erosion and never mind if there are recent Tamil films with titles like Boyz. Never mind if dozens of trains in the country have ?Express? in their names and if there?s a leading newspaper by that name in the country. Never mind if it?s my job and prerogative to ?express? myself. It?s a very provincial Tamil Nadu-centric attitude. First, Virumaandi, then Vasoolraja MBBS and now Mumbai Express? my films seem to be constantly getting into title hassles.
Q: Is Mumbai Express your return to Bollywood?
Had I really gone away? Or was I packed off? If I was told to leave Bollywood, thank you for having me back. But I can?t remember when I was given a send-off. So I?m a bit confused. If my last Hindi release, Abhay, could be considered a send-off, then I?m back. Mumbai Express could bring me back to Mumbai. Even Mr Ramesh Sippy wants me to make a film.
Q: Is Mumbai Express a departure from Abhay and your other Hindi films?
It doesn?t have the dark dimensions of Abhay at all. When my director, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, and I sit on the editing, there are all-round chuckles among the technicians. Mumbai Express is a very young, very hip and urban film. The actors may not be 18 or 19. But the mindset is certainly very young and heavily into contemporary attitudes. It?s very difficult to do this kind of a comedy. I can?t brag about it now until it?s complete. But a little bit of preening is allowed.
Q: Sure. What kind of comedy is Mumbai Express?
Though the characters are funny none of them lose their identity, or dignity. No one sweats it out to be funny. They?re actually serious people. Great comedians like John Cocteau and Charlie Chaplin never lost their dignity. They might?ve been clowns. But they were gentlemen clowns. In Mumbai Express if we cut off the soundtrack it looks like Nayakan or any of my better films.
Q: Your earlier film with Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Pushpak, [a silent movie] was a pioneering comedy?
I think Mumbai Express too would be pioneering. I know all filmmakers are enthusiastic about what they do. But I know Mumbai Express is a trendsetter. It?ll be a different act to follow.
Q: Your last hit in Tamil, Vasoolraja, was a big hit.
With due respects to all my friends involved with that project, Mumbai Express is a different league of comedy. This is way above Vasoolraja. It?s a sophisticated comedy though not to the extent of losing mass appeal. My other recent comedies were not in my hands. But Mumbai Express is written by me. Singeetham Rao and I have done seven films together. All are trendsetters in their own way. I think audiences want to laugh, though they like to cry as well.
Q: No more tears in your life?
I?ve gone dry for some time. Life is a bed of roses, not thorns.
Q: Very frankly, were you proud of Vasoolraja?
I was proud of the collections. Beyond that, Vasoolraja was a very strategic move on my part to tickle the market. I was sleeping through the shooting. They had to wake me up for the shots. Sounds pompous, but true. It was like asking a sprinter to run in a bathtub. I?m so glad Bollywood has taken to comedy in a big way after Munna Bhai MBBS and now Hulchul. It?s believed Indians don?t have a sense of humour. But everyone wants to laugh. I?ve met very humorous people all over India. Trade pundits keep saying ?Aisa picture nahin chalega?. They said Mughal-e-Azam won?t work. But look at what it has done. I went to see Mughal-e-Azam again to see what it did to me. It took me by surprise. I could crib to K. Asif about the length. But that would just be professional jealousy.
Q: What expectations do you have from Mumbai Express?
Why would I want to come to Mumbai? Because I like applause, always have. I want to be recognised for whatever I?m worth. I want to widen whatever little horizon I have. Mumbai Express is worth attempting in Hindi. I wouldn?t have brought it here if I wasn?t sure it would provide pleasure to the watcher. Mumbai Express is like my Gold Rush. Oops, there I go back to Chaplin. Mumbai Express is outwardly one free flow of confusion. It?s going to give my earlier Hindi comedy, Chachi 420, a run for its money. Audiences shouldn?t expect me to masquerade as a woman. Why do I need to, when Manisha Koirala does such a neat job of being a woman?
Q: Your leading lady Manisha came in at the 11th hour.
Yes. My Chachi heroine Tabu was approached. She said ?yes?. Then she disappeared. Bipasha Basu was willing. She asked questions about her character?s status as a wife and mother. But we couldn?t afford her. Most of the other heroines didn?t understand what the script required them to do. How do you explain a Pushpak or an Appu Raja to an actress? If you say she?s going to be paired alongside a dwarf she?ll recoil. It took an actress of Gautami?s guts to do Appu Raja. Manisha has proved to be a real friend. She put aside other engagements to accommodate Mumbai Express. Usually, actresses take offence when they?re approached at the last minute. Manisha never held it against me. She?s looking very pretty and I?m happy to have her in the film.
Q: Your other favourite, Om Puri, is also in Mumbai Express.
Oh, yes. In spite of undergoing surgery, he insisted. He explained what he can do, and then chose his role. It was very touching to have Om Sir offer his services so generously. That?s the spirit of the actor. It?s not about the role. It?s about being part of the whole. I wish I could be as humble as Omji. He chose a role that required less physical strain. Besides Omji, there?s Vijay Raaz, Sourabh Shukla and Dinesh Lamba and a 10-year-old boy, Hardik.
Q: Madhavan is remaking a Tamil comedy, Nala Damyanthi, written by you into Hindi.
I think I?ve always been useful to actors attempting Hindi versions of Tamil films. I wrote Anil Kapoor?s hits, Biwi No., 1 and Viraasat.
Q: What happened to your plans of a Hindi film with Madhuri Dixit?
I would have to wait from here to maternity.
ON SELF: I am first a fan of Kamalahasan.You must appreciate what you are doing. Tell me, when do you become a respectable person in society? When you start respecting yourself. That is when you take care of yourself, that is when you comb your hair, groom yourself and cleanse your body. You do all this because you respect yourself. You won’t wear a dress because you may not look good in that. My being a fan of Kamalahasan is also like that.
ON CRITICISM: I might even agree with the person if it is sensible criticism. There are some people who criticise because they have to. Icon-bashing is the greatest of all sport. I can spot that at once.
ON PERFORMANCE: Very easy. If you keep criticising yourself, the zenith of it is suicide. You hate yourself so much that you are ready to kill it. Yes, I said ‘it’ and not him or me. So criticism is easy. Some people suffer from it because they don’t know when to stop criticising. It is like eating sweets. You must know when to stop.
ON FILMMAKING: No profession is as versatile as this one. If you ask me how many days I work in a week, I would reply I don’t work. It has been nearly 20 years since I worked. Acting ceases to be work because I enjoy it. But it feels like working when I do bad work, especially when I know it is bad..I am a fan of cinema. I am so fortunate that it also happens to be my chosen profession. That happens very rarely.
ON AUDIENCE: Well, an honest audience will not accept the same story over and over again. Nowadays, people change their soaps and toothpastes just for the heck of it and films are no exception.