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‘I am interested in people who push the boundaries’
Ramgopal Varma’s office, The Factory, is a work of art or sheer madness, depending on how you look at it. There are protruding rods and exposed pipes everywhere while a black, partially open wooden door is nailed to the ceiling. There are brick walls, with the cement showing while polished tree trunks frame doorways. In the reception, there is a wall to ceiling mirror, where wannabe actors can check out their faces and clothes before they go in to meet the boss. The boss’s office is at one end and the temperature is at a soothing 21 degrees centigrade. Varma sits on a platform, at one corner, a glass-paned window at one side, a man of medium height, dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans. The most striking feature about him is his eyes: they bulge out but there is an obvious intelligence in them. My Wife’s Murder by his protégé Jijy Philip was released two weeks ago to mixed reviews while James directed by another newcomer Rohit Jugraj is coming out in mid September. The Factory is rolling out the films, with the occasional hit and flop all rolled together.
Excerpts from the interview:
In one way, you have revolutionised Bollywood. Earlier, people had to assist for years before they got a chance to direct.
It is an old-fashioned concept: to assist somebody for years before getting a chance. Or that you need to go to a film institute. I have never assisted anybody nor have I been to an institute. Neither has Shekhar Kapoor or Mani Ratnam. Today, it has become irrelevant. Anybody with a digital video camera can make a film.
What is the idea behind giving chances to newcomers?
To be a director all you need is clarity of vision, the desire to tell a story and passion. I don’t look at anything beyond that. Rohit Jugraj, the director of James, is a doctor and he assisted me only in Bhoot. But his sincerity appealed to me and the way he wanted to do James was exciting. A first-time director puts in more time, passion and energy into a film than somebody who has done 20 or 30 films.
Do your plots begin with a character?
For me, it is always an idea. The idea for the film Satya began when I read that a prominent personality had been shot dead. Somebody who knew him told me that he had a habit of recounting whatever he did. He got up at seven o’clock in the morning, at 7.30, he made some calls, at eight o’clock he had his breakfast, and so on and so forth. When this gentleman was talking, I was thinking, cinematically, in the intercuts what the killer was doing at the same time. Did the killer wake up early or late? Did he have his breakfast before the killing or after? Then it suddenly struck me: We hear about gangsters only when they die or when they kill. What do they do in between? That, for me, was Satya.
Your films on the underworld are so realistic. Have you interacted with gangsters?
No. I have only read about them in magazines and newspapers.
How do you get them so accurately?
I have an understanding of the psychology of a human being. Bhiku Mhatre, (Satya), if he was an engineer, would be a go-getter. He just happened to be a gangster. He comes home and his wife nags him; it is that which the audience connects with. So when people say Ramu makes such realistic underworld films, how do they know it is realistic? They don’t have any contact with the underworld and neither do I. Basically, they are connecting with the characters and because the characters look so real, the audience think the events are real. Most of your films focus on the dark side.
People keep telling me that. I like to make films that are larger than life. The characters should matter in the larger scheme of things. I am interested in people who push the boundaries.
Can one predict which movie will become a box office hit?
You can’t. If I tell a story to three people at the same time, each of them will have a different reaction. One guy might be bored, another might love it, while the third might get what I am aiming at. So if I cannot get an unanimous reaction from three people, how can I generalise about lakhs of people? We all use the word audience very easily. But the audience is not a singular entity. If a film works, filmmakers themselves do not know whether it was the dialogue, the background score, the way the shot has been cut, that is creating the effect in the theatre.
In what way has Hollywood influenced you?
Lots of ways: Alfred Hitchcock, McKenna’s Gold. I am more interested in Steven Spielberg-type movies than the classical films. I haven’t see Citizen Kane or the films by Sergei Eisenstein. Even in Bollywood, the influences have been either Manmohan Desai or Ramesh Sippy in Sholay. I haven’t seen Guru Dutt’s or Bimal Roy’s films.
You don’t feel like seeing them?
Right. Those films must be classics but it is in a time warp. Today, the modern director is making films that are far superior than in the past because he has the time and the advantage of new technologies.
But does he have the depth?
But does anybody want depth these days? When I watched a rerun of The Exorcist in New York, the audience was having fun in the theatre. They were eating popcorn, talking to their children on the cellphones and in between, they were enjoying the movie. They treated it like a party. They were not so focused in watching the film.
You have given breaks to so many actors: Urmila Matondkar, Vivek Oberoi, Antara Mali, Fardeen Khan, Manoj Bajpai, Randeep Hooda and others. Is there a reason behind giving breaks to unknown people?
I don’t like the phrase ‘giving a break’. It sounds like it is an act of charity or giving alms. It is demeaning to anybody. For me, I believe in a certain actor, it could be for a particular film or, maybe, just as a talent by itself. But you don’t test them before?
How do you test?With a previous film they have done.But, eventually, everybody has to have a first film. I don’t look at the box office success of people. I don’t say, “Friday me kya hua?” If I believe in a person’s talent, I will believe in his or her talent for life. See, there are two types of film-makers. One is the guy who follows the market; who will always bring out a tested product: the film, story, actors and technicians are experienced. There is another kind of maker, like me, who creates a market. It means having a vision. Sometimes, the vision might fail, sometimes, it will succeed. But as long as you keep doing it, it will work.
Among actors working today, who is the greatest?
There are no great actors, only great performances.
People are always trying to meet you. Can you give an example of what wannabe actors have done, to get your attention?
There was this guy who called me up and said he was doing a documentary on the top directors of the country like Satyajit Ray, Mani Ratnam and others. He said, ‘I would like to explain the concept to you.’ So I called him. When he came in, he said, ‘Sorry Sir, I am an actor. I didn’t know how to approach you, so I tried this method.’ I was so angry I did not know what to say. I felt like a fool. I did not have anything to do with him.
What are your future plans?
I want to try my best to convert audience’s taste from the Yash Chopra-Karan Johar type of syrupy films to my kind of realistic movies.