Bollywood director R Balki, on a recent visit to Kochi, talks about his hit film, 'Padman', and how he is relaxing now by reading books, watching films and going for cricket matches
Photos: Director R. Balki; a still from 'Paa' and 'Padman'
By Shevlin Sebastian
One day, a few years ago, film director R. Balki went to superstar Amitabh Bachan's house, 'Jalsa', in Mumbai. While conversing with Amitabh as well as his son Abhishek, he noticed something surprising.
“While Abhishek was saying something serious, Amitji was pulling his leg,” says Balki. “I thought, 'The youngster was behaving like a wise one, while Amitji was behaving like a kid'. Then an idea popped into my mind: if I make a film with these two, I would like to make Abhishek the father. And thus the idea of 'Paa' came to fruition.” To make it logical, Balki made Amitabh suffer from progeria, which is a genetic disorder in which symptoms of aging manifest at an early age.
The film became a hit and Balki was off and running. And all along, he has tried to use Amitabh in all his films. “I am a fan,” says Balki, who had come to Kochi as the chief guest of The Pepper Advertising Awards (see box).
Asked how Amitabh is in private, Balki says, “He is 75 years old and very young. Young in mind, body and spirit. He is so enthusiastic about what he is doing. Films are life and death for him. In fact, Amitji genuinely believes that acting is the only thing he was born to do.”
Balki could also have been born to make films, since his recently-released 'Padman', starring Akshay Kumar, and made on a budget of Rs 25 crore, has become a box office hit with earnings of Rs 85 crore. And there are country-wide screenings in the lucrative China market which are yet to take place.
Many of Balki's other movies have done well including 'Cheeni Kum' 'Ki and Ka' and 'English Vinglish', in which he was a producer.
Asked the secret behind a box office success, Balki smiles, and says, “I have no idea. People says that stars guarantee a certain box office but that is not confirmed.”
But he has an idea of what audiences want. “They want interesting stories,” says Balki. “They want to have a good time. Even crying can be called a damn good time. That means you feel strongly for somebody, it means you are engaged with the characters. Audiences are never saying, 'Don't give me this or that story'. Audiences are only saying, 'Don't bore me. Don't intellectualise. Don't do mindless boring entertainment'.”
But even after you satisfy all these criteria, the pressing problem is how to get an audience's attention for a film. “There is so much of digital content that it is tough for an audience to know what is a good film and what is not,” says Balki. “Many good films go off the radar even before people come to hear about it. The ones which do well depend a lot on word-of-mouth marketing.”
Of course, stars can bring some attention. “But what if it is a film which has no stars,” says Balki. “Plus, there is a lot of digital avenues, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, for people to see films.”
Meanwhile, asked what he is doing now, following the release of 'Padman', Balki says, “I am just coasting. I am not thinking of any ideas now. I watch a lot of movies, I travel, see cricket matches and read up quite a bit.”
Right now, Balki is reading four books at the same time. These include 'The Indian Constitution – Cornerstone of a Nation' by the late historian Granville Austin, 'Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind' by historian Yuval Noah Harari, a book by English comedian Stephen Fry and one on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Reading enables me to form images in my mind,” says Balki. “I see these books as potential films. I also love watching films, but there the images are already formed. When you keep exercising your imagination you can form vivid images when you write your own screenplays.”
Finally, on asked how his name changed from R. Balakrishnan, the Tamilian who grew up in Bengaluru, to Balki, the former chairman of the advertising agency Lowe Lintas (India), he says, “When I went for my first interview in 1998, the person who recruited me in advertising, Naganand Kumar just called me 'Balki'. And the name stuck.”
Pepper Awards speech
“Kerala has so many unique voices”
“I came to attend the Pepper Awards because I realised that the traditional capitals of advertising like Delhi, Mumbai and to a small extent Bengaluru, are losing their voices, says Bollywood director and senior advertising professional R. Balki. He was chief guest at the recent Pepper Awards held at Kochi. “Advertising in this country or for that matter, the world, needs fresh voices and different ways of thinking. There are two places which are ready to have new voices.”
One is Maharashtra, without Mumbai, and the other is Kerala, strangely. “Advertising depends on having an unique insight into life,” says Balki. “And I have never seen more unique insights into life than Malayalam cinema and books. I watch a lot of Malayalam cinema: the humour, the way you look at life, all of it is unique. There is actually a lot to learn from Kerala's filmmakers, writers and artistes.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)