Category Archives: Interviews

An incomplete archive of over 500 interviews I have done over the last 10 years for various publications: Open Magazine, Hindustan Times, MTV India, Firstpost, Khaleej Times, Mid Day, etc. Trying to update all my old interviews here too. The Open Magazine interviews are the most recent ones.

Interview: Mira Nair #Profile #OpenMagazine #QueenofKatwe

Mira Nair: Breaking the Colour Code

Mira Nair’s new movie is a daring rejoinder to racial prejudices

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/bhuR62
““Irresistible” is one of those adjectives that critics should handle with utmost care,” reads the very first paragraph of the review of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, by the New York Times’ chief film critic of over a decade, A.O. Scott. “But if there is anyone out there capable of remaining unmoved by this true-life triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, I don’t think I want to meet that person.”
It’s been a month since the tenth feature-length live action film of arguably the most accomplished and feted international director of Indian origin, Mira Nair, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey spoke of how the world has been catching up with Nair’s stories. Bailey went on to proclaim that Nair’s time is “now”, and ever since, the accolades for both her and her new film haven’t stopped.Being a four-quadrant-pleasing inspirational Disney biopic of an underdog chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi, from the slums of Kampala, Queen of Katwe may not be the standout movie of Nair’s remarkable career that counts, among its many highlights, the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay! and the screen adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful exploration of one’s roots, The Namesake. And yet, it is, by all means, just as important as every other story Nair’s chosen to champion through her distinct cinéma vérité style of filmmaking.Because this is the year in which the American film industry is still reeling from the embarrassment and backlash of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, where all 20 acting nominees at the Academy Awards were white, for the second time in a row, since 1998. It is also, lamentably, the year where US Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric against anyone who isn’t a straight, white, American male, has managed to sway a significant part of his highly-educated first world country into advocating for him.In such a time, so fuelled by class divide, prejudice and racism, here’s a film by the most successful of the ‘Big Six’ American film studios at the moment, featuring an all-black cast led by a 16-year-old debutant non-professional actress from Uganda, set almost entirely in Africa, and directed by a woman filmmaker of Indian origin. In any other year, a film like this would have been an anomaly, but in 2016, when the world seems to Benjamin Buttoning itself into a de-evolved, Neolithic version of itself, the very fact that Queen of Katwe was made, is akin to a miracle.

But that’s exactly what attracted Nair, never been one to shy away from challenges, to the story in the first place. “If you see Africa on any screen, even within Africa or without Africa, it is always to do with dictatorship or beastiality or child soldiers and violence; it has nothing to do with the kind of everyday life in Africa,” she says, over the telephone, in a conversation that took place minutes before her film’s European premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

“I think it’s so important to break the ignorance, the myopia, and the, sort of, terrible tropes and stereotypes that exists about other places in the world today. Even in India, there is massive racism against African students. There is so much importance given to the colour of our skin, and there’s caste prejudice that we’ve been carrying on for years, that the government stokes every moment, you know. A film like this hopefully makes you realise that the Nigerian student down the street is not a hustler or whatever the world may tell you that he/she is, and that’s important to know right now.”

Lending a voice to those who don’t get much of a say has always been one of the prevalent themes of Nair’s movies. From tackling the pandemic of child abuse in Monsoon Wedding to the rising Islamobhobia in her last film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nair takes pride in giving a platform to the disadvantaged, the marginalised as well as the misfits, while ensuring that their portrayal is not bleak, but instead, spirited. Nair calls it the “life-ist” attitude that she has seen as the fundamental component of the human condition, irrespective of where she’s set her film.

“This attitude, this embracing of life fully… the emphasis on how much you can create with your life, regardless of how little you may have, has always inspired me,” Nair says. “The struggle to just achieve you are by people considered outside of society, is a tale I have tried to tell since Salaam Bombay!, because there’s dignity and joy that you never see or hear of.”

When a Disney executive with Ugandan roots, Tendo Nagenda, brought her a cut out of a sports magazine that had profiled Mutesi, asking her if she’d be interested in making a film on her, Nair knew this was a story she needed to tell. Mutesi’s story took place barely 15 minutes away from her house in Kampala, a city she calls home since the last two decades (she met and married her husband Mahmood Mamdani, a Professor at Columbia University, New York, in Kampala), but it was opportunity to authentically portray a people she has come to love, that jumped out at her.

So if Queen of Katwe tick marks the genre sports film, it also firmly shines a light at the vivaciousness and compassion of the Ugandan community, beyond just the colours of its streets, the hip hop music or the vibrant camerawork (by 12 Years a Slave cinematographer Sean Bobbitt). The story of Phiona, she points out, is not just the story of how “genius can be found everywhere”, but that of the entire community that lived her dream with her, and for her, “because that is how life is lived in Kampala.”

“It’s not an individualistic life or a one person show. It takes a mentor like Robert Katende, a mother like Harriet Mutesi, it takes a street, a family… it takes a village to make a genius. It’s this prismatic view that I find interesting. I also think the world is ready to see on screen what the world is off screen – the multiplicities, the diversity, the inclusivity, and the humanity – which I love to film. Because I am certainly never going to make the reductive formula sports film that is expected of me,” she laughs.

Having grown up between Rourkela and Bhubaneshwar, then studying in Delhi University and Harvard University, and then, having found her calling in Hollywood, shuttling between her three homes in New York, New Delhi and Kampala, Nair is a global citizen, if ever there was one. So presenting an all-encompassing world in every story she illustrates on screen, is not just important to her, but in some ways, obligatory.

“If you are truthful and all-encompassing, whether you are watching Uganda in Queen of Katwe or Monsoon Wedding with the Punjabiyat of it, or the streets of Bombay in Salaam Bombay!, even if that world is far away from your reality, you will eventually see yourself in that truth too. You relate because you either know the feelings I have tried to portray, or you could know them.”

It was hence critical to Nair to have cast actors from the same streets that she tried to paint this honest picture of, if Queen of Katwe was to work. Madina Nalwanga, who played the lead role of Phiona, grew up not far from Katwe, in the streets of Kibuli, where she sold corn for a living, and was found through a dancing troupe she was a part of. All the other kids were non-professional actors too; a strategy that had helped her put together a magical cast during her debut in Salaam Bombay! as well.

“Children are like the maps of life in the way they move their hands or bodies,” she says tenderly. “I had no interest in taking an upper class child and teaching him or her how to bathe with half an inch of water. My interest, on the other hand, is actually being educated by a child, to show us the world that he or she is coming from. So when we found the kids, I distilled the roles according to their strength and their fun, so even the audience would feel a sense of familiarity on seeing them.”

“Morever,” she points out, “there’s a real alchemy that happens when you put together a kid from reality opposite a legendary actor like David Oweloyo (who plays Phiona’s coach Katende) or Lupita N’yongo (who plays Phiona’s mother Harriet), or Naseeruddin Shah in Salaam Bombay!. Because when you have a pure non-actor and a pure actor, they both have to meet at a point of purity, you know.”

It is this commitment to break out of the trappings of traditional Disney fare that gives Queen of Katwe the characteristic Mira Nair stamp, which the director gives full credit to the studio for not trying to “sanitize”. Because if the film plays out the conventional soaring, uplifting sports film tropes, like the sports metaphors that Katende uses to explain life itself (“Find your safe squares”), there are enough unpredictable and unexpected moments of genuine emotion derived from the “barbarity and brutality of living in the slums,” as Nair puts it.

The filmmaker points out specific examples of scenes where Phiona, when she first goes to the Church where the other kids are playing chess, is called a ‘pig’ and has to fight to eat the complimentary porridge by her own. Another scene, where Phiona, on beating a boy at chess, asks out aloud if she was allowed to win by him, is an example of the “familiar female diffidence” that is still rampant in so many women, according to Nair.

“These are not unique attributes, you know,” she explains, “These things happen to all of us, and that makes us think and believe that we are pretty much the same people, no matter where we are. I don’t like sugar coating this, but yes, I do like to tell it all in a way that you have mazaa (fun) also. Because if you feel the mazaa, you feel the pain too.

“That is how I make movies – I don’t want a harangue; I don’t want to be lectured to. So I have shaped the film like a human heart and the rhythm of it is like an accordion. It expands your heart with laughter, because the kids would do that to me with their finger snapping and their sounds that were so full of sassiness; and in the next moment, you’d see the reality of eating, where you are fighting for a bowl of porridge.”

A turning point in the movie, for Phiona, comes through when a kid she’s playing with explains to her why chess matters to her. “In chess, the small one can become the big one,” she says, referring to the chess rule wherein a pawn can become a queen if it makes it across the board to the other side. Phiona makes this her motto, deriving courage from it, and giving it her own moniker that ties back with the movie’s title: “queening.”

Queening can aptly be used as a term to describe the swagger of the women in the movie. Because Queen of Katwe isn’t just an inspirational sports film that would empower the young Phionas of the world to dream big and then chase those dreams down; but for Nair, it is also a feminist movie inspired by, and dedicated to the Harriets of the world, because without their pluck and persistance, there could be no Phionas.

Says Nair, “I don’t ever want to make a female character who gives up on life. Even the real Harriet is a formidable ‘Mother Courage’, someone who became a teenage mother but refused to let her children follow her path, as best as she could. She struggled so deeply in her youth but resolved that she will stand up for her children.”

“That’s the tenacity that Phiona has inherited too. She’s lethal and resolute in chess, and that comes from her mother’s life, struggles and courage. And these are the women I like depicting on screen: who are as complicated as we all are, and inspiring in their own ways.”

With virtually no wrong moves in her film career spanning three decades, be it through her feminism or her movies that feature protagonists embracing life with all the curve balls it throws at them, or through the film school she’s started in Kampala, the Maisha Film Lab, that has been galvanizing African youth through its motto, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else well,” perhaps Nair’s endgame too, has been “queening” all along.

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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on October 21, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/mira-nair-breaking-the-colour-code
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Neeraj Pandey #Profile #OpenMagazine #MSDhoni

Neeraj Pandey: Captain Cool

A big budget feature film on India’s most successful captain is a different kind of thriller for Neeraj Pandey.

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/55CBEJ
In two weeks, National Award-winning filmmaker Neeraj Pandey will face the biggest test in his (roughly) decade-long Hindi film career. On September 30, his fourth feature film as writer-director, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, made over a period of two-and-a-half-years, on a reported budget of Rs 80 crore, will release worldwide in four languages.
A biopic on the life of arguably India’s greatest cricket captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer MS Dhoni will be Pandey’s first film since A Wednesday! to feature a lead actor other than Akshay Kumar (he starred in both Special 26 and Baby), in a genre other than a thriller, on a story not his own, and on a canvas far bigger than anything he’s ever played with.
But over an hour-long afternoon conversation in the meeting room of the office of his production outfit, Friday Filmworks, which he co-owns with producing partner Shital Bhatia, you could very well pass off Pandey as ‘Captain Cool’, the moniker deservingly earned by Dhoni for his ability to stay unfazed, especially at crucial junctures of any match.

If the film is a critical moment in his own journey, Pandey doesn’t betray any sign of nerves. He is visibly unpretentious, laidback and genial during the interview, and for a man fresh off a Rs 100 crore plus box office hit that he produced in August with Rustom, he is self-deprecating to the extent that he answers every other question first with a joke on himself, before grappling to find an earnest response, but only to satisfy the demands of the query itself.

Because, just like Dhoni again, Pandey seems conscientiously focused on the prize, and everything else in between is something he’d rather get through with, so he can do what he loves doing, his ‘9 to 5’, as he calls it. And for this reason, giving interviews, going to Bollywood parties or even being ‘visible’ for anything other than actual work is a task. “I love what I do, there’s no denying that,” he says, “but this is not my entire life.”

“My passion is pre-configured and I have a lot of respect for my ‘9 to 5’ or ‘9 to 12’ sometimes, so I don’t feel the need to display it. I have never felt I am a crusader in the world of movies, ki yahan jhande gaadenge (I’ll bury my flags here).  Between writing something and creating something, I’m dealing with the world in my own way, and that negotiates all these other issues, and purges me in so many ways. That’s my day to day motivation, and I hope it continues; I hope I remain this way.”

Pandey’s way, of course, is a stark contrast to most filmmakers in an industry that’s certainly a large part film, but also equal parts glamour. And that could perhaps be because of the non-filmy journey the director’s had to reach where he is today. Growing up in late ‘70s Calcutta, as it was called then, to working class parents, Pandey wasn’t the kind of child who had his life chalked out in any way.

“You know, it’s a myth that everyone in Calcutta is intelligent,” he says with a laugh, pointing out that he shouldn’t be perceived as intelligent ‘just because he was born there’. “No doubt, some of the people who shaped the film industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s were Bengalis, but you are talking about Howrah, jahan Bombay pata hi nahin tha kahan hai, hamein (where we didn’t even know where Bombay was). Most of my friends wanted to do BCom and the more dynamic ones had only one dream, bas yahan se nikal jaayein’ (to just get out of here). At that time, I really had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.”

If there was one thing that he did know, it was that he liked telling stories through his childhood. “I was very good at lying as a kid and it all started from there,” he says with a straight face. “I was a very mischievous kid, so I had to keep on making excuses, by using my imagination and digging up stories.  I think that, sort of, perfected my skill at storytelling and sowed the seed.”

Pandey was always a literature buff and was just as interested in all forms of sports, growing up. Looking back, he is certain that the nudge towards movies was more subconscious than either of these active hobbies. “I can make it sound profound and intelligent at this point, but to be honest, at that time, I just liked watching films a lot, without knowing anything about the film industry or that I’ll be pursuing a career in it.”

Two films in particular left an indelible mark on him, though. One was Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, the “experience” of which stayed with him through the years. The other was Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool that he watched a number of times to “find out why I am seeing it over and over again”. “Maybe it was the theme of rise-and-fall that affected me, or maybe it was the music, which I was very, very fond of at that time, contrary to what I’m known for today,” he says sheepishly.

“One song in the film, Kaifi Azmi’s ‘Dekhi zamaane ki yaari’ stayed with me and that disturbed my parents a lot ki kuch to problem hai idhar (there’s some problem here). Because at that age, you are not listening to this kind of music.”

Talking about his parents, Pandey says he feels “blessed” that they were always encouraging towards any hobby or passion that cultivated, as opposed to other parents of that generation, who’d rather their children pursue either of engineering or medical sciences. He remembers how they never stopped him from doing anything, until it was absolutely necessary. So when he took up reading and films as hobbies, there was no “resistance”. “In fact, I guess it was more a sense of relief than anything else for them that I found something to do with my life,” he reminisces with a laugh.

Films turned into a passion for Pandey during his college years in Delhi in the early ‘90s, as a literature student in Delhi University’s Sri Aurobindo College. He briefly flirted with theatre, strictly as a writer-director, he points out (“there was no confusion about this bit!”), and eventually decided to take up film because he “had no other skillset”, or so he insists.

“If you are a Lit graduate, you anyway don’t have too many choices left in life,” he grins. “Stories excited me, and so I decided to learn direction to be able to tell them visually. My source of inspiration, and my institution at that time was TNT. The channel, which was Cartoon Network by day, used to show black-and-white movies from 9 pm to 6 am. That became a huge source of learning for me. The best stories were made in the ‘40s and ‘50s, even in Hollywood, so watching them sorted me out in life.”

The aspiring director at the time tried getting admission in the renowned Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, but was rejected. So he started doing television in Delhi, as a stepping stone to film. He first started as an assistant director and then worked on a couple of telefilms and fiction television as an independent director for Doordarshan and others, because he says he knew that he won’t get to be a film director “so fast”.  “Main kisi ko jaanta thodi na tha (It’s not that Iknew anyone) that I’ll come here suddenly get a film.”

Indeed, after shifting to Mumbai in 2000, it took time for Pandey to get the chance to work on his first feature film, 2008’s critically-acclaimed A Wednesday! that won him a National Award for Best First Film by a Director. Till then, he worked on commissioned documentaries, TVCs and more television, a lot of it through the first production set up he formed with Bhatia, Quarter Inch Productions.

Meanwhile, he wrote three films, a romantic comedy, a comedy and a satire, none of which saw the light of the day. The 2006 Mumbai serial train blasts inspired him to script A Wednesday! that went on to become a sleeper hit, subsequently being remade in Tamil as Unnaipol Oruvan and Telegu as Eeenadu, both starring Kamal Hassan in the role of Naseeruddin Shah as the ‘common man’ whose life is derailed because of a terror attack.

It was this movie that labelled him as a “thriller guy who makes films about the common man”, a tag that he has now stopped fighting or reacting to. “I have realized you can’t control what the audience or critics take away from a film,” he states.

“I had gone to the theater to see the audience reaction during A Wednesday!, and found myself sitting ahead of two people, who were basically discussing if Naseeruddin Shah’s character was a Hindu or a Muslim and that’s when I realized it’s all gone to the dogs (laughs). The whole point of the movie was to not talk about that, and here I was. Of course, the good thing was that at least people were talking… and perhaps there is a third guy who would counter these two and tell them what the point really was. That’s who I made the film for.”

Ever since, he has stopped falling into this “trap” of trying to leave his audience with any sort of a moral takeaway through his writing. “It’s very important to me that I am not indulgent in thinking ki audience iske baare mein kya sochegi (what will the audience think about this),” he explains.

“But you do want them to be left with some residual value in broad strokes, so what you are trying to say is translated to them, else what’s the point?  Like, in Baby, you were looking to give people a sense of respect for the guy on the border. But usually, the audience gratification I want is only in terms of their attention. As a storyteller, my entire focus is to tell any story as entertainingly as possible and then I hand it over to the director in me, who is a crowd pleaser, and knows when to amp up the background score!”

If there’s one conscious rule that Pandey follows is in his writing is to never hurt or offend anyone, because he asserts that he holds all religions and people in equal regards. Beyond that, he only wishes to deliver quality storytelling, which he hopes people have come to expect from his films, but not so that he becomes “a brand name or something of that sort.”

“It is imperative for me that audience likes the film so people who put their money in the film recover their money so I can make one more film and explore one more genre and tell one more story, and the faith sustains… it’s as simple as that. We are not making films only for ourselves, else we may as well make home videos. We are catering to an audience, so you have to respect that.”

His successful collaboration with Akshay Kumar, twice as a director and once as a producer (Rustom), which has arguably resurrected the actor’s career and given him a new identity as this generation’s Manoj ‘Bharat’ Kumar, is also more a nod to the audience than to do with his comfort level with the star, or a conscious choice as a filmmaker. “If your gamble pays off, you are hooked on to it right? It’s no rocket science,” he smiles.

But of course, he continues, in Kumar, he has found a star who comes to set as an “actor”, which, he explains, makes his work as a director easy. “There are no airs about him. He and no last minute brilliant epiphanies on set ki koi bulb jal gaya (that some bulb has lit), and he is extremely disciplined. That gives me the ability to focus only on the job at hand.”

On MS Dhoni: the Untold Story, the job at hand may have looked daunting to some, in trying to do justice to the legend of one of contemporary cricket’s biggest idols, but for Pandey, the movie was never about the cricket itself, but about the man and his journey, and that’s what made him take up the challenge of presenting it on the big screen.

After he was offered the film, he found himself in a room talking to Dhoni, and reckons that experience to be a “déjà vu”, because “it didn’t feel like you are meeting him for the first time. He is extremely grounded and earthy and holds all his players and teammates in such high regard that I knew, in that very meeting, that this was a story I had to tell.”

“It’s a very inspiring story about the making of the man that is MS,” he continues. “It’s a story of tenacity, something that, in my belief, pays off big time. If you can be very clear about the fact that this is my goal and go after it, and look the odds in the eye, chances are that you will have a good journey, and you will reach a good place.”

MS Dhoni’s story, of a man who started from nowhere and went on to carve a kind of arc for himself that one can only dream of, is, in a way, the story of India’s ultimate common man. And as such, it only makes sense that Pandey was handpicked to direct it.

As the maker of films that glorifies the extraordinary deeds of the ordinary man, and for a man resolutely trying to stay common in an industry that thrives on the uncommon, it is possibly that the tenacity of Neeraj Pandey’s journey brought him here, and just like Dhoni, it is perhaps the thrill of the chase that will take him towards a good place too.

Follow the blog on your left and like The Tanejamainhoon Page on FB: /tanejamainhoonpage
Follow Nikhil Taneja on FB: /tanejamainhoonon Twitter:
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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on September 16, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/playing-with-dhoni
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

THE AWESOME TV SHOW EP 6: David Harbour Interview (EXCLUSIVE) #FILMCOMPANION

Note: This video was written & hosted by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Film Companion. Check it out on YouTube here: https://goo.gl/1jD0LM

From June 2016, I have been hosting a YouTube Show called The Awesome TV Show for Anupama Chopra’s YouTube Channel, Film Companion. In the fortnightly show (mostly), I recommend awesome television shows to watch, recap and review new episodes of some of the best ones and gives loads of lists on what to watch and where.

EPISODE 6
In Episode 6,  I do an all-India exclusive Skype interview with actor David Harbour who played Detective Jim Hopper on Netflix phenomneon Stranger Things on how he prepared for the role, recreating 80s nostalgia and drawing inspiration from Hans Solo and Indiana Jones. For fans of the show, Harbour even gives us clues about what we can expect from Season 2.


NOTE: Watch the playlist of ALL episodes of The Awesome TV Show so far here: https://goo.gl/t59b7b


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Follow Nikhil Taneja on FB: /tanejamainhoonon Twitter:
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Note: This video first appeared on the Film Companion YouTube channel on August 24, 2016.
Link: https://goo.gl/1jD0LM
Picture courtesy: Film Companion. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: David Harbour #Stranger Things #HT48Hours #TV #QnA

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/e1WYWb

In a summer littered with film disappointments, the pop culture zeitgeist that’s captured the attention of every kind of audience is an unassuming sci-fi-meets-horror-meets-family adventure Netflix series, Stranger Things. The show, about a 12-year-old who goes missing in a small town of Indiana, is a throwback to the iconic films of the ‘80s like E.T., Close Encounters of a Third Kind and Stand by Me.

Actor David Harbour, who has worked with iconic directors from Ang Lee in Brokeback Mountain to Sam Mendes in Revolutionary Road  and writers like Aaron Sorkin in The Newsroom, plays the lead on the show opposite Winona Ryder, as police chief, Jim Hopper, who must uncover the strange going-ons.  In an exclusive Skype interview, he gives us a lowdown on the phenomenon that the show has become.

So are you aware of the incredible response to Stranger Things from India?
(Smiles) Yeah! One of the things that’s so amazing is that Stranger Things feels to me like a very American show, you know. It’s set in Indiana, a small town in the Midwest, but the fact that Indian people are moved by it, are touched by it, is very, very gratifying. It means we have something universal that connects us all. I love that.

What was the idea that the show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers, have for your character, Chief Jim Hopper?
We talked a lot about the skeletons in his closet. This guy has been through a lot of pain because his daughter died, and he’s channeled that into his ferocity of this search for Will. Like, he couldn’t save his daughter, so he’s going to punch his way into saving this kid. And it is so gratifying to be able to play this kind of a leading man role, because you don’t necessarily like him at first, you know? He’s kind of a jerk to children, he drinks, he smokes, he makes fun of Joyce (Winona Ryder) and her kid. And then, instead of making the villainous choice, he gets to go make the heroic choice.

The Duffer Brothers really let me take the reins on this. They’re just really great (chuckles). And they’re children! They were born in the ‘80s, when I was like 10 or 12, so they didn’t know about it as well as I do, and yet, I really think they captured it so perfectly.

The show had so many great homages to the ‘80s. Did you guys look at any ‘80s characters for reference points to Chief Hopper too?
Yeah, I mean, we talked about Han Solo (chuckles), and we talked about Indiana Jones! It’s funny… the hat wasn’t in the script. But I wanted to have an iconic hat that Hopper’s grandfather would have and who’d have passed down to him. And now it does mirror Indiana Jones. We also talked about this swashbuckling guy, who was dark, angry and messed up, and doesn’t know if he loves someone or has that self-awareness… like Han Solo. So yeah, they were big influences, and so was the character of Chief Brody from Jaws, who has this fear of sharks and the water, and then has to go and confront that. In the same way, Hopper has a fear of children dying on him, and he has to go confront that.

The show is like the ultimate tribute to Steven Spielberg. Were you also influenced by him when you were a kid?
My initial love of movies did come from Spielberg. I mean, there was such an earnestness of purpose, where it’s like, ‘movie magic’. You know, movies used to just be magical. Spielberg’s movies were magical. And I feel like we’ve, kind of, gotten a little bit away from it in movies now, it’s kind of become a little bit cynical. And I feel like Stranger Things has that magic quality to it.

Did you relate to any of the kids in the show? What do you remember from that time that you could use in the show?
I guess I was mainly like Finn. You know, I never got to sit at the popular kids’ lunch table, but I, sort of, had my band of geeky friends too, and I was like the leader of that, and would galvanize them (smiles). You know, one of the things we captured so well in the series, I think, is that it was a simpler time back then. It was less technology, nobody had cellphones, so you could kind of get lost in the woods. Like, now-a-days, I feel, like, every kid has a cellphone and so you text with your mom if there’s a monster running after you (chuckles).

What’s interesting is that Winona Ryder was a teen icon in the ‘80s. Did you ever bring that up when you were working with her on the show?
Yeah, I tried not to bring that up initially, because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable (laughs). I was such a huge fan! I had such a crush on her for years and year. I was like 17 years old, when I saw her in Heather, and I used to think she’s so beautiful! And she’s still so beautiful and such a good actress too. And she’s just such a strong woman yet so vulnerable. So yeah, by the end, once she got to know me and she knew I wasn’t a very weird person, I got to geek out with her and tell her (laughs again).

So what can you tell us about season 2? The show’s not been officially renewed so far and fans are dying to hear of the confirmation.
Umm, I do know that they want to continue to use the same characters, should we come back. And I know that they want it to feel like a sequel, as opposed to like a continuation, like how Star Wars was its own thing and Empire Strikes back was its own thing too? (Smiles) So we may not have the yellow scrolling text at the beginning but we may pick up later and reveal to you in some way what things have happened in the interim. And I feel like that sequel quality is also a very ‘80s thing, just like the show.

David Harbour’s Notable Filmography:
Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes (2016)
David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016)
The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (2016)
Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (2015)
Sam Shaw’s Manhattan (2014)
Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer (2014)
Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (2012)
David Ayer’s End of Watch (2012)
Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet (2011)
Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008)
Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008)
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005)

 

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Note: This interview first appeared in HT 48 Hours on August 18, 2016.
Link: http://www.hindustantimes.com/art-and-culture/exclusive-actor-david-harbour-speaks-about-netflix-s-stranger-things-and-working-with-winona-ryder/story-DIYYNGmeWjfjP6b4lQ1VuM.html
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Interview: Rahul Khanna #OpenMagazine #Profile

Rahul Khanna: The Internet’s Gentleman Boyfriend

The crossover star of the 90s, Rahul Khanna plays a Pakistani intelligence officer in an Emmy-nominated drama and becomes the internet’s latest boyfriend

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/BkCbDA


Tucked away in a lane a few hundred meters from Mumbai’s iconic Haji Ali Dargah, you are likely to miss The Royal Willingdon Sports Club, if you aren’t aware of it. Founded in 1918 by Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of the city that was once called Bombay, the club is cited as Mumbai’s “most exclusive”, with its membership closed to outsiders since 1985. It most famously denied membership to Padmashri Dr. DY Patil, in 2010, while he was the governor of Tripura, and is especially known for its snobbery towards all things ‘Bollywood’.

So the elite club is the last place you expect to meet an actor for an interview, least of all an actor who purportedly counts his allegiance to the Indian film industry. But then again, Rahul Khanna is no ‘Boutique Bollywood actor’, even though his Twitter bio irreverently claims otherwise.

Khanna, the son of the legendary ‘70s superstar, Vinod Khanna, India’s first de-facto sex symbol, and former model Gitanjali Taleyarkhan, could well be the living and breathing personification of cinema’s popular ‘fish out of water’ trope. Stylish to a fault and impeccably well-mannered, the actor has the grace and poise of a gentleman more suited to the era in which the Willingdon Club flourished, than the hasty, unruly world of today.

His filmography has been measured and unhurried, his anchoring appearances have been select, his press interactions have been few and far between, and there’s painfully little known about his personal life. And then there’s that paradox: for someone who’s self-confessedly reserved, he is a rage on social media, not so much because he tries to be, but particularly because he doesn’t. His social media profiles are a picture of effortless wit and old world charm, and have led to a collective following of over half a million followers.

It is of little wonder then that the 44-year-old Khanna – who looks at least a decade younger – has been rediscovered by an entirely new section of the audiences, mostly excitable, frenzied millennial girls who have filled the internet with posts declaring that they can’t have enough of his naughty, suggestive Snapchats (he once posted a picture titled ‘morning wood’ that had him standing in front of wooden logs one early morning) or his tantalizing Instagram posts, filled with ‘ovary-busting pictures’, as one listicle site put it.

Is he the internet’s new boyfriend? Ask him and he bursts out laughing, “It’s all a bit of fun, really. You know, I don’t have a publicist or a PRO, and I’m a classic introvert, so when the social media phenomenon came out, I thought this would be a nice way to connect with people who are interested in me. The idea is for it to be a part of your personality and to use it to express yourself. I don’t want to share my opinions or be political, I’m only there for a positive experience. But I never thought anyone’s even paying attention to this!”

And when he did realise that there was rapt attention from female fans, it gave him the license to be a bit sassy, leading to everyone from Buzzfeed to MissMalini  declaring him ‘sex on legs’. “I would be lying to you if I said I don’t love the attention,” he chuckles, “especially since it’s not lascivious, it’s fun and flirty. But now that I know people are watching, there is this temptation to be a bit creative and be a little cheeky.”

Not only does Khanna have fun with his accounts publically, he also stays playful with his rather sweet habit of personally replying to anyone who tags him in a post through a personal, intimate direct message. Once, the actor responded to tweet from a female fan who had asked him to marry him, by messaging her, “Certainly. Is Saturday good for you?” The internet discovered her screenshot recently, driving hordes of female fans ecstatic that the eternal bachelor is now a DM away from marrying them, and he soon started trending for the same. Everyone wanted a DM from Rahul Khanna, and Khanna was only happy to oblige most.

“It was quite bizarre when that happened,” Khanna chuckles. “I didn’t understand that. I feel if someone has taken the trouble to tag me or say something nice, it’s only polite for me to reply. I want my profiles to be happy so I just started using them in the way I would chat with a friend on SMS or Whatsapp. I just want to be authentic.”

The word ‘happiness’, along with ‘joy’ comes up a lot during the course of our conversation. And every which way you look at Rahul Khanna’s story so far, whether you casually google him or speak at length with him, you’d see why authenticity is just as important a trait for him.

As a bespectacled ‘nerdy’ kid with an affinity for pinstriped shirts and khaki pants (“I had a connection with pinstripes that made me feel good about myself”), Khanna grew up with his kid brother, actor Akshaye Khanna, in South Bombay, distinctly away from the heart of Bollywood that resided in and around Juhu and Andheri.  His parents split up early in his childhood, and with it, so did most of his connections with the film world.

“It’s strange that we, as kids, were perceived as belonging to that world,” he reflects. “I sort of equate myself as being an outsider with inside access. All we knew is that our Dad was an actor and people knew who he was. So as a kid, there was a time I wanted to be a vet because I love dogs, and another time I wanted to be an artist because I loved cartooning. I knew it would be something creative but didn’t know it would be film. I ended up here… but I still kind of feel I don’t know which world I belong to.”

It was the opportunity to go to New York along with his interest in the creative arts that inspired him to enroll in film school at The School of Visual Arts, New York. Along the way, he also did an acting course at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute.

“The end game wasn’t to get into Bollywood, it was only to explore the craft,” he says. “I was very influenced by the new sort of burgeoning Indian independent cinema coming out of the west. There was this little theater in New York called The Angelina that would play only independent, foreign films. I saw a film called Masala by a filmmaker called Sreenivas Krishna from Canada, and it was spectacular to see English language films about India.”

Although his brother, Akshaye, made his Bollywood debut around the same time as he was studying filmmaking, with Himalay Putra, a film produced by their father, Vinod Khanna, Khanna just couldn’t relate to what Bollywood was in those days. “There were no scripts!” he chuckles. “When people would offer me stuff and I’d ask for a script, it would be inconceivable to them that I didn’t understand the Bollywood way of working, and it was inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t have a script.”

Bollywood did happen a few years later, but it was in the early 90s, when Khanna first burst on to the scene as the Indian face of MTV Asia, even before MTV India was launched. After enjoying immense adulation and being hailed as a metrosexual Indian icon, at a time leading Bollywood actors were more famous for their chest hair than their acting skills, Khanna became one of the first young leading men to star in crossover Indian cinema with Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth and Bollywood/Hollywood.

It was this experience he had on the film set, along with a 8-shows-a-day, 11 week stint on the off-Broadway stage, with “theater royalty” Scott Elliott-directed play, East is East, that made him believe acting was his calling.

“Earth and East is East were incredible first acting jobs for me. I picked up so much about teamwork and they set the bar really high in terms of the kind of people and crew you could work with. I find acting to be a very intimate process, so it helped me, as an introvert, to connect. And those environments made me realise that if I could continue to do this, it would be a really good thing.”

So post his early days as a crossover star, the reason Khanna only did a handful of films over the next decade was not due to lack of offers, but because for him, relating to the team behind the film was just as important as the scripts he was getting.

“I want to be working with people I respect and who respect me back, because that’s the only way you can enjoy work and get a good result out of it” he emphasizes. “What’s the point of taking on something, when it would seem that you’d be miserable during the process? So when I look back at films of mine that haven’t been received well, if I had a good time on them, and if I’ve made friends, I feel they were worth it.”

He points out that there were times he wasn’t sure of a project but went ahead and did it anyway because he liked the people. “It was also important for me to prove wrong people who believed that I had some sort of prejudice against Bollywood,” he says. “Whenever I’d meet people, it was always implied that I perhaps felt that I was better than Bollywood, and hence hadn’t done so much of it. To them I would say, how could I have anything against Bollywood if I worked with Raj Kanwar!”

That would explain some of the misfires in the early part of his Bollywood filmography, but when he started taking up character-driven roles in films like Ayan Mukerji’s Wake Up Sid and Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, he saw another exasperating side of the same industry.

“After these films, I’d only get offered ‘the other guy’ roles!” he laughs. “People started telling me how brave I was for doing such a role in these films but I never knew these rules. No one told them to me when I was taking up the films! (pause) It did get a bit frustrating that I wasn’t getting to do more of what I love, but it’s not a vanity thing for me to see myself on screen ‘x’ number of times. Besides, isn’t the whole point of it to have fun?”

Having fun has been the driving force behind taking up the cameo in season one of Anil Kapoor’s 24, and also a scene-stealing role in the international drama series, The Americans, that has been nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Drama this year. What started off as a one episode cameo, was turned into a full-fledged arc in the following season, even if that meant coming to terms with the graphic sex scenes he had to indulge in as a Pakistani spy with a keen eye for American women.

“My friends haven’t stopped tormenting me about that,” he chuckles. “From screenshots to Whatsapp group profile pictures, I’ve seen it all. The good thing, acting wise, is that after you spend 16 hours naked in a room full of strangers, there’s nothing you can’t do. It’s no longer an unknown beast.”

The Emmy nomination would certainly give the show a big boost and Khanna will perhaps come to benefit it too along the way. At the moment, even as he hopes to be called back for another arc on the show, he’s looking at scripts in both countries to figure his next steps. He’s got a travel show coming up on NDTV Good Times that will see him on the whiskey trail in Scotland, and while there’s been serious talks and negotiations for a men’s clothing line, given his tremendous style credentials, it’s yet to be worked out.

All of these things are an important part of what he calls, ‘the pursuit of joy’. “I feel that life is really short and if you are not doing stuff that brings you joy, then you are wasting your time,” he smiles. What gives him joy on a daily basis, you ask him? Reading, food, gymming and meeting friends are high on his list. He also has a certain fondness for antique furniture and collects boarding passes, although he’ snot sure why. But it’s not about individual things, he says, but the way you live your life.

“I feel we, as a people, have become a little bit less considered. So everything I do or own or like has been considered. So, if you say, I have nice manner, it’s because it’s a nice thing to have, it’s nice when someone smiles because of you.”

“It’s a horrible example, I know, “he continues with a laugh, “but I see people who may have an amazing car but they’d treat it really badly. My car may be 300 times more modest but I appreciate it and keep it well. I’m not saying my way is right, but I see people who have a lot more than I do, but nothing brings them happiness.”

It’s almost strange to see the Zen-like attitude, especially coming from someone who is a part of an industry fundamentally built on desire, and with a first name that has come to be synonymous with a period of Bollywood that reflected upward mobility and aspiration. But where everyone likes to fit inside little brackets of stereotype and cliché, Khanna’s refreshingly alright about standing out. “I have always been a round peg in a square hole,” he explains through an idiom that’s almost as peculiar as he asserts he is.

“I was uncomfortable about it when I was younger, because there was an emphasis to fit in and be a certain way, but now, I feel it is one of my biggest strengths, that I don’t fit in anywhere. So I’m also really attracted to people who are odd, who don’t play by the rules, and whom other people call weird. I really like those kind of people, and I feel it is a wonderful quality to have: in a world so standardized, to have people who are themselves. I love that!”

That’s perhaps, then, the best way of defining Rahul Khanna, connoisseur of the good life, pursuer of joy, and the internet’s current boyfriend: A gentleman of his own, in a world that is standardized.

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Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on August 5, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/rahul-khanna-the-internet-s-latest-boyfriend
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Maneesh Sharma Interview #Fan #Pandolin #QnA

“Entering Mannat to meet Shah Rukh Khan was my Fan moment”

Maneesh Sharma is one of the most sought-after young filmmakers in India. He started his career with Band Baaja Baaraat and swept all the Best Debut Director awards for the film throughout the next year. From there, Maneesh has grown from strength to strength as a director, and then, as a producer for Yash Raj Films, with his much acclaimed first film, Dum Laga ke Haisha, winning the National Award. His passion project Fan has been in the making for about 10 years now. From its origins to the final production, this has been a ride for the filmmaker and fans alike. In an exclusive and in-depth chat with guest writer, Nikhil Taneja, Maneesh Sharma opens up about the film, its genesis and his long association with YRF.

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Pandolin.com. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/EEC8Ru


You wanted Fan to be your first film, isn’t it? I find it interesting that although your eventual goal was to make a thriller-drama of this scale, why did you only make comedy-dramas before this? Why did you not gravitate towards any thriller in your career so far?
It was obviously unplanned because I was very driven to make Fan as my first film and having said that, I also wanted to make my first film with Shah Rukh Khan. When I was coming to Bombay, I told my friends in Delhi that there would definitely be a day when there will be a film called Fan and it will say “Starring Shah Rukh Khan, produced by Aditya Chopra and directed by Maneesh Sharma”. Ye toh mujhe karna tha. Adi (Aditya Chopra) was always encouraging, but he would always tell me that you must develop it (the film’s idea). Therefore, it came with a suffix that it cannot be your first film.

In the time I was trying to develop the idea, Fanaa (*his first film as an AD for YRF*) released. Then Adi told me that he is planning a Madhuri Dixit comeback film. When I heard ‘Madhuri Dixit film’, there was no need to talk any further (smiles). So I put Fan on hold and worked on Aaja Nachle. When I got back to Fan after that released, Adi again called me and said that this time, he was making a film with Shah Rukh and wanted me to work on that (chuckles). I thought, “Obviously. If Shah Rukh and Adi are doing it, then I am doing it!” Rab Ne… (Rab Ne Bana di Jodi) happened and I reiterated ne last time that I wanted to make Fan. But Adi told me that since the film is a very ambitious one, not just financially, but creatively, he asked me to first make a film where I didn’t have to break mountains so I could hone my craft. Since I had kept at it for 5-6 years, I got dejected that I won’t ever be able to make this one.

Band Baaja Baaraat (BBB) came out of that dejection. The story of Band Baaja… happened, Adi liked it and agreed to produce it. I must say that it was a very honest film because it was my first film and it came from an organic space. We just made what we wanted to make. Thankfully Band Baaja… put me in a place that Adi could talk to him about the film. By then I also knew SRK because of Rab Ne…. And it was also a sheer coincidence that I received my best debut director award from SRK himself on my birthday (smiles). We kept talking about the film and had some equation by then. Before BBB released, Adi and I had discussed that in terms of development and writing, Habib Faisal would be the writer. Since it would take time, I did Ladies vs Ricky Bahl as its script was ready.

When Adi planned Jab Tak Hai Jaan with SRK, he also told him that there was an idea for a film by me. SRK liked it and he told Adi that he wanted to do both! So it was decided that he would do Fan after Jab Tak… so Habib would also be able to write properly after Ishaqzaade. Meanwhile, Shuddh Desi Romance happened (laughs).

People keep talking about how I work within the same milieu but it was not at all planned! I only take ownership of Band Baaja Baaraat. That came from me, I liked it and thought that it would be a new voice. Ladies vs Ricky Bahl and Shuddh Desi… both came as bound scripts to me. When people say that my command on Delhi is very good, I feel like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Shuddh Desi Romance is set in Rajasthan (laughs). And Ladies vs Ricky Bahl too had barely 10 minutes of Delhi. Even in Fan, a quarter of the film is in Delhi but this association has got too glorified, that I am good with that milieu. Another thing that is said is that all my films are set in the middle class, which is another unplanned thing.

Your question is right to an extent – if I was planning to make Fan then why the other kind of films? When I was in film school, it was on my bucket list that I wanted to direct a Jaideep Sahni film and it happened. l liked the script and also thought that the film had great attitude in the writing. Another thing is that directorially, Shuddh Desi… was a very tough film. It is not that I am always looking for a larger scale in terms of money, VFX, etc. It may very well happen that the next film that I end up doing might be a 3 crore film with a newcomer. I think your association with the film/script at that point in your life is very important because you are charged about different things in different phases of your life.

For the same reason, I admire Yash Chopra as a director in terms of his body of work and I find it weird that this thing about him being the King of just ‘romance’ is talked over and over again. He made movies like Deewar, Kala Patthar, Mashaal, Dhool Ka Phool and Satyakam. Whatever he did, he did it well, irrespective of genre. Therefore it is beyond me to classify him into one slot. I think it will take at least 10 films for me to achieve a prolificacy. It is not that the next film that I do has to be a comedy. I think there is honesty in being unplanned, and I hope that I will be able to retain it. Success and failure will come and go and I know that I will make both good and bad films.

For example, I did get some flak for Ladies vs Ricky Bahl and I am not being defensive here but no one tells that it is a shit film. It was ‘okay’. And I think people were reacting to the monkey on its back with respect to Band Baja Baaraat. But I was not trying to outdo or match what I did with Band Baja Baraat. I was excited to make an Indian chick flick. I was not planning a bigger, better film after a successful film and I don’t want to do that even after Fan now (smiles).

Did a Shah Rukh Khan film for YRF outside of Yash Chopra and Aditya Chopra’s direction feel like a daunting task? Being from the same college as Shah Rukh Khan (Hanraj College, Delhi) and your associations with him from assisting days help during the shoot or did you have to figure how to direct him from day one onwards?
The thing, is arriving at Fan has been a very long journey, vis-à-vis Shah Rukh Khan. I’ll tell you a little story. It was in 2004 and I was about to graduate from my film school. I wanted to meet Shah Rukh Khan and pitch him an idea that I want to make a film with him and to ask him how to go about it. One night I was partying really hard during my college days at Cal Arts, LA, and it was 1:30 am that I called his spot boy, Subhash Da, and told him that my name is Maneesh and I am graduating from film school and I have a script for Shah Rukh Khan (chuckles). He said to call him back in 10 minutes. I thought he was just brushing me off but I did call back after 15 minutes and he said wait for a minute and then from the other side, Shah Rukh Khan’s voice comes on, ‘Hello?’ I was standing on a LA street and wondering whether this was real (smiles).

So I immediately became formal and started saying, ‘Mr. Khan’ and being courteous.  I told him I wanted to pitch him a film. So he gave me his manager’s number and repeated the number too. I said I’ll be in India in June/July and asked when will be a good time to meet him. He said he was preparing for a show, ‘Temptations’ and was very focused on it but we’ll figure it out. I thought that I spoke to Shah Rukh, so now I am definitely making this film, it is done (chuckles).

When I came back to India from college, I tried contacting his team but there no response. So I went to Bombay and crashed at a friend’s place. I dropped him a long message saying that ‘You asked me to come here and because of that I am here and now you are not responding at all’. A couple of hours later I got his message that I am shooting and at 6:30, come to my place, the address is ‘Mannat, Band Stand, Bandra’. I thought, ‘Really?!’

So, I landed there. Entering Mannat to meet Shah Rukh Khan was my first ‘fan’ moment. I went to the guard and I said that I am here to meet Shah Rukh. He said that he is not there. I thought that this is a standard response so I said to him that I had received a message from him but the guard said that he really is not there. Fifteen minutes later SRK messaged me that he is running late and will be there in 20 minutes and will inform at the gate and I can come in after that. So when his car came, a whole horde of fans ran in to have a look. These are all were very strong images and the idea seeded there and then for the film.

When the Mannat gate opened, I felt like I was walking in 48 fps (laughs). I met Subhash Dada, put a name to the face. I was sitting in what used to be his meeting room then. I just looked around the room and it looked astonishing – the great sea view, there were different VHS tapes that were kept there, even Fauji’s, there was a jukebox.

When Shah Rukh Khan came in, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s how he looks! (smiles). We had an hour long chat. He is, of course, a very gracious person and if you meet him in person for a chat, he will own you. He had a very professional manner. We talked about Delhi and Barry John, our common alma matter, and we discussed a lot of things. He liked the idea and then after talking about a lot of things I left. I had no idea how this process works. I mean to get his time like that, I don’t know I can pull it off even no!? After that I met other people too but I realized that if I have to work in the industry, first I need to know how it works. So I decided that I will start but I will only work at Yash Raj films. Then, somehow, Fanaa happened… and you know the rest of the story.

But by the time Fan happened we had also completed a sort of journey ourselves through Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, on which I was an associate director. So by then, it was not directing a superstar, it was more like a collaboration, like working with an immensely talented person. We just wanted to make the best film possible.

You seem to have a certain instinct about the films you choose to make, both as a director and producer. It seems to me that you have an innate understanding of young people of India. While ‘Bollywood’s’ idea of ‘the youth’ is young people from Bombay, you make stories from all over India, be it Delhi, Rajasthan, Haridwar or even your upcoming films as a producer which are set in different cities. Is this something that you look for in a script? Is there something in particular that you are assessing, for that matter, whenever you read a script?
No, I don’t, actually. As a script, BBB came from me because of my understanding of a particular subculture. From the people and places I knew and the spaces I understood. It may sound strange but BBB came from an in-flight magazine (smiles). I was in a flight and reading this article about six case studies about these new age entrepreneurs. In some cases, these people were just packaging your gifts well, that’s all. And that kick-started the thought that it is somewhere talking about the middle class and lower middle class’ aspiration. It was very exciting to see self-employed people trying to start a business and make money. So the idea started there; that if there were two youngsters from this milieu who have no resources but they have a vision then how would they go about it. I don’t think of it as a love story but as a relationship story between these two.

Whether it was a rom-com or a ‘youngsters’ story or even a love story, whatever audiences must have thought of it, it probably was about the conflict of their aspirations to do bigger weddings. I think two things happen: I have more affinity towards, and understanding of, this kind of material. And the second thing I get excited about is when something has not been done so far. I cannot say if something is unique in the preparation phase but if something is fresh and exciting, I back it up and enjoy the process of seeing it through. Even for Shuddh Desi, the thing that excited me was that we were talking about three young people in a very regular situation which society considers very irregular because ‘live-in’, as a situation for our audience is still something that happens only in New York or Europe or Australia or may be in South Bombay. That excited me so I guess because I come from the same environment I get hooked to it.

When Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s script came, I was busy with Fan’s pre-production. At that stage I was developing a script with Sharat (Katariya). Then one day, he wanted to narrate an idea to me for feedback. It was a script for him to direct. I told Adi about it and explained to him why I felt about the characters and space, etc. He said that if you are so excited about it then why don’t you produce it? Now I knew he was looking for some creative producers and I probably was on his mind on that list, but he said that I really have to believe that I can do it. I was happy to do it because I thought that at least the movie will get made that way. I did not even do it for Sharat, I just did it for what he had written. My only contribution after reading the draft was asking Sharat, ‘Why don’t we set it in 1994?’ Prem liked audio cassette but the film was written contemporarily. But it gave me a cue of why don’t we take it to the time the transition happened to CDs. This also gave some context to some of the regressive character behavior. Sharat also got kicked about ‘90s and it became a big flavor. It wasn’t as if I was tempering with his material but it was just an idea. That’s the only way you go for it. You just feel that this feels right and hope that others also find it right later on. This is the only thing that I want to protect about myself.

Your career and filmography is still young but I’m curious to know if you ever think in terms of what your legacy when you select a script to direct or produce. Do you think in terms of, say, at the end of your career, people should think about Maneesh Sharma in this particular way?
It’s a very interesting question. Do I think about legacy in a certain way? Yes. Say after my ten films, you might hate them or dislike them but when you discuss them there will be a certain intention. You will find that there is something worth deconstructing. But if you think that I plan my movies to be in a certain order, or plan some kinds of projects at certain points in my career, then it is not so. At least so far it hasn’t been so and hopefully it won’t be so in future too. I don’t belong to that school of thought.

When I am backing a script in any capacity, my only criteria is that if I like it, I will do it. Let me tell you how Shuddh Desi happened. I was suffering from jaundice in the middle of Ladies vs Ricky Bahl’s shoot. There was a lot of pressure of time because some 20-25 days of shoot was left, three songs were to be done. One day Adi said that you are just lying down, read a script and give me feedback. Adi was not looking for me to direct it. Adi and Jaideep were discussing it and they thought that let’s also ask Maneesh to read it since he is lying down idly anyway (chuckles).

In that state I read Shuddh Desi romance and I remember I read 65% of it and I was feeling drowsy only because of my physical state but I was really enjoying the script. I put an alarm that I will wake up in 45 minutes to read the rest and I did that. I loved that script. It was a slightly different draft, though, principally, it was the same film. I called Adi in the morning and said it is terrific so he called me to the office.. he wanted to meet me and Jaideep together. I was very excited about the script and told them whatever I felt about it. It was a week or so later that I asked Adi, ‘By the way, who is making that film?’ He said that he hadn’t attached any director yet, so I said, ‘Then I am making that film’ (chuckles). He was planning something else for me and I said, ‘Don’t worry about that’ so this happened.

I must tell you another thing that since the reception of Ladies vs Ricky Bahl was different, everyone kept saying that I was making a ‘comeback’ film. They wanted me to do a ‘safe’ film. Now I did not know how it was an ‘unsafe’ film, I was not thinking like that at all. You have to stick with your instincts and thankfully, it worked well. It was actually my most successful film on box office despite what everyone was thinking about it (smiles).

Earlier, of course, since you were in the middle of Fan, you probably didn’t have the mind space to think about another film for you to direct. But when you got closer to Fan releasing, and you liked a script that came to you, how did you choose between producing it and directing it yourself? And how will you go about it in the future?
If I read a script and I really like it, I get very excited about it. Now whether I am excited about it in the way that I want to direct it or I just want to just creative produce it, that answer does come easily. It is not that if I am directing a film then it is more mine, I just have to think about the number of hours given to this film on a day-to-day basis for several years. Otherwise, for me, it is always the case that if it is a good project then it should be made, and it does not matter in what capacity I am attached to it.

Do you discuss with Aditya Chopra about the kind of projects that you’ll produce and the ones that you’ll direct? Has there been any particular idea for how your films as a producer will be similar or different from everything else by the banner?
Not at all, yaar. It’s all about instinct. Between Adi and me, there has been no such discussion that I will do something in one capacity or another. In fact, one thing that’s very heartening is that Adi said, ‘There might be a scenario that I might not like a script that you like but I’ll still want you to make that film, otherwise it defeats the purpose of having you as a producer. If you are fully convinced, then make it, otherwise the larger purpose of finding new voices and creating new content gets defeated.’ I think I have quite a free room in the kind of projects that I want to do. I really have to believe in a project to do it and so far it has not happened where I had to really sell him an idea. It will happen someday where he will not be convinced and I’ll have to really try to convince him (smiles) but so far it hasn’t happened.

So what are the aspects in which your thought process is similar to that of Aditya Chopra’s? How are you guys similar as producers?
I think Adi and I have a really good confluence. It is a nice give-and-take relationship. See, even if you start with the fact that he is Yash Chopra’s son and has grown up in this industry, the fact is that he has made a mark with his first film in a way that no one else has done. His understanding of the industry and Hindi films is of a certain ‘darja’ (level). I am a Delhi boy who wanted to make a film. Our one commonality is that we both are film buffs; we like films in general. There is lot of respect for each other in the manner that I view certain portion of film in one way and he in another way. Our film association has almost been five to five-and-a-half films old. If you keep that aside and we are talking about any X film, then there is a commonality and a passion for films, yet worldview wise and ideology wise, we do not think in the same way, but in a constructive manner. Adi backs films like Band Baja or Shuddh Desi Romance because he has an acumen, and he knows that cinema has to change and new voices have to come in.

You have also assisted him when he directed Rab Ne Bana di Jodi, what are the things you picked up from him as a director?
What I realize now fully and I realized it back then too is that we are from very different schools. I am a very unstructured director. I never give a shot breakdown to my ADs. We always start from a blank slate on the shoot’s morning. It works for me and I find a certain energy in that. Adi is the complete opposite. He is a writer-director, I am not, though I may have given the story for two of my films. I have realized one thing that if you read Adi’s script on paper, you feel like it has been directed over there itself. It has so much clarity for everyone. Whoever reads it, there are no different interpretations, whether it is an actor or a production designer or a DP. He directs it first on paper and then it is just about logistics of taking a shot. That is a big learning. Another thing is collaborating with music directors, which was completely alien into me. He was heavily involved in the music of both Fanaa and Aaja Nachle, both films where he wasn’t the director. This is something that I have learned from him.

Finally, a question out of curiosity. Will we ever see you directing or producing something on digital?
Yes, why not? I don’t feel there is a demarcation between the formats. I like storytelling and whatever it comes on is fine. During my film school, I had worked on all kind of formats so my association is in fact stronger with these formats.

 

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Liked/disliked the piece? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared on Pandolin.com in April 2016.
Link: http://pandolin.com/entering-mannat-to-meet-shah-rukh-khan-was-my-fan-moment/
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

THE SRK INTERVIEW #OPENMAGAZINE #SRK #QNA

Shah Rukh Khan: ‘I Give You the Right Not to Judge People’

Shah Rukh Khan dissects fame and success and confesses that many chapters of his life remain closed to all

Note: This piece was written by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoonfor Open Magazine. An edited version of the piece can be found here: https://goo.gl/NfjTiS

It’s 12.45 am, and this is the last of 13 print interviews that Shah Rukh Khan has committed to, and done, through the day, besides radio and internet interviews, over a period of 10 continuous hours. He’s visibly drained when he greets you, with a weary smile, but as soon as the recorder is turned on, the energy is back again, and it’s manic. A fifteen minute interview stretches to an hour, and that’s what Shah Rukh Khan is: a man who may get tired of being a superstar at times, but would never take it for granted.

It is the week of release of perhaps his riskiest movie in years, Fan, where he plays both a superstar, Aryan Khanna, and his biggest fan, Gaurav, a aged-down, shorter, VFX version of himself. To the audiences, Aryan may very well be Shah Rukh Khan himself, what with the name being the same as Khan’s son’s name, and with the trailers using footage of ‘SRK’ mania, but they are likely to, somewhere, identify with Gaurav, who is the reason for, and thrives on, the same mania. As Khan faces off against himself in the movie that seems to be a return to his thriller roots, he speaks about fame, stardom, privacy, fans… and being Shah Rukh Khan.

Everyone’s more interested in the ‘fan’, Gaurav, in your movie, Fan but I’m more curious about Aryan Khanna. Aryan seems like a manifestation of Shah Rukh Khan. Is it somewhere what you see yourself as, or what you think fans see you as?
No… in fact, it’s a completely written character. And that’s why I had more difficulty playing Aryan Khanna than Gaurav. When you are making a film about a superstar, so that you don’t have to establish the stardom, you could maybe go with Mr. Bachchan (Amitabh Bachchan), Salman (Khan), Aamir (Khan) but the story was of a Delhi boy, so it fit well with me. We’ve also shown the star in his personal space outside of the flamboyance and Bollywood shoots, so it was important he be a star without us having to prove that.

But the character is very different. It would be unfair of Adi (Aditya Chopra) and Maneesh (Sharma) to ask me to play me but yes, the only manifestation has been using my 25 years of archival footage. You have me getting an award from Rekhaji (smiles) and that you may not have gotten from a newer actor. Yes, a lot of people will say, ‘Shah Rukh aisa hai kya? Yeh aisa hai yaar! (Is Shah Rukh like this? Oh! He’s like this!)’ But the honest truth is I’m not like him at all. He’s more real, more grounded, more practical, less mad and probably less compassionate in his dealings than me. He’s scarily real, and I’m not like that at all.

Have you ever given a thought to what the world sees Shah Rukh Khan as? What do you think your perception is to the regular guy on the street?
No… no. But I do get a feedback, on Twitter. Sometimes, they like me, sometimes they think I’ve become anti-national or I’m a marketer or I’ve sold out or that I’m fantastic or romantic. See, the beauty of being a star or being liked is, the more different perceptions people have of you, the more different people like you for different things. I may be all of them, I may be none of them. But there’s no way I can sit down and get disturbed by them.

Suppose you say, Shah Rukh I want you to do a Chak De (India) kind of a film; achchi acting karega, mera bada dil khush hoga (you’ll act well, my heart will be filled with joy). But that’s your perception. Mujhe nahin lagta maine baaki picture mein gandi acting ki hai (I don’t think I’ve acted badly in other movies). But I can’t explain that to you because you don’t know the craft or why an actor breathes, lives and does what he or she does. And I can’t explain myself to everyone else too.

And now, with social media, you’re perceived differently depending on the day. On the day of a hit film, you’re perceived as something, on the day your team has lost a match, you are perceived as something else. As a matter of fact, it’s maddening. If you are not able to concentrate and just know yourself fully, and say no, ‘Main inmein se kuch bhi nahin hoon, main yeh hoon (I’m none of these, I’m this)’.  And if I tell you that part of me, it’ll be very boring (chuckles). So I let people think who they think I am.

I am an image. Shah Rukh Khan is an image… and I’m just an employee of that image. Now whatever that image, some girl see pink, some boys see black, some women see beautiful, some people think overrated, it’s an image. None of it is me. It’s like, you know, when you make a shadow with your fingers and you make a dog, there is no dog, it’s actually made out of fingers. I can’t show you the fingers, because the magic goes. So you think it’s a dog or a butterfly, whatever you like. I can’t break your myth that I’m working for as Shah Rukh Khan and I can’t believe in it myself. Because the day I do, I’ll be torn apart. I won’t know what happened!

 

In 2009, you played a superstar in Billu, who stayed true to his roots and was accepting of all love. In 2016, in Fan, you again play a superstar who has much to like, but one who draws a strict boundary between his reel and real life. Is this a reflection of your process as well? Do you now have try and safeguard how much of Shah Rukh Khan is accessible?
See, but I’m not even making myself accessible. I don’t even know what happens. It’s the reality we live now and it is how it’s going to be. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t change my way of being, according to the changes of the platforms of media, or according to how people start reacting to things. I’m the same person, living in the same place. I will still go for my match and cheer for my team, I’ll still take my child in my arms and walk down to the airport, I’ll still try to do the best I can in a film.

(Pause) But, to be very honest, very few people know the real me. I’ve been an open book, but the chapters I’ve opened are the chapters I’ve opened and nobody knows the chapters I haven’t opened. I’ve written a book about my life and even that book doesn’t contain all of it. I sit down to write it and I say, ‘No, yaar’. My privacy is not the space I allow people to get into physically or by a photograph or a selfie or by Facebook and Twitter. My space, which I don’t allow anyone into, is my emotions.

You know, I’m an extremely emotional person and I’m still really detached, and if I’m able to survive this dichotomy of stardom and normalcy that I live in, that’s a pre-requisite. I need to have my space. I know, what I do in my personal life and what I actually feel and think is so far removed from what people think I am, and what I could be, that it’s very strange, and very maddening.

But I’m only myself when I’m in my bedroom with my kids, yaar (smiles). With my black shorts and my hair standing out, and just being. Because my kids know me as a father and as a friend. They don’t want to know me as a star. And I don’t want to tell them what a star I am. They have respect for what I’ve done, they’ve immense amount of pride for who I am, but none of it enters my bedroom. We never talk about Shah Rukh Khan in third person, in fact, we make fun of him in third person (chuckles), sometimes, as much as others do.

You’ve always been someone who’s enjoyed his celebrity and yet, had respect for it. But in the age of social media, where fame is under such intense scrutiny, do you feel differently about it? Is fame more difficult to enjoy now?
No, yaar, it’s like… if you come on a weekend and stand outside my house, the people there are mostly loving. But there are people who’ve got stuck in the crowd and traffic, who are thinking, ‘What the fuck? I don’t want to be stuck in the traffic! Who the hell is he?’ knowing fully well who the hell I am. There are also some who are irritated, thinking, ‘Why does he have these people outside his house and I don’t?’ and then, there are some neighbours who are genuinely affected because they want to sleep and a thousand people are screaming. But 80% of the people are there for the love of it. So when I go out and wave, I respect everyone but I hear only the 80%, who’ve come out of love. I share the love with them. The same love also goes out to the 20%, who can take it or leave it. Social media is exactly like that.  Most of them have followed me out of love. And I’m not worried about the X, Y or Z voice of the 20%.

You know, I really enjoy my stardom, I love it and have always loved it. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, unabashedly, I came here thinking that when I am a star or when I’m good enough, I want people to love me, to hug me, to cry for me, to shout for me, to die for me. I want people to abuse me, to jump at me, to deride me too. I want people, it’s as simple as that (smiles). And people comprises of all kinds so I can’t disrespect that. Yes, I can get irritated at times, it’s my human right. I can get pissed off, and get really, really angry at trolling, or when some say I am anti-national or some shit. But, having said all that, it’s the same crowd outside my house – some of them I understand don’t want to be here, but they’re here (chuckles).

I don’t have issues of privacy, because I know what’s private is private. You can’t take that out of me because I don’t want to give it. I’m an actor, I can act like anything.

The reason I asked the last question was that today, the guy who makes a film round the year is just as big a star as the guy who uploads a five minute video on YouTube. How seriously do you take your stardom in such a time? Do you ever worry about things like staying relevant or protecting the fame?
You can’t make stardom, you can’t hold stardom, and most of all, you can’t protect stardom. Stardom is an entity by itself. It’s uncontrollable, intangible, unquantifiable. It’s not something you can just achieve and just because you have it, don’t please think you can control it. I’m not ready for it to fall or drop but there’s no reason for to try and protect it. Because you have to realise that stardom did not happen because of you.

Having said that, (pause), the model has changed. This is my understanding, I am completely off the cuff here. There was a vertical model in the world: the haves and the have-nots. The world does not have have-nots anymore… it’s all equal. We’re a horizontal world now. So, when I came into the film industry, a lot of actors told me, ‘Tu enigmatic nahin hai yaar, tu ads karta hai (You are not enigmatic, you do ads)’. I’m not Greta Grabo. She’s wonderful, I love her – but the times of Greta Garbo are gone. There are 1.2 billion people now. My biggest hit, the biggest hit in the country has been seen by only 11 crore people, 110 crore people haven’t seen it, on TV, in theaters, on every media combined. So there’s nothing like too much of me ,yaar. There’s nothing like too much love either; love is love. So there’s nothing like, ‘Arre yaar yeh bahut baari aa raha hai ghar mein, mujhe nahin pyaar karna (Oh! He’s coming to our house too many times, I don’t want to give so much love).’ You can’t overexpress yourself, you can’t over-spread yourself in today’s world.

There’s no hierarchy of stardom now, there’s no hierarchy in this country, or in the world. Each one of us is equal. It’s the reality now… it’s the truth. I can’t look down upon you. There was a time that if you wanted a star’s interview, only the top journalist of that country’s top magazine got the interview through some source of friendship of the manager that you had. Today, each of us comes out and talks to everyone. Not because you were less then, because there is no hierarchy, everybody is equal, yaar.

But the trick is, how can we be a little more equal than equal, that’s all. And for that, you’ve got to stick to the clichés – the honest basic truths. Be upfront, work hard, play harder, party hardest and love your family. That’s what I do. You have a dream? Go for it. Buy a house. Buy yourself two cars and waste one. Marry the girl that you love. There’s nothing wrong in wants or desire. That’s what we were made for. Otherwise we’d be in heaven, desiring nothing… everything is there in heaven. But at the end of it all, keep some modicum of honesty to it. Don’t have it without hard work, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t thieve, don’t try to make a fast buck, don’t shirk away from saying and believing the right thing, it’s as basic as that. Your father would have said this to you too.

When I wake up in the morning and sit down with my kids, I need to be able to look them in the eye and say, ‘There is no discrepancy in what I teach you about goodness’. Try and be honest – that’s the only thing I want to protect.

Fan comes at a very interesting point of your career. Shah Rukh Khan started out as a risk-taker, someone who’d do a Darr or a Baazigar, not worried about how he’d be perceived. Somewhere in the middle, a SRK film became safe, and comfortable. You’d go to watch your film so you know it’s okay. But with Fan and Raees, for example, you don’t know if it’ll be okay, and that’s exciting. What’s brought about the change?
Even if you are extremely disturbed after watching Raees and Fan, let me assure you everything is okay (smiles). If you cry after watching a film, it’s okay. If the family in the film breaks up, it’s okay. If the hero falls in love and doesn’t get the girl, it’s okay. At the end of it all, life is going to be okay. You’ll never find a guy like most of the characters I’ve played in my films, in the real world. But when you play them, you don’t have to judge them, that’s all. I mean, look at Rahul from Darr, he’s a psychopath and stalker. Or Devdas, who is an alcoholic fool. You won’t do it, I won’t do it, but you need to just tell be able to tell the story of someone like that, and still let it be okay.

You know what my movies give you? The lack of judgment. I give you the right not to judge people. When we read the third page of the newspaper and see a shoddy headline screaming out, we judge instantly. ‘Wo ganda hai, wo acchcha hai, wo politician hai toh harami, yeh hero badmaash hai, are yeh uske saath soyi, yeh ghatiya hai, yeh cheap hai (He’s bad, he’s good, he’s a politician so is an asshole, this hero is a hooligan, if she slept with someone, she’s cheap)’. Arre? You think it’s not right, so don’t do it. But let them do it, don’t judge them. So the whole idea I give in films is that it’s okay. It’s alright if somebody’s done it, you should accept that.

We are getting so judgmental in today’s time and age, that you are under the pressure to say the right thing about the right thing. Sometimes, people say, why aren’t you mentioning that tragedy on Twitter? Arre, come on, does that make me a lesser person, because I didn’t write about it on Twitter? Everybody tweets, ‘My heart goes out to…’, and my heart does go out, to what happened in Kolkata, for example, but I don’t need to write it and explain it to you. I don’t judge the ones who share but I believe that every feeling need not be shared. A tweet does not life make, or a character decide, you know (chuckles).

But there’s no reason why I have choose these films at the time. Fan and Raees were signed before Dilwale so there’s no concerted effort behind this. The only freedom I have is I should be able to make a choice that’ll make me happy in the morning, good, bad or ugly. It makes me happy that I’ll work with Anand (Rai) or that I’ve worked with Maneesh or Gauri (Shinde). If all these films don’t do well, maybe I’ll go back and only make romantic films again (laughs).

 

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Liked/disliked the interview? Leave your comments below!
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on April 22, 2016
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/shah-rukh-khan-i-give-you-the-right-not-to-judge-people
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.