“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.
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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Note: This interview first appeared on Pandolin.com in April 2016.
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