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August 30, 1999

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'I don't like making namby-pamby pictures'

Tanuja Chandra
Tanuja Chandra
Tanuja Chandra looks very young as she walks into Mukesh Bhatt's office. And you wonder how this chit of a girl could make a film like Dushman -- aggressive, violent, emotional -- even if it was a remake of Eye For An Eye!

But when she starts talking, her sincerity and enthusiasm are infectious. She is obviously passionate about films, specially those which are very strong and emotional. Which could be why she expresses her views openly, strongly and sensibly.

With a strong background in the written word -- her mother scripted 1942 A Love Story, her brother, Vikram, has two books to his credit and her sister writes for a reputed national news magazine -- Tanuja swears by a a good script. In fact, she began her association with filmdom as a scriptwriting assistant to Mahesh Bhatt. Soon, she co-wrote Tamanna and Zakhm, two particularly sensitive films in recent years.

Then came Dushman, her directorial debut which turned out to be a box office grosser. The film, starring Kajol (in her first double role!) and Sanjay Dutt, was about a girl's attempt to bring her twin sister's rapist to justice.

And now, she is now ready with her second film, Sangharsh, which stars Akshay Kumar and Preity Zinta. This film is said to be inspired by Silence Of The Lambs. But Tanuja begs to differ. Her film, she told Sharmila Taliculam, is about the superstitious beliefs that still exist in our country. She hopes it will be a wake-up call for people who believe blindly in them.

Preity Zinta and Akshay Kumar in Sangharsh
Preity Zinta and Akshay Kumar in Sangharsh
What is your second film, Sangharsh, about?

The basic story is something like this -- a girl is on the trail of a psychopathic criminal who has kidnapped a minister's child. This psychopath is terrified of death and wants to gain immortality by child sacrifice. This is something that happens in India even today. I read somewhere that a man killed his entire family and then hung himself because he wanted to appease goddess Kali.

Coming back to my film, it is this girl's job to arrest the psychopath and she takes the help of another criminal to track him down. The girl and the criminal who is helping her fall in love. And Sangharsh becomes the story of two people who are on opposite sides of society. He is in jail and she is the law.

He is attracted to her because he sees in her the honesty and passion he himself possessed before he became a gangster. And she realises that, despite the fact that he is a gangster behind bars, humanity is still alive within him.

He, more than anyone else, is the one who wants to save this child. None of the people who are connected with the law want to help her, but this criminal wants to. It is a very intense and a tragic love story.

Is there really a similarity between the stories of Sangharsh and Silence Of The Lambs?

The one line plot is the same -- a girl takes the help of one criminal to track another criminal. But that is where the similarity ends. From this point on, it is what we have made of the story. It is completely Indian. That's what makes Sangharsh a new kind of a film.

Unlike other women directors who dwell on relationships, you tend towards action-oriented films. Is it because of your closeness to the Bhatts, who are known to make such films?

Yeah, I have made pretty aggressive and violent films. But that is not because of my closeness to the Bhatts. I've always wanted to make such films. That is what excites me. Dramatic, intense, aggressive pictures with strong story lines. Not soft, fluffy pictures; though I might watch one.

My personality is strong and very rich emotionally. This is what reflects in my films, both in content and emotion. These are the kind of stories that excite me; these are the kind of stories that I want to make into films.

You know, it's a complete myth that women are soft and floral. This myth is cultivated to camouflage the fact that women are physically inferior; they are not as physically strong as men. So, to conceal this weakness, you use words like nice, soft, sweet....

But, if you choose to look at the matter psychologically, there is no difference in men and women at all. Indira Gandhi was a woman and she was the most vicious and violent of all politicians. Which is why I get a thrill out of making such intense films.

Tanuja Chandra on the sets of Dushman
Tanuja Chandra on the sets of Dushman
Does this mean you are going to specialise in this genre of film-making?

No, I am making a love story next. But, again, it is not a very romantic love story. It has got strong content and a strong viewpoint. It has personality. This will not be the kind of film that the whole world thinks is lovely.

The problem with making a film that has strong content and personality is that you will then marginalise the kind of people who like your films and even the way you are. If you make a film that doesnít question anything, doesnít disturb anything, doesnít provoke anybody, it will be liked by most of the people.

But if you do things I way I do and have a strong opinion on things, then the people who like you or your work will be that much lesser. Anyway, I am not aiming for a blockbuster or competing with them. That's not my game at all.

I want to make films about women who are strong. I want to make films about women's desires and needs. I want to make films that see the world through the eyes of a woman. These are areas which the commercial market has never touched.

Are you saying that romantic love stories are not your cup of tea?

I like action films is because I want strong content. I don't like making namby-pamby pictures. In Sangharsh too, each character is strong in his or her own way. They have a background and they have a life they are living. They have very strong opinions and they are what they are. It's not a here-or-there situation. They are people who fight the world on their own terms.

Ashutosh Rana is completely convinced about what he is doing. He believes he is right in killing these children. He believes that this is what the gods want him to do. Preity hates crime and she cannot stand this psychopath. Irrespective of what happens to her, she is determined to save the life of the child who has been kidnapped by Rana.

She has a mission and she wants to succeed in it at all costs. She wants to get somewhere. Her brother had been a Sikh terrorist who was killed by the Punjab police in 1984. So that is one black mark she has to get rid of. She is still carrying the burden of that past; she has to correct the shame her family has suffered. She will not let anything come in the way of her saving the life of that child.

Akshay Kumar is a man who completely rebels against any kind of authority. He hates the government because he feels they are only interested in acquiring power and not the least bit interested in improving the quality of the public's life. In Preity, though, he sees something so pure that he helplessly falls in love with her.

So it also becomes the story of the redemption of a criminal. He finds a mission in life. Being inside the jail only made him feel hate. There are many levels of emotions here. Like I said, I like making strong pictures.

Sangharsh speaks clearly against the blind beliefs that have accumulated over thousands of years. People have been institutionalising superstitions that demand things like human sacrifices. It is complete rubbish. Itís ridiculous to think that, by killing somebody, you will live longer. My actors in the film say that whoever is born has to die. That's one fact that nobody can dismiss.

Ashutosh's character is based on something I had read sometime back. There was a couple in Hyderabad. The wife couldn't conceive. So they thought they would kill the neighbours and their child; they actually believed that the wife would then conceive.

These kinds of things still exist. People think they have the support of the shastras, religious things that were written thousands of years ago. That's completely wrong; it's sheer madness. So my film speaks against it.

You have been with the Bhatts since you began writing for them. Do you intend continuing with them forever?

This is a place where the atmosphere is encouraging for my kind of movies. A movie like Sangharsh has never been made before. By virtue of that fact, it's also a risk. But, according to me, the greater the risk the greater the chances of it working too.

Mahesh Bhatt has taught me everything I know about movies. I have a degree from America in direction and writing. But my real education has been here, because I am actually working with him.

I have written with him and assisted him, so I have learnt from him. This is a place where I can give shape to my vision. Mahesh Bhatt finds unusual subjects exciting. Just like me. I have the support system I need here. I consider this company as my own.

How do you feel when people say that Mahesh Bhatt ghost-directed Dushman?

Sanjay Dutt and Kajol in Dushman
Sanjay Dutt and Kajol in Dushman
I don't think that happened with Dushman. Even when Pooja produced the film, it was written by him.

How does it reflect on your reputation as a director?

That way, people say that I ghost-directed Zakhm. So, you know, it's complete confusion; they canít make up their minds who directed what. Even if we did direct each other's films, at least somebody is doing the work. So that doesnít bother me.

You ask Kajol and Sanjay Dutt and Ashutosh Rana; they will tell you the truth. Why should I say anything? Ask Akshay Kumar who made him act? Poor Akshay suffers from the reputation of having no acting ability at all, but he is brilliant in this film. Ask him, he will tell you the truth.

How does the age factor affect your work. You look very young.

Yeah, but I am older than I look. The thing is, it's easy for people in the industry to say that there is great prejudice against women. But if you want to do something badly, why should anybody come in your way? Even when I joined Plus Channel (a television software company), nobody stopped me from doing things because I was a woman.

I find that nobody has come in the way of my achieving whatever I wanted to do. It's easy to fall back on that prejudice and hold that accountable for your personal failures. Like Madonna said, "If you want something badly enough, the whole world conspires to help you get it."

Of course, you have to have some success, otherwise you lose other people's money. Then you find there is less money available to you to for the projects you want to do. That has to be treated with respect, the financial stake. I make a film with all my heart, with utmost sincerity and hope that the film will work. Then I get my next project going.

Even if it doesnít work at the box office and still works economically for me, I know I've got the next project going.

You come from a family of writers. How did you get into direction?

Direction is important too. But I still feel that writing, the scripting of a story, is the most important part of the film. Because you can make the actor act, but you canít make a story move when there is no movement.

Ajay Devgan in Zakhm
Ajay Devgan in Zakhm
When I directed Zameen Aasman, the serial, the story was finished after a point. It ended after 15 episodes and even the most sterling performances could not make it work. We went on to make 50 episodes, but I realised that a strong script is necessary. That's what I learnt while co-writing the scripts for Tamanna and Zakhm.

Beyond that, the film gets more interesting when you make the actors act well, you make the action gripping. You have to bring all your personality traits into the film. So, to grow as a director, I must continue to work as a writer too.

Your first film was a remake of An Eye For An Eye. Many say it was a frame-to-frame copy. Do you agree?

Only the rape scene in the film was a frame-to-frame of this English film.

The editing was good thoughÖ have you learned editing too?

I initially joined Plus as an editor. I wouldn't say that I am a master at editing, but then I consider editing as a final rewrite. It all comes from writing the script first. So, like any other director, I take an active part in editing my films.

Editing, though, is a specialised job, so I let my editor do most of the editing. You know, an editor who is a part of a movie always brings his own sensibility into the film. He adds a new sparkle. But itís all there in the shooting which, in turn, comes from the writing.

Is that why you write your scripts?

No. As I said earlier, I learnt a lot from the writing of Tamanna. Sangharsh, though, was written by Mahesh Bhatt. But I am co-writing another film with him, a period, Partition-time, love story. This film will be directed by Vikram Bhatt.

I seriously feel that any good director worth his salt should be a writer too. Or at least participate in the writing of the film. And, somewhere, your sensibility comes from the way you feel about things too. What you feel about people. How you live your life. Somewhere that gets reflected in your films. So, if the director has a strong personality, there's bound to be traces of that strength in the film. By the virtue of that fact, the film will also have its own limited audience.

I am clear that I want to make mainstream commercial cinema. I never liked art films. I only pretended to like them. I never liked them because they bore you completely. I want to laugh and cry and feel angry in a film. Not easy things to do. But I want to feel these emotions.

I remember, when I was in America learning film-making and they talked about these movies which were great cinema, I would say that this film doesnít do anything to me. I mean Die Hard was something that I really enjoyed. It gripped me completely and made me emotionally vulnerable from inside and I loved the story.

That was very offensive to many in my classroom though, because they study great cinema and Die Hard doesnít fall into that category at all. But I beg to differ on that.

What do you consider great cinema?

Instead to citing examples, I would say that a film that gets you completely, that entertains you, takes you away from your day-to-day concern, makes you feel excited and thrilled and emotionally alive. I know that whatever's on the screen is not making you cry, itís something within you that's making you feel sad.

You are not crying for those strangers on the screen, you are crying for something you must have felt at some point in your life. That's why these movies bind people. The movies that emotionally rivet the audience, that's the kind of movies I like to make.

Paresh Rawal and Pooja Bhatt in Tamanna
Paresh Rawal and Pooja Bhatt in Tamanna
So your films will have all the necessary ingredients of a thriller?

Yeah, the movies will have strong concepts but in different genres. My next film is not a thriller, but the same emotional punch is there. No softness there. I have nothing against people making soft films, it doesnít turn me on. It bores me.

And what doesnít interest you will certainly not interest the audience. You have to make something that you feel for. That's the least a director can do for his audience. Which is not to say that these soft, fluffy films are not exciting for those who make them. It must be, I am sure. But it is not me.

Since you make such strong films, what are you like on the sets?

I am quite an aggressive bitch. I just push and push the actors beyond their limits and then one last little push. I do treat them with a lot of love because I know that itís not easy to act. I know even when I show a particular shot, itís so difficult for me to act. So to expect them to perform perfectly must be really difficult.

But they do it for me. I realise the pain that they go through and I work with them very sincerely. And they can see that I want them to look really good. Not physically, but the way they act. So when that faith is there, then you have good performances. Akshay and Preity completely surrendered themselves to me.

I have seen Preity only in Dil Se.. where she was this bright and pretty girl. I signed her for a different kind of a role. Itís a very serious role for a very complete character. What she is in real life, she is not that on screen. She is something else there. She is transformed, as is Akshay.

There is no trace of his old self at all. The other day I was sitting with Ashutosh Rana and I told him how different he was on screen. That's the achievement of a good, gripping story and a director who is intense and wants something exciting in his film. All three are very strong characters and all three have completely transformed.

They themselves are so surprised. Akshay looked at himself in the film and sweetly asked me "How did I manage that?" And it upsets and pisses me when people very patronisingly say, "Oh Akshay Kumar", very sure, very convinced in their arrogant opinion that there is no way this fellow will manage any acting.

I was instinctively sure that he was right for the role and I have been proved correct on that. He has performed brilliantly.

What about Akshay's low marker value? Does that make you insecure about the success of the film?

I know that he has no market value at the moment. I know that the audience is not sure of him either. I know that audiences would get excited by Shahrukh Khan and not Akshay Kumar, and I am not trying to hide that fact. That would be stupid of me.

But he has compensated by working very hard, by putting every bit of himself in the role. I know that my story is very strong and I know my abilities too. So I was never insecure. From the beginning, he was No 1 for me.

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