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The Rediff Interview
/ Subhash Ghai
May 09, 2005
Subhash Ghai has had a late lunch. The interview was scheduled for 3 pm but around 2, his publicist calls to say it has to be postponed by half an hour. Ghai is staying at a friend's place in Manhattan. He walks into the apartment looking a bit tired but once he starts talking about films, he is full of enthusiasm. Close to where he is sitting is a replica of a raised thumb.
It is the signature gesture that has made the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, reviewer for Chicago Sun-Times and television show host Roger Ebert one of the best-known film writers in America. For nearly two decades, he has been giving a thumbs up for the films he likes and thumbs down for the others.
For seven years, Ebert has been hosting the Overlooked Film Festival showing about a dozen old and new films from across the world at a festival held on the University of Illinois' campus near Chicago. This year, he invited Taal, apparently having seen it recently. Ghai was at the festival to speak about one of his most popular and best loved films.
He spoke to Senior Editor Arthur J Pais in New York.
Why is this recognition important to you?
Because it came from nowhere. It was unexpected. This is a unique selection process. There are no nominations and there is no rat race. Roger Ebert, perhaps the most important film critic in North America, chooses films that have overawed him. He thinks Western audiences ought to see these overlooked films. The news that Taal, which was made about four years ago, was being honoured came from nowhere. It was an amazing piece of news.
What were you doing at the screening?
I sat at the back of the auditorium and watched 800 white people laugh and cry throughout the film. I suspect to most of them it was the first experience with a Bollywood film.
What were some of the interesting questions you had to answer?
They asked about the cost, and many were surprised to hear the film was made for about $4 million. To them it looked like a $40 million movie. One person wanted to know if the music was created first and then the script. I said the script came first, and the situations led to the musical numbers. They wanted to know how we made the women, including the junior artists, dance so gracefully. I said we believe in sensuality, not sexuality. The more the woman is covered, the more sensuous she can be made to look.
Some directors let a choreographer or a composer do their work and seldom interfere. But not you.
It suits some directors to do so and there is nothing wrong with it. They know their limitations but I know something about choreography and music. It is very important to me that I should be involved in those areas. I am keen on elevating the choreography and music. When it comes to lighting, I know little. I explain what kind of look I want to get and let the technicians do their work.
Was this recognition (by Roger Ebert) a morale booster?
I felt vindicated. I thought it was far more important to me than the commercial success I have had. Some day Kisna should get such honour and recognition.
You had a string of hits for nearly two decades. Then came Yaadein, which did not do well in India but was a hit abroad. But Kisna was dead on arrival in India and abroad. How did you take it?
Life has its ups and downs. It is true for any profession. Every artist, every director should be prepared for it from the start of their careers. Raj Kapoor once said though Jagte Raho was appreciated many years after its release, its initial failure hurt him a lot.
Does failure hurt?
The failure of any film hurts but specially the one where you have put so much of yourself into. It hurts me that Kisna has not done better than the expectations. I ask myself: Would I be able to live with pride had I made a hit that was trash?
How different is the Kisna that is going to Cannes?
It is shorter, about 100 minutes. I have cut the subplots and several songs. But there are songs in the English edition as they add flavour to the film. I made a musical and it will remain so.
Did you feel you were taking a big risk when you were planning Kisna?
I knew I did not want to make something like Ram Lakhan. Kisna was not going to roll like a roller coaster. I felt the movie had to have a great script and something very different from anything I had before it. I had felt people would rather go crazy with Kisna or would hate it.
Your suspicions came true. Isn't it?
That is precisely what happened. There are people who adore the film and there are others who want to run away from it. There is nothing in between.
Why did the film fail?
A number of factors (sighs). Vivek Oberoi had a hit long before Kisna and he may have a hit tomorrow. But as Kisna was rolling out, his popularity was low. The movie could not overcome that.
How a film does depends on the opposition in the market. This much has to be said, I did not make a trash film. I took a big risk and I hope some day it will pay me back.
You have not worked with many superstars. Why is it?
I have worked with only one superstar, Shah Rukh Khan in Pardes. But I have worked with stars such as Rishi Kapoor (Karz). Superstars are always busy. Some of them like Shah Rukh have their production companies. I cannot get the kind of intense work I demand from the superstars. I had planned a film with Amitabh Bachchan some years ago but the project did not work out.
Do you have immediate plans to work with Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan?
Shah Rukh is a very talented star. But more importantly, he is a very good human being. He is very professional and he respects the elders in the industry. But he is busy with his films.
Amitabh Bachchan is also busy, isn't he?
Yes, but he has fantastic discipline. While I work with him, I don't feel I am working with a superstar. I cannot think of making a film with Amitabh that has a mediocre script. I must have something extraordinary for him. It has to be an event film.
What is most idealistic about the film institute Whistling Woods that you will start soon?
It should be my legacy. I want to give back something that will remain long after I am gone. Whistling Woods will provide world-class training from acting to set designs taught by some of the finest people we have in India. It will have special appeal to NRIs.
Why would that be?
Many times during my visits to England, America or Canada, parents have come to me and told me that their sons and daughters are interested in joining Bollywood but they do not know a place where they can get first class training. We intend to offer that at Whistling Woods. Now we are offering them a shelter.
How different will it be from the Film Institute of India, Pune, where you had studied over three-and-a-half decades ago?
I learned a lot at the Film Institute. But often there was an unhealthy atmosphere. There used to be too many strikes and professionally unfulfilled goals. Our studio is close to the film industry. That is another big asset.
What will be your next film?
There are three or four genres I am thinking about. It could be an outright musical or a full entertainer or a comedy. I will announce the next film in a few months.
You have announced a few projects and then you have shelved them. Why does that happen?
There are a few of them. I wanted to make Motherland against the background of India and Pakistan but there were many films on that subject in recent years. The subject does not interest me anymore.
Is there a project you have been dreaming of for years?
For seven years, I have been thinking of a multi-generational film. It will be my magnum opus. But emotionally I am not ready to tackle it right now. I need to grow some more within.