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October 13, 1999

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'A film has to touch the audience somewhere'

Urmila Matondkar and Aftab in Mast
Urmila and Aftab in Mast Click for bigger pic!
Itís very rare to find a film-maker who makes films because it is a passion with him. Which is why Ramgopal Varma comes across as a breath of fresh air. Only eight films old (Shiva, Drohi, Raat, Rangeela, Daud, Satya, Kaun and now, Mast), Ramu, as he is fondly known, already has a repertoire that is both varied and entertaining. His characters touch you with their ambitions, their pain, their fears.

If Rangeela was all colour and jazz, Satya, with its grey tones, was a direct contrast. Yet, both films were commercial and artistic successes. Satya, in fact, is now highlighted as a commercial film that falls into the category of intelligent cinema.

Ramuís other strong point stems from the fact that he refuses to stick to the norm. Neither Satya nor Kaun had a 'hero' or a 'heroine.' Satya's protagonist was a serious-minded person who let someone else lead the way for him. Kaun had a female protagonist who turns out to be a killer.

Ramgopal Varma Ramu's ordinary looks belie his creative energy. Not too many people recognise him on the roads. But that does not bother him. He is quite happy with the fact that his films are liked by these very same people.

But Mast, his latest film, makes you wonder if he has turned a full circle and returned to the same subject as Rangeela. Ramu begs to differ. And, in this interview with Sharmila Taliculam, describes his films from his perspective.

Is Mast a reversion to Rangeela, your first successful Hindi film?

Mast is different from Rangeela. It is really not the same theme. Rangeela had a girl who wanted to be something and a guy who was happy the way he was. The third character was a guy who had already become somebody. Itís an emotional conflict between these three people; the film industry has only been used as a backdrop. Itís really not the crux of the subject. It was a device to create a rift between Munna and her.

Mast, on the other hand, deals directly with the industry. It is the story of a boyís obsession for an actress -- whom he has seen only as a two-dimensional projection on the screen -- and how he is madly in love with her. But when he actually meets her in the flesh, she is nothing like the image he has of her in his mind. So I donít think, plotwise or themewise, Mast is similar to Rangeela at all.

But both the movies deal with the film industry.

In Mast, he is in love with a film star. In Rangeela, she could have wanted to be anything. It just so happens that she becomes a film star. She could have been in any other field where she could have been successful.

Is Mast, in any way, your personal experience?

Yeah, I guess we all have our idols. It could be a sportsman, a pop star, an actor, an actress, a model. We tend to fantasise about them in our own minds. I went through that with Sridevi and all my friends have gone through various experiences themselves.

How was Aftab chosen for this role?

I was searching for a particular kind of look -- of a person who constantly has a dreamy expression. When I look at him, I should feel that this is a guy who is lost in himself. Aftab has very dreamy eyes and a very vulnerable, innocent face. I spotted him in a Coke ad and I just thought he was right for the kind of character I had in mind. Thatís how I cast him.

When did you get the idea for this film?

I wouldnít be able to say. The idea had probably been brewing in my mind for three or four years and, one day, it just fell into place. It must have started along with my obsession with Sridevi.

Urmila Matondkar and Chakravarthy in Satya
Urmila Matondkar and Chakravarthy in Satya Click for bigger pic!
Despite being in Bollywood for just five years, you were able to make a film like Satya on Bombay's underworld. How did you manage to understand the city so well?

I donít think it has anything to do with understanding Bombay. Eventually, itís to do with people. Every film deals with people and not places. It has to do with characters -- like Bhiku Mhatre being nagged by his wife, or this guy coming to the city and trying to make it in a place which seems very indifferent.

And why it is indifferent? Because there are too many people and nobody has time for anybody else. I donít think itís the time factor that made me understand Bombay. People have told me that they have lived in Bombay for 40 years and havenít known it like I have. They have seen Satya and then realised what this city is.

I think it is just a question of looking at it in a certain perspective. It might just strike you one fine day, or it might not strike you at all. In fact, a lot of people ask me how I know this city when I am a south Indian. I think the truth is actually reverse. When you are an outsider, you tend to see much more objectively than a person who has lived here all his life.

It was just a chance occurrence. I was reading these reports on the underworld and that started off a train of thoughts in my mind. I wondered about these people --who they were, what they did between killings, whether they suffered from viral flu... They are obviously human beings with a sense of commitment. All these things never occur to you otherwise. You think they are evil people who come from the dark, do their job and go back into the dark again.

I happened to catch them between their violent spells. And I examined what compels or drives them to do what they do. The actual act of doing something is very incidental. And the reason why the film appears violent is because I tried to get the audience into the psyche of the character who does the crime. For example, when they are planning to kill Amar Shukla, the viewer would be very disturbed because, if he were present in the meeting, he would be compelled to take the decision of killing Shukla.

That's what Satya is all about. The actual act of killing Shukla was very simply shot. But it looks so violent because of the discussion, the logic as to why they had to do it. I think it is much more the discovery of human nature, of human psychology put in a certain situation, rather than it being peculiar to one particular place.

Aamir Khan and Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela
Aamir Khan and Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela Click for bigger pic!
Despite Satya being your hero, the film focussed on Bhiku Mhatre. Was that done deliberately?

I donít think the film revolves around Bhiku Mhatre, though he was noticed more. The plot of Satya is that this guy comes to the city and, by chance, meets this gangster. As a result of this association, he joins the underworld. He stays in a place where there is a girl who falls in love with him. And he loves her so much that, at one point in time, he wants to give up the underworld and lead a normal life so that he can marry her. But it is too late.

So where does Bhiku Mhatre fit in here? His character was used to make the whole story believable. He was an atmospheric character. But he is not the story of the film. It was a just clever ploy.

Still, you finally get the feeling that Satya is not the hero of the film. His character does not convey it.

Having heroes and heroines is such an outdated concept. The film has characters that make the story run. I have been listening to these words, hero, heroine, villain, for such a long time. Who is the villain in the film? Satya is a villain in some way too.

Everyoneís point of view is different. The script and the director have not taken sides here. They are all human beings caught up in situations that are beyond their control. So whom would you call the villain? I think itís a designed thinking that makes us have certain characters like heroes and heroines.

Did you ever feel that you might be taking a risk by not having formula characters in your films?

Ninety-five per cent of the films here are made on the time-tested formula out of which 90 per cent fail anyway. Even they are taking a risk. So how can I avoid taking one? In fact, I think I take a lesser risk because a different subject has more of a chance of being successful than an ordinary one.

Treading a safe path is something I donít understand. Just because a man makes a film that runs, you donít put romance in a film all the time. Eventually, a film has to touch the audience somewhere.

Urmila Matondkar and Jackie Shroff in Rangeela
Urmila Matondkar and Jackie Shroff in Rangeela Click for bigger pic!
Is that why you make films which are different?

I want to make a film that I feel like making at a particular point in time. I donít tell myself that I want to make a different film. I just want to make a film about something that excites me at that point of time. And I just use a technical medium to communicate my feelings to the people. And that, maybe, is why the film turns out to be different.

What kind of reaction did you expect from a film like Kaun?

No film-maker expects any kind of reaction apart from appreciation. Otherwise, why would he make a film? Only later, when it doesnít do well, he realises that something is not right. As long as he is in control, that is.

You've come from the southern film industry. How has Bollywood treated you?

Itís nothing to do with where I come from. Itís a market place. Eventually, what they want to know is whether you make money for them or no. Then it doesnít matter where you come from. Which I think is the right way.

So you like the way this industry functions?

The industry is full of people and people function the way they have to. I donít function like some people and they don't fuction like me. This is true of the south Indian film industry and it is true here. It would be juvenile to label them as different industries because, finally, they are the same. They function the same way.

Though Shool is your production, you donít produce all your films. Is there a reason for that?

That depends on the kind of project I have at the time. It depends on who approaches me at that time.

Which do you find easier?

Both are the same. It depends on what kind of people I am working with. Personally, it doesnít matter to me. There has been no interference when I havenít produced my films.

Are you making a film on Kargil?

Itís just a rumour. I havenít started anything as yet. I was toying with an idea and I keep discussing these things. So maybe people thought I was making one too. Nothing has materialised as yet.

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