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April 15, 1999


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'I wish I had a dinosaur'

Suparn Verma

John Matthew Mattan. Click for bigger pic!
So it has happened finally: ad filmmaker-turned-film director John Matthew Mathan is ready with his debut film Sarfarosh, starring Aamir Khan, Naseeruddin Shah and Sonali Bendre. The buzz in the industry is positive, with the few who have seen the film raving about it. However, no one is willing to talk about the story, not even the director.

"Safarosh is about Pakistan's proxy war in India. The idea is to show the futility of violence. The film is against hardliners," says Mathan. While that gives you a vague clue about the storyline, a dim idea that it could, like many other films, try to reconcile the demands of patriotism to that of humanity, that doesn't really tell you how the story goes. You smile ingratiatingly at him. Now, now, he could tell more, couldn't he? After all, he's scripted it too.

"I don't want to reveal the story because it's not like I have a dinosaur in my film or a huge ship. All I have is the story. I want the audiences to see the story for themselves instead of revealing before hand what it's all about. If I discuss the film it will lose its punch. It is a mainstream film it has songs in it." He leaves it there and looks ruefully at you with an 'I-hope-you-understand-why-I-won't-talk' look.

Since the conversation ran into a dead end there, we shift to the matter of his eventful past.

He puffs at a 555 and speaks of how he first entered the industry from a sound recording studio.

''I assisted Govind Nihalani in his first film Aakrosh and then in Gandhi (where Nihalani was one of the cinematographer) In those days the hub of the advertising world was Blaze, the preview theatre where ad films were screened. The year was 1981-82. I used to watch ad films being made there and I wondered, 'Why can't I do it'?

A still from Sarfarosh. Click for bigger pic!
"At first I got direct clients, among them Babubhai Jagjeevandas, Simba Chipniks, Tips & Toes, Shringar cosmetics... Later I started to make films for Rediffusion, the ad agency."

The agencies gave him a lot of freedom, he says. He was offered the chance to make an ad film to push a cigarette dispenser. He was told that neither the length nor the price mattered.

"I created a film that was a visual montage and it was approved. I worked day and night and experimented with everything possible. But the government clammed down on it because of some octroi problem...

"That, for me, was a fantastic experience -- which a feature film can't teach you. I was very fortunate in that phase, but I got tired of it after five years. But now, in the last 2, 3 years, there has been new equipment coming in, different technical instruments to work with. That's kept me interested. But an ad is not a narrative medium, there is no dialogue, no characters you can exploit."

Everytime Mathan thought of quitting and making his own film, the need to make ends meet put the pressure back on him.

"I have been in advertising for the last 15 years, and it's hard to get out when you have a house, a marriage, a unit... You just can't get out of it so easily. All my life I held back. More ads meant more responsibility to my agency. But I finally decided to leave. For me two years went in figuring what kind of film I wanted to make. My wife Abha has been very supportive.

In retrospect I wish I had started earlier, but I have no regrets. I had a great time making ad films; I don't mind making them again."

John Matthew Mattan. Click for bigger pic!
So what is harder to make, an ad film or a feature film?

"Compared to ad films, feature films are tougher. Ads are easy but to hold someone's attention for three hours is really tough. They have to enjoy every moment and that is very tricky."

Though he is averse to discussing the story of Sarfarosh, he is quite willing to discuss villains, leaving it to you to decide whether his opinions are reflected in his film. And he starts a completely alien villain.

"Hollywood is very different. They haven't had a human villain, in Star Wars. It's an out of this world villain, is Darth Vader. In Titanic the ship overpowered everything else... Or you have dinosaurs there. They zap audiences with the hugeness of their impacts, they create visuals. Here we are stuck with human villains and the last real villain was Gabbar Singh."

So does Sarfarosh have a great villain? He smiles kindly. "Watch the film," he says before going on:

"The US is fortunate. Their stories come from novels. The screenplay is already there, and the writer is saved the hassle of cooking up a story and a plot. His task is to put it down in form of a narrative with all the details of what happens on screen, what the shot will look like, to what action, nuance the actor will provide. But we lack screenplay writers of that calibre.

"I can never forget the screenplay of the opening shot of Gandhi, the film opens with white puffs of smoke and then moves to the shot of the train coming in. We were in Jodhpur. Every evening the trains were stopped between 3 and 7 pm. The aerial photographer stopped the traffic between 5:30 to 7:30 and a whole unit stayed there for a week to get that shot which lasted 10 seconds on the screen."

Click for bigger pic!
This being his first film, did he consciously choose a serious subject and then squeeze in the usual songs and dances?

"I didn't want to make a film without songs because when you have Aamir Khan in your film and are trying to make a statement that would be like trying to tell the system, 'I'm against you'. I'm making my first film here."

But did he also have to take the additional responsibility of producing the film?

"When the script was ready I wanted total control. And why would any producer back me? I wanted a producer who would not compromise on the script. I showed Aamir the script and he agreed, but I didn't have a producer." And then Manmohan Shetty, who has produced many Govind Nihalani films and aided many new film-makers, told Aamir that the film shouldn't stop because of a lack of money."

That reminds us, what about Aamir? How was it working with him?

"If your star is with you, most of your problems fall away. I really appreciate Aamir; he is a pleasure to work with. He has a mind of his own, he doesn't pull rank on you and he always gives you the veto power.

"In my case, if I wanted something he would help me get it. He helped me bridge the gap with the regular film guys. For example, if I wanted my camera kept in a certain position during a fight sequence, the fight master would refuse. Aamir would step in and explain my point of view and get things done."

(In Bollywood a director usually has nothing to do in the dances and fight sequences. These sequences are directed by the choreographer and the fight master respectively.)

Click for bigger pic!
"I wanted to meet him when I had my script ready. He asked me to come over and gave me an hour but I needed three hours to narrate the script. So we rescheduled and met again and he heard my script. With Aamir it is like this he works on a few select films in one year and in completely involved with the film and expects the director to be the same. The only problem after he agreed was I didn't have a producer but luckily things got sorted out.'

So has luck been on your side?

"Luck has most certainly been on our side. On 24th December 1997 I went to Delhi, my unit arrived there on the 2nd of January. We shot till the 12th and the weather was perfect the next day we left and on the 13th the film festival had started and it rained for 2 days non-stop. While making this film I was praying and normally I don't do that,' he laughs.

So does he plan to produce all his films?

"Tomorrow if I find a like minded producer then I may just direct the film but I need to have total control of the film. A film is a director's medium, it is supposed to be the same everywhere in the world. The best films have been made by film-makers if they are fortunate enough to have a good script, actors and a good unit, and the film shapes out well, it is a team effort."

"In Indian cinema you can't have an auteur's style of functioning unless you are a Mehboob Khan or Guru Dutt. Out here you need the actors, the technicians, to back you and believe in you."

Was he suggesting that it wasn't easy managing the set, he being an ad film-maker and all that? He denies it.

Click for bigger pic!
"The atmosphere on the sets is always created by the senior technicians, my assistants. My cameraman Vikas Sivaraman has been with me for years and he worked like a Hollywood cameraman. So I never had a problem on that front."

Did he have at least first day jitters?

"On the first day of the shoot I was scared. It's not something you can hide, because on a set it is a totally open working environment -- everyone knows exactly what is going on."

Coming back to the film does Naseer play an ISI agent? That is just a shot in the dark, of course.

"No, no Naseer is a ghazal singer in the film. I have known Naseer for a long time, since I was an assistant in Aakrosh. He was very nice and has turned in a great performance. By the way, where did you hear Naseer is an ISI agent?"

You smile a little blankly. If you can hide, so can I... Does Sonali have an author backed role in the film?

"I met Sonali at a Pepsi ad. She has done a pretty good job here. But it is not a heroine-oriented subject. She brings the romance into the film."

Final question. Does he think that Sarfarosh will be a hit?

"I think the film should do well. I don't want to overhype the film. At the same time it has to be publicised. I may be an ad man but that is not the kind of approach I've taken in this film. I can just say this, anyone who can make a film and then release it is a lucky guy."

After a brief pause he adds, "I wish I had a dinosaur in my film."

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