'Himanshu (Sharma, writer) and I went to Khansaab with the idea and the structure, not the complete bound story.'
'We wrote that after spending some time with him, understanding him.'
'In the same way, he was understanding me too.'
'So by the time we touched the floors, we were making the same film.'
"I don't want to finish the film. Till someone snatches the first copy from me, I'll be on it!" Aanand L Rai says passionately about his latest film, Zero.
The director is putting the final touches to his labour of love, scheduled to release on December 21.
Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma, Zero has a fair share of VFX, something Rai is trying out for the first time in his long, successful, career.
The film sees Shah Rukh -- or Khansaab, as Rai addresses him -- play a dwarf. Anushka plays Aafia, a woman with cerebral palsy, while Katrina plays Babita, an alcoholic superstar.
Rai is clearly very busy with last-minute work -- the interview has been interrupted twice (he needs to do the film's edits, he explains to me) -- but Rai takes a few extra minutes to speak, lovingly, about his latest creation.
"We are touching the finishing line with style and hope the audience also enjoys it," he tells Ronjita Kulkarni/Rediff.com.
Shah Rukh Khan playing a dwarf! What made you go for a story like this?
After making Tanu Weds Manu, Returns and Raajhanna, I felt I should graduate. So this is my graduation, and it has to go higher than before.
When I say 'higher', I mean a better understanding between me and the audience.
Living the story with the audience and giving them something exciting and entertaining, learning from your previous films -- the good and the bad -- and this is where I have reached.
This is the most ambitious...emotionally ambitious story I have done till now.
It seems like an experimental film.
It's not an experiment.
I'm not doing a story about aliens, I'm doing a story about us.
But I'm pushing the envelope.
With Tanu Weds Manu, Returns or Raanjhanna, I somehow manage the man-woman relation very well. And because of my middle class background, I understand that small town world in a better way.
But I never want to repeat myself.
I want to touch middle class love stories, but stay progressive.
I want to raise the bar for myself.
Normally, we don't tell stories about a certain section of people. Here, I wanted to do that.
I wanted to celebrate something we haven't done till now -- our inner or external incompleteness.
Any kind of incompleteness -- whether it is emotional or physical -- has nothing to do with happiness.
A person on a wheelchair can be happier than me.
There are people who look very normal, but deep down, they may be going through something.
That's the emotional science behind the film.
I'm celebrating incompleteness.
I'm saying, what's wrong with our flaws?
We are humans, not Gods.
So we will have flaws, and those flaws make us certain individuals.
What came first: The story or Shah Rukh Khan?
Actually, more than the story, the idea came first.
What made you cast Shah Rukh in such a role?
I was searching for someone I could go ahead with and say that this is the complete you, now I will take away two feet from you.
Do you still feel complete?
Can you do this magic?
For that, you need a very secure and experienced actor.
Nobody is better than Shah Rukh for that.
Was he apprehensive?
No. He took on this film only because he wanted a bigger challenge.
Shah Rukh Khan comes with a certain superstar image which his fans love. How did you balance that with your vision for his character Bauua Singh?
I did not have to go in that direction.
I needed a brilliant actor, and I had that in him.
The only thing I wanted is that they should look like two different people -- and Shah Rukh Khan is very different from Bauua.
How did you build the character with Shah Rukh?
Himanshu (Sharma, writer) and I went to Khansaab with the idea and the structure, not the complete bound story.
We wrote that after spending some time with him, understanding him.
In the same way, he was understanding me too.
So by the time we touched the floors, we were making the same film.
I really enjoyed the sessions. Those eight, ten months of creating the script from an idea was a fantastic exercise for me.
Were you ever star struck?
That never happened with Khansaab.
Maybe he was aware that this could create certain hurdles in the creative process.
So all credit to him, he made me feel like I have the most obedient actor with me. And he was one.
He is so experienced and he comes with so much conviction.
Were you comfortable with the VFX needed to make Shah Rukh look smaller?
For me, VFX is not a technique. It's much more than that.
It's a layered emotion.
I would give a lot of credit to the VFX team for understanding the story and the maker. They stood tall with us in handling those emotions.
They were trying to create a world which gives emotion that power.
More than just look beautiful, they were bringing in the stuff that would make the story look real.
I'm very comfortable with VFX.
Yes, there were teething troubles, but I have really understood -- I won't say 'the use' -- but teaming up with the VFX guys to tell a story.
What were the teething troubles?
The teething troubles were because of me, because I was so unplanned.
Since I'm an organic film-maker, it was a hurdle for the VFX team.
I was giving them a tough time, but they really understood my emotions about why I was so unplanned, so last-minute.
For example, you need to have a storyboard for VFX, what you will shoot (that day).
But on the sets, I used to change my shots at the last minute.
I used to look at my actor, see how he is delivering, and that I would have to change something for him so that he could give me a better performance.
The VFX team understood that it was required for the film.
You have made India's superstar a dwarf. Do you feel the pressure?
I should feel it, but I don't.
At times, when people around me talk about box office, I feel some pressure.
But the very next minute when I see something of my film, I don't feel it.
Everybody has done their bit so beautifully.
I know what you are saying, and I should feel some pressure, but I actually don't.
I am anxious, yes.
I am nervous at times, yes.
But I am excited, that's the biggest thing. I am really excited.
Do you think Shah Rukh's fans will accept him in this avatar?
Khansaab has enjoyed it so much that I am sure his fans will enjoy it too.
He understands his fans, and I'm just going by that.
Many years ago, Kamal Haasan played a dwarf in Appu Raja. Do you fear comparisons?
I'm not worried about that. They are two different stories.
What Kamal sir did at that time was physically much more difficult than what we are doing now.
Physically, that was tough. Technically, this is tough.
There are no comparisons. They are two different characters.
If someone is 5'10, and another guy is also 5'10, we don't compare them, right?
Why are we trying to judge this?
There are so many people who are 6'3, but they won't be compared to Bachchansaab, right?
What made you cast Anushka as a woman with cerebral palsy?
Anushka is a brilliant actor, and this is a tough role. So going to her made sense.
As a director, I always try to see that there should be some ingredients of the character in the actor.
Anushka is a very straightforward, emotionally neat, person, like her character Aafia.
She makes things look easier, but she is very hardworking.
Himanshu and I would keep talking to her about her character.
Katrina plays an alcoholic superstar. What made you cast her?
I was really looking forward to working with her.
I always feel that there are times when a character is made for somebody, and I feel this character was made for her.
You have a certain image but deep down, you know you are not exactly the way people are seeing you.
In this case, I knew people were seeing Katrina in a certain way and she could break that with this character.
She plays a person with a certain emptiness, incompleteness. She's an emotionally hungry person.
But even with all this incompleteness, they are happy people.
Salman Khan does a cameo in the film.
Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are so big that they make your life very comfortable.
You look at them like a fan, but they make your life very easy.
When you are that big, you don't want to make people uncomfortable.
Both of them together was like a bonanza!
And there's so much to learn.
When you see them together, you feel that this is how you should grow big.
They own the responsibility of things going fine.
The way the head of the family behaves...that's how they were on the sets.
You have always formed deep and lasting relationships with your actors like Jimmy Sheirgill and Dhanush. Did you bond as deeply with Shah Rukh as well?
When I started in this industry, I always felt that relationships start and end with films. And that would scare me; the thought that our happiness was just for that short span.
But it is not.
I've proved that aisa nahin hota.
Even now, with Khansaab, it's not just a film, it's much more than that for me.
He is a part of my life now.
I first met him in 2013 on the sets of one of his films.
I always felt there was something in me -- tomorrow, if I grow big as a director -- I would be able to do something interesting with him.
That was always in my mind.
From our first meeting, the liking for each other kept growing.
I can easily say that we know each other so well, that if I am thinking something, he will say it aloud.
What have you learnt from Zero?
People say this is a very VFX heavy film, and it is. That's a great learning for me.
I can easily say I have become a better film-maker than what I was before Zero.
You have made so many successful movies. How do you keep yourself grounded?
I don't have to work hard on this.
What you cannot take out of me is my middle class.
My upbringing keeps me grounded, the first 20, 25 years of my life.
It is a very middle class world around me -- my parents, my brother...
Even if I try to change myself, I can only change my car or my house, but that will not change the middle class man in me.
That world is what I know.
I am not here to impress people, or to surprise or shock them. I am here to tell a story, and I will do that.
There is no story in my hard drive now.
I am just waiting to complete this journey and see where I have reached.
What will you do on December 21 when Zero releases?
For every film, I just wait for the day to get over to know how exactly people have received the film.
More than how much money it will make, what matters is how many people go in and come out with that smile.
That should be a takeaway for my audience.
Mazza aaya is one thing, but I feel my story and my characters should go with them to their homes.
That's what I am expecting.