Interview: Ram Gopal Varma

Posted on August 14, 2008


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Ram Gopal Varma opens up about being a certain kind of director, about why Contract didn’t work, and about why the upcoming Phoonk is more than just a horror film.

AUG 15, 2008 – ABOUT FIVE MINUTES AFTER SITTING DOWN across Ram Gopal Varma, I’m beginning to realise he’s hijacked the interview. There’s a sheet of questions in my hand – a list that I frequently look at, in the desperate hope of launching a counterattack to this blatant act of terrorism. But he keeps talking, and I keep listening. (Let’s face it: would you look Varma in the eye and ask, “Excuse me, but there are some things that I need to ask. Would you mind letting go while I try to do that?”) And as he talks, it’s almost as if he’s amassed a clutch of interesting things to talk about, and he’s got to check items off that list before the close of day – a theory that is confirmed later, when I see he’s gone over those same anecdotes during most other interviews he’s given that afternoon. It’s either that – or the fact that every single interviewer has put to him questions of unvarying insipidity, and, with these choice quotes, Varma is doing the best he can to keep himself entertained.

Even so, it’s an entertaining experience. The arrogance that you detect in Varma the filmmaker isn’t, as you’d expect, there in Varma the person. At least that afternoon in Chennai, he’s a delightful conversationalist, with a healthy amount of perspective on his work and a hearty sense of humour. I’m barely a couple of words into my first question, when he cuts me off and observes that my review of his Sarkar Raj was interesting, but I “completely missed the point.” Defensive hackles rising, I begin to argue that a review is just a point of view and so forth, but he cuts me off because he gets it. What interests him, he smiles, is to note people’s reactions to his films. But, I venture, he doesn’t seem to be the sort of person who cares about what others think. He agrees, and clarifies that even if he doesn’t bother, it’s interesting to “study” the way people react – as if filmmaking, to him, is nothing but an expensive laboratory with the nation’s audiences scraped into a petri dish. And I can’t help but wonder…

Is that why you make films – because it “interests” you to see how others will react?

My belief is that any filmmaker makes films for two reasons. One, he makes the film for himself – that is, he’d like to see a film like this. Second, he would like to imitate a successful film. “If Jaane Tu… worked, let me make a film like Jaane Tu…” So you’re trying to copy, but your ego doesn’t permit you to say you’re copying that film, so you would say, “The audiences like this kind of film.” Otherwise, your only choice is… [the first one]. Because I can make a film for me. I can’t make a film for you. Because I don’t know you, I don’t know your sensibilities. And if I cannot know that about one person, how can I group a whole mass and label them an “audience” just for my convenience?

So you’re basically talking about someone who makes a movie as a personal statement versus someone who makes a movie as a business venture.

Yeah, I would say that. But it’s a business venture not only in terms of making money, but also in terms of fame. Someone would want to make a movie to be paid more than, say, David Dhawan or Anees Bazmee – because if Anees Bazmee is the benchmark for commercial success today, he may want to be bigger than that. Still, I don’t think people really come into the industry to make money. Today, actors come to Mumbai to become Shah Rukh Khan. They don’t come there to become Naseeruddin Shah. And that’s because of the glamour, the fame quotient – to be looked up to, to be adored. That’s not really the passion for acting, and neither is it the greed for money. It’s the same thing with filmmakers. They want to be called the most famous or the most successful director. That becomes more important than why you want to make the film.

But then how do you explain the careers of people like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, or even yourself? You have your fame, your money – so why do you keep making movies?

I can’t speak for Vinod Chopra, but I make films because of a desire to make films. Ultimately, the filmmaker is a storyteller. I can have a conversation with you or I can write an article or I can make a film. The difference is, with cinema, you can use the various aspects of the medium and enhance the effect. More than telling you about a scene from Phoonk, for example, which is a horror film, I can use the various tools at my disposal and enhance the effect of what I want to impress you with. My passion is to make you feel that – rather than what you think of it, or how much money you will give it for gratifying you. I don’t think of those two aspects.

But you are working in a very expensive medium.

I’m not denying that. I’m talking about my motivation. I’m not saying that it’s right. But having said that, how can I guarantee that you would like it? Suppose I want to scare you, what could happen? (a) It scares you. (b) It doesn’t. So why would I deliberately do something thinking that you will like it? What I tried to do, you may not like – but that is an aftereffect. It’s not the primary reason. It’s not that I don’t care whether you like it or not. I’m not saying that. There’s no way of knowing whether you’ll like it or not. That’s what I’m saying.

Even then, when a filmmaker has been on the scene for as long as you have, aren’t there certain patterns that he learns to discern – whether this will work, or this won’t, and so on? Doesn’t he begin to “know” the audience after a while?

In fact, I think the reverse is true. The more you are around, the more disconnected you become – because you get corrupted with the industry’s thinking. They tend to think of the audience in terms of groups – “youth” films, “family” films… Also, when you are looking at cinema, in a theatre, with people around you, it’s a very different way of looking at it. At that time, your exposure level, your knowledge is very different. But when you become a director, you tend to lose that way of looking at films. Today, I can’t watch a film anymore, because I don’t watch a film to be entertained. I see a film to judge it. I am constantly looking at camera angles, sound, this, that – which is not the way audiences look at the film. So the film that everybody loves, say something like Taare Zameen Par – this is just an example – the point is, if in the first five minutes I disagree with the way the scenes are being captured, I will miss out on the content of the film, which might be the main reason the film clicks. So I think that the more you understand cinema, the more you become disassociated from the audience.

In that case, how do you explain the careers of people like Prakash Mehra or Manmohan Desai – apart from the fact that they worked in an era where more people went to the theatres because there were no TVs and VCRs?

See, their intention of making a film was different. Now, where did the word “formula film” come from? Formula films are like thali meals, you know? You get your curry, your dal, your rice, your chapatis – you have a good time, but also, your expectation isn’t going to be very high. You know exactly what you’re going to get there. So they kept on serving good helpings of that, with varying degrees and ranges, but, more or less, the soul was the same. And that’s why the word “formula” came about – because it can’t fail. Like the Coke formula, which is sent to various outlets – it will still be the same. But when you try to make a film that breaks convention – when I made my first film, the prevailing trend at the time were Balakrishna’s and Chiranjeevi’s films, so Shiva was a complete change – you have no way of knowing if it will work.

I didn’t know that then – and even now, I don’t have any idea why it worked. But it was liked. Whether it was liked for the reasons I made the film, or whether they saw something else in it – even that, I do not know. Even with a movie like Satya, I’m not sure that its commercial success has anything to do with what the critics liked it for. There were people who said they loved it because it was the first time they heard the word “chutiya” in the theatre. Reactions are as wide-ranging as that. Now, the critics gave four stars to Satya and they gave four stars to Maqbool, but Maqbool didn’t work anywhere as well as Satya. That’s what I’m saying. Each person likes or dislikes a film for unique reasons – and you can’t generalise them.

Do you think that the audience has become more fragmented today and it was more homogenous earlier?

I would think they were always fragmented. There are more choices today, and because of the Information Age, people are more aware of what is available, plus the freedom of communication is so strong that… When Doordarshan was the only option, I used to watch everything. I used to watch the Nirma ad. I used to watch the Surf ad. But the moment I’m given 50 channels and a remote control, I’m not going to watch TV with the same mindset anymore. The same thing applies to films too. I think very fast, and I can follow a very fast-paced film. But someone else may process things slowly and may want the film to linger on its scenes. Now who do you take as a benchmark for the guy sitting in the theatre? That’s why I feel when you make a film the way you want, there will hopefully be enough people out there wanting to watch it.

To give an example, Dhoom 2 is the biggest hit of last year. It collected some twenty crores in the Mumbai circuit alone. At an average of a hundred rupees a ticket, twenty lakh people saw the film. Now, this is the kind of film that has a repeat audience, so if you halve that figure, ten lakh people saw Dhoom 2. If ten lakh people out of a population of six crores can make the year’s biggest hit, what are the other five crore and ninety lakh people doing? Do they watch films or not? Another interesting question is: are the same people watching Welcome and Taare Zameen Par? There’s no way of knowing, which is why predictions are so often wrong. So the point is, you want to make a film and, secondly, you want people to like it. But which people? I can’t have a conversation like this with, say, my driver. And my driver is also a part of the audience, just like you and me. So do I take you as my mean audience, or do I take my driver?

And that’s why you say you make films for yourself…

The fact is that I understood that it’s impossible to group the audience into one whole. And because of this, you either decide that you want to copy a successful film, like Jaane Tu… When I made my first film, if I’d made something like a Balakrishna film, it might have also become a superhit, perhaps a bigger hit than Shiva. How should I know? Or, you choose the second option and you make films for yourself. And I decided that I want to make the films that I want to see. That’s just my decision. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. Now, coming to what you were saying, yes, film is an expensive medium. Apart from the costs, various actors and technicians are putting their trust – along with their time and effort – in your vision. And they all have some expectations. You have a responsibility towards them, not to let them down. But take the time I made Daud. It had everything going for it – the success of Rangeela, Urmila’s image, Sanjay Dutt after Khalnayak, AR Rahman after Rangeela. Nothing should have gone wrong, and yet it went wrong. And when I started Satya, people said nobody wanted to see bearded, sweaty faces. But that film worked.

So, in retrospect, my decisions may have been wrong, but at the time I took these decisions, they were right. Whether it was Rangeela or Satya or Daud, when I made the decision to make these films, I was serious. It is possible, en route, that I would have missed the target. Because at a human level, I could have been sidetracked, or I could have lost sight of my final purpose. But again, what is the benchmark for a flop or a hit? For example, Sarkar Raj cost 20 crores, and it was sold to one wholesale distributor at 41. He then sells it to another bunch, making a 15-20% profit. Those guys will make another 15-20% by selling it to sub-distributors and fixed hires. So the street value of Sarkar Raj, by the time it hits theatres, would be in the range of 65 crores. So even if it collects 60, it will be called a flop. Now, I made it for 20, and so even if it collects 25, it’s a hit. And the bottom line, for me as a director, is how many people saw the film.

Let’s assume 60 lakh people saw it. Does it mean anything, maybe that 59 lakh people hated it? I don’t know that. So the collections do not necessarily mean that people liked the film. So if film is an idea, film business is about taking that idea to the maximum number of people as effectively and as widely as possible. Along the way, different people have different agenda and motivations, all for their own purposes, and the only true, pure result is on a one-to-one basis. Did you like the film or not? That’s the only concern of the consumer. The producer has invested money. The distributor has invested money. With Sarkar Raj, the wholesale distributor made a lot of money. So in that sense, it’s a superhit. But on the street, if a distributor paid an MG amount of five lakhs, and he only made four lakhs, it’s a flop for him. That’s an informed decision he’s taken, based on his expectations from the local territory or the promos or X or Y factors. Now, that, as a director, I will never be able to control.

But why do you find so many contrasting figures? In the US, for instance, box office reporting is such a streamlined system.

I don’t really deal with the business end. But I think, earlier, there was a lot of cash business, and slowly, with the corporates, all that is getting cleaned up. The multiplexes are very streamlined, while the single screens and the small-town theatres are not. And unless there’s accountability from top to bottom, it’s difficult. But I think we’re getting there.

You just said that you define the success of a film by whether it achieved the aims that you wanted it to achieve. Let’s take Contract. What made you say you wanted to see this vigilante movie? What made you persist with it and put it out in a market that’s no longer responsive to such films?

I’ve answered this question already. You either make what you want to make, or you make whatever kind of movie is working.

But I’m talking about gangster films, in general, not doing well of late…

I don’t agree with that. I’ll agree with you if you say you don’t like Contract as a film. But I don’t believe the genre has anything to do with it. No genre will ever fail. It’s the film that fails. It’s a question of how interesting you make it and how you pitch it. Maybe they didn’t like what they saw in the promos, or they didn’t like the actors or what they heard about it. There could be so many reasons for people not going to a film. It’s not a question of genre. A horror film and a romantic comedy and a family film can work on the same day.

With Phoonk, you’re coming out with your first horror film after Bhoot. Has it shaped up according to your expectations, according to the way you saw it in your head?

It’s a big fallacy that a director can know if the film has come up to his expectations. From the time it was started, whatever concept of the film was there inside your head, it’s rarely there by the time you’ve finished. By the time you’ve broken it down into scenes and done location shooting and editing and so on, you have no idea – because you’re looking more into the details of the technical aspects. You may have begun the film to make people laugh or cry or scared or whatever, but by the time you finish, you won’t be able to feel it. At best, you can try to analyse the reaction of someone who’s seeing it for the first time, and see if you’ve reached your goal. But you, on a personal level, cannot do this. Because in each decision you’ve taken, there’s so much thinking you’ve done about the shot or the performance or the line, you take it for granted that all the information you’re using is in the audience’s head. But it might not be there, and they will look at it in a completely different way. So regarding whether the film has come up to my satisfaction, no film can ever do that.

The second point is what I think of it. Bhoot had the scare element of making you jump in your seat, and then you laughed because you were caught unawares. And then you waited for the next scare to come. But with Phoonk, the subject matter is very serious. What I mean by “serious” is that it could make you question your faith. It ‘s a debate between a believer and a non-believer and a person who’s on the wall – but it’s not a drawing-room discussion. At the centre is a girl with something happening to her. (Picks up pen) Let’s say this pen rises in the air like this. You can say it’s a miracle, or you can call it a trick, or you could say you’re just imagining it. But you have to take a decision soon, or your loved one will die. Now you’re desperate to find a solution and you may find yourself asking some guy who’s supposed to know about all this – as you’re a non-believer. But if this guy’s explanation about this trick is not satisfactory, and he’s not giving you a solution, how do you decide? Phoonk is like that. The interesting part for me is that it’s beyond a horror film, beyond the “scary” genre. It is very scary, because of the backdrop itself, but the more interesting part – which I think is novel in such a film – is that I’m hoping it will create a debate among both believers and non-believers.

Is this an extension of your own feelings about such things – because you’ve often said you’re a non-believer?

Yes. I think the protagonist is, more or less, playing me. But then, every protagonist has some bits of me. “Mujhe jo sahi lagta hai, main wohi karta hoon” from Sarkar is me. “Main jagah se nahin, dimaag se kaam karta hoon” from Contract is also me. I said that when I lost my office. And most importantly, “Faisle nahin, nateeje galat hote hain” – that’s me too.

You come across as more interested in the darker side of things, and when I think of you doing a romance, I think of something like Naach. The love story of that scarily independent woman – that’s how I’d think Ram Gopal Varma’s idea of a romance would be. What made you do frothy films like Rangeela and Mast?

Not really. I’ve done light films in Telugu. There’s no doubt I have an affinity for dark films, because that’s the kind of cinema I enjoy – but I’m basically, by nature, a very funny person. I’ve done films in almost every genre. My first film was about student politics. Raat is a horror film. Kshanam Kshanam is a caper. Kaun is a psychological thriller. But because of the hard-hitting nature of the underworld films and the horror films, because of the intensity, I think they tend to be remembered more easily. Anyway, what happened with Rangeela is that I had a friend called Ramesh in college. He was actually a street goonda, not a student. Those days it was like Shiva – a lot of hobnobbing between students and goondas. He was in love with this girl, but he’d never go up to her. We used to encourage him to go and speak to her. He always used to wear these dirty chappals, and one day, he wore brand new Nike shoes. We all laughed and he was hurt. Then this girl started seeing this guy – very good-looking, very rich, the only guy who had a car in those days – so we chamchas of Ramesh would goad him to go and beat that guy up. And in a choked voice, he turned to me and said, “She deserves someone better than me.”

That was the birth of Rangeela. I wanted to capture his emotion, and the Nike shoes he wore became the scene where Aamir Khan dresses up. So each film of mine has one basic thought behind it. Ramesh’s line, for me, was the soul of Rangeela. But from the time he said it to the making of the film, it must have been a ten-year journey. Now, when I saw how Mani Ratnam had shot the songs in Roja, I was blown away – and for the first time, I had a desire to do songs. Then, in The Sound of Music, I was very impressed with the character of the Countess, the way they resisted the temptation of making her the vamp – that became the basis for Jackie Shroff’s character. And I was watching Singin’ in the Rain, when I noticed my mother – who’s very conservative and who used to hate watching the Sarkailo khatiya kind of songs – didn’t mind this film, which actually had more exposure, girls baring their legs and all that. I realised that it was because these girls take pride in flaunting their body. It was there in their expressions – whereas in Sarkailo khatiya, which was done only for commercial reasons, you can see the hardness in Karisma’s face. So I told Urmila to take pride in being beautiful – and that’s what comes across in Rangeela. The bodies of all women are the same, but the way they feel about it is what the audience will take home.

So a lot of thoughts were grouped into Rangeela, but still the basic point is Ramesh’s line. The Countess, the woman’s pride in her beautiful body, the songs – all that became the atmosphere. And the humour element, which was so different in the film, I took from watching a lot of Hollywood musicals at the time. And the conversations that Munna and Pakia used to have were the kind of conversations that we used to have. And I’ve seen that, any time, if my first thought behind why I wanted to make the film happened to be right, the film happened to be right. And if that thought was wrong, the film went wrong. With Company, I was sitting with this guy called Manish Kadawala, who knew the Dawood Ibrahim gang. We got talking, and he told me, “So many people died in the fight between Dawood and Chhota Rajan. They are bent on killing each other. But even today, if Dawood Ibrahim calls, if Chhota Rajan is smoking a cigarette, he’ll keep it aside. He has that much respect for his mentor. They hate each other because they love each other.” And that line – “They hate each other because they love each other” –became the basis for Company. The rest of the film has nothing to do with Dawood Ibrahim or Chhota Rajan. It’s all my office politics, in the Factory. Because jealousy and one-upmanship and wanting to be better than the other – all this is part of any company. Now the point I’m trying to make is that with Contract, I was trying to make a Rambo kind of film in a realistic setting. That line, that idea, by itself, was wrong. And therefore the film went wrong.

With these ideas, is it possible to stay “pure” and true to yourself, or do other voices begin to influence you and corrupt your thinking?

It’s not possible, after a point, to retain your purity. And besides, you will yourself forget the feel that was there when you first had the idea. I had a story for a film. Anybody I told this story to was amazed, and the way I narrated the story, they didn’t even realise it was Sholay, till I told them. Then why did I make Sholay the way I made it? It’s because the day “Kitne aadmi the” became “Kitne,” and Holi became Diwali and so on, the people around were so mesmerised that they created an atmosphere – not intentionally – and I started thinking along the lines of audiovisual bites. It was no longer a film. I didn’t think whether the audience should hate Babban or if they should empathise with Thakur…

But isn’t that also how you make films, by concentrating on key moments, key aspects?

I’m not very sure that’s my intention. It’s not so much about the technical aspect of it. I’m a person who gets bored quite fast. I want to excite myself. So depending on what you’re seeing and why you’re seeing it, my mind will create a visual which will highlight it, at least for me. Some of them get it, while others think I’m needlessly exhibiting dramatic angles. I saw an incredible visual the other day, at Versova beach, at about 6:30 in the evening, just as it was turning dark. There were ten or twelve couples, holding each other and standing in almost the same pose. It looked very ghostly. I just couldn’t understand how it happened – till I figured out that night is falling and it’s time for them to part , so they are holding on to that one last moment, all of them. So the night falling is the trigger for them to feel that emotion at that time. It’s one of the most romantic images I’ve ever seen. Now the mistake I do is this. I’ve explained this visual to you for five minutes – but if I hadn’t, you’ll think it’s so artificial. That’s what even I thought at first. In fact, it was very bizarre for me. The moment I understood it, it completely changed my perspective. I do that a lot. I think the more you sit with the film in your head, the more you take it for granted that it’s come out exactly like that on celluloid. That’s where the disconnect possibly lies with me and the audience.

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