After hitting a purple patch with "Paan Singh Tomar", Tigmanshu Dhulia is looking for a commercial high with "Bullett Raja", says Anuj Kumar

He brought the hinterland back in business. When the industry was looking overseas, Tigmanshu Dhulia was crafting Haasil in Allahabad. When the corporates were flying Kites of rom com, he was running after the legend of Paan Singh Tomar in Bundelkhand. Now it seems his time has come for in an industry which is busy cutting and pasting South Indian masala in the backyard, Tigmanshu has come up with an explosive tale from Poorvanchal called Bullett Raja. However, the man known for his authentic writing laced with crisp accent, is flaunting a star this time in the form of Saif Ali Khan.

“When you write a film you get an impression that this film will require this much budget. We knew that this film can’t be made in 7-8 crores. And when the budget swells you need a star, who has some respect at the box office. When the star comes he also demands his fees. So the budget increases even further. Then you have to make sure that the film reaches out to that kind of audience,” says Tigmanshu. But this invariably leads to dilution of content, isn’t it? “No, not in this case because Saif agreed to come into my space,” contends Tigmanshu.

Tigmanshu says Saif has not been seen in this avatar. “It is always said that he is more suitable for urbane characters. He wanted to work in this space. He wanted to play a desi action hero. He was convinced in 15-20 minutes.” These days every star is eager to play the action hero. It is up to the filmmaker, which star he picks. Tigmanushu laughs and nods in agreement. “I also hadn’t done this kind of film.”

But it gives many, who supported the alternative wave, a feeling of being let down. If at the end of the day Tigmanshu had to work with Saif and Anurag had to rope in Ranbir Kapoor why did they give us all the dope on breaking the star culture and changing the nepotistic Bollywood. “See, this is a process. I and my contemporaries like Anurag, Imtiaz and Shoojit do not belong to the industry. We emerged as an alternative, though I personally didn’t make any such claim because I consider even my first film Haasil as fully commercial. However, even if we are seen as outsiders, who are telling some fresh stories now the idea is to change the mainstream and leave the alternative space to other emerging directors,” he argues.

Tigmanshu has had a jinxed career and he says he has packed all his anger in Bullett Raja. “Don’t underestimate it, it is a bomb. I have touched many real issues under the commercial cover which even an evolved audience will appreciate.”

Shot largely in Lucknow, the film is set in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Poorvanchal as they call it and you can’t fathom the urbane Saif mastering the accent. “He speaks good Hindi but it was difficult for him to catch the Poorvanchali accent. The good thing is he is very receptive actor. He is always on his toes. I decided not to go for sync sound so that if some flaws remain they could be corrected at the dubbing stage. On the sets my emphasis was on the body language. The westernised upbringing changes even hand movement. Most conversations end with hi-fives, something which is non existent in the part of Uttar Pradesh that I have depicted. So I had to work on the way he turns, puts his hand in the pocket….”

This is the first time that he has made a film without his closest mate Irrfan Khan. He says comparisons between Saif and Irrfan are useless. “Irrfan is my best friend and this aspect can never be ignored while doing any comparison. Saif has become my friend during the shooting. However, we didn’t party for a single day during the 100-day shoot. We remained in our respective rooms. There is mutual respect for each other,” says Tigmanshu adding that Saif is one of the few star actors we have.

On the surface, Tigmanshu says it is a buddy film. “I always wanted to make a film on Jai-Veeru kind of friendship. Here Saif and Jimmy are playing two boys who slowly get sucked into the world of crime and how one of them becomes a sort of political commando. In parts of U.P. you don’t need to be a gangster to pick a gun. It is in your attitude and the family honour is usually the starting point.”

The region was once a centre of culture. Is it advisable to portray it again and again as the crime-infested belt on screen? Tigmanshu says it is what it has become. On a lighter note he holds Prayag Raj Express responsible for the shift. “Before it was launched Delhi was considered a very distant destination. With the train it became a matter of hours. Raat ko baitho subah dilli. Soon barristers and their sons started practising in Supreme Court and poets shifted base.”

Initially, Irrfan was supposed to play the antagonist in the film but had to drop out apparently because of a commitment for a foreign film. Tigmanshu denies that there was any insecurity in Saif’s mind vis a vis Irrfan. “In fact during the Kolkata shoot when Irrfan came to celebrate Holi with us he requested him to do the part because he also wanted a strong counterpoint.” But then Irrfan was replaced by Vidyut Jamwal! “I agree Vidyut can’t do a role written for Irrfan. So I had to rewrite the role according to the strengths of Vidyut and that is action.”

A product of National School of Drama, Tigmanshu is known to dot his cinematic landscape with drama school actors but this time we will see seasoned Bollywood players like Gulshan Grover, Ravi Kishan and Chunky Pandey in his territory. “There is a reason. If you are making a film with a star the support cast should also be of the same league. For instance, in Agneepath, Hrithik Roshan’s character comes out because he is pitted against Rishi Kapoor and Sanjay Dutt. If you put him against some unknown drama school actors, the impact would have been much less.”

So this is one of the rules that cannot be tempered with. “No, you can make these seasoned actors act according to your needs and style. Here you will find a different Gulshan Grover and Ravi Kishan. At times it becomes difficult to break their set mould but they also like the experience. Now, Chunkey Pandey is playing Lallan Tiwari. I can make a theatre actor get the nuances but I can’t create an actor of Chunky’s weight overnight. That’s why I say the effort is worth it.” He challenges if anybody could pick any discrepancy or fakery in the accent.

Putting the recent surge of small town stories in mainstream Bollywood in perspective, Tigmanshu says, “For 20 years we got to see different versions of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. This relentless ‘Shava Shava’ was generated because we were catering to the overseas market. This created disconnect with the audience in the hinterland because we stopped writing about our own people. You must have noticed that it was during this phase that regional cinema particularly Bhojpuri prospered with as many two Bhojpuri films releasing every week. The current shift happened because exhibition sector saw a change with multiplexes reaching smaller centres. Even small cities have a middle class intelligentsia. When the multiplexes emerged in smaller cities the doctors and engineers of these cities returned to the theatres with families. As the footfall increased people started writing for them. The six-seven hits of 2012 are a result of the support they got from the renewed interest of this class.”

However, this surge also came with abusive language and sidelining female characters in the name of underlining regional ethos. “There is no link between authenticity and abuses. From the very first film I am particular about not getting carried away. When you are setting your story in a region and are using the dialect, the dialect has so much rasa on its own that you don’t need to underline it with abuses. Hindi doesn’t have as much rasa as Poorvanchali or Bundelkhandi has. Time par aana Late mat karna. You can say the line in so many ways that you don’t need to disrupt the flow by inserting a cuss word. I agree abusive language is part of our daily lives but I think film is a mass medium which is watched in a communal space and there is a social responsibility on the filmmaker. Often people justify it by calling it the demand of the character. You haven’t got a more dreaded villain than Gabbar Singh but even he didn’t use any cuss word. The way he said tumhari khaal ko kharonch kharonch ke nikaloonga was enough,” reasons Tigmanshu.

This year, we saw two sides of love in North India. While Raanjhanaa, set in Benaras, showed that it is still difficult to hold hands in public in small towns, Shuddh Desi Romance depicted live-in relationship in Jaipur. Both proved commercially viable but Tigmanshu finds the portrayal of Raanjhanaa more palatable. “See, still there is no social sanction for love in small towns so the conflict is bigger. The milkman will not give you milk if he discovers that there is a live in couple in this house. These are practical issues that you can’t ignore in depicting the life in small towns.”

Tigmanshu is now eager to take a break and do some writing. To start with he is re-writing Shaukeen for his friend Rumy Jaffery.