Those days, we could afford to launch a film without a script, says Ramesh Sippy, the maker of the iconic Shola y . He spoke toBaradwaj Ranganduring his recent visit to the city

Ramesh Sippy, who was in Chennai for the hundredth-year-of-Indian cinema celebrations, wouldn’t talk about the film he has in mind — the “sweet, small, cute, different” film that he plans to direct next year. “It’s too early,” he said. He wouldn’t talk about the autobiography he plans to write, either. “I’m at that stage of my life where if I don’t sit down and do something about it now, I never will. But again, it’s too early to say anything.” And because he won’t talk about what the future holds, and because there isn’t much to talk about in the present, we spoke about the past.

We spoke about 1969, when the filmmaker, barely into his twenties, approached Shammi Kapoor with the story of a widow and a widower. Shammi said, “You know what I’m popular for. I’m a dancing star. I’m a rebel star. That’s what I’m known for. You want to make this kind of film with me?” Sippy said, “Don’t you want to do a film like this?” Shammi said, “Yeah, for me, as an actor, it’s something different. I’d like to do it. But are you sure that you want to start your career with this film?” Sippy said, “Yes, I’ve decided I’m going to make a film with you. And I’m not going to make the kind of film you’ve been doing all the time.”

“People had made films about widows earlier,” Sippy told me, “but I wanted to tell this story in a commercial format. It was never my desire to make very arty films or things that defined a different space. I wanted to make good commercial cinema, with an edge. I saw Andaz as an entertaining film, but with characters carrying some baggage. And I felt Shammi Kapoor had reached a point in career where he needed to do more mature roles.” The film, released in 1971, was a hit.

He wanted Nutan, at first, because he saw the heroine as a mature woman with a child. But he was advised against casting a heroine who was “at a mature phase of her career,” when the hero, too, was getting along in age. And so a young actress named Hema Malini was roped in. She went on to star in a double role in Sippy’s next film, Seeta Aur Geeta , and played a talkative tangewali in the film that followed, Sholay . Sippy said that the way the industry works, he could have never made the film today. “ Seeta Aur Geeta cost Rs. 40 lakh, but with Sholay , I wanted a bigger budget. I wanted to make the film a certain way, with no compromises, and I gave myself one crore. It ended up costing three crores.” I asked him if he was sick of being asked to talk about Sholay . He said, “It’s the defining film as far as my career is concerned — with respect to performances, technique, and the box office. It’s the biggest blockbuster of all time. That’s one crown that belongs to me. I don’t mind talking about it.” But he admitted that the film’s staggering success cast a long shadow over the rest of his career. His subsequent films — Shaan , Shakti , Saagar — were seen as disappointments. “At a cost of Rs. 6 crore, Shaan doing business worth Rs. 12 crore is nothing when Sholay , a film costing Rs. 3 crore, does something like Rs. 25 crore in its first run. Today, you invest Rs. 3 crore and get back Rs. 5 crore and you’re called successful.”

We spoke, then, about the actors he worked with. “Amitabh Bachchan,” he said, “knows what he has to do, and I know what he’s going to do — because it’s what I’ve asked him to do — and yet, when he enacts it, you’re completely mesmerised. He did a seven-minute scene in Shakti — about 700 feet of film — in one take.” And then he spoke about another kind of actor, who came up to him and said, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to do this in half-a-dozen ways. You decide what you want. If you think it’s crap, then that’s fine, but let me have the satisfaction of showing you.”

That actor was Kamal Haasan, who was in cast in Saagar because Sippy wanted to make a love triangle with the pair from Bobby and “that fabulous actor from the South.” He said that that was the extent of the plot when they announced the film. “Those days, we could afford to launch a film without a script. I knew that the film would be following a line of this sort. I cast the actors and then we wrote a script to contain them.”

After Saagar , Sippy went on to do the popular television serial Buniyaad . And then things haven’t been quite the same. The films that came afterwards — Bhrashtachar , Akayla , Zamana Deewana — made no ripples either creatively or commercially, though he said, “ Bhrashtachar was a commission earner. All the distributors made money. It was not a blockbuster and it was not a Ramesh Sippy film, but if I’d made only those kinds of films I’d still be making films. Churning them out wouldn’t have been a problem.”

He was talking about films that catered to the lowest-common-denominator audience, “because that was the only audience coming to the theatres. I was used to a much wider audience, from all classes. I find I have done my best work when there is a certain amount of challenge, but with these films, I made them very basic, to cater to these audiences. I thought I could package something quickly. Something happened to me in that phase.” And that something was probably triggered by a visit to a cinema hall, where an audience member in the balcony turned towards Sippy and spat onto the floor.

And so, after Zamana Deewana in 1995, he decided to step back and return only when ready. He’s ready now. He just doesn’t want to talk about it.

Sholay is the defining film as far as my career is concerned — with respect to performances, technique, and the box office. It’s the biggest blockbuster of all time. That’s one crown that belongs to me