Shaad Ali was in Delhi on the second day of the ongoing Diorama International Film Festival where his 2018 film Soorma, a sport biopic on the life of India’s hockey star Sandeep Singh starring Diljit Dosanj and Taapsee Pannu, was screened. Son of the legendary Indian filmmaker Muzaffar Ali, he started his career as an assistant director to Mani Ratnam on Dil Se (1998). He subsequently made his directorial debut with the 2002 film Saathiya . Since then he has gone on to make films like Bunty Aur Babli, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, Kill Dil , and Ok Jaanu .
Here, Shaad Ali talks about his two-decade long journey in the Hindi film industry, his influences, and the challenges of making remakes.
What are your thoughts on the Diorama International Film Festival? Also tell us about your association.
I love Delhi and so a fresh new film festival being held in Delhi is a big enough excuse to bring me here. I think it is important to encourage new film festivals so that we can further boost the film viewing culture in the country. I am grateful that my film Soorma is also getting screened here. I remember while shooting Dil Se with Mani sir I used to come very often to Siri Fort. In those days they used to host the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) here in Delhi. I think Siri Fort is a wonderful venue for film enthusiasts.
If one looks at your body of work there are a couple of very interesting remakes viz. Saathiya and Ok Jaanu . What are the challenges associated with such remakes?
Actually both are remakes of Mani sir’s films. Of course, he is like family and so it is always very special for me. Also, I don’t really see them as remakes but more like a different trip of sorts. While working on such projects the biggest challenge is at the writing front. You have to find the right cultural milieu and get the characterisation sorted.
Next challenge is of course that of casting. At the end it is all about setting up the stage and directing the actors so as to elicit just the right kind of emotions needed for the different scenes.
As someone who started his career working under an influential filmmaker like Mani Ratnam how difficult it is to come out of one’s mentor’s shadow and create one’s own identity?
Well, to tell you the truth right from the very beginning I never allowed myself to get bothered by that. So even when I was doing Saathiya I was pretty clear in my head. If I look back now, then it may sound a bit intimidating. But back then it was like taking a leap of faith without much giving a thought to anything but the challenge of making my first film that I was completely preoccupied with. So, in a way, I have been really lucky in that regard.
Mani Ratnam has a very distinctive style of capturing romance. You too in your films have managed to find a very unique language of romance. What is it that makes it tick?
Romance can be a bit tricky. I think it works on many different levels. It depends on how romantic you yourself are as a person and if you are not romantic, then what is your idea of romance. Second, it depends on the kind of characters that you have written. Third, it depends on the world that these characters inhabit. Four, it depends on the kind of romance that the characters are involved in.
But these are just the ingredients and unless they are all mixed up in the right proportions you won’t be able to see the result. But once you have the right result you can’t really tell for sure which ingredient was mixed in what quantity. Of course, you get better at it with time but you can just never be too certain.
What was it like to start your career under Mani Ratnam? How do you reflect upon your journey as a filmmaker so far?
Dil Se was a very different experience for me. I was fresh in the business and Mani sir doesn’t keep many assistants and likes to operate with a small team. Also, I was the only assistant who could speak Hindi and so even at that young age I was assigned many important responsibilities which allowed me to mature very early in terms of work. Dil Se was really a complete experience for me.
Regarding my journey as a filmmaker, I have even forgotten that Saathiya was my first film. I find it difficult to believe when people remind me that nearly 18 years have passed since Saathiya .
I still approach my films with the same level of energy. With my each project I try to move on and never look back. I follow a simple belief: ‘next is the best’.
Tell us about your influences and inspirations. Also tell us about your upcoming projects.
There have been so many influences. I may not have seen the world but I like to absorb what I see around me. Mostly it has been my grandparents and the people around me that have influenced me the most, whether from my childhood spent in Kanpur or from my boarding school days. As far as filmmakers are concerned my inspirations include my father Muzaffar Ali, Sergio Leone, Ramesh Sippy, and of course Mani sir, among others.
At this point in time I am working on so many things but I don’t know which ones will materialise and which ones won’t. I don’t really have any names to give away. Right now I am like a clean slate and anything can pop up from anywhere. A lot of interesting and exciting things are going on and anything can happen.