Director, writer and producer Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra was recently in Goa as part of the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI), where he delivered a masterclass on filmmaking titled “Nuances of Inspirational Cinema”. Excerpts from a conversation :
It’s been 12 years since Rang De Basanti was released but it still continues to be a rage. How do you reflect upon it?
I am a huge believer that a movie should grow. Yes, there comes a time when they need to be revamped or the same story needs to be told again so it can relate to the time then. Rang De Basanti seems to be an evergreen film. The very other day a journalist friend of mine sent me a message that she was watching Rang De Basanti with her two daughters, 14 and 16 years old respectively. She told me that the film is still relevant. So I replied back, “Sadly so”. If Rang De is relevant even today it means that nothing has changed around us but we have to keep trying. I really hope Rang De Basanti stops being relevant at some point because it talks about a society which is corruption free; it talks about the youngsters and has a conversation with them about being a part of the idea of India. The idea of making that film emerged from the angst inside me and so it was really a hope for change.
While Rang De Basanti is widely regarded as your best work till date there are some who see Aks as an even greater cinematic achievement. What are your thoughts?
There is a select group for Aks that seems to be coming out and telling me that it’s one of my best works or my best work. It always surprises me. And it’s not just in India but all over the world. It was my first film and I just made it from heart. That the film has remained alive and it’s growing inch by inch, is amazing. Here I would like to share something that I haven’t shared with anybody that right now I am in the process of re-editing it and reduxing it. So maybe in a year’s time we will be able to come out with Aks version 2.0.
You were an ad filmmaker before you started making films. A lot of famous ad filmmakers including Ridley Scott have gone on to become very successful film directors. Does making ad films prepare one for the challenges of cinema?
Well, there is no such rule as such. Actually, I started as a door-to-door salesman so that may have prepared me more for cinema than ad films. After that I became a tailor and ran a garment fabrication unit wherein I sat with the tailors from all over the country. I think that too prepared me for cinema. What ad films gave me was technique. So you can say that it sharpened my edges but it also took me away from cinema because we were selling bikes and toothpaste. You see a lot of examples where people have moved on from ad films to features. Ridley Scott, of course, is a great example there. Out there perhaps there is a vacuum to tell stories and that’s why he went ahead and made Blade Runner and Gladiator . He is one of the modern day miracles of cinema. I always feel very flattered when Farhan (Akhtar) calls me his Ridley Scott and says that I should attempt cinema in my own way only.
Hindi cinema is witnessing an interesting change. Small budget content driven films have become the audiences’ first choice. What kind of challenges does it bring for the filmmakers?
I believe that now after a very long time there are stories in which you can breathe India, you can breathe the Indian middle class and you can entertain people without selling escapism. So it is not important to give item songs anymore. However, it’s not that all big budget films will fail and all small budget films will succeed. It’s not one versus the other. It’s never that.
You were a member of the Shyam Benegal Committee set up to lay down rules and regulations for film certification. But so far no measure has been taken to overhaul the Cinematograph Act. Tell us about your thoughts on film censorship.
According to me there should be no censorship. I think there should be a rating system. Since I was a part of the Shyam Benegal Committee I can talk about it in a little more informed way rather than an emotionally driven filmmaker. We discussed the legalities with the Supreme Court judges and spoke to the stakeholders in the society and not just had a one-sided discussion. And that’s how we proposed a new policy on it wherein we recommended a new system of rating. I think censorship is obsolete. Today we are living in a place where the globe has shrunk tremendously. Yes, there is a tremendous responsibility on all of us to protect the children and the old from foul language and drug abuse but if at 18 you can choose the prime minister of the country then you should also have the choice to see whatever film you want.
OTT is the new buzz-word these days. How do you think the advent of Over The Top platforms is impacting Indian cinema?
I have been asked this many times. I have tried to contemplate. I still feel that cinema has its own place. It’s irreplaceable. Not that I am old school, I have spoken about it to people all over the world. From how I see it, OTT is nothing, it is a technical term. Actually it is television. We have been watching television for the longest time. It is just that now you have access to certain digital platforms like a YouTube or an HBO or a Netflix which are outside the purview of Indian laws. If you keep the toy away from a child for the longest time and then he gets a glimpse he starts feeling excited. Otherwise, as far as OTT is concerned, I think it is made for the small screen and essentially it is first a writer’s medium and then an actor’s medium whereas cinema is a director’s medium.
Your upcoming film Mere Pyaare Prime Minister deals with the issue of open defecation. Already we have had a few films on the subject. What compelled you to make another one?
Well, I haven’t spoken about Mere Pyaare Prime Minister yet. The film may be related to the issue of open defecation but it keeps opening up new layers. You see there is a much bigger question there. You think a country cannot solve a defecation problem? It’s not rocket science. I came across a UNICEF report which says open defecation is one of the reasons behind physical violence against women. I just couldn’t comprehend it. Can’t we even give our women a little safety?