When one asks Sooraj Barjatya why a youngster would watch Uunchai, a tale of elderly friends climbing up to the base camp of Mt. Everest, the writer-director recalls how when he bought a smart phone for his father (Raj Kumar Barjatya), he could not figure out how it worked. “He was trying, but I took the phone from his hand and said I will do it for you. I should have allowed him to experiment and figure it out for himself.”
Uunchai, he says, tells youngsters that their parents don’t necessarily want to sit at home. “They want to cross forests and rivers and climb mountains. I am 57 now and I also look at the next 10 years of my life. We all have to climb our own little heights for which we should prepare ourselves.”
The writer-director, who changed the face of Hindi cinema at the turn of the 1990s with simple, emotional love stories, where traditional family values mattered, reminds us that the Rajshri Productions has never dragged its feet from change. Be it Dosti (1964) or Saaransh (1984), it has dealt with the themes of selfless friendship and elderly protagonists in the past as well. “Elders should encourage youngsters to watch the film, because Uunchai shows a friendship that is not dependant on social media and phones. They actually have time for each other.”
Excerpts from an interview:
You are known for making big-budget family entertainers that are shot indoors on lavish sets. What made you climb a different terrain?
The subject of Uunchai came to me in 2016 when writer Sunil Gandhi narrated the story of four people above 65 years of age, who have been friends for 50 years. One of them dies and the other three take this trip upto to the Everest base camp, and along the way, discover that how young and alive they are.
I found out in real life that people upto 70 years of age can go there. I bought the rights, but I was looking for the right director who could do justice to this story of hope. As I have never done an outdoor film, I thought it would not be my cup of tea. However, the pandemic became the catalyst when we realised that things like money and looks don’t decide who is the hero; the one who has courage is the real hero.
Uunchai is the story of courage and challenging oneself. The thought didn’t leave me. I have made it with a sense of liberty, not really bothering about how the first day collection will be like, how big the music is, or how opulent the sets are. It is a very real film, the most layered film of mine in terms of characterisation. It is a new kind of Uunchai for me as well.
What were challenges of shooting with an elderly cast?
We shot during the pandemic. There were locations that we fixed, but had to be canceled because of the lockdown. We took all kinds of precautions, and I sent a team of experts just to analyse what kind of risk factors were present. It helped the actors with their performance. Then I myself went with my team of technicians for a recce, and finally we took a crew of 300 persons and the cast, with doctors and oxygen cylinders. We took small steps and stopped to acclimatise at every location. I give credit to the actors that they trusted me. It also shows their love for the medium and the characters.
Considering the last few films of the banner haven’t done well, is it time to rework the Rajshri Productions template of simple, emotional dramas? Is ‘Uunchai’ a step in that direction?
I can’t say that the last few films have not worked because my last film Prem Ratan Dhan Payo was among the top 15-20 films of the country in terms of collection. If you look in terms of appreciation, it is a subjective matter. It is not right to compare every film with Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! and Maine Pyaar Kiya. As makers we try our best.
At Rajshri, we have always followed the conviction that are we happy or not with making a particular subject. As we evolve, there is an audience for all kinds of films, including family films. That’s why I could make an Uunchai. If I had made it 15 years back, I would have been asked, ‘Where is the love story?’ Today, the audience accepts everything as long as it could see the conviction of the filmmaker. If somebody thinks simple emotional stories don’t work, you should know that Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! and Hum Saath Saath Hain are on Zee network every week. If people don’t watch, channels won’t play them.
How do you think the pandemic is going to change subjects and storytelling for theatres?
During the pandemic, we developed a habit of enjoying things at home. We have to understand that, at present, watching films in a theatre is a luxury. Of course, it will change with time, but right now it is a big challenge for filmmakers to draw people out of their homes to theatres. There is a sense that they could wait for the OTT release. As filmmakers, the challenge for us is to make something new and unique, different from what audiences are getting at home. My guess is that big, adventure films where locations play a part are expected to drawn audiences to theatres.
But as the pandemic waned, a number of OTT platforms started coming to us, asking for family entertainment for their audience. I see it as a healthy sign.
Tell us about the experience of directing Amitabh Bachchan?
The day I decided to make this story of courage, the first name that came to my mind was Mr Bachchan because he is the epitome of courage. The whole experience of writing a script that is worthy of his time and passion took four to five months. When I sent him the synopsis, he called back the same day to say he really like the thought of overcoming the secret Everests inside us and asked who would be cast alongside him.
I was in awe of working with him, but when we started shooting, I realised he is the easiest actor to work with because he trusts the director so much that he follows him to the T. What really amazes me is the kind of respect he gives the writer of the scene. So , he would often ask what was the thought while writing a particular dialogue, and sometimes even a particular word. He would say he wanted to portray the exact feeling the writer wanted to express. We don’t find such commitment often.
How difficult was it to convince Danny Denzongpa as he is very choosy about the films that he does?
Danny ji took the maximum time to say yes. First, he said he doesn’t do guest appearances. When I insisted on him reading the script, he reverted to say the script is good. Then he was very hesitant in coming to Mumbai because the city’s summer doesn’t suit him. He was very concerned about the COVID situation as well. I then showed him some scenic spots around Mumbai and Nepal where the shoot was planned! It took us six months to convince him but we succeeded.
How did you keep Prem and your good friend Salman Khan out of Uunchai?
Salman has a good sense of humour. When I told him the idea, he offered to be part of the film, but I said I wanted people who could not climb the Everest as easily as him. My next film which is in the writing stage will be with him. And yes, he will be playing Prem again!
Uunchai releases November 11 in theatres