Interview: Interview

‘Mirza-Sahiban is one of the greatest love stories’

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra  

Three days ago, the teaser trailer of director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s latest film Mirzya released. Starring Anil Kapoor’s son Harshvardhan and Saiyami Kher in the lead roles, the film, based on the folk tale Mirza-Sahiban, explores why Sahiban betrayed Mirza and then killed herself. Mehra, director of hits such as Rang De Basanti (2006) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), speaks to The Hindu about his love for stories from the north, the folk tale that has haunted him from his college days, the importance of songs in cinema, and why the Censor Board building should be turned into a crèche or a nightclub. Excerpts:

Stories from North India mostly find their way into your films (barring Aks).

I have grown up on a staple diet of these stories. I used to live in a refugee colony in Delhi. Being a sportsman I heard a lot about Milkha Singh. In Bhaag Milkha Bhaag I wanted to explore Partition and our hatred for Pakistan. I went to Air Force Bal Bharati School where MiG-21 planes would fly above us all the time. When the news of them crashing started coming in, I thought, ‘what’s going on?’ When I entered Delhi University after [the] Emergency, the whole JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] movement was gaining momentum. It felt very potent, as if it’s India just after Independence. Rang De Basanti came out of it. I was born and brought up in old Delhi amidst Ramleela — that gave me Delhi-6.

Mirzya comes from the first time I heard Mirza-Sahiban in college. The drama society was performing the folklore. At the end, they ask the crucial question, ‘why did Sahiban break the arrows and betray Mirza?’ Mirza dies with that question in his eyes: if she [Sahiban] loved him so much, why did she let him get killed? That’s the crux of the story. It left an indelible mark on my psyche and has haunted me ever since.

Sankhayan Ghosh

Then one day, about five years back, I met Gulzar bhai. I asked him, ‘Sahiban ne teer kyun tode the?’ [Why did Sahiban break the arrows?] He said, “Bachchu, woh toh Sahiban se hi jaake pooch. Mere se kya pooch rahe ho?” [Child, you have to ask Sahiba this, why are you asking me?] I told him, “Aap pooch ke bata dena mere ko” [You should ask her and let me know]. He said, ‘Yes sure’. That’s how the process of turning the folklore into the film started.

All your films have been socio-political dramas. Mirzya is your first attempt at a love story.

A part of me wants to express love and understand the idea of love. Mirzya is one of the greatest love stories ever told. What you feel is what you get out of it. It lets you breathe love in your own way. The beauty of the folklore also is that it has a strong female protagonist.

There is something quintessentially sub-continental about the tragic romance of Mirzya.

Mirzya comes from the North-West frontier, but we can’t call it just Indian. There are so many Indias — Mirzya is Afghanistan-India, Baluchistan-India, Peshawar-India. The beauty is in this shared culture. I watched the French documentary Latcho Drom for research on Mirzya. It shows how the Romani people, the gypsies from Rajasthan travelled all the way to Europe through Afghanistan, Turkey, East France, and Romania thousands of years ago. It gave me a lot of material for the film about the nature of storytellers, the way stories travel.

The teaser shows us images of a medieval setting. But it’s not a period film.

The teaser is the folklore bit, the perceived images in my head the first time I heard the story. I want the audience to share that experience. We have taken the seed of the idea and sowed it in a story set in 2016, not even 2015. There are three levels in the film. There is a storyteller, there’s the story and there’s an echo of the story in today’s world. The three things are connected by an umbilical chord. It’s like somebody narrates you Romeo and Juliet and how it affects your life today.

Gulzar’s name appears before anyone else’s in the teaser. Do you share screenwriting credits with him?

It is very clear that the film happened only because of my huge, huge admiration for Gulzar. He is a writer. He is not just a lyricist. His work has always moved me and he is such a romantic himself. There is so much fulfilment as well as emptiness in his life and I identify with that. He gave me a full dialogue draft which was flawless; you can’t move a word here and there. I made it completely into a shooting draft. As a filmmaker I have to make it my own, otherwise I’ll not be able to express it in cinema. It’s difficult to say who wrote the screenplay. The sharing credits really don’t matter.

Mirzya is also your first attempt at a musical.

I have always wanted to do a musical. The idea of a musical is that it’s narrated in music. There is a narrator’s voice. You don’t see him. And people don’t sing, but they express music through something we have named the Indian ballet. It’s a new form we have created. It is too Indian to give it any other name. In terms of expression it’s closest to a ballet, where the performers are in anguish.

You speak of Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Krzysztof Kieœlowski as your influences. I’m interested how, with your world cinema sensibilities, you use songs in your narrative.

Like any lower-middle class boy at the time, I grew up listening to the radio. We didn’t have a TV, I didn’t have pocket money, and ‘antaakshari’ was a game you could play without spending money. We slept on the terrace looking at the stars and singing songs. There was no Starbucks and PS4 and because there was nothing else, we grew up on film music. But I have grown up listening to them, not ‘seeing’ them. So, I could never digest the song-and-dance routine and lip syncing.

We experimented with that format in RDB, where people wouldn’t dance unless it’s a baisakhi ka bhangra. In Delhi 6 too, Masakkali was about a girl on the terrace in love and the stupid things she does with a pigeon on her head. There has to be logic somewhere.

You’ve produced such fantastic albums with A.R. Rahman and Prasoon Joshi in Rang De Basanti and Delhi-6. In Mirzya, you are working with Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Gulzar. What can songs do to cinema?

Half the time they screw it up. Songs are a double-edged sword. They can completely destroy it [the film]. But if they are used correctly, then they can elevate the moment to a different zone altogether. They express an abstractness that your story can’t. If I am having a conversation with world cinema-directors, I’d say I’d love to share songs with them as a tool of cinema — that as a proud Indian I have this additional thing that I can use to enhance my stories.

You are a fairly political filmmaker. In the current socio-political environment, when censorship and intolerance are being debated, do you feel threatened as an artist?

I think censorship should be abolished. We can certify films, but we can’t censor. Instead, the Censor Board office building can be used for something more constructive, like an old-age home, a crèche or even a nightclub.

As for intolerance, it has been so overused that we have lost perspective on it. From a concerned citizen trying to question, it has become politicised and lost its charm. Even politicisation is fine, but it’s happening in a polarised fashion. I feel people have been intolerant about each other for ages — there are tribes, mobs, religions and castes fighting with each other.

But for the first time in my life, I’m seeing individuals being targeted. Someone speaks his mind and a group of people find out his time of morning walk and knock him off. The death of the three rationalist writers is shameful. That way, the writers of India can either write what they strongly feel or go for morning walks.

Watch the teaser here:


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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 5:32:25 AM |

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