HE MAY be one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in India, but Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra doesn’t like to rush.
He has only delivered four films as a director since his 2001 debut Aks. That is why there is genuine excitement about the award-winning writer/director’s next film Mirzya despite it having newcomers in the lead roles. The man behind multi-award-winning blockbusters Rang De Basanti and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has put a contemporary spin on the age-old romantic fable of star-crossed lovers, Mirza Sahiban. It marks the Bollywood debut of Anil Kapoor’s son, Harshvardhan Kapoor, and introduces leading lady Saiyami Kher.
Eastern Eye caught up with the softly-spoken writer/director to talk about Mirzya, his filmmaking, high expectations, the controversial Indian censor board and more.
You are one of India’s leading filmmakers, but why do you have such long gaps between your films?
I wish I could come out with a film every year. I try to explore new areas and new subjects, but want to write them myself. At least one year of it goes into the writing process. When you’re happy with the writing, then the process of casting and getting the funds organised commences. Hopefully I am learning and maybe in the future I will be faster. But essentially it is the writing process that takes time.
Mirzya is based on the love legend of Mirza Sahiban and this is the first time you are exploring a subject that has been done before. What drew you to it?
I saw the play during my college (university) days almost 30 years ago. It kind of stayed with me and made an indelible mark in my subconscious. I knew it was going to trouble me one day or the other and would want to come out! But there had to be some time to it. So Rang De Basanti, Delhi 6 and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag were kind of part of a trilogy where I was exploring connecting subjects. Once all that had been said, I didn’t want to repeat myself. I went for a long trek and all these things came out. So I just had to make it. Also the idea was also to reinvent yourself, which is always more challenging.
Is it fair to say this is the first contemporary adaptation of the Mirza Sahiban story because all the others were rooted in history?
Yes, that is correct. We tell the story in three parts. There is the storyteller, who are the gypsies of Rajasthan. Then there is the folk tale itself of Mirza Sahiban, which is set in an era that is timeless; neither in the past or future, it is in your imagination. And how the same folklore kind reverberates and echoes, and then lands in today’s time in Rajasthan, India.
Everybody wants to work with you; why did you opt for newcomers in this film instead of stars?
Believe me, I also want to work with all the big stars. The feeling is mutual. It was the requirement of the story when I read the screenplay again and again. I normally don’t jump into casting and let it come to me.
What do you mean?
Rather than me trying to approach the cast, not in person but as in the character, I let the characters come to me. I let the cast come and tell me that I will be the best person. Not in person, I am talking in terms of inside my head. And out here no known names excited me enough for this story.
That is not arrogance, but by excitement I mean I didn’t feel right. So it was the requirement of the story to go with new faces. It was exactly what I was feeling. I wanted to share that same feeling with the audience; to discover it in a very fresh way.
Did the newcomers in the cast have to go through quite intense auditions to land the lead roles in this film?
I was very lucky that I had them for almost a year. Before we started shooting there were extensive workshops. There were initial auditions. Then there was more than one shortlisted for the roles. In fact, there are four newcomers in the film. There is Saiyami Kher, Harshvardhan Kapoor and Anuj Choudhry from Delhi, who is a wonderful actor. Then there is Anjali Patil, who is a relative newcomer – she’s not really known and has done Marathi cinema. Again, an absolutely wonderful actress.
So you had to narrow it down?
At one point for the parts of the four we had seven of them shortlisted and they all worked together. Then obviously three had to leave the film because they could only be four. That was a good six months long process, then after that there was another
six months getting down to the specifics.
Does the fact audiences and media alike have super-high expectations of you add pressure?
I am not that kind of a person, you know. I think we build this whole balloon of pressure in our own head and then one day it goes pop. And then it kills you. I have never let that kind of thought process affect my work. Honestly at times the sleepless nights that I
get is about my story, is about the performances, about how I am going to set the scene and how am I going to tell the story? Why am I making this film? Those pressures are much more and weigh a lot more on me. Then there is noise outside in the market. I feel if you follow your passion, then box office will follow.
You are one of the leading writer/directors, what is the secret of making a great film?
I don’t know the secret, but I can share that whenever I have had something to say, which was original, I always found a lot of ears listening. If you have a point of view and if you have your own way of saying things, people are normally forgiving about your mistakes.
Is there any one moment in Mirzya that you love the most?
I loved every day to be honest. It is not a corny answer, but you get up in the morning and then you go out onto the sets and you have to create something new. It is so wonderful. At the end of the day you have something, which was not there in the morning. You have actually created something new. So every day the idea of creation was so exciting.
There must be one part you loved?
For my own personal reasons it was my schedule in Ladakh. I love that place and go there annually, sometimes twice a year. So Mirzya gave me the reason to go back to Ladakh. I spent three months there. I worked with an international crew, worked with horses and we had some big action sequences in Ladakh at 18,000ft, which was amazing. So those moments are etched as an experience.
What is your opinion on filmmakers getting stifled by the censor board in India, especially in the wake of the Udta Punjab controversy?
I was appointed by the government, along with Shyam Benegal, Kamal Hasaan, Gautam Ghosh and Piyush Pandey. For the last five months we have been working on how to reform censors because they need to be reformed. We have not only given recommendations, but we have actually drafted a whole new censor act. It has been five months of gruelling day and night work. I am of a firm belief that there can’t be any scissors. You can’t just (randomly) suggest or make cuts in the film. All you can do is rate a film. The censor board should be a watchdog, which should protect the vulnerable of the nation, the older people, the youngsters etc. They should protect them from excessive violence, excessive sex and excessive drug abuse, but our job is not to tell you what
to do or not to do. That is the recommendation that we have given to the ministers.
Have they been receptive?
I must say the government has been very forthcoming. The fact that they choose us and none of us are yes-men (says a lot). They have chosen the right group and let us do our own thing. So we have done that. The fact is they want to change and want to reform. It just can’t be subjected to individual morality or of a religious group or some other group. That’s archaic and those days are gone.
Finally, why do you love cinema?
Well, nobody has ever asked me that before. Even I haven’t asked myself that. I think I can find myself there. Normally you get lost in this whole chaos of connectivity and the way that things are going on, but while watching a movie, especially in a dark theatre, I can really find myself there. I can go, reach out and touch something, which I didn’t know about myself.
Mirzya is released in cinemas on October 7