Being one of the most successful filmmakers in the history of Indian cinema didn’t stop Vidhu Vinod Chopra from stepping out of his comfort zone and attempting his first Hollywood movie.
The big-thinking mogul has produced, directed and written the gritty thriller Broken Horses, set on the American-Mexican border about brotherhood, loyalty and futility of violence.
In cinemas on Friday (10) and partly inspired by Chopra’s Bollywood classic Parinda, Broken Horses has received praise from top names including record-breaking director James Cameron.
Eastern Eye caught up with Chopra to discuss his debut Hollywood film, inspirations, following your passions, filmmaking and more.
Was the plan always to direct a Hollywood film?
(Smiles) It was a dream, Asjad. It wasn’t a plan because a plan is something you can possibly do. A dream is something you just hope one day comes true. This dream only started when I got nominated for an Oscar in 1979. Until then there was no way I could even dream.
I come from a small town in Kashmir and studied English only when I was 16 at a small school. How could I dream of writing, directing and producing a Hollywood film? I couldn’t. All I dreamed at that time was making one Hindi film before I die. Then I got nominated for an Oscar very early in my life, dreamed and thought maybe one day I could make a Hollywood film.
You are being modest because you were one of the first people to introduce a more Western contemporary method of filmmaking into India. What helped you decide to make Broken Horses?
I think two things helped me. Eklavya, the movie I made with Amitabh Bachchan, was seen by a lot of people in the US. The LA Times called it as ‘the lost work of David Lean’ I think. A lot of people saw that movie and wanted to work with me on Broken Horses. That really helped.
Also the fact that my script for Broken Horses was highly appreciated by people like James Cameron and many others who read it also helped.
Where did you get the idea for the film?
It is actually partly inspired by my film Parinda. It all started when (writer) Abhijat Joshi and I were travelling in the US. We had just seen The Departed by Martin Scorsese, which was a remake. We were laughing and I said I liked the original better, but everyone was raving about this one. That is when Abhijat said: ‘Why don’t we do Parinda?’ and I said: ‘That’s a good idea’.
I have never made plans, but lived life to its fullest. Whatever has come my way, whether it was producing, were all milestones. This milestone of Broken Horses was reached simply by us travelling on the train and saying, you know what, let’s do this.
What was the biggest challenge of getting Broken Horses made?
The biggest challenge was that in the US they have this very definite view of Bollywood filmmakers. They look at us as over-the-top, singing song kind-of-guys.
There were some prejudices, I think, when everyone got to know that I was a successful Bollywood director. That was huge, but what happened when people read the script, then met me and saw my work, one by one all those prejudices broke down. For me, that was the biggest achievement.
You won over the cast and crew too?
By the time we finished my movie, my crew gifted me a book and things like that, and wrote (kind) letters, which was so moving. Our crew are known names, including Oscar nominees. My cameraman Tom Stern just shot American Sniper.
Vincent D’Onofrio, the actor, called me his ‘brother from the East’. (Laughs) I also called him my ‘brother from the East’ because he’s from the east side of New York. So we have this joke that we are both brothers from the East.
You’ve assembled a talented cast and Vincent is one of my favourite actors. How important was it for you to get such technically great actors?
It was very important. There was a time I was about to work with Nicolas Cage, but I preferred Vincent to him because he is an actor with far greater gravitas. The critical thing was I wasn’t doing a movie with stars to just go get the box office. For me it was far more important (to get technically good actors).
This was the first (Hollywood) film ever written, produced and directed by an Indian filmmaker. This was about us. This was about saying: ‘This is what we can do’. Therefore I made no compromises whatsoever in costing this film.
What can you tell us about the story?
It is primarily a story about brothers. Like I said before, it’s a take off on my film Parinda, which is about brothers. Someone put it really nicely when they described it as ‘Godfather in the desert’. It’s almost like a Western Godfather. It’s a mafia family movie, but it’s also one that deals with the border war.
James Cameron loves the movie. Were you nervous about showing it to him?
He saw the film when I was still working on the editing. It was very strange what happened. It was in a big cinema and he was in the front row for some reason. I was sat on the last row and while the movie was going on I was making my editing notes. I completely forgot he was sitting and watching the movie.
When the film finished, in the darkness, I heard clapping from one man. I said: ‘Who is this?’ and it was Jim. He was actually one of the first to see the film. He was clapping, came over and gave me a hug and said how much he enjoyed it.
I was so touched that he sent me a video and statement about how much he liked it. That tells me he must really like this film.
I don’t think Indian filmmakers are brave enough to attempt Hollywood films. Are you hoping they follow in your footsteps?
Each to his own. Like I said, this was just a dream. I followed my dream and passion. In these last three years I could have made four Indian films and made tons of money, but I chose to make this smaller film where I clearly will not make as much money as I made in, say, PK.
I put four years of my life in the movie because that is what I wanted to do. I can’t say I am doing this and it will set a trend, because you know money operates most of the world. (Laughs) This, for me, was a decision only a mad man can take.
So would you describe yourself as a mad man?
Well the decision I have taken in making Broken Horses and not making, say a sequel to 3 Idiots is crazy, isn’t it? Just think how absurd it would be if a hugely successful Hollywood filmmaker like Steven Spielberg decided to come to India and make a musical Bollywood movie with Shah Rukh Khan dancing. So it’s kind of like that. It would be viewed as: ‘Why is he doing this?’.
You are one of the great filmmakers. What advice would you give to a young director?
Just be honest to yourself. It’s very simple.
You have a golden touch when it comes to selecting films you direct or produce. Do you have a set method for success?
Not really. I only do a film if I feel strongly about it. It’s as simple as that. My movies are as varied as 1942: A Love Story to Broken Horses. They are very different. If I feel strongly about a movie, I will do it. I’m not one of those who figures out: ‘This will be a hit, let’s do it’.
A lot of your films have strong messages. What is the message in Broken Horses?
The message is to ‘love your family’. I think family comes first, that is a very important message that I would like to give the whole world. Our main support and big thing is family. Family should come first, so that is what I am saying in the film basically. Within the action movie genre, it is a family movie.
Will you be directing another Hollywood movie after this?
It seems so. I have offers. People who have seen Broken Horses have told me they want to work with me, including some studios. Let’s see if I feel passionately about a subject I would do. If I don’t, I won’t. Luckily I don’t have to take a job to support my family now, so it’s a great feeling to be able to choose.
What inspires you?
Cinema, by and large. When I see a good film, I am really inspired. I just want to go out and make an even better film. Life itself inspires me. One thing we forget while we are alive is that life is so short and we are going to be dead pretty soon.
The knowledge that I have limited time on planet earth is also what inspires me to go on and do things that make me happy. And to take on challenges and not take the easy way out.
Finally, why should we watch Broken Horses?
You will feel really proud as people from south Asia. Most people would be very proud that we have made a movie that is as good as the best they make in the West. So it’s a nice feeling. It also tells you that if you follow your passion, you can go anywhere and do anything.
Broken Horses is in cinemas now.