When Sanju came to Melbourne

Rajkumar Hirani talks about his latest blockbuster, slams ‘whitewashing’ rumours and why we need more film festivals

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He is known as Indian cinema’s most bankable director, a master craftsman and a creator with an intuitive Midas touch. It’s no wonder Rajkumar Hirani (of 3 Idiots, PK, Munnabhai MBBS and Sanju fame) won the IFFM 2018 Best Film and Best Director award. The filmmaker, and his trusted co-writer Abhijat Joshi talk to Indian Link about their latest offering, Sanju, the controversial buzz surrounding it and of course, its reception at the festival.

On Sanju and ‘whitewashing’

Sanju has raised all sorts of interesting questions about the character and the interpretation. Have you achieved what you set out to achieve?
RH: When every film ends you always feel you could have done more. In hindsight, you wish you had done something differently, but finally it boils down to making choices due to limitations of time or restriction of budget.
In Sanju, we talked about media using the guise of ‘our sources’ or sutron ke anusaar to get away with allegations and character assassinations. We focussed on the dreaded question mark that almost always goes unnoticed.

But the media is mum about the whole thing…
RH: It is hard when you turn the mirror around and they have to face it. I won’t make a sweeping statement and say everyone in the media is unethical, but the sad reality is that negativity sells and that’s what some people focus on to create news. After the release of Sanju the word ‘whitewash’ was thrown out there by some in media and it stuck. We have been accused of whitewashing Sanjay Dutt’s story. But we clearly showed that he did drugs, he confessed to sleeping with over 300 women, he cheated with his best friend’s girlfriend and that he went to jail. So where is the whitewashing?

But people loved the film. And you even managed to reach out the visually challenged.
RH: Saksham, the organisation behind this, had trialled something similar with my film PK but for DVD. This time, they managed to make it possible for the visually challenged to enjoy the movie in cinema halls. You download an app and people can link this app to the audio of the cinema hall and use their headphones. Plus, they get a visual description of the scenes. Like any new initiative, it will grow with time.

On IFFM

Do you think the Victorian government’s $3mn fund for Indian cinema will attract more artists?
RH: Melbourne is a fantastic city to shoot. It has a distinct character. And apart from the CBD there are some wonderful locations, like the Great Ocean Road. But there’s no denying that it’s expensive. I tried shooting here once but it was too costly an affair. The fund is a great initiative, but it’s not clear as to how they are going to distribute the $3 million.
Usually, we get tax rebates when we shoot abroad. They offer free locations to shoot or reduce the taxes by 25% because the country attracts tourism. It’s a win-win.

Film festivals: what’s your opinion?
RH: The more, the merrier! Film festivals are a great platform for films that aren’t commercially appealing or don’t boast of big stars. They are a great way to reach film lovers. I find that if movies get a good review in a festival, they get a better release.
What Mitu Bhowmick Lange does with Indian Film Festival in Melbourne is amazing. It may be easy to curate films, but getting guests from India is tough. I know how much effort she must be putting in to convince people to come here. We were here a few years ago when it was a much smaller event, now it is getting bigger and better.

Sanju won the Best Film and Rajkumar Hirani won the Best Director Award at IFFM 2018

Are there any Australian films or artists that interest you?
AJ: I am a big fan of Peter Weir and really love his film Picnic at Hanging Rock. I am familiar with the work of iconic actors like Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett but I need to expand my knowledge of Australian cinema and I have requested a list of must-watch films.

On contemporary Indian cinema

What will it take for Bollywood to make a sizeable impact on the western world?
RH: I don’t think we should worry about that. People who are exposed to a certain milieu and culture make cinema. It’s not necessary that it will travel across the world and honestly, there is no harm if it doesn’t.
We make films for India. Americans, for example, have little exposure to India whereas we in India have more exposure to America. Generally, they tend to see the poverty and so movies like Slumdog Millionaire work. Maybe they are not yet able to associate with us.

AJ: I don’t think it’s the quality of our films that is keeping the western audience from taking to Indian films; it is more a lack of awareness. For example, if we don’t know much about Australian films it’s not because they aren’t great, it’s just that we do not know about them. For our films to do well outside of India we need to make more noise.

Actors like Vicky Kaushal are becoming poster boys for a new wave of Indian cinema. What do you think?
RH: It’s hardly surprising. In fact, it reflects the intelligence of the audience. Back in the 80s, there was one formula and multiple films with the same formula. Sure there were great films too, like Ardh Satya, but they had limited audiences.

Over the years, filmmakers have become bolder in their experiments, and people
have become accepting of different genres of films. They like watching
commercial cinema but they are also interested in contemporary movies or
films that are based on out-of-the-box subjects.

With giants like Amazon and Netflix entering the entertainment fray, how do you ensure that your movies are relevant?
AJ: All you need to do is maintain high standards and entertain audiences. It is not the size of the screen that matters. Hollywood, in my opinion, made a terrible mistake where in an attempt to counter the appeal of television, they resorted to huge spectacles and forgot that the audience is not necessarily looking for a spectacle as much as it is looking for a great engaging experience. If a movie can make every second worthwhile for the person who is providing it undivided attention, it will remain relevant.

On the personal front

What is your stabilising influence in this rapidly changing world?
RH: Not being judgemental or cynical helps as our view of the world is completely made up of what we fill in our heads. The more we judge and are cynical the more these stories will bother us so it is important to remain sane.

AJ: What sustains us is our work. At this stage we are enjoying what we are doing. We are blessed to be in a field where our work is like play. If someone asked me what I would do for fun I would probably say I would write.

Do you ever fear disappointing your fans, critics or even yourself?
RH: Yes. Whenever you make a film you want it to be accepted, you want your work to be loved, you want people to find resonance. With that expectation comes fear, but it is a good fear as it makes you strive for more.

Your audience is so varied, and your canvas so huge, how do you chose your colours to create a ‘connect’ with the audience?
AJ: We connect to ourselves first. The only criteria we have ever followed is to write something we would enjoy watching. So we focus on what makes us laugh, cry and think.