Filmmaker Aanand L Rai has two major strengths. He is a compulsive storyteller. Check out Raanjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu as well as Tanu Weds Manu: Returns and you will recall coming back hooked by his narratives. His second strength is the way he conducts himself with the media. Perfectly open to listening to what the fourth estate has to say, he lets you believe that what you say really matters. Oddly enough, there are such few people out there who listen, that when you meet a successful man who does you kind of take to him.
When I meet him at his Andheri office, Aanand settles in front of me comfortably, striking the crossed-legged yoga pose and insists we both sip on ginger chai before I switch on my dictaphone. His current obsessions are his December 21 release Zero, which is the talk of B-Town and its hero, Shah Rukh Khan, whom he fondly calls Khan saab. The award-winning filmmaker gets candid about finding new friends in Anushka Sharma as well as Katrina Kaif and why he feels each film is his last. Excerpts…
Technology is gaining so much importance in our movies. VFX has a huge role to play in Zero as well. How important is it to marry content with technology?
We’re now an aware lot of filmmakers in Indian cinema. We are using technology to tell stories and to enhance them. However, we are not compromising on the actual storytelling bit. Whether it is 2.0, Zero, Brahmastra, or any of the other films that are being mounted on huge scales, one thing is for sure, we haven’t forgotten to narrate a good tale. Whether you like it or not, it all boils down to ‘What story are you telling?’ And since the last five years, we’re using technology to do so. Before that, we wanted to experience it, woh ek phase tha, jo hamare yahaan bhi aaya. Now we’re writing plots where technical know-how is necessary.
How do you react to observations that say, ‘Today, Aanand L Rai has become a brand.’ Is it flattering?
It’s flattering only for a little while. After that, you start to feel immense pressure. It never gives you the ease that ‘Chalo yaar, aap ek brand ho’.When I was a nobody, tab aisa nahin lagta tha. However, I can sense that there is a certain kind of responsibility. I’ve a feeling that right now, I can enjoy this phase; when people are talking about my films like someone else is making a small-town progressive film or an Aanand L Rai-kind of a film. But trust me, I’m seeing it as a red alert that, maybe, I’ll become predictable in the next couple of years.
It’s actually calling for a change, it’s telling me to expand my storytelling. Jitni khushi se yeh baat aaj boli jaa rahi hai, tab nahin boli jaayegi with that kind of excitement. So, when you say this, it alerts me.
Going by Zero’s trailer, one feels that you’ve started moving away from your earlier movies. It’s a combination of many factors — casting a superstar, using technology without forgetting your own brand of storytelling...
After Tanu Weds Manu Returns (TWMR), people started saying that ‘Yeh toh Aanand achha kar leta hai... take him to a small-town and the lanes of Benaras, Haryana or Kanpur, etc, and he comes out with these tales beautifully.’ One way was to see that I could do this. The other way was, ‘Is this all about me? Can I expand in my storytelling?’ I’m not saying just for the sake that I know I can do this. Zero is an extension of where I belong. For me, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy are filmmakers. Main badi mushkil se apne aap ko director maanta hoon. These are small steps in the journey from a director to a filmmaker, from TWM to Raanjhanaa, TWMR and now Zero. In my forthcoming film, maine kuchh halka sa orbit chhodte hue kiya hai. I’m taking a small flight, ek confidence dikhake. A filmmaker has to do that, otherwise you will say that you know what I’m going to write in my next scene. It’s a scary situation, when people can read your storytelling, ki humein pata hain yeh yahi karega. I’m not doing this to prove that I can do this also, yeh woh overconfidence nahin hai. I’m learning from my films and moving ahead. It’s from the same book, but a new chapter.
While you change chapters, you have one constant, your writer, Himanshu Sharma. How do you challenge each other?
We started together, he was assisting me and he discovered the writer in himself. Humne struggle ek saath kiya, we know our weaknesses so well that we complement each other. We don’t function as two individuals, he has his identity, I have mine, but together, we become one different identity. We’re mentally secure, there’s no problem that I think like this and he thinks like that. Somewhere that bond is reflected in our films.
Also, a superstar is on board. There are so many dimensions to Shah Rukh Khan, but having seen the trailer, one notices a new spark in him, too. And it seems he has enjoyed doing this film.
I’ve known him through his movies. Over the last 25 years, we’ve seen him as a big star. But strangely, after meeting him I’ve realised there’s a certain simplicity hidden in him. I can read that man. He allows himself in front of you ki yahi hoon main. When we went on floors, I was yet to meet the superstar who we’re so used to seeing. I got a great friend, guide, philosopher and a fantastic student who is ever ready to learn, despite being so experienced and knowledgeable. One doesn’t expect that from a star, but yahi hua. That also helped make the film. As a person, I can only direct a movie if I know someone very well. You can see it as my strong point or a weakness. If I’m not in love, I won’t be able to work. Technique, craft hoga, I’m not aware about that. What I’m aware of is that human connect. If that happens, then I can understand SRK and everything else. If that doesn’t happen, then I’m very mediocre. I’m fortunate that I’m able to find the connect and that’s why I have survived. Main issi ko apni filmmaking maanta hoon. My films are all about my connect with people.
Even though you’ve discussed so many aspects of SRK, you always feel he’s the kind of person who has something more to him…
You’ve known him for quite some time. I met him about three-four years ago. We talk for hours. I enjoy talking to him, he’s very witty. Mujhe aisa lagta hai ki he’s misunderstood at times because of his sharp humour. In recent times, it seems his wit is not taken the way it was taken earlier. For me, these two-three years with him have been a great learning experience. Knowing such a legendary man is a great feeling. He is such an intelligent guy, you can talk to him about anything. He knows what he is doing. The best part is (I’m not talking about the actor but about the person) that he understands when he’s touching excellence. He knows exactly that this is mediocre, this is average. He is aware of everything. The conversations with him are great, sometimes you feel that itni baat samajh rahe ho, but he hasn’t applied them for some reason or the other. There are so many things you want to know and understand about him.
Going by the expectations, we will get to see something novel — technology and SRK in a new avatar in an Aanand L Rai kind of a film..
You have seen a lot of directors, actors, films.. toh koi bhi technique dekhke nahin jaata. You go for the story.
One feels afraid of a film when there’s nothing to market it. At that time they talk about budget and technology, etc.
How does it matter if Zero is made on a budget of Rs 20 cr or Rs 200 cr, if the audience, to whom I’m telling the story, can’t feel it! If we can talk about the character, the world where he belongs, how does it matter whether the movie is made in X or Y budget? It is irrelevant. Someone might say this is a `1,000-cr film, but if I’m not feeling it, why will I watch it? Audience ko farak nahin padta. The main question is are you entertaining them or not? It’s as simple as that.
I remember Brian Lara (former captain of the West Indies cricket team) giving his retirement speech, just after his last match. In his concluding line, he asked, ‘Did I entertain you?’ It didn’t matter how many centuries or runs he scored, that’s on record. But what matters is entertaining your audience.
Do you ever ask yourself that at the end of every film?
Yes, I do, always. I may not get to see my audiences, but I can sense that they are there. I make my films only for them.
At some places in the trailer, SRK’s dialogue seems as if it’s Aanand L Rai talking...
To be honest, in fact, it is more of Himanshu than me. Besides, Himanshu and I are so much together, it reflects on our actors. We’ve had a great journey and enjoyed working together. It’s a difficult story, more than the technique. If anyone says ‘Kyun difficult hoga’, unke dimaag mein technical hota hai, mere dimaag mein emotional hota hai. This film’s story is in a commercial space, it’s about incompleteness. The male protagonist is vertically challenged, the female leads are incomplete one way or the other. For me, it’s a tough film, but I’m so excited and I’m really trusting my audience.
Tell us about your experience of working with Katrina Kaif and Anushka Sharma.
Brilliant. Maybe I’m working with them at my right time, maybe I had my own journey to reach to these big stars. Mujhe unmein dost hi milein. Whether it’s Katrina or Anushka, I don’t have to think twice before talking to them. I’m very comfortable with both of them and vice versa. I must be able to express myself from the core of my heart and I can do that with them. As a director that is required, and I feel, they gave their best for me. Both of them have delivered brilliant performances.
It’s too soon to ask, but you may be having a pitara of stories to make into movies.
Not at all. Every time, I feel that I don’t have more than two stories within myself. In fact, just the other day I was telling Khan saab (SRK) that each time I make a film, I feel as if it’s my last. When I’ve finished it, I’m so empty that it’s a good state to be in. It seems I’ve given it my everything and that’s a great feeling. I felt that during Raanjhanaa and TWMR. I didn’t know what I had in me next. It’s the same with Zero. After this, I can relax. But there is a story, which was there in me earlier. It will resurface again after Zero releases.