In 2004, Vishal Bhardwaj, then a novice filmmaker and music composer, got a call.
On the line was Aamir Khan, who was so overwhelmed after watching the director’s first film, Maqbool, that he wanted to know why Bhardwaj hadn’t considered him for the part played by Irrfan Khan in the Shakespearean tragedy.
In an industry driven by stars and your proximity to them, that was the moment when Bhardwaj realised that he had arrived.
“After Maqbool, everyone called, everyone answered,” the filmmaker told HuffPost India over steaming cups of tea at the Goa Marriott.
Since Maqbool, Bhardwaj has directed nine more films and produced five. Most of them have got glowing reviews from critics. And then there are a few that didn’t score with critics or the box-office.
In this interview, the filmmaker, who was recently hired by Netflix to become the show-runner for its adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, speaks about his work, the clampdown on artistic freedom, and how he managed to ‘con’ studios into giving him money.
Were you fully satisfied with Pataakha, a film you made on a small budget, after another of your projects fell apart...
I am very happy with the way that the film was made. But of course, I am not happy with the way it was received. It didn’t do well at the box-office.
When you are on a journey with a movie, do you keep the end result in mind?
No, then I won’t make the kind of films I make if I keep the numbers in mind. I wouldn’t have taken two new girls or a Sunil Grover for that matter. For me, the process is more important, but when it comes to the release, I start looking at other aspects too.
Do you get obsessively worried about the film’s commercial prospects?
Not worrying, I start expecting. That’s just the human mind. You don’t get satisfaction with whatever box office it gets because films are expensive to make and you are never satisfied with what you get. The mind always wants more.
Right, while I get our obsession with numbers, 10 years down the line, nobody is going to remember how much money a movie made. It will be remembered purely for its artistic merit...
Exactly. No one will remember. 7 Khoon Maaf is a classic movie for a lot of people. Nobody remembers the numbers. The film’s quality is the only thing that stays alive.
Which film has been very close to your heart but the response didn’t match up?
I’d say Rangoon. There I was trying to do something else, I was trying to match the aesthetics of a musical with a real world. Then the VFX. It was out of my hand for that film. We as an industry cannot make a film as ambitious in scale as a Rangoon. The actors that were in the film (Shahid Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Saif Ali Khan) they didn’t gel well with each other. It all got quite badly messed up in the end.
To employ a cliché, they say success doesn’t teach you anything but failures teach you a lot. What were the lessons learnt during Rangoon?
Honestly, by the end, it got way too taxing. For instance, I was given Rs 35 crore to make a film that, outside, would easily require Rs 350 crore to make. The film really needed a lot more money. It was tiring. For me, it came to a point where I felt I had physically exerted myself and it was not worth it. I was frustrated because I felt like for the film of that scale, I should’ve had, yes, more money, and cooperative actors.
You’ve worked with Shahid before and one heard about your clashes with Kangana Ranaut during the filming. Do you think that negativity seeped into the final output?
It must have. I don’t have a perspective on that. I haven’t watched Rangoon since it released. Recently, I was in Chicago where they were playing Haider and this was the rare time when I had an opinion about my work—I felt that Haider was an accomplishment. Then I’d say it’s Maqbool and then Omkara.
Are you too harsh on yourself when you’re not able to direct with the one vision that you have?
At times I don’t even realise it. You will, but I won’t. The only time I compromised was in Rangoon for the VFX and the energy and synergy on the set.
Now that you have spent so much time in the industry, do you think you should use cinema to accomplish something more? Today, what’s your motivation to tell stories?
I’m looking for the excitement to go on set and for a subject material. You know how much drilling you go through while making a film. The writing, the directing, the anxiety during the release. It’s a psychological as well as a physical torture. It gives you a different pleasure but it also gives you a low, it works in extremes. After making 15 films, directing 10 and having produced five, I am now very cautious about what to do. It has to be worth all the emotional toiling.
Looking back, which was that one moment when you knew you had arrived, so to speak?
It happened during Maqbool. I was overwhelmed by the way it was received.
There was a call. It was Aamir Khan. He called me and he said he wanted to discuss the film over a drink and that’s when I thought I made it big.
I still think that Aamir is one of the top stars who has a good vision. He knows what he is doing, he takes chances and he has a mastery in his work. When I saw Dangal, he brought a different kind of craft into it. If a Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah), Irrfan or Pankaj (Pankaj Kapoor) would have done it, they would’ve done it in the same way. I have not seen this craftsmanship in any other star.
So coming back to the drinks, we did go out for one. And there he asked me, did you ever think of me for Maqbool? I told him I couldn’t have asked for a better compliment.
The tide changed for me after Maqbool. Everybody called, everybody answered calls.
How do you look back at Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola?
Well... Look, originally it was Ajay Devgn who was supposed to play the part but he changed his mind ― he wanted to do Son of Sardaar so months before the shoot, we didn’t have an actor. I too, was clear that I didn’t want to wait so I told myself, whoever has their dates available and whoever’s name gets me money, I will cast him. That’s how Imran Khan came aboard. But I had apprehensions. I wasn’t sure if he could pull it off. Though we did a lot of workshops where he completely surrendered to me. So I cast him but I don’t know whether I did the right thing or wrong...
But while shooting it, did you have the conviction that people would get what you’re trying to do?
If there wasn’t conviction, I wouldn’t be able to finish it. Neither would have Fox given me the money to make it. It worked for some people but for a large part, the film was disappointing, I get that. It wasn’t an expensive film to make, it even ended up making some money.
In my head I was making a very simple film so I wasn’t worried about people getting it or not.
That can’t be true! You see the kind of ‘simple’ films we make...
I actually made a huge mistake 5-6 years back, I stopped watching Bollywood films altogether. I have just watched Dangal and Secret Superstar. So my judgement has gone off the rails. I saw some films later and then realised the kind of trash that works with the audience, how will they understand my film? It’s best to wear blinders and keep doing what you want to, follow your heart.
How do you ensure that you are able to make your point, retain your originality and your vision, while also making sure people are coming to theatres?
I keep trying. Experimenting with my music, the performances or taking stars and casting them in a totally different light.
Is that a strategy? Essentially getting stars and making them act.
Of course. Nai to paisa nai milega na (otherwise I won’t get the money to make the film). In this town, you’ve to master the con game. The stars are the bait to get them (studios) to bankroll the movie. If you don’t dangle the carrot, how are you going to get the money? For the money I needed to make Omkara the way I wanted to, I needed all the stars there are in it. Now that worked out rather well. But there are times when it doesn’t.
From Talvar to Haider, your films have a strong anti-establishment voice. Do you see your cinema as a means to register dissent?
My job is to hold a mirror to society. Every filmmaker is naked on screen and his films are indicative of his own politics. I’ve to be neutral on screen yet nudge my viewer in the right direction. In Haider, I have showed the absolute reality of that region. We still live in a democracy, right? So I should be able to say that. Otherwise the next generation will look at us and laugh at us, just the way we do with ’90s. In documentaries, they show everything but the powers that be aren’t afraid of the docus because they know they have a limited reach. See, Kashmir is a conflict zone and as a filmmaker, you need conflict to drive a plot. By now we should have made 10-15 films like Haider. Both sides have tragic human stories but we just haven’t made enough films that tell the story of Kashmir. The exodus of Kashmiri pandits is one of post-partition India’s biggest tragedies and yet, we don’t have enough films on the issue.
After Haider, you were, of course trolled for choosing to tell one side of the story. How do you react to the constant whataboutery?
This is my choice as a filmmaker. I am not depicting any lies. You can’t make a film on everything, right? If I am making a film about war with Pakistan they will ask me, arrey, but what about the war with China? How will Twitter understand nuance? They want you to be answerable about why you didn’t do something that they think you should have done. If I didn’t speak before, does that mean I’ve lost the right to speak ever again?
Haider also critiqued institutional oppression by the State and questioned military overreach rather explicitly. It was released in 2014. Today, it feels like we’re not able to chronicle stories of the times we’re living in. As a creative individual, do you feel a sense of fear?
Of course that plays a part. The base of cinema in this country is strong. And that’s why it’s an easy target, irrespective of what the original issue is. Look at what happened with Padmaavat. Today, it’s happening even in areas other than films. Earlier, there was an ideological battle, today, you are targeted personally. Dissent in itself has become synonymous with anti-national. Either you are with us, or against us.
With the kind of systematic hate that’s organised online for anyone who questions the government or its policies, it increasingly feels like a country that we don’t recognise anymore.
It’s because of the state support. There’s lawlessness. Earlier, we could say anything about anyone and the previous government just did not care. We could even make fun of the Prime Minister. It never got personal. But today, it’s a different world altogether.