His upcoming film Baadshaho, his style of filmmaking, his telepathic equation with Ajay Devgn… Director Milan Luthria discusses it all with Shweta Kulkarni in a candid conversation
Baadshaho is looking exciting and the story behind the film is equally intriguing. The script first came to you when you were making your first film, Kachche Dhaage. What made you make the film after 15 long years?
ML: I think everything in life has its time. It’s just that things come in front of you at the time when it should be made. Most filmmakers have some ideas on the back burner. So when I was contemplating what to make, Ajay and I talked about it. The first time we heard it, it excited us a lot, but then we got busy, we made other films.
And when we recently decided to work on another project together, I said to him, ‘Do you remember that story?’ And he was, like, ‘Yes, let’s do that.’ But the thing is I always wanted to make this film larger than life; I wanted to have that kind of action, that kind of setting, that kind of star cast, so we sat down to complete the idea. Over the years, I have been making notes all along about this film, and Rajat (Arora) and I got together and I told him what I had in mind and he added to it. Gradually, as the characters came to light, we went about casting for them. We followed the demands of the characters. So even though Ajay was always going to be a part of it, we knew what part he would play only after the script was finalised.
Baadshaho is set in 1975, during the Emergency. What kind of research went into making this film?
So there were two parts. One was to get the period right in terms of costumes, hairstyle, props, vehicles, locations etc., which took a while as I wanted this film to be visually different from Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai… The presentation of this film is very different. The other part of the research pertained to the Emergency, where there is not a lot of material to be found. There is political material, but ours is not a political film.
At that time, there was so much censorship that we didn’t come across many articles. If you search for almost anything else, you will find 4,000 pages on Google but there was just a handful for this period. So we went there, we spoke to people who had lived through this time, we got to know what was happening in those days and what the mood in the country was like then. We found some very, very interesting things and we put all that together in our screenplay and made our own story out of it.
You have worked with a multi-star cast earlier too, but, this time, you are working with six main actors. As a director, what are the challenges when you work with a huge ensemble cast?
It’s exhilarating and equally exhausting. It’s exhilarating because when you look around and see so many actors on the sets and hanging around in the hotel after pack-up, it’s nice to see them bonding. And it’s wonderful that so many people have showed their faith in you. In an ensemble cast, everybody is a little tentative about how much screen space they have and what their impact will be but eventually they trust only the director. That’s a good feeling and it comes with a lot of responsibility because, at the end of the day, you don’t want any of your actors to feel short-changed. Fortunately, none of the actors felt that way. They have come back and said, ‘We didn’t feel short-changed at all.’ I always wanted to maintain that. As a filmmaker, people should not have anything to say to me except ‘thank you’ and that they enjoyed doing this film.
Then there are challenges like instead of two narrations, you have to do six; instead of two look-tests, you have to do six look-tests; then you have to design costumes for six characters. Then, for each one, you have to write different lines. For each one, you have to create a personality and make sure they are looking their best. I am a bit of a perfectionist, so I take a lot of time to decide on the look of the actors. First, it took time to meet them and get feedback from each actor after the narration. Then we moved into the look and costumes, and hair and makeup, and then we moved into what kind of lines each one would have.
As a filmmaker, you have to get all this right for all your characters. You have to know what your actors’ strengths are and get the best out of them. And here there was a mix of a couple of guys who I had worked with before and four actors who I had not worked with before. So each one has to be handled differently; each one had to be directed differently; each one had to be reassured differently. Then, of course, there is the challenge of getting their dates together. But, by and large, we had a very good time. Everyone got along with each other and there were no fights or quarrels. That was what I was worried about. So it was a very patient journey for me and yet very enriching.
Dialogue is your forte; all your films are known for whistle-worthy dialogue. We see a glimpse of it in this film’s trailer too. How tedious is it to get the one-liners right every time?
I think Rajat and I share the same attitude as far as the dialogue is concerned. But, of course, he works harder on it than I do because he is the writer. Sometimes we do a little juggal bandi, where he throws me a line and I throw in the second line back at him. So a lot of the work is his but it is a shared attitude, shared equation.
We have to make sure it sounds right and that we don’t overdo it. I think dialogue is very much a part of the Indian film-watching culture, right from the time of Mughal-E-Azam or Don or Sholay… or any other great film, and there are lines that you remember. So it’s nice being able to deliver a good dialogue. It’s nice to see the back of an autorickshaw where it says, ‘Duaon mein yaad rakhna’ or stuff like that. It is a very gratifying feeling.
How would you define your working style?
I like to pack my films with content and a lot of layers. Like my boss Mahesh Bhatt says, ‘You make four films in one film. How do you do it?’ I like that energy, I don’t go with any one tone. There is action, there is drama, there is humour, there is romance, there is music, and there is suspense. And I think each filmmaker finds his individual style. Some people like to keep their films light, so people like to keep them full of entertainment. It is your personal taste. I get very bored if I see one scene is playing for 20 minutes. I like different, different things to happen in my movie, I like to keep the viewer engaged. I believe in the paisa vasool concept. You should get more than you pay for. Also, today, when I watch films in cinemas, if there is the slightest lag in the story, the audience starts looking at their phones, they go online, they check their mail or start messaging. So you have to keep them completely engrossed. Also, the length of the film matters, given that attention spans are decreasing. Our film is not more than 2 hours, 15 minutes long. I keep the pace of my films fast.
Ajay Devgn is a dear friend of yours, and while it is always comfortable to work with a friend, is there any awkwardness when you have to tell him something as a director, something as simple as the fact that you are not happy with the shot?
You are absolutely right. There are many levels of comfort and there are moments when it becomes tricky because there is also an actor-director relationship. The best thing about my and Ajay’s equation is that if there is something I need to say to him that I am a little uncomfortable saying, he always senses it. There was this one shot we took and I was not very happy with it. It was a simple, very small shot, and I said, okay, and I took a moment and went towards the monitor and said, let me just check again.
Within a minute, he was at my side. He never comes to check the video but he came and said, ‘You are not really comfortable with it, are you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I was wondering…’ He was, like, ‘Let’s do it again.’
At times like this, you are really grateful for that equation. It could be the other way around as well, like he might not want to say something to me as a director because of our friendship but then even I sense it and go up to him and ask ‘what is it, what’s bugging you?’ So we have that kind of equation.
These equations happen over time, it is there just the way it is from day one. You have that kind of rapport and mutual respect at the same time, or a kind of telepathy. Like, very often, I set up a shot before he comes and I think, this is what Ajay will do in this scene. When he arrives half an hour later, I ask him what will he do in the scene and he ends up doing exactly what I thought he would do. It’s quite cool.
You have often mentioned that figures don’t matter to you, but in times when every second person on Twitter is a trade ‘pundit’, how difficult is it to ignore them?
It would be wrong to say it doesn’t affect me because films cost money and they must make money, and hopefully a lot of money. I have been misquoted in a couple of places, where I am quoted as saying that figures don’t matter. That’s not right, that’s not what I had said. What I had said was when a filmmaker is working on his film, he should be thinking only about the product. In fact, that will help him/her get better numbers, but if he goes and reaches for devices which are only used to bring in those numbers, then sometimes it can go wrong.
It is an inside-out process. If you feel it deeply, the audience will feel it deeply, and they will respond with more numbers. But if you think of the numbers while making a film, it is going to distract you. So I would rather not look at that and focus on my product while making the film. That’s what I meant when I had said that.
There are a few ideas, there are some very interesting offers but this film has taken so much of my attention since January this year. After the film releases, I will take a bit of a break and look at the material I have.