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“I am quite numb right now”

R Balki, producer, creative director and co-writer of the film Mission Mangal, talks to Padma Iyer about his role as creative director, VFX being his biggest bet here and balancing science with emotions

What makes Mission Mangal an R Balki film because it is very different from your earlier films, which were high on emotion and human relationships?

It is a very intimate and emotional film. Yes, it is set in a planetary space sector but it is not really that. It is a true story. It is an emotional film about people who go through life issues and still manage to tackle these scientific issues and achieve great things for the country. First of all, Mission Mangal is not my film. It is Jagan’s (Shakti) vision. It was his idea to do the film. What I did was take the idea and make it into a story that is watchable and not a documentary, so we fictionlised a lot of the events. Akshay Kumar was chosen as the main lead to run right through the whole film. The story was actually there, I just tried to bring my sensibilities to it.

You said it is an emotional film set in the space sector. But then how do you simplify the science jargon and make it audience friendly?

That is the challenge of writing the story. Jagan always had this picture of these five women, more like housewives who we wouldn’t believe were scientists. But then this is not a woman-empowerment film. It is a film of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, men or women. In ISRO, women don’t see themselves as women scientists; they are scientists. This whole thing about women empowerment bothers me because you are already thinking of them to be weaker. So I told Jagan that I don’t want to make it about women empowerment. I want to do it with a male lead and follow somewhere with the truth of what actually happened. A whole lot of people were involved in this, so it should be about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, rather than women or men. So that’s how it happened.

People are not going to understand science. Even the most educated people don’t understand science. I am a science graduate and I may have forgotten most of the things. So I need to give examples from real life. For example, how ISRO cracked the elliptical orbit… nobody would understand that. So I had to think how to explain that. We talked about how in the kitchen, we control the heat while cooking. If it is very hot, we turn it down and when it is cold, we switch it on again. That was used to explain how to save fuel in space. So when I was writing it, I was sure that each of these concepts should have something derived from real life so that people would get it. There is even a line in the film that says, ‘You base everything about space science on home science.’

Akshay Kumar is known for his macho image but in Mission Mangal he seems to be completely the opposite.

I have worked with Akshay only in Pad Man and in that film he worked for women, he thought about women, he felt like a woman. So I have never seen him as this macho person. So it was normal to have him onboard, he was part of the brigade. In fact, his character doesn’t really stand out of the crowd. He is part of the crowd.

Originally it started as a women’s film, but when we decided that it was not going to be that, we had to have a mainstream hero who is not going to just come in and play a cameo. It is the main role. I keep telling people that he is more in this film that he was in Kesari. He is there from the first frame to the last frame because he is an integral part of the mission and he is the one who is driving the whole thing. So, I thought when you have ordinary people, his character should also be ordinary. In fact there is a fight scene in the film where the women are fighting and he is not. He just cannot as it is so not who he is in the film.

You are credited as the creative director of the film. So what was your role exactly?

I have no idea actually. I never went on the sets of the film even for a single day. When you write a film and are creatively supervising it behind the scene, you know exactly what the cast should be, you know what the set should look like, you want the edit a certain way, the sound design a certain way, the VFX a certain way. I always believe that if it is a film I am responsible for, then I need to be creatively responsible for everything. The director does his job, he brings a vision, which is agreed on paper, to the sets.  Shooting is only a part of it especially for this kind of film. There is so much of it that happens after the shoot. The edit of this film took three times the time that it took to shoot the film. So as a creative director you are in charge of all the creative aspects of the film. 

Could I say that what the film finally looks like comes from the creative director?

No. What the film looks like always belongs to the DoP. It doesn’t belong to anybody else, not even the director. How much do want it to be a space film and how much of it do you want it to be an emotional film, getting that balance is what a creative director does.

As a first-time director, you need help, in this film especially as it is a complex film. It is not easy for just one person to do it. In fact it wouldn’t have been easy for me to do this film or for that matter any other director. So, you need help. I was very lucky to have Jagan as director and he was very lucky to have me. 

How did this ensemble cast and crew come together?

I think some of these were Jagan’s choices. I wanted Vidya (Balan) for sure, 100 per cent. Akshay was Jagan’s idea. I met him and said, ‘Let us do it.’ He said ‘What is there in it for me to do?’ I said I will write it and then we will figure it out. Then he said he would produce it with me. And as we were casting and we were searching, one by one everyone fell into place. Yes there two or three other names. Radhika (Apte) was supposed to do a role. But she got stuck in LA for a shoot. But finally I think we got absolutely the right people for the right character. They were meant to play the parts they played.

Also Ravi Varman (DoP) has contributed a lot to the film. Jagan was also very clear that he wanted a very experienced cameraman. Jagan had a super team with Ravi and this cast, the editor and Amit Trivedi. So he just needed to be focused on what he was doing, which he did.

VFX is an important aspect of this film. What can you tell us about it?

The most important people in the film besides Jagan and Ravi Varman are the VFX guys. It was done by a company called Fabulous. They are a new company, they have done only gaming before. I just saw their reel on gaming. They have not done a single feature film. I took the bet. I called them to the office, saw their reel. This again is part of creative direction where you choose talent. Jagan was clear about the shots that he wanted. But then if you don’t have someone world-class to execute it, there is no point having the detail. I asked Jagan, ‘Are you sure?’ He asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said okay, I will take the call and I think this is the best bet I have ever made. They were hungry to prove themselves. They had a reasonable budget, it would have been the same for most people. Yes, they were starting out, so they had to work a lot harder. But if you think that the film looks like something that is not seen before in terms of finish, then it is thanks to them.

Also we were particular that the VFX should not look like VFX. We are used to seeing Avengers dubbed in Hindi, so you cannot get away with anything less. So if you can’t do anything grand, please do what is right for the film.  So my advice to Jagan always was to not showoff the VFX. It should be as authentic as possible. We are not here to make a huge space film. We are here to tell a story in the sweetest way possible to the audience. It just happens to be in a mission control room, around a satellite. And space is the easiest to recreate. It is just a dark space with stars. It doesn’t cost a lot of money.

Of course a lot of credit goes to Jagan also. He had done a lot of research about ISRO’s technology. He made it so much easier for the VFX guys. Jagan may not know how to recreate that but the VFX guys got a clear brief about what they are supposed to do.

What is your headspace before the release of the film? Are you stressed?

I don’t think there is a single filmmaker in the world who has any stress when a film is being released. I will tell you why. Because they are dead tired! They have not slept. I have not slept for days, Jagan has not slept for days. I don’t think we even understand what is happening. After many many days, I slept yesterday and woke up in the afternoon. I am quite numb about it.

Also the audience is something that you are not seeing. You may go to a couple of theatres, that doesn’t mean you know the audience. Anyone who pretends to know the audience based on five hits, doesn’t. He is just lucky. You do the best to your ability and hope for the best. The trickiest thing is the first people you show the film to. They are an intimate group of people who can fire you. They can tell you if it is bad to your face. They are the critics and your close friends. And they can be ruthless.

What is next on the cards for you?

I have a couple of ideas that I need to sit and start writing. Starting to write is the toughest part. Once you start, it is easier. But I know that directing and making a film is far easier than being behind the scenes and getting a film made. It is very difficult to be a creative director than being the writer and the director of a film. I’d rather just direct my next film.

This is the one question that I cannot not ask you. Is another film with Amitabh Bachchan on the plate?

I don’t think there is anything that anybody can add about Mr Bachchan except one thing. My job is to make his life very uncomfortable. He always tells me, ‘Why don’t we do a film that will work on paper; a good film that has comedy and emotion and captures the spirit of todays’ times?’ I am like, ‘Why? If we are going to be booted out or have just one per cent chance of making it, let us take that chance.’ So Amitji’s favourite line is ‘Why are you out to destroy me?’ But I must say that even though he was happy, he has never communicated to me this directly but he does tell others, ‘We just about managed to escape from being destroyed.’ (Laughs).

Hope that you can make more movies with him.

Yes, I think something similar is coming!

(Note: This interview was conducted three days before Mission Mangal released)

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