Vijay Gutte talks to Padma Iyer and Ananya Swaroop about his upcoming film, The Accidental Prime Minister
Padma Iyer (PI): What attracted you to the film?
As a first-time director, I don’t think I have the liberty to choose a subject. When this subject was offered to me, I said ‘no’ because making a political film into a commercial film is the most difficult thing. You cannot play around with the characters. When you are following a book, you have to stay true to the spirit of the book. You cannot change things to make it more commercial. And since this was a political film, I had to follow the book completely.
Due to all these restrictions, I turned down the offer to make this film. Sunil Bohra, who is the producer of this film, bought the rights to the book in 2014, when the book released. He offered me the book to read. When I read the book, I started getting interested in it. But I didn’t reveal that to my producer. I just said that it was a good book, one of a kind, and that something like this had never been written before.
He said, ‘If you appreciate this book so much, why not make a film out of it?’ I expressed my wish to meet the writer of the book before I could think of making a film on it. Within seven minutes, he arranged a meeting between the writer and me.
Ananya Swaroop (AS): He must have been determined to get you on board.
Yes, and he asked me when I wanted to fly to meet the writer? I said ‘Tonight’. I did and, the next day, we met at 2’o clock in the afternoon, in Delhi. By 6 or 7 pm, I was almost convinced that I wanted to do this film because talking with Sanjaya Baru was different. He had been a part of the PMO, and the way he spoke about the incidents made me feel as if I was part of the PMO, I was working there.
For seven days after that, we sat together and talked about everything. That’s when I saw that there was so much in this film that could be explored and I was getting one of the biggest opportunities. After I returned, there was no stopping me. I immediately said I was doing this film.
PI: For a film like this, when people who are portrayed in the film are alive, casting is a very crucial part. How involved were you in the casting process and what determined the choices that were finally made?
I was not part of the casting process but since I am the director, I used to select or reject people. I have really troubled Hansalji (Mehta) because none of the casting directors were able to get me the right cast. Hansalji put his 20 years of experience to use, he went to Bihar, UP, Chandigarh, Punjab and Delhi… it took eight months to complete the casting.
There was this time I rejected five people for Atal Behari Vajpayee’s character. Then Hansalji got the sixth one. Since it was the sixth person, I said, okay fine, let’s finalise this one. Hansalji saw my face and realised I was not fully convinced with the person. He told me, ‘Look, Vijay, even if I get angry, if you are not convinced with the cast, you need to tell me.’
From that day onwards, I really hassled the casting people. I finally got my Atal Behari Vajpayee in a panipuri wala in Bihar. I got my Amar Singh from the same village where the real Amar Singh belongs. Suzanne Bernert barged into the project by tweeting and sending messages to everyone when the poster was announced, that she wanted to be part of the film. An Italian actress had already been cast, but the way Suzanne performed was very convincing.
I told Akshaye not to even look at Sanjaya Baru’s picture. That’s the only character I could have played around with. I could not show Manmohan Singh talking in a different way because everyone is familiar with him and his body language. Neither could I play around with Sonia Gandhi’s character, nor Rahul Gandhi’s character as they are big references. The only character with whom I could play around is Sanjaya Baru. I loved directing the character.
AS: Akshaye Khanna is very choosy about his characters. What do you think made him a perfect fit for the role since you said you could play only with his character?
His smile, his eyes, the way he acts with his face is remarkable. As a director, I can say he is a one-of-a-kind actor and he always stands out, even in a small film. He has a very charismatic aura.
PI: A political film is not far from controversies, irrespective of what kind of politics you are talking about.
The media knows this movie was in the public domain and it has been in the making for two years. With all these things out there, we did not get a single notice, email or letter. When the book was written, there was no opposition to it. So why all of a sudden, when the trailer is out, are people having problems with it?
AS: 2018 was an interesting year for films, when many different types of movies worked for the audience. Keeping that in mind, do you think the Indian audience is ready for a film like this?
I think India is ready. India being a democracy, we have so many great leaders, which means this can become a very big genre for films. I think it was high time someone started it. Luckily or unluckily, I am the first.
PI: Ultimately, a film is made for cinemas, for the box office. What are your expectations from the film, especially since you are releasing with several other films at the same time?
We have a great audience who appreciates different and good cinema, so I hope every film does well. I hope Uri does well because I really like the trailer.