Box Office India (BOI): This is your second film together after Shahid. How has your working equation evolved?
Rajkummar Rao (RR): With each film and every passing day, Hansal and I come closer. He is my family in Mumbai. He is the first person I call for anything under the sun.
Hansal Mehta (HM): I think the only thing that has changed is that people have recognised our efforts. The National Award is the ultimate recognition of our effort post Shahid. And that, by itself, is nice but it also helps the work we are trying to do. It helps take it forward and reach more people. To that extent, life has changed for us. People have started looking forward to our work.
BOI: When someone wins a National Award, people tend to spoil the party by claiming that another film deserved the honour. But in the case of Shahid, the industry gave unanimous validation for the film. What does that mean to you?
HM: Yes, it feels great! I have always felt like an outsider in this industry. But I was OK with that. In fact, I felt happy watching the industry from the outside and yet doing my films. But the validation feels good and I feel a sense of acceptance from my peers. It’s not the money that you make but the goodwill that you earn that makes it worthwhile.
RR: I have met a lot of people, actors who are from outside the industry as well as those who had filmy backgrounds. Both kinds of actors have said the same thing – that they feel they have won the award because of our win. That makes me very happy. I have never met those people before and when someone like that connects with you, it makes you happy to have touched a chord.
BOI: As an actor, you never had any qualms about working in a film like Queen, where you had very little screen space. After winning the National Award, will that change?
RR: Not because I have won a National Award but I have decided not to play supporting roles any more, not as long as the part is as important as, let’s say, a Bhiku Mahatre in Satya. Every actor is a greedy actor and so am I. Every actor wants to be seen on screen for a long time, and I want to play protagonist now. So, yeah, I don’t think I will do any supporting roles now.
BOI: Hansal, you have been calling Rajkummar your muse.
HM: (Laughs) I didn’t come up with that. Someone from the industry did that and I just went along with it.
HM: I hope I have parts that justify his talent and the faith he has reposed in me. We need roles like that for us to work together. Shahid and Citylights are tough acts to follow. We have to live up to the benchmark we have set. I am privileged to have found an actor like Raj at this stage in my career, someone like Dilip Kumar or Balraj Sahni. I admire the work of these actors and wish I was born back then so that I could have worked with them. That regret is fading because I met Raj.
BOI: Raj, how do you react to that?
RR: (Laughs) Wow! I am overwhelmed, when sir or Bhatt saab compare me to Dilip saab. I think that’s the greatest compliment.
HM: Paresh Rawal, sent me an SMS, saying he had watched the trailer of Citylights and that Rajkummar reminded me of a young Balraj Sahni. Coming from Pareshbhai, this is a huge compliment for him.
BOI: Ajay Bahl was to direct the film earlier. Raj, did you recommened that Hansal direct it?
RR: It wasn’t due to me that he got this film although I think he deserved it more than anyone else. But, as you pointed out, Ajay was to direct it. He opted out after there were some creative differences and we were left with no director. There were some names bandied about. I don’t know if sir knows this but it was Ajay who suggested his name. He told me, ‘You know, Raj, Hansal is the only one who can make this film the way it should be directed.’
Of course, I too wanted him to direct it. I was at the meeting with Mukesh sir and Mahesh sir and I told them what I thought. Bhatt saab agreed. He had watched Shahid just two days before that meeting and they were impressed with the film. I called him and suggested that he meet them as there was a script I thought he should work on.
BOI: Rajkummar, you just said that after Ajay quit the film, the producers discussed a list of directors with you. Haven’t things changed for you as producers are seeking your feedback with regard to signing directors?
RR: (Smiles) You will have to ask them. We made Citylights with the same honesty with which we made Shahid. Of course, I now have more options to choose from. That’s one thing that has changed. Other than that, I am the same person.
BOI: How were you cast?
RR: Ajay called me one day and he said there was this film he was planning to do after B.A. Pass and that it was a film with Bhatt saab. He asked me if I could meet them. I did and it clicked.
BOI: What about Patralekhaa? How did she come into the picture?
RR: I think you should ask Hansal sir because he cast her.
HM: Patralekhaa came through the casting director and had auditioned for us. I had worked with the casting director, and had decided after Shahid that I would work with a casting director on all my future films as I didn’t have a big enough database of actors. So we auditioned a few actors and shortlisted a few, and Patralekhaa was one of them. I was looking for someone who didn’t come with any baggage as an actor. There were other actors we had considered but I felt they had a little baggage. We wanted to audition the actors we had shortlisted again. Some agreed and others didn’t. Patralekhaa auditioned again. The auditions were a benchmark of how the actor and child would look together and Patralekhaa was stunning. She came with this innocence, which is what I was looking for.
HM: If Bhatt saab had not contributed any creative inputs, it would not have been worth making the film with him. But more than his creative inputs, he is needed for inspiration. While I was shooting in Mumbai, I used to end up at his office to ‘recharge’. We would talk about so many things and I would always leave feeling energised. On the first day of the shoot, he told me to be fearless, audacious, original to the film and ‘just make the film’. He respects a director’s space and, without that, I would not have ventured to make this film. It’s tough to work when you have someone who constantly tells you what to do.
BOI: Neither you nor Hansal has watched Metro Manila, the original version of Citylights. Why is that?
RR: We didn’t want to get influenced by the original film. Since we have adapted the screenplay and story, we wanted to keep it fresh.
BOI: How much of the original has your film retained?
HM: I don’t know as I haven’t watched Metro Manila yet. I reacted to Ritesh Shah’s adaptation. It was a written adaptation of the film and I read it and saw potential in it. I realised it was a story which needed to tell the whole story behind migration and a love story within it. My job was to find that story within those pages; most of our stories are in that subtext that is never written. I used the written word to create whatever we have right now, so it’s an interpretation. I believe Metro Manila is a very good film and it is also an acclaimed film.
BOI: Since you have completed your film, will you watch the original?
HM: I don’t know, we have just made some plans. (Laughs)
RR: We have planned to have a special screening of Metro Manila.
RR: It’s marvelous. So many people have told me that the trailer brought tears to their eyes. I’ve never heard of this before.
HM: Paresh’s message to me was the response to the trailer.
BOI: How significant is the title of the film?
HM: It’s very significant because there is a darkness concealed within the bright lights of the city. We have electricity for 24 hours but there is still a darkness among all of us. We do not have lights in our hearts and the film is about finding that light in our hearts. More than 40 per cent of the city is comprised of migrants and they have very dark lives. It’s a metaphor for what we perceive as bright. When you live in a village and dream of coming to Mumbai, you first think of the bright lights of the city. But when you come here, you realise lights are only external and that it’s a dark city.
BOI: Has the industry’s attitude towards you changed after the success of Shahid and the critical acclaim the film received?
HM: I have been so busy promoting Citylights that I haven’t had the time to bother about people’s attitudes changing. I don’t want to change because there is a certain spirit and honesty with with Shahid and Citylights were made and that should not change. People have been very nice on social networking sites; there are messages from people I don’t even know. I am grateful.
BOI: Hansal, it’s also your first film with Fox Star Studios. Did the scale of the film vis-à-vis Shahid increase? What was it like working with them?
HM: The availability of resources was there and there were no financial constraints. We were able to complete the film on time because we had the resources. So there was a comfort level. But because this is a story of the disconnected world of migrant families, we were in hostile situations and locations that were difficult to shoot in. In fact, that was something we gave Vishesh Films and Fox Star Studious… our shooting style. They were initially not familiar with our style but they soon accepted it.
HM: While auditioning Patralekhaa, he gave her some cues and it was those cues that brought her auditions alive. He is actually an actor himself and has graduated from FTII. He was also in Shahid. He had just two scenes in the film but they were very impactful. He is a very fine actor and his cues were spot-on. They were improvisations which had taken place during the auditions and carried over into the film. The auditions actually became rehearsals for the actual scenes.
BOI: Were there any workshops for the actors to prepare for their roles?
HM: I am not a workshop person. It depends on the actors. If they want workshops, I will provide them with that. I think what we gave them was going to Rajasthan.
RR: (Cuts in) Yes, we went there before the shoot.
HM: I gave them a milieu and I left them to decide whether they needed my help. It is terrible for a director to judge what the actor must be thinking. How can I tell them what to think?
RR: Shahid was a very courageous and inspiring figure, and even though Deepak is inspiring, he is not like Shahid. Shahid was a true story, a biopic and I think Shahid’s intensity and his cause was for the people. Deepak is fighting for his family. However, their struggle within is the same, that they want people to hear them and take notice of them. But as characters go, they are completely different like. is high on emotions and depends on his wife whereas Shahid was a sole survivor and an independent guy. I think their intensity as individuals varies.
BOI: Were there any other scenes that stood out for you?
RR: There were a lot of moments in the film that stood out for me. In fact, this film and this character have left me exhausted. This has been my most challenging character so far. There is this one particular moment in the film which is actually a silent moment where my character’s wife Rakhi tells him that she had landed a job. The scene jump cuts to them sitting in a corner of the room and crying. He is helpless that he is unable to do anything about his circumstances and his family. Every time I watch that scene, it brings tears to my eyes.
BOI: Hansal, according to you, which scenes are most impactful?
HM: I had a tough time during the entire film as we dealt with emotions on numerous scenes. There is this one scene where he is recruited for a job in a security agency, which is also the thriller element in the film. It’s funny and I laughed while filming the scene but at the same time, I cried. It’s that man standing on the edge of helplessness and humor. For me, that edge was something to marvel at. It cracked me up… how can he have both those things, helplessness and yet a miraculous humour. It is a very subtle moment. A lesser actor would have made it very funny or very pathetic but, here, there is a delicate balance. Whenever I see actors execute that delicate balance, it is a sheer delight.
There was also this scene where he comes home drunk one night, and during the shoot, my focus puller came up to me and said, ‘Sir picture hit hai.’ I asked him to explain and he said, ‘Sir, main yeh scene dekhte dekhte roya hoon aur main 20 saal se kaam kar raha hoon industry mein. Aisa mere saath set pe sirf do baar hua hai aur jab bhi hua hai, picture hit hui hai.’
When you look back at films from the Golden Era, like Pyaasa, Devdas and Do Bigha Zamin, Citylights is a return to the story telling of the golden era. Those stories were about real people. This film is about conflicts in today’s time.
HM: I have a very simple theory. Either you maximise profits or you minimise risks. Shahid cost Rs 85 lakh to make and it was acquired by UTV for Rs 1 crore. At the end of the day, everybody is happy. Apart from theatrical, we have digital rights, satellite rights and after the National Awards, the territorial rights. So there is a huge window of opportunity to generate revenues from.
With Citylights also, imagine Mukeshji, a producer, telling his director that your film is under budget. He said if I wanted to shoot some more, then I should. I had told him at the very beginning that I wanted to keep the budget under control and I wanted the freedom within that budget to make my film. A producer invests his money but it’s the director who gets the creative glory. I produced Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! and I lost money but it was okay as I had partners. At least, as a director, I got some glory out of it but they got nothing.
BOI: Is there any pressure after winning the National Award? There is a lot expected of Citylights.
RR: I don’t think there was any pressure because we won the award while filming Citylights.
HM: And the reason Maheshji is promoting the film is that he feels it is time to deconstruct and make major success that Vishesh Films has. He has made an industry out of erotica thrillers and that is why Bhatt saab wanted to deconstruct and go back to the same space as Arth, Saaransh and Zakhm. When he saw the film, he felt it did him and his production house proud at a personal level.