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Changing Men-tality

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra talks to Ananya Swaroop about his upcoming film, Mere Pyare Prime Minister, working with children, his relationship with Gulzar and more

How did the story of Mere Pyare Prime Minister come about?

I feel strongly about the issue of rape and rape victims and how we look at it all; the whole consciousness of the nation. Whenever there is such news, there is anger, demonstrations. There is talk about law and justice and the idea of empowering women. But because the woman is not as physically strong as a man, that she should be subjugated to such an evil, in today’s times, it seems horrendous.

I had just finished shooting for Bhaag Milkha Bhaag at Film City. It was 3 am and I took the shortcut from Aarey Milk Colony. The car turned and the headlights fell on a dozen women squatting by the road, each with a dabba of water. And they stood up, settling their sarees and pulling salwars back up. That image stayed in my head for a long time.

Then I read a UNICEF study that said 50 per cent of rapes happen when women go out to defecate and 300 million women defecate outdoors. It is not that if you provide them with toilets, they will become safe. There are hundreds and thousands of incidents of rapes in public toilets. But it is not just a law-and-order situation. For me it is a societal problem. It is about changing mindsets… and then there is the question of the rape victim. Society further victimises her. The way society looks at her is, iska ab kya hoga! She herself feels persecuted. It is a psychological trauma for life.

So what is this all about? Who are the guys who commit rape? I think this is about society at large. We need to bring up our children with the knowledge that this is not right; it is just not done. And that reform needs to happen at the family level, at the neighbourhood level. It is not just a government problem.

Somewhere down the road, these thoughts propelled me to tell this story.

What is the story about?

It is the beautiful story of 24-year-old Sargam and her 8-year-old son Kanu. She is a single mother and there is someone who is in love with her as well. The story is about how everyone deals with the situation when she is raped on Holi night. It is about what she goes through. The son writes a letter to the Prime Minister about what has happened to his mother. He says ‘We have everything in our locality, dish antennas, even washing machines in some houses, but no toilets. Something bad happened to my mother. How would you feel if the same thing happened to your mother?’

I want everyone to ask that question of themselves, because we are to blame as a community, as a family, as a neighbourhood and as men. He takes the letter to the Prime Minister, but it gets buried in paperwork. He then starts collecting money to make life safer for her. He gets into nefarious activities. He gets caught. His mother asks him to apologise to God. But he refuses and in turn questions God.

What was it like working with children? Was it difficult?

It was great fun and not at all difficult. I had a wonderful time working with the kids. I befriended them, I became their best friend. And the process started much before shooting began. You have to invest a lot of time, with children. Once they trust you, then everything is cool. If they don’t trust you, it is impossible. And you can’t make them act. There is no question about that.

It has to be natural. So what they are, they are. That is how I approach the craft. The most important thing for me, with all my actors, it is to understand them. So I hang out with them, spend a lot of time with them, chat with them. The kids spent 45 days in my office. They could walk in and out any time. They would enter my meetings and talk to me. I wanted them to feel like it was their place.

What made you choose Anjali Patil to play Sargam? What can you tell us about the cast?

She is a perfect and complete actress. She had a guest appearance in Mirzya but made a huge impact. I could see first-hand the kind of talent she had, while working with her on that film. Intrinsically, both of us knew that we would be working together again. I knew I could give her something to sink her teeth into, make it something a little more complex and yet accessible to the audience.

She is just incredible. It was a natural choice. Most of the kids have been cast from the slums. There are theatre actors too. There is Makarand Deshpande. And then there is a new boy who is cast opposite Anjali, in a beautiful love story. His name is Niteesh Wadhwa. He has studied acting at Lee Strasberg. He only wanted to do something serious, so he waited for this film. He didn’t chase any other work.

Everything had to be believable. We were shooting in actual slums, no sets. Even the characters had to look real. I was confident that Anjali would not just play the part, but would become her character. And she has exceeded my expectations.

What were the challenges you faced, shooting on location?

I must say that before I entered our location I was very nervous. I didn’t know how I would manage because thousands of people live there and no one was going to vacate the place. We were shooting with them there. But it was a pleasant surprise to find that people not only opened their doors to us but their hearts too. They would cook and bring us food. They would become part of the crowd scenes.

For the Holi scene, we invited 200 people and 2,000 turned up. Their homes were our make-up rooms, eateries, rest houses and were where we kept our equipment. I took up a place there for 15 days and lived among them, to try and understand what their life was like from the inside. There are no facilities like running water. Life is tough. But life is also a celebration.

The ones who face the real challenges when it comes to shooting on location, more than the crew, are the actors. You are shooting in very small spaces, 10 feet by 15 feet. And within this space there is the camera crew, assistants and everything else. Other than that, this was the most peaceful shoot of my life, the smoothest.

You have a wonderful relationship with Gulzaar saab. At the trailer launch you mentioned how jealous Meghna Gulzar was of it…

With Gulzar bhai, I have never asked him to write a song for a film. I have never offered him a film; he has never accepted a film. My message to him is ‘Gulzar bhai, chai?’ and he replies ‘Kitni door ho?’ He never asks me to come at a certain time or anything of that sort. And if there is something going on, I hang out or read from among his books. I then tell him about the story, why I am making my film. What I am trying to say. What is the pain, what is the ecstasy.

He is very patient with me. I will land up at his place again. And then he will write something. Then Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy come in. The process is more beautiful than what we create. And because the process is so beautiful, we are not worried about the music that comes out of it. I think that is what Meghna is jealous about! I know, because she played the songs for her film and they were beautiful. And when she heard my songs she said, ‘What is this with you and pa? You always get better poetry from him! I am not going to talk to either of you.’

Your films, even though they address serious subjects, remain entertaining. How do you manage that balance?

I love life and I love people. I think all of us have wounds and I don’t want to disturb them. I would rather put soothing balm on them and keep celebrating, even death; as in Rang De Basanti. That is what immortality means to me.

In this film, while we are dealing with rape, we are dealing with a single mother and her son and a different kind of romance. After the incident, there is an added tenderness to things. You know someone cares for you when you are at your lowest point in life, and they’re there with you. They reach out to you. That is the balance of emotion that I have tried to find.

The subjects are nothing new; they are from life. They are inspired by life and that is why they make more sense. But I think life is a celebration, despite the pain. You are blessed with life as long as you have it. And as long as we’re here together, those who are lucky should hold the hands of those who are not, that is how I feel.

What impact do you want the film to have on the audience?

Impact is a very long shot; that would be too much to expect. I think one step at a time. We have made the movie in an indie way, outside the studio system. There is a reason for that; it was so that we could do it exactly as we wanted to and cast exactly who we wanted. I haven’t charged for the film. If we make a profit, it will goes towards building toilets and initiatives like that. That is besides the point. I can only feel that when you leave the theatre I hope you are seeing it with your loved one, be it your boyfriend, husband, father, brother or son.

The aim is to break down the barriers between people. To change mindsets when it comes to how we look at women, and their choices, at any age. Whatever she wants to do, you have to respect her choices, and accept them the way they are.

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