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"I have a commercial bent of mind"

Writer-director Jagan Shakti talks to Padma Iyer about Mission Mangal, working with R Balki and Akshay Kumar, his need to make larger-than-life films, and his upcoming project with AR Murugadoss

What was the inspiration behind Mission Mangal? What made you want to tell this story?

The first and foremost thing is that I was inspired by the photograph of these women scientists from ISRO (which was shared after the launch). Then there is my sister who works in ISRO but it never struck me about the work she was doing. I had seen her do all the daily household chores in the kitchen, making lunch for the kids, washing clothes, handling the maid and at the same time doing her work at ISRO with some launch or another and later coming home and worrying about what to make for dinner! So when I saw the photograph, I thought about all this and it inspired me and made me realise that there is a story behind this.

See when you think of a NASA scientist, a certain image comes to mind. But what are our Indian scientists like? They are very simple people. If you see them at a bus stop or in a market, you won’t second guess that they are scientists. ISRO has people coming in from all parts of the country. So ordinary people doing an extraordinary job is what inspired me. And then when I did extensive research I realised that the success of the mission cannot be credited to one person. That is when I started writing the story on fictional characters.

I have a commercial bent of mind in terms of action, songs and comedy; I cannot live without that. Actually, Akshay sir has added a lot of impromptu comedy to the film. He has given some brilliants ideas for some of the scenes. I became close to him by virtue of Holiday. He makes fun of me, pulls my leg. On a chartered flight, during Kesari, I narrated the story to him. He really liked and he said he would do the film. I then went to Balki sir for help for smoothening the script and the dialogue.

How was it working with a genius like R Balki?

He has always mentioned that he was writing my vision and I have a commercial bent of mind, as I said. I always see everything through the prism of entertainment. At the end of the day, we don’t want to present a science documentary.

I am someone who has stood in queue five days before for a (Amitabh) Bachchan film in Bangalore. I have told lies, stolen money to watch movies on the first day. I have bunked college, taken someone else as my dad to sort my low attendance. So I have done all of this to watch movies. So, I would like my movies also to be like that. Today people want a spectacle when they come to the theatres. Audiences today have access to entertainment via Netflix and Amazon in their homes. Forget homes, they have it on their phones. So in a theatre your film better be big. It should be larger- than-life and entertainment-wise it should be a visual spectacle. I want people to come to watch my films like I used to run to the theatres to watch movies.

 

What drove the casting decisions? Were these the people you had always planned to make part of Mission Mangal?

Usually, there are different proposals and names. But when I first conceived this concept, Sridevi ma’am was in mind as I had worked with her in English Vinglish. But unfortunately, she left us. When thinking about who else would fit the bill, the only choice was Vidyaji (Balan). We went to her first and she immediately said yes. Sonakshi (Sinha) ma’am had told me that she would work in my first film when we were working together in Akira and Holiday. I am very close to her too. I just went and gave her a brief; I didn’t even tell her what her character is. She didn’t even ask what the others were doing. She said ‘I will do you film because you are making it.’ She just came because she likes me a lot and the way I work. She always believed that I would be good filmmaker.  Then I got greedy now that I had two superstar actresses. So I thought why not try Taapsee (Pannu) ma’am through Akshay sir. She is so busy, juggling almost every film industry. I went to Chennai and narrated the script. She also loved it.

Balki sir mentioned that getting HG Dattatreya and Nithya Menen onboard was your idea.

I know Dattanna since I hail from Bangalore. I know his acting prowess. He is a good character artiste, especially in comedy. He is such an endearing person. And Nithya Menen is a superstar in all four South Indian languages.

Initially, when I had this idea, though we didn’t go forward with it, I had this plan to bring a Punjabi artiste, an actor from Bengali, Manju Warrier from Malayalam, Jyotika from Tamil films. But when Vidyaji and Sonakshi said yes, we decided to take the other route. But getting Dattanna and Nithya Menen stemmed from this idea only.

ISRO is an amalgamation of all languages of India, so that was the reason of casting South Indian actors, nothing else. And when you have Akshayji and Vidyaji, you don’t need anything else.

VFX is an important aspect of the film.

I was clear about one thing that the spectacle and the entertainment were going to come from the VFX. I introduced an action piece and a dance piece because I want people to be entertained. But then VFX will give the larger-than-life spectacle. So I treated the rocket like an action piece, like a hero. All my angles and take offs are edge-of-the-seat experiences. I gave my 100 per cent to that.

What are your expectations from the film?

Nothing really. Akshay sir has trusted me and the script that I narrated to him. I want to live up to his expectations. I really pray to God that it brings in the crowd. He is such a nice and honest person. I want him to have all the glory for the future. I don’t want to let him down.

What is next for you after Mission Mangal?

I have one film that I had already committed, based on AR Murugadoss sir’s Kaththi before this film. I need to fulfill that and give the best slick action film. It also has a social message. I am very proud of that script, I wrote with Murugadoss sir. After that I want to do a thundering science fiction film, which I am already writing. 

(Note: This interview was conducted before the release of Mission Mangal)

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