Director Ashutosh Gowariker and his leading lady of Mohenjo Daro, Pooja Hegde visit Box Office India to talk about their upcoming period film
Box Office India (BOI): Ashutosh, can you start by introducing her to us?
Ashutosh Gowariker (AG): Please meet Chaani urf Pooja Hegde. While scripting the film, I was thinking that I needed someone with innocence and someone who did not have stardom baggage. I thus began looking for a fresh face when Sunita (Gowariker) spotted Pooja in a commercial and suggested that we call her. She called Pooja and I auditioned her. And that was it.
I needed someone who was very graceful and had a lot of dignity. She suited that perfectly. When I first saw her and when she came on board and did the audition and performed… Usually, when I am auditioning, I have a favourite song that I make all my actresses perform to, which is Hoto pe aisi baat. I made her perform to that and she was outstanding. I loved the fact that she was naturally graceful. After that, I think we did three to four more tests.
Pooja Hegde (PH): I did, like, five scenes and the song.
BOI: What were your feelings when you got a call from AGPPL?
PH: It wasn’t like I was told that ‘this is the film we are auditioning for’. It was more like, ‘We are planning some projects and there are a few things in hand, so let’s just meet. If, by chance, it works out, then great and then maybe we will work on something else.’ I met Sunita, then I met Ashu sir and they told me about the film. After that, I was given five scenes and I was, like, ‘Oh my God!’ So it wasn’t like they told me that we have this massive film in hand.
BOI: Do you think you got lucky as your debut film is opposite Hrithik Roshan and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker?
PH: Of course! Pretty much blessed, I would say. As a debutante, you have certain boxes you want to tick… If it has a big director, check; a big actor, check; big production house, again check. Also, the script was great. So, it’s been a dream come true.
BOI: Was it intimidating in any way, since Ashutosh is the director and Hrithik your co-star? Did it ever get to you that there is so much riding on this film?
PH: Hrithik makes you feel so comfortable that the thought never crossed my mind. The only time I felt intimidated was when Hrithik started dancing. Let’s face it, he is the best dancer in our industry. So when he started dancing, I thought to myself, ‘Okay, now do I have to match this?’ He can take the simplest step and make it look so complicated and so graceful. At the same time, he can take a really complicated step and make it look easy. You can’t help but feel intimidated when he starts dancing. It got me really scared.
BOI: Ashutosh, why were you so secretive about your supporting cast this time? Throughout the making of this film, we only knew that Hrithik and Pooja featured in Mohenjo Daro.
AG: When you are creating a world you want, it embellishes everything with freshness. Although all of us know Kabirji(Bedi), who is a great performer with a great voice and all that, to be able to bring a film like this with a certain newness is the trick. It was enough that Hrithik was doing the movie and I thought people should settle into that first. It’s a pre-historical movie and Hrithik is playing the lead actor… that information needed to go out first. And I have a different set of actors in the film. Suhasiniji (Mulay) is there in almost all our films. I believe she is always the first to be cast. I think it blended in very well, the audience will like them more if they get to see them much closer to the film’s release.
BOI: Was it more difficult to cast this time?
AG: It’s always difficult to cast. Nalini Rathnam is the casting director in my film. She conducted her own research, and she wanted to bring in newer and fresh faces, even from non-Hindi speaking regions. I too watch a lot of regional television, like DD-Oriya, DD-Srinagar, DD-Bangla… because you get to see all kinds of actors including seasoned actors who never get a chance to come to Mumbai or they don’t want to as they are happy in their own space. So there is a different kind of freshness there to get them on board. I did this in Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar. In this film too, I wanted to get some fresh actors, so I have Diganta Hazarika, who is a well-known Assamese actor. It is a time-consuming process but the payoff big.
BOI: When and why did you decide to make the film?
AG: It’s something you have studied in a paragraph in school but when you visit a museum, you see artifacts from that period and you are filled with wonder. I was feeling that sense of wonder, which coincided with me watching movies on the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. These movies are made with so much pride.
I have always wondered why no one has ever made a movie on this civilisation, our ancestors. The tough part for me was deciding whether I had the time and energy to research the subject. I knew it would take at least two years. There was no reference material; we don’t have any books written on it. So my film would have to be based on archaeological findings. Sunita was very gung-ho when she heard the basic thought of what I wanted to make.
BOI: How much of the movie is fact and how much is fiction?
AG: To answer your question in a broad way, anything you see in terms of architecture and property, in terms of excavation, is all accurate. The song Tu hai is done on the Great Bath and we built the Great Bath to scale, just as we did the houses in the film.
BOI: What is the difference between your two period films, Jodhaa Akbar and Mohenjo Daro?
AG: Jodhaa Akbar relates more to the medieval period and there is a lot of material available on it. Akbar had himself commissioned two writers, ki aap dono mere zindagi ke baare me likhiega. One was Abul Fazal, who wrote the Akbar Nama and the other was Abd-ul-Qadir Bada’uni. Both wrote in very different styles. Abul Fazal wrote with great splendour ki aaj Shehanshah aaye unhe zukham tha phir bhi unhone hume deedar diya. Bada’uni wrote about the same incidents almost calling names to Abul ki itna kuch nahi tha it was just a sneeze. This mix of one being a balanced account and the other a flowery account is something I could use in combination in Jodhaa Akbar.
But I had no written material to go by for Mohenjo Daro. So more than historians, we had to rely on archaeologists. It was the most wonderful experience to interact with archaeologists. It’s incredible to see them at work. Working in sand and mud and extracting objects, and based on extracting these objects they say ki yeh kya ho sakta tha 5,000 years ago.
My first question to Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, the leading archeologist at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa for more than 35 years, was… I want to do this, are you with me or not? And the best thing was, he said to me, ‘You know what? We should thank you for making this film because, as archaeologists, we are constantly struggling to find funds to support our work.’ Usually governments run out of funding ki yeh ho gaya aur kitna dhund rahe ho aap, aur kya milega aapko.
After he agreed to come on board, we invited him over and hosted him here along with five other archaeologists. I realised that some of them specialised in pottery, while some were specialists in jewellery etc. There are so many different aspects. I somehow had to bring all of that together and build a story. Take a look at the classic seals, which are really small… if there was a drummer on one of them, that became Sarman (Hrithik). If you have an image of one guy fighting two people, that became another scene.
When you watch the movie, you will feel as if you have visited this place, lagta hai ki haan yaha aisa hua hoga. I felt responsible towards this part of history. Maan ghadat nahin karna mujhe. I wanted to imbue my imagination with credibility. So we had historians there and archaeologists here.
BOI: What about costumes?
AG: The reference to costumes is the figurines that have been found. All the figurines are wearing jewellery and some had elaborate headgear. The amount of cloth on them is very little. So I had to keep track of what flourish the costumes could have had. Except for Chaani’s character, I have not used too much headgear in the costumes or it would have looked like too many people were wearing headgear.
Of course, vanity is the oldest virtue and women of that time used stones from the riverbeds as ornaments and used lapis lazuli. They used anything they could lay their hands on that looked pretty. They also frequently used feathers and that’s what we have done with Chaani’s character. Pooja will tell us how much she enjoyed wearing them!
PH: It was heavy!
BOI: How did you prepare for this role without any sources of reference?
PH: The sets were so detailed that once we stepped onto them, you were enveloped by the ambience. Ashu sir’s detailing is so great that if there’s a mashal, the wall behind it would be blackened to resemble soot. Whenever I stepped onto the sets, I automatically got into the mood. Of course, the costumes helped. When it came to explaining a scene, Ashu sir made you feel like you were already there. Luckily for me, I had great actors to act alongside, so after a while, it became more about reacting than acting. Everything was created for me and that made it easier for me as an actor.
BOI: What was your first reaction on reading the script?
PH: Wow! It took me three hours to read the entire script but I read it in one go. I simply couldn’t stop. My first thought was how would we create this because it’s a larger-than-life film? I was really excited to see how it was all going to come together. When I first went on the sets, I actually went a day before I started shooting and it took me a day to tour the entire set.
AG: It was spread across 25 acres.
PH: As Chaani, I couldn’t look obviously awestruck on the first day of the shoot ki this is mind-blowing. So a day before, I roamed around and tried to feel like a part of this civilisation. I must say I am really lucky because if you visit Mohenjo Daro, you won’t be able to see much because you have to go to Pakistan and it’s in ruins. It’s not like Mohenjo Daro was in its full form and glory. I could actually see every single thing, you know, they have recreated those ancient instruments like drums and they look very funky and old. They actually made these instruments from scratch.
BOI: Is it true that you wrote the script keeping Hrithik Roshan in mind? Also, did you try to incorporate his style into the character of Sarman?
AG: One thing I cannot do is write a star-vehicle script. When you are writing a star-vehicle script, you cannot focus on the story because then I start blending the character with the star’s quality and what he should be doing and what not, yeh scene bhi hona chahiye, woh scene bhi hona chahiye… you go into that space. So I first wrote the script and when I completed it, I realised that it had to be Hrithik.
By the time you start developing it, images start coming to mind about how the story will unfold and who will suit the character. Sarman is a larger-than-life character. On one level, he is an innocent lad, an indigo farmer who has come from a small village to this city. But he is very humanitarian; he is very big in his approach to life and his perspective of life.
I believe that Hrithik does larger-than-life characters beautifully, whether Krrish or Akbar or this one (Sarman). I am not saying he doesn’t do the same in other films, he is a very good actor and he was too good in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which is a very contemporary film, and also in Guzaarish. But this is a different world and I thought only Hrithik would blend in perfectly.
It was also easy to connect and understand each other’s perspectives because we’ve already done a film together. When I offered him Jodhaa Akbar, he asked me five to six times, ‘Really? Me, Akbar?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, yes, you Akbar!’ So, this time, when I gave him the script, he already knew that I had done one historical film and now it was Mohenjo Daro. So it was easier to convince him.
BOI: The trailer has received a mixed response. Did you expect it?
AG: No, I didn’t anticipate that it would get a mixed response. I had assumed that since people know nothing about that era, they would be open to what we have created as a lot of research has gone into the film. I guess, just as different historians have different perspectives and different interpretations of things, the audience too has their own interpretation of events, although they are not historians. Toh mujhe history padhne ki zarurat nahi hai, bachpan mein jo maine ek paragraph padha tha, woh padh ke mujhe lagta hai yeh picture galat hai. So they don’t know anything, but they still believe this is wrong.
I was anticipating a slightly mixed response because of Jodhaa Akbar too. When you create an entirely new world, the initial reaction is one of shock but I hope that settles when the audience comes in to watch the movie. The film will dispel doubts and answer many questions as the trailer cannot include everything. I am very open and I invite the audience to comment but only after they watch the film, even if you have reservations.
BOI: Where does this film figure from a commercial point of view? What does it have for the youth, who are the largest audience today?
AG: First, Hrithik Roshan; second AR Rahman’s music; and third the Harappan civilisation – we know of it, we have heard of it but we have not been there yet. The fourth would be Pooja Hegde, and fifth would be me and my team. I am putting my team and myself fifth because the points of attraction come first – Hrithik, the music, a lot of people have started liking Pooja. So once you come to watch the film, I think the ingredients in the film make for a nice entertainer while also being a civilisation-based story. I think about the commercial aspects in bullet points. (Laughs)
PH: (Cuts in) And our sets. Every single frame is very, very beautiful. Nowadays, we want to watch something beautiful and that’s why a lot of people are making period films. It’s new, it’s beautiful, it’s something you are going to look at and be delighted.
BOI: What kind of response are you getting from friends and family?
PH: Friends and family will always say good things about you but it just takes the edge out that everyone is being positive. The other day, Hrithik messaged me, saying that everyone loves me in the film, so that was a relief. Your first film is an audition to the world. No one is going to look at you and say, ‘For her debut film, she did pretty decent.’ Now you have to deliver your best in your very first film.
BOI: Ashutosh, how happy are you? It’s almost four years since you started working on this film.
AG: I am content because when you do something like this, you have to set targets. How you are going to achieve them is something you address with every step you take. Like what she said about the sets… so when you look at the script, the first thought is ki yeh script likh toh diya hai, isko banaenge kaise? Because iske purze alag alag hain. So every angle needs to be brought in so that the story takes shape and we get the visuals right. Doing that took a lot of time.
Even when scripting the film, we had to decide on how to use language because no one has cracked the Sindhu script to date. Egyptians ki bhi crack ho gayi hai, ours is the only one which has not yet been deciphered. So we don’t know what the language was like but I had to use Hindi. Still, while using Hindi, how can I create a mix of certain words that will create the feel of a different language and still connect with the lowest common denominator in the audience? These were some of the challenges and that’s why it took a lot of time.
BOI: Is this your toughest film to date?
AG: In a way, yes, even though it doesn’t have battles and wars. Jodhaa Akbar had three battles, which was a huge challenge. The toughest part was to use one’s imagination while still being credible.
BOI: Ashutosh, there is a certain amount of scale in your films – Mohenjo Daro now, Lagaan, Swadesand Jodhaa Akbar. Do you think filmmakers have to cash in on scale to differentiate a film from the mobile screen?
AG: No, I don’t think so because the films that are being made now are `2 crore films. There are `2 crore films and there are `4 crore films. I know of films that have been made for `60 lakh and `90 lakh and they are gems. They get selected at Cannes, Berlin an so many other film festivals, where they win awards because it’s powerful cinema. If a film like that is made with `2 crore and it does business worth `5 crore, its returns are more than 100 per cent.
But, for me, a film’s returns are never uppermost on my mind. My first thought was, is there anything engaging that I want to tell in this part of the world, the Indus civilisation? After Jodhaa Akbar, I toyed with making this film for five to six years. I also wondered how I would make it so that it is relevant to today’s audience. Agar relevance nahi hai then the audience will not connect with it. When I decided to make this film, I was not trying to outdo cell phones or laptops or small-screen entertainment.
BOI: Would you like to make a small, intimate film?
AG: I am constantly trying looking at those ideas. What’s Your Rashee? was actually one of those. What I liked about that film was that every girl needed some kind of empowerment. She felt empowered because of Yogesh Patel and how they find themselves and break away from the shackles of society and family. I think I could have said it in a shorter amount of time because that genre needs that’s but I had 12 girls. That was an idea-based movie. Possible nahin hai with one actress playing all 12 roles. I am on the constant lookout for that ultimate movie which I make on a budget of `1 crore and where I earn `50 crore. That’s a dream. (Laughs)
BOI: Do you think that on August 12, Mohenjo Daro will connect with the audience?
AG: Yes, it will.
BOI: What are your expectations on August 12?
PH: I expect you all to love me. (Laughs)
I really don’t know what I am going to feel on that day. I expect that the night before, I will be very nervous. Let’s see how it goes. It is my first film.
AG: I think it will still be easier for her because what happens is when the trailer comes out, Hrithik bada acha hai, Rahman ka music kamaal hai, Javed saab ne bohot ache gaane likhe hai, oh the girl is good. Teesra gaana bhi pasand aa gaya par direction ki koi baat nahi kar raha hai, nobody is talking about the script and direction. The only thing they are talking about is woh galat hai, yeh galat hai, yeh galat likha hai woh galat likha hai. The pressure is on me on the day of release.
BOI: What do you think about the clash with Rustom?
AG: Clashes are bound to happen; there’s one every Friday. And if you have a film which has two stars, then it’s a big festival clash because if there is a huge star vehicle, the distributor and the producer want to release on a public holiday and want maximum revenue. I was expecting another film to release alongside ours. Every three months mein, I used to think kaun si film aane wali hai.
First, I thought it would be Raees; then I thought it would be Dangal; then Shivaay. I announced the release on January 26 last year. So now it’s Rustom. I think screen space ko share karna yeh inevitable hai and I hope both films work. I mean, uss hafte mein dono dekho!
PH: We shot at the same place as Lagaan. So I hope a little bit of that Lagaanluck rubs off on Mohenjo Daro. We will be going to the Locarno Film Festival, just as Lagaan did.