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To Sir, With Love

Director Hansal Mehta and lead actor Manoj Bajpayee of Aligarh, in conversation with Team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): What is the message you are trying to put out with this film?

Hansal Mehta (HM): Aligarh is such an important film for us that we are trying to do everything that ensures the film an audience Friday (February 26) onwards. I believe that the marketing budget of a film should be controlled otherwise it becomes an added load on the film. Fortunately, because of its trailer the film has created a buzz. Also the whole ongoing issue of the Section 377 that the Supreme Court is relooking at, it has automatically put the film at the centre of things and it has allowed us to tell people about the film.

We are trying to tell people that here is a film and a character that rarely comes in Indian cinema. Say in the late ‘90s when there were lot of formulaic films that were being made, suddenly a mad man named Ram Gopal Varma made a film called Satya.

Manoj Bajpayee (MB): (Cuts in) With all newcomers.

HM: Yes, and he unleashed someone called Bhiku Mhatre. So today Bhiku Mhatre is back, but with a new kind of character played by the same actor doing something that you rarely see. Even in our own careers these kinds of characters are rarely portrayed. And it just so happens that he is a poet and is a lovely old man. I think that kind of a portrayal and that kind of sensitivity towards an older protagonist hasn’t happened since Anupam Kher’s Saaransh. I think the audience must see it and also this character is considered different because he (Manoj) is homosexual.

 

BOI: You have had many special screenings for the industry, what kind of compliments did you get?

MB: There are too many. The best compliment that I got was from my guru and mentor Barry John. He said that he has become my fan. So for me my teacher saying that was the biggest compliment. He cried in front of everybody, he didn’t say anything at the time but later wrote me a mail. One thing that he wrote to me really touched my heart and I felt ki meri life safal ho gayi. I had a surreal moment when I realised that my mentor just told me that he has become my fan. You don’t give me any award, I am fine with it… I will live with this sentence for the rest of my life. Then Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) saab said to me, ‘Though you have given pathbreaking performances, Manoj, but this is your finest performance.’ So you know people who taught you directly or indirectly are affected by your work and by your film and that is the best thing that can happen to any creative person. And these are the people who don’t watch too many films but yet they watch few of my films and feel proud of me. I had never seen such pride in their eyes before Aligarh. They are not just saying good, bad or excellent but are discussing detailed nuances that we have worked on, very hard.

BOI: And what are the compliments you got, Hansal?

HM: It is very embarrassing. I mean I don’t know how to speak about it. You know there are just some people you admire and some people you look up to, including some colleagues whose work you have admired in recent times. They have all said such wonderful things. It is all on social media and you know when they especially call or message a day after the screenings then you know that is a genuine response.

After watching the film uss waqt toh sabko acha bolna hi padta hai kyunki I am standing right in front of them. I have been working in this industry for 22 years and I know what this means. (Laughs)

But when they message me a day after watching the film that the film is not leaving them and it is still lingering in their conscience, then that for me is an important thing. If you take the characters back and the film back then we have achieved something. It has made you think and we wanted to fulfill a larger purpose through this film.

MB: I will tell you one incident. Hansal had completed the final edit of the film and called me to see it once. So after seeing the film once I called my wife to see it. I said to her, ‘I think you will be proud of me.’ So I took her to watch the film and she sat in front of the little monitor in the edit room while Hansal and I waited outside in his office. When the film ended and she came out, I wanted to know what she felt about the film but she didn’t even speak to me. She walked down six floors without even waiting for the elevator. I kept calling out to her and asking her where she is going but she didn’t acknowledge Hansal’s and my presence, instead she just took an auto rickshaw and left. Now I felt that wives do act like this at times, so I didn’t make any thing out of it. (Laughs)

HM: (Cuts in) I toh went into panic mode thinking she didn’t like the film.

MB: I realised that she’s deeply affected by the film. I mean she is my wife and I have known her since many years, so I know her. So when she left, I sat with Hansal for some time and then went back home. When I reached home, I saw that her face was swollen, I didn’t speak to her. The next day she and I were having tea and we were alone in the house and that is when she started howling. I told her let’s not talk about it but then next day, the same thing happened again. You won’t believe when we hosted the first trial of the film, she personally welcomed everyone like it was her film.

HM: People are making the film their own.

MB: Our respective families are feeling so proud of everyone who is associated with this film. See at the end of the day when a film becomes bigger than you, a film becomes more than just a film. And I have seen Satya becoming that. We had more than 25 screenings for the film at that time. It was on the industry’s demand.

HM: (Cuts in) At that time I was very new here and was trying to make my first film. I remember Manoj coming back from the screenings and he always used to be speechless and say, ‘I cannot explain how great the response has been (for Satya).’

MB: Yes, and the same thing is now happening with Aligarh and it is overwhelming. There is no arrogance in what we are saying and there cannot even be a sense of arrogance as at the end of the day we are talking about a man who existed in this world. It is his life that we tried to portray. So whatever praise we are garnering is not coming to us but to him, to Siras (Ramchandra Siras). And to Hansal Mehta who decided to put his life into this film.

BOI: How real is the film in terms of what actually happened and Manoj, your portrayal for that matter?

HM: I always try to understand the man’s life, understand the context and spirit of his existence and try to wrap it in two hours. To take 17 years or 15 years of someone’s life, body of work, emotions and try to condense all this in two hours so naturally there is a dramatic arc that you have to follow to finally make a film. Siras has to appeal to your heart, then it has to be a good film. Whether it is a true story or not, if it appeals to the audience then the story will hold some meaning. So it is mostly imagination, which is based on solid research that the writers carried out. After Siras passed away in 2010, we based our theory on what we imagined his life would be. We were told that he was very lonely. Now how do you describe loneliness, what do you do when you are lonely, he didn’t tell us, so that loneliness has been created in the most beautiful manner by Manoj.

 

BOI: What was Manoj’s reaction when you narrated Aligarh to him?

HM: I gave him a narration, which lasted for about five minutes.

MB: (Laughs) Yes, it was a five-minute narration and I told him I am going to do the film. He said that he is sending across the script and that I should read it but I was already firm that I am doing the film. I am a very difficult actor when it comes to saying yes or even no for that matter. I measure quite a lot. And this film was coming from a friend with whom I was going to work after a long time.

HM: 15 or 16 years.

MB: Also, when I saw Shahid, I saw a different Hansal Mehta. I am very vocal, when I like something I talk a lot about it and if I don’t like something, I keep quiet. So I wanted that Hansal and I should collaborate if he had a suitable character for me. Now as I am in my 40s and for this age, there are rarely good roles written. Aur phir inkoRajkummar (Rao) mil gaye! (Laughs)

So when I got this part I saw the possibility of this film becoming too big, there was such a huge possibility of greatness. Today, everyone is asking me, ‘Aapko darr nahin laga, koi insecurity nahin hui?’ First of all I am not a star. A star has charisma but actors like me, based on their performances, get work. We get appreciated, we take the money and then go home.

HM: (Cuts in) This is his humility. We recently went to the Kala Ghoda Festival, there was a rock concert and in midst of it we were asked to get on the stage to distribute some prizes. Firstly Manoj was called on stage and then they also screened the trailer of our film. The crowd there was running in five figures and the kind of reaction and applause we received there, especially on Manoj’s dialogues… so that is not the sign of, ‘Acha hum actor hain, paise leke ghar jaate hai’, like he just said! (Laughs)

MB: We are known for our performance and the kind of films we do. There are no crores of monies invested on us. We are known by films like Aligarh. So I thought this is an opportunity to be part of a great film and there was nothing for me to be scared about. Hansal Mehta is a director who has credentials and would not do anything that would be shot incorrectly. He is politically correct with his thoughts in the right place and the story is fabulous, a 64-year-old fragile man who fought such a battle that no one knows about.

What is ‘Right To Privacy’, it is not only for a particular sexual orientation, it is even applicable for us that what I do in my own room at night is no one’s business, an outsider has no right to know what I do in my own home behind closed doors. This is the fight that Siras fought. It is beneficial for all of us and he won that fight but by the time he regained his respect and received his position back in the university, he died. How he died and what exactly happened to him was never investigated, so for me he was a hero. I was looking at this great man as a hero. Then there are small aspects of him like his evening ritual of three pegs of whiskey, Lata Mangeshkar’s song on an old tape recorder, reading literature and writing Marathi poems.

HM: Manoj has sung a Marathi song in
the film.

MB: I don’t know Marathi so I had to work hard for it.

BOI: Does the director’s job become easy when you have great actors like Rajkummar and Manoj?

HM: (Laughs) A director gets exposed very fast with poor actors, writers, editor and cinematographer.

MB: I have different take on this, in the West or anyplace where people are making good films, they never compromise on talent in any department, they don’t compromise on ability.

HM: Even for me it is a given that I must have the best available actors for that particular role. I have two of the country’s finest actors right now. So it was really a combination of two very fine talents coming together for me. Even during shooting I felt like I am at a play and there are two fine actors aur unke beech jugalbandi chal rahi hai. And I used to keep watching them, it was magic.

 

BOI: Forget Indian society, even in Hindi cinema, homosexuality becomes a caricature, so what were the pitfalls that you were trying to avoid when you were making this film?

MB: See both of us believe that our political and social thinking are almost the same so our concerns are also the same. He is very vocal, I am quiet but our concerns were the same so there was no conflict. And definitely he didn’t want his movie to play to the gallery and I would never ever be judgmental about it, I am not. And there are too many homosexual friends of mine who typically don’t seem gay.

They are just like us, they have the same feelings, same emotions so I never understood it and there was a lot of anger about this in me. Even when there is an interview of some actor who says, ‘My role is very different this time, I am playing a Bihari character.’ What is a Bihari character or a Punjabi character? There are all kinds of people in Bihar. I have several Marathi friends and I am from Bihar so that doesn’t mean that I should have only Bihari friends, it doesn’t happen that way. Similarly people tell me that I am playing a gay character, par yeh gay character nahin hai. All of us sitting in this room are hetrosexual but our sexual orientation doesn’t make our character. If someone is gay then that’s his sexual orientation but his personality is different because of his upbringing, his education, the atmosphere he grew up in and all those things make him different. His sexual orientation just happens to be different.

HM: Their existence in society was acknowledged by a formulaic film which was obsessed with so-called family values. I think they laughed at them, I think you should have sense of humour, you shouldn’t be hypersensitive about being laughed at…

MB: It is like whenever Hansal and I talk, we laugh at each other. We don’t take it personally. Coming to your question, it is the story of a man who happens to be gay, a man who loves Lata Mangeshkar, Marathi language, Marathi poems and at the same time he is staying in Aligarh for 30 years and doesn’t want to leave the city. He loves his University and though he belongs to Nagpur and has done his doctorate from there, he doesn’t want to go there. He is so much in love with Aligarh and that University, so we focused on these things. So even in his language you will see that he is not using any derogatory words, he is neither a sadak chhaap nor a criminal. He is a well-educated and an extremely cultured man. So his dialect consists of Hindi with a dash of Nagpur’s Marathi accent, as Nagpur and Indore border on Madhya Pradesh so people there have a huge influence of Hindi in their dialect.

 

BOI: You just mentioned the response and how the film made an impact during the special screenings, but while shooting what kind of an impact did the film have on you?

MB: For me personally I have not played such a nice character on screen. In Pinjar, the character I played Rashid Khan, he was a very nice man who loved Urmila’s (Matondkar) character eternally. But this character, Siras was very different. The world kept on being harsh to him and yet he never confronts the world, not even once does he turn and ask, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ In a way that is his weakness as well that he doesn’t confront them. People ask me what is grey in this character and I feel that the grey shades in this character are that he doesn’t confront the world. So that is his vulnerable point which is also the reason the world keeps pushing him into a corner. He just lives in his little apartment, goes to buy vegetables and whiskey and then goes back home, listens to songs, writes poetry and reads books. Yet the world outside feels so strongly that after a point people even enter his apartment.

Coming back to your question about what impact it had on me is that it improved me as a person. As it is with experience and age I keep on trying to be a better person. I feel more than trying to be a better actor or director or journalist our ultimate goal should be to become a better person with age and experience. This character has not given me any nightmare. In fact the character I played in Shool left me with very bad dreams.

 

BOI: Still were there any fears as this is a very prejudiced society. Did you ever think that it would be tagged as a gay film?

HM: I think it would transcend that. You know let it be stereotyped as a gay film and let people go to the theatres thinking that it is a gay film and come out questioning those who are prejudiced. Those who are not prejudiced would want to change the ones who are as this character has that power.

BOI: Lately if you look at films like Airlift and even Talvar last year, the audience wants films which are based on reality. Does that encourage both of you?

MB: Definitely. Since many years different kind of films and stories are being encouraged by the audience, producers and corporate houses. I mean Eros has put in money to release this film and that in itself is a commendable job. At the end of the day, big corporate houses are willing to put in money into these kinds of unconventional stories. And this film is like at the height of unconventional and is also garnering a lot of appreciation. So Eros is feeling encouraged about it and they are pushing the envelope when it comes to marketing and releasing the film. We just hope and pray more and more people come to the theatres and watch our film.

HM: When I went to narrate the idea to Kishore (Lulla) and Sunil (Lulla) they wanted to sign the contract the next day itself. I am not in the `200 crore club. I am a director who works on minimising risks and works on budgets which don’t fail. I always say that budgets fail, films don’t fail. You should make a film in the right budget and the right budget is always which is less than the planned budget.

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