It all started with Manmohan Singhji. He was the cameraman for Maachis and I shared a great rapport with him. I enjoyed working with him on Mohabbatein too and have healthy respect for him as a technician.
A few years later, Singhji asked me if I was willing to do a Punjabi film. By then, he was a well-known director of Punjabi movies, which had become quite popular. Although still limited to a domestic audience, Punjabi films had started attracting many more people and so I agreed to do the film.
My first Punjabi film was Yaraan Naal Baharaan, which was a turning point in my career. The response to my first Punjabi film was phenomenal. After which, I became selective about the films I chose and continued working in the Hindi film industry too. After that, Gurbir Singh Grewal narrated a script based on a real story. The film was called Mannat and it had a limited release as it did not get the right kind of promotion. Though the songs became a hit, but we did not get the kind of response we were hoping for.
Next, I worked with director Navaniat Singh, for his film Tera Mera Ki Rishta, which was a love story. It was the first time a Punjabi film was mounted on a scale comparable to a Hindi film – big cast, shot overseas and in Punjab too. That is when we realised we needed to change our approach to Punjabi films. So I took 35 to 40 days out of my schedule and went to Punjab a month before the film released. I hired a mini-bus, stuck posters on it and called all the people we knew across Punjab. The entire cast and crew piled into the bus and we drove across the state in 10 to 12 days. We also went to villages and universities to promote the film. Everything was BIG. Another film of mine, Munde U.K. De, was to release in a couple of months, so I promoted both films simultaneously. Needless to say, both films broke many box office records.
Later, I decided to do a Punjabi action film, and Mel Karade Rabba happened. It is probably the biggest-ever musical blockbuster. The songs are still popular! It took me a month to promote this movie, and this included countries like Australia and Canada. Still, I didn’t expect the kind of response that Mel Karade Rabba received. And what do you know? The film was a sensation, with the police having to lathi-charge the crowds in Punjab! In fact, the film’s shows were banned post 8 pm, which was a big loss to us. But people were going crazy; they were singing and dancing in the cinemas; they also broke some seats in the frenzy!
This film had irrevocably raised the bar and there was no looking back. By now, Punjabi films had a huge market, not just in India but also abroad. Families were watching Punjabi films; the youth had returned to the cinemas; and kids were enjoying our films too. The only section left out was the elderly, who did not know where Punjabi cinema was headed.
We had a script called Dharti and had planned on making a Hindi film based on it. So, instead, we made this film in Punjabi and used the state’s politics as the backdrop. The elderly in Punjab are well-versed in politics and we felt this would be a huge draw. Of course, the rest is history. That’s how we managed to draw in all sections of the audience.
It has taken us many years to take Punjabi cinema to where it is now, and, naturally, I am thrilled. Till Dharti released, we had maximum 150 shows in Punjab but today, we have 450 shows – three times more.
I have produced Taur Mittran Di, and the next one is Sadi Love Story. Now I am preparing to shoot for Rangeelay, a musical and a total entertainer.
I’m glad that Punjabi cinema is coming of age in terms of box office earnings but this is only the tip of the iceberg. We still have to break pan-India, big time, especially Delhi-UP, Bihar, Indore, Bangalore and Kolkata, where there is a huge Punjabi audience. It’s all about promotions. I am relieved we have broken the overseas barrier.
Today, Punjabi films are offering Hindi films tough competition. That’s why we don’t release a film every week. On an average, we have a release once every six weeks and this helps avoid a clash at the box office.
The feeling of being a Punjabi superstar is all about an emotional bond. I hail from Patiala and the people of Punjab embrace me as one of them. There is still a long way to go but I think Punjabi cinema will rock pan-India in just three years.