Do you feel both The Tashkent files and The Kashmir files are possibly the biggest turning points in your career?
Yes. When we got the first draft of The Tashkent Files and we did the first reading, my first reaction was that the committee scenes are brilliant. That’s where the film lies. The rapport between all these people from different walks of life, each having their own points of view and their agenda, and hence deliberating over a point with those agendas in mind. I think this was brilliant. For me, as a viewer or as a reader of that script, I thought that was probably the most interesting part of the script.
Then when we set out for casting, every time we circulated the script, there were a lot of people who said, ‘Na, matlab woh thoda verbose hai, especially the committee scenes’. People would say, ‘I thought I’m going to fall asleep’. I would just look at Vivek and there would be a silent communication between us that this is not the actor because he or she did not understand this film at all. Let’s go somewhere else. This happened until we found the people that really understood what it was. And now look at the film and its reception. There are so many people who only talk about the committee scenes, and what marvelous performances by Mithun da and Shweta (Basu Prasad). The people who decided to finally do this film really owned up to their characters.
Your career started as a child artist back in the 70s. You’ve had a ringside view of all the changes in the film industry and your profession over 50 years. How do you look back to it all?
If I could borrow the cliched saying, I’d say that the only thing constant is change. There has to be a change. And change is always good. It’s always welcomed. Each new generation that comes up, always wants new heroes. They want newer people to look up to. When we were growing up, we also didn’t want older actors, in their 50s, to play college going students and even we would hate it completely. We wanted Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor. These were our matinee idols. The same thing happened in the next few years, even Mr Bachchan had to go through that phase where the audience was kind of rejecting him, but thanks to his immense talent that he managed to reinvent and get into a totally different zone. He plays all his characters now, so gracefully.
That was the time when Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir and Salman were young, they were just starting and people loved them. So they became the public’s heroes. Now a new generation has come up and they want new heroes. Suddenly, you see Karthik Aaryan and his kind of stars becoming the current heartthrobs of all the girls. So change is constant. We’re always going to have some disgruntled older actors, saying that ‘Oh, the audience doesn’t like us anymore’. That will happen with every generation.
Talking about cinema evolving as a medium, I would say that unfortunately, when I started my career, that was the worst time that cinema has ever seen. Our songs, stories, production, makeup were all bad, our costumes were horrible. The dance was terrible. Whatever could be wrong, was all experimented with during the 70s and 80s. And yet, we had some gems like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak coming out at that time. The cinema that belongs to the pre-60s era, those films always had some takeaway. Even when you see these older films like Teesri Kasam, Awara, any of Raj Kapoor’s films for that matter, or Sunil Dutt’s films, you still want to see those films at one go, you don’t want to stop it in between and say, ‘Ye log kya dikha rahe hain?’ Even today, when you watch a Manoj Kumar film, you want to see it till the end.
What changed in Bollywood over the years and do you feel we’ve strayed from the right path?
I feel those filmmakers always wanted some commentary on what was happening in the country. Films are supposed to show a mirror to society and that’s what we always felt while watching those old films. Somehow that completely stopped during the 70s and 80s. During the Shah Rukh Khan era, when he became a superstar, suddenly, there was the scope for romantic films. But now that has also died down. I feel that’s happened because our country is going through a period of purging itself and cinema also has to go through it. As actors and artists, we’ve always been taught to be anti-establishment, because we always have to show the mirror to society. That is not happening in our films anymore. Now, during the COVID pandemics and lockdowns, people have realised after having watched a lot of international stuff, that they don’t want to be associated with mediocrity anymore. They want the film industry to rise up, and give them good content once again.
The change is happening, the wheels are turning again, there’s going to be another purge before it settles again, for another 20 years. I don’t think anyone needs to be really perturbed about it. As I said, the disgruntled older actors are mainstay and it has happened before, it will happen now. It will happen tomorrow as well.
Your career on TV started in the 80s. You have seen a time when actors, directors and most other talents were divided between art house and commercial cinema. Do you feel those distinctions have disappeared now?
I’m very happy that the lines are blurred today. Back in the day when these films were conveniently labeled as art cinema, arthouse cinema or parallel cinema, we didn’t get theaters to release our films. There was only one theater in Mumbai, called Akashwani, where we would release. The only way for the producer of such movies to recover his money was to take it into the International circuit and show it in different countries. While these films received a lot of awards, there was no guarantee that the producer was going to get his money back. Now, since the lines are blurred and people want to watch good content, there is a certain surety that if you plan your film intelligently enough, then the producer won’t lose money. If people want good content, then there also has to be surety for the producer that if he invests in a film, he/she won’t lose that money. Because only then will the producers be able to invest back in the industry and make more movies. It’s a partnership between the audience and the filmmakers. We have had so many talented directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Sudhir Mishra, Gautam Ghose and Mrinal Sen. When you consider a filmmaker like Satyajit Ray, whose films have always worked in Bengal, but when his films came to Mumbai or the South, they were called art house cinema.
There will always be that distinction between independent cinema and commercial cinema. And I think that distinction should remain because the audience should also have a choice. The blurring of the lines is fine, but that little distinction always gives scope to young independent filmmakers to make films with smaller budgets and showcase their talent. Not everybody can afford to make 200 crore films. For them to be able to stand on their own two feet, that option needs to be open to them.
Amitabh Bachchan said on a recent episode of KBC that the way women are involved in the process of filmmaking has changed drastically. He remarked that earlier on, there used to be just two females on a film set, one would be the heroine and the other would be her mother, accompanying the heroine to the sets. But times have changed and now women constitute almost 50 percent of the film crew. How do you feel about this change?
I am extremely happy. Not just because there are a lot of women now on film sets, but because our education system has now started recognising optional careers. Back when we were growing up, if you weren’t a doctor or an engineer, then it meant that you were a duffer. Back in the day our college had the option between art, science and commerce. People would choose commerce thinking that banda Chartered Accountant to ban hi jayega. That was still on the second level. If you had opted for arts as your subject, that meant you’d only become a teacher. It also meant that you’re a duffer and you haven’t gotten marks beyond 50 or 60 percent. The child’s interest was never taken into consideration, because I think India was still evolving as a country. It was too soon and independence was still very new. We were growing as a society so we had to produce a lot of educated people, engineers and doctors, bio-chem professionals and IT engineers. It was to make sure India became a better and more educated country. But now parents have started realising that the happiness of the child matters as well.
And these new career options can earn them their livelihood, help them stand on their own feet and be independent. See how the definition of a journalist has also changed in our films. Pehle bichara, cycle aur jhola leke nikalta tha. But today, movies show journalists in crisp suits sitting in air conditioned studios. Everything changes and I’m so glad that this has happened. And it has given scope to a lot of creative professionals who thankfully, don’t have the keeda of acting in their mind, but are still creative and they’re expressing their creativity in a lot of different ways.
While this is more relevant to our cities and not so much to the inner pockets of our country, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, as long as you’re getting the job done.
The Kashmir Files has had polarising opinions and if your film misses out on nominations and recognitions at next year’s awards season, would you be upset?
I’m not even considering any of these award functions. I’ll be surprised if we get nominated. I know for a fact that we won’t be considered. But I think the film deserves a National Award, at least. There is a list that I have, but I’m sure we won’t get it in so many categories. But if we don’t get that one National Award, I guess I will be disappointed.
Have you ever differed with Vivek’s political opinions and how have you guys resolved it?
I am not interested in politics. I’m a very simple person. If you are going to talk to me nicely, I’m going to talk very nicely to you. Main usme yeh nahi dhoondugi ki a person told me something, so uske peeche uska kya maqsad tha, toh main woh soch ke usse jawab dungi. I don’t have the brains to do that. You know you need to be a very calculative person and I am not a calculative person at all. Maybe someday a person may come and taunt me in a clever manner and I might not even understand the sarcasm behind it. Politics and I don’t share the same initials and we’ve got nothing to do with each other.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean I don’t have political views. That doesn’t mean that I don’t keep abreast with the news. Kisine, kis waqt, kis wajah se kya kiya, that I don’t understand. But whether they were right or wrong, I have my opinion about that. Sometimes Vivek and I differ on that, we have a chat. Sometimes we come on the same page. Sometimes we don’t. And we each stick to our own opinions. We are fine with it. We’re two individuals and every morning, when we come and sit in the living room, we have our tea together, but we don’t drink from the same cup.
What can we look forward to from your upcoming projects? After The Kashmir Files, are you getting more offers for acting assignments?
I’m looking forward to it. I hope somebody calls me and casts me in some project. I’ve stopped getting calls. People have stopped asking me for work for the last few years. But I have no complaints there. If they don’t call me, I have my own production house and Vivek is writing good films.
We have a couple of new ventures that we are working on. The Delhi Files is going to be the last of our trilogy. That is still being researched and it’s a massive subject. I think it’s going to need a few more months of research before we really consolidate it and put it in the script form. Another subject that we are considering and we are very kicked about is how India made the most successful vaccine in the world.
If you have read the latest reports, the efficacy rate of our vaccine has come up to 97%. Some of the other vaccines have got some negative reports. Some have caused miscarriages in women, about an alarming figure of about 44% women have had miscarriages. And while we were still struggling with making our own vaccine, the whole world was trying to run us down. America refused to give us raw materials to make our own vaccine. There was this bunch of scientists who struggled through it all and saved the lives of 130 crore people within a span of a few months. Moreover, we have helped 80 countries get vaccinations. It’s a very fascinating subject. It’s not just it’s not just a human triumph story, there is a villain and a hero in this story, too and we are very kicked about it.