At a time when the battle for getting big numbers at the box office has become the goal for many filmmakers, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is still keen on exploring love, irrespective of what the box office may bring in return. With fresh faces like Harshvardhan Kapoor, Saiyami Kher, Anuj Chowdhury and Anjali Patil, the director — who previously treated us to blockbusters like Rang De Basanti and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag — has now set out on a journey which has been on his mind for so many years. In an exclusive chat with the indianexpress.com, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra says that it is difficult to tell a story keeping the box office in mind.
So we watched the trailer of Mirzya, it kind of seemed to switch from one period to another, which era is it based in?
Mirzya is inspired by the famous folklore of Mirza Sahiba. It has its likeness in great love stories and great romantic tragedies like Romeo Juliet, Heer Ranjha and Laila Majnu. In my film, we play out the folklore which forms one part of the story and then the folklore, in a way, kind of resonates and echoes and lands in today’s time. And mostly a good 70% of it plays out in contemporary Rajasthan (in 2016) with contemporary actors.
So what kind of expectations are we supposed to have on the structure of the film?
I’m not such a big fan of expectations. We try and concentrate on writing and once that’s done we just put our heads down, execute it to the best of our abilities. And the rest… well I hope the audience likes it when it goes out to the theatres. I have always enjoyed experimenting with the format of cinema, with the style of storytelling whether its Delhi 6, or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag or Rang De Basanti.. playing with various time zones with non-linear storytelling rather than a straight forward line, well that keeps me on my toes and it’s always challenging. So in Mirzya there is a narrator of the folklore, then there is a folklore and then actually the essence of the folklore it echoes and (like I was saying) lands on today’s time. And it’s a musical.
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You said you do not work on expectations from a film in terms of box office. Even after you made popular hits like Rang De Basanti and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag?
It is very difficult to tell a story just keeping the box office in mind. I think we have to pursue our passion, we have to pursue excellence, you have to be true to storytelling, true to the art of cinema that is very important for me. Then let your efforts kind of re-dividends as to whatever they deserve. I always believe that when a film goes out it cannot be judged by just a Friday, or just by numbers on that Friday. Firstly I would rather not judge movies, but who have any kind of a yardstick is whether the film has some kind of a perpetuity to it that it can live on forever and ever.
Mirza Sahiban is one of the popular tragic romances of Punjab will your film be based on the epic love story and tell a similar love story based on the contemporary times?
That’s exactly what I was telling you earlier. I first saw the play during my college days in Delhi University. Various colleges from all over the country had come, it was like a cultural festival. The play was staged. I found the story line very interesting with a very strong female protagonist. What happens in the story is when the time comes Sahiba she breaks Mirza’s arrows. So he is unable to defend himself and in the process, he is killed. Then the director would come on stage at the end of the play and ask the question why did Sahiba break the arrows? That question kind of stayed with me for the longest time. It’s almost been 25 years since I have been out of college. So somethings stay in your sub conscious… stories that you have heard and you always want to find their meaning, you want to dwell on them to re tell them.. so I went to Gulzar bhai and I asked him, Gulzar bhai Sahiba ne teer kyun torein the? ( Gulzar bhai why did Sahiba break the arrows?) So he said bachu woh toh tum Sahiba se jakey puncho ( kid,why don’t you go and ask Sahiba about it? ) I said Gulzar bhai Sahiba toh mil nehi rahi hain..bahut dhoondh raha hun main kab se, aap hi bata dijiye. ( Gulzar Bhai, I can’t find Sahiba, I am searching for her for a long time…why don’t you tell me. ) He had a twinkle in his eyes and he understood the journey I wanted to go down, what I was actually asking him is let’s go and discover this piece called love. Why is falling in love so illogical, so irrational it doesn’t have any reason to it? looking at Sahiba’s act why do we hurt people the most whom we love the most. That’s the journey I went into. trying to find out why did Sahiba break the arrows.
More important that her breaking the arrows like I just told you… why do we hurt them the most whom we love the most? Sahiba really loved Mirzya, they were soulmates, he loved him more than she loved her own life. Why would you sacrifice somebody so dear to you? so it was actually a sacrifice. People keep interpreting that she wanted to avoid bloodshed. Mirzya was such a great archer that he would have killed all her brothers singlehandedly. So she wanted to avoid a part of that. But in the process, it’s quite certain Mirzya won’t be able to defend himself because he is left with no ammunition. So that’s one part of the story. And that gets also revealed quite late in the film. The story actually if something similar happens in terms of relationships how would it play out. If there would be a Sahiba today so what would she do or if there was a Mirzya today what would he do?
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Out of all the love stories which one is your favourite?
For me, it’s not about favourite. the story that has resonated the most is mirzya sahiba. and that’s why I have become a medium of retelling the story reinterpreting it has always interested me so much that I was compelled to bring it to the cinema once more. It’s a story full of conflict and got a lot of grey shades at the same time it lends an excerpt to extremely contemporary today’s thinking… the way youth think, behave and react to situations.
Other than love what kind of ideas did you want to explore while directing Mirzya?
Every story has one central idea for me. One simple single thought so in Mirzya its mostly about love. Various shades of love, why do we fall in love, why do we fall out of love. By various shades of love I mean love can be possessive, there’s jealousy, there’s revenge, there’s sacrifice above all in love. Woh kehte hain hain na Hindi main ki dey ke lena..( when you give everything and you get everything) so is there something called love at all or is it another feeling? Which is more than love..if I were to define it in my own way is it’s about coming together of soulmates…how do you find your soulmates? It’s one thing to tell a boy-girl story and it’s an absolutely another board game when you say I have found my soulmate, then it’s not about just boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-wife so on and so forth. It does not necessarily need a happy or a sad ending. It just plays out in its own crazy way….it’s a feeling and that’s the feeling I want to give to the audience. So that once they watch the movie they go out and watch it with their soulmates.
Previously you have worked with well-known faces of Bollywood like Aamir Khan, Farhan Akhtar. This time, however, you are working with fresh faces of Bollywood. What are your expectations?
You know once the script was ready.. I mean the story script, the draft, not the screenplay, I was on floors with Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. In fact there was a time when I had to decide whether to make Bhaag Milkha Bhaag first or Mirzya, and I realised that I need to live with Mirzya much longer to understand the
intricacies. The writing was so beautiful, so layered and Gulzar’s writing is like that and we all know that. His writing is legendary and he was writing a screenplay after a gap of 12 years. The last time he had done was for himself and so which was amazing. After the screenplay was done and we went into the casting exercise…we would write on the board option 1,2,3 for various characters, then I shut my eyes and there were no faces which were coming to me, who
would fit the characters then and there, so it was quite evident that we are looking for newcomers. It required a very fresh approach. I did not want to disappoint the audience to come to see their favourite stars and you know to come to see what they expect from their favourite star. I wanted the audience to experience
something new rather than watch their favourite icons so it’s not the first time that has happened in cinema…all actors have to do their first film. So the names you just mentioned, (Aamir, Farhan.. or even Amitabh Bachchan) they have all had their first film. So there has to be the first film at some point in time. We have not one but four newcomers.. there’s Anuj Chowdhury, Anjali Patil (who has done Maharashtrian films) as well. Now when I see the edit of the film it brings a sense of freshness to the story. For that I must say.. thank god we went for new faces.
Previously you have worked on films like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Range De Basanti, Delhi 6, Aks, what tempted you to direct a movie based on a love story?
Like I told you…I saw the play at college…since then the questions were in my heart. As a storyteller as a director, my job is to explore and say something, go out on a journey hold the audience’s hands and take them along with you.
There is a part of me who is an eternal romantic, who wants to fall in love…all of us are. It is such a basic emotion. We all look for love. Various stories say that in various ways… and here there was a perfect opportunity for me to express myself. Also if you see the way things have kind of panned out for me.. not such a huge film there… when I started my first film Aks, followed by Rang De Basanti which was a socio-political drama, followed by Delhi 6 which was a black comedy picking up the question of religious intolerance.. followed by Bhaag Milkha Bhaag which dwelled in the indomitable human spirit within you it also dealt with something which is quite close to my heart which is the partition of India. For me, I have always wondered whether I should celebrate the independence of India or kind of dwell on the partition of the country where millions lost their lives. Milkha was one of the victims who grew up with the hatred of Pakistan, but in the end of the story he comes around and that is the message I wanted to convey. So you see all the films have different structures and as a storyteller, once you’ve told something, it’s almost compelling to not repeat yourself. And cinema being such a fabulous art form you can move on.. and explore new branch.
Like we discussed earlier, there is an intimate scene in the trailer. Are you worried about facing clashes with the CBFC?
Why should I be worried about the CBFC? …I don’t think so it is a board which creates the problem for the film industry. We make thousands of films and they get released. Some films do come up. I ‘m not sure if you know, I have spent the last five months in Shyam Benegal committee. Shyam babu, Kamal Hassan, Goutam Ghosh, Piyush Pandey, we have been asked by the government to review the censor board. We studied right from the Cinematographic act of 1958 to all other revisions and met various stakeholders from the society, women welfare group, animal welfare group, health ministry so on and so forth and we have given the government a blueprint of the new censor policies which will now be presented in the parliament and I hope it goes through. We have recommended there cannot be any scissors. Censor board’s job is to give a certification not to censor. We have strongly recommended to bring in a rating system. Which means your film can be rated to be seen by all, (to be seen by 12 and above, 15 and above, 18 and above) but no cuts. So it brings back a lot of responsibilities, on the shoulders of the producers. You cannot slip in from the back door and ask for a universal certification. At the same time, you have the freedom of expression especially when you’re dealing with sensitive subjects. And if that expression is going to mislead the children..so the idea of censor certification is to protect the children from excessive abuse, excessive sex, excessive violence, so on and so forth. I am not such a fan of pointing fingers at the board at the same time I very strongly believe that the board cannot have individual moral standards based on person to person. There has to be a standard principle and we need to follow it.