For debutant director Jagan Shakti, any story told in an engaging way is commercial. At the same time, he acknowledges that Mission Mangal isn’t a regular film. “The idea was to build a human drama around ordinary Indians who accomplished an extraordinary historical feat,” he said in an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com, referring to the successful launch of India’s first satellite to Mars.
Here are excerpts from a conversation:
Q. How did Mission Mangal happen?
My script almost got shot down because Dharma Productions was busy on something else. There was, in fact, news that Akshay Kumar was working on a different film. That’s when Murugadoss sir called me, by god’s will. “Take a flight and come to Chennai. Tell me who you want in your film, Nayanthara or Surya, I will arrange,” he said, reassuring me that I had an excellent script.
I came to Chennai and Murugadoss sir put me onto a writer and I developed the script with the writer for four months in Tamil. One day, Akshay called and enquired about this script. He asked for a narration. I went to Pune and he was shooting for Kesari. After listening to my script, Akshay was willing to do Mission Mangal and wanted to produce it, too. I was happy. But originally, I had written the script bearing Mohanlal and Sridevi in mind.
Q. How did you go about casting the rest of the actors?
I worked with Vidya in Paa and she immediately agreed to do Mission Mangal. I knew Sonakshi through Holiday and Akira. Actually, she came on board without listening to the script. I just gave her a one-liner. Akshay Kumar spoke to Taapsee and convinced her. We finished the shooting in 36 days. I think 9-10 years of my experience as an associate director came in handy.
On the first day, I was actually shitting bricks but somehow managed. (Grins) Since I was surrounded by terrific actors, I also turned into one. I spent six months researching on the subject. We didn’t shoot inside ISRO but managed to get hold of people involved in the mission. We interviewed all the scientists and had over 100 hours of recording. Each character has a backstory. I was particular that all actors had equal space.
Q. How was it to work with Akshay Kumar?
He is the most casual and positive person you can find in Bollywood. He is jovial and easy to work with. Most importantly, he doesn’t take stardom seriously. We had a great time filming Mission Mangal. The sets resembled a college. The moment you called “cut”, there will be laughter and banter. Akshay liked me for my hard work and dedication. You may ask how he does many films in a year. But he spends a lot of time on the scripts. He is a workaholic and works so hard even after achieving so much. Akshay wakes up at 5 am, goes for a jog and cycles. He leads a disciplined life and I find it inspiring.
Q. Tell us about your writing process.
I do my first draft then start adding the other things in whatever language I am comfortable with. I ‘think’ in English but write comedy portions alone in Tamil. Hindi comes in handy as well.
Q. How long were you sitting on this script?
(Laughs) Three years! My sister is a senior scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation, but I never took her seriously. Like any other successful working woman, she wakes up in the morning, washes the dishes, cooks, packs lunch for her daughters and leaves for work.
Once, I had told her that scientists should actually focus on submarines because the missiles keep falling into the water. But the photograph of all the women scientists showing thumbs up after the successful launch of India’s first satellite to Mars gave me a guilt-trip and made me realise how insensitive I was. They do something great at work, yet worry about dinner for the family. Say, a man has a monthly review meeting, he won’t do anything else that day. But for the women, a big launch day is also like any other day and that is what struck me.
Q. Why did you have Balki on board for dialogues?
Though I had the story ready, I needed someone to contribute more in terms of dialogues and nuances. I went to Balki sir for this mere purpose. Without his contributions, Mission Mangal wouldn’t have been possible. Otherwise, the outline, screenplay, how the characters behave, what they say and what they do—everything was on paper. I have been carrying this idea for a long time.
Q. You have assisted AR Murugadoss (Thuppakki, Holiday, Akira) and Balki (Cheeni Kum). I am sure those working experiences would have helped you while directing Mission Mangal.
Through Balki sir, I learnt a different face of cinema in Bombay, but I lean more towards the commercial AR Murugadoss school of cinema. (Smiles) Today, everybody has access to a phone, Netflix, Amazon and so on and if you want people to come to theaters, you need an interesting element. As a teenager, I was exposed to Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi movies. Growing up in Bangalore, I used to catch the first-day-first-show of Rajinikanth, Amitabh Bachchan and Chiranjeevi movies. That’s the kind of cinema-goer I am. I want to make films for the similar crazy theater-going crowd.
Q. Mission Mangal had thinking women characters. But the film does ‘oversimplify’ a lot of things.
Are you referring to the ‘poori technique’? (Laughs) I didn’t want to get into specifics as it was done for obvious reasons. My ultimate concern was to see whether my audience understands what my actors communicate or if it is going above their head. I wanted the film to be understood by any layman, so we deliberately dumbed ‘the science part’ down. The intention was to make a sensible commercial film that makes money.
Q. Don’t you think by oversimplifying things, you have not authentically portrayed a complex mission?
If people want to know how the Mangalyaan went into space, they should watch a documentary. The rocket science and ISRO was just the backdrop and as a filmmaker, my focus was naturally on storytelling and human emotions. We all have a certain image in our head as to how a scientist is. But if you see them at a bus stand or a marketplace, you will never guess who they are.
Q. Mission Mangal had its fair share of stereotypes. For example, Taapsee Pannu’s character designs a spaceship but can’t drive a car.
A woman can navigate a rocket and still have an issue with driving a car. Don’t you think it’s possible? That’s a contrasting character arc. All characters in Mission Mangal were designed the same way. Nithya Menon plays a lightweight satellite designer, but she’s slightly plump. Normally in movies, men will go on cigarette breaks, but here, Sonakshi does the same. Also, Akshay Kumar, known for his stunts, sits quietly during the fight scene. People loved it! In the context of entertainment and commercial cinema, it’s right. (Smiles)
Q. Are you planning to do a Tamil film anytime soon?
It’s my dream. Since I spent many years working in Bombay, I got such a big break with Mission Mangal. I will establish myself there and come down to Chennai. Murugadoss sir advised me to do the same. I am a huge fan of Mani Ratnam, too.
Q. Who do you want to work with?
Films happened because I was inspired by Kamal Haasan and Thevar Magan. But I would love to work with Ajith and Vijay. They have a powerful screen presence and huge fan-following.
Q. What’s next?
Murugadoss sir wanted me to do the Bollywood remake of Kaththi, but Sanjay Leela Bhansali already owns the rights. I had to drop it once I started Mission Mangal. But they want me to direct the film because they find me well-suited for the job. I am a Tamilian comfortable with the Bombay industry. So, I am committed to that. Further, I am writing a human drama with science-fiction script. The film will star Akshay Kumar.