You had mentioned that you would first get the censor certificate for Mukkabaaz and then decide on the release date.
The film’s producers are sending the film for the certification. I will answer for the film if there are any questions raised. As a director, I have not had so much censor trouble. I have put up a fight for other movies. Raman Raghav 2.0 or Gangs of Wasseypur did not have that kind of experience.
So, what prompted Mukkabaaz?
I love sports. I wonder why we produce so few sportspersons and why sports at the state-level gets caught up in politics. I’m taking up a sport and a state to tell a story that is true to most states and sports, barring cricket. Cricket gets funding and players at the lower level can make a living. But, in other sports, people get into it when they have no other option left. They assume that if they take it up, eventually, they may get a government job.
What was the trigger to turn it into a socio-political drama?
We used to have a culture of socio-political cinema. I will break down how I write my scripts. What’s my film about? Sports. What sport is it? Boxing. Do we have homegrown stories like Rocky? No. What’s the state of boxing in India? It is not played in an arena with strobe lights, but in small tents. Now, what state is it? Uttar Pradesh. What’s plaguing the state? Casteism. Casteism is very deeply rooted in sports. Pick up a sport and look at the names of sportsmen, you will find similar surnames (dominating the game). The film also makes references to cow vigilantism.
Right now, cow slaughter and trading in beef is banned in India. There are anti-social elements who are using it to settle personal scores. Is it important to address it? Yes. When I am talking about two people and their love story in a socio-political context, their immediate social surrounding has a political consequence. We have shown that in movies such as Sujata (1959) and Prem Rog (1982). Raj Kapoor had made Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985). Would they allow the protagonist to be called Ganga today? Times are changing — we have to talk about these things in our movies.
So Mukkabaaz has a strong political tone.
I am an extremely apolitical person — I am not making films for propaganda. But I am not blind to what’s going on. Mukkabaaz talks about what’s on top of people’s minds in a small town. I won’t shy away from putting that out there. Many people, who were doing nothing earlier, are suddenly projecting themselves as nationalists or cow protectors. They are taking power in their hands to control people. So many small outfits have mushroomed in the name of sanskriti.
The movie’s protagonist Vineet Singh had written the original story. At what point did you decide to add these other elements to it?
Vineet wrote a Rocky-like story. I liked the element about the boxer trying to find a government job. I thought that’s where the film was. We always take the script further and bring in local elements. We were shooting the film in UP just before the elections. We could not ignore what we saw there.
Was the UP setting an organic choice?
Given the times we live in, if I have to make a film about a community, I would choose my own. No one can tell me: ‘What do you know?’. I am from UP. I am very comfortable with north India. I wrote the stories of Shool (1999) and Yuva (2004) or made Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) there. I know what goes on there.
What made you cast Vineet as the lead?
I told him that I won’t make this film unless he became a boxer. He went for a year to a village in Punjab and trained himself. He is fighting real boxers such as Neeraj Goyat and Deepak Rajput in the film.
In the film, Zoya Hussain’s character Sunaina, too, is very spirited.
You know, people are usually deaf and mute. So, scientifically, we are wrong (Sunaina is only speech impaired). But, for me, she was a metaphor for all the women who are not supposed to have a voice. Sometimes, not having a voice is more empowering than having a voice and not being able to use it. Since she does not have a voice, her sign language allows her to speak freely. That makes her powerful.
Have you watched S Durga? Do you think a filmmaker today is free to hold up a mirror to society?
Ninety percent of the people who are blocking out S Durga have not watched it. The fact is they are fearing something that’s not there. No one has watched Padmavati. They are fighting because they want publicity or to launch themselves in the political arena. But the filmmaker is suffering and suffering more in his silence. So, all you can do is fight. Sometimes, that does not work either. However, if you are honest, have patience and fight it out, you will survive in the end.
When I spoke up during Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), I was asked to shut up not by Karan Johar, but the producers. That taught me one thing: I will stand up for anyone who stands up for himself. I am totally in support of (Sanjay Leela) Bhansali, but I don’t want to say anything that’d put him in a spot.
Is the environment becoming unfavourable for artists to take a stand?
The time has come when people have to stand up for themselves and what they believe in. I will fight my battle when I have to. IDuring Udta Punjab (2016), several political parties approached us. But we did not want to align with anyone. It was a filmmaker’s fight and the industry was with me. Today, I know a lot of people are afraid. I won’t resent anyone for not standing up for me.
You called yourself an ‘apolitical’ person but your movies have always had a political tone.
All my battles have been with the government. It has never been against a political party. In fact, my film Black Friday (2007) has seen two political parties in power. That did not change my fight. Suppose I fight against the establishment, I won’t see which party is in power. When you are apolitical, you hold up a mirror, irrespective of which party is in power.
What has been the most difficult part of your journey?
Today, I have a certain understanding that I did not have during the making of Black Friday and Paanch (2003). I was very naïve, especially during Black Friday. I was trying to see the grey while making it. The moment you try to see grey in something, it is seen as having a political-artist point of view. It took me years to understand myself and how the system functions.
S Durga fought for it to be shown at IFFI, but Nude and Padmavati did not. Does a big budget make you more vulnerable?
Yes, it does. I can tell you that from experience. When I had a big budget film (Bombay Velvet), I was at my weakest. I had to listen to everyone. When there is a lot at stake and it’s not your money, you are most vulnerable.
Isn’t it time the industry came together?
The industry is united. But the question is for whom will they come together? Last month, the industry held a blackout protest in support of Padmavati. But, they can’t stand up and fight if a person does not reach out.