What made you write Mulk?
Since my adolescence, divisive politics has bothered me. Some recent and disturbing headlines made me ponder over it. The majority doesn’t believe in this (divide). Yet, the whole thing (politics) is so destructive that we are nurturing prejudices without realising it. One day, I thought of the story of a family that’s being accused wrongly. The family is a metaphor for the country. My friends thought that I would have problems releasing such a film, apart from finding actors and funding. I was apprehensive and didn’t work on it for a while. But one weekend, I ended up writing 100 pages. When I circulated it among my friends, their impression was that it came ‘straight from the heart’.
Mulk attempts to educate the viewer. Why did you feel the need to do so?
Strangely, we have become a society where people are absolutely unaware. When I started working on the movie, I was certain that I don’t want to be subtle. I didn’t want any of the viewers to miss the point I was trying to make. So, I was okay overstating things if I could be heard.
I reached a point when I wanted to define terrorism. I didn’t know the definition myself. The one quoted in the movie is the one by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, the US) and accepted by most countries: ‘Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.’ But you have never called Ku Klux Klan terrorists. The violence that tribals face in the infamous red corridors is not called terrorism. We only point fingers at ‘Islamic terrorism’. Everything else is ‘violence’. Untouchability has been around for 1,000 years. Because it’s about us, is it not terrorism? I wanted to put it on the table that this brand of ‘Islamic terrorism’ has been marketed to you. That suits the West, different governments and the media but it’s ruining the basic fibre of our society.
As someone who grew up in Banaras, what are the changes that you notice?
Hindus and Muslims used to be like two neighbours, who had some issues but who also loved each other. Today, the division has consolidated. India-Pakistan rivalry in cricket was at its peak in the 1980s. Yet, we never heard anyone saying: “Go to Pakistan.” Earlier, the division was not so embedded in your mind that every decision or perception of yours was based on that prejudice … By hurling accusations at them, you are snatching away reasons from the 95 per cent of the Muslims, who love the country, to do so.
You spoke of the riots in Banaras in the mid 1970s . What was that experience?
The riots would break out around festivals; there used to be a certain timing for it. It was not like today when you wake up on any random morning and hear of a lynching somewhere. This needs to be addressed.
How do you think it can be addressed?
We need to talk. I do it at my level, speaking to my Muslim and Hindu friends. I speak to them and they speak to their friends. We can’t have a United Nations’ convention on this. This has to be solved by our society.
Do you think steps like #Talktoamuslim can offer solutions?
We start thinking that a singular effort can be the solution. No. Everyone should make an effort on her own. This was not a political campaign. You may disagree with the hashtag but I’m not against it because someone was making an effort. You don’t know (if it will work) unless you talk to each other.
Though Bollywood on several occasions has been a fence-sitter, Muslim artists have enjoyed immense adulation. Do you think that’s changing today?
Not at all. Maybe, some members of the industry like the present government while some are elected BJP parliamentarians. It is their choice to subscribe to a political ideology. That’s not a reflection of the industry. This is such a high-risk industry that money takes precedence over everything else. Only those who like to get some likes on social media criticise Bollywood. When did MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli speak about secularism in India? Not everyone speaks.
So, if Muhammad Ali speaks out and Amitabh Bachchan does not, you see it as a personal choice?
Mr Bachchan has to protect his dignity. Because of Twitter and Facebook, people have direct access to celebrities. We live in a country where people throw stones at Dhoni’s house when India loses a tournament. This is how vulnerable they are. There are times, I write something and am trolled for days.
You wrote an open letter to trolls recently.
I felt bad for them. I wanted to say that spewing hatred all day will not take them anywhere in life.
Are you upset that Pakistan has banned the film?
Governments don’t like harmony. The film is about harmony. There is no nudity, abusive language, Muslim-bashing or Pakistan-bashing. I’ve no idea why they banned it.
What kind of influence did Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) have on you?
When I joined AMU, which is the only place that offered me a seat to study engineering, I had thought that only Muslim students would be there. My mother was apprehensive but my father was open-minded. It’s a character of the minorities to flock together — for example, when Indians and Pakistanis go to London, they live in Southall. I chose to make Muslim friends. So, whatever apprehension I had about Muslims was demolished.
How did you become a filmmaker?
In Delhi, I got a chance to assist someone on a documentary film. Then I moved to Mumbai. This was before the satellite TV. One had to assist a director for years before being able to direct a movie. I did some television work when the cable TV came in and then made some music videos. With Tum Bin (2001), I got the opportunity to direct a feature movie.
You talked about making adjustments for Ra.One which didn’t work.
When you work with such a big star (Shah Rukh Khan), there are too many expectations. I should not have fallen prey to them. I tried to cater to every segment of the audience. That was a mistake.
Do you have more clarity today?
I truly respect the Bollywood recipe. It’s not easy pulling off what Rohit Shetty does. Every critic pans his movie. Yet, he delivers what the audience likes. Today I have a better sense of how to approach a film.