It is ironical that the filmmaker, whose seminal works like Parinda and 1942: A Love Story appear finely scripted, would choose to call his memoir Unscripted: Conversations on Life and Cinema. But Vidhu Vinod Chopra maintains, and demonstrates through both his life and cinema, that it is the unscripted space where magic happens.
Penguin Random House, the publisher, had also considered calling the book 'No Filters', an uncontentious fit for those who know Chopra. If you have doubts, ask this reporter who was schooled by the man for a 'silly' and 'dumb' question listed below.
Your book is an unscripted conversation between screenwriter Abhijat Joshi and you. Would you use the same adjective for your life?
I think I would. Except the fact that I really wanted to make movies. I really wanted to do that. That's not unscripted. But my journey in life is " I got married when I was very young, in the early 20s. When I met Renu (Saluja), who was slightly older than me, I had no idea I'd marry her at that age. Then we parted ways, that was unscripted. It also went on with my movies. The only thing that's scripted in my life is the pursuit of excellence; everything else is unscripted.
Your first two films, Murder at Monkey Hill and An Encounter With Faces, secured a National Award (Best Experimental Film) and an Oscar nomination (Best Documentary - Short Subject) respectively. Would you consider those feats unscripted or did the 'pursuit of excellence' have a part to play there?
I'll tell you; for instance, I think Shikara is really the best film of my career. But not many people have seen it. That doesn't make me feel, 'Arey, kisi ne dekhi nahi hai.' I think it's an outstanding film, it's my best. There's an Urdu saying, "Mera azm itna buland hai ki parae sholon ka dar nahin. Mujhe khauf atish-e-gul se hai ki kahin chaman ko jala na de." Toh inn cheezon ka thodi koi dar hai yaar. Those who think Oscar mil jaega, National Award mil jaega, wo kuchh alag hi jaat ke log hain. And those who think let's make a Rs 500 crore film, unki bhi jaat alag hai. Humari jaat hi alag hai. Hum khush rehte hain. And we push ourselves to achieve excellence. Of course, we can fail but our pursuit is never in doubt.
Still from Shikara (2020), Vidhu Vinod Chopra's most recent directorial
You mention early on in the book that Hindi film stars were deified in your home state of Kashmir. Yet, merely two years after leaving that environment, you would give megastars like Amitabh Bachchan a piece of your mind when you were starting out as a newcomer in the industry. What made you go past that awe?
I was always in awe of Amitabh Bachchan, I'm still in awe of him. The other day, he called and I got up and started laughing. I said, "Amitabh, you say hello and I get up even if I'm on phone." Haha! Of course, I'm not in awe of many stars but people like Amitabh Bachchan, I'm still in awe of them. Then how did I give my piece of mind to him? I believed in it very strongly. There's no contradiction in being in awe and yet speaking your mind freely and fearlessly. You have to say what you believe even when you're in awe of the other person. If I didn't have a moment of hesitation telling the president of India on stage that I want the Rs 4,000 you promised (for the National Award), then I could say anything to Amitabh or anyone for that matter (laughs).
Did being Ramanand Sagar's younger brother play a role in the confidence you had while approaching great filmmakers?
I don't think so. I was his half brother but I never felt like... when I spoke to Bob Iger and others, how does being anyone's brother help there? It's my nature. I don't have too many filters, and I'm glad I don't.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra
You have often talked about the influences various filmmaking greats had on your craft. Have there been encounters where filmmakers of today approach you with the same excitement and regard? How do you respond to them?
There are a lot of young people who I reach out to. I won't name him but I saw a trailer today, and I called him. He's a first-time director. I really like that trailer. I like as much as I can. If I see good work, I go out of my way to praise that. Because I think it's my duty as a successful filmmaker to spot talent, praise and encourage it so that it doesn't die an early death in the mediocrity of Hindi cinema. In the world of mediocrity of Hindi cinema, talent is a sapling. It needs to be nurtured, and nurtured more because the surrounding is very harsh and mediocre.
The mention of a 'successful filmmaker' takes me back to how you narrated RK Laxman's wise words from when he visited your institute as a guest faculty: "Good films make bad money, bad films make good money. I want you to make good films that make good money." Do you think you have made "good films that make good money?" Or did that come very late in your career after your collaboration with Rajkumar Hirani?
The idea is Parinda is a good film. It made good money for me. 1942: A Love Story was the biggest hit of all time overseas then. It opened overseas markets like no other film. I remember in ODEON, Luxe Leicester Square in London, there was a long queue in advanced booking. The distributor there told me he hadn't seen such a long queue before.
All my life, I've tried to make good cinema that makes good money. Sometimes, that doesn't happen. Like Shikara hasn't made good money, but it's good cinema. And the attempt was that good cinema makes good money.
The idea is not whether that good cinema finally made good money or not. It's the intention to do that. For instance, Sanju has made good money. But I don't think it's good cinema. But the intention was to make good cinema.
What he (Hirani) said, I followed because the attempt was to make good cinema. For me, the intention is far greater than the action and its consequence. Intention is the most important thing in my life. The consequence isn't in my hands. Going back to good ol' Bhagavad Gita " Karam karo, fal apne hath mein nahi hai guru.
Speaking of Hirani, I could sense from your conversations in the book why you would relate to the central conflicts of his films like Munna Bhai MBBS, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, and 3 Idiots. Could you talk about that?
Every movie I've done, from Parinda to Shikara, relates to my life. I'll not make a film that doesn't. I'm a bit of Munna Bhai, I'm a bit of 3 Idiots. I was a failure in the film institute. They gave me a diploma when I got an Oscar nomination because it'd look pretty stupid if a filmmaker who got an Oscar nomination was a failure in film institute. If you're honest in your creation, it has to come from within you. For example, in the 3 Idiots scene where Madhavan confronts his father, he says, "Mujhe farak nahi padta ki Kapoor sahab kya sochenge." That Kapoor sahab used to live in front of my house. It's written by Raju and Abhijat but the point is I see a lot of myself in those characters.
You have often mentioned in the book that a filmmaker has to keep their budget in check in order to not risk the loss of creative control. But how does one decide when one has to stick to the budget or one has to stretch one's boundaries as a filmmaker? For instance, when you insisted on releasing 1942: A Love Story in Dolby Sound and even paid for the infrastructure in cinema halls, or when you roped in AR Rahman for Shikara after opting for newcomers for everything else...
Yes, I helped Dolby Sound come to India. 1942: A Love Story needed that sound. It's like if you see Dunkirk, you have to watch it in IMAX. Shikara deserved AR Rahman.
When I say control your budget, I say control your budget without making any compromise on your film. Again, there's no contradiction.
I feel if there's a controlled budget, the product can even be better. For instance, if you read the book, I chose the top of a tank for an important sequence of Parinda because the location I wanted was too costly. But it turned out to be a memorable scene in the film. If you see a film like Bicycle Thieves, it's one of the greatest films ever made, you'll be shocked to see the budget. On the other hand, the big films that Bollywood, and even Hollywood, makes by spending millions of dollars, they are crap.
You have co-authored films with Abhijat Joshi, including Kareeb, Mission Kashmir, Eklavya: The Royal Guard, Broken Horses, Wazir, and Shikara. And your most recent collaboration is this book. Though you fondly mention his mind as "the eighth wonder of the world," was there ever the concern of a conflict of interest since you know each other so well?
None. He knew most of the incidents even better than me. Why would there be a conflict? We're not hiding anything, we're not projecting a brand image. I have zero brand image. When there's no brand image, where's the conflict? The ones who have a conflict are those who want to sell something. I don't have to. That's a very tiring life.
It tires me if I have to think something else but say something else.
My mind would get exhausted just like that. Sooner or later, if that person is important to you, they'll get to know you. And if they're not important to you, why give a damn?
I remember you had said during the first look launch of Sanju that you were not initially convinced with the idea of a biopic on Sanjay Dutt: "Sanjay Dutt par kya, mujh par picture banao." Now that there is a book on your life, would translating it to screen add more value?
It's not for me. If somebody wants to make it, I'd be very happy. I don't think I can do it. How this book came about is also very interesting. We'd written this five years ago but it was lying in the dust. Had Nasreen Munni Kabir not asked us to turn it into a book, it wouldn't have been made. So it was unscripted. If someone wants to make a film on my life, I'd be okay if a good director and actor make it.