When Oscar-winning director Ang Lee came to Mumbai to begin promotions for his Irrfan and Tabu starrer Life of Pi, we figured there could be no better person to chat with him on our behalf than Bollywood’s own superstar director, Karan Johar. Karan is a huge fan of the Taiwanese director’s work that ranges from gay love (Brokeback Mountain) to action (Crouching Tiger…) to the world of manners (Sense and Sensibility). Ang Lee, on the other hand, doesn’t know much about Hindi films, so he asked us to give him a brief on Karan before meeting him. “Irrfan and Tabu are my two connects to Bollywood actors, but I read a bit about Karan and he sounded interesting to me,” he told us before they met.
So on Monday afternoon, as a jetlagged Ang Lee accepted a cold drink and settled back, Karan began a discussion that took us into the world of cinema. Excerpts from their conversation.
Karan: You’re one of the few world cinema filmmakers to have been successful in Hollywood as well. How do you describe your achievements?
Ang: It’s tough for me to say. I think I’m an avid filmmaker and I’d say that the movie directs me, rather than me directing it. I just do my thing and try to make it work. This is how I have lived my professional life from its very beginning 22 years ago. I’m actually living my life with the material I choose to work with. I don’t have incredible knowledge about films or of filmmaking history; I’m not that kind of person. I’m just a filmmaker and I just want to make movies. And, I have to articulate what I have to in my movies. It almost feels like therapy where you rationalise why you do something. I think I’m a slave to filmmaking. Whatever comes my way, I deal with it passively and I don’t have motivations to get anywhere.
Karan: Every film you make is so different from the others. If you were asked to comment on your versatility, what would you say?
Ang: My question is, why not? I’m capable of doing it. In this field, you don’t always get that chance. If you have a successful film, they expect you to live with that. You can get rich or famous by doing the same thing. But why would anybody want to do that (laughs)? To me, my career is like a film school. I can do this and I can do that. In marriage, I have to be loyal (laughs), but not with movies, so why not?
Karan: To come from a totally different culture and yet produce and direct a film like Sense and Sensibility which is completely English, or be a family man and yet project homosexuality with such sensibility in Brokeback Mountain, is putting yourself in the tightest position as a filmmaker.
Ang: It’s sensational, thrilling and also I think when you do something totally insecure, you tend to do your best. And as we got older with movies, it gets harder to find that insecurity, it’s harder to find things that scare you.
Karan: Was there a film where you were more out of your zone of control than others?
Ang: Many, may be 50% of my films, even the Life of Pi. But the show must go on and you still have to function. You are not like the director who wakes up one morning and says I don’t feel like shooting today (laughs).
Karan: I saw Brokeback Mountain in a packed house in Chelsea, New York, when I was filming a Bollywood film there. Chelsea, being a predominately gay neighbourhood, had the most euphoric reaction. I saw couples holding hands and crying at the end. It was the most heartening viewing I have ever been too. And when I walked out, I wanted to salute the man who actually made a relationship that went beyond its sexuality. It felt just like a love story, not a homosexual love story. It was just a beautiful story. Did you also see it like that?
Ang: Yes, and I doubt that you can make a heterosexual romantic film like theatre-style romantic. You can’t do that anymore. The material hit me and I cried when I read the story. And if the story’s not taking me further away, then why give it a voice? I think with Brokeback, you get the idea that there is something mysterious happening in the mountains and when you go back to the real world, you don’t know what it is. It confuses you. I think that’s why it got to me. The story has got that connection, something about the material draws you into it and the rest is just filmmaking.
Karan: I believe you have given four years of your life to Life of Pi. Why?
Ang: It was a thought-provoking book. It examines illusions and that’s what filmmakers do, we tell stories through illusions. Reading a book is easier, but a movie is realistic with images — what you see is what it is. It’s like solving some enigma, the characters of the tiger and Pi are very, very cinematic.Also, there are so many directions in the first part of the book. How do you consolidate it so that we get a story out of it? The third part of the book is the hardest, after the voyage. And after this, you need to make sure that there is still a movie to see. When there’s a challenge, you start to get hooked onto it. How do you add the first and third person’s point of view in the film so that we can examine them and stay in there? It’s all about believing and also about the power of storytelling. When we create meaning out of our experiences and give it a structure, we have to pass the story around orally. So, all that is inspiring.
Karan: Is there a sense of innate satisfaction with this film that only you would know?
Ang: It’s hard to say. I made a lot of adjustments for the mainstream audience.
Karan: Is it difficult for you to make these adjustments?
Ang: Yes, it’s little unnatural in terms of rhythm and flow.Naturally, I would like the film to go longer and be a little more difficult. However, I think at the end of the day, I didn’t lose the essence. I’m pretty happy with the movie. But when I watch it, it was not how I wanted to do it. I had to twist it a bit as per the expense of the movie and the expectations of people. So there is not really pressure from the studio, but from the world as there is a certain hunger towards the movie. And you have to compromise and negotiate to make things happen. I think that is the hardest part, not the spectacle, not intellectually, but how to make it flow for the audience.
Karan: Do you disregard that or await the audiences’ acceptance of your work? Do critics matter to you?
Ang: I do and I don’t. The thing we call critics are not really reviewers, they are not really critics. They don’t have the discipline to write what we would term as critique — it’s really just reviewers. They have a common man kind of taste. If you watch them overall, they are not different from the box-office. That’s my view. People and the audience matter, but sometimes you feel an injustice wherein they select quantity instead of quality. After all, does time matter, do words matter? Nothing really matters. You just do your best and leave it to other people. You might agree with them or be angry with them, but it will happen in its own way. You have to just be thankful that people pay you to make movies.
Karan: That’s what I say! Where else can people sing, dance, laugh and cry and still be at work? That’s why I’m blessed to be in a profession like this.
Ang: I’ll tell you my experience with the tiger trainer in this movie. I learnt so much about tigers and about life from this trainer. He ran away from home to be a tiger trainer when he was 16. He worked as a cleaner in a circus. And then two years later, his master just gave him a stick and told him to go inside the tiger’s cage. He did not know what exactly to do. The trainer told me stories of how he made the tiger understand what he meant and he and I were in tears while listening to his experience. Because I remember similar moments with me and actors — not that actors are like tigers (laughs). I had to cry like the trainer and hide because I could not explain to anyone what it felt like. I think when we have moments like that, nothing matters. I don’t know about faith, but I just know that when I’m out there filming, everything disappears, nothing else matters. You do what you like to do, you get the thrill, and you’re in the zone. And when you try to articulate it, it’s pretty painful as you don’t know what it is.
Karan: What is Ang Lee like on the morning of a big release?
Ang: I don’t know. For my earlier movies… There’s a theatre in Taipei which is called the Dragon’s Head. It’s the best theatre for Chinese language films and all the directors have a tradition that they have a haircut right before they go to the theatre (laughs). To have freshly cut hair is a sign of prosperity. Then they go to a coffee shop near the theatre and have coffee. Some directors even go as far as wearing red jackets. Red is a symbol for going high. So I did that a couple of times. I did not put on the jacket, but I did get a haircut and had a drink at the coffee shop (laughs). But that was then. I don’t do anything special now. Sometimes I just go for the movie to see how it plays for the audience. The audience doesn’t give a crap about what you’ve done to make the movie.
It’s not their concern.
Karan: Irrfan and Tabu are established names. Was it interesting to work with them?
Ang: Yes. They have so much respect from me. They are not the ones who said ‘yes’ to everything I said. They always made sure that what they were asked to do was okay. So I told them that it’s India, so you have to let me know. They are established actors. That’s why I don’t have anything to worry about. My main anxiety is that the reading is almost like a fable. I have worked on that story for the film and the script has been romanticised in the end. Since India is not home for me, my main anxiety is how people will receive the movie here. Will they raise their eyebrows or will they adore it? I don’t know.
Karan: I think India has always celebrated you. This is not a question but a statement. The audience has really respected your work over decades, not just because of your versatility but because of the bravery in your works. I have to be grateful to HT for bringing me to this platform with you. I think one of your lines that grew on me is that nothing matters. Really, what matters is what you put up there and there are so many people and opinions that surround you on a daily basis. Eventually you are alone with your film and no one actually can take that moment away.
Ang: I’ve found that you can never make a movie as good as it plays in people’s heads. So that is not something you can control. However the experience is the memory you can take home.