He started his directorial journey with the path-breaking film A Wednesday (2008). Since then, Neeraj Pandey has become synonymous with insightful and gripping stories, like his recently released hit Rustom. But the reticent filmmaker admits that he doesn’t feel any kind of pressure.
Here, he talks about his brand of movies, working with Akshay Kumar, and more.
Nowadays, when your name is associated with a project, the expectations go up. Does this put pressure on you?
There’s no pressure, because if you know you’re doing quality work, then it does not matter how big a name you are. Otherwise, it (the pressure) starts impacting your work. If you are responsible, there’s no pressure. I enjoy the fact that at least there are some expectations. There was a time when there were none.
Many feel your films have helped Akshay transform his image…
It would be foolish to assume that I did anything in this regard. I would credit him for having the hunger to try something new. Special 26 (2013) was completely different from what he was doing at that point. The credit should go to him because he chose that path. Plus, filmmaking is all about team work.
Was it challenging for you to break the star image attached to Akshay?
If you are clued-in to your subject, then it’s not difficult. The moment you start succumbing to the trappings of show business, it becomes what you are hinting at. Not getting carried away is the essence, and also realising that the film isn’t about the star, but about the characters. The moment you disregard this fact, you are in trouble.
Your affinity with real-life stories is well-known…
But I don’t know why (smiles)? I like my stories to be rooted in reality. I love the fact that I’m talking about something that concerns you, me, or a person sitting outside my office. I like it when my stories can show something that has resonance in our lives. I feel comfortable with them, and also I feel they (the stories) need to be talked about.
How did you find MS Dhoni when you met him?
Mahi is a normal guy. He is very grounded, and the most endearing thing is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. There is the professional side to him, which he takes very seriously, and then there is a personal side, which is normal.
Since films based on real incidents require a lot of research and should also be entertaining, how challenging is it to work on them?
Saying that such movies require a lot of hard-work is like deriding them. You are supposed to work hard because that is the kind of profession we work in. I love the process [of researching and making a movie entertaining]. How else will it be fun? This is not labour. Such projects keep you sharp and make you more interesting as a storyteller.
Many feel A Wednesday influenced other people to make movies based on real life…
Yes, from time to time, there comes a film that influences many other movies. But I don’t read too much into this notion about A Wednesday. It was my first film. It was an interesting movie as it went against a certain type of cinema – not only in terms of the content, but also the casting and the storytelling. That’s the reason it was a huge boost for us to be accepted, because then you know that there is an audience that is willing to listen to your voice. That audience has stayed and grown with us. We are thankful and indebted to them.
Did you never think of making a sequel to the film, and maybe call it A Thursday or A Friday?
(Laughs) For a brief period after the film’s release, I had an idea for a sequel to the movie. But I grew out of it, and we decided that we will never make a sequel to the film.
You are ready with the biopic on MS Dhoni. Has it been challenging to direct the film?
Of course, it was challenging. Why else would one be involved in such a project? There was an interesting story, and cricket is something all of us are passionate about. When I first heard the story, I felt it needed to be told. Nobody knows this, but we started work on this movie when we were shooting Baby (2015). A lot of our time went into the research. Then, making the film was a mammoth task, but I wanted to take up the challenge.
What’s next for you? We have heard about Toilet – Ek Prem Katha…
That film is not being directed by me. It is a script written by my team members – Siddharth and Garima. I just mentored them. The project is going on the floors by the end of this year, and it’s going to be directed by my editor.
Do you think Sushant has been the best choice to play MS Dhoni in the biopic?
I think the one thing that really worked in Sushant’s favour is that he was not doing anything else (during the shoot for MS Dhoni’s biopic). He had that mental space, and could single-mindedly devote himself to the film.