Film-maker Vidhu Vinod Chopra made his first short film, Murder At Monkey Hill, in 1976, as part of his course at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Two years later, his documentary, An Encounter With Faces, got an Oscar nomination. However, it was only with his 1989 hit, Parinda, that the 63-year-old got the recognition he was waiting for. Here, he talks about his B-Town journey, his angry-man image, and more.
You made your first film, Sazaye Maut, in 1981. But you got recognition only with Parinda (1989). Were you worried during that period?
Not at all. Even when I was struggling, I knew that I will become successful. There was no doubt in my mind that I won’t succeed even when I made Sazaye Maut and Khamosh (1985), which I even distributed. There was no insecurity. Even to eat rajma chawal for eight annas, and not for 12 annas, my ex-wife, Renu Saluja, and I used to happily walk for four kilo metres. It was never like, “Kya hoga (what will happen)?” The thought of failure never came to my mind. I feel it’s a miracle that I am a successful man without making any compromises. How many people manage to do that? Even today, I don’t have an iota of fear.
You don’t seem to be in a race. What makes you so calm?
We came from a small town, and look where we have reached. I have a nice office, I’m making the films I like, I have nice cars, and a beautiful home. The biggest tragedy is that the more successful a person gets, the more insecure he becomes, fearing that everything he has will be lost. Even today, I don’t know how much money I have in my account. That gives a sense of freedom. I am confident that today, if you take everything away from me, and leave me on the streets, I can still earn money. I have that much talent.
Anger, aggression and attitude are always associated with you…
I am not a very well-understood man. If you understand who I am, it’s good, but if you don’t, then you will understand one day. That’s why people feel I am arrogant. As for anger, I lose it on mediocrity — be it bad films or journalism or anything else. I get angry at why people don’t do good work.
Do you have friends in the film industry?
No. I am quite happy without them. It’s very difficult to be friendly with a guy like me. I am not very easy to be friends with. I don’t say things you may want to hear. I say things that I believe are true. Most of the people in the industry are small people with big egos. They want to hear good things, and if you don’t say good things about them, they say, “This man is arrogant.” I don’t even think I am capable of making friends in the industry, because most friendships here are based on fake emotions and praise.
Tell us about your time at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.
When I went to the institute, I reacted very sharply to these khadi-kurta guys, who only spoke about Robert Bresson (French director) and Lawrence Durrell’s 1958 novel, Balthazar. I had come from a small place in Kashmir, and I didn’t know who all these people were. I didn’t even know English.
I wanted to know more about Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor, and wanted to study Mehboob Khan. But no one was talking about them. Rancho’s character in 3 Idiots (2009) is also based on the fact that I failed at the film institute. But finally, they had to give me the certificate, as I got an Oscar nomination. I was like a rebel. Then, the great RK Laxman (cartoonist) came to the institute for the convocation. He made a brief speech, and said, “Bad films make good money, and good films make bad money. So, please try and make good films that make good money.” So, I thought, why not make good films that people would watch too? I owe it all to RK Laxman.
What were your early film influences?
I used to go to the cinema hall, Palladium, in Srinagar. But we didn’t have money to watch any films. So, we would listen to the dialogues through the theatre’s door. I have watched Ram Aur Shyam (1967) inside the theatre once, but 20 to 30 times behind the door (smiles). I watched an English film for the first time when I was 13 or 14; it was a James Bond movie, which would play at 7pm. Not many would believe that when I went to a film institute, I didn’t know who Shakespeare was. On the first day, when I was asked by a teacher about Hamlet, I said, “Who is Hamlet?” But he thought I was up to some mischief. Later, I read Hamlet’s story in a book that simplified Shakespeare’s plays for children. I started talking in English after watching English films at FTII.
Was your family also interested in films?
Not at all. My father was an insurance manager. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, as I was a ‘first class’ student. So, I just couldn’t tell my father that I wanted to make films, fearing the beating I would get. When I gave the pre-medical exams, I had answered only two-and-a-half questions instead of five. So, for the first time, I got only 56%. I didn’t get admission anywhere, so I got what I wanted — admission into a BA course. But I hadn’t told my father about that. When I got nominated for the Oscars for An Encounter With Faces (1978), and got a Golden Peacock Award in Delhi for it, where my father was also present,
I thought that was a good time to tell him about it. But when I told him, he slapped me hard, saying, “You have spoiled your life.” He was very disappointed. But I was fascinated by the medium. Also, in a strange way, a very negative emotion turned me into a positive person. My eldest brother, Ramanand Sagar, was shooting a film called Arzoo (1965) in Kashmir. He was busy shooting, and I was kind of ill-treated [on the sets]. He told me that I should be removed from the sets. So, I also told myself, “One day, I will show him that I can make films.” We have laughed about this. So, in a way, that emotion also propelled me.
Have you achieved what you set out to do?
I can’t tell you how blessed I feel at this stage of my career. I don’t do too much work, but I am doing exactly what I wanted to do. I am where I wanted to be. I am fortunate and grateful to God and circumstances. But I am also happy that I am where I am, without having made a single compromise. And I am successful. That’s a miracle.
You are a film-maker, and your wife, Anupama Chopra, is a journalist. How has your relationship been?
It’s been great. It’s the best thing that has happened to me. She is very different from me — she is very quiet, extremely intelligent and smart. It’s been a wonderful relationship, and I am grateful that it has been so great. It’s also because we are very different. I am very proud of her.
Your directorial ventures aren’t typical potboilers. Why?
It’s difficult to say why that is. Maybe, due to the lack of any formal education, my mind is totally free. I am thinking of doing things in the digital world, and even on TV. Is it financially viable for me? I don’t know. Have I thought it through? No idea. Would I like to do it? Yes. It’s new and exciting. All I know is that I will make good cinema. There’s no fear in me.
How have you managed to stick to your beliefs?
I have just done what I believed was right. I didn’t look at anything as something wrong. I don’t want to do ghatiya (sub-standard) work. If I could do it, I would have done it. Maybe, my arrogance comes from the fact that I have never knowingly done rubbish. I may have failed, but I never made a compromise. How can I do something that I believe is silly?
Unlike other production houses, yours don’t announce your films in a hurry or sign deals…
We, be it Raju (Rajkumar Hirani, film-maker) or me, have no greed. Raju is a bigger saint than I am. My wife has no greed. In fact, a jeweller told her, “You have fewer jewellery pieces than Amitabh Bachchan’s granddaughter.” We are happy. I am not a sanyasi (ascetic man), but there’s no greed for Rs 500 crore. Those who have real inner strength, their backbone is erect due to that inner power. Whatever I am, I respect myself. I am happy with myself. I will never sell my soul. I don’t want to sell it for money as it doesn’t matter.
Do you watch other directors’ films?
Only if someone like Anupama really praises a film. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. I saw Masaan, and I liked it.
What’s your film-making process like?
I am so involved with my characters that it doesn’t matter whether I am in a jungle or at a traffic signal. I am not living in the outside world, but with my story and my characters. Where I am is of no consequence. At that moment, I am living internally with those characters.
Why are there such big gaps between your films?
Next year, I am going to direct a film. I am very excited about a project that Raju, Abhijat (Joshi, writer) and I are working on. I might do another film here or in Hollywood, but I will do it, for sure. Earlier too, there have been gaps of four to five years between my movies. I work a lot on my scripts to come up with a quality film. I am not a man in a hurry. I want to win the war, not just the battle.
Watch: Trailer of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Wazir
I was taking care of production, and was saving money wherever I could. I had a deal with an actor, who was to play Duryodhan for Rs 500. But he started saying that he had asked for `500 for a day, and that he will take Rs 2,000 for four days. His shot was getting ready, the costume had arrived, and the AD (Assistant Director) told me that he was needed on the set. I increased the money to Rs 1,000, and even Rs 1,500, but he didn’t budge. I was very angry. So, I got into the costume and wore the moustache. Then, he agreed to Rs 1,500. But I told him, “Now I won’t give you the role even for Rs 200. Now, you give me Rs 500, and then I will give you the part.” So, I went on set [to shoot a scene for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro; 1983].
In India, it is Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, V Shantaram, K Asif, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor. Internationally, I am influenced by Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Billy Wilder, Michelangelo Antonioni, François Truffaut, John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, who is absolutely my guru.
Rendezvous With Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Since I was a ‘first class’ BA student, I had already got an offer from Cambridge University, UK, for a masters in economics. So, when I went for the FTII interview, Hrishikesh Mukherjee asked me why I was there [and not in the UK]. I told him, “I think I am being stupid.” So he asked me, “Are you telling me that every student who joins film school is stupid?” I replied, “Sir, if they have an option between going to Cambridge and doing a diploma from a film institute, and they opt for the latter, then they are stupid.” I added, “I think I am letting my passion overrule my rational senses.” Everyone went quiet.