Right from the start, film-maker R Balki has made people sit up and take notice of his craft with his unconventional ideas, and their prolific execution. Even his office, positioned in a quiet corner of the old BR Bungalow, in Khar (W), reflects the aesthetics of the man himself. When we caught up with him for a chat, we couldn’t ignore the quirkily-designed Nelson Mandela figurine, and a huge poster of American TV show Breaking Bad, in the meeting room. Here, the 50-year-old opens up about his inspirations, his style of film-making, and more.
When you started your film journey with Cheeni Kum (2007), did you enter the industry with a set plan in mind?
No, I don’t think I had any game plan. I just didn’t want to make any one particular kind of films. I did whatever came to my mind at that point in time.
You are a big name in the advertising world too. Did you always want to make movies?
I got into the ad world thinking that it had something to do with the film industry. Initially, I did not understand what advertising was, but I was always interested in films. I was a movie addict. So, for me, nothing is more pleasurable than making a film.
The stories of your movies are always out of the box. Do you consciously go in for unconventional subjects?
I watch all kinds of cinema. I enjoy movies like Robot (2010) and Eega (2012) too. I feel there are two kinds of cinema — one that borrows from life, and the other that adds or lends something to life. My idea has always been to do something that can add something, if not to your life, at least to mine. Film is such a powerful medium, so my desire has always been to use the medium to add something to my life. Maybe, that’s why I hesitate to make a biopic.
Do you ever worry about how many people are going to accept your unique stories?
All I know is that every script comes with its own economics. So, the economics of a film like Paa (2009) is different from that of a movie like Dabangg (2010). It’s not about how many people accept a film; it’s more about if enough people accept it to justify its creation. Of course, sometimes we all get really lucky or really unlucky.
Watch: Trailer of R Balki’s Paa
Even though the subjects of your movies are usually quite profound, you keep the treatment very light.
That is because, perhaps, I am a very shallow person. I feel that nothing in life is very serious. The only thing I would like to seriously ban is religion. Serious things like religion, philosophy, the government, relationships, morality, etc, don’t need any more seriousness. I like to ponder over the small things of life, and not the big ones. It is true that one can tell what a person is like by the kind of films he or she makes.
Do you remember when did you become a film buff?
I was in the sixth or the seventh standard, when my father started taking me to the movies. He is a big movie buff too. But, there was an aunt of mine, my neighbour, who was actually the greatest influence. One day, she took me with her to watch a Tamil film [in Bengaluru]. That day, I heard some magical music in the film; the music of Ilaiyaraaja. There was something happening on the screen, but I was painting my own visuals. It just took that one film to transform me from a reluctant filmgoer to a film addict. Even now, I watch a movie a day.
Is it true that you walked out of an interview at a film school?
At that time, I couldn’t digest the fact that you could learn film-making. Film was love, film was life. How do you learn love, or life? So, the concept of a film degree seemed to be an insult to this pure thing (laughs). The funny thing is that I still feel a lot like that.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I feel ideas are about new interpretations. We’re all influenced, of course, by our experiences, but more importantly, by what we wish our experiences had been. I try and not stop till I feel I have got something that at least I haven’t seen before. It must feel original to the best of my knowledge. Making an ad or a film is a laborious process. I can only motivate myself to labour if I feel I am creating something new.
What’s harder — making ad films or feature films?
Both. The only difference is that once you think of an idea, it can become an ad faster than a film. A film takes two to three years to make, but its life is less than that of an ad. Seeing your work of two to three years disappear in a week or two can be psychologically damaging for creative people. The process of making a film has become easier; getting funds has become easier, but to stand out is that much harder.
What is the biggest challenge for a modern day film-maker?
To make an original film in an industry where everybody is a trade site (smiles). Yes, we have the responsibility to ensure that our investors get their returns, but there is no point in the investment if we can’t make the films we want.
What’s your film-making process like?
I have the most fun writing. But I don’t go off anywhere exotic. I go to meet PC (Sreeram; cinematographer), my dear friend, and a great judge of ideas. I go and sit with Ilaiyaraaja sir... I sense their excitement, and then I laze and gaze in a hotel for two days, come back home, and write. I write at my house, at my desk.
Watch: Trailer of R Balki’s Shamitabh
Does your experience as an ad film-maker come in handy while making movies?
It’s basically the discipline of communication that comes in handy. Are we really communicating to people what is in our head?
Do you keep track of the film industry, in terms of what movies are being made and becoming hits, etc.?
I watch most of the films that come out, except when I am shooting. I am addicted to international TV serials in a big way, like most people are today. So, whenever I feel that the world is becoming stale or wretched, I watch Downtown Abbey. A lot of American and British television is so fantastic. There, films actually have to do something really magical if they have to beat TV. In fact, films look amateurish compared to what TV is doing there. Whether it is Game Of Thrones, Orange Is The New Black, Downtown Abbey, Homeland or Narcos... even the average television show is classic compared to films.
Would you like to direct or write a TV series?
It all depends on the idea. If I can think of an idea that can create a new world, then why not? I don’t want to do a remake. In our country, we find it easy to like something, as long as it is like something else. I think we should really start pushing and rewarding originality. Our drive should be to show the world what they have not seen before, rather than saying, “We are almost as good as them.” And that doesn’t mean we have to always show our poverty or parts of our stinking depravity to fascinate cleaner nations.
Are you happy with the kind of films that are being made in Bollywood today?
Talvar is an outstanding film. I was shaken. These days, mostly, conversations revolve around, “How much did you make? How much did it make in three-four days?” Nobody is talking about whether a film is good or bad. It’s not scary, but tiring to listen to the same thing.
‘Gauri is more evolved’
I have never felt that Gauri (Shinde; wife) is a fellow film-maker at home. A few days back, Paa (2009) and English Vinglish (2012) were playing on TV at the same time; that’s when we realised that we both are film-makers. We just have fun, as long as we are not in the same studio (laughs). We discuss work, but she is a slightly more evolved person than I am, because she separates film and life. She believes I get too influenced by films (smiles), so I talk, behave and emote like various characters. She tells me, “There is no real you, because it’s all a bunch of films in you (smiles).”
Film-makers haven’t influenced me. Certain films have influenced me, but not as a director. For example, films like Sadma (1983), or a Bachchan film, may have influenced me as a person. As a film-maker, I don’t think I have been influenced a lot, except by Ilaiyaraaja’s music. It’s strange for a film-maker to say this, but his music has influenced my thoughts and images greatly.
‘Big B is the biggest star’
India has a karmic connection with him. He is still the biggest star. Even if there are the biggest stars buzzing in a room, including stars whose films collect 30 times more than what his films make today, when Bachchan walks into that room, people become delirious. “I want to be like Bachchan” is still very much India’s leading dream. I enjoy working with him. We don’t intellectualise too much. Funnily, he was the first person I met in Bollywood, which is rare. I was plain lucky. I enjoy writing for him and working with him. I just like him more than I like most people.